Updated: 12/18/20 | December 18th, 2020
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 and Somozas 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 food 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 sweltering 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 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. Here’s a list of my favorite things to do in León:
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 for here. They give you a good 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 trips 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.
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. I spent an entire day visiting these monuments to God 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.
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-4pm Admission is $3 USD.
5. Hit the Beach
A short bus ride from the city, you’ll find beautiful beaches, warm water, and people in the surf. 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 right 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 and Quetzaltrekkers are the two biggest and most popular operators.
Prices start around $30 USD per person.
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 some lavish ruin site, it’s really the only place to see and learn about the country’s founding 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 daily from 9am-5pm (4pm on weekends). Admission is $5 USD.
9. El Fortín de Acosasco
Built in 1889, the 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. 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)
Expect to pay around $60-80 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 there was one of the highlights of my trip to Nicaragua and I highly recommend you make it a point of visiting here too!
Book Your Trip to Nicaragua: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Use Skyscanner or Momondo to find a cheap flight. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned. Start with Skyscanner first though because they have the biggest reach!
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the biggest inventory and best deals. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels. My favorite places to stay are:
- ViaVia Leon
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- World Nomads (for everyone below 70)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional repatriation coverage)
Looking for the Best Companies to Save Money With?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use to save money when I’m on the road. They will save you money when you travel too.
Want More Information on Nicaragua?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on Nicaragua for even more planning tips!