Steeped in a history of turmoil, Managua is today a city in transition. With a population of more than 1.5 million, Managua remains the nation’s economic, political, academic and transportation hub. It is also the entry and starting point for visitors discovering the rest of the country. Travelers can easily take day trips to a number of nearby attractions, including Masaya Volcanic National Park, which offers a breathtaking perspective of the still-active crater; the relaxing beach resort of Montelimar; the 162-hectare private nature reserve of Montibelli; the craft markets of Masaya; and the historic city of Granada. You can see Managua’s small cadre of attractions in half a day, but if you’re here on a weekend, consider staying to sample the vibrant nightlife. Managua offers several of its own attractions, including the restored Palacio Nacional de la Cultura (National Palace of Culture) and some of the best restaurants in the country.

If Nicaragua’s capital were a vehicle, it would be a battered 1960s school bus, dented and dinged on all sides, paint chipping through multiple layers of color, four bald tires rolling slightly akilter, but sporting a brand new, $2,000 sound system blaring a merengue classic for its smiling passengers, both rich and poor. Managua rarely impresses; its labrynthine, unnamed streets are complicated to navigate, it is loud and architecturally uninspiring, and there’s no city center to speak of. Though it’s relatively safe, it doesn’t feel that way, and its understated charms don’t exactly jump out at you.

Managua is also the best place in the country to get your gear repaired, see a doctor or dentist, see a movie or show, and party like a salsa star. It also has the nation’s most varied selection of restaurants and night spots. You likely won’t plan your trip around a visit to Managua, but neither should you necessarily avoid it, as Managua does have a charm of its own that will become apparent once you’ve spent a little time here. You may even discover you like the place.