Founded in 1524, Granada’s locals like to claim it is not only the oldest city in Nicaragua, but the first to be settled in all of the Americas. While that may or may not be true (León, to the north of the country, stakes the same claim), this charming colonial city does boast a fascinating history. Established by the Spanish, Granada quickly became a key trade hub which, in turn, made it a prime target for pirates. Today, remnants of this ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ remain; look for La Polvora Fortress, which once stored the city’s gunpowder and the rusty cannons on the now peaceful shores of Lake Nicaragua.
Despite its turbulent history, Granada remains a very pretty city set against a backdrop of lakes and volcanoes. The streets are a carnival of color with buildings painted varying shades of blues, yellows and reds. The town itself is compact and can easily be covered on foot. If you’re traveling with babies or toddlers a baby carrier is a better match for the city’s cobbled streets than a stroller. If you’ll be visiting Granada with kids, here the top 4 activities I’d recommend you do, along with my suggestions of 1 great place to stay and 1 great place to eat while you are there.
Activity 1: Take a Horse-Drawn Carriage Ride
One of the best ways to explore Granada with kids is by taking a tour of the city in a horse-drawn carriage. Horses and their brightly-painted carriages line up outside the Hotel Plaza Colon in Plaza Cristobal Colon (also known as Parque Central), and it’s up to you to choose your trusty steeds. Our hotel advised us to pick healthy-looking horses as this encourages their owners to look after them. Tours of the city streets usually take one hour and cost US $20. Often the drivers will share a potted history of Granada as you amble along, including tales of piracy, freebooters and filibusters! English speaking drivers are available. You can read more about our own experience riding in a horse-drawn carriage in Granada here.
Activity 2: Make Your Own Chocolate Bar
Nicaragua has been growing cacao for centuries but it’s only recently that the country has emerged as a world-class cocoa producer. Housed within the boutique hotel, Mansion de Chocolate, the Choco Museo was established to teach chocolate fans about the history and production of their favorite treat. A handful of workshops are offered including the ‘Cacao Bean to Chocolate Bar’ class that combines the history of cacao with hands-on chocolatey fun. When my kids took part in this class their guide, Ismael, had them performing a tribal dance around a fire used for roasting cacao beans and taste-testing ingredients for chocolate drinks. And, at the end, the kids got to take home their very own, homemade chocolate bar. Visit the Choco Museum’s website here and read more about our visit in this article.
Pssst! Don’t miss the map of our Granada recommendations and “pinnable” at the end of this feature.
Activity 3: Zip Along a Volcano
Rising high above Granada is Mombacho volcano, one of the country’s most iconic landmarks and the setting for some of its most enjoyable activities. The volcano is still officially active but, given that the last eruption happened in 1570 you can visit without too much concern today. There are four craters at the top, all blanketed in misty cloud forest, with a handful of hiking trails open. Note that some of the walks are very challenging and require a guide. An easier (and, in our opinion, more child-friendly!) option is to ‘zip’ across the volcano instead. The circuit covers 2km of forest and includes 17 platforms, 11 cables and 3 rope bridges. The kids loved this experience, particularly when they got to zip upside down! You can see our short video here.
Activity 4: Cruise Lake Nicaragua
When Mombacho Volcano erupted in 1570, large chunks of rock were blown into Lake Nicaragua, creating hundreds of small islands that are today known as Las Isletas. Located just 5km from the city center, the freshwater lake (the largest in Central America) and these islands are fun to explore by boat or kayak. Once upon a time the islets were the launching pad for pirates looking to attack Granada. Today, they’re home to hundreds of birds, including cormorants and herons, and the odd local fisherman. There is one island you should brace yourself for, however, and that’s La Isla de los Monos (Monkey Island) where deceptively cute spider monkeys lie waiting in tree branches to ambush tourist boats passing below! For more information about the boat rides, see this article.
1 Great Place to Stay: Hotel Plaza Colon
Overlooking the Plaza Cristobal Colon, the boutique Hotel Plaza Colon is located within the heart of Granada. Housed within a elegant colonial-style building, this 27-room hotel is hugely popular with families both for its location and its excellent service. The high-ceiling rooms are arranged around two inner courtyards overlooking a pretty garden area or a shady pool. Most families we met when we stayed here followed a similar formula; sightsee in the morning, lie by the swimming pool in the afternoon! Note that the hotel does not have a restaurant and operates on a B&B basis. There is a small café attached, however, and lots of good restaurants nearby. Website: http://hotelplazacolon.com
1 Great Place to Eat: Garden Café
One of our favorite restaurants in Granada – and one of the city’s most popular – is the Garden Café. This friendly café is located in a pillar box red corner home and is owned by an American / Nicaraguan couple. The menu is International with options including bruschetta, hummus, sandwiches, salads and more. All dishes are made-to-order and ingredients are farm-fresh. What we enjoyed almost more than the food, however, was the restaurant space itself. Tables are arranged around an inner courtyard overlooking a patch of tropical foliage and hammocks hang between the inner columns, providing a comfy reading nook for kids while waiting for their food. Website: www.gardencafegranada.com
For more inspiration and ideas, see our Nicaragua with Kids playlist: