Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Nicaragua
Dominating the city skyline of pastel-colored houses, Nicaragua’s Granada Cathedral sits on the eastern side of the main plaza, Parque Colón, in a vision of red domes and lemon yellow walls with Mombacho Volcano rising behind it.
The cathedral was originally built in 1583, and is one of Granada’s most famous buildings. However, in 1856, the crazed American filibuster William Walker decided that if he couldn’t have Granada for himself, no-one could have it, and so, tragically, he burned both cathedral and city to the ground.
By order of priest Silvestre Alvarez, rebuilding of the cathedral began in 1880. The design was overseen by Italian Andrés Zappata, who modeled the cupola on the Vatican’s Basilica. However, lack of funds meant that it wasn’t until 1905 that the new cathedral was completed. Head inside the cathedral today to see its flowing arches and light streaming in through the stained glass windows.
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.
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.
As far as identifiable buildings in Granada go, it doesn't get much more noticeable than the baby-blue facade on the Iglesia San Francisco. The church dates back to 1529, making it one of the oldest in Central America, but the original church was destroyed and rebuilt a few times. The building has served many purposes in its life - including housing the military and a university - and today it's a museum.
Visitors enter the San Francisco church museum through a door on the left of the facade, and the museum's collection includes a big scale model of Granada and a superb selection of artwork by the region's native peoples. The main draw, however, of the Iglesia San Francisco (also called the Antiguo Convento San Francisco) is the collection of statues from Zapatera Island. These basalt statues, dating from 800-1200 AD, were discovered and brought from the island in the 1920s.
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.
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.
More Things to Do in Nicaragua
Granada’s Calle La Calzada leads from the ferry terminal on the lake into the heart of the town. Anyone looking to feel the pulse of Granada should plan to spend some time strolling this street. A somewhat quiet pedestrian zone by day, Calle La Calzada truly comes alive at night, when bars and restaurants set up tables on the pavement, street performers entertain and local artists sell their creations along the side of the road.
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.
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.
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.
If you’re looking for handmade jewelry while in Nicaragua, or locally made rocking chairs, hammocks, and traditional blouses, just head to the city of Masaya. Its famous Mercado Artesanías is housed in the old Gothic market building which dates back to the 19th century. As you stroll the market, look out for high-quality hemp weavings and handmade necklaces, as well as just about every other craft you can think of.
When in Masaya, it’s also popular to take a stroll along the pretty lakeside promenade, discovering the city’s historic plazas and 15th-century churches along the way. A couple of blocks away from Mercado Artesanías, try to visit Masaya’s huge central market too. Here, you’ll find sections ranging from butchers’ stalls to electronics stands.
Ever wanted to sandboard down the youngest volcano in Central America? Just head to Nicaragua’s Cerro Negro Volcano. Looming over the village of Malpaisillo and the surrounding jungle, Cerro Negro pierces the clouds and spurts ash from its black crater.
Part of the Central American Volcanic Arc, Cerro Negro is one of the most active volcanoes in the country. Hiking the stratovolcano is a tough but rewarding 1.5-hour hike that takes you a mile up to the crater. From the top, enjoy 360-degree views of Telica and San Cristobal volcanoes, and get ready for the ride down the 1,640-foot mountain. To sandboard down the volcano, you’ll need to go with a tour group. Your guide will set you up with a specially-adapted sandboard that can take you down the steepest side of the crater at speeds of up to 60 km an hour.
Believed to have been created more than 20,000 years ago after the cone of the Apoyo Volcano imploded, the Laguna de Apoyo got its start as subterranean rivers and rainwater filled and drowned the crater. It is located between two other Nicaraguan volcanoes: Masaya to the north and Mombacho to the south. Part of a nature reserve, the lagoon is regarded as the cleanest swimming spot in Nicaragua. The surrounding area is part of a tropical dry forest ecosystem with a diverse wildlife population. There are over 500 species of plants and tropical dry trees, as well as more than 200 documented species of birds. Reptiles such as green iguanas and a huge variety of birds are also prevalent in the area. Laguna de Apoyo’s clean, blue waters are thermally vented inside the crater, and it maintains a nice year-round temperature. There are plenty of water-related activities like scuba diving and kayaking to keep visitors occupied, although relaxing on the lakeshore is also an option.
The city of Granada sits on Lake Nicaragua, which is an understandably popular draw for both locals and tourists. One of the most interesting things to do during a visit to Lake Nicaragua is to explore the lake's series of small islands, known as "Las Isletas de Granada," or the Islets of Granada.
There are 365 islets in the lake, and they were formed more than 20,000 years ago during a volcanic eruption. The islets vary quite a bit in size, and many are large enough to have people living on them. Some of Granada's islets are privately owned, with primary or vacation homes on them, while others are more geared to welcome tourists, with a selection of shops, restaurants and hotels. Birders will be especially eager to explore "las isletas," as the variety of bird species on the islets is notable. The best way to see the islets of Granada is by taking a boat tour. Tours depart from Puerto Asese, which is a short taxi ride from central Granada.
If you’re interested in cultural events while in Nicaragua’s Granada, make Casa de los Tres Mundos part of your itinerary. This non-profit arts and cultural center shows temporary collections by local and international artists, and the works on show are often for sale.
Located in a colonial mansion, Casa de los Tres Mundos hosts many performances each month, including poetry readings, films screenings, and dance performances by the likes of the local dance group, Nicarocalli. Entrance to performances is normally for a small fee, or completely free.
Founded in 1987 by Austrian author Dietmar Schönherr and Nicaraguan poet and politician, Ernesto Cardenal, Casa de los Tres Mundos also acts as a community center for Nicaraguans who are looking to get creative at the Casa’s theater school, art studio and music academy. Casa de los Tres Mundos also finances and develops rural development projects in the Malacatoya area.
Nicaragua’s largest lake goes by many names: Lake Nicaragua, Lake Cocibolca, Lake Granada and even “Mar Dulce,” or “Sweet Sea.” The official name is Lake Nicaragua, but since it’s right next to the city of Granada you can see how “Lake Granada” might also seem appropriate. The lake is a major source of activities in the area, both for visitors and residents, and its sheer size means that there’s plenty of room for everyone who wants to get on or in the water.
You can take boat or kayak tours on Lake Nicaragua to explore Las Isletas (the archipelago of tiny islands), take a day trip to Isla Zapatera or spend a night on the lake’s biggest island, Ometepe. This enormous lake is home to some larger-than-you-might-expect creatures, including bull sharks. Weather conditions can make the lake surface choppy (and boat trips unpleasant for anyone with seasickness) - you might rightfully wonder how Lake Nicaragua got its “Sweet Sea” nickname.
Things to do near Nicaragua
- Things to do in Managua
- Things to do in Granada
- Things to do in León
- Things to do in San Juan del Sur
- Things to do in Bluefields
- Things to do in Ometepe
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- Things to do in Drake Bay
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- Things to do in Osa Peninsula & Gulfo Dulce
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