With block after block of colorful Spanish colonial architecture in Granada’s historic center, the streetscape is reason enough to love the slender streets of one of Nicaragua’s most engaging cities. But there’s so much that’s wonderful about this city – delicious food, friendly natives, and the biodiversity surrounding it.
Set in a country with an unsettled past, Granada shows few clues of its complicated history, at least to the casual tourist’s eye. Post the revolutionary war of the 1970s and the civil war of the 1980s, Nicaragua’s sixth largest city has put its troubles behind it while somehow, despite tourism, emerged with its soul intact. Soldiers no longer patrol the streets – you’ll feel safe during daylight hours and like most cities, in the populated areas at night. But taking licensed taxis is recommended after dark, particularly away from the town center.
Though Granada is one of the country’s most popular destinations, life here travels at an unhurried pace (see: the continued use of horse-drawn carriages). Like a microcosm of Nicaragua, this is a city of coffee, cigars and chocolate; lakes, islands and the country’s most famous volcano; some of the world’s best rum; and lovely, welcoming locals.
Proud of their heritage, the natives are why Granada is an attractive destination for just about anyone. In truth, the friendliness in this town is palpable. The low crime rate also helps draw visitors – Nicaragua has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the Americas. This fact may come as a surprise to some whose minds still dwell in those war-torn years, but Nicaragua has evolved in many ways since then.
As few people speak English, you will feel utterly immersed in Nicaraguan culture from the moment you arrive – all the more reason to put this city on your radar. And ‘Nicas,’ as the natives are called, are impressed by the slightest attempt to communicate in Spanish, so don’t let your limited knowledge of the language hold you back from visiting or talking with locals.
By day, Granada’s vibe leans laid-back, but by night, the mood shifts. Anticipate a rowdy and fun nightlife scene – karaoke is wildly popular here – so gear up to sing your heart out. Sunday evenings, in particular, are an all-out reason to celebrate. In a Nica’s eyes, it’s finally the end of the week, so bring on the food, family, booze and revelry.
Trendy cafes-cum-art galleries are commonplace, and patrons come here to kick back with a hot cup of java, ice-cold Toña beer or a heaped plate of gallo pinto (rice and beans) while surrounded by eye-catching works created by Nicaraguan artists.
Browse crafts, eat vigaron (yucca, cabbage salad, and pork rind) and hang with locals in “Parque Central” or Central Park – the city square and hub that leads to the canary yellow, frequently photographed Granada Cathedral, and connects to the lively Calle La Calzada (the main drag with shops and restaurants). Once here, you’ll gather the lie of the land, and understand how easy it is to navigate Granada (practically all roads lead to Central Park). The wholly walkable center gives travelers the ability to scratch most major sights off their list in a few days.
One that should be near the top of your list, and situated a few minutes from Central Park, is the San Francisco Cathedral and Convent. The once baby blue facade is now painted a neutral cream color alongside white and rusty-hued accents. Originally constructed in 1525, the building was burned by pirates in 1665 and 1685, and yet again in 1856 by William Walker and his mercenaries. The structure was restored to its original glory in 1939. This church is an essential part of the city’s history and where 75,000 of its citizens are buried in catacombs. In the adjacent convent-turned-museum, discover a library with a vast collection of books, paintings and photos, not to mention statues that hail from as early as 800 to 1200 AD.
Perhaps the most beguiling church in Granada is La Merced, which stands at the corner of Calle Real and Avenida 14 de Septiembre. Originally dating back to the 1530s, the cathedral’s current facade (from the 1780s) brims with aged character– it probably could stand some refurbishing – but there’s something otherworldly about its tired appearance. Pay $1 and climb the stairs inside – yes, it’s safe – to the tower where you’ll encounter panoramic city views as well as a striking glimpse of Mombacho Volcano, Lake Nicaragua, and Zapatera Island.
One of the city’s quieter treasures, the Granada Cemetery, lies on the edge of town, about a 30-minute walk from the historic center. This graveyard is the resting place of six Nicaraguan presidents and a trove of ornate mausoleums and marble tombs, begging to be photographed. Get lost in what’s said to be the oldest cemetery in Central America, also a serene spot to collect your thoughts and gaze at Mombacho Volcano backed by milky cloud forest.
Easily accessed on foot from the city center, Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America and one of the country’s jewels. Peppered around the lake are Las Isletas – 365 petite islands that were created around 20,000 years ago when Mombacho Volcano erupted, expelling ash, boulders and molten lava into the lake. Some of the islands are uninhabited; some home to local fisherman or wealthy Nicaraguans; while others are the sites of cafes and ecolodges. Monkey Island belongs, you guessed it, to the monkeys. One with historical chops is the El Castillo island that holds the 18th century San Pablo Fort, built to protect Granada from pirates and invaders. Take a break from the city and tour this breathtaking archipelago by boat or kayak, discovering its myriad fauna as you float along.
In an ideal and almost secret locale, Hotel Casa del Consulado (105 Calle El Consulado) puts you a two-minute stroll to Central Park, yet it’s off the beaten path away from busier streets and tourist hangouts. Like most hotels in Granada, the spacious central courtyard with its fountain, pool and seating areas is the gathering place for a cocktail, meal, or swim. Hotel Casa del Consulado features Té Conte, a small café serving light bites as well as heaping plates of local fare, beer, wine, coffee, and cocktails.
Also, close to attractions and offering air conditioning and large rooms, Hotel Colonial (Calle La Libertad) is a solid option. This 36-room property was built in 2000 to evoke the charm of Granada’s colonial architecture. With two pools, there’s plenty of space to lounge after a tiring day sightseeing. Breakfast is available at Hotel Colonial, but you won’t have lunch or dinner options on site. You will be steps away, though, from a host of the city’s top dining spots.
For budget accommodations, Hostal el Momento (Casa 104 Calle el Arsenal) comes highly rated and offers tons of amenities for the price. Choose from private rooms with en suite baths or dorm-like quarters with shared baths. Free Wi-Fi, 24-hour security and reception, hair dryers, a kitchen, café, fans, and optional air conditioning (for a fee) are just some of this hostel’s services. Unlike many hostels, Hostal el Momento clearly states that it’s not for partiers, so don’t be surprised if you come across more mature travelers staying here.
To immerse yourself in nature yet remain close to Granada city, consider staying at El Respiro Ecolodge (Carretera Granada-Nandaime Km55). Wake up to a family of chatty howler monkeys but little sound of anything else as you savor jungle and volcano views. This bed and breakfast operates entirely on solar energy yet comes with all the modern conveniences. Look forward to a pool on the property, optional three gourmet meals per day, as well as itinerary planning by hosts Emi and Romain. Transportation to and from the ecolodge is available via private taxi. Transit time from Granada to the property is about 15 or 20 minutes.
Restaurants, Bars and Cafés
Carnivores congregate at El Zaguan (Costado Este Iglesia Catedral), a Nicaraguan steakhouse that attracts both tourists and locals. Menu highlights such as the bacon-wrapped filet mignon, pepper steak, and steak and lobster combo keep guests happy and their stomachs full. El Zaguan also does chicken and seafood well, but the caramelized maduros (sweet plantains) are a must-try side dish no matter the main course. Though basic, the wine list is one of the better bets in town, featuring mostly Argentinian and Chilean bottles.
For a smoke and a drink, enter Ciudad Lounge (Calle de Libertad). Here, choose from a wide selection of handmade Nicaraguan cigars as well as wine, rum, coffee and liquor tastings. Also said to offer one of the best steaks in town, this bar-cum-restaurant aims to show off the “new Granada,” – a city that’s prosperous yet honors the people. Ciudad Lounge offers cooking classes with chef-owner William Lopen Guevara as well as a seven-day Nicaragua Cigars and Cultural tour that includes perusing major sites in the city, cigar factory tours, and a day trip to San Juan Del Sur and Laguna de Apoyo.
Who knew that authentic pizza could be had in Granada? Piping hot pies emerge from Pizzeria la Terraza (Calle La Calzada), a tiny kitchen helmed by Italians and Nicas. Thin crispy crust, the right ratio of tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella paired with a pinot grigio or Sangiovese transport pie lovers to a pizzeria Italia. Savor your pizza on the sidewalk of Calle La Calzada or in the charming courtyard garden.
Boccadillos Tapas Kitchen & Bar (207 Calle Corrales) is the kind of spot that you have to know about; otherwise, you may miss it. Removed from the bustle of Central Park and Calle La Calzada, Boccadillos focuses on seasonal ingredients grown by local farmers. Owned by a Nicaraguan-American family whose passion is to entertain, the cafe and wine bar puts out a bevy of small plates, ideal for sharing with friends. Select from avocado cucumber salad, pulled pork sliders, and bolitas de papas (pepper jack-stuffed, deep-fried potato rounds), to name a few. Swill a few glasses of vino alongside your tapas, and don’t miss the daily happy hour with two-for-one drink specials from 3 to 6 p.m.
On the calmer section of the raucous main strip, the charming Café de los Sueños (Calle La Calzada) has an art-centric interior combined with a laid-back atmosphere. Healthful plates of delicious food make up for the slow service (don’t go when you’re in a hurry). Anticipate salads, paninis, crepes, and both vegetarian and vegan options, plus coffee, cocktails and desserts. Be sure to browse the lineup of local artwork before or after your meal.
Standing proudly on the eastern end of the main drag, Soy Nica (Calle La Calzada) is a one-of-a-kind shop purveying Scandinavian-designed leather goods, handcrafted by Nicaraguan craftsmen. Enter this mini leather emporium and watch handbags, backpacks, wallets, and other hide accessories made while you browse. The quality of Soy Nica’s boldly colored collection is outstanding and reasonably priced, so much that you’ll find it tough to leave this gem of a shop empty-handed.
Attached to the Garden Cafe, Thousand Cranes (Calle Libertad) features pieces by local artisans, designers and artists. This store aims to bring awareness to the pool of creatives in Granada while selling some of the best souvenirs you’ll find anywhere in the area. Choose from clothing, blankets, jewelry, and all sorts of crafts, each 100 percent Nicaraguan. Be sure to check out the café next door, which prepares some of the tastiest dishes in town. Select from green curry with chicken or fish, repochetas (typical Nicaraguan street food), and grilled steak chimichurri, as well as sandwiches and salads. Coffee at Garden Cafe is excellent as well, with all beans sourced from family growers in Nicaragua.
To learn more about the country, head to Lucha Libro Books (Calle Cervantes), where shelves are lined with books in both English and Spanish. Find Nica guides, history books, antique maps, as well as the most comprehensive collection of Nicaraguan nonfiction in the world. You’ll encounter titles from well-known Latin American authors, grammar books, classics, children’s books, paperbacks and more. Beyond books, Lucha Libro sells postcards, Nicaragua t-shirts, and other souvenirs.
Indulge your sweet tooth with a treat at the husband-and-wife owned Panaderia Artesanal (Calle La Calzada), deemed one of the best bakeries in Granada. Leave your guilt at the hotel when you indulge in cakes, fruit tarts, chocolate croissants, and for the carb-serious, crusty French baguettes. Grab a cup of Joe to pair with your bread or pastry as you meander toward Lake Nicaragua, less than a 10-minute walk east on Calle La Calzada.