Casco Viejo is a charming neighborhood along the southwestern edge of Panama City. It was the second site of Panama City (the first being Panamá Viejo), was the city center until the early 20th century, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Casco Viejo has undergone restoration projects since the 1990s and they’re beginning to pay off. These days the neighborhood has a romantic, almost artsy feel that makes it a pleasant place to stroll and explore.
Casco Viejo’s architectural style blends French, Spanish, and neoclassical influences in the tall houses that line its cobblestone streets. Interspersed among the houses are old churches and museums. New businesses – including fancy restaurants, hip bars and boutique hotels – are beginning to pop up between the historic buildings. These have turned it into one of Panama City’s most chic destinations. Casco Viejo a great place to stroll, admire history and take photos. When you need a break, just stop at an outdoor café for a coffee or treat.
There are several places to eat, drink and sleep in Casco Viejo. On the whole, these tend to mix boutique with bohemian. There is a decent nightlife here, especially around Plaza Bolívar. Some of the bars have live music, dancing and even karaoke. These attract all types of travelers, from backpackers to jazz aficionados to yuppies. Aside from the music and dancing, there are also several art galleries that showcase works by local artists. They’re cool, hip places to visit, especially during an art opening.
The restaurants in Casco Viejo are often open-air affairs set above the cobblestone streets. These include Italian, seafood, and Mediterranean options. The restaurants are cheerful and colorful.
The hotels in Casco Viejo are often set in old colonial houses. These are typically boutique, quasi-luxury accommodations that do a good job retaining the character of the neighborhood. You won’t find spas or huge swimming pools at these hotels, but you will have fascinating views of the neighborhood and individual, one-of-a-kind rooms.
There are several plazas in Casco Viejo worth visiting. The Plaza de La Independencia is in the center of Casco Viejo and is the place where Panama declared its independence from Colombia in 1903. The cathedral here, Catedral de Nuestra Señora de La Asunción, dates back to 1688. If you get the chance to go inside, do it. You’ll see locals praying and travelers snapping photos. The cathedral’s marble altar, stained glass windows, and quiet atmosphere make it interesting. There are even the bones of a saint, Santo Aurelio, hidden in a reliquary behind a painting at the front of the church.
Plaza Bolívar was named for Simón Bolívar, a man who helped Latin America gain independence from Spain. In 1826 Bolívar called a congress here to discuss the prospect of unifying Latin America. The congress didn’t succeed, but the talks are considered an important event in the regional history. Bolívar’s statue in the plaza commemorates his effort.
The plaza has several restaurants and cafés that are pleasant places to relax, especially at night. During the day, travelers can visit the small museum in the Salón Bolívar building or take photos of the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco de Asís, a church which dates back to the 18th century but is currently closed to the public. There is also the Palacio Bolívar, which has an attractive courtyard that travelers can visit. The building was once a convent, but now houses the Foreign Ministry.
The final plaza, the Plaza de Francia (French Plaza), is one of the best places in Casco Viejo for a stroll. It has a nice walkway bordering the ocean and great views of downtown Panama City. There are usually artisans selling jewelry and shaved-ice vendors hawking snow cones. The plaza also has a fair share of history and housed a fort until the early 20th century. Nowadays, it is home to the French Embassy, the Instituto Nacional de Cultura (INAC), an art gallery, and the Teatro Anita Villalaz.
There are several museums in Casco Viejo that are worth visiting. The Museo de la Historia de Panamá contains a variety of historical artifacts, many of them relating to Panama’s struggle for independence. The Museo de Canal Interoceánico is a small museum on the history of the Panama Canal. It’s in a building that dates back to 1874 and was once the headquarters for the French during their effort to build the canal. Everything in the museum is in Spanish, but there is an audio guide available in English. The displays relate the history of both the French and American efforts to build the canal.
The National Theater also resides in Casco Viejo. Built in 1908, the theater initially catered to Panama’s upper class with performances and musical productions. Today, it still holds classical concerts and other events. It’s worth visiting if you’re in the neighborhood, but it’s only open to the public during weekdays. If you do get inside, check out the ceiling—it’s covered with frescoes that were painted by Roberto Lewis, a famous Panamanian artist.
Panama’s presidential palace, El Palacio de Las Garzas (Place of the Herons), overlooks Panama Bay in Casco Viejo. It’s both the president’s residence and office. The palace is not open to the public, but you can walk by the front (after passing by the guards) to see the exterior of the palace.
Although Casco Viejo has undergone ambitious renovations over the last two decades, it still sees small pockets of crime. This may be due to the influx of tourists and wealthier residents in the area. Most travelers won’t have any problems and there are tourist police (policía de turismo) patrolling the neighborhood to keep you safe—feel free to ask them for assistance or directions. If you’re out in Casco Viejo at night, be cautious and stay in populated, well-lit places.