We’d only been in Granada, Nicaragua for a few minutes, but our senses were already on overload.
As we navigated the early afternoon streets of Central America’s oldest city, we dodged families piled onto scooters, horse-drawn carriages pulling everything from building supplies to tourists, and the odd car here and there.
After a rushed look through the vacation rental we had booked for the week, built in traditional colonial Nicaraguan style including a beautiful courtyard, pool and separate sleeping and kitchen structures, we set out on foot into the town for some lunch.
Clutching the hands of my children, I took in the smell of cooking fires, heard roosters crowing, and felt the warm, tropical sun on my skin. We were headed to the town center for lunch, but we only made it a few blocks on foot.
After rounding the corner and sizing up a packed, frenzied street market scene ahead, I demanded we pile into a taxi as quickly as possible. Our initial few moments in Granada were becoming a bit too stressful.
It was only after being seated at The Garden Café, a divine restaurant near the town center that came highly recommended, did we have a moment to reflect on our first impression of this colorful city.
We discovered the first truth about Granada Nicaragua; the heart and soul of this city hides behind brightly colored painted walls.
Unlike most cities in the world, it’s impossible to tell what’s happening here simply by walking around. The streets here are flanked by walls and doors that largely stay locked, leaving you with no idea what’s happening behind them. Here restaurants, shops and homes all seem to hide from the busy streets.
To have the best experience in Granada, Nicaragua, you need to engage with travelers, talk to locals and do a bit of research to ensure you’re seeing the best side of the city.
Over the course of the week, we did get to know Granada. We no longer feared walking through this beautiful, colorful and vibrant city. But Granada isn’t a love at first sight kind of place. This city absolutely takes a little getting to know. Take time to research what to do and where to go and you’ll have an excellent experience here as well.
Here are the best things to do in Granada Nicaragua, particularly with kids.
City Tour via Horse-Drawn Carriage
One of the first things we did in Granada Nicaragua was head to the Town Square and hop in a horse-drawn carriage. You’ll always find several of the carriages lined up on one side of the park.
We were approached by a friendly driver, and agreed to pay $25 for about an hour ride. This is a little more than what I understand the going rate to be, but we’re not good negotiators and didn’t try to haggle the price down.
Over the course of about one hour, we went down side streets as well as the perimeter of the city. Granada Nicaragua is not a large city, and after this carriage ride we all felt much more confident about navigating it on foot.
Our driver told us about the history of the buildings, including the various cathedrals, the old hospital and even pointed out what is believed to be the oldest home in Central America (now a private Spanish school.) Overall this was a perfect way to begin our time in Granada.
For a longer, more complete experience, consider booking a full-day tour of Granada.
A Boat Tour of the Granada Isletas
There are over 360 small islands in the waters of Lake Nicaragua near Granada. The Isletas of Granada are officially part of Granada town, and all islands are privately owned. Many of the islands are home to the wealthiest people in Nicaragua.
We booked a 2-hour boat ride to explore these islands. Book an affordable tour of these Isletas with Tour Radar, an aggregator of independently-operated tours from around the world. Transportation from our house to the boat launch was included, and the driver showed up right on time at 9am as planned.
The boats used for the Granada Islets Tours are covered, making this a nice way to spend the morning out of the heat and sun.
Learn about how local fishermen work in the area, and take in views of Granada and the Machambo volcano in the background. Also, all tours visit the tiny “monkey island,” home to a few monkeys who were previously kept as pets and rescued by a local veterinarian.
The water level in Lake Nicaragua is very low at the moment, as you’ll be able to see on the tour. They are dredging some of the waterways, and also discussing implementing limitations on the quantity and type of fish which can be removed from the lake to prevent long-term damage.
Exploring the lake by boat is a must while you’re in the city!
Climb the Iglesia La Merced Church Tower for Amazing Views of Granada
This only takes a few minutes and costs $1 per person, and we well worth it for the best views of Granada.
Open every day from 3pm until about 5:20pm, you simply pay someone who sites right near the main doors and walk up 81 steps to take in the best views of the city. It’s important to note that they no longer allow children up on the tower. My husband and I took turns while the kids ran around out front.
The climb is well worth it for the views. You really get a feel for how this old city was built, how the homes are constructed and can come to appreciate the layout of the city more from this vantage point.
View the Active Masaya Volcano
Viewing the active Masaya Volcano was certainly one of my family’s favorite things to do in Granada Nicaragua.
The Masaya Volcano is located about 40 minutes drive from Granada. Entrance into the protected are is only about $3 per person. If you don’t have a vehicle in Granada, or if you’d prefer a more in-depth experience, consider booking a guided tour of the Masaya Volcano. Head first to the interpretive center and museum where you sign a waiver to get into the actual park, and can walk through the 5-room museum that walks you through the geology of the volcano and the anthropologic history of the area.
From there, you can drive right up to the top of the volcano. The park ranger very sweetly requested that we back into the parking spot “because you know this is an active volcano.”
Peering down into the “mouth of hell,” as explorers from the 1700’s called the Masaya Volcano, is certainly awe-inspiring.
Don’t miss out on the hike up to the top of the neighboring dormant volcano for the best views of Masaya. This takes about 40 minutes round trip, and allows you to see into the crater of an inactive volcano, as well as the best views into the crater of the active Masaya Volcano. You’ll also have amazing views of Lake Masaya and even Lake Nicaragua on a clar day.
NOTE: As of April 2016, the Masaya Volcano is closed due to recent activity. Consider heading instead to the Mombacho Volcano for a lovely hike and opportunity to learn more about active volcanoes in this region.
Spend the day on Lake Apoyo
Lake Apoyo was one of our favorite discoveries near Granada, Nicaragua. We found a bit of conflicting information online (no beaches, not very interesting to kayak here, etc) but went anyway. We wanted to get out of the city and continue to see new sights in the area. Besides, swimming in a crater lake sounded like fun!
Getting to Lake Apoyo is easy, simply head towards Masaya on the Nic 4 and watch for signs for a left-side turn off to Laguna de Apoyo.
You’ll climb uphill for a while, reach a park gate (entrance is free), then you head down a steep hill as you descend into the crater. As you reach the bottom you’ll begin to see signs for hostels and lodging. We spent the day at the Monkey Hut.
The Monkey Hut is a charming, clean and friendly hostel. You’ll likely find several other travelers enjoying this relaxing spot as well. For about $7 per person, you can hang out at their beach, use their kayaks, life jackets, inner tubes and eat and drink at their restaurant. You pay for your total at the end of the day.
Lake Apoyo is an excellent swimming beach. The water is clean, clear and very warm! Grab a kayak and explore the beach from this fun and unique vantage point. In addition to private homes and some other lodging, we saw local fishermen working in the middle of the lake, kids swimming and women doing their laundry.
Lake Apoyo (and the Monkey Hut!) is a great day trip from Granada, Nicaragua!