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Casco Viejo in Panama City – top things to do

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A welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the ‘new’ Panama, Casco Viejo in Panama City (also known as San Felipe) oozes colonial charm, with its colourful alleys and historic square. Literally a tale of two cities, whilst quaint and quiet by day, Casco Viejo comes alive at night with an array of rooftop bars and clubs.

We’ve visited Panama City a couple of times and on our most recent trip, stayed for several weeks so got to know Casco Viejo really well. Everything you need from food and drink to arts and culture can be found here in this small, artistic area (although it can take a lot longer to find a parking spot on a busy night!).

From cathedrals to cocktails (and a little bit of James Bond thrown in for good measure), here is our guide to Panama City’s charming Casco Viejo old town:

A guide to Casco Viejo in Panama City blog post travel guide

Things to do in Casco Viejo, Panama City

Wander the streets

The best way to start your visit to the old town is to simply wander the streets, soaking up the atmosphere and multi-coloured murals. Casco Viejo is quite compact so you really don’t need a map  – just admire all the architecture (colonial), cafe-hop your way around the old streets and yearn longingly for the balconies that some of the local’s have access to in their homes (including Panama’s president, whose Palace of the Herons residence can be found here).

A guide to Casco Viejo in Panama City blog post travel guide
A guide to Casco Viejo in Panama City blog post travel guide
A guide to Casco Viejo in Panama City blog post travel guide
A guide to Casco Viejo in Panama City blog post travel guide
A guide to Casco Viejo in Panama City blog post travel guide
A guide to Casco Viejo in Panama City blog post travel guide
casco viejo panama city market crafts

Metropolitan Cathedral and Independence square

Very much the focal point of the old town, the twin towers of Metropolitan Cathedral are easy to spot from across Independence Square – with a bounty of benches, a bandstand and shady trees, both the square and the Cathedral (Catedral Basílica Metropolitana Santa María La Antigüa) are a nice spot to escape from the searing sun.

Metropolitan Cathedral

After over a century of construction (builders, eh!), this Roman Catholic cathedral was opened in 1796 and the amazing centrepiece marble altar is spectacular. During the last couple of times we’ve visited, there seemed to be some minor restoration going on.

Dotted around the square, you can also visit a couple of museums – the Panama Canal Museum (we opted to see the real thing instead) and the Museo de La Historia de Panama – we visited the latter and whilst dated and quite small in scale, the staff were very friendly and it only costs a few dollars to get in, providing a nice overview of the social history of Panama City and its origins.

A guide to Casco Viejo in Panama City blog post travel guide
A guide to Casco Viejo in Panama City blog post travel guide
San Felipe de Neri Church

The Central Hotel Panama can also be found across from the Metropolitan Cathedral – offering a rooftop pool and randomly also playing host to all the Miss Panama contestants on our last visit. We once stopped in for their lunch-time set menu deal – three courses and a soft drink for a set price, meaning you can enjoy all the trappings of wealth on a backpacker budget (sort of).

Be aware that some of the locals will come up and talk to you with the express interest of offering their services as a tour guide – we had one particularly persistent chap who started off as friendly but was reluctant to take ‘no’ for an answer.

A guide to Casco Viejo in Panama City blog post travel guide
El Arco Chato & Church of Santo Domingo
A guide to Casco Viejo in Panama City blog post travel guide
A guide to Casco Viejo in Panama City blog post travel guide
A guide to Casco Viejo in Panama City blog post travel guide
A guide to Casco Viejo in Panama City blog post travel guide
Plaza de Francia
A guide to Casco Viejo in Panama City blog post travel guide

Rooftop bars

Storx’s Skylounge panama city casco viejo
Storx’s Skylounge

You can only do so much history and walking in one day right? After that, reward yourself in one of the many rooftop bars in time for sunset, most of which have happy hours (the two best words in the English language – fact!). We visited quite a few during our time in Panama City and our favourites included:

Storx’s Skylounge
Amazing views of the skyscrapers in Panama City.

Storx’s Skylounge panama city casco viejo
Storx Sky Lounge

Tantalo
The best day-time Happy Hour in Casco Viejo – great if you are travelling on a budget. Read more in our budget guide to Panama City >

Tantalo Bar panama city casco viejo
Tantalo Bar
Tantalo Bar panama city casco viejo
Cocktails and local beer at Tantalo Bar

LAZOTEA
A smaller rooftop bar – but don’t fall into the pool after too many Cuba Libras!

LAZOTEA rooftop bar panama city casco viejo
LAZOTEA rooftop bar
LAZOTEA rooftop bar panama city casco viejo
LAZOTEA rooftop bar

Selina
A hostel rooftop bar with good DJs, a tacoria and another rooftop pool – this can get very busy at night.

Rooftop bar at Selina Casco Antiguo panama city casco viejo
Rooftop bar at Selina Casco Antiguo
Rooftop bar at Selina Casco Antiguo panama city casco viejo taco
Taco shack at Selina Casco Antiguo

Although not a rooftop bar as such, we’d also give an honorable mention to La Rana Dorada, a Panama pub institution with several branches and a generous happy hour. Get there early to bag one of the prime balcony spots overlooking the streets.

Fish market / Mercado de Mariscos

Across the road from Casco Viejo but included on the official Casco Viejo website (so good enough for us), stopping at the fish market for a cold beer / juice and a cup of ceviche with crackers is a Panamanian rite of passage.

Whilst the fish market itself is more aimed at trade, the hustle of Mercado de Mariscos can be a little overwhelming at first, as competition amongst stalls is fierce – as you first approach, vendors from each stall run towards you clutching their menus (which are more ‘battered’ than the fish), trying to get you to eat at their particular stall. They can be hard to shake off at times so be confident and firm in your convictions – if in doubt, try to see where the locals go.

fish market ceviche panama city beer

Casco Viejo restaurants, Panama City

You will be spoiled for choice with a huge range of cafes and restaurants in the old town. Here are just a few of the most popular and highly rated places to eat.

Tántalo
Quirky restaurant that offers classic Panamanian dishes and serves excellent breakfasts.

tantalo restaurant panama city casco viejo
Tantalo

Esa Flaca Rica
Fast food joint serving some of Panama’s best burgers. Very popular so expect a long queue.

Donde José
This number one rated restaurant in Panama City is run by one of Panama’s most sought-after and award winning chefs, Jose Carles. It offers a creative 10 dish tasting menu and advance booking is highly recommended.

Lo Que Hay
Also run by Jose Carles, this more informal restaurant serves classic Panamanian dishes including empanadas, shrimp with plantains, pork with yucca and Concolón (classic Panamanian toasted rice) with pork and beans.

Tio Navaja
Popular restaurant with a menu that offers a bit of everything – burgers, ceviches, salads, seafood and their flagship dish – orange chicken.


Casco Viejo hotels and hostels, Panama City

There are only a handful of accommodation options in Casco Viejo but there is something to suit all budgets. Here are some highly rated options:

Budget

Selina Casco Antiguo
Modern hostel with private rooms, free Wifi, cinema, on-site bar, rooftop terrace and pool and comfortable common areas. Check out prices and availability for Selina Casco Antiguo

Selina Casco Antiguo hostel rooftop pool panama city
Selina Casco Antiguo hostel rooftop pool

Mid range

Tantalo Hotel
Boutique hotel with 24-hour reception, free Wi-Fi, tapas restaurant and rooftop bar. Check out prices and availability for Tantalo Hotel

Treat yourself

American Trade Hotel
Luxury hotel located in the historic centre of Panama City with an outdoor pool, gym, restaurant and a jazz bar. Some rooms have a balcony overlooking the street. Check out prices and availability for American Trade Hotel

View more hotels in Casco Viejo >

A guide to Casco Viejo in Panama City American Trade Hotel
American Trade Hotel

So go to Casco Viejo! We want to go back again soon – is there any where we’ve missed? Did our blog help you? Let us know in the comments below.


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