The culturally rich university city of León has the best preserved classic colonial architecture in the country.

The old city, León Viejo, was Nicaragua's first capital and was founded by the Spanish in 1524 on the site of an indigenous village in a fertile valley at the end of Lake Managua, below looming Momotombo volcano and just across the water from its sibling Momotombito.

In 1610 the entire city was evacuated to its current location further inland to the west of the old city. Six months later Momotombo erupted and León Viejo was smothered in ash.

It was not until 1967 that its ruins were found. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and excavations are under way. The foundations have been uncovered of homes, the country's first mint, a church, a convent, a brothel, and the cathedral where the conquistador Cordoba is buried.

Today's León offers its fair share of attractions, including the impressive Cathedral of León, one of Central America's grandest churches. Taking 113 years to build, the structure shows a variety of design influences with baroque, gothic and neoclassical elements.

Other sights include the Museum of Art Ortiz-Gurdian, a lovely colonial home, and the museum of Rubén Darío, one of the greatest poets in the history of the Spanish language, in the house where he lived.

The city still bears signs of the 1978-9 revolution when León saw heavy fighting.

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