Last Updated: 1/24/23 | January 24th, 2023
León was one of the highlights of my trip to Nicaragua. Filled with history, delicious food, lots of outdoor activities, volcanoes, and nearby beaches, there was more to do here than I thought.
The city is named after León, Spain. After Nicaragua was granted independence from Spain in the 1800s, the elites of León and Granada struggled over which city would become the capital (eventually Managua was picked).
During the struggles between the Sandinistas (a leftist revolutionary group) and Somozas (the ruling dictators) in the 20th century, the city changed hands many times between the two and was a scene of constant and intense fighting (you can still see bullet marks on some buildings). This lasted all the way through the 1980s (which saw US involvement in the Iran-Contra affair) until peace was finally established.
Now, León is a stable university town with a growing foodie scene, lots of markets, growing (but not overwhelming) tourism, and more colonial churches and cathedrals per capita than any other place in Nicaragua. I spent four days here hiking, eating, overdosing on churches, and basking in the heat.
Located in northwest Nicaragua, León is a college town often overlooked by tourists who stick to places like Granada, Ometepe, and the beaches.
When I visited, I expected a lot of tourists. After all, there is a lot to see and do in León. Instead, I found mostly empty hostels and only a few gringos wandering the streets during my visit — which made it all the more enjoyable!
I love the city and found a lot to do here. There’s no shortage of ways to spend a couple of days here as you travel around Nicaragua. To help you plan your trip, here’s my list of the best things to do in León, Nicaragua:
1. Take a Free Walking Tour
Whenever I visit a new city I kick things off with a walking tour. They’re the best way to get a feel for the city, see the main sights, and get an introduction to the history and culture. Plus, you’ll be able to ask a local any and all questions that you have.
The Original Free Walking Tour is your best choice here. They provide a solid overview of the city and its history. Just make sure to tip your guide at the end!
2. Visit the Museum of the Revolution
This museum in the old mayor’s residence is dedicated to the Sandinistas and their fight against the country’s oppressive regime It’s only two rooms, but you’ll get your own personal guide who explains the history of the movement (in Spanish or English) and will take you up to the roof for good photos of León. The visit may be short, but it was my favorite activity in the city as you’re talking to a local and getting a detailed history filled with local perspective and context. Most of the guides are former soldiers too, which adds a unique perspective to the experience.
Parque Central. Open daily from 9am-6pm. Admission is $3 USD.
3. Visit the Churches
There are a lot of churches in Léon. It has more churches per capita than any other place in Nicaragua. Founded by the Spanish in the 16th century, that shouldn’t come as a big surprise.
I spent an entire day visiting these monuments and marveling at their varying levels of detail. Even if you’re not a religious person (I’m not), you can still appreciate the beauty, architecture, and history of these buildings. My favorites were:
- Iglesia El Calvario – A neoclassical and baroque church dating back to the 18th century.
- Iglesia La Recolección – Built in 1786, this is considered the city’s most beautiful church.
- Iglesia de San Juan Bautista de Subtiava – Originally built in the 1500s, this is the oldest church in Léon.
Others worth visiting include the Church of San Francisco (founded in 1639), the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of León (finished in 1814), the Church of la Merced (18th century), and the ruins of the Church of San Sebastián (one of the first churches built in the region).
Just make sure to dress respectfully when visiting as these are places of worship.
4. Take in the Art
There is a big art scene in the city, and a number of galleries are available to enjoy. My favorite was the Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Gurdián, which is also the biggest. Housed in two buildings, it features a collection of old religious art as well as modern Nicaraguan artists. There are early pre-Columbian works, Spanish colonial religious artifacts, as well as modern and contemporary pieces.
It takes a few hours to explore, and both buildings have lovely courtyard gardens to relax in. My favorite painting was El Retiro by Mauricio Gomez Jaramillo.
Av 3 Pte, +505 2311 7222, fundacionortizgurdian.org. Open Tuesday-Sunday from 10am-5pm. Admission is $3.50 USD.
5. Hit the Beach
Hop on a short bus ride from the city and you’ll find beautiful beaches, warm water, and people enjoying the waves. The surf isn’t as enjoyable as in the southern part of the country (I’m told it’s a bit rough here), but if you’re looking to relax and cool off in the dry heat of the region, these beaches check all the boxes.
Playa Poneloya and Las Peñitas are the most popular beaches. Both are just a 20-minute bus ride from the city center as well.
6. Go Volcano Boarding
Throughout the country, I saw people wearing the popular “I went volcano boarding” shirt, and this activity is what draws most backpackers here. After all, who wouldn’t want to slide down an active volcano on a piece of wood? (Not me. I skipped this activity. The hike? Sure. Going down on a plank of wood? No thanks.)
Trips leave multiple times per day and last a few hours (Cerro Negro, the volcano, is just an hour from the city). Bigfoot Tours is the most popular tour operator.
Volcano boarding tours start around $35-55 USD per person depending on if you want to board at sunrise or sunset.
7. Wander the Market
León is a market town and its famous gigantic central market located near the cathedral is hectic, fun, and interesting. You can find everything there: grocers, street food vendors, toys, kitschy souvenirs, and everything in between. Moreover, you’ll find delicious soups, BBQ meat sticks, and other local fares. Stop by to browse, eat, and take in the local pace of life.
8. Visit “Old” León
The ruins of León Viejo date back to the 16th century and are a short trip from León. The site is Nicaragua’s only UNESCO World Heritage listing and is one of the oldest Spanish colonial settlements in the Americas. While this isn’t a lavish ruin site, it’s really the only place to see and learn about the country’s complex colonial past. The ruins of León Viejo were discovered in 1967 and excavations began the following year. Even if you’re not a history buff like me, it’s still worth a visit!
León Viejo, +505 2222 2722. Open Tuesday to Friday from 8am -5pm (9am -4pm on weekends). Admission is $5 USD.
9. El Fortín de Acosasco
Built in 1889, this fort was used to protect the region from attacks by the coast. It fell into disuse from 1930-1960 before becoming a hub for torture and secret executions under dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. When the Sandinistas retook the area, forces loyal to the dictator fell back here before retreating further.
Today, you can visit the fort and experience the uneasy stillness that haunts the hilltop. You can wander the various torture chambers and see just how brutal the conditions would have been when the facility was in use. It’s a grim but eye-opening place to visit.
Take a taxi from the city and visit with others as it’s a long walk and muggings have been known to happen when hikers visit alone.
10. Hike Some Volcanoes
One of the main reasons why people come here is to hike the nearby volcanoes, as León is near the country’s volcanic range, many of which are still active (there are 19 volcanoes in the country). You’ll be able to choose between easy half-day hikes and more intense full 12-hour day hikes.
The most popular hikes are:
- Cerro Negro (1-2 hours; popular for volcano boarding)
- Telica (a moderate 7-9 hours)
- San Cristóbal (11 hours; the longest and hardest)
- Momotombo (the second-hardest hike; 6-9 hours)
Make sure you have solid footwear, water, snacks, a hat, and sunscreen. Expect to pay around $50-80 USD for a guided hike.
What I loved about León was its close proximity to so many outdoor markets, cheap food, and decent foodie restaurants. It felt a lot more “local” than the tourist meccas of Granada and Ometepe down south. My visit here was one of the highlights of my trip to Nicaragua and I highly recommend you make it a point of visiting here too. No matter what you’re interested in, you won’t be disappointed!
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