León is my favorite of the two colonial cities that battle for the spotlight on the itineraries of travelers heading to Nicaragua. The creative culture, friendliness of the people, and it’s close proximity to Las Peñitas, a mellow beach town, made it clear that it would probably be somewhere that I’d consider returning to. Granada, however, even though it was lovely, I’d probably skip it on my next trip to Nicaragua. Sorry, Granada, this was just a one time thing.
León is the capital of the revolution in Nicaragua, remembered in the form of street art, informative locals, and the Museum of the Revolution. The pride as well as the pain from the revolution still runs deep, making it a significant place to visit just to try to understand what happened during that time.
What to Do
Walk around town. There’s plenty of churches and beautiful colonial architecture to keep you entertained for days. Lots of markets and stands selling the usual gifts and souvenirs but I felt like the vendors were the nicest that I’d experienced so far.
Cathedral of Leon. The big white church in the middle of town, you can’t miss it. Take a peruse inside but then locate the door on the outside of the building that permits you to trek up to the roof!
Ask someone to direct you to where to buy tickets. It’s on the opposite side of the building as the front entrance. After purchasing your ticket, you come back around to the side that’s facing where the McDonalds is and there is a small door where someone will be waiting to take your ticket. Cost was $3 per person. Be prepared to take off your shoes and get blinded by the bright white of the building. Really, bring sunglasses.
Museum of the Revolution should be on everyone’s to-do list. We went early, rather by accident, and were the first one’s there. Our guide was someone who was very much a part of the revolution. He fought and lost a lot of people close to him. He took us through the ‘museum’ which is the definition of rustic, explained everything as simply as he could (all in Spanish so we were grateful for that). He told us stories about some of the revolutionaries, explained the meaning behind murals, and showed us his own neighborhood expressing the effects of the revolution on his entire life.
It cost $3 to get in, and I tipped our guide another $3. There was a moment of awkwardness when a sales pitch showed up trying to sell DVDs about the revolution. Weirdly though, Bryce had found one at our hostel so we didn’t want to buy another one. But our guide still continued to be a little pushy about it. Understandable, but just fair warning.
Get Up Stand Up Surf. Visit the store and inquire about surf lessons or shuttles to Las Penitas. I didn’t do much shopping in Nicaragua but when I decided that I was going to be spending a few more weeks in Florida than I had planned, I decided to splurge on a couple things from here.
Volcano Boarding from Bigfoot Hostel. This is all the rage for backpackers in Nicaragua right now. You get all suited up and sled down a volcano (after hiking up said volcano). Most everyone goes through Bigfoot Hostel which is right across from Via Via on the main backpacker street.
Volcano Tours are all over the place. This was our chill time before leaving Nicaragua so we didn’t really even look into the tours but there’s so many available.
Las Peñitas is a mellow beach town only a 30 minute bus ride away. Our friend Lizzy had just started renting a place there so we decided to go spend a couple more days on the beach. I can’t believe how few humans were there. We seriously couldn’t figure out why it was more visited considering how close it was and how easy it was to get there from León. Expect a full guide on this little beach town soon!
Where to Eat and Drink
Pan y Paz is a must. If you’ve been in Nicaragua for a minute, you’re probably missing bread that’s not doused in sugar, amazing pastries, and beer other than Toña or Victoria. Head straight to Pan y Paz! It’s a really nicely designed french bakery with a delightful courtyard. They also carry multiple beers from La Porteña, the craft brewery in SJDS. Win!
Buffet Comedor San Benito will really help you keep your budget. Simple, super cheap buffet with a nice clean seating area. My meals would usually cost around 40 cordoba and be pretty filling. At breakfast, our meals combined were around 60 (with coffee). Bryce would actually get enough food to realllllllly fill him up for around 80 cordoba. Nothing was sensational but it was all good enough.
Pan Pa’ Ya was our other favorite bakery close to the center of town with cheaper prices but less ambiance. Still though, rather impressive quality for the price. We got a donut that tasted like a donut and meat pies that weren’t covered in sugar. Another win.
Via Via’s restaurant was our go to. The space available made it perfect for sitting for awhile chatting over a drink or two. Food was pricey but the appetizers fell into budget alright. I was stoked to see their promotion featuring cheap Flor de Caña rum by the bottle. You’d get a 350 ml bottle, mixer, ice, and lime for like $5.
Unfortunately, we sat at the bar one day and watched one of the bartenders pour Plata, the much cheaper rum, into a Flor de Caña bottle and then serve it as a part of the promotion. Like, she literally did it right in front of us and the waiter laughed with me. It for some reason didn’t make me mad like it would in states. Mostly because it was so damn cheap. So, just order the Plata in the first place, it’s cheaper and it’s what you’re more than likely going to get anyway.
Nicaraguita Café is a super hip art café with a library that you can buy books from our borrow from with a deposit. It’s a great ambiance, delicious breakfast (more than just gallo pinto) for reasonable prices, and the staff was really sweet.
Kiss Me, oh baby! If you’re feeling like mixing it up from the usual Eskimo ice cream, go splurge on some gourmet ice cream at this spot. The guy behind the counter was making fresh waffle cones when we walked in; it smelled so good! And a small scoop is still only 35 Cordoba—sweetly called a besito.
Where to stay
Surfing Turtle Hostel was our spot for the first couple nights. It’s the sister hostel to Surfing Turtle Lodge which is on the north side of Las Peñitas, a 30 minute bus ride away. The dorms were $7. It was simple, clean, cheap, and the staff was friendly. The main highlight, was probably the upstairs communal room with air condition. Yes, I’m serious. Go to León and experience that heat, you’ll appreciate being able to snag an hour of downtime in some AC here and there.
Las Vacaciones was our spot for the night after our weekend trip to Las Peñitas. It was $7 for dorms and included a modest, but hot, free breakfast. Clean, helpful staff, good location, good WiFi, all around solid spot. Especially if you’re staying for awhile, this would have been a great budget spot as there was a communal kitchen too. Oh, and they had a pool table!
Lazy Bones was my favorite for the all around experience. We paid $20 for a private room without a bathroom (dorms were $9) but the communal space was great. There was plenty of tables to set up shop on work on my blog, free coffee and tea until the afternoon, but the best part….there was a pool! I’m not kidding about the heat in León. Having the pool to cool down during the hottest part of the days was fantastic. Oh, and they also had a pool table!
Via Via definitely fell into my good graces. We spent a lot of time in their restaurant/bar. The environment was great and plentiful as there was a hostel attached to it. Dorms were $7 and it was on the main backpacker street. This would definitely be my suggestion if you’re traveling alone or are looking for a party.
Seriously, don’t miss León. Be ready to be really hot and sweaty, but with the powerful history, rich culture, and accessibility to Las Peñitas, it’s the perfect base to explore some of the best that Nicaragua has to offer.