Leon is a strange beast. During the first visit it felt deserted, abandoned, an open air museum as boring as San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. But then, during the second visit, the students flooded the streets and filled the city with life. Let’s have a look at the city with two faces.
Being a student town automatically put Leon in the spotlights during the protests and the violent crackdown that followed in 2018. The colonial town has seen stormy times before though, which gives it a rich history and a great place to leisurely explore.
Starting a day in Nicaragua with a visit to a French bakery seems strange, but Pan & Paz has become an integral part of Leon. There are at least two of them in the centre, with the bigger one (1re Calle NE, between 2nd and 3rd Avenue NE) having a beautiful inner courtyard.
This is a good starting point as well to explore the lively market around the corner, and then Parque Central. The cathedral is not open a lot (apparently only sunday morning), but then offers rooftop walks. Next stop, on the opposite side, is the Museo de la Revoluccion. Former Sandinistas show you around for free, but appreciate it if you buy a DVD from them afterwards.
For an even more local experience, head four blocks down to the Museum of Traditions and Legends. Founded by a local, this one has some huge puppets and statues and murals outside, mainly depicting scenes from the civil war. The main building is quirky: several rooms show puppets illustrating local legends.
Regardless whether the heat got hold of you by now, cooling down with smoothies is a good idea in Nicaragua. North of Parque Central is for example Batidos Pitaya, with fresh fruit morphed into smoothies and into yoghurt with bananas, papaya, strawberries, melon or whatever else they have here.
Now take a deep breath… to dive into probably the best museum of modern art in Central America. From the outside, the Ortiz Gurdian doesn’t look that big. But it turns out to be an ensemble of several houses (each with inner courtyards), divided on both side of the street.
The collection (almost exclusively paintings) is simply stunning. You wouldn’t exactly expect a Roy Lichtenstein or Andy Warhol in this small student town. And the policy (no pictures of artworks are allowed) actually makes for a more intense museum experience. This place is so good we visited it twice (sundays it is for free, but even that didn’t exactly draw record crowds).
After a well-deserved dive into a swimming pool (hopefully at least), it is time to make a decision about nighttime activities. Food is there in all sizes and shapes: Patio El Padrino is lively and has a varied menu, Restaurante Carnivoro lives up to its name. But if you stroll around the streets on the western side of Parque Central, you will find a plethora of options.
That area, one block away from the Parque, is also the most lively area to go party hard. There are several clubs that become VERY lively, like the Illiom. Ask the locals about the latest hotspot. Another interesting option, because very rare in this region, is the cinema. That can be found close to Pan & Paz mentioned above. If you don’t feel like doing anything, that is possible as well. Just go and sit on Parque Central and see life flow past you. And on saturday evenings the locals even often build a stage to have some live music and sensual dancing that is sooooo gay (but officially isn’t, of course…).
Good to know
- Leon is a good base for exploring other tourist attractions in the area. Las Penitas beach is a little paradise on this earth, and a nice leisurely daytrip. Lots of tourists do a sandboarding tour on nearby Cerro Negro volcano
- Safety: Leon is very safe. As it is also a major tourist destination, attitudes towards foreigners are usually very relaxed and open-minded
- Getting there and around: connections to Managua and other cities are almost always by chicken bus, the station is located in the northeast of Leon. To get to Granada, you have to switch buses in Managua. To get to Matagalpa, you need a minivan. Within Leon, everything is within walking distance. International transfers are best done with minivans as well
Interested? Check out these pictures from Leon, Nicaragua