Granada, the Nicaraguan beauty that offers a bit of everything for everyone
I fell absolutely head-over-heels in love with Granada, and ended up returning twice during my month in Nicaragua. To me, this is Nicaragua’s best city by a long run. It’s a hub of crazy adventure, beautiful architecture, backpacker vibes and deep history. The geography is really interesting as well, with its position on Lake Nicaragua and easy proximity to the Islets of Granada. This guide will go through the best hostels in Granada, where to eat, where to find nightlife on each day of the week and all the unmissable things to do in Granada, Nicaragua. This really is one of those destinations that can provide something of interest to everyone.
The city is a lot smaller than León and obviously Managua, and you won’t find big offices or skyscrapers here. Most of the tourist activity happens down La Calzada, the semi-gentrified strip of bars, restaurants and boutique shops. This comes alive from sunset, with chairs out on the pavement and art sellers lining the street.
On the whole, the people in Granada are very friendly, especially those working in the tourism industry. We had a couple of women chase us for 20 minutes through a packed market to tell my friend she’d left her debit card in an ATM on the other side of the city – they’d been in the queue behind her at the time and made it their mission to find us. One thing that did really irk me and lots of other solo female travellers though was the catcalling from boys and men. I say ‘boys’ because I was repeatedly hit on by LITERAL 11-YEAR-OLDS. It makes for some uncomfortable street walking, but generally stops once you get closer to the main tourist hub of La Calzada, and immediately stops if you’re walking alongside a man. Uggh. Somehow, it didn’t manage to spoil the magic of this beautiful destination, though.
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12 unmissable things to do in Granada, Nicaragua
You’ll never be short of things to do in Granada, Nicaragua. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at these options…
1. Kayak the Islets of Granada
Being on the edge of the ginormous Lake Nicaragua, Granada is just a stone’s throw away from Las Isletas de Granada, a smattering of islets that range from tangled mangroves to full islands with summer houses on them. They were formed by an eruption of Volcán Mombacho long ago. If you’re an adventure-seeker, kayaking around the Islets or Granada is a must-do whilst you’re in the city. It doesn’t take long to get out into the peaceful calm of this fascinating lakescape.
People who don’t fancy their chances of surviving 2 hours of kayaking can instead take a leisurely boat tour of the Islets of Granada. Bloody lovely.
2. Get lost in the Municipal Market
A few blocks south of the main plaza, Granada has one of the most immersive, downright chaotic markets I’ve been to in Central America. They sell anything and everything there (with the exception of souvenirs, which you’ll find around La Calzada), but even if you don’t have an item you need to buy it’s an experience anyway. Just keep your valuables close!
3. Amble to the lake beach
Right on the edge of Lake Nicaragua, Granada does technically have a beach, but don’t get your hopes up for sandy paradise. That being said, a stroll down to the end of town to take a look at the pier and chill in the well-kept gardens is a lovely way to spend an hour or so. Head down here during the day rather than at night as you’re less likely to be the victim of petty theft at this time.
4. Create chocolate at the ChocoMuseo
Yes, a museum for chocolate. Not only does ChocoMuseo offer free tours of their exhibitions, but also a bean to bar workshop where you can learn about the history & process and then make your own choccy for $25 USD. In development is also a Chocktail workshop – watch this space!
5. Absorb the history on a city tour
You can’t come to the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in Nicaragua and not get to grips with the history! Take a Granada city tour to learn all about the fascinating pre-Columbian, colonial and modern history of the city.
Some walking tours end in baroque-style Iglesia La Merced, which is in my view the second best view of the city at sunset (above), after my next suggestion for things to do in Granada, Nicaragua:
6. Watch a sunset from Granada’s most iconic church
One of the first things I did when I arrived in Granada was to climb the belltower of the famous cathedral on the main plaza, full name Iglesia Catedral Inmaculada Concepción de María, or to us simple folk, ‘that big, yellow church’. At sunset, it’s the most stunning view of the city you can get, in my opinion. You can go directly up to the bell itself, or take a right at the floor below and sit out on the balcony. People with a severe fear of heights may struggle with the stairs up. Entry costs 30 Córdobas, and it shuts at 5:30pm.
7. Embark on a Mombacho adventure from Granada
Mombacho is a nature reserve on a volcano of the same name, and it offers plenty of opportunities to explore the rainforest, both on foot and via its 17 ziplines. Mombacho adventure day trips are available with pick-up from Granada, which is about an hour’s drive away from the park.
8. Relax with a pool day
Granada is the same temperature all year round, and it’s hawwt. You’ll be craving the cool embrace of a swimming pool within hours of being there, and luckily, you’ve got a few options. Encuentros (also a popular place for nightlife in Granada, Nicaragua) is free to guests of De Boca en Boca hostel, and can be accessed by non-guests for a small fee. Additionally, some hostels in Granada have their own pools, such as Oasis.
9. Day trip to Laguna de Apoyo
Laguna de Apoyo is a massive lake within the crater of a dormant volcano. This calm, waveless expanse of water is an incredibly peaceful place to take a break from the bright lights of the city. Forest covers the steep banks of the lake, and the wake-up calls of howler monkeys echo across the crater at dawn.
A lot of the most easily-accessible banks of the lake are on privately owned land, but there are plenty of quiet hotels and hostels that cater to day visitors. While I chose to stay 2 nights at Paradiso Hotel on Laguna de Apoyo to get the most out of its tranquility (and go paddle-boarding at sunrise!), most hostels in Granada will offer shuttles to and from hostels such as Paradiso so that you can just spend a day there, 10am to 4pm (usually in the region of $12 including the hostel day pass). This is still a good option, especially if you don’t have much time in Granada.
If you choose not to get a shuttle, catch the chicken bus towards Masaya, telling them you want to get off at Laguna de Apoyo. They’ll drop you on the side of the main, which you then have to cross to pick up one of the taxis that wait on the junction of the Caraterra Masaya highway. They’ll deliver you to your chosen lake hostel for 100-150 Córdobas. Alternatively, a taxi from Granada to Laguna de Apoyo will cost $12-15 USD.
10. Get a panoramic view of Laguna de Apoyo
To really get to grips with how big this crater lake is, an aerial view is a must. The small town of Catarina offers an amazing viewpoint called Mirador de Catarina, which shows off both Laguna de Apoyo and Lake Nicaragua behind it. It’s a great stop-off on the way to visiting Laguna de Apoyo itself or even en route to Volcán Masaya, but if you want to make more of a day of it there are cycle/hiking routes that can be taken from the viewpoint, which you can hire guides for. Watch out for howler monkeys!
To get there, catch a chicken bus from Granada to Masaya and then ask around for the bus to Catarina. Once off the bus, head up the hill into town until you start to see small souvenir stalls to let you know you’re on the right track. The entrance fee is apparently 20 Córdobas, but we weren’t asked to pay anything.
11. Peer into Volcán Masaya
Masaya Volcano is an incredible active volcano 19 miles from Granada, Nicaragua, which is unique in that you can access it hike-free, and can look right down into the open crater to see a river of lava bubbling away down below. My friend and I went to see this independently, by taking a chicken bus to Masaya, connecting with the bus to El Raízon/Managua and then asking to get dropped off on the road outside the volcano’s entrance (the entry fee is $10 USD) and getting the $3 official shuttle up to the top of the crater from there. We got there just before sunset, and had the place all to ourselves for about 30 minutes before a big tour bus arrived.
However, no doubt the best way to see Masaya Volcano is to take one of the night tours arranged by hostels for $20 USD, or you can go private for $45. Under darkness, you’ll be able to see the lava in its full glory. If you do end up there in the daytime, however, make sure you leave time to hike up the hill to the left of the crater, from which you’ll be able to see other dormant craters in this dramatic landscape.
12. Soak yourself at Aguas Agrias
Aguas Agrias is a nature reserve filled with natural springs and lagoons, named after the bitterness of the taste of its waters. You can take an Aguas Agrias tour from Granada to go explore this area and really get stuck into the Nicaraguan countryside. You’ll get to see how the local rural community live before swimming in some of the waters.
But… please don’t take a horse-drawn carriage
While I’m all up for locals making a living from tourism, the horses lined up on the main plaza attached to large carriages are made to stand around all day waiting for heavy tourists to jump in and be dragged around. From what I’ve seen, there’s not much feeding nor watering going on during these hours, and many of the horses look bedraggled as hell. By 2020, it’s time this ish was phased out. There are plenty more things to do in Granada, Nicaragua.
Nightlife in Granada, Nicaragua
If you’re here for a party, you’re in luck! There’s plennnnty of nightlife in Granada. Nicaragua is pretty good for backpacker get-togethers in general, with lots of weekly events that have become famous across Central America. This city is a bit of a hub for them! Lots of the hostels in Granada will put on their own tournaments and bar crawls, sometimes inviting non-guests to join in, so ask around for what’s happening on any given night and you’ll easily find a few options!
Daily Islets of Granada Booze Cruise
Ok, so it’s not a raucous party, but the 4pm boat ride through the Granada Isletas is a great place to meet people to spend the rest of the night with, and it does include 5 spirit drinks in the $15USD price. It’s basically a watery pre-lash. Aside from this, the booze cruise happens at sunset, which is by far the most beautiful time of day to see the Islets of Granada. You stop off at a couple of the islands and get to see some monkeys who live on the islands before being shuttled back to your respective hostels in Granada to start the evening for real.
Beer Pong Mondays at Oasis Hostel
Every Monday, Oasis puts on a well-refereed beer pong tournament for both guests of the hostel and outside visitors. Quite a few people turn up, and the night I went it was strangely popular with Dutch people (probably 85% of the crowd hailed from the Netherlands). Thankfully for those staying at Oasis Hostel, they’ve worked some kind of structural magic so the room they use is virtually sound-proof to the rest of the building. Find yourself a partner and get a-tossin’!
Thirsty Thursdays at Sand Bar
For some inexpensive, barebones fun, Sand Bar offers a city centre event called Thirsty Thursdays. It’s a strong backpacker jaunt with cheap drinks, beer pong and – presumably for the ultra-homesick among us – Mario Kart. Wear flipflops; that’s real sand on the floor.
Friday Jungle Rave at The Treehouse
A party with hundreds of people up in a real-life treehouse 200m above the ground in the middle of nowhere; what could possibly go wrong?! Every Friday, backpackers descend on the forests outside Granada to dance at The Treehouse until the early hours. The music is usually house/techno, and you can expect to be covered in UV paint during some point in the night. But a true measure of the vibe is that it’s rumoured there’s a guy who goes round The Treehouse with a printed menu of drugs to choose from.
Guests of the Treehouse itself obviously get in for free. Non-guests can buy tickets for $15, but it’s only $7.50 USD if you’re staying at their sister hostel, The Townhouse. This ticket price includes your t-shirt and shuttle from The Townhouse to Treehouse and back. The shuttle leaves Granada at 9pm and 10pm, with the last bus returning to the city at 4am.
Saturdays at Selina
Every Saturday night, the main plaza of Parque Central de Granada is filled with the sounds of Selina‘s main event. Though primarily a boutique hostel, Selina has solidified itself as a key part of the nightlife in Granada, Nicaragua. The night tends to be a little more upmarket than the rickety likes of the Treehouse. Entry costs 100 Córdobas for non-guests.
On Sundays, the pool/bar/hotel Encuentros opens its doors to the public for a DJ-led party around the pool. Many – if not most – of the frequenters are locals, so it’s a fantastic place to mingle. They do great cocktails from 100 Córdobas and beers from 50, but also bucket deals for groups (or just for yourself; I’m not really in a position to judge). And yes, you can swim in the pool.
The best hostels in Granada, Nicaragua
De Boca en Boca
As I see it, De Boca en Boca is honestly one of the best budget hostels in Granada, Nicaragua AND Central America. Something about this place just makes you feel welcome, and there are so many comfy spaces to get chatting to people in. It’s just a short walk from the main plaza of Granada and right next to the famous Iglesia La Merced. Breakfast is free, consisting of make-it-yourself pancakes with fruit and coffee. It doesn’t have a pool, but Encuentros is its sister hotel, so you can visit their pool and chill all day for free. And if De Boca en Boca wasn’t already great enough, it’s one of the cheapest hostels in Granada, Nicaragua.
If you don’t fancy a backpacker vibe when choosing hostels in Granada, Selina is always a safe bet. As a ‘boutique accommodation network’, it provides semi-budget, beautifully designed, high quality privates and dorms for the more upmarket traveller. This is a spot for nightlife in Granada on a Saturday though, so bear that in mind for your trip.
Where to eat in Granada, Nicaragua
Mega popular with tourists for its quality menu, boutique souvenir shop and courtyard garden set-up, Garden Café is a must-try restaurant in Granada. It’s not quite at European-level pricing, but still higher than the rest of Nicaragua.
Ok, I went here like 3 times. It’s definitely aimed at Europeans and Americans (as is everything around La Calzada), with prices we’d be used to at home, but the quality is high enough to just about justify it. At the time of my final visit to Granada, I was coming to the end of my ‘12 days a vegan’ stint that I agreed to do whilst travelling alongside my permanently-vegan friend, Asha. Pita Pita just so happens to have a menu jam-packed full of Middle Eastern vegan goodies. Dear lord, get the tahini fried cauliflower.
Pan de Vida
Offering both fresh bread and fresh pizza, Pan de Vida is a really lovely place to sit down and eat with some new hostel friends. The atmosphere is super friendly, the food is delish and they have a dog called Kingston who is the biggest cuddly softie ever. Pizzas start at 160 Córdobas.
Granada transport: To, from and around the city
Connections to and from Granada are for the most part pretty easy. There are regular chicken buses to Managua, Rivas and Masaya for connections to smaller destinations in Nicaragua that aren’t direct.
There are several main bus terminals/terminating stops along the road in Granada, so it’s always best to confirm with your hostel in Granada that you’re heading to the right one for your destination. Worse comes to worst, if you turn up at the wrong terminal the people working there will be happy to give you directions to the correct one.
The taxis in Granada operate on a flat rate system, so wherever you go in the city centre is 30 Córdobas per passenger. To get outside the city without taking chicken buses, all hostels in Granada will be able to arrange shuttles and taxis for you at a set price. For example, a taxi from Granada to Managua Airport will cost $25-30 USD.
Travelling in a shared shuttle can give you the feeling of comfort from private transportation whilst splitting the cost with other tourists. Shuttle costs from Granada to other parts of Nicaragua are as follows (accurate for 2020):
You can easily book a seat on a shuttle from Granada to Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and even all the way to Guatemala or Panama (these ones are gruelling!). Here are the details of the international shuttles from Granada:
Petty theft is a thing in Granada (though there’s not said to be a huge amount of violent crime in the centre), so you’ll want to be on your guard and keep your wits about you. As with most of Central America, exercise common sense and it’s unlikely you’ll run into much trouble. You’ll need to pay special attention in tight, busy places outside the touristic centre, such as the market. I tended to keep most of my small valuables in my bra (sorry boys, not an option for you!), or adopted the South American method of sliding your phone into the waistband of your trousers/shorts – obviously this only works if your bottoms are tight!
The daytime seems fine, but judging by locals’ reactions at my group saying they would just walk the 5 blocks to our hostel after partaking in some of the nightlife in Granada, Nicaraguans local to the area are of the unwavering opinion that a taxi is definitely best to get around after dark. Always trust the gut of the locals!
My experience of the police in Granada was for the most part positive. I spent most of my visits to Granada with my new travel bud Asha, who – to put it nicely – is a self-proclaimed walking shit-storm of mishaps. On our first night in Granada, she dropped her phone through a park bench and then (after sprinting back to the park and realising it was gone) took me on a wild goose chase following Find My Phone on an ever-moving adventure around the city at night. After knocking on a few doors and politely asking for her phone back, we decided to head to the police station, which is probably the point in my life where I realised I can actually speak Spanish.
Before we knew it, we were whisked into the cab of a police pick-up truck carrying no fewer than 6 heavily armed officers, who followed our tracker to 2 more locations in Granada as the thief moved around (he’d literally walked past the police station so clearly had no intention of handing the phone in). We eventually found the phone at a small house in some semi-sketchy outskirts. The police said if they hadn’t have been there, the family who’d taken it would have likely texted us the next day and offered to return it for a ‘reward’ of a few hundred dollars.
Drama over, the policemen then began their quest to ask if we had boyfriends, try to get our numbers and blow us kisses as we got dropped off back at our hostel (we’re in Granada, after all). I’d normally be mega pissed off by this, but I was too relieved that the phone fiasco was over and too tired from running around to give a shit, by that point. Again, somehow this didn’t ruin my opinion of this stunner of a city!
How long to stay in Granada, Nicaragua? 4-5 days
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