Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Managua
The facade and bell towers of the Old Cathedral of Managua may look impressive, but get closer and you’ll see there’s almost nothing else left of the structure. The 1972 earthquake all but destroyed the church, and it was left as a ruin, unsafe for visitors to do more than walk around the building. Initially, promises to rebuild the cathedral were made by the government, but locals gave up hope of that happening when a new cathedral was built elsewhere in the 1990s instead.
One of the interesting bits of information about the Old Cathedral of Managua is that it was not only originally designed by an architect in Belgium, the cathedral was actually shipped from Belgium to Managua and reconstructed on site. The cathedral had barely been finished when an earthquake hit in 1931, but the structure survived that first quake. The 1972 earthquake, however, was too much for the church.
The rim of the Tiscapa Lagoon, formed when a volcano blew its top more than 10,000 years ago, is a great spot to get a view overlooking Managua. Perhaps the city’s most iconic symbol, a statue of Sandinista founder Sandino, is perched atop the Parque Histórico Nacional Loma de Tiscapa, surveying the city right along with you. This is the highest point in the city, so it’s a good place to be when you’re getting the lay of the land in Managua.
Managua’s Tiscapa Lagoon was declared a nature reserve in 1991, and more concerted efforts to clean up the water began in 2005. Even if you can’t dive in, you can soar over the water on a zip line (open Tuesday-Sunday). The easiest way to get to the park around the Tiscapa Lagoon is to catch one of Managua’s many cheap taxis. On the way to the top, you’ll pass another monument to a respected leader - the Monumento Roosevelt, built in 1939, and today a memorial to those who died in the revolution.
Nicaragua’s national theater is named after its most famous poet, the father of Modernismo, Rubén Darío. Built in 1969, the Rubén Darío National Theatre is one of the only major buildings in Managua that survived the capital’s devastating 1972 earthquake. Today, the celebrated theater hosts regular performances which range from folklore dances by the national ballet company, to the Miss Nicaragua competition.
Based in Managua’s historic center by the shores of Lake Managua, the Teatro Nacional Rubén Darío was inspired by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. You can see the theater’s similarities in its clean and modern design.
Inside, the theater is a grand homage to chandeliers and velvet; a beautiful space where you can dress up for a night out with Nicaragua’s crème de la crème. In the main theater, which fits 1,200, you may even see the president enjoying a performance from the presidential balcony.
One of the most impressive neoclassical buildings in Nicaragua, Managua’s National Palace of Culture is home to the National Museum, the National Archives, and the National Library. In the capital’s Plaza de la Revolución, the grand building was commissioned by President Sacasa and was built in 1931.
Home to the Nicaraguan parliament for over 50 years, on the night of August 22, 1978, left-wing Sandinista revolutionaries stormed the National Palace and overthrew the Somoza dictatorship, ending the palace’s role as the seat of the Nicaraguan parliament almost overnight.
Flanked by the Old Cathedral of Managua and the famous Gran Hotel, the National Palace was renovated in 1994. On a visit, discover its palm-lined courtyard and check out the National Museum, which shows temporary art exhibitions and exhibits that range from palaeontological finds to earthquake exhibits.
Managua’s new cathedral, the Metropolitan Cathedral, was built in the early 1990s to replace the Old Cathedral, which had been destroyed in the 1972 earthquake. After years of promising to rebuild the Old Cathedral, officials finally declared it unsafe and built the new cathedral instead. The modern building couldn’t be more different in style than the classic Old Cathedral, and consequently it has inspired some interesting nicknames over the years. One of the most common likens the many domes adorning the roof. The Metropolitan Cathedral (or Catedral Metropolitana) was designed by a Mexican architect and contains the church bells from the Old Cathedral. The new building is located not far from the Ruben Dario theater, near the Malecón. Mass is here celebrated twice daily.
The Masaya Volcano - just over 12 miles from Managua - is one of the most accessible on earth. In fact, while you can plan hiking day trips on the volcano, you can even drive right up to the volcano’s crater to take a peek inside. The Masaya Volcano National Park that surrounds the volcano was Nicaragua’s first national park.
There is a nearly-constant flow of steam, ash and gases coming from the Masaya Volcano, but that shouldn’t stop people from making the trip. Join a day tour from Managua and you’ll be treated to glimpses of a rare type of parakeet that can withstand the toxic gases near the crater. You may even be lucky enough to see some of the glowing magma that the volcano occasionally spits up.
In most cases, a city right on a lake - as Managua is right on Lake Managua - would be a city embracing its waterfront. In Managua’s case, for many years the lake was used as a dumping ground for sewage, so it’s only more recently that the waterfront and the lake itself are becoming more pleasant places to spend some time. Lake Managua (or Lake Xolotlán, as it’s also known) is still too polluted for swimming (although some locals do actually fish in these waters), but the Malecón (waterfront) area was dredged and cleaned up in 2007, so progress is being made - albeit slowly. You can hop on a tourist cruise around the lake; these are roughly 45 minutes round-trip, and run Tuesday-Sunday. Pay a little more for an upstairs seat on the boat - you’ll have much better views during the tour.
Reaching depths of up to 525 feet (160 meters) and in parts, as narrow as 30 feet (10 meters), the vast Somoto Canyon is a startling sight, created by the mighty Rio Coco, Central America’s longest river, burrowing through a cliff of solid rock. Today, the canyon is a national monument and one of Nicaragua’s most impressive natural attractions, stretching for more than 2 miles (3 km) and located right by the Honduran border.
The best way to view the canyon is by hiking or horseback riding along the upper ridge, where you can peer down into the vast canyon, trek through fields of wild orchids and explore the eerie bat caves dotted along the rim. Adventurous travelers can also venture down into the canyon to scramble along the rocky riverside or cool off at a number of swimming holes, as well as enjoying activities like kayaking, tubing and rock climbing.
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