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After falling pretty wildly, head-over-heels in love with both Granada and San Juan del Sur, I arrived in León with open arms, ready to be won over by the city’s gritty charm.

Leon, Nicaragua

It didn’t happen. It’s not that I didn’t like León — I just didn’t love it. It might have been that I had just a few days left in my month in Nicaragua, and so I didn’t give myself enough time to suss out its hidden gems. It might have been that I was stressed about work and rushing to get everything complete before going offline for ten days in El Salvador. It might have been the night that I was walking home alone and a man followed me on a bicycle and grabbed me, not once but twice, after circling the block to come back a second time, terrifying me and causing me to lose my beloved  in the ensuing scuffle.

Or it might have just not been my favorite place ever. All are distinct possibilities. However, I can’t deny it was pretty.

Leon, Nicaragua

Leon, Nicaragua

Churches in Leon, Nicaragua

Leon, Nicaragua

Churches in Leon, Nicaragua

Churches in Leon, Nicaragua

Detractors of Granada tend to tout León as the more “real” city, and it certainly does have a heavy dose of urban grit.

Leon, Nicaragua

Fast Food in Leon, Nicaragua

Street Food in Leon, Nicaragua

Leon, Nicaragua

But it also had the most refined dose of culture I found in all of Nicaragua, in the form of the . Hailed by Lonely Planet as the “finest contemporary art museum in all of Central America,” I wondered if anywhere could live up to such hype.

Leon, Nicaragua

It could. After paying my whopping $1 admission fee, I realized that I was stumbling into a tastefully curated Picasso exhibit. Picasso! In an empty Nicaraguan museum where a docent follows you around flipping the lights on and off as you enter and exit, I had a Picasso exhibit all to myself.

Centro de Arte Fundación Ortíz Gurdián, Leon, Nicaragua

Centro de Arte Fundación Ortíz Gurdián, Leon, Nicaragua

Art museums always make me nostalgic for my days, which is kind of ironic because there are times when I would have personally set fire to the Mona Lisa if it meant I never had to look at another Renaissance painting on a flash card ever again. Yet years later, in León, wandering this museum was the most memorable part of my stay.

Centro de Arte Fundación Ortíz Gurdián, Leon, Nicaragua

Centro de Arte Fundación Ortíz Gurdián, Leon, Nicaragua

On my final afternoon in León, I made my way to the city’s most famous attraction, the Basílica de la Asunción. Like so many other churches in León, it has a beautiful facade and an impressive interior. But the real highlight of this cathedral is, literally, up high.

Leon Cathedral

Leon Cathedral

Leon Cathedral

Stepping onto the roof of the cathedral, I was suddenly transported to Santorini. Though the sun was low in the sky, I actually had to throw on my shades — it was literally blindingly white up there! I lingered for ages, snapping dozens of photos, soaking up the views, and reveling in the unique beauty of the architecture.

Leon Cathedral Roof

Leon Cathedral Roof

Leon Cathedral Roof

Leon Cathedral Roof

Leon Cathedral Roof

Leon Cathedral Roof

Leon Cathedral Roof

Leon Cathedral Roof

I spent four nights in León, and I was ready to go when that was up, mostly because I had run out of dining options that interested me and was craving the coast again. Had I not been working, I would have loved to spend my days there taking a cooking class, touring the nearby Ron de Caña factory, or heading to the nearby beach. Alas, I had time for just one activity, and I went for the classic — volcano boarding (you’ll read more about that soon!)

León may not have won me over, but I certainly don’t regret my days there — especially the side trips to Spain and Greece.

Lazy Bones Hostel Leon, Nicaragua

Lazy Bones Hostel Leon, Nicaragua

Have you been to Nicaragua?
Were you more of a Granada or a León lover?

Practical Info

Where I stayed: I stayed in a dorm at for $8 a night. I loved the pool and the many sitting areas but I didn’t like that there was no kitchen available to guests or that all common area lights were non-negotiably shut off at 10pm, leaving me to work late in the pitch black. That said, I was able to sweet talk the staff into letting me keep yogurt in the refrigerator and I managed to sneakily make oatmeal every morning using the hot water put out for tea.

Where I ate: Honestly, I wasn’t crazy about anywhere I ate in León. I trekked across town on a steaming hot day following a rumor of healthy meals on offer at , but when I arrived there was a tour bus sitting down to a meal and they refused to serve me. Not impressed.

How I got there: There are $25 shuttles available from San Juan del Sur, taking about four hours.

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41 Comments...
  • Susan
    May 1 2015

    You may not have loved León as much as other cities, but your lens sure did. Your photos are gorgeous! The colors alone make me want to visit.
    Susan recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 1 2015

      My lens did indeed love it — and I love that sentiment 🙂 Thanks Susan!

  • Caity
    May 1 2015

    Stunning pictures from the cathedral. It reminds me of the White Temple in Thailand from the pics I’ve seen! And the selfie at the end is very cute!

    • Meihoukai
      May 1 2015

      I didn’t make the comparison before but you are right! They do have a similar feel.

  • Dale
    May 1 2015

    Love the pictures. Nicaragua is on our short list of places to visit, but I think we’ll be spending more time in San Juan del Sur!
    Dale recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 1 2015

      I spent 15 days in San Juan del Sur, and three in Leon. It was the perfect breakdown 🙂

  • Ashley
    May 1 2015

    The cathedral rooftop photos are gorgeous! The photo with the couple walking up the stairs looks like it belongs in a travel brochure of some sort!
    Ashley recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 3 2015

      If someone wants to get in touch about that, I’d be more than open to the idea 🙂

  • eden
    May 1 2015

    You don’t have to fall in love with every city you visit, but your photos are gorgeous. It looks so colourful there!

    • Meihoukai
      May 3 2015

      Thanks Eden! Nicaragua was the most colorful country I’ve ever visited. I adored it overall, even if León wasn’t my absolute favorite!

  • Sarah
    May 1 2015

    maybe it wasn’t your favourite place, but these are my favourite pictures! Love them all!

    And if you’re into the whole Picasso-thing, you should try to get yourself to Malaga, Spain. That’s where he’s from, so there’s a massive museum just with his work!
    Sarah recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 3 2015

      One of these days I’m sure I will! However I think part of my delight was finding it in such an unexpected place 🙂

  • Rick
    May 1 2015

    Nice post Meihoukai – I’ll pass

    Almost any city in Mexico is much better than Leon Ni and full of wonderful friendly people too.

    • Meihoukai
      May 3 2015

      Mexico is definitely moving up on my list. Looking forward to getting there soon!

    • ROB
      December 21 2015

      That makes no sense at all what you just said. I have been to Mexico four times and to Nicaragua once and its like saying
      bread is better than cheese. Complete non sense: the only
      similarity between Nicaragua and Mexico is the language-
      everything else is night and day. So yes maybe bread is better
      than cheese , whatever that means but maybe its just nice to
      enjoy bread sometimes and sometimes its nice to have cheese.
      Namaste

  • Justine
    May 1 2015

    I never made it to León when I was in Nicaragua and I was a little bummed. While I did love Grenada, I am the type of person who prefers cities that have a little grit. And judging by your photos León looks like my kind of city! That being said, if I had had that same experience of a man following me and grabbing me, that probably would have colored my view of León in a pretty negative way. Glad you were able to stay safe. That man sucks!
    Justine recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 3 2015

      He was the worst. I also think I was frustrated by the difficulty of finding the kind of food I wanted to eat, which always has a huge impact on my enjoyment of a place!

  • Looks like you made the most out of a bit of a “meh” city… Picasso exhibit though! Who knew?!
    Michelle | Lights Camera Travel recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 3 2015

      I know! I was amazed and delighted to stumble upon it. What a treat.

  • Tereza
    May 3 2015

    Great pictures! Hope I will make it one day to Nicaragua. Btw really like your blog!

    • Meihoukai
      May 3 2015

      Thank you Tereza! Much appreciated and I hope you make it there someday soon too 🙂

  • That’s an interesting, colorful place!
    Traveling Rockhopper recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 3 2015

      It certainly was. And El Salvador continued the tradition… stay tuned 🙂

  • [email protected]
    May 3 2015

    Sorry to hear about your scuffle with the not-so-friendly-guy. That must certainly put damper on things. The high point though of your photos… I must say are the santorini moments!

    • Meihoukai
      May 4 2015

      It was such a lovely surprise to climb up to the roof and find… that! Thanks M 🙂

  • Katie
    May 3 2015

    You can’t love them all. I have heard good things about Leon but I haven’t been there myself. I’m not really a fan of grit, I much prefer cities with nature incorporated into them with lots of parks, beaches or mountains so not sure if it would be my favourite either
    Katie recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 4 2015

      There is a beach sort of nearby León, in fact it’s my big regret that I didn’t have time to visit it. Oh well, that’s what next time is for!

  • Julia Nix
    May 4 2015

    Enjoy the rest of your journey. How long more before you go back to Koh Tao? I’m excited already for you. Oh well, the spell of KT and its’ magic.

    • Meihoukai
      May 4 2015

      Not until the fall Julia 🙂 Going to enjoy summer stateside first!

  • Francsca
    May 4 2015

    I guess everyone is drawn to different places, and I agree with your affinity for ocean based locations! However the trip looks worth it just for that Cathedral roof and the photos you got – stunning.
    Francsca recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 4 2015

      Definitely worth a day or two, and it broke up my journey to El Salvador quite nicely!

  • Kathryn
    May 4 2015

    I haven’t been to Nicaragua, but this is making me want to go!

    • Meihoukai
      May 4 2015

      That’s what I love to hear! Can’t wait to return to Nica.

  • Kiara Gallop
    May 6 2015

    Stunning photographs, as always! The rooftops of the Basílica de la Asunción really remind me of the rooftops of San Felipe de Neri (a monastery turned school) in Sucre, Bolivia – so beautiful. I can’t wait to hear all about the volcano boarding! Was it as much fun as the sandboarding in Huacachina? 🙂
    Kiara Gallop recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 7 2015

      Nope 🙂 I preferred the Huacachina version for sure. And oh man, I want to go to Bolivia so badly! Someday soon…

  • Chris
    May 8 2015

    Hands down, Granada over Leon for us!

    Admittedly, I think the largest problem for us was poor hostel selection (made in haste after a hot walk from the bus station)…
    Chris recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 16 2015

      For me it was poor cafe/restaurant selection. I need me some nice lunch spots to really love a place!

  • Amy M
    May 19 2015

    It’s a shame you didn’t enjoy it as much as the others, but I think that sometimes the bad places highlight how incredible the good ones really are.
    PS) Your pictures are insanely beautiful xo
    Amy M recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 20 2015

      Very true! I loved Granada and San Juan del Sur so much, there’s no way everywhere could stack up 🙂

  • Claudia
    July 4 2015

    I am glad I read this post. I love Nicaragua, I have been there 3 times. I feel the opposite way though. I am a Leon kind of girl. I think that the reason is that I spent way more time than I did in Granada. I think you should give Leon a second chance. If you happen to go again, I would love to give you some tips and local s to make sure that this time you have a great experience!
    Claudia recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 8 2015

      I’d love that, Claudia 🙂 I definitely gave Leon the least amount of time, which surely has an impact. I’m all about second chances!