Cienfuegos is known as the “Pearl of the South.”

It’s a lovely city with most of its colonial buildings now fully restored. Europeans first sighted the area in 1494 during Christopher Columbus’s second voyage, but no settlement was established until 1819 when Louis de Clouet, a Frenchman who had emigrated to New Orleans, founded the colony of Fernandina de Jagua. It was renamed Cienfuegos the following year in honor of Cuba’s Spanish governor general, who invited further settlers from Louisiana.

With a little imagination you can appreciate the attempt by its French founders to give the city a certain Parisian feel, with its parks, tree-lined boulevards, and colonnades. "La ciudad que más me gusta a mí" singer Benny Moré once said of his home city in the song "Cienfuegos". He wasn't the settlement's only cheerleader. Cuba's Perla del Sur has long seduced travelers from around the island with its elegance, enlightened French spirit and feisty Caribbean panache. If Cuba has a Paris, this is most definitely it.

Arranged around the country's most spectacular natural bay, Cienfuegos is a nautical city with an enviable waterside setting. A factor that earned it a Unesco World Heritage Site listing in 2005. The city is split into two distinct parts: the colonnaded central zone, with its elegant Prado and Parque Martí, and Punta Gorda, a thin knife of land slicing into the bay with a clutch of eclectic early 20th-century palaces, including some of Cuba's prettiest buildings.

While much of Cuba is visibly reeling in the current economic crisis, Cienfuegos seems to positively glitter. It's not just Unesco money filtering through. The industry ringing the far side of the Bahía de Cienfuegos – a shipyard, the bastion of Cuba's shrimp-fishing fleet, a thermoelectric plant and a petrochemical hub – constitutes some of the country's most important. This, together with a pervading sense of tranquility resonating through spruced-up colonial streets refreshingly free of jineteros (touts) and a revitalizing seaside vibe make the city as alluring today as Louis de Clouet found it 200 years ago.