La Catedral de León is the largest cathedral in Central America and modern León ’s focal point. One (probably apocryphal) story claims the architect accidentally switched two sets of plans while on the ship from Spain, and the larger of the two cathedrals, originally intended for Lima, Peru, was built in Nicaragua.
The cathedral was constructed in 1747 at the request of Archbishop Isidoro Bullón y Figueroa and inaugurated in 1860 as a basilica by Pope Pius XI. It’s an imposing and majestic baroque structure whose grandeur is magnified by the open space of the park in front of it. You can observe elements of late Gothic and neoclassic architecture, primarily from inside. Check out the paintings of the stations of the cross and the 12 apostles.
The Tomb of Rubén Darío is a notable element of the cathedral — look for the golden statue of a lion. The cathedral holds the mortal remains of the musician José de la Cruz Mena and several religious figures. Look for the famous Cristo de Pedrarias, a painting that once hung in the cathedral of León Viejo.
The particularly beautiful Patio de los Príncipes is a small courtyard of Andalusian design, with a fountain in the center and colorful beds of flowers. Ask in the INTUR office about rooftop tours. The conglomerate of white towers and domes that form the roof of the Catedral de León is fascinating in its own right — and the view of the city and nearby volcanoes is unsurpassed.
Iglesia de la Merced, 1.5 blocks north of the main cathedral, is the church considered most representative of León  in the 1700s. It was originally built in 1762 by the Mercedarian monks, the first order of monks to arrive in Nicaragua during the years of the conquest. It is essentially baroque in style but has neoclassical elements in the front and colonial on the south. It faces a small but lovely park popular amongst León’s skateboarders. Particularly attractive is the church’s side bell tower.
Passing the Iglesia de la Merced and walking two blocks east along 2 Calle NE, you’ll find the yellow Iglesia de la Recolección on the north side. This church has the most perfect baroque style of the León churches and a massive, functional bell tower. It was built in 1786 by Bishop Juan Félix de Villegas and is the only church in León constructed using carved stone.
From the Iglesia de la Recolección, continue one more block and turn north. Walk two blocks until you reach the picturesque Iglesia de San Juan. The old train station is a block farther north from the east side of the church. Built 1625–1650 and rebuilt in the 1700s, the Iglesia de San Juan’s architecture is a modern interpretation of neoclassical. This neighborhood of León will give you a good feel for what León was like in the 1700s: church, park, small houses of adobe using traditional taquezal construction techniques, and the nearby market.
Walking four blocks south down the same road, you’ll find the Iglesia del Calvario on your left side. It is set at the top of broad steps on a small hill overlooking one of León’s narrow streets. Renovated in the late 1990s, Calvario was built 200 years previous in a generally baroque style, but with neoclassical ornamentation in the front that reflects the increasing French influence in Spain in the 18th century. Inside are two famous statues known as El Buen y el Mal Ladrón (The Good and the Bad Thief).
La Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco, three blocks west of the park on the north side, and across the street from the Casa Museo Rubén Darío, contains two of the most beautiful altars of colonial Nicaragua. The church was built in 1639 by Fray Pedro de Zuñiga and rebuilt and modified several times afterwards, notably in the mid-1980s to restore the damage done to it during the revolution. Its small, tree-lined courtyard is a pleasant place to escape from the hot sun and relax.
Turning and walking a block south, you come to the unassuming Iglesia de San Juan de Dios, built in 1620 as a chapel for León’s first hospital (now gone). Its simplicity and colonial style reflect the wishes of Felipe II when he designed it in 1573.
Two blocks farther south and one short block to the west is the Iglesia del Laborío, a graceful, rural-feeling church in the old mixed neighborhood of El Laborío. This church, one of León ’s earliest, formed the nucleus of the working-class neighborhood that provided labor to León’s wealthy class in the 17th century. The street from Laborío east to the Ruinas de la Ermita de San Sebastián is known as Calle la Españolita and was one of the first streets built in León.
The Ruinas de la Ermita de San Sebastián consist of the shattered remnants of the outer walls, and inexplicably, the intact bell tower. The Ermita was built in 1742 on a site long used by the indigenous people for worship of their own gods. It suffered major damage in 1979 during Somoza’s bombardment of León. El Museo de Tradiciones y Leyendas  is across the street.