Updated October 2017
Granada was one of our very favourite cities in Central America - in fact, we went back twice, and stayed for more than three weeks! So, if you're heading to this wonderful colonial city and looking for things to do in Granada, you've come to the right place.
As with so many 'tourist hotspots', pick-up any guidebook and you will find loooong lists exalting the joys of every conceivable attraction and activity.
So, how do you know whether that pottery museum is actually worth it or if you should head out to that lookout point instead (word to the wise, no matter what the Lonely Planet says, pottery is very rarely that exciting). If you've only got a couple of days to take in the best a city has to offer, it can be very difficult to get the right answers.
Granada, Nicaragua is no exception.
We loved our time in the city. So much so, we visited twice. But, and a big but here, a lot of what is recommended, isn't actually that exciting, interesting or worth the money.
So, we thought we would give you a run through of the usual suspects making Granada's 'must-do' lists. Are they a hit or a miss?!
#1 take in the colonial city
As suckers for colourful colonial architecture, we are a little biased here. In our couple of weeks stay in Granada, we found ourselves wandering the streets, camera in hand morning, noon and dusk.
Founded in 1524 - which makes it one of the oldest cities in the region - the majority of original buildings remain, kept alive by new generations. Colour-washed walls, horse-drawn carts carrying families, produce and a glimpse of the past and crafted wooden gates protecting grandmothers rocking in the afternoon breeze.
Take our advice - don't stick to the tourist streets, explore the neighbourhoods and marvel at what makes this place Nicaragua's favourite tourist destination.
Price | Free
Verdict | Hit
#2 visit masaya artisan market
The guidebooks have a bit of a hard-on for this place. Sold as a beautiful undercover artisan market to peruse high-quality handicrafts, we were expecting uniquely made gifts, jewellery and fabrics.
What we found were store after store of the same souvenirs. Yes, the hammocks are well made, you can pick up a beautiful blanket or bag but the goods and stalls are generic and the mass-production can't help but remove some of the shine from a new purchase. It's a very sanitised version of what a proper Central American crafts market should be, where you are not buying directly from those who make the products and a lot of the stuff looked machine made. We went hoping to buy some jewellery but there were much better options for sale back in the city.
If you have plenty of time in Granada, looking for an easy day trip or need to stock up quickly on souvenirs, by all means check out Masaya - just don't have high expectations about what the experience will be.
For a more authentic experience, be sure to check out Masaya's Mercado Municipal. Selling similar items to Granada's, this market has the added benefit of being spread out over a much larger area and gives a wonderful insight into local culture, the chance to interact with some friendly locals and somewhere to buy excellent ingredients for dinner!
Price | Entry is free. Chicken buses leave regularly from the bus terminal one block west of the Pali Supermarket and will drop you at the terminal right next to Masaya’s Mercado Municipal, costing 10 cordobas.
Verdict | Miss
#3 take a trip to laguna de apoyo
Formed in the base of a volcanic crater, Laguna Apoyo is said to be the cleanest and deepest lake in Nicaragua. Add in warm waters, truly stunning vistas and a serene environment and it quickly becomes clear why this is at the top of many people's to-do lists.
There are a number of options for lodging at the reserve and it's a great spot for a couple of nights - particularly if you want to throw in a hike around the volcano.
However, it is also possible to do this as a day-trip. Admission to one of the lake-side resorts (such as Monkey Hut or Laguna Beach Club) will cost around $6 per person and allows you full access to all the facilities including kayaks, sun-loungers and inflatables. We took this option and it was absolutely a highlight for us - a wonderful tranquil escape from the city.
Most hostels provide a tourist shuttle to and from Apoyo (often including the entry fee) but it still works out cheaper to get there by yourself. Check out our guide for the cheapest way to get there.
Price | $6 per person (+ 15% taxes), plus transport costs.
Verdict | Hit
#4 go kayaking on lake nicaragua
Granada sits on the door-step of Nicaragua's largest lake, and is home to 365 small islets all within kayaking distance.
Now, we didn't actually do this on our budget. We went down to the dock to price up a tour vs renting a kayak ourselves and were a little overwhelmed at the responses. Even after a little bartering, they wouldn't come down below $15 per person for 1.5 hours rental, which seemed a little steep considering that if you search around, you can find a tour for $25 - $30.
However, after having chatted with a few people who spent some time exploring the isletas, the overall response was very positive. Although some felt it not to be as beautiful as they were expecting, it was still a pleasant, although quite expensive, way to spend a couple of hours.
Price | $25 per person, guided 2.5 hour kayak tour. Check prices and availability here.
Verdict | Hit
#5 explore downtown granada
For street photographers, there is no better place in Granada than the busy market district which is the main artery of the city. Position yourself on the side of the road, and watch; there really is a photo on every corner. Curious? Check out our this wonderful post.
For those less inclined to hover behind a lens, you can also pick up cheap groceries, or simply take the time to appreciate the grittier, less touristy side of the city.
Price | Free
Verdict | Hit
#6 people watch in parque central, then check out a cafe
Little feels more quintessentially latino to us than watching the locals gather in central squares, and Parque Central in Granada is no different. Situated in front of the yellow cathedral, and shaded by overhanging trees, it is a perfect place to relax with a fruit juice (licuado) and do some people watching. And there are a number of great little cafes situated nearby on the side-streets to go have lunch afterwards.
Price | Free
Verdict | Hit
#7 tour the churches
One does not need to be even slightly religious to appreciate the churches of Granada - the architecture alone warrants at least a little of your time.
Starting at Iglesia Xalteva, head east along Calle Real Xalteva and you will visit four of the most famous and beautiful churches in Granada including Iglesia Merced (one of the oldest churches in Central America), the iconic Cathedral and Iglesia Guadelope.
Be sure to head up the bell tower in Iglesia Merced for spectacular view over the city.
Price | $1, entry to bell tower in Iglesia Merced (11 a.m. - 6 p.m.)
Verdict | Hit
#8 check out the street performers on la calzada
Home to all manner of pleasant (and not so pleasant) distractions and entertainment, La Calzada is a modern pedestrianised street teeming with bars and restaurants to suit all budgets. Whilst it is not quite the peaceful environment envisaged upon its creation, at night this tourist district truly comes alive. Lining the streets at the weekend you will also find artisans and vendors, and all manner of street performers - some of whom are really rather good!
Pull up a pew, buy a cold beer (or one of the many 2-4-1 cocktails the bars are peddling) and watch the show.
Not somewhere we would recommend spending all your time, but for the price of a couple of drinks, it's a great way to enjoy the sun in the afternoon or meet other travellers heading out at night.
Price | 45 cordobas for a litre of beer.
Verdict | Hit
#9 hike up volcan masaya
Volcanoes in Central America are like fat people in the US - everywhere. But it's always exciting to find an active one. And whilst there have not been lava flows for at least 200 years, every day there is constant bubbling below and thick smoke spewing from its crater.
If you head there in the day, you can enjoy one of a couple of hikes (varying from 1.5 - 5.9km) taking in the views and spend some time in the visitor's centre.
However, the more popular time to visit is at sunset when you can watch thousands of parrots returning home to nest, hang-out in the lava tubes with lots of bats circling above and seeing the molten lava. Sounds pretty impressive huh? But it really depends on how much you're paying.
To get here, day or night, you have a couple of choices - one, pay for a tour or two, do it yourself.
Tour | Tours are not terribly cheap - at least $30 per person - and once driving time's factored in the 3.5 hour schedule, can feel very rushed. For example, we spent only 2 minutes inspecting the lava due to the noxious fumes, saw not a single bird, missed most of the bats and got to the lookout once it was already dark. Of course, for many people, on a tour is the only way to reach the volcano at night, but we'd certainly recommend looking into reviews of the company first.
DIY | Where there's a will, there's a way - especially for those of us on a budget! To begin with, take a microbus from Granada heading towards Managua and ask the driver to drop you off at Volcan Masaya (costs around 20 cordobas). From here, it's a 5km walk to the main entrance, although it is relatively easy to hitch a ride. Park entry costs 100 cordoba ($4), but given that you will be attending the volcano at night, you will need to join a tour organise by the national park itself, costing $10 USD. When done, hitch a ride back to the park entrance an wait for a collectivo heading back towards Granada.
Price | $14 - $30
Tour | Day tours from Granada usually involve a trip to Mercado de Artesania and a chance to explore Catarina, in addition to the volcano tour. Well suited to someone in town for a short period of time, or those more comfortable on a tour. Find out more here.
DIY | As above, take a bus to the road entrance of Volcan Masaya, and then walk or hitch to main entrance. You'll have to pay 100 cordoba to enter, but you will not need to be on a tour in the day. Make your way back to the road once you've reached your crater-quota for the day!
Price | $4 - $35
Verdict | Undecided
If you're in Nicaragua for a short time and have never been up a volcano, it's definitely worthwhile. However, if you're heading further north to Guatemala, save your volcano money for Antigua.
#10 take a horse-drawn carriage
Head to parque central and it will be barely moments before someone tries to tempt you into their carriage. The streets are lined by horses in their Sunday best (whether the males choose to wear the pink ribbons in their manes is neither here nor there), and their owners will drive a hard bargain.
Expect to pay around $5 for a 30 minute tour and $10-$15 for an hour (up to 5 people). With regards to what to expect - the 'tour' part seems to be a little hit and miss. Some drivers will provide running commentary (only in Spanish) whilst others will simply allow you to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Whilst it is a perfectly pleasant way to enjoy the city, you can see much more by foot, and for free. The carriages are also garishly sponsored by mobile telephone firms, making them an eyesore rather than adding to the beauty of the city, as they have done for many a year.
An update for 2017: If we were writing this article now, we honestly wouldn't even be mentioning this as an option. Whilst the majority of horses we saw appeared healthy and well-looked after, our opinions on animal exploitation have altered quite considerably.
Price | $5 - $15
Verdict | Miss
#11 learn some spanish
Granada is the perfect for budget backpackers (with the cheapest accommodation options in the country), which means it's also the perfect place to take a Spanish class or two. Given the popularity of Granada on the gringo-trail there are a number of options for you to choose from - but finding the right school, and teacher is something that's worth taking the time to do (check out our guide on how to pick the right language school)
Price | Approx $130 for 20 hours 1-2-1.
Verdict | Hit
Where to stay in Granada
When it comes to Nicaragua's tourist trail, Granada falls firmly on the side of must-do - and as such, there are a huge number of hostels, guest houses and hotels to choose from - and we stayed in and checked out a few! Here are our top picks.
Hamakas Hostal | A hostel we liked so much,we stayed for 11 days. Excellent kitchen, cheap rooms, good wifi (uncommon in Granada) and lots of hammocks! A fantastic budget option. Check availability and prices on Hostelworld or Booking.com
Hostel De Boca en Boca | Great functional yet stylish dorms and private rooms, tropical vibes in the common areas, excellent breakfast and strong reviews make De Boca en Boca a popular choice. Also has guest kitchen. Check availability and prices on Hostelworld or Booking.com
Il Padrino | This lovely family run hostel is for those that would like a relaxed time in a wonderful setting. Gorgeous gardens, great communal space (with guest kitchen), large bedrooms, lots of lovely wooden furniture and incredibly helpful staff. Check availability and prices on Hostelworld or Booking.com
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