Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in León
León is roughly 66 miles from Managua, and the second-largest city in Nicaragua. The colonial architecture of Granada is widely regarded as being better preserved, but León’s is impressive as well. Leon has long been a center of learning - this has been a university city since the early 1800s - and this walkable city is also known for its numerous churches. A bus trip from Managua will take between one and a half and two hours one-way, so you can make it a (long) day trip or plan to spend a night or two for a more relaxed visit.
See the streets of old León, one of the oldest Spanish settlements in the New World, at the ruins of León Viejo. Founded by conquistador Francisco Cordoba in 1524, the lively city was abandoned in 1610, after a huge earthquake caused locals to reassess the town’s precarious location, surrounded by belching volcanoes. It was decided that a new town of León would be built 20 miles west, and León Viejo was left to crumble under falling ash and volcanic stones of Mount Momotombo.
Rediscovered in 1967 by the National University, León Viejo is the only 16th-century, colonial city in the New World that was never developed beyond its original site plan. Its ruins today are classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
At the ruins, wander the old city’s three-foot-high remains and see the layout of 16 of the city’s originals structures, including the old plaza, convent, cathedral and fort.
The largest church in Central America, Nicaragua’s León Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s well-known for its eclectic design. Mixing Baroque with Neoclassical, Gothic with Mudejar, the famous cathedral was built between 1747 and 1814 and was designed by Guatemalan architect Diego José de Porres Esquivel.
Covering a whole city block, the quirky cathedral has a set of narrow stairs leading up to its domed roof. Here, you can check out the cannons which were put up during the 1824 siege of the city. You’ll also get to see the bell La Libertad that announced the independence of Central America to the world.
Head down to the cathedral’s cellars, too, where you can visit three of the tunnels which connect the cathedral to León’s other churches. These tunnels were built as a means of fleeing invading pirates, and in the main chapel, you can see a statue of a black Christ that still bears the hack wounds of a pirate's sword.
One of the most popular spots to visit in León, the Rubén Darío Museum is dedicated to the famous poet, writer, and ambassador who brought modernismo to Spanish literature. Housed in Dario’s childhood home, the museum was opened in 1964.
On a visit, you can stroll the inner courtyard of Dario’s old home. Take a peek around the well-preserved rooms for a glimpse of how life was for Nicaragua’s well-to-do in the late 19th century. You’ll see many of Dario’s belongings on display, from the bed where he died “an agonizing death,” to his bible and photos, and the grand suits he donned as part of his ambassadorial duties to Spain.
Enjoy a close-up look at first editions of Dario’s work, and handwritten manuscripts which include his very first poem. A sanctuary dedicated to one of the Spanish language’s most influential literary men, Dario truly changed the face of poetry with his innovative use of rhythm and imagery.
León’s Ortiz Gurdián Foundation Art Center showcases a private collection of Nicaraguan and international art to the public. The artworks date from the 15th century to today, and include paintings by the likes of the renowned Nicaraguan painter Armando Morales, as well as works by world-famous artists like Rubens, Miró, Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, and Diego Rivera.
Housed in four restored colonial buildings in León’s historic center, the non-profit was founded in 1996 by local philanthropists Patricia Gurdián de Ortiz and Ramiro Ortiz Mayorga. The center’s objective is to contribute towards and promote Nicaragua’s cultural and artistic development.
In the main building, the Norberto Ramírez House, see the collection titled “From Western to Nicaraguan Art,” which shows artworks from the 15th century through to the 21st century. Here, you can also see pre-Columbian art and ceramics from the Nicaraguan village of San Juan de Oriente.
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