Panama City’s Casco Viejo: the complete guide

Tiempo de lectura: 7 minutos
You'll see beautiful sunsets in Panama City's Casco Viejo.
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While Panama is best known for hats, coffee and its mind-boggling manmade canal, it also boasts one of the most charming old towns in Central America. Panama City’s Casco Viejo (historic district) was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, alongside Panama Viejo, the portion of the original city that is still standing today.

Panama Viejo’s story ended in tragedy in 1671. British pirate Henry Morgan marched into the city with a band of 1400 soldiers and burned it to the ground. Thousands of lives were lost. Only a few buildings remained the following morning.

And what became of Henry Morgan? Well, unsurprisingly, he was arrested. But the silver-tongued swashbuckler managed to convince the authorities of his innocence. Henry Morgan was freed. He reportedly made off with his plundered fortune and eventually received a knighthood from King Charles II! Talk about getting away with it.

Construction began on a new city a few miles west – the present-day Panama City. Its walled Casco Viejo was conceptualised as a modern, pirate-proof solution. Although it has undergone massive amounts of gentrification in the last few years, this charismatic neighbourhood retains an old-world feel. Think crumbling pastel constructions and beautifully renovated buildings.

The city’s melting pot of cultures is reflected in its architecture. French, Caribbean and Spanish influences have brought about a mix of angular art deco and elegant colonial buildings. As well as being one of Panama City’s most attractive barrios (areas), Casco Viejo offers plenty for the curious traveller to see and do.

Top things to do in Panama City’s Casco Viejo

Go for a wander in captivating Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo is famous for its picturesque cobblestone streets and sea views.

Enjoy life’s simple pleasures with a stroll around Casco Viejo’s picturesque cobblestone streets. When you get tired, stop off for a café con leche and a chinwag with the Panameños. There are plenty of little gems for you to stumble upon. Plaza de Francia is a pleasant open space. You’ll find one of Casco Viejo’s curiosities there; an 18-metre rooster-topped obelisk dedicated to the French. A little-known fact is that France started building the very first incarnation of the mighty Panama Canal back in 1881.

People watch and ponder in Plaza de la Independencia

Plaza de la Independencia is a historic square in Panama’s old town, Casco Viejo.

Another historic square in the heart of Panama’s old town is the Plaza de la Independencia. It’s a hub of activity. Street vendors hawk goods, street musicians strum and locals enjoy the bustling atmosphere. The grand Metropolitan Cathedral dominates the square. Pick yourself up a trinket, a souvenir, or even a Panama hat! Despite its name, the stylish straw headgear hails from Ecuador. The misnomer came about because they were the headgear of choice for Panama Canal. construction workers. They frequently donned the hats to protect themselves from the scorching Central American sun. And the name stuck.

Learn about Panama’s famous interoceanic waterway

The mighty Panama Canal is an incredible feat of engineering and you can learn all about it at the Panama Canal Museum.

Now, you’ll certainly want to see the jaw-dropping Panama Canal while you’re in this part of the world. Just hop on a bus and travel about an hour north. But in Casco Viejo, you can learn all about how it was built and its impact at this fascinating museum. This fifty-mile waterway connects the two largest bodies of water in the world: the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. Its construction is one of the most astonishing feats in human history. Over 25,000 lives were lost building the behemoth. Make sure you stop off at this museum to really understand how this modern wonder of the world came to be.

Marvel at the opulent gold altar at the Church of Saint Joseph

Este increíble altar está hecho de caoba y cubierto de pan de oro y pintura.

Next stop is one of Panama City’s ancient wonders, the 1675 Church of Saint Joseph (Iglesia de San José). It contains one of Panama’s greatest treasures. You simply have to see the superb gold leaf and mahogany altar. This was one of the very few items salvaged from Panama Viejo after the 1671 pirate siege. Legend has it that a priest painted the altar black in an attempt to hide its true value from Morgan and his band of plundering pirates. It was restored to its golden glory and remains in this church to this day!

The best restaurants and cafes in Casco Viejo

Ceviche restaurants – will you select shrimp, octopus or seabass?

Shrimp ceviche is very popular in Panama City.

You’ve seen the sights; now it’s time to savour some flavours! Don’t tell us you haven’t tried ceviche yet? One of Panama City’s most iconic dishes, it consists of raw fish or seafood (shrimp is very popular) that has been cured and marinated in lemon or lime juice. To spice it up, you can add a pinch of snappy seasoning, such as chilli or ají.

Now, when we’re talking about ordering raw fish, you’re going to want to choose a trustworthy eatery! We recommend Casacasco, right in the heart of Casco Viejo. It’s a chic, multi-level foodie heaven in a magnificent, restored building. You won’t find a more exotic version of ceviche. CasaCasco’s is infused with leche de tigre de maracuyá (passion fruit tiger’s milk!)

For those of you who prefer a more relaxed setting on a tighter budget, head to the Mercado de Mariscos. You’ll be served cups of fresh fish or octopus ceviche with crackers on the side. And at a dollar a cup, you’ll be left with change for an ice cream!

Try out Panama’s finest Coffee roasts in the Casco Viejo

If you want to try Panama’s most exclusive coffee, Geisha, then head to Casco Viejo.

After a slap-up seafood lunch, there’s no better plan than a cup of Panama’s finest coffee. Bajareque Coffee House & Roastery offers a good selection of Panamanian blends.

Coffee aficionados will want to try out Panama’s exclusive Geisha coffee. This is no ordinary cup of joe; in fact, it’s the world’s most expensive blend. Given its name, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a traditional Japanese roast. However, it’s a variety of coffee that originated in the Gori Gesha Forest in Ethiopia. Nowadays, it is synonymous with Panama coffee as it is grown abundantly in the country.

And what makes it so special? It has floral aromas and fruity notes that range from berries to mango and papaya to mandarin. Well worth the hefty price tag!

Enjoy a brew with a view at one of Casco Viejo’s many breezy rooftop bars

Panama City offers a plethora of cool rooftop bars where you can chill out.

Picture yourself sipping a sunset cocktail while admiring spectacular vistas. Sound good? Well, luckily for you, rooftop bars are another of Panama City’s top draws.

When the tropical climate gets too much, locals and tourists escape to one of the many breezy bars dotted around on rooftops across the city. But where to go? You’ll be spoiled for choice. The legendary Panaviera Sky Bar holds the accolade of being the highest rooftop bar in Central America. It’s on the 66th floor of the JW Marriott Panama (formerly Trump Tower!). If you’re into superlatives, here’s another one for you. Tántalo was the first ever rooftop bar in Casco Viejo.

So, no need to fret about those sweltering Panamanian temperatures. Get up to a rooftop and order a Panamanian rum punch!

When is the best time to visit Panama City?

Panama City has a beautiful skyline.

Now we know that temperatures can soar at certain times of the year, but is there a “best” season to visit Panama City? The truth is that you can visit year-round.

Panama has two seasons: wet and dry. If you’re looking to avoid the rain, your best bet is, you guessed it, the dry season (December to April)! Expect mostly blue, sunny skies, but also throngs of tourists lining the streets. Prices may be higher, and accommodation might be more difficult to find. The weather gets continually warmer from Christmas through to Easter. It can reach about 32ºC at its peak around Easter.

If you’re travelling on a shoestring and looking to beat the crowds, the rainy season is for you. From May to November or early December, Panama City is quieter and cheaper, but also wetter. So, don’t forget your wellies!

Another factor to consider when you travel to Panama City is its festivals. Whether you’re looking to avoid the noise or be the life and soul of the party, you should know when they take place. The city’s biggest party of the year is Carnival in February. It’s a 4-day funfest of floats and costumes, music and food, debauchery and hedonism. And it takes over the city, so be sure to plan accordingly!

Another biggie is Semana Santa (holy week). A somewhat more sedate affair, it gets busy nonetheless. Similar to Carnival, this holiday is based around processions, although they are of a more religious nature.

Casco Viejo - Panama City's unforgettable old town

So, now you’ve got the lowdown on Casco Viejo! Start making those dreams of ceviche and sunset cocktails a reality. Pack your bags, plan your trip and dive into Panama!

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Frequently Asked Questions

The easiest and most comfortable way to get around Panama City is, of course, the City Sightseeing bus! You can hop on and off right next to all Panama City’s main sights, and it even travels up to the incredible Panama Canal! Once you’ve hopped off our bus at Casco Viejo, we recommend walking around to see what there is to see and soak in the atmosphere.

We recommend that you see the Panama Canal Museum, Church of Saint Joseph, Plaza de la Independencia and the Mercado de Mariscos.

No. The area is open and free to visit at all hours.

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