León is Nicaragua’s second largest city, situated in the country’s northwest. Even though it no longer serves as the country’s capital as it did for over 300 years, León remains Nicaragua’s intellectual and industrial center. León has played a crucial role in the country’s history. The city has been home to many important figures of Nicaragua’s past, from great poets like the famous Rubén Darío to the founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, Carlos Fonseca, and other prominent Sandinistas like Tomas Borges and Silvio Rodriguez. Most tourists of León come to see the city’s colonial architecture, which feature grand 18th and 19th century cathedrals, fortresses, and monuments.
León was founded by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba in 1524 with its original location on the northwest shores of Lake Managua. A 1609 eruption of the Momotombo volcano destroyed the city. Instead of rebuilding on the original site, the survivors decided to rebuild León at a new location about 15 miles out west and next to a Native American town called Subtiava, which incidentally is still around in its traditional village state today.
León served as Nicaragua’s colonial capital for more than 300 years. In 1821, after Nicaragua gained independence from Spain, a conflict erupted between the liberals of León and the conservatives of Granada. From 1824 to 1842, some 17 battles were fought between the two competing factions, both sides feuding over the location of the capital of their new nation. León officially lost its status as capital in 1858 when a compromise was reached, settling on Managua as Nicaragua’s permanent capital.
During the 20th century, León was at the forefront of resistance and disapproval of the Somoza dictatorship. It was in León where President Anastasio Somoza García was assassinated in 1956. Also, the founder and prominent leaders of the Sandinistas were from León. During the 1970s Sandinista revolution against Anastasio Somoza Debayle, much of the fighting between Somoza’s army and the Sandinistas took place in León. Before fleeing the country, Somoza ordered the bombing of the city.
The biggest attraction of León is probably the abandoned ruins of the original León about 15 miles east, located at the foot of the Volcán Momotombo (Momotombo Volcano). These ruins have been named León Viejo and have since been excavated and designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Momotombo Volcano, with its near-perfect cone, is an attraction in itself and many visitors enjoy touring and trekking its slope and peaks which risesome 4,000 feet. At the top, you'll enjoy a spectacular view of Lake Managua and the countryside below.
The Barrio Subtiava is another culturally and historically significant site. It is the village of the original indigenous people of Subtiava, which was around long before the Spanish arrived. The Barrio is home to the San Juan Bautista de Subtiava church, which dates back to 1700. In Subtiava, you’ll also find the ruins of the 16th century church, Vera Cruz, which was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1835.
Of cultural significance is the Sandinista Party Center, which is the site where the first of the Somozas, Anastasio Somoza García, was assassinated in 1956. A plaque hangs today on the center’s façade in honor of the assassin, Rigoberto López Pérez.
León also offers many interesting architecture, including the Catedral de la Asunción. This is the largest church in Central America. Its interiors boast high arches, heavy columns, huge walls, and religious paintings by Antonio Sarra. The church, however, is most famous for storing the tomb and grave of the much celebrated Nicaraguan poet, Rubén Darío.
The 19th century El Fortín fort is another interesting structure, once used as a prison. Because it sits on a hill, it offers a beautiful view of León and the volcanoes nearby. Also of interest are the Xalteva and La Merced churches, the San Francisco Convent, and the magnificently-carved Casa de los Leones.
There are three notable museums in León: the Museo y Archivo Rubén Darío, the El Museo de Tradiciones y Leyndas (Museum of Traditions and Legends), and the Casa Popular de Cultura. The Museo y Archivo Rubén Darío was the house where the famous Nicaraguan poet, Rubén Darío, lived when he was a boy. The museum houses Darío’s personal collections, including a plaster death mask that was made shortly after he died. Meanwhile, the Museum of Traditions and Legends is the infamous jail used from 1921 to 1979 by the Somozas to torture prisoners and includes walls with paintings retelling the torture suffered by the prisoners. Finally, the Casa Popular de Cultura is a small arts museum containing the collection of paintings by local León artists. All three museums are worth checking out; together, they help visitors gain a greater appreciation and understanding of León’s culture and history.
This is one of the nicer beaches in Nicaragua, located about 15 miles west of León. It is packed during the weekends but uncrowded during the week. You can enjoy various water sports at Poneloya as well as good seafood at the beach-side restaurants.