Known as the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes, Nicaragua has no shortage of natural landmarks. However, beyond its breathtaking waterways and volcanic peaks, the country is also home to centuries of history dating from colonial cities to revolutionary monuments of the 20th century.
In fact, one of the best things about visiting Nicaragua is the sheer variety of things to see. You can go from trekking the untouched river canyons of northern Nicaragua one day to exploring a colonial city dating back to the Age of Exploration the next.
From unique natural landforms to historical monuments and influential places, these are the 15 most famous landmarks in Nicaragua that absolutely need to be added to your itinerary through the Central American country.
The 15 Most Famous Landmarks in Nicaragua
1. Lake Nicaragua
The largest lake in Central America and the tenth largest lake in the world, Lake Nicaragua is one of the country’s most prominent landmarks and has played an important role in both Nicaragua’s history and geography.
Known as Cocibolca to indigenous Nicaraguan and Mar Dulce to the Spanish, Lake Nicaragua covers a sprawling 8,264 km², starting from Granada, which sits along its northern shores in the center of the country, and reaching all the way down to its southern border with Costa Rica.
Lake Nicaragua contains over 400 islands within its expansive waterways, many of which are host to a rich tropical biodiversity of dense vegetation and tropical fruit trees. Others contain historical monuments and are lightly inhabited for an isolated island feel.
In fact, many of Nicaragua’s other famous landmarks featured on this list are found within this massive lake. And while it is nearly impossible to explore everything it has to offer, at least visiting the breathtaking lake should be at the top of any itinerary to Nicaragua.
2. Leon Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011, the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary in Leon took over six decades to complete, with construction occurring between 1747 and 1814. The result is the largest and one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Central America and one of the most iconic landmarks in Nicaragua.
Designed by Guatemalan architect Diego José de Porres Esquivel, the church is famous for its eclectic design that blends Baroque and Neoclassicism styles with Gothic, Renaissance, and Muejar influences.
The church’s impressive architecture is both beautiful to behold and robust in its construction and has famously survived earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and bombings of the city during the Nicaraguan revolution.
The cathedral is located within the Parque Central de Leon and can be paired with a visit to the area’s popular attractions along with a walking tour of the city.
3. The Colonial Centre of Granada
Located along the northern shores of Lake Nicaragua at the foot of Mombacho Volcano, Granada is one of the most historical and influential cities in Nicaragua and is so full of colonial monuments and attractions that the city itself can be deemed one of the country’s most iconic landmarks.
Founded in 1524 by the Spanish Conquistador Hernandez de Cordoba, one of Nicargaua’s most influential historical figures, Granada has served as a keystone in Nicaraguan politics, trade, and history for five centuries and has evolved into one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country thanks to its central location and beautiful colonial architecture.
From its iconic waterfront along the Islets de Granada to its centuries-old buildings and colorful cathedrals, there is so much to see in Nicaragua’s colonial capital. And while you can definitely visit all the sites on your own, it is impossible to understand the region’s historical relevance without a guided tour of the city.
4. Mirador del Cristo de la Misericordia
Translating to Christ of the Mercy, Mirador del Cristo de la Misericordia is a 440-foot tall statue overlooking the bayside fishing village and surfing hot spot of San Juan del Sur along Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast.
Constructed in 2009, the statue is reminiscent of the world-famous Christ the Redeemer statue of Rio de Janeiro and is said to have been built by a wealthy local man who promised to construct the monument as a display of his faith following his successful battle with cancer.
The statue sits atop its perch within the bay’s northernmost cliffs and promises some of the most breathtaking views of the city and boat-riddled waters below. Reaching the site takes about an hour’s hike from the city center, but the statue can also be easily accessed by car in under 10 minutes.
5. Masaya Volcano
While Nicaragua is home to 19 volcanoes, Masaya Volcano is by far the most famous and is even one of the most active volcanoes in Central America.
Located about halfway between Granada and Managua, the volcano is protected by Masaya Volcano National Park, which in itself is the largest national park in Nicaragua and is home to many beautiful natural environments.
Covering 54 km² of pristine natural landscapes, the national park features two volcanoes and five craters and promises an exciting exploration along numerous hiking trails. However, the centerpiece and most prominent attraction within the park is the Masaya Volcano Caldera, in which evening visitors can observe the natural flow of lava from within its depths.
While visitors are welcome to hike their way up to the volcano’s crater, the more accessible way to marvel at this wondrous site is by booking an evening tour from just about anywhere in the country.
6. Coyotepe Fortress
Set atop a strategic hill in Masaya near the center of the country, the Coyotepe Fortress is one of the most famous historical landmarks in Nicaragua and was built in 1893 to serve as a vantage point for observing enemy armies of North America.
During the Somoza regime, which ruled the country for 43 years between 1936 and 1979, the fortress underwent a series of refurbishments, which included the addition of a dungeon in which the family housed their political prisoners.
Following the fall of the Somoza Regime, Coyote Fortress was handed over to the Boy Scouts, who maintain ownership of the site today and have opened it up to visitors.
At the height of the Somoza Regime, the fortress held over 800 prisoners at a time and had dark hallways and an eerie feel that visitors can still experience.
7. Somoto Canyon
Protecting 170 hectares of pristine landscapes along Nicaragua’s northern border with Honduras, Somoto Canyon is one of the most breathtaking natural attractions in Nicaragua. Only discovered in 2004, Somoto Canyon occupies one of the most untouched corners of Central America and is perfect for nature enthusiasts and intrepid explorers.
While there are plenty of hiking trails weaving their way through the protected areas of the Somoto Canyon National Monument, the area’s greatest appeal is the canyon itself, which features steep rock cliffs leading into Coco River, which flows its way through.
Thanks to its deep waters and high canyon walls, Somoto Canyon has become a popular spot for cliff jumping, kayaking, and tubing along the picturesque waterways. Due to the canyon’s remote location, the easiest way to access the site is along a guided tour of the region.
8. Ometepe Island
Located near the center of Lake Nicaragua, the twin volcanic peaks of Isla de Ometepe are one of the most famous landscape views in the country and promise a soothing escape to a remote island setting.
Formed from the convergence of Volcan Concepcion and Volcan Maderas, Ometepe is an hourglass-shaped island that promises plenty of island relaxation and nature hikes within its volcanic landscape.
From lounging on the beach, soaking in the Ojo de Agua natural spring, hiking to the top of one of its volcanoes, or simply scootering your way around its figure-eight road, Ometepe has become one of the most popular places to visit in Nicaragua and is definitely one of the country’s most famous landmarks.
9. Cerro Negro Volcano
While the entire country is beautiful and fascinating to visit, Cerro Negro Volcano is the reason I went to Nicaragua. Located about a 45-minute drive from Leon, Cerro Negro is one of the only places in the world where visitors can toboggan down the black sands of an active volcano.
This alone makes Cerro Negro one of the most unique landmarks in Nicaragua, if not the world.
Having first appeared in 1850, Cerro Negro is the youngest volcano in Nicaragua and consists of gravelly black sand terrains, from which it derives its name, which translates to “Black Sands.”
The volcano is relatively short and takes only about an hour and a half to reach the top, from where visitors can admire the sprawling reaches of the volcano’s dark debris, reaching out to the verdant treelines that surround it.
Whether going for the views or the adrenaline-pumping volcano boarding, the easiest way to access Cerro Negro is along one of the many tours offered in Leon and other nearby tourist spots.
10. Islets de Granada
Formed thousands of years ago from an eruption of the nearby Mombacho Volcano, the Islets de Granada is a collection of 365 small islands scattered around the Granada harbor along Lake Nicaragua’s northern shores.
One of the most iconic landmarks in Nicaragua, the islets have become one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions thanks to their easily accessed location from the region’s colonial city and the diversity of historical and natural landmarks the islands offer.
While few of the islands are inhabited or are developed luxury resorts, most of the small land masses are entirely untouched, boasting pristine natural environments, including tropical fruit trees and indigenous wildlife.
Two of the most popular islands within the archipelago are Monkey Island, home to a stranded family of spider monkeys and a solitary capuchin, and the Fort of San Pablo island, built to protect Granada from pirates in the 18th century.
Visitors can explore the Islets de Granada on their own by renting a kayak or a boat, but the easiest way to see all of the sites is along a guided boat tour of the islands.
11. Indio Maiz Biological Reserve
Covering 2639 km² in Nicaragua’s southeasternmost corner, Indio Maiz Biological Reserve is one of the largest protected forest systems in Central America and one of the most extensive natural landmarks in Nicaragua.
Protecting an area ten times the size of the country’s capital city, the biological reserve is home to over 524 species of mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, and amphibians and is one of the best spots in the country for spotting jaguars, sloths, scarlet macaws, and much more.
Along with its diversity of wildlife, the biological reserve also falls into the administrative territory of the Rama Kriol Territorial Government and is home to the traditional community of these indigenous peoples.
Whether visiting for the wildlife or immersing in the local culture, the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve is one of the most famous landmarks in Nicaragua for experiencing the more traditional side of the country untouched by colonialism and tourism development.
12. Rio San Juan
Starting within the southeast corner of Lake Nicaragua, the Rio San Juan is a 192-kilometer river that flows along Nicaragua’s southern border with Costa Rica before giving out into the Caribbean Sea.
While it isn’t the longest river in Nicaragua (Coco River holds that title), the Rio San Juan is the country’s most famous and served as an important route along Columbus’ exploration of the region, Henry Morgan’s famous sacking of Granada, and western immigration during the US gold rush.
The river eventually lost its commercial advantages following the completion of the Panama Canal in 1913, but the Rio San Juan has remained one of the most prominent waterways in southern Nicaragua and is home to a rich biodiversity that includes the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve.
It is one of the most beautiful natural landmarks in Nicaragua and is best experienced along a multi-day boat tour through its natural environments and traditional riverside villages.
13. Plaza de la Revolución
Established by national hero and anti-American general Jose Santos Zelaya in 1899, the Plaza de la Revolución in Managua is one of the most important historical landmarks in Nicaragua and serves as the historic political center of the country’s capital city, having played host to numerous protests parades, and social gatherings for more than a century.
While several of the square’s original buildings were destroyed in the 1972 earthquake, many have been rebuilt or refurbished, and the Plaza has once again grown into a social center of Managua, playing host to the Parque Central along with several monuments to national heroes.
One of the most important landmarks within Managua, the Plaza de la Revolucion is particularly active on weekends and is a must-see destination when visiting the country’s capital city.
14. Fortress of El Castillo
Also known as the Fortress of the Immaculate Conception, the construction of the Fortress of El Castillo was completed in 1672 and was established along the shores of the Rio San Juan to defend Nicaragua from the threats of foreign attacks mounted along the southern waterways, particularly against pirate raids on Granada.
The Spanish fortification withheld numerous attacks over the following decades but eventually fell to the British in 1780, who, in turn, abandoned the site the following year.
Modern visitors can still visit the fortress along the Rio San Juan, where they can explore the historical landmark, which currently houses a museum and library.
15. National Palace of Culture Nicaragua
Built in 1935, the National Palace of Culture is one of the few buildings in Managua to survive the 1972 earthquake, making it one of the oldest and most monumental landmarks in Nicaragua’s capital city.
The palace housed the National Congress of Nicaragua for over 50 years before being converted into the National Archive, National Library, and National Museum, which continues to service the public today.
Along with being a monumental picturesque building, the museum within the National Palace also contains several historic relics, including pre-Columbian paintings, statues, and ceramics, making it one of the best attractions in the city for exploring the country’s history.