There are many more things to do in Leon, Nicaragua than you would imagine. Many people say they prefer picture-perfect Granada. But Leon has just that something that will make you fall in love.
Leon is a very progressive city. 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.
I have been to Leon three times, so I know the city really well. In this post, I will highlight the best things to do in Leon, and some practical information to plan your visit.
The Best Things To Do In Leon, Nicaragua
Start with a walking tour
Kick off your time in Leon with a walking tour. This is a great way to get acquainted with the city before you explore on your own. The guide will take you to the most important landmarks – many of them are also free to visit; and explain the crucial facts of the history of the city, so that you get a better understanding of its vibe.
To book a walking tour of Leon, click here.
If you don’t mind large groups, you may consider joining the free walking tour that starts from the Northwest corner of the Cathedral every day at 9:00 am, 4:00 pm and 5:00 pm – they are run by Guru Walks. You’re expected to tip the guide at the end of the tour.
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 ($3 USD). You will have to first get your ticket and then wait to be let in – basically they work on a 20-minutes time slot system, where a group is allowed on the roof only after another has come down.
That’s because the steps to walk up are too narrow for people to go up and down at the same time.
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.
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.
Visit the Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián
This is the best museum in León, and probably 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 with rooms set around a gorgeous garden, and lovely natural light gets into each of them. You’ll find it 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. You’ll have to pay a small admission fee, but it is totally worth it!
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 from 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. You’ll have to pay a small admission fee plus a tip for the guide. The visit takes around one hour.
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 main exhibit contains bits and pieces that will walk you through Leon’s main traditions; but the external area is decorated with murals recollecting the sad events that took place in the prison.
The museum is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. There is a small admission fee and you have to tip the guide.
Find out what the gigantonas are
One of the most common sights in Leon – 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.
If you hear drumroll while you wander around Leon, stop and wait to see what gigantona is passing by. There are usually two that go around together.
Explore Barrio Subtiava
Barrio Subtiava is one of the nicest neighborhoods of Leon. You will find it about 12 blocks from the city center. It’s a nice area to walk around, with 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 where 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 – a nice change from the heat of Leon. 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. You’ll have to be very careful on the way back, as the buses only run when full and if you are not on the route where they pick up from to go back, you’ll be stuck (we had to ask someone for a ride back and he was so nice to drive us with him back to town.
The site is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. The small admission fee includes a guided tour. For ease, you may want to consider taking this tour that also includes transportation from Leon.
Taste rum at Flor de Cana Rum Factory
One of the best things to do in Leon is visiting Flor de Caña distillery. Producing some of the best quality rum in the world, Flor de Caña prides itself in running in a sustainable way, using renewable energy and only using natural ingredient to produce its rum. You can tour the factory and then have a rum tasting experience.
During the tour, you will learn about the rum production process, about the history of the factory, and obviously taste rum. The tour also includes a visit of the Chorotega-Nicarao Museum.
Flor de Caña distillery is also the best place to buy a bottle to bring home as prices are more convenient than elsewhere.
Flor de Caña factory is located located about 30 minutes drive from town, in Chicigalpa, on the way Chinandega. The best way to get there is by taxi or on a guided tour. You can book your tour to Flor de Caña rum factory here.
Shop at the local market
The main market of Leon is the recently renovated Mercado Central, which 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. One of the best things to buy there is cashew nuts, of which Nicaragua is one of the world’s main producers.
After the renovation works the market became sort of state of the art – considering we are in Nicaragua! There is even an organized parking lot. Once inside, however, it can get very chaotic, especially in peak hours – so bring only the strict necessary, just in case pickpockets are around!
The market is open daily from 5:00 am to 6:00 pm.
For a guided food tour of Leon that also goes to the market, click here. You’ll get to sample lots of local specialties, and wash them down with deliciously fresh coconut water!
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 – though like in most of the Pacific coast, the sand is actually quite dark – and very clean too.
Keep in mind that it 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.
Go surfing at Las Penitas
Las Penitas is very close to Poneloya – you can actually take the same bus to get there, or go there by taxi (it will take you around 30 minutes).
This beach 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.
A place you may want to check out at Las Penitas is La Casa Verde, which runs an interesting project that involves the local communities and basically educates them to live in a more eco-friendly way, recycling plastic (ie by creating interesting pieces of art) etc.
They regularly run beach clean-ups events for example, and take in volunteers to help in the local teaching programs.
Do some responsible shopping!
Ok, to be fair there aren’t that many shops in Leon – not the way we think of them anyways – so you would not really want to suggest that shopping is one of the ultimate things to do in Leon. But there definitely are a few places here and there we you can buy some interesting stuff, and a few souvenirs to bring home.
My favorite place for shopping in Leon is Artesania de Leon, an eco-friendly local cooperative about six and a half blocks from the Iglesia de la Recoleccion – you can hop on a taxi to get there.
It’s family run, and they make lovely textiles from 100% excellent quality cotton or wool yarn- blankets and throws, bags, and even wooden items you can use to give a colorful touch to your place back home. When you visit, you will also be able to see the people at work.
Try volcano boarding
One of the unmissable things to do in Leon is volcano boarding. Cerro Negro is the only place in the world where this is possible, and you really shouldn’t miss the opportunity. Before you can actually go volcano boarding, you will have to hike to the crater of the volcano.
It’s not a difficult hike and it takes less than one hour, but it can be very windy and you’ll also be carrying the board.
Once you get to the top, at 726 meters above sea level (that’s 2,382 feet), you will have to wear all the protective equipment and you will be able to slide down the side of the volcano.
You can be more or less quick, depending on your weight and on how well “paved” the way is. I was the first one of my group to go, and I am light, so I was actually quite slow.
Cerro Negro is about one hour drive from Leon. You will need a guided tour to go volcano boarding, as you need a 4WD to get there and this is the only way you can actually get the boards – there is nowhere to rent the necessary equipment.
Tours include transportation from Leon as well as the admission fee to the park. The typical tour starts at around 2:00 pm.
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 (other than Cerro Negro, that is).
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 for about 45 minutes up in time for the incredible light and to look down the crater, where you will be able to see lava!
Tours cost around $70 USD and can be bought online here.
Remember to gear properly for the hike. It will be hot when you start, but once you reach the top and the sun starts to go down, it actually cools down quite a bit! You will also need hiking shoes and a headlamp as you’ll be walking back down at night.
Hike El Hoyo Volcano (Pilas)
Not far from Cerro Negro – actually located in the same park – El Hoyo is another of the many volcanoes in the area. It’s last eruption, in 1950, created an impressive crater that you can now view if you are up for the hike.
This is a much more strenuous hike than the one to Cerro Negro – expect to take 4.5 hours to get all the way to the crater.
Some people combine it with the Cerro Negro hike, but I actually don’t recommend it since the Cerro Negro hike and volcano boarding experience actually finishes it at sunset already. If you do, however, you’ll get to sleep on top of the volcano, see a gorgeous sunrise and then walk back down to head back to Leon.
Various companies in Leon run the tour – one of the most popular tours is a 16-hour experience run by the community run Cooperativa Pilas-El Hoyo.
You can also book a plain day-trip to El Hoyo 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, not far from Poneloya Beach. 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 (there are three species: olive ridley, leatherback, and hawksbill turtles), make sure to go between November and February. You’ll have to go at night and on a guided tour. Make sure that the company running the tour operates in a responsible manner.
You can also decide to spend the night in the area – a good place for that is Surfing Turtle Lodge, which can actually organize the turtle-watching experience in a responsible manner for you.
Make sure to read my post The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.
Visit the Somoto Canyon for a day
For lesser known things to do in Leon, Nicaragua, consider going to the Somoto Canyon. It’s actually quite far from Leon – a 3 hour drive one way – so I would not put it at the top of your list of activities unless you have some extra time in town. I visited – but remember, I have been to Leon three times and the first time I spend three full weeks there!
Only discovered in 2004 and a protected National Monument since 2006, this is a great place to visit if you want to be immersed in nature, swim in natural pools, see a waterfall or two.
The best way to experience this incredible place is on a guided tour that includes transportation from Leon, lunch and everything else you may need for the day.
You can book your tour of Somoto Canyon here.
Practical Tips To Organize Your Trip To Leon, Nicaragua
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 even more options.
Below are a few places that I have tried during my trips:
- 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 and drink in León
Leon doesn’t have as many fancy restaurants as Granada, 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, 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 or $5 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.
Coco Calala is the first fully vegetarian and vegan restaurant in Leon, and it has a fantastic selection of low sugar, gluten free dishes too. It’s a really nice change from the usual grilled chicken or beef, and rice and beans you will find at local eateries.
Pan y Paz is the best bakery in Leon. They actually have two locations – a smaller one by the main square, and another larger place with plenty of sit down space on the 1era Calle NE, about a block and a half from the bank. You will find a selection of freshly baked bread and pastries, sandwiches, coffee and more.
Beer & Pallets is the first craft beer establishment in Leon. Here you’ll be able to taste Cerro Negro Brewing Company beers, all made by using local ingredients and all having names of important natural sites around the region.
It’s a really nice change from the cheap (just imagine that a liter bottle costs less than $2 USD) watery, almost flavorless Toña or Victoria beer that you’ll find at all bars around down.
How to get to Leon, Nicaragua
Nicaragua counts on a great web of public buses. You can use expresos – shuttle buses that connect the main cities without intermediate stops. These leave from the bus station when full.
Alternatively, use 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.
If you are coming from other countries in Central America, you can take the Tica Bus or Transnica – big couch buses you can even book online – to Managua, and from there take the expreso or the chicken bus.
You can also travel by less comfortable but just as efficient shuttle buses. If you are coming from El Tunco, in El Salvator, there is a direct shuttle that will take you all the way to Leon.
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
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.
Wondering when to go? I have been several times, and to me the best month is December.
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 days which gets especially bad in September and October.
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.
If you are planning a trip to Nicaragua, make sure to read my other posts:
- The Most Awesome Things To Do In Nicaragua
- What You Must Know Before You Travel To Nicaragua
- 5 Incredible Sunsets In Nicaragua
- All The Nicaraguan Food You Should Try
- A Complete Guide To Ometepe, Nicaragua
- 15 Cool Things To Do In Granada, Nicaragua
- Where to Stay In Ometepe