The cultural centre of Nicaragua and home to its most famous out-of-circulation poet Rubén DarÃo. LeÃ³n is a big university town with lots of cheap comedores, great street food, and plenty of happy hours.
LeÃ³n has a scruffier feel than Granada and much of the south. Its grab bag of colonial edifices are, for the most part still waiting for their fresh coat of paint; the massive cathedral is looking rather grubby.
There are more hostels than really necessary in LeÃ³n, and most of these will want to book you onto a volcano boarding tour. This is one of the hottest, dullest activities on the Nicaraguan backpacker circuit. Think pushing a wooden board down a long gravel slope. If you really must do it, make sure your agency allows time for two runs down the slope.
There are plenty of other volcanoes around LeÃ³n, and plenty of better and more challenging ways to see them – alone or on a tour (non-profit trekking is an everyone-wins deal). The Pacific coast with its vicious tides is only 20km away.
LeÃ³n is saturated in history, both old and new. The ruins of colonial churches shelled by the National Guard stand opposite a political prison. Outside of town are the volcano-destroyed ruins of the first LeÃ³n settlement (bring your imagination), and another fortress used by the Somozas to torture and execute political prisoners.