What Cities to Visit in Nicaragua: Granada or Leon?

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Everyone wants to know what cities to visit in Nicaragua. I wanted to know as well so I asked around.

The worst advice I have ever received was that I should go to Granada or Leon, but not both.

That makes them sound alike but in reality they are as similar as Los Angeles and New York or Toronto and Vancouver.

Perhaps there is a comparison because of Nicaragua’s history. For years the two cities waged brutal battles over which city would be capital.

Finally, to keep the peace, Managua was named capital because of its geographic midpoint. I think both cities benefited from this as neither have become as dangerous as taxi-thieving-ridden Managua.

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Without knowing anything about either city I went to Granada first. I considered heeding the bad advice until an art student told me Leon was nothing like Granada.

And it sported the best art museum she had been to in Central America.

The next morning when I stepped off the bus in Leon I was shocked at how different it really was.

Granada

Granada is like the pretty blond girl in high school.

She’s attractive, dresses well and people seem to like her but once you get to know her you realize she has nothing to say; she’s just a vessel of beauty.

Granada truly is beautiful; with a fresh coat of paint, you’d never know it’s the oldest colonial city in the entire Western hemisphere.

People often compare it to Antigua and I can see the resemblance, particularly on Granada’s mango tree street with English menus featuring pizza, pasta and 2-for-1 mojitos, which are apparently the drink du jour.

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Like the pretty girl who knows all the right people, Granada is associated with its neighboring surroundings of Laguna de Apoyo and Ometepe.

A lake in a volcano crater? What more could you want?

I stayed in the Hostel Libertad and enjoyed great Internet, drinkable tap water and airy dorms.

But outside this haven I was bored, aimlessly wandering the street for something interesting but kept running into the Disney version of Nicaragua. I wanted more.

Leon

Leon is the pretty girl’s best friend. The buildings are in a bit of decay, the sidewalks have lots of upturned stones and there is graffiti all over the place.

No one would say it is the cleanest or prettiest city. But as many soon realize, the pretty girl’s best friend is more interesting and you may spend all night talking to her when you realize the pretty girl is dead boring.

After a while the best friend starts to look a lot better and you wonder why you didn’t see her beauty in the first place.

Leon has a bit of an edge – in a good way. A university town, the revolution started with an uprising its citizens.

It inspired the Sandinistas to leave the mountains and carry it into the rest of the nation.

A liberal city that celebrates its history, murals and statues are prominent. Including one of a Sandinista guerrilla holding a handmade bomb outside a museum that was once a political prison. 

T-shirts of Che aren’t the mark of a tourist trap but the sentiment that real people can create change. Just as they did decades ago.

I’ve decided to stay in Leon to take Spanish classes and learn more about Nicaragua, and particularly Leon. Stepping outside my comfort zone, I’ve arranged with the school to stay with a family.

They do not speak English. Neither do most people in the city so this will push me to really connect with people in their language.

Wish me luck!

Join the Conversation

  1. Margaret VanBlarcom says:

    I’m loving your blogs. The analogy in this one is particularly interesting. Keep them coming!

    1. This analogy is incredibly offensive- you are clearly a misogynist. I look forward to my trips to Granada and Leon and hope I don’t run into anyone who likens the cities to a “boring pretty girl” and her “not so cute best friend.” Obnoxious. You should be ashamed.

      1. Lighten up. It’s an analogy and one that works for many of us.

        1. Haha yes, I like it! Enjoyed reading this and looking forward to seeing both cities for myself later this year.

    2. I consider myself a left leaning radical feminist and did not find the analogy offensive. It’s actually good writing, and funny, as well as a decent description.

      I second that maybe lightening up and realizing we can’t PC wash everything on the planet.

  2. Wow, your writing is so vivid…Granada and Leon….Veronica and Betty…and your telling of the history sounds like you have been a student of history for years but I know that is not the case…and I am not just saying this cause we are related…

  3. Shannon OD says:

    Wow! Granada is gorgeous! And your description of Leon has me wishing I had made it that far south! Good luck with your language intensive!

  4. I’m so happy you’ve decided to stay awhile and study Spanish! I’m still trucking along with my own classes. I wish I had the time to do something more intensive. Oh, I just love that you love Nicaragua! And now I wish I’d been to Leon. Maybe I’ll come up for a night when I’m in San Juan del Sur!

  5. So in terms of MFK, you’re saying marry Leon and kill Managua

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Definitely kill Managua…

  6. Christine says:

    Cool comparison! Excited to hear you’ll be sticking around to study some Spanish–I’m in a host family in France and it’s a great experience!

  7. Great post! I was surprised the number of people that skipped Leon. I loved it there, and we totally got stuck and couldn’t leave it was so great.

    Hiking with Quetzaltrekkers was one of the highlights of our months in Central America. There’s an overnight to El Hoyo, and it’s awesome. Enjoy your time there!!

  8. I had already heard that Leon was great and now you’ve confirmed even more that it’s our kind of place and would make a good base for a while. It’s great you are staying with a host family – the more practice you get the better. Good luck!

  9. After this trip you will never be the boring girl…and hope never a blond 🙂

  10. I LOVE that comparison with Granada being like a pretty girl with nothing to say, it explained it so well!!

  11. Leon is definitively an incredible city, with lots of historical, cultural and natural activities! I truly recommend this city to anyone planning on visiting Nicaragua!

  12. Granada is indeed beautiful, never got a chance to visit Leon. Best of luck with your Spanish studies-that was one of the best decisions I ever made in life. Studied in Guatemala for three months and picked up more than I ever did in any classroom.

  13. Steve Merritt says:

    Your entry comparing Granada and Leon was very helpful for me. I am planning to come to Nicaragua for 6 months. I thought I’d start out with a couple months in a few different language schools. What school did you attend in Leon? Would you recommend it? Thanks.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      @Steve

      Language schools are a really sad experience in Nicaragua. They are cheap and the instruction is good but the teachers are often not paid. In Leon my teacher was a single mother with a young child and hadn’t been paid in over a month even though I paid the school in advance. When she shared that she had to leave the school I decided to do private classes with her ($5/hour). Unfortunately I heard several stories about all the schools there. If you go to Leon ask at hostel Siesta Perdida, the owner has a really good idea of what happens in the city and can likely recommend the best place.

      I believe in Granada there is a women’s cooperative that may be in LP and I think has a good reputation.

      1. Jane Vice says:

        Hello there, I met you in Cuenca at Marta’s hostel before we moved to the wonderful hostel we found (for a month) I am sure your teacher Karin was my teacher in Leon….Our family we lived with there were Angela and Manuel and teenage kids. We helped out with a kids project there. so sad so poor…….
        I agree with you regarding transport in Colombia. Flying was reasonably cheap and quick.
        Anyway if you need a couch we are in Vernon and you have my email.
        Jane

        1. Ayngelina Author says:

          Jane thanks so much, you are too kind 🙂

  14. Pingback: Why I love ugly cities | Seattle With Kids
  15. interesting, to the point of a good laugh since I recall you wanting to be a scientist and your written expression has always dictated that was never to be. off the top of your head, Bacon isn’t the only Magic!

  16. Well, I hope to prove my above comment as “old news” and go to Leon this time! It’s nice to reread these posts now that I am going-I like your take on things.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Leon is amazing, also check out the GlobeTrotterGirls who also loved it there.

  17. Granada has beatiful montains near ot it but Leon hasn´t. I prefer Granada because. It´s a really elegant city.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Leon doesn’t have the outer beauty but it has a great personality.

  18. I just found your blog and really loved this post. The way you describe the two cities really made me feel like I’d been there myself. Looking forward to exploring more through your blog and I hope you enjoyed your stay in Leon!

  19. Thanks for posting that. I am currently in El Salvador on a last minute dash to Nicaragua. You advice was well written in a timely matter.

  20. Koren @ City Gal says:

    Interesting comparison… Just sent you a message about this very topic. Need to spend some more time reading through the rest of your posts before I go! Love the comparisons.

  21. I only had the chance to visit Granada when I visited Nica to renew my Costa Rican visa but I’d love to go back one day and really compare! Your feelings on Managua concurred with basically everyone else I had spoken with 🙂

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      You must go to Leon. Nicaragua is my favourite country in Central America and Leon has so much heart.

  22. I’m going to head to Leon in a few days and probably stay for a month or so. Hoping to find an apartment and study Spanish. End up with any good recs on Spanish schools/teachers?

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I did learn Spanish there but unfortunately the school that employed my teacher didn’t pay her well and eventually we snuck off on the side and had classes when she quit. There are a number of schools there though and quite a good deal, much cheaper than Guatemala.

  23. Chanel @ La Viajera Morena says:

    Good read! Heading there next month. I really like the way you compared the two cities. Great writing style! 😀

  24. Rafael Castillo says:

    Visit Esteli, the climate is better than Granada and Leon

  25. Hola could you recommend language school in Leon or Granada??? Gracias Phil in Ontario

  26. I have been to Granada and saying Granada has not personality is to say everybody comes here because she is just pretty. But I think if you look the city and ask about the history of it, you will figure out that is not a borring place. Also if you like architecture you will realize the city is a museum in itself.

  27. Throughly enjoyed reading this! I am excited for my travels now in Nicaragua !
    I would LOVE if one can help donate to this amazing organisation helping those in Nicaragua xx

  28. Brian D Howard says:

    Hi, I plan on a trip to Leon in January. I want to take Spanish classes also. So far nobody has said what is a good school to enrol in.?? Any help here.
    Brian , North Shuswap, BC

    I also liked Granada when I visited 5 years ago because it is lovely, and has good restaurants, and a great chocolate museum and chocolate making course. I have to say though that it didn’t hold my interest.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I would wait until you get there and ask around. Unfortunately I didn’t write down the name of my school but I believe I found them on a bulletin board at a hostel. Most schools can turn around classes the next day.

      And if you find a good one I’d love you to tell me so I can update the post with your recommendation.

  29. Paul RYKEN says:

    As an update to your article, which we enjoyed reading before we went to Nicaragua, we have written our article on the two cities ourselves.

    Cheers, Paul

  30. jaaaaaaaaaade says:

    I’m definitely not the type to be offended but the pretty girl is probably just shy because she always gets criticised by people who are insecure and feel threatened by her so give her a chance lol

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      You know what, I can agree with that!

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