The oldest colonial city in Nicaragua
Our next move while in Nicaragua took us to what ended up to be the most beautiful colonial city we were in this entire trip. I can also already say this because I am writing this travel guide after returning to London and after having been in Costa Rica which was the last country we visited in the journey. While Leon was fascinating, Granada took majority of protagonism. So well preserved! And so much to see and do. We did actually struggle with the time as we could have spent easily much longer.
After our experience I can definitely tell you that while a day is more than enough for visiting Granada, we came a bit too late from Managua. Aim to take a bus around 9.00am and you will be very well on track without any rush and enjoying more than we actually did. Remember that the days are too short in Central America with sunset by 18.00pm, time you should also make your way back when the last buses depart towards the capital.
Granada is the 3rd largest city in the country and has always been rival city with Leon since colonial times. The fact that is lies near, yet far enough from the active volcanoes, means earthquakes and volcanic eruptions rarely affect the city hence why it has survived to our days with the original colonial core almost intact and extremely well preserved. I question myself the odds on why it has not been included as an UNESCO World Heritage Site yet. I’m sure it will make it to the list anytime soon, specially after the many ongoing efforts and projects of restoration currently in place and the many others planned.
The best way and vantage point of view to appreciate the urbanism and beauty of the city from above is by climbing up one of the Cathedral towers. There is where you can clearly see the Spanish colonial grid urban plan, the squares and parks. Every city in the New World follows the absolute same plan and as point of reference probably you did not know, it is based upon the Spanish city of San Cristobal de la Laguna in Tenerife. This city served as model for any city created in Central and South America and all Spanish colonies.
There is a huge choice of restaurants and cafes everywhere to enjoy great food. As usual like anywhere in the world, there are many tourist traps too. A quick check around few places will be the best bet to make a good decision. I can strongly recommend the restaurant we found for lunch. Mr Tortuga, a Spanish run restaurant by a Catalan guy married to a Nicaraguan woman. Both cook great fresh food, and a nice large dish with drink and a coffee set us in 172 Cordobas per person which was really good. It is located along Calle Xalteva between Xalteva and La Merced churches.
For more information about Granada check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. The currency of Nicaragua is the Cordoba. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Granada
- Calle de la Calzada Is the main pedestrian street passing through the most important sights of the city centre. Starts in Parque Colon and passes along Parque Central, Guadalupe Church and ends up by the docks of the lake waterfront.
- Parque Central The main square in the city from where all streets follow the traditional Spanish grid; centre of politics and religion since colonial times.
-Cathedral The current building dates from 1900 although it occupies the same place where the first cathedral was built in 1583. Inside it’s not much worth as it is very plain but from the outside it really blends with the buildings nearby and especially for its lively bright yellow colours. You can climb to the one of the towers for great views of the entire Parque Central and the city for 27.50 Cordobas. This is a must do!.
- Independence Square Also known as Plazuela de los Leones and next to Parque Central (both squares are in reality one), is entirely surrounded by colonial buildings.
-Casa de los Leones Is one of the most impressive colonial buildings in the city, in beautiful yellow and white palette colours. Housed within is the so called Casa de los Tres Mundos which is an art gallery and cultural center.
-Telephone House At one of the corners right after the Casa de los Leones, with the same colonial style architecture but in red colour.
-Episcopal Palace Is the next building after the Telephone House completing the whole side of buildings with colonnade. In a lighter red tone, it makes a great picture when including the Cathedral which is the next building.
- Guadalupe Church Located along Calle de la Calzada and Calle Libertad is an old colonial church originally built in 1624 but rebuilt over times, in much need of restoration and paint yet very beautiful. You can also climb the bell tower from where you will get different perspective than from La Merced Church.
- La Merced Church Although currently under restoration process (January 2015) you can still get inside, and climb the tower for 27.50 Cordobas from where you can get the best views of the old town, the Cathedral nearby and the volcanoes and lake.
- Church and Convent of San Francisco Built by Franciscan monks in 1529 and almost completely destroyed after William Walker’s troops set the city ablaze in 1856, the current church dates from the 20th century, while the convent is a small cultural centre and museum where you can see the pre-Columbian statues with bird and animal carvings discovered on Zapatera Island, not far from Granada.
- Old Train Station Built in 1886 and beautifully restored to its former colonial glory is now a small railway museum, school and workshop. Located by Parque Sandino.
- Xalteva Church Named after the indigenous tribe who originally inhabited the area when the first Spanish colonists arrived. Very elegant baroque architecture in combination of beautiful colours. Located to the west of the city by Calle Real and surrounded by the small Xalteva Park.
- Fuerte La Polvora Built in 1748 and located to the west of the city at the end of Calle Real, next door to Xalteva Church and Park. You will get one of the best advantage view point of the city and lake from the towers.
- Cemetery It is the oldest in Central America (from the Spanish colonial era talking). It is burial place of the wealthiest families from the era, meaning the statues and small mausoleums and memorials are great pieces of architecture and sculpture. Located to the south west of the city.
- Lake Cocibolca Also known as Lake Nicaragua is the 10th largest fresh-water lake in the world. Granada is located almost at the shores.
- Boat Tour Many boats offer trips around the hundreds of small islands (Isletas) in the Lake Cocibolca. Those leave from the marina at Puerto Asese.
Being one of the key tourist spots in the country, it is very easy to reach specially if coming from the capital city Managua.
Coming from Managua is the option I can describe as being the one I did. With extremely frequent buses and microbuses departing every time they get full from the UCA (Universidad Centro Americana) which is near the Tiscapa Lagoon. Simply arrive there and get on the first bus you see heading to Leon. You won’t need to actually even look for the buses as you will hear the drivers screaming out loud the destinations. Or if your accommodation happen to be anywhere near Metrocentro shopping centre and the Carretera de Masaya, then you can stop the buses to Granada there in the main road. From our hotel, the Hilton Princess, it was just 5 meters from the door to the road! Any more convenient than that, impossible.
It costs 25 Cordobas and takes approximately 1 hour. The arrival point in Granada is either along the way and near the Cathedral and main square. From there you are already in the centre and there is no need for taking any further public transportation to visit the city since distances are small and the sights not far from each other. You could take a microbus to the port area, but still, it is a nice walk through the pedestrian street full with bars and restaurants.
When heading back to Managua, do the same journey opposite way making sure you leave Granada on a bus no later than 18.00pm or otherwise you risk being left stranded since around this time the last buses make their way.
Since we did not stay overnight in Granada as our base was in Managua, I describe here below about our accommodation in the capital. Not only it came as being the most expensive city to get a hotel in our entire Central America tour but the fact that there are not too many large properties aggravates the chances of finding a good deal. Of course there are plenty of small family run hotels, B&B and hostels, which is what we are not really looking in our holidays, unless strictly necessary.
A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
While originally we booked a small hotel because of high fares of international brands, we managed to change it at only 3 days before arriving in Managua as we found a superb deal at Hilton booked through their official website only. To save you from having to go through property after property reading comments and trying to make up your mind, definitely aim to seek for Hotel Los Pinos or Mansion Teodolinda. They both have the best reviews, competitive prices and nice properties. The later one was meant to have been our hotel before we changed it for the Hilton.
Hilton Princess Managua, in kilometer 4.5 Carretera a Masaya, to the south of the city, is only 5 minutes away on foot from Metrocentro shopping centre. It was great in all senses, since the moment we arrived and until we checked-out. Everyone was really professional in all departments. The room was nice and fresh, very clean and spacious. Good breakfast with dishes rotating daily, and a beautiful pool. Also as a great plus is the location along the road to Masaya and Granada for what you can get on a bus to both cities from the door of the hotel!. Shops, restaurants, cinema and supermarkets were all just 5 minutes away at the shopping centre.