There’s not too much to do in Granada, Nicaragua — but that makes it the perfect destination for a quick weekend getaway. The colorful colonial city on the shores of Lake Nicaragua is less than an hour from Managua airport. And with easy access to the Mombacho volcano, Masaya Volcano National Park and other points of interest in Nicaragua, Granada serves as the perfect home base for travelers in the country.
But if you only have a weekend, what’s there to see and do in Granada itself? As I mentioned, the city is pretty low key and happily free of “must-see” attractions. Here’s my itinerary for 48 hours in Granada, Nicaragua:
Getting to Granada
When you arrive at Managua airport, opt for a $40 private taxi to Granada vs a public bus if you can — trust me, it gets hot and you’ll appreciate that AC! Public transit in Nicaragua largely consists of refurbished US school buses and can be uncomfortable and unreliable, and you don’t want to waste a good chunk of your 48 hours in Granada on a short trip.
Where to Stay – 48 Hours in Granada
La Islita, a stylish boutique hotel ($75 per night) is located close to the city center. The property offers balcony rooms with volcano and city views, but don’t worry too much about your room choice – we stayed on the ground floor and were still able to take advantage of the rooftop terrace to take it all in.
Upon arrival in Nicaragua, you’ll realize silence is a luxury: the entire ecosystem is committed to keeping you up all night with motorbikes zipping by, the thump-thump of a neighbor’s music, and a combination of roosters, howler monkeys and exotic birds all taking part in a noise competition. After a week of traveling in the country, La Islita was the first place we were able to get a good night’s sleep thanks to a white noise machine in our room. Seriously lifesaving!
Tour Las Isletas by Boat
La Islita’s staff were incredibly helpful in helping us plan our 48 hours in Granada itinerary, sharing tips on everything from where to try the best Nicaraguan street food to arranging day trips and airport transportation. We’d spent the previous few days without much electricity and wi-fi, and had nothing planned.
Late on a Friday afternoon, they recommended the 4:00 p.m. boat tour of Las Isletas ($20 per person, including taxi from the hotel).
Las Isletas are 365 tiny islands that were formed thousands of years ago by a volcanic eruption. Today, they’re home to two contrasting groups: wealthy expats and Nicaraguans seeking refuge on private islands, and poor families who make a living fishing. Our guide didn’t speak English, but since we were the only people on the tour, was patient enough to speak slowly. The homes he pointed out included the vacation house of the family who owns Flor de Caña rum, the home of former Nicaraguan president Violetta Chamorro, and three separate islands, all owned by brothers who run a coffee empire.
He also showed us a number of cool birds including herons, egrets, and most exciting to me, Montezuma Oropendolas. In addition to their bright yellow tails, these birds also have really interesting nests that hang from trees like sacks. I’ve seen them on Planet Earth before, so it was pretty neat to see them IRL!
We also visited Monkey Island, a strange, small island where a presumably wealthy local resident has planted his three pet monkeys named Lucy, Pancho and Panchito. I’m usually very suspicious of tourism activities that exploit wild animals (like the swimming pigs in Exuma), but at this point it seems like the monkeys are pretty domesticated as they were willing to hop onto our boat and sit with us. Endless googling turned up little information about who owns these monkeys, so if anyone knows, I’m curious to learn more about how they got there and if they are cared for.
On our way back to Granada, we stopped at an unnamed bar on one of the islands where we enjoyed delicious Coco Locos on the deck.
Pro tip: bring bug spray on this tour!
Track Down Tasty Street Food
Back in Granada, we headed out in search of some delicious food. Our friends at La Islita had sung the praises of the “fritanga,” a typical dish consisting of yuca chips, sweet plantains and meat, all wrapped in a banana leaf.
And their recommendation of where to get this meal? A Chinese restaurant called Año Nuevo. Yes, we were skeptical too about how good this Nicaraguan-street-food-served-outside-a-Chinese-restaurant would be, but it was pretty tasty! Definitely not my favorite food, as I’m not a huge steak eater, but a fun (and cheap) experience of local culture.
Experience Calle La Calzada at Night
Granada is quiet during the day, but comes alive at night. After eating, we wandered down Calle La Calzada, a very busy street in Granada that is usually filled with tourists eating in sidewalk cafes. If you sit outside, be warned: you will be approached approxfimately every 30 seconds by beggars and people selling things.
Often I’m skeptical of homeless people because in California, they’re frequently angling for money to buy drugs. But in Granada, it was clear that these people were truly starving as they were willing to eat leftovers off our plates. I asked for leftovers to go and gave it away to a child who looked maybe 8 to 10 years old, and a grown man didn’t hesitate to try and fight him for it within seconds. It was pretty sad to see, and highlights the challenges Nicaragua still faces despite growing in popularity as a tourism destination. Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in Latin America – many people live on just $1 per day, and their child labor practices remain unacceptable.
As tourists, the best way we can help is by spending our money at business that are owned by and/or employ locals, and by purchasing souvenirs responsibly. As much as you want to give money to child beggars, often they’re being used as pawns by adults and giving them money only encourages the practice to continue (food, on the other hand, they’ll usually eat immediately so you know the child is benefitting and not some sketchy third party!).
That being said, drinks on Calle La Calzada are best enjoyed inside where stray dogs aren’t running underneath your feet, and our favorite local spot was El Tercer Ojo, a hip bar and restaurant serving craft cocktails (along with asian fusion cuisine, although we didn’t eat there).
Relax at Laguna de Apoyo
Day two of our 48 hours in Granada started off with an incredible breakfast at La Islita. I couldn’t believe that this carefully designed fruit plate (served with sunny side up eggs in tostada sauce) came free with our hotel room. No sad continental breakfast of stale bagels and random yogurt here!
Seeking to escape the intense heat of Granada, after breakfast we took a taxi to the Laguna Beach Club, a hostel, restaurant and bar adjacent to Laguna de Apoyo ($7 to enter). Laguna de Apoyo is an enormous crater lake formed thousands of years ago after a volcanic explosion, and doesn’t have any known outlets to other bodies of water.
Much like the rest of our time in Granada, the day was pretty laid back: we hung out in the hammock, enjoyed frozen cocktails, did a little paddleboarding and swimming, and had some snacks.
After about three hours of relaxing by the water, our driver returned to pick us up. We took the scenic route home, stopping at Mirador de Catarina, a lookout point high above the lake in a cute but very touristy town, for a photo.
Enjoy the Sunset from a Rooftop Terrace
Back in the city for the night, we set out to catch the sunset from a rooftop terrace. I’d read on TripAdvisor that tapas restaurant Bocadillos had a great view of the sunset from their rooftop. However, I had no idea that their roof terrace was not actually part of the restaurant.
When we asked the bartender if there was a rooftop, she asked in Spanish if we didn’t mind placing our order downstairs before heading up. We soon realized why: it involved twists, turns and multiple staircases to reach the roof!
We felt guilty that this poor bartender now had to lug all our drinks up to the roof. I attempted, in my limited Spanish, to explain that we were happy to bring our own drinks and food up and bus our table, but she wasn’t having it.
On the plus side, we had the rooftop terrace completely to ourselves. The food and drinks were delicious. And the view of sunset over the city and surrounding volcanos was incredible.
We left an extra big tip for our server for making such an effort — so if you steal my secret spot, please do the same!
As an alternative, you could also enjoy happy hour downstairs and then pop up to the roof right at sunset just to capture a photo.
Wander Granada’s Colorful Streets
On Sunday, after enjoying our second and final breakfast at La Islita (this time, it was french toast topped with coconut and bananas with a side of melons), we set out to explore the city streets before it was time to head to the airport and back to reality.
What makes Granada so charming as a tourist destination is its colorful buildings and colonial architecture, and I highly recommend strolling around aimlessly and seeking out the prettiest buildings. Here are a few of my favorites.
You’ll also want to climb the bell tower at Iglesia La Merced ($1) for the best views of the city and its neighboring volcano. There are several viewpoints you can climb to, but with our limited timeframe of only 48 hours in Granada (and that HEAT) we only made it to the fan favorite.
Cool Off in a Courtyard
While Granada’s colorful facades are charming, the most beautiful parts of the city are actually hidden inside courtyards filled with green gardens, fountains and unique artwork. Don’t forget to peek inside hotels and restaurants as you’re walking by!
If you’re interested in enjoying lunch in one of these beautiful courtyards, I’d recommend The Garden Cafe or Nectar (owned by the people behind Bocadillos). Both have similar offerings from healthy smoothies to tropical-flavored mojitos, salads, sandwiches, tacos, quesadillas and beyond.