A luminous cathedral stands in front of one of the country's most vibrant squares, surrounded by pretty cobbled streets, which run down to the dark shores of Lake Cocibocha (also known as Lago de Nicaragua). Granada is a delightful surprise, in contrast to the mediocre shabbiness of Managua; history clings to every chunky terra-cotta tile covering this town's multicolored one-story cottages and town houses. Beguiling church facades and large handsome Spanish doorways make it a living museum to the opulence of the old Spanish Empire, and it's a city that should be top of your list to explore while traveling in Nicaragua.

Granada's perfectly preserved beauty is all the more surprising considering its tumultuous history of violence and plunder. Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, the city was pillaged by pirates and buccaneers, and completely razed by the despot William Walker. The American tyrant went so far as to plant a sign in its smoldering ruins declaring: "Here was Granada." The words, and the man, soon died, but the city lived on. Originally a Chorotega Indian settlement called Xalteva, the city was founded in 1524 by Francisco Fernandez de Córdoba. It is Nicaragua's oldest city and sits at the foot of the broad, tropical Volcán Mombacho. Its access to the Caribbean via the Río San Juan allowed it to become a rich city of Spanish merchants and landowners. British and French pirates raided it several times in the 17th century, most famously Henry Morgan and William Dampier. They looted and burned each time, and yet the city always managed to resurrect itself. Granada now literally blooms with colonial, neoclassical, and Italian architecture. It is, and was, the conservative bastion of Nicaragua and was capital of the country several times as it pursued a sometimes vicious tug-of-war for control with the more liberal Léon in the north.

Today, Granada is a prosperous, conservative city, benefiting greatly from a surge in tourism and property development. Tourists have replaced pirates, and the only rumpus these days is caused by the squawking flock of jackdaws that swarm through the trees in its central plaza. More and more foreigners are deciding to stay, and there is a legitimate fear that the city will be swamped by well-meaning expats who will nevertheless alter its character and push the locals out. Yet, I suspect this beautiful city will never lose its proud Nicaraguan roots and will handle its surge in popularity with the same resilience with which it met previous invaders. It has some of the country's best hotels and restaurants and is an ideal base from which to explore the rest of the country. Nearby is the finger of islands called Las Isletas, the handicrafts center Masaya, and the towns of Pueblos Blancos, as well as outdoorsy excursions to Volcán Mombacho and Laguna de Apoyo.