Panama City’s old town actually has four names. Casco Viejo and Casco Antiguo both translate literally as ‘old quarter’, but then there’s the other two names on top of that. San Felipe is its official name, and Catedral is a local nickname – funnily enough, on account of all the cathedrals.
The old town in Panama City is actually not its oldest town, either: Panama Viejo, some twenty minutes away by taxi, was actually Panama’s first town. But then Henry Morgan (of Captain Morgan’s rum fame), along with his motley crew, came and stormed the place, burned things down and generally made a right nuisance of themselves. Who even knew that Captain Morgan was a real person?!
Anyways, after that Panama’s first town was rebuilt here, in Casco Viejo – the new Old Town.
Before I get carried away with Panama history like the nerd I am, let’s talk about what to do in Panama City old town. I stayed in Casco for two weeks while studying Spanish at the brilliant Casco Antiguo Spanish School, so I spent many hours wandering the old town streets.
I got lost a lot, as is my wont, but in Casco Antiguo that’s actually quite an impressive feat – it really isn’t all that big (what can I say? It’s a talent).
You can certainly see the old town highlights within 24 hours – but I have no doubt that you will end up wanting to stay longer, as I did. One week turned into two before I’d even really worked out my route to school.
Here’s what I would do with only one day in Casco Viejo.
Morning: explore Panama City Old Town streets
I got a whole lot of enjoyment in my first few days from simply walking around the streets of Casco Viejo. There are heaps of pretty buildings begging for their pictures to be taken, and it seems to me that the sun is pretty well always shining here.
One of the most interesting things about Casco is the sheer contrast you’ll get walking down a single street in the old town. You can, within fifty feet, walk past a centuries-old ruin, a cheerful pastel-coloured colonial-style building, and a façade held up by scaffolding, builders busily walking in and out of vacant doorways, drilling and carting bags full of cement about. I think it’s great.
I always say the best way to explore is just to walk around, but if you want some direction, I’ve listed some of my personal highlights below. It’s good to have a map of the old town with you, because if you wander too far away from the coast you’ll find yourself in a different neighbourhood – one that doesn’t have an entirely great reputation. That is, pretty well everyone will tell you not to walk around there, at all, ever – day or night.
Here’s my suggested list of places to hit during your morning wanderings:
Plaza de la Catedral (or Plaza de la Independencia)
Casco Viejo’s main square is as good a place as any to start your wanderings. A lot of the main museums are located around here (don’t worry, you can come back later), and there are always a few people milling around, chilling out in the shady bandstand in the centre or shooting the breeze on one of the benches dotted around the edge. There’s also sometimes a little market on here, for trinkets and also food, so if you’re lucky you can catch that while you’re there.
There are busts of important historical figures scattered around the square, and the Palacio Municipal is located on one of the streets encircling the plaza, and that’s where the independence accord was signed – fun little historical fact for you! They have also helpfully put up signs with all the historical info you could want in every significant spot in Casco, so that’s something.
Palace of the Herons
If you feel like taking a sneaky look at the place where the president lives, from the main square you can walk towards the water and find his official residence – though apparently he actually doesn’t live there, he commutes just like everyone else!
You aren’t allowed to walk along in front of the palace, you have to just observe from a distance, so you might as well pop by Plaza Simon Bolivar on your way if you feel like it – one of literally HUNDREDS (probably) of plazas dedicated to this mildly famous liberator, all over South and Central America.
There’s a statue of him there too, of course. You can compare it with the other forty six Simon Bolivar pictures you probably already have if you’ve been backpacking in South America.
Coffee stop to try some Geisha Coffee: Bajereque
Walk along the city’s outer edges from Plaza Simon Bolivar and you eventually hit Bajereque café. There are plenty of cute coffee shops around Caso Viejo, but my favourite is Bajereque because it’s very unassuming, and always quiet. Perhaps another reason that I like it is because of the name: ‘bajereque’ means a light kind of rain that they have in the mountains of Boquete, where a lot of the coffee grows.
Being an English girl, I find something very comforting in drizzle.
Anyway, geisha coffee is a real tourist draw in Panama, and here is as good a place to try it as any – especially because plenty of other places charge way more for it. Get a pour-over for the full experience.
Turn right out of Bajereque and follow the road until you see the steps leading up to the walls of the city. Here there are loads of stalls selling traditional trinkets, often run by indigenous people – worth a look if you’re after souvenirs. It’s a pretty place to stroll along, with bougainvillea trailing overhead, and a view of downtown across the water. The ‘bovedas’ are the vaults which lie beneath the walls at the end of the walk.
If you go down the steps on the other side, you arrive at Plaza Francia, which has a huge obelisk and several busts dedicated to the lives of the French workers who died in the construction of the Panama Canal – largely due to diseases like yellow fever. Interesting place to check out a bit of local history.
Walking back into the city from Plaza Francia, you’ll be wandering past all these pretty restored colonial houses and then BAM, there’s an old ruin right off the street. Honestly this is one of my fave things about the old town: something different lies round every corner.
The Arco Chato is the ruins of the old Iglesia Santa Domingo, the rest of which burn down some time in the late 1700s. They left it there as a general nod to the ability of the architects to build something quite so sturdy – though it did apparently fall down in 2003, much to everyone’s disappointment I’m sure.
Café Coca Cola
At entirely the other end of the city is a spot that I want to mention not because it’s a particularly great dining establishment; more because it’s a historic institution and I like the story.
Café Coca Cola is the only place in the world allowed to use that trademarked name, and it’s been open since basically forever. Even better, important historical figures like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro ate there – and inevitably, all this information is proudly displayed in their menu. Worth a look, at least, and maybe a quick stop for a Coke!
There are also lots of pretty churches scattered about the town, but for me I’m never that bothered about going inside them – I just like to look from the outside. Still, the best ones (IMO) are Iglesia de la Merced (the façade is nice and rustic-looking) and Iglesia de San Jose (to be fair worth going in to see the golden altar).
Lunch: Mercado de Mariscos, the fish market in Casco Viejo
Wander over to the end of the Cinta Costera and check out the fish market for a cheap and cheerful bite to eat. This is a well-known spot for lunch and it is generally pretty busy (with both vendors and tourists), but you can find a very cheap and decent cup of ceviche there, if you can stand the smell on approach.
Afternoon: museums and learning in the Old Town
You’re probably a bit hot and bothered by this point, so you’ll want a nice break and possibly some air conditioning. Well, you can find both of those in Casco Viejo’s museums, of which there are quite a few.
Panama Canal Museum
At some point in your Panama City trip you’ll likely be heading to the Panama Canal, but there is a really great Panama Canal museum in Casco Viejo if you want to brush up on your history before you go. Museo del Canal Interoceanico is said by some to actually be better than the museum located at the canal itself.
Museo de la Historia de Panama
A very sensibly-priced option for a bit of culture (it’s only $1), the Museo de la Historia de Panama is actually surprisingly informative. Most of the signs are in Spanish so you might have to brush up on your language skills before you go, but it’s a diverting place to spend an hour or so.
There are others, such as the Museo de las Esmeralda, and the museum of religious art, but honestly the above two are probably the best of the bunch.
Casco Antiguo Spanish School
It would be remiss of me to write a post about Casco Viejo without mentioning the place where I spent most of my time in the old town – Casco Antiguo Spanish School!
If you have just the one day in Casco Viejo, you can still make the most of your time by taking their backpackers crash course in Spanish. This is good if you want to go beyond understanding how to say ‘donde está el baño?’ and progress to actually understanding the instructions you are given in answer.
But if you do have a bit more time or flexibility, I’d seriously recommend the course that I did which was the small group intensive course.
Duolingo has been great for me (no seriously that’s where all my Spanish comes from) but one week of intermediate lessons and my head was so stuffed with Spanish that I literally couldn’t stop interspersing even my English conversations with un poco de Español.
Also worth a mention: they have free after school activities for students, but if you fancy something a bit different and you aren’t studying at the school you can join in too for a fee – $10 for the salsa lesson, $25 for the sunset bike ride.
Evening: best restaurants and bars in the Old Town
Panama City’s old town has some of the best places to eat in the city, and it also hosts the majority of the night life. People who live in downtown Panama City also come to drink in Casco Viejo on the weekends, and with good reason.
If you want a more comprehensive overview, check out this run-down of Casco’s best rooftop bars, and I’ll soon be sharing a piece I wrote about local favourite restaurants, but if you want my advice, here it is:
Happy Hour: Tantalo
Tantalo is a fairly popular rooftop bar, both among Panamanians and backpackers, and their happy hour is pretty darn good. Beers are $2, but more importantly mojitos are just $4 each from 5-7 every weekday.
Dinner: Lo Que Hay
Lo Que Hay is just a really fun concept, and provides the opportunity to sample local cuisine but with a twist. It’s run by successful chef Jose Carles, who also owns Donde Jose, and the idea is that they cook using whatever they have in that week – so the menu is always changing.
It’s delicious every time, and not overly expensive for restaurants in the old town, so definitely a top pick for where to go to eat.
After dinner if you fancy splurging a bit, head over to Casa Casco which is on the pricier side, but does have an excellent rooftop and a classy vibe. You might need to dress a bit nice to get in – but more so on the weekends.
Another drinks option is Gatto Blanco, which is a restaurant and bar pretty nearby to Tantalo. Again it’s got good views from up top, and when I was there they had a drinks offer on for 2 cocktails for $7 until 10pm, so that was pretty great!
Luna’s castle is a popular party hostel in Casco Viejo, so it probably deserves a mention if you just want low-key beers with some new people, and generally a fun night. Inside they also have a little street food stall with what I have been told are the city’s best spring rolls – for $1. Worth a go.
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I hope this has been helpful! If you want more info on what I got up to at Casco Antiguo Spanish School, check out this post from last week (about how I somehow inadvertently became a digital nomad in Panama City).
I took Spanish lessons at Casco Antiguo Spanish School in exchange for writing content for them; however all opinions remain my own (and seriously if I’d hated it I would not have been falling over myself to stay an extra week. Obviously).