Are you here for sunrise volcano trekking or volcano boarding? Surfing lessons or sea turtles? Busy markets or picturesque churches? In any case, a trip to Leon has more than enough to keep you busy!
Nicaragua is a country that’s easy to fall in love with. Complete with jungle adventures, miles of beautiful coastline, and cities full of colonial and local charm, it’s easy to see why you would want to spend a whole semester living here ... especially when you find out about the adventures waiting for you in Leon!
If you're visiting, you better plan on a busy few days full of all sorts of volcano adventures, day trips to beaches, and stumbling upon a handful of towering churches while touring this Nicaraguan city. Leon is a highlight, an easy destination to flock towards if you are spending any amount of time in this country. Just ask our Nica volunteers!
Maybe it's the volcano boarding, miles of markets, surfing at nearby beaches, or photo shoots in front of (or on top of) ancient cathedrals, Leon is a must-visit.
Soak up the sun, beaches, jungles, and adventures-galore in this country
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Just to make your visit just a bit more memorable, we've pulled all the tips from our Nicaragua volunteers (and other volunteers visiting from other countries) to make sure your visit to Leon is a total hit.
- Our Go-To Things To Do In Leon
Day Trips You Have To Try
- Foods To Eat Here
- Places To Stay
- Getting To Leon
Our Go-To Things To Do
Hike This Rooftop
Climb on top of the largest cathedral in Central America for the best sunset spot in the city … and maybe the country. The Leon Cathedral houses a gorgeous and detailed interior, but you can pay about $3 to head to the rooftops and walk along the white-domed roof before finding the best spot to see the sun set into creamy pinks and oranges. Pretty cool to watch the sunset on a 200+ year old cathedral, right?
To get there, go inside of the church and try and find a staircase up. If you need a little help, just ask someone to point you to the right spot. As a heads up, you might be asked to take your shoes off, so if you visit during the afternoon, just know that the rooftop can get very hot which doesn’t feel super great on bare feet.
Buy your ticket outside, at the backside of the church. Then, you through the small door around the corner — just so you know, it can get busy on the rooftop, so go when it first opens to get pictures with fewer people in them (and of course earlier times also mean cooler feet as well).
Cost: about 100 Cordobas to go on the roof
Address: Calle Rubén Darìo, Av. Central Nte., León, Nicaragua
Go On A Free Walking Tour
Leon offers a free walking tour every day at 9:00 AM and 4:00 PM which comes highly recommended! The tour lasts for about 1.5-2 hours depending on your guide, group, and how many questions you ask. They speak English and the guides are super knowledgeable, making it a great way to get to know the city and the history here. Granada and Leon were actually rivals in the recent revolution, making it an intriguing city to visit if you're familiar with Granada's history (just to compare).
The walking tour will take you through the market and have you try some local things you maybe wouldn't have otherwise known to try. The tour usually takes you up the cathedral as well, especially for the afternoon tour to catch the sunset.
While free, it's nice to tip your guide to show some appreciation! Do whatever feels best for you, but a couple of dollars (or more) is typically a nice gesture.
Visit This Particular Cathedral
While wandering around the city is going to give you more than a few photo ops, we are majorly big fans of a few buildings in particular. (But seriously, you have to plan on soaking up the architecture in this city).
Now that that's settled, we wanted to point out a can't-miss church, mostly because we love the stunning dark yellow façade found on this Baroque-style church known as the Church The Recollection. Built in 1786, it's known for the striking details on the outside and inside (where you'll find an altar decorated with silver and various paintings.
Find it here: C4QF+25H, León, Nicaragua
Day Trips You Have To Try
These adventures are easily done in a full-day or half-day (or a day+overnight depending on which option you choose) which is why they are in this section. Depending on how many you want to fit into your trip to Leon, you may want to visit here on a weekend, or longer.
Go Volcano Boarding
Just outside of Leon is the volcano known as Cerro Negro, but it’s probably better known as the place where you can go volcano boarding. It’s a half-day to full-day adventure you book with a tour that will take you out of Leon to Cerro Negro where you’ll hike to the summit, pull on a jumpsuit and hop on a sled before zooming down the side of the volcano. It’s crazy, crazy fun and something you can only do here.
It’s a volunteer favorite, so we’ve outlined our favorite insider tips for volcano boarding here, including some tour recommendations and other tips to help you out.
Trek Up Some Volcanoes
Nicaragua is dotted with 19 volcanoes that support some of the country’s most spectacular hikes, but Leon is a good jumping off point for several. Right outside of the city, there are a couple more volcanoes that make for a great 2-day trek. Most tour companies will take you out from Leon and set you up with the gear you need to sleep at the El Hoyo Sinkhole before making the summit right before sunrise, then trekking down and driving back to Leon.
Another popular hike is to the rocky rim of Telica. From the top you can (carefully!) peer over the edge and glimpse the glowing river of lava flowing in the crater.
Get more details on our favorite volcanoes to hike in Nicaragua, here.
Surf At Las Peñitas
Fancy a day at the beach? It’s about a 20-30 minute taxi ride to get to Las Peñitas, a popular beach on the Pacific Ocean side of the country. One volunteer said Las Penitas was an extremely beautiful beach, with wonderfully warm water and few people.
Probably the most well-known for surfing, you can rent a board for a few hours for $6 or so dollars, or get a board and an hour lesson for around $20. There is a strong current, so be careful while swimming or surfing here.
Rather just watch the pros and sit on the beach? The waves can be powerful (perfect for surfing) but the area is lined with darling cafes serving fresh smoothies where you can grab lunch and watch the action. There are also a smattering of hostels available if you want to come here and spend the night.
Plan on paying around 150-200 Cordobas per person for a taxi over there, or you can take the Chicken Buses. One group had this to say: "To get here ask your hostel where the nearest bus stop is for Las Peñitas. At the bus stop we were at you just wave down a chicken bus, and ask if they’re going there. The best beach for swimming will be the stop right next to Hostel Barca del Oro. Get off there. It will be after the chicken bus does a U-turn at the bay.
"To get back to Leon you can take a taxi or cross the street from the hostel and wait there for any chicken bus. The last one leaves around 6. But we caught one around 5:30 (their times are a little inconsistent). The chicken bus was about 18 cordobas for one way."
+ A Trip To See Turtles On Juan Venado Island
If you're into spending more time on the coastline, come experience this turtle island! Juan Venado is a protected stretch of wetlands, which is bursting full of quite the list of marine animals and birds — from August to December, the Pacific edge of the coastline is an important nesting site for the Olive Ridley sea turtles. If you want to see the turtles up close, plan on visiting the Palo de Oro Ecotourism Project which has set up a permanent turtle nursery and has a conservation team to help protect the turtles and the local flora and fauna.
But visiting any time of the year means potentially spotting huge white water birds, stealthy crocodiles, sun-bathing iguanas, and crabs scattering around the shoreline. The island is also home to a stretch of dark black sand, a tangled web of mangroves, and a network of curvy waterways you can boat or kayak through, depending on your tour option (you can ask around on the Las Penitas beach, or the Barca de Oro hotel.
This uninhabited island has tours running from Las Penitas island Look out for kayak rentals for about $12 for the half-day, with an extra $10 getting you a guide. Some tour operators and hotels in the area also have boat tours ($55 for four people, or $75 if you have around eight). You can also try a nighttime turtle tour (about June to December) where a guide will take you out in the evening or early hours to see the turtles lay their eggs — tours are $25.
If you visit, just make sure to pack plenty of mosquito repellent — and time your visit with sunrise or sunset to see the most birds. It's also worth noting that more animals are typically seen around low tide. You'll also want to bring sunblock and plenty of water.
Foods To Eat Here
Known as the oldest restaurant in Leon, this is a popular hang out spot for visitors to Leon. The restaurant looks over a public park which makes for great people watching, plus the menu has dishes like fish tacos, steak and plantains, fresh juices (try the melon), grilled fish, and other options.
Address: NIC-14, León, Nicaragua
Hours: 7:00 AM to 11:00 PM
In the mood for fish tacos or burritos? This place has you covered, with yummy options like that along with a menu boasting fresh juices and desserts. It's a favorite option.
Address: 3ra Calle NE, León, Nicaragua
Hours: 11:00 AM to 9:00 PM (10:00 PM on Friday and Saturday) (Closed Sunday)
Pan & Paz
Here's a review from one of our volunteers: We went for breakfast and tried the brioche French toast, bacon, cheese, and egg croissant sandwich, and their Greek yogurt. All of it was good but could have been better with a few tweaks. Their croissants and other French bakery items are definitely influenced by the location, so don’t expect it to be super traditional, but the flavor was still good ... their coffee is a nice choice, and the fruit juices are also delicious. "
Address: 1/2 block North of Central Park, Av. Central Nte., León, Nicaragua
or Esquina de los Bancos, una Cuadra y Media al Este, 1ra Calle NE, León, Nicaragua
Hours: 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM (closed Sunday)
Another fantastic breakfast option, found in an old, Colonial-style house that's been turned into a restaurant serving up some favorites. Find items like blueberry pancakes, waffles, French toast, and other yummy dishes for your morning meal (though they also have some tempting lunch and dinner options, as well).
Address: 2da Av. NO, León, Nicaragua
Hours: 6:00 AM to 9:00 PM
Come here for "super yummy smoothies and bowls" according to a few volunteers. You'll find a whole range of refreshing smoothies and fruit-filled bowls, as well as chocolate waffles, yogurt parfaits, and other dishes to start your day.
Address: Catedral de Leon 75vrs al Norte, Frente a Pollo Estrella, León, Nicaragua
Hours: 7:00 AM to 7:30 AM
Another recommendation from some ILP volunteers: "A group of 9 of us came for breakfast and it was delicious! Some are vegetarian and some aren’t in our group, but everyone loved it! We tried the chai, and the mango, the pitaya, and the strawberry based smoothie bowls. All so good!!
"The frappuccino was also very good with almond, chocolate, and a vegan brownie on top. We also tried the chocolate pancakes and the fig jam pancakes. The pancakes are so filling, and hearty, we loved them! The aesthetic is beautiful, and relaxing, and the staff was amazing. If you vegan/vegetarian definitely try this location! And if you’re a carnivore trying this for the first time you can definitely find things you’ll like."
Address: 3ra Av. NE, León, Nicaragua
Hours: 8:00 AM to 5:30 PM
These Street Foods
Behind the main cathedral, you’ll most likely spot a market selling a smattering of local dishes you should try before leaving. There’s a make-shift food court selling eggs, rice, and beans plus other staples like fried cheese, stuffed plantains, thick tortillas, and a rainbow of fresh-pressed juices. You can easily fill up for breakfast, lunch, or dinner on just a couple of dollars here.
You can also hit up the main market. Right in the center (next to the cathedral), you'll find a small market for souvenir shopping and delicious food. Try the pupusas!
Smoothies + Juices
You will find fresh juices and smoothies all over Nicaragua, so finding a good smoothie joint in Leon won't be hard. However, we're big fans of this cute smoothie bar where you can get fruits like bananas, mangoes and strawberries blended with yogurt for less than $1.50.
Places To Stay
ILP groups have loved hanging out in the La Tortuga Booluda hostel. It's a clean spot that's close to the downtown, meaning you can walk to all the must-hit spots, like the cathedral. We also love that this hostel has a cool hang out spot, and free breakfast, plus offers a volcano boarding tour for about $30 (instead of $50, like other vendors). Book your room on Hostelworld.
Another recommended one from several past volunteer groups is Poco a Poco Hostel — it has a great central location, with a few perks like hammocks, a rooftop to hang out on, and breakfast available for purchase. Just know that it doesn't have A/C if that's important to you. Book your room on Hostelworld.
Outside Of Leon (For Your Beach Days)
So maybe this counts more as a day trip or add-on to Leon, but there is the coolest hostel found on a strip of beach outside of Leon. You absolutely have to come check this out, it's basically paradise. This place has yoga classes on the beach, its own turtle sanctuary, surfboard rentals, horseback riding, and more. Come check out Surfing Turtle Lodge and think about adding a few more days to Leon adventure to experience this spot.
Another one to check out is Somar Surf Camp and Beach — it's another favorite from past volunteer groups.
Getting To Leon
From this city, it’s just a couple of bus rides away to get to Leon (most come to visit on the weekend). First, catch a bus to Managua. It should cost about 30 Cordobas and take around an hour.
In Managua, you’ll get dropped off at the UCA (Universidad Centroamericana station) where you can get a bus to Leon. They typically leave when full (about every 20 minutes or so). Just head to the buses where you hear people shouting “Leon! Leon! Leon!”. If you can, book a ticket on an “expresso” bus that will take fewer stops and get you there faster. On that bus, it should take about 2.5 hours and cost about 50 Cordobas.
Get more bus information on our post: traveling by bus in Nicaragua.
We think Nicaragua's the country for you
Live in the colorful city of Granada, teach English part-time during the week, and have weekends off to see places like Leon (plus vacation time to see even more).