Two rivalling Nicaraguan cities. Which one of the two is better, why and for whom? Plus the general tourism options, like things to see&do, vibes, safety, nightlife so on.
This post has been updated on June 24, 2021
In this post, we’ll first briefly outline some of the historical events related to those two cities to give you a taste of how far back the Granada vs León rivalry goes. Then we’ll move to the presence and compare the cities from the tourism point of view, especially when it comes to things to do & see in each city, nightlife options, general vibes as well as safety, how to get there and so on, thus you can get a picture of which city would be more suitable for your area of interests.
A bit of Granada vs León historical rivarly first
Being established in 1523, respectively 1524, both cities are important historical, cultural as well as business centres of the country. Although nowadays, the main attention has switched to the country’s capital Managua, things haven’t always been this way. After all, Managua was only established in little less than 300 years later, in 1819. So how did it become a capital? Well, it’s a long and sad story.
Once present-day Nicaragua gained its independence in 1838, the country’s hard-earned freedom was soon to be switched for a bloody power struggle between the newly formed domestic political forces that split into the two major forces: the Liberal Party based León and Conservative Party gained popularity in Granada.
In 1855, León‘s Liberals decided to hire a US mercenary William Walker to help them to crush their Granadian Conservative rivals. The Nashville born “adventurer” Walker happily obliged, but he had different plans in his imperial mind. With an army of about 2500 mercenaries, Walker managed to seize Granada but then he declared himself a president of Nicaragua, establishing Granada as a capital. What a silly irony León, innit?
His first “presidential” decree was to re-sanction slavery in Nicaragua, which was an act celebrated by many wealthy people north of Mexico, where slavery and the related profits were still legal. The US president Franklin Pierce therefore recognized Walker‘s regime as the legitimate government of Nicaragua in 1856. Walker‘s presidency however didn’t last very long.
I am afraid that this is a travel-related article and in spite of the fact that this is an interesting subject, I wouldn’t like to turn into a historical essay. I’ve therefore decided to publish a separate article about Nicaraguan history. In case, you were interested in further details of how did the William Walker story evolved, as well as in other significant events that took place in Nicaragua since the pre-Columbian period up to present day, please click here.
For now, I’ll only come back to the question of how Managua became a capital instead of one of the two most influential cities in the country at the time. Well, the answer is quite simple. Nicaraguan leaders agreed to make Managua the country’s capital in 1857, simply to prevent further Granada vs León conflicts.
Granada vs León: Present Day
It appears that the rivalry between the two cities keeps going until the present day, although nowadays, it thankfully takes only a peaceful teasing form. Granadians consider their city more beautiful and in many ways, they are right about that. But then they do call their city a “Paris of Americas”, which is a bit of a stretch though.
The pictures in this post however confirm the beauty, although I must say that León is not that far behind. After all, due to the colonial architecture from the same period, the two cities could appear quite alike. When it comes to the looks, the major difference is that Granada is better preserved and visibly wealthier, while León can appear a bit grittier sometimes…
Otherwise, we’re talking about two charming colonial cities dominated by their cathedrals and numerous churches, just as well as the vibrant colours, not to mention the tiled pavements and nice parks. There’s basically a lot of character, many sights of stylish and often also supercool retro beauty in both cities.
Perhaps, I shall also mention that population-wise, both cities were largely outgrown by Managua ever since they were fighting each other to become capital in the late 19th century. Even if combined, the 131 thousand Granadians and 210 thousand Leónidians can’t match the capital’s million inhabitants…
Doors @ Granada vs León
Things to do in Granada
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Given the city’s rich and eventful history, I’d start this section with a recommendation to take one of the city walking tours. That way you’d learn a lot about the city as well as the Granada vs León rivalry and the whole country. You can always return to the sites that grabbed your attention later by yourself and explore them at your own pace. Anyway, here are the most interesting and important sites as well as activities in Granada.
As mentioned above, the whole city centre of Granada is very pretty and it invites a visitor to stroll the streets lined up with picturesque colourful colonial houses, quite a few of which provide an opportunity to take a rest and enjoy a snack or a beverage and enjoy the laidback vibe of the city. If you like people watching, I definitely recommend taking that break at Parque Central de Granada and in the later hours on Calle La Calzada 🙂
Before you grab your dinner on Calle La Calzada that is most likely to be followed by few cold beers after a hot day, which is btw certainly something you shouldn’t miss out on (see the go out section), perhaps consider walking down the street all the way to the Lake Nicaragua’s shore (see the pic above), where you can enjoy the beautiful park, popular with locals.
Besides the strolls and enjoying the hospitality in numerous cafés and restaurants, I would also personally suggest checking out at least one of the traditional cigar factories, such as Doña Elba Cigars or Mombacho Cigars S.A. Even if you don’t smoke, a fine cigar can make a great gift, not to mention the fact that you’ll feel like you’ve entered a shop from a different period of time.
Art lovers could enrich their souls by visiting one of the galleries and museums, the city has to offer. Among the most notable ones is Calzada Art Center, a place with a rather unique atmosphere that functions as a gallery/workshop (fcbk page); Bellas Artes, which is yet another special place that serves as a museum/workshop/café (fcbk page) or Centro Cultural Museo Convento San Francisco that displays mostly religious relics, pre-Columbian art, crafts and so on.
If you were looking for something rather different, then perhaps consider checking out the Chocolate museum. FYI, you can push the chocolate thing a step further, because in Granada you can get a chocolate massage! I know that it sounds a bit silly, but then again we only live once, and to be honest now, following the long Covid lockdowns that limited our possibilities, I wish I’ve done more silly little things like this 😉
FYI, both cities are also popular places for many people to take a language course. In case you were planning to stay in Granada for a longer period of time, you’ll then find other, let’s call them not so “highlighty” gems, such as the city’s cute old train station turned museum and so on. I mean that if you are living somewhere, people tend to seek their own places they find unique as opposed to the tourists who only stay for a couple of days, right?
Notable structures-wise, there are, of course, religious buildings. Those are among the most dominant structures in nearly every Latin American city. Granada is no exception to this rule. So let’s start with Our Lady of the Assumption Granada Cathedral, perhaps the most iconic buildings in the city.
Then there is also a number of churches that won’t escape your attention. The most notable are Iglesia Xalteva with the very pretty and popular park; the impressive Iglesia Guadalupe or Iglesia La Merced. If you were to pick just one or two, I’d recommend visiting the Xalteva because of the nearby park and Iglesia de la Merced because you can climb its tower and get great views of the city for about an equivalent of $1,-USD.
Things to do nearby Granada
Among the most popular activities, nearby Granada is renting a kayak and exploring some of the 365 small islets on Lake Nicaragua, just south of the city. Nature-lovers should definitely consider checking out the impressive Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve located right above the islets and the city. Mombacho comes with rich wildlife (incl. sloths) and some excellent hiking trails as well as a little museum. More information about this park, services, trekking options, prices and so on could be found here on its website.
Another popular spot to visit just outside Granada is Laguna de Apoyo, a tranquil protected reserve located around a volcanic lake with dark sandy beaches with some decent hiking, swimming as well as kayaking opportunities. A little over 10km further up, there is the town of Masaya. Except for the cute little town itself, which is mainly known for its National Artisan Market and some colonial architecture, it’s a gateway to Masaya Volcano National Park, with both, day time as well as night tour options to explore this impressive park.
Things to do in León
Because of its past, which’s tight to the anti-colonial rebellion, the city of León is so proud of up to this day, here I’d also recommend taking one of the walking tours, perhaps even more than in Granada to get to understand the city’s revolutionary history, plus to get to know the city. As I’ve mentioned above, León is rather similar to Granada in many aspects but the city does come across as a bit run down and perhaps even rougher in some parts.
To be fair, León also appears to be busier and more hectic than Granada, when it comes to general vibes. So perhaps, for people who are more concerned or let’s say sensitive about their safety, it might be a good idea to be introduced to the city’s hoods by a local person first, to feel safe accordingly to the threat level, rather than judging things by the looks only.
Landmark-wise, we’re still in the same rule book as in Granada or nearly every other Latin American city. The most dominant building in town is the impressive Cathedral-Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where you can actually get on the roof of the building to get some stunning views of the city for an equivalent of only $3,-USD. Furthermore, there are also few impressive churches, such as Iglesia de la Recolección of León or Iglesia El Calvario and more.
Otherwise, the general activities for a visitor in León are the good old strolling along the pretty streets of a Latin colonial town, cafés, restaurants, museums, possible language courses, various day trips and so on, depending on one’s area of interest. For instance, if you are in local history and revolutions, then I’d also suggest taking a Revolution Tour around the city. That way you’ll end up in Museo Historico de la Revolución, which could btw turn up to be a great experience, depending on your guide.
In case you are into arts, then visit some of the city’s art museums and galleries, out of which the most notable is the popular and rather significant contemporary art-orientated Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián (site/esp). Street art fans could enjoy the Sandinista Revolution tour and if you’re into poetry, then you might know the name of the famous local modernist poet Rubén Darío who’s got a museum dedicated to his work in León, where he lived off his last days. Another notable museum in León that’s worth your consideration is the Museum of Legends & Traditions. Set in a former prison, the museum explores Nicaraguan folklore through the displayed puppets.
The same like in Granada, in case you have decided to stay in the city for a longer period of time to study Spanish or for any other reason, in León there is also plenty of “less highlighty” but still somewhat special places and “corners” to discover, perhaps even to a bigger extent than in its southern rival. Whether it’s a favourite café, an art gallery, a nice park, or an old train station, there are things to discover in León 🙂
Things to do nearby León
The most popular activity nearby León is arguably the Cerro Negro volcano boarding. It’s a whole day good fun activity that will first take you to the Cerro Negro, which you’ll slide down on a wooden “skate” following a light hike to the top of the volcano. After the volcano boarding, you can opt to be taken to the Las Peñitas or Poneloya beach on the Pacific coast for a swim, sunset and a drink, where you can further opt to stay there for the night. Tours can be booked through various operators in local agencies or hostels.
FYI, Playa Las Peñitas, which is a pretty beach located only about 30 minutes away from León, is also a rather popular destination by itself for surfers that also comes with plenty of accommodation and party options. More details about the area could be found here. Right next door to Las Peñitas, there’s Reserva Natural Isla Juan Venado, a protected area with a mangrove ecosystem and diverse wildlife, that includes “106 bird species, alligators, crocodiles, iguanas, crustaceans and several species of sea turtles”. More info about the protected area could be found here.
Another popular activity nearby León is watching a sunset or a sunrise at Volcano Telica, which should be a very memorable experience if the weather permits. More info about all tours doing this trip could be found here. Nature-lovers should definitely consider visiting San Cristobal Natural Reserve, which besides being the highest volcano in the country (1745 m) is also one of the most active ones in the region. The reserve offers some great trekking options, all set in well organised rural-tourism vibe. More info could be found here. Some travellers also tend to visit the town of Chichigalpa, which is home to the world-famous rum Flor de Caña, where you can take a tour around the factory. More info could be found here.
Go out and events
Both cities do come with quite a few cool places to enjoy a nice frosty bottle of Toña or Victoria but IMHO León somehow offers a bigger variety of bars as opposed to its rival. I feel obliged to mention that this city of revolution comes with one of the best atmospheric bars I’ve visited in Central Americas: Via Via. It’s an amazing place with ceiling fans and original decor – I personally felt like drinking inside some 60’s spy movie 🙂 Well, perhaps, I’d also suggest visiting El Mirador for a dinner with few drinks and watch the lovely sunset over the city.
To be fair, Granada does fight back with its beach area as well as with its vibrant Calle La Calzada AKA Gringo street but then we’re talking about one street filled with bars and restaurants for tourists and some locals. It’s actually quite a nice place with a lot of street art performances, touts and various survivors trying to sell you something but it feels a little touristy as opposed to León‘s variety of bars and various dancing halls filled with plenty of young people.
If you put the cafés of the two cities into the competition, it would be a tough one. You can usually find the great authentic retro cafés within a block or two distance from the main square of either town. I particularly liked the Garden Cafe and Bristol Coffee Bar in Granada and the sweet Mañana Mañana Café (for the people – not for the decor) or the lively and superstylish Restaurante El Sesteo in León but if you just walk around the central streets, you should be able to pick one fantastic and stylish café within minutes 😉
And ice cream – don’t forget to overdose yourself with ice cream, especially in León. Right next to Mañana Mañana Café and Mc Donalds, there’s a superb spot. It’s a real ice cream made of fresh ingredients right in front of your eyes 😉 And last but not least recommendation of mine is that if drinks went well the night before, please try to drag yourselves to this place in the morning. They can do magic 😉
As far as the tourist hotspots and general city centres go, both cities are rather safe, especially for the Central American city safety standards. Of course, there are some characters to watch out for, of course, you should not flash your expensive jewellery and electronic devices around but overall, both city centres were surprisingly safe.
I admit I was more cautious in León but to be honest, in spite of the fact that I went out quite a lot in both cities, no incidents occurred to me and I went out properly. At the same time, I must say that I’m a male and that my safety is usually limited to my possessions. I mean that walking alone as a female at night is a whole different thing.
Although this is more about a feeling, rather than some stats, if you can, for longer distances – please get a cab ladies, if you’re alone. In case you wanted to get more complex info about safe travel around Latin Americas, including few tips, please click here.
I’ve stayed in the city centres, where most of the attractions were reachable on foot. If you were however about to go outside the city centres, you’ll need to use the services of the local taxi drivers, who like to impose their own “gringo tax” on foreigners. To avoid any unpleasant surprises, please make sure that you negotiate the rate before you get in the cab.
How to get there
Both cities are a couple of hours drive from each other. Using the public transport, one can easily get to Managua‘s UCA Bus Terminal in just under an hour for 70,- Córdobas (€1,90), from where it’s equally easy to grab a minivan for 70,- Córdobas to León. From San Juan del Sur, it takes just under two hours to get to Granada by grabbing a chicken bus, you might however need to change in Rivas but it’s a very straightforward journey.
When to visit
Because during my April/May visit, it was rather hot in both cities, so if you have the option, I recommend visiting the country in its dry season, which is from November to May. Rather than the April/May temperatures in the lower 30s Celsius, in the dry season, you should get the pleasant 25-28°C (77-82°F). I mean hiking at 33°C isn’t just as enjoyable, I’m sure you know what I mean…
Being slightly more popular with tourists, Granada perhaps offers a wider variety of accommodation options but I feel safe to say that there’s plenty of decent options to pick from in both cities. As always, do not forget to check multiple platforms (Booking, Hostelworld, Airbnb, …) to get the best deal. Also, if you were considering your visit during some popular national holiday, like for example Santa Semana (Easter), make sure that you’ll book it in advance 😉
As for myself, in Granada, I’ve stayed in a place called El Arca de Noe. $11.70,-USD for a private room with an en suite bathroom sounded like a good deal and I didn’t regret my decision at all. The hostel is an old Granadian house with a nice patio to chill out in with a kitchen and a great central location. Friendly and attentive Carlos, who runs the place will take you for an original and funny city tour that is included in the price, while you’ll be 2 blocks away from the main square. I’d certainly recommend this place to any of my mates. If you were however looking for a party place, look for Selina Granada.
In León, I’ve also traditionally decided to stay off the “party central” hostels such as Big Foot or Via Via (that came with the best bar in town btw) just to have an option of no party. My pick was Casa El Rio, a nice little place run by a young friendly family. For $8,-USD per night it was one of the cheapest private rooms with a shared bathroom in town. I can’t say that the bed was the most comfortable of all beds I’ve ever slept in but the whole atmosphere was genuinely nice. The hostel at the edge of the safe central area of town, about 8 minutes walk to the main square and I would recommend it if you like privacy while being on a budget.
Granada vs León: sort of conclusion
Surprisingly, the whole Granada vs León competition turned out to be an easy pick for me. I first went to Granada and I loved it because I like places with character and the more character there is, the more I like the place. And I thought Granada had a lot of charm, but then I got stunned by León. Why? It’s just felt livelier and more real, I suppose. And for that reason, also with more character. But that is just my humble and rather a subjective opinion.
Activity-wise, I could be more objective. But the winner is León again. It’s still not that far from for example Apoyo Lagoon or Masaya volcano pretty much from both cities, but the opportunity to get to the Pacific in half an hour ain’t on Granada‘s list of advantages.
Furthermore, there’s energy and nightlife to get points for. This division is also rather clear here. León hosts the National Autonomous University (1813), hence there are more young people, more bars and so on, which gives it more buzz, if you know what I mean 😉 So if I were to pick one of these cities to stay longer and study Spanish – I’d definitely pick León 😉 Well, perhaps, once I get a bit older, I’d be leaning more to pick Granada then 🙂
In conclusion, Granada is better preserved and prettier, plus it’s by the lake. León, on the other hand, has more character, more young people and better bars, plus it is only 30 minutes from the Pacific and it’s also a wee bit cheaper. Both cities are just amazing when it comes to cafés and restaurants but those of León, again had an edge IMHO. However, at the end of the day, Granada and León are not so different from each other, plus they aren’t so far away from each other so…
How long to stay
The highlights listed in this article can be explored rather fast in both cities. I’d say that 3-4 days each, including a hangover as well as one day trip.
Useful and interesting links
- Nicaragua’s history: major events from Nicaragua’s history, from pre-Columbian days up to current affairs, including the William Walker story
- William Walker: a bibliography of the imperialist by Christopher Minster on Thought.Co
- Mombacho Volcano Natural Reserve official website with news, info, prices, trekking options and so on
- Masaya Volcano National Park: Vianica.com‘s page about the park, tour options, etc…
- Apoyo Lagoon: Vianica.com‘s page about the park
- Cerro Negro Volcano boarding: different tours and tour operators could be found here on Vianica.com
- Las Peñitas: an official website with more information about the area
- Reserva Natural Isla Juan Venado: a website with more info about the natural reserve
- Volcano Telica: different tours and tour operators could be found here on Vianica.com
- San Cristobal Natural Reserve: Vianica.com‘s page about the reserve
- Flor de Caña Rum tour: more info could be found here
- Escuela De Bellas Artes: an fcbk page of the unique place every art-lover should contemplate visiting once in Granada
- La Calzada Centro de Arte: an fcbk page of another art-related place in Granada
- Rubén Darío: the poet’s bio on Encyclopedia Britannica
- Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián: official website/esp
Other destinations in Nicaragua
San Juan del Sur and Ometepe Island
A small beach party town popular with surfers and its nemesis, a tranquil lake island suitable for people keen on rural tourism in the very south of Nicaragua. Things to do, how to get there and so on could be found here
To experience a non-resorty Caribbean paradise, please consider visiting these two amazing little islands. Things to do, how to get there and so on could be found here
Featured image by Praesentator from Pixabay