In many ways, Granada in western Nicaragua resembles its historic sister city, Antigua Guatemala. Both boast exquisite examples of Spanish colonial architecture and sit beside towering blue volcanoes.
But while Antigua is hands-down the more popular destination for Central America travelers, I have to admit – I prefer Granada. Reason one: Granada sits on Lake Nicaragua, one of the largest and most scenic lakes in the world. Reason two: Granada’s present lack of tourist popularity, at least when compared to Antigua. Granada (and Nicaragua itself) is still off the beaten path for the typical traveler, and as a result, the ancient city’s enthralling local culture continues to shine through.
Granada, Nicaragua has an incomparably rich and illustrious history. Established in 1524, Granada is the oldest European-founded city in Nicaragua, the second oldest in Central America, and the third oldest in the Americas.
Granada has been subject to many battles, invasions of pirates, and subjugations. The most significant was the American William Walker, who conquered Nicaragua and declared himself president in the mid-1800s. When Walker eventually fled the country, he torched the city of Granada and left the famous words, “Granada Was Here.” Many of Granada’s cathedrals and historic buildings are still fire-scorched.
What To Do
No visit to Granada is complete without a walking tour of the city’s beautiful colonial buildings. You can also take a horse-drawn carriage – though how Granada’s tiny, bony horses pull carriages full of people, I have no clue. Don’t miss relaxing in Parque Central, or Central Park. In fact, the entire Granada lifestyle is a relaxed one. Colonial buildings in Granada are nearly always built around a courtyard, and rocking chairs are ubiquitous, as is wicker furniture.
If you need a little more action, try one or all of these Granada attractions:
- Take a boat tour of Las Isletas, the Granada islands on Lake Nicaragua.
- Climb Granada’s volcanoes: Masaya, Mombacho, or the volcanoes that make up nearby Ometepe Island on Lake Nicaragua.
- Visit the marketplace in nearby Masaya.
- Go for a hike at the Domitila Wildlife Preserve, the Zapatera Hill on the island of Zapatera in Lake Nicaragua, or the farming community of Aguas Agria.
Street carts the best way to sample local cuisine, most notably chicaronnes (fried pork skin), yucca, fried plantains, and giant chicken rolled tacos (also fried). Nicer restaurants in Granada are varied, inexpensive, and delicious. Often, you’ll be invited to dine outside on the cobblestoned streets. If you do so, don’t be surprised when street children ask for the leftovers of your meal.
When To Go
As in Antigua Guatemala, Granada’s Holy Week – also known Semana Santa – is an extraordinary event. The Granada Semana Santa takes place the week of Easter and includes religious processions, live music and more. Other important festivals in Granada are the Festival of the Crosses on May 3rd; Festival of the Virgen de las Angustias on the last Sunday in September; and the Corpus Christi Fair in late Spring.
When it comes to climate, the best months to visit Granada are December through May, when rains are infrequent. However, rainy, or “green” season can be quite lovely, and Granada is less crowded.
Getting There and Around
It’s easy to get to Granada from Managua, Nicaragua’s capital city, where the international airport is located. Regular Nicaraguan buses (chickenbuses) head to Granada from the Mercado Huembes bus terminal in Managua every fifteen minutes, from 5:30 am to 9:40 pm. The trip is about fifty cents and takes and hour and twenty minutes. You can also opt for an express bus. Express buses leave every twenty minutes, arrive in forty-five minutes, and cost double – one whole dollar!
If you’re coming from another Central American country, we recommend taking either Ticabus or TransNica to Granada, Nicaragua from neighboring countries.
Tips and Practicalities
Travelers hailing from other Central American countries will find Granada’s prices low, though the city is more expensive than others in Nicaragua.
Seeking a true urban Nicaragua experience? Step into Granada’s local marketplace, a maze of booths and passageways piled with colorful goods. I found the Granada meat market fascinating… and a little eerie.
When we visited Granada in August 2007, we purchased a Beatles t-shirt from the Granada locals market. It was one of the most unique things we’d ever seen – every band member's name was spelled wrong! Our favorite was “Paul Mackarney”.