Cienfuegos is an attractive, laid-back port city of 110,000 that overlooks a deep bay of the same name. Keep your disappointment in check as you come into town and pass through neighborhoods of gray cement-block buildings that ring the city. Once you reach its small historic core with the dark green mass of the Sierra de Escambray in the background, you'll understand why Cubans refer to Cienfuegos as la Perla del Sur ("the Pearl of the South").
A relatively young provincial capital, Cienfuegos was founded in 1819 by immigrants from Bordeaux as part of a Spanish scheme to establish a city in a region that had long been the haunt of pirates. Originally dubbed Fernandina de Jagua ("Fernandina" honors Spain's King Ferdinand and "Jagua" was the indigenous name for the region), the city was later named after General José Cienfuegos (a colonial governor of the province). It quickly became an important port; sugar plantations came to cover its hinterlands, and slaves were imported to work on them. Families who made fortunes from cane and human bondage built mansions (known locally as palacios, or palaces), many of which still stand.
Cienfuegos's French roots are reflected in some of its architecture, and are celebrated every April with a Francophile festival. Nevertheless, it's a very Cuban city where the breeze often carries the melodies of local hero Benny Moré, one of the giants of the Cuban music son.