Leon, Nicaragua

Refined, intense and politically progressive, León would be mildly offended if you referred to it as ‘Nicaragua’s second city.’ Formally known as Santiago de León de los Caballeros, the country’s original capital was founded by Francisco Fernández de Córdoba on June 15, 1524 – almost two months after arch-rival Granada, which has never let León forget it, and 242 years before the (ahem) quaint little fishing village of Managua was handed the prize.

León remains what many frustrated isitors are looking for in the capital: cultural center with mind-blowing churches, thriving universities, fabulous art collections and historic sites. Its thick-walled colonial architecture has yet to receive the makeover Granada is currently enjoying (there are still bullet holes leftover from the 1970s), but this is actually the more authentically Spanish city, having been burned to the ground only a fraction of the times of its oft-sacked southern adversary.

Originally located on the slopes of Volcán Momotombo, León committed some of the Spanish conquest’s cruelest excesses; even other conquistadors suggested that León’s punishment was divine retribution. When the mighty volcano reduced León to rubble in 1610, the city was moved, saint by saint, here, next to the existing indigenous capital of Subtiava.

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