Founded in 1524, Granada was one of the first cities established by the Spaniards in the American continent. This was, historically, one of the most important cities in Nicaragua and today it is considered to be its main touristic draw. Granada is located on the shores of Lake Nicaragua (also known as Lake Cocibolca), less than 50km (30mi) away from the national capital, Managua.
Home to more than 120,000 inhabitants, Granada is one the country’s largest cities. Even though it is spread throughout a large area, it still can, and should be explored on foot. Granada is a colonial city with an extraordinarily well preserved architecture, and should be enjoyed slowly; allowing time to assimilate what is going on. Although the city has a diversified network of hotels and restaurants with many local touristic operators hunting for customers, Granada, just like everywhere else in Nicaragua, lives life at its own relaxed pace.
Granada’s central square is the main meeting place in the city and an excellent place to be at sunset, when the place is absolutely taken by the chorus formed by the hundreds of birds seeking shelter on its trees. Right in front of the square, the Cathedral is a symbol of the city, initially built during the late 16th century but remodeled afterwards. The city has at least five other churches worth visiting: the Merced Church, with its baroque façade, is one of the oldest and the panoramic view from the top of its tower reach all the way from Lake Nicaragua to the Mombacho volcano, including the Cathedral; the Xalteva Church, has had its façade recently renovated; the Maria Auxiliadora Church features a marvelous interior; the Guadalupe Church, found near the lake; and, finally, the San Francisco Church, built in neoclassic style. The first three of them are found along Real Xalteva street, west from the Cathedral, while Guadalupe is in the opposite direction, following La Calzada street, a beautiful walk on its own right. The San Francisco Church is located two blocks to the north of the Cathedral, next to the monastery, which has been converted into a cultural center and hosts an interesting exposition about the history of the region.
Lake Nicaragua, the tenth largest of the world, is just over 1km (0.6mi) away from the central square. Its little beach, close to the city, if far from being considered a major highlight and one would be much better off just sticking to one of the sailings that visit a few of the lake’s islands. These circuits can last anything from two hours upwards and some include a stop in one or more islands, some of them featuring restaurants, swimming pools and a few animals, like monkeys.
The Mombacho volcano is a permanent sight in Granada’s horizon, and one of the main attractions of the region. Standing more than 1.300m (4,265ft) high, a natural reserve on its top offer three main trails that reward visitors with impressive views: the Crater trail runs for 1.5km (1mi) and allows the observation of fumaroles, besides comprising a beautiful view over Granada and the lake’s islands; the Puma trail is a 4km (2.5mi) long circuit with even more spectacular views, but requiring a guide, just like the Tigrillo trail, that leads to two viewpoints.
Much less impressive than Mombacho when seen from a distance, the Masaya volcano, located between Granada and Managua, attracts many visitors due to a very special reason: at night, given proper climate conditions are met, lava can be observed inside the crater. The truth is that, in most days, this show is infinitely less outstanding than what postcards and promotional leaflets advertise, but still, the enhanced accessibility of this place makes it an easy way to get what for many people is an unique view. These night tours organized by licensed operators only, often include entrance to local caves inhabited by bats.
Leaving Granada, it is possible to continue your trip within Nicaragua heading to León, 135km (85mi) away, a colonial city that, even not being as well preserved as Granada, also deserves a look. León is also located at a short distance from Cerro Negro, a volcano loved by sand boarders. Matagalpa, 155km (95mi) away from Granada, is at the heart of the country’s coffee growing region. San Juan del Sur, 100km (60mi) away from Granada, is a growing destination among surfers. Finally, the Ometepe Island, in Lake Nicaragua, can be reached by ferry in four hours from Granada or less than an hour from San Jorge, which is located just 70km (45mi) to the south of Granada. There are also a few very good international bus lines that can take you to San Salvador (El Salvador), 580km (360mi) away, Tegucigalpa (Honduras), 400km (250mi) away, or to Costa Rica, whose border is located just 105km (65mi) away from Granada.