León was first founded in 1524 by the Spanish “conqueror” Francisco Hernández de Córdoba.
Known as León Viejo and Unesco World Heritage Site, it was abandoned in 1610 when a volcanic eruption in nearby Momotombo was about to destroy it. The inhabitants moved the city to their present location. When pirates attacked and burned León in 1685, the Leonesians succeeded in capturing one of the pirates, William Dampier.
When it turned out that he was also a master builder in his civilian profession, he was commissioned to design a new cathedral. Although this was already the fourth variation of the church construction, León’s bishop Benito de Baltodano was so dissatisfied with the result that in 1747 he gave the fifth and last order for the construction of the cathedral. When the construction was finally completed in 1860, León had the largest cathedral in Central America. To finance the construction, wealthy citizens were able to secure a grave in one of the seven vaults under the cathedral during their lifetime. But not only rich citizens, also Nicaragua’s national poet Rubén Darío, is buried here at the foot of the twelve apostles, under a reclining lion.
Among León’s colonial churches, which include La Merced, El Calvario, San Juan, San Francisco, Sutiaba and La Recolección, the church of San Juan Bautista is the oldest, built in 1530. In the 19th century, León was the country’s most important city after Granada. Before Managua finally became the capital in 1858, this function changed between León and Granada, depending on whether liberals or conservatives were in power.
During the Sandinista revolution, León was on the side of the FSLN and suffered attacks and destruction by Somoza troops. Its fortifications, El Fortín, where countless prisoners were tortured and murdered, can be visited a few kilometres outside León. A monument to the unknown soldier commemorates the Sandinista victims on the site of the destroyed 21st garrison. A 600-year-old tamarind tree in the Sutiaba quarter reminds of pre-colonial times. The last Sutiaba leader Adiact was hanged here by the Spaniards in 1614. A plaque commemorates the event. A small museum near the Sutiaba church is also dedicated to the indigenous Sutiaba culture. The building is easily recognisable by its murals. In addition to tools and ritual objects, paintings and illustrations provide background information on the indigenous cultures of Nicaragua. The Centro de Arte de la Fundación Ortiz Gurdián consists of two restored colonial buildings in which an art collection of historical and contemporary works is on display. The Cafetín Cultural La Esquina del Movimiento is a mixture of pub and cultural centre. The Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones is dedicated to León’s legends and stories, as the name suggests (opposite the church ruins of San Sebastian). Another interesting museum of the city is the former residence of the poet Rubén Darío.