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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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
Casco Viejo Rooftop bars
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:
Amazing views of the skyscrapers in Panama City.
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 >
A smaller rooftop bar – but don’t fall into the pool after too many Cuba Libras!
A hostel rooftop bar with good DJs, a tacoria and another rooftop pool – this can get very busy at night.
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.
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.
Quirky restaurant that offers classic Panamanian dishes and serves excellent breakfasts.
Esa Flaca Rica
Fast food joint serving some of Panama’s best burgers. Very popular so expect a long queue.
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.
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:
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
Boutique hotel with 24-hour reception, free Wi-Fi, tapas restaurant and rooftop bar. Check out prices and availability for Tantalo Hotel
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
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.
Other Panama City blog posts
- Top 5 easy walks in Panama City
- Free and cheap things to do in Panama City
- Taboga Island guide, Panama City
- Panama City Pride Parade 2019
- Ancon Hill and Mi Pueblito in Panama City
- Panama City’s Rainforest Walks and Activities
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