Léon Nicaragua is famous for being the Bohemian home to poets, revolutionaries and students in Central America. The loveable yet tumbledown city has bags of energy with adrenaline-filled volcano activities, and there are no shortages of colonial buildings, amazing museums, beautiful churches, wonderful restaurants, and nearby beaches.
Explore this vibrant city with my guide on the most amazing things to do in Leon Nicaragua – it is a big hit with backpackers, and adventure travellers on the Central American trail.
ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOU VISIT LEON, NICARAGUA
Is Leon Nicaragua worth visiting?
In a word, YES! I was captivated by Leon Nicaragua, it has a certain authentic gritty feeling to the city, it’s a lot less polished than Granada. Being a university city, it is a vibrant place where you can find lots of nightlife, cafes and culture. It’s a popular place on the backpacker trail so you will never be short of like-minded travellers to connect with. With so many amazing things to do in Leon Nicaragua, from adventure to culture, of course, it’s worth visiting.
Where to stay in Leon Nicaragua
Leon Nicaragua has an abundance of hotels and hostels to suit any budget, many are a stone’s throw away from Leon Cathedral and Central Park. Check out my handy list with either the place I stayed in or top recommendations by travellers. Or check out my list of cheap places to stay in Leon Nicaragua.
BUDGET HOSTEL: Poco a Poco Hostel
- Award-winning spacious hostel offering dorms, private doubles and family rooms. Lots of social spaces on rooftops, garden areas, an open kitchen, a big dining area and a small swimming pool. Simple breakfast available.
- Find the best deals for Poco a Poco on Booking.com or Hostelworld
- Read reviews for Poco a Poco Hostel on Tripadvisor
BUDGET HOTEL: Casa de Los Berrios
- Family-owned courtyard 1-star hotel with clean, spacious rooms plus en-suite bathrooms. A peaceful haven with seating areas outside the rooms with garden views.
- Find the best deals for Casa de Los Berrios on Booking.com
- Read reviews for Casa de Los Berrios on Tripadvisor
MID-RANGE GUESTHOUSE: Al Sole Guesthouse
- Features a swimming pool, bar, shared lounge, garden and BBQ facilities. Offers, double, queen and family rooms. Some rooms include a patio with a garden view and some with a kitchen and a fridge. Continental breakfast is available.
- Find the best deals for Al Sole Guesthouse on Booking.com
- Read reviews for Al Sole Guesthouse on Tripadvisor
LUXURY HOTEL: El Convento
- A stunning place to stay if your budget can stretch. Located on the site of the former San Francisco Convent, it has a traditional colonial courtyard-style garden, swimming pool and 31 spacious rooms.
- Find the best deals for El Convento on Booking.com
- Read reviews for El Convento on Tripadvisor
How many days do you need in Leon Nicaragua?
My stay in Leon Nicaragua was 3 days but I could have very easily extended my stay. The more you wandered around the city, the more gems you uncovered. I would have spent more time hiking the volcanoes but as we had 3 days to play with and we were already sandboarding down Cerro Negro, we explored more of the city.
So in 3 days in Leon Nicaragua, you can pack in beautiful churches, get your creative fix, climb volcanoes, chill on a beach and savour the Nicaraguan food.
When is the best time to visit Leon Nicaragua?
The tropical climate in León Nicaragua is famous for its all-year-round sunshine, although there are two main seasons- wet and dry.
The warmest months are from January through to May, and without the rain, it can feel a little sweltering at times. I visited in the first week of March, smack in the middle of the hot, dry period and you could feel the heat for sure.
The rainy season in León in Nicaragua starts in mid-May and lasts through to Mid-November, with the most rainfall occurring in October. In fact, you could expect torrential downpours in the month of October, which could cause disruption to travel and some outdoor activities.
So if you are ok with 31-35°C heat, the best time to visit León Nicaragua is between January-April and November-December.
Festivals celebrated in Leon Nicaragua
Nicaragua has a hectic schedule of fiestas, religious celebrations and commemoration days, some occur countrywide and some just in the city of Leon. Here is a handy list of festivals in Leon Nicaragua that you may want to observe, take part in, or even avoid.
- 1 JANUARY – New Years’ Day
- 15-20 JANUARY – International Dariana Poetry Symposium, León
- 3RD SUNDAY JANUARY – Señor de Esquipulas, El Sauce
- APRIL – Easter (Good Friday)
- 19 JULY – Liberation Day
- 14 AUGUST – Gritería Chiquita
- 14 SEPTEMBER – The Battle of San Jacinto
- 15 SEPTEMBER – Independence Day
- 24 SEPTEMBER – Virgin of Mercy: Patron Saint of León
- 29-30 SEPTEMBER – Fiesta de San Jerónimo
- 7 DECEMBER – Dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of Mary
- 2 NOVEMBER – All Souls’ Day of the Dead
- 12 DECEMBER – Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe
- 24-25 DECEMBER – Christmas Eve & Day
- 31 DECEMBER – NYE celebrations
Is Nicaragua safe?
I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked “Did I feel safe In Nicaragua? The answer is YES.
I can understand the nervous travellers asking about the safety in Nicaragua after reading about the turbulent political situation and the five months of anti-government protests that broke out countrywide in April 2018. Sadly, the fear caused a detrimental effect on the hospitality industry even though tourists were never a target. Many citizens fled the country shutting down accommodation or leaving tourist attractions short-staffed.
The anti-government protests in Nicaragua were declared illegal in September 2018, and tourism is back is on the rise albeit slow. There are still many censorship issues for citizens but this doesn’t affect tourist safety in Nicaragua. Obviously, it’s best to stay away from anything political.
That being said, due to the economical situation, petty crime can be an issue. Be savvy with your belongings, get the right over-the-shoulder bag, and don’t be wandering around looking super-wealthy dripping in jewellery. I was pick-pocketed in Paris so these rules apply all over the world.
It goes without saying, you should practise common sense, be wise to scams and if you are indulging in the party life in Nicaragua, avoid wandering around at night drunk!
Nothing happened to me in Nicaragua. I got buses, went out at night (in moderation) and was welcomed by warm, hospitable people with big hearts. Nicaragua is an incredible country that is the perfect destination for savvy backpackers.
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BEST THINGS TO DO IN LEON NICARAGUA
Sandboarding down Cerro Negro
Sandboarding down the Cerro Negro volcano was top of my list of things to do in Leon Nicaragua. The Cerro Negro volcano is the youngest volcano in Nicaragua and one of the smallest at 728 metres altitude.
Be prepared to hike up the volcano for about an hour carrying your board, possibly fighting against the wind near the top. Sandboarding down this active volcano was a unique adrenaline fix not to be missed in León. I freakin’ loved it!
Book through Volcano Day as they are run and owned by locals and values include eco-tourism and social responsibility. The cost is $30 which included a t-shirt, video footage and photos, watermelon when you reach the bottom of the volcano, and a drink at a bar on our return! The tour guide was informative and delivered his instructions with good humour making it a fun experience.
>> If you didn’t fancy going with the masses you can always book a volcano boarding private tour.
Walk the roof of Catedral de León
Taking pride of place in the centre of the city, don’t miss visiting the iconic Cathedral of León or the Basilica Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This impressive landmark of Nicaragua was built between 1747 and the early 19th century with Baroque and Neo-classical styles and has deservedly been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.
Climbing the roof of the León Cathedral is one of those ‘Must Do’ things to do in Nicaragua. On my visit in 2022, it is undergoing restoration to return the 34 domes to their former immaculate white but it’s still worth the small fee, especially at sunset!
Take a free walking tour of Leon
Get to know León Nicaragua with a free walking tour. This is usually my first activity to discover the history of Nicaragua and find the highlights of the city. We could only get a tour in the afternoon so ended up repeating the visit to Leon Cathedral but at sunset, giving it a whole different vibe.
Our guide took the group to a cafe to explain the political history of León Nicaragua to give us more understanding of what shaped the city and a true appreciation of the colonial buildings as we wandered around.
Remember, the tours aren’t actually free, you need to tip the guide for their time and talent.
We got lucky with our group size, but they can sometimes amass big groups. If you don’t want to leave this to chance, it is best to book a private tour of Leon Nicaragua.
Visit Musee de Revolución
Opposite the cathedral, on the other side of Parque Central De León, sits the dishevelled colonial building housing old photos and article clippings in Musee de Revolución.
The museum is not polished by any means and the displays are limited, but listening to the real-life stories of the passionate veteran guide made all the difference. He features in some of the photographs from the Sandinista Revolution which ultimately succeeded in overthrowing a long dictatorship by the Somoza family. Don’t forget to check out the revolutionary murals in the courtyard that honour the heroes.
Ironically, the Revolution Museum was the former Palace of Communications of President Somoza before being taken over by the Sandinistas during the conflict. Our guide took us up the stairs past bullet holes in the wall to the rusty, corrugated iron roof. We followed the arrows painted on the roof to ensure a safe passage and take in the views across the city of Leon.
The guides are Spanish-speaking only. I was just learning so picked up some parts. Thankfully, another guy helped translate so we didn’t miss some of the details of his first-hand knowledge.
The entrance fee for the Revolution Museum in Leon Nicaragua is 100 Cordobas ($3 USD) which includes a guided tour. It is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm. This is a true gem that shouldn’t be missed in Leon Nicaragua.
Discover the Street Art of the Revolution
As the liberal capital of Nicaragua, the city is oozing with street art depicting this struggle. Left-wing political murals pro-Sandinista appeared following the demise of Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Unfortunately, when the FSLN lost the 1990 election, it was ordered for this urban art to be painted over.
As a creative, university city, it comes as no surprise that urban art re-emerged on buildings, walls and basketball courts celebrating hope, cultural identity and power, whilst some focus on the insurrection and revolutionary figures.
Party time in León Nicaragua
León Nicaragua is a university town and with that generally comes party, party, party. You can find the more chilled vibes right up to sweating it out on the dance floor!
- Bar El Mirador is a fun, elevated bar overlooking the basketball courts, great for cocktails, burgers and a cold beer at sunset.
- ‘Backpacker Alley’ is a sociable place to hang out. Go to Via Via and Bigfoot hostels for cheap beers, happy hours and many gringos ready to enjoy the night! If you fancy exchanging beer for ice cream, Kiss Me is the must-go!
- The Spot Hostel puts on some lively themed nights with DJs to dance the night away, and beer pong competitions.
- Bar 23 was hard to walk by. It’s had more local crowd, good price on beers, and is great for people-watching.
- Salsa dancing is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in the culture of Nicaragua. Get to know the energetic steps of Merengue or Bachata, and book a private salsa class.
Shop for exotic fruits in Mercado Central
Behind the Catedral de León, you will find the vibrant stalls in the Mercado Central, or ‘Raúl Cabezas Lacayo‘ in honour of a young Leonese revolutionary who died on impact in 1979 due to a car crash in front of the market.
Local farmers, merchants and artisans bring their exotic fruits, beautiful flowers and handicrafts to sell, and this is a great way to support local communities. The fruit section is near the front and you will be bamboozled with the choice, see if you know your sapotes, from your mangoes and cashews.
Take a food tour in Leon through Mercado Central with a guide to sample some speciality foods, reveal the flavours, and learn more about Nicaraguan culture.
Start the day with a refreshing dip in the pool (and smoothie)
Not all accommodation in León is blessed with a swimming pool to help you cool down in the heat, but some do offer the option to pay a fee for the pleasure.
Coco Calala was a dreamy find, they serve healthy, plant-based food in a tropical garden with a pool. You can either pay 50 Cordoba or purchase food to be able to use the pool. It’s a no-brainer when you check out the mouth-watering menu. It’s a quiet venue for digital nomads to work under a palm tree with great wifi, amazing refreshments, and a lunchtime dip to spur on your creativity.
Tour the churches of León Nicaragua
Whilst the Catedral de León is the main draw, the city is home to 16 charming Renaissance-style Christian temples with different facades. Step inside each one to feast your eyes on the internal decoration, some more adorned and embellished than others. From the aged-yellow Iglesia de la Recolección with spiralling columns to the more simple exterior of St. Francis of Assisi Church with a striking altar, you will find more than one that shines out for you.
My favourite church in León, apart from the Cathedral, was the El Calvario Church. Built in the 18th century, the multi-coloured facade stands out from far and wide against the backdrop of volcanos in the distance. The exterior panels are painted with biblical scenes with more murals inside as you walk toward the ornate altar.
Visit Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz Gurdián
This contemporary art gallery took me completely by surprise. Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz Gurdián is home to some incredible pieces of art from Central American artists as well as some great masters such as Picasso, Chagall, Matisse and Miró.
Magnificent paintings and sculptures in Centro de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Gurdián are contained in two beautifully townhouses established and restored by Patricia Gurdián de Ortiz and Ramiro Ortiz Mayorga. These entrepreneurs, philanthropists and art collectors from Leon created this not-for-profit gallery to contribute to the cultural development of Nicaragua and Central America, and their vision resulted in the Nicaraguan Biennale.
Centro de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Gurdián will blow you away and not what I expected when the neighbouring crumbling buildings. It is one of the best things to do in Leon Nicaragua for art lovers.
OPENING TIMES + FEE: Tuesday-Sunday 10 am – 5 pm (closed on Monday). The entrance costs $3.50 for foreigners. Kids + Students are free. The entrance is free on Sundays.
Have a coffee in Hotel El Convento
Time to see how the other half live in Hotel El Convento! Head to the 17th-century convent that has been renovated into an elegant hotel and is a typical example of Nicaraguan colonial architecture.
Hotel El Convento was the first convent in Leon and has been transformed beautifully with stunning antiques and works of art. It’s a serene spot overlooking the central courtyard with landscaped gardens. It’s located near the main square and cathedral so far to trek for a nosey… lovely experience for the price of a coffee.
Head to Las Peñitas Beach
Time to get the sand between your toes on Las Peñitas beach. This small village with a quiet beach is about 30-40 minutes reach from the city of León. You can easily while away a day or afternoon surfing, swimming, or playing volleyball. Less active is fine too. Just pitch up at Mano a Mano Eco Hostal for lunch, and kick back with a beer watching the sun go down.
Many backpackers fall in love with the serenity and extend their day trip, or return for some time out. Check out where to stay in Las Peñitas.
With a longer stay, you could take a boat trip in the beautiful mangroves of the Juan Vendado Nature Reserve and immerse yourself in the natural beauty to the sounds and sightings of exotic birds, turtles and crocodiles.
How to reach Las Peñitas from León
- Shuttle – If you go with Volcano Day for the sandboarding they offer a free shuttle from 3 pm – 7 pm. If you just want to use the shuttle you can pay a $5 fee for the pleasure.
- Chicken Bus – Departs from Mercadito De Sutiava, and costs less than $1.
- Private taxi – Uber is not available so make sure you negotiate a fee of approx $15 before you get in.
Hike the Telica Volcano
Are you up for hiking one of Nicaragua’s most active volcanoes? If YES then Telica is for you. This is nature at its most explosive. Marvel at this natural wonder at sunset catching a glimpse of the lava spewing as you peek into the crater.
Telica Volcano in Nicaragua is nestled into the Maribios volcano chain, the same as Cerro Negro, so can be quite blustery at times. The summit elevation of Telica Volcano reaches 1,061m above sea level so best to bring some warm gear to layer up with once the sun goes down.
There are different types of trips to experience Telica volcano, here’s a handy round-up of Telica tours to choose from;
- Telica: 1 day with overnight camping
- Telica: Sunset Tour