León is named after León, Spain. After independence, the elites of León and Granada struggled over which city would be the capital. León was dominated by the liberals and Granada by the conservatives. The fighting ended when Managua became the capital. After Granada, which is better preserved, León has the best colonial architecture in Nicaragua. It is a university town that stubbornly remains somewhat pro-Sandinista. During the 1979 revolution, the Sandinistas took over León in violent street by street fighting. Somoza then had the city bombed, an unforgivable move considering he was bombing his own people.
The National Guard took León back over, again in street by street fighting, but this time less intense since the Sandinistas melted away. Finally, the Sandinistas took León back over and held it until the Somoza government fell. You can still see bullet marks on some buildings. Also, there is a shell of a church on the road out of town that was destroyed during the bombing. Across the street from this church is the Museo de las Mytos y Leyendas Tradiciones (Museum of Myths and Legends), which prominently displays a statute of a Sandinista guerrilla holding a handmade bomb.
Some sarcastically call it the Museo de las Traiciones (Museum of the Treasons) as a reference to how the Sandinista rank and file has been cheated by Daniel Ortega and the rest of the Sandinista elite. León used to be the hub of cotton growing but that has declined. The economy is relatively depressed. Tourists are typically not a large, visible presence in León, though it is popular among backpackers and as of late, tour groups. (In comparison to Granada, there are fewer tourists) León still is a university town, filled with students. Backpackers, volunteers and other extranjeros usually meld with local students. León has more colonial churches and cathedrals per capita than any other place in Nicaragua. If you are still on the church tour, there are thirteen to check out in town.