A Complete Guide To Leon Nicaragua

There are many more things to do in Leon, Nicaragua than you would imagine. You see, many people say they prefer Granada. I must say that Granada is indeed picture perfect. But Leon has just that something that will make you fall in love. 

You see, Leon has always been a left-wing city – so I guess that’s what attracts young activists. It has always had a strong Sandinista component. When President Somoza Garcia was killed there in 1956 by a young artist, his successors carried out even more restrictive rules against those who were deemed responsible for Somoza’s death, and anybody who shared their same political belief.

The subsequent civil war caused the death of thousands of men and women, both in the National Guard and among the members of the Frente Sandininsta de Liberacion – a paramilitary movement led by Carlos Fonseca and founded in 1962.

The peak of the revolution was reached in 1979. That’s when Leon was finally liberated.

The revolutionary energy of Leon remained. This is a lively city, packed with young people – home of the first university in Nicaragua, founded in 1912. You will find murals, art galleries, and decadence. It just is charming. 

So much so that although I had planned to spend 3 days there, I ended up staying 3 weeks. And returning twice. So yeah, I do know the city! 

In this post, I will highlight the things to see and do in Leon, Nicaragua that you should not miss, and share some valuable tips that will help you plan your time there. 

Leon Nicaragua
The white as snow rooftop of Leon Cathedral

17 Cool Things To Do In Leon, Nicaragua

Visit the Cathedral

The Cathedral of León a must see. Currently the largest cathedral in Central America, legend says that it was meant to be built in Lima, Peru. It’s a beautiful church where you will find respite from the terrible heat outside. Make sure to spot the tomb of Ruben Darío, Nicaragua’s most famous poet. 

Inside the church, you can try to find the 7 hidden eyes. They are triangles containing an eye inside, hidden among the rest of the artwork in the cathedral. I visited the church many times, and even at my best attempt I was only able to find 3. 

The church is open from 8:00 am to 12:00 pm and from 2:00 to 4:00 pm Monday to Saturday. 

Go to the roof of the Cathedral

It took me 3 visits to Leon to finally make it to the roof. Fully restored and reopened in 2014, the rooftop can be accessed for a small fee of $2 USD. The views of the city and the surrounding volcanoes from up there are splendid. 

You will have to take your shoes off, and make sure to wear sunglasses as the sun reflects the light from the white paint, and it will blind you. 

Leon church
Iglesia de la Recolección is an iconic spot in Leon. Pity the wires ruin the view.

Go to Iglesia de la Recolección

Among other churches to visit in León, Nicaragua, make sure to stop by the Iglesia de la Recolección. You will recognize it by its bright yellow facade and find it at 3 blocks from the Cathedral. The church was built in 1786. It is in Baroque style. 

Leon Nicaragua
The gorgeous patio of the Museo de Arte

Visit the Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián

This is the best museum in León. In fact, some would say it is the best museum of contemporary art in Central America. There are pieces of famous Cuban, Peruvian and other Latin American artists. You will be able to spot several Picassos, Rubens, Chagalls, Boteros and Diego Riveras.

The museum is located in two beautiful colonial buildings a couple of blocks away from the main square. They have lovely patios and fountains. 

The museum is open every day from 9:00 am to 5:30 pm. It closes at 4:00 pm on Sundays. Admission is $3 USD.

Learn a bit of history at Museo de la Revolución

If you decide to visit only one museum when in Leon, it has to be the Museo de la Revolución. Located on the opposite side of the square compared to the Cathedral, it is run by veterans of the revolution, who will guide you around the building and its exhibit, showing you every crack in the wall, every bullet hole, telling you the history of the many battles for a small tip – though keep in mind that they only speak Spanish. 

The museum is located in a building that was seized by the revolution forces at the time of the revolution – it used to be the headquarters of the telecommunication company. 

Make sure to go to the rooftop for beautiful views of the square below and of the surroundings of the city.

The museum is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Admission fee is $2 USD plus a tip for the guide.

Leon Revolution museum
One of the murals at Museo de la Revolucion

Take in all the revolutionary street art

If you are a fan of street art, you will be glad to find many murals scattered around Leon. Most of them are a remnant of the time of the revolution, a homage to the many who died during that time. A guided walking tour of the city will take you to the most iconic ones and explain the history behind them. 

Go to the Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones

You will probably cringe when you enter this museum, but I promise you it is not as bad as it looks. Located in what was once known as La XXI (the 21st Garrison), a former prison that was sadly famous for the terrible treatment of prisoners which were systemically tortured, the museum actually is a great place to learn a bit more about the history and traditions of Nicaragua – provided you hire a guide to take you around. 

The museum is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Admission is $2 USD. You have to tip the guide.

Find out what the gigantonas are

One of the most common sights in Leon, Nicaragua – and in fact ever present around the country – are the gigantonas. Typically announced by drumroll, these giant puppets (there are 4 characters) are maneuvered by children, who go around town for some easy cash. But what are they, and what do they represent?

In Nicaraguan culture, La Gigantona represents the tall white Spanish woman that arrived with the conquistadores. The other character, El Enano Cabezon, is a small dwarf with a big head who represents the clever mestizo. El Coplero is the one that recites poems and El Tamborilero plays the drum, to which rhythm La Gigantona and El Enano Cabezon dance.

Explore Barrio Subtiava

Barrio Subtiava is one of the nicest neighborhoods of Leon. You will find it at about 12 blocks from the city centre. It’s a nice area to walk around. You will find colorful looking buildings, an airy square, a market. It’s where the buses to go to the nearby beaches leave from. 

Go to Leon ViejO

León Viejo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. It is a nice place for a day trip from Leon, and it can be easily reached by public transportation. This is there the old capital was located, right by Volcán Momotombo where it was was founded in 1524. The city was abandoned a century later after it was destroyed by a series of earthquakes.

Do not expect the grandeur of the Mayan ruins of Tikal or Palenque, but it is a nice place to visit, with lots of shade. Make sure to hire a guide that can give you some interesting insights.

To get to Leon Viejo, you will have to take a bus to La Paz Centro and change there. The site is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Admission is $5 USD.

Taste rum at Flor de Cana Rum Factory

One of the best things to do in Leon is visiting Flor de Caña distillery. It’s located at about 30 minutes drive from town and a tour is the best way to learn about rum and how it is made – not to mention, you can have several good samples. Unless you have a car, the best way to get there is on a guided tour.

You can book it here. 

Nicaraguan food
Markets are great place to discover Nicaraguan food – photo courtesy of Henderson Hills (flickr)

Shop at the local market

The main market of Leon, Nicaragua is located north of the main square. This is not a touristy place at all – you go there to get a bit (actually a lot) of local action; to get an idea of the local produce; and to shop for food. It can get very chaotic, especially in peak hours. 

Spend a day at the beach in Poneloya

There are a couple of good beaches that can be reached easily from Leon. Poneloya is a locals’ favorite and perfect if you want to spend a day basking in the sun. The beach is long and sandy – thought like in most of the Pacific coast, the sand is actually quite dark) – and very clean too. 

Keep in mind that the beach is not equipped at all – so you will have to bring everything you need for the day, including an umbrella for some shade. You will find a few local restaurants once you get off the bus. 

leon nicaragua

Go surfing at Las Penitas

Las Penitas is very close to Poneloya and it is a favorite among surfers. The beach isn’t much different from that of Poneloya, but there are more people, more restaurants and a few accommodation options. The best time to go there is at sunset. 

volcano boarding
Volcano boarding on Cerro Negro – photo courtesy of Garret Ziegler (flickr)

Try volcano boarding

One of the unmissable things to do in Leon, Nicaragua is having a try at volcano boarding. Cerro Negro is the only place in the world where this is possible, and you really shouldn’t miss the opportunity. 

The typical tour starts at around 2:00 pm from Leon, and continues with a hike during which you can admire the crater of the volcano. The hike can be made strenuous by the strong wind and by the weight of the board. Once you get to the top, you will have to wear all the protective equipment and you will be able to slide down the side of the volcano. 

Cerro Negro is at about one hour drive from Leon. The only way to get there is on a 4WD. The area is protected and you will have to pay an entrance fee of $5 USD. Going independently is not really a good idea as there is nowhere to rent the necessary equipment. Guided tours are in the range of $40 to $50 USD, including everything.

You can book your volcano boarding experience here or here.

Make sure to read my post What To Expect When Volcano Boarding Cerro Negro, Nicaragua.

Hike volcano Telica

As Leon is literally surrounded by volcanoes, you may want to hike another one. Telica is probably the best option. You need to go on a guided tour as it is easy to get lost in the area, and for obvious safety reasons. The best tours are those that allow you to see sunset from the volcano. They start at 2:00 pm from Leon and once you reach the foot of the volcano, you hike up in time for the incredible light.

Tours cost around $70 USD and can be bought online here.

Admire wildlife at Reserva Natural Isla Juan Venado

The Reserva Natural Isla Juan Venado is a nice place you can easily visit from Leon. It’s ideal for wildlife lovers, who will be able to spot several species of birds and – depending on the season – turtles as they lay their eggs. In order to view turtles, you have to go at night and on a guided tour. Make sure that the company running the tour operates in a responsible manner. 

Make sure to read my post The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.

Leon detail

Practical Tips To Organize Your Trip To Leon, Nicaragua

Guided tours of Leon

Before exploring Leon by yourself, I recommend going on a guided tour to take in all its highlights. Here are two that are really good:

Where to stay in León

Finding a good place to stay in Leon is easy. If you are a backpacker, head to Backpacker Alley for a great selection of hostels. If your budget is higher, you will have no shortage of a good selection.

Below are a few places that I have tried and that I approve:

  • Hotel El Convento is the most expensive place to stay in town, and for a good reason. This former convent has the most lush garden. Rooms are decorated in traditional colonial style. There is an onsite restaurant and breakfast is scrumptious.
  • Hotel Cacique Adiact is a good mid range option with large, comfortable room all of them with air conditioners.
  • Bigfoot Hostel is the most popular backpacker hangout in town. It has basic dorms with lockers. It’s a very social place so don’t go there if you value your sleep.

Where to eat in León

Leon doesn’t have as many fancy restaurants as Granada does, but you will find a few good places to have a meal and if you are stuck, you can still opt for the fritangas – the little barbecue carts in the streets. 

Asados Pelibuey is the most popular comedor in Leon, Nicaragua, a favorite of both locals and tourists. You will find a selection of local staples in a friendly, chilled environment. A full meal which includes gallo pinto, a meat option, cabbage salad, a corn tortilla and a drink costs around $4 USD – can’t beat that!

Al Carbón is a fancier option. Expect to pay around $20 USD for a meal – which is a fortune by Nicaraguan terms. The food is fabulous but service is actually quite slow. 

Nicaraguan food
Nicaraguan breakfast

How to get to Leon, Nicaragua

Nicaragua counts on a great web of public buses. You can count on expresos – shuttle buses that connect the main cities without making intermediate stops. These leave from the bus station when full.

Alternatively, you can opt for the chicken buses. They also depart from the bus station when full, but you can hail them along the route. 

Make sure to check out my post Everything You Must Know About Chicken Buses.

You can reach Leon from Managua in about one hour. If you are coming from Granada, you will have to change in Managua. 

Leon is also well connected to other destinations in Central America by Ticabus or Transnica – big couch buses you can even book online – or by less comfortable but just as efficient shuttle buses. 

How to move around Leon 

The best way to move around Leon is on foot. The center is small enough to be pedestrian friendly. Keep in mind that most streets have no names, so you really have to go by counting blocks either north or south, usually starting from the Parque Central – the main square. 

To reach places that are further apart, or if you are in a rush to get back to your accommodation or the heat got the best of you, you can opt for one of the shared taxis – don’t be surprised if you jump on to find someone sitting there already, it’s 100% normal. 

When to visit Leon, Nicaragua

The weather is always hot in Nicaragua, unless you to to the mountains, to places like Esteli or Matagalpa where the weather is more pleasant. There are two main seasons. The dry one, from December to April included, during which it is hot and dry; and the rain season, which means hot and rainy day and which gets especially bad in September and October. 

I have been to Nicaragua several times and the best time to visit is by far December. Leon is by far the hottest city in the country, with daily temperatures that usually are around 30° Celsius. The city lives with the sun – or rather, without. So you will find that the working day starts at 7:00 am, before it gets unbearably hot and when an alarm bell that sounds like a drill rings. Most people are back home by 6:00 pm.

Other useful information 

Remember to double check whether you need a visa to visit Nicaragua.

You will definitely get a good travel insurance. Get yours here.

Check out my post Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.

Further Readings

If you are planning a trip to Nicaragua, make sure to read my other posts:

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Read about the best things to do in Leon Nicaragua - via @clautavani

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