Into the Casco Viejo: Exploring the Colonial Heart of Panama City

In this destination trip report we will explore Casco Viejo, the old Spanish colonial era centre of Panama City.

Getting to the old town

It was already in the early afternoon when I arrived in Panama City’s old town by taxi from the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal. As I was quite hungry by this time, I immediately headed to the first nice-looking cafe I could find.

I settled for a cool little cafe (Casa Sucre) which managed to serve a decent coffee and some tasty empanadas.

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After a short taxi ride, I arrived in the old town of Panama City. ©Paliparan
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Drinking a coffee and eating an empanada at Casa Surce. ©Paliparan

Casco Viejo

After the quick lunch I was fully re-energised and ready to explore Casco Viejo, which in Spanish means ‘Old Quarter’. This neighbourhood was built and settled by the Spanish colonial overlords in 1673 after the destruction of the original city (Panama Viejo – or Old Panama) after a pirate attack.

Casco Viejo is without doubt Panama City’s most attractive neighbourhood and biggest tourist draw. The neighbourhood oozes tons of charm, with most houses being beautifully restored.

I started my sightseeing at the Plaza Simon Bolivar, a cute square on which the San Francisco de Asis Church and a couple of government buildings are located.

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Plaza Simon Bolivar. ©Paliparan
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Plaza Simon Bolivar. ©Paliparan
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Most buildings in the Casco Viejo have been nicely renovated. ©Paliparan
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The interior of Iglesia San Francisco de Asis. ©Paliparan

Exploring around

The old town streets are constructed in a grid pattern, which makes navigating and exploring around rather easy. As the Casco Viejo is relatively small, the best option is just to ditch any map you may use and to simply wander a bit around at random.

Don’t forget to look up while walking around as many buildings have beautiful facades and balconies. The whole area has been renovated and gentrified, with many buildings now housing cafes, craft shops and boutique hotels. The days when this part of town had a bad reputation for derelict buildings and safety issues are long gone.

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A typical street in the Casco Viejo. ©Paliparan
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Casco Viejo street corner. ©Paliparan
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Casco Viejo. ©Paliparan
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The flag of Panama proudly flying from an old town building. ©Paliparan
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Colourful old town buildings. ©Paliparan

Heart of the old town

The main square of Panama City’s Casco Viejo is Plaza de la Independencia (Independence Square) which is flanked by the city’s cathedral built in 1796.

Nearby you can find the Arco Chato, another Panama City landmark. This iconic stone archway is all that is remaining of the Santo Domingo church and convent built by Dominican friars after it burnt down in 1756. The church has never been rebuilt and has since laid in ruins.

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Independence Square and Panama City’s Cathedral. ©Paliparan
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The looming twin bell towers of the Cathedral. ©Paliparan
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The Cathedral’s interior. ©Paliparan
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Plaza de la Independencia. ©Paliparan
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Plaza de la Independencia. ©Paliparan
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Arco Chato, the remains of the burnt down Santo Domingo church and convent. ©Paliparan
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Arco Chato. ©Paliparan

Plaza de Francia

The small peninsula and bastion around Plaza de Francia is one of my favourite parts of the old town as there are some lovely views back over Casco Viejo and the Pacific Ocean.

From here you can easily spot such landmarks as the beautiful Bridge of the Americas, one of the only three bridges spanning the Panama Canal.

The square has actually been named after France as a tribute to the pioneering work of the French in building the Panama Canal before the Americans took over and finished the job.

Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the French Embassy is also located on this square.

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Walking towards Plaza de Francia. ©Paliparan
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Plaza de Francia. ©Paliparan
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View from Plaza de Francia over the Casco Viejo. ©Paliparan
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You can find a beach in this area of the Casco Viejo, although it isn’t particularly suitable for swimming. ©Paliparan
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The Bridge of the Americas is visible in the far distance. ©Paliparan

Panama skyline

On the east side of the small peninsula you have great views over the modern Panama City skyline. As you can see there are two distinctive high-rise zones, the one of Panama City proper closest by, and the Costa del Este residential district in the far distance.

The road constructed on stilts in the sea is the the Cinta Costera (Coastal Beltway) which was built in a loop around Casco Viejo to fix traffic congestion. As the traffic can still be mad during rush hour, I can only wonder how congested it must have been before the local authorities built this road!

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The modern Panama City skyline as seen from the old town. ©Paliparan

Handicraft market

Another nice part in this part of Casco Viejo is found at the east side and called the ‘Corredor Artesanal De Casco Antiguo’, a small outdoor market selling handicrafts. Above all, I just loved the purple flowers covering the pedestrianised street.

After passing a lovely square I ended up back on Plaza Simon Bolivar where I began my tour of Casco Viejo.

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Handicraft and souvenir market. ©Paliparan
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Corredor Artesanal De Casco Antiguo. ©Paliparan
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Selfie at the artisanal market. ©Paliparan
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Walking through the Casco Viejo. ©Paliparan
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Walking back along the shore to Plaza Simon Bolivar. ©Paliparan

Time for a drink

It being late in the afternoon, it was well about time to have a beer at one of the lovely outdoor terraces which you can find on Plaza Simon Bolivar. The Panama and Balbao beers came ice cold and tasted delicious on this warm day.

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Enjoying a cold one on Plaza Simon Bolivar. ©Paliparan
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Cheers! ©Paliparan

Out of the old town

After a couple of beers, I decided to take the metro back to my hotel, which first required a 30-minute through Casco Viejo and the adjacent neighbourhood to the Cinco de Mayo metro station.

Although Casco Viejo is nowadays perfectly safe, the surrounding areas are quite a bit more derelict and do not have a similar good reputation, which means that in the evening or night you are probably better off taking a taxi or Uber instead to head out of the old town.

That said, I enjoyed my walk through these areas during daylight hours. There were even a couple of cool murals, such as one close to the Cinco de Mayo station which seemed to refer to the US invasion of Panama in 1989.

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After a fun afternoon exploring the Casco Viejo, it was time to head out of the area again. ©Paliparan
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Passing by a crowded church on my way to the metro station. ©Paliparan
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View over the Panama City skyline. ©Paliparan
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Panama City mural. ©Paliparan
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Cinco de Mayo metro station, the station which is closest the Casco Viejo. ©Paliparan

Panama metro

The metro system in Panama is excellent. You need to buy a rechargeable card, put some credit on it – and you are set to travel. It is cheap, and in rush hour can be much faster than taking a taxi, even if you have to walk a bit to the nearest metro station.

Back at my hotel, I first went for a dip in the pool and headed out afterwards into the El Cangrejo neighbourhood to find a place for dinner. I found a nice place which did good arepas and decent salchipapas. Latin American comfort food at its best, basically.

After that, it was time to head back to the hotel for some much-needed sleep as the next two days would each see a long day trip out of town.

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The Panama City metro system. ©Paliparan
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Eating an arepa for dinner.. ©Paliparan
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Followed by some delicious salchipapas (thinly sliced pan-fried beef sausages and French fries covered with sauce). ©Paliparan

In short

Panama City’s Casco Viejo makes for an unique place to visit and is without doubt the highlight of the city. The old colonial heart of Panama has bene lovably restored to much of its former glory and is a fun area to explore.

Whether you come for the beautiful historic buildings and churches, the lovely vistas over the ocean and Panama City skyline, or for the many handicraft shops, bars and restaurants, it is an unmissable place to visit.

Trip report index

This article is part of the ‘A Piece of Panama With a Bit of Bogota and a Slice of San Jose‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:

1. Review: Air France Economy Class Bucharest to Paris (Airbus A320)
2. Review: Air France Business Lounge Paris CDG Airport Terminal 2E – Hall K
3. Review: Air France Economy Class Paris to Bogota (Boeing 787)
4. Review: Hotel Morrison 114, Bogota, Colombia
5. A Short One-Day Stopover in Bogota, Colombia
6. Review: Copa Club Bogota Airport, Colombia
7. Review: Copa Airlines Economy Class Panama to Bogota (Embraer RJ-190)
8. Review: Tryp by Wyndham Panama Centro
9. How to Visit the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal
10. Into the Casco Viejo – Exploring Panama City’s Old Town Centre (current chapter)
11. Isla Taboga: A Day Trip to the Island of Flowers
12. A Panama Day Trip to the Portobelo Forts and Tropical Isla Mamay
13. Review: Copa Club Panama Tocumen International Airport
14. Review: Copa Airlines Economy Class Panama to San Jose (Boeing 737-800)
15. Destination San Jose: A Day in the Capital of Costa Rica
16. Review: VIP Lounge Costa Rica, San Jose Airport (SJO)
17. Review: KLM Economy Class San Jose to Amsterdam (Boeing 787)
18. Review: KLM Crown Lounge (Non-Schengen) Amsterdam Airport
19. Review: KLM Economy Class Amsterdam to Bucharest (Boeing 737-800)

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Koen works as a freelance journalist covering south-eastern Europe and is the founding father and editor-in-chief of Paliparan. As a contributor to some major Fleet Street newspapers and some lesser known publications in the Balkans, he travels thousands of miles each year for work as well as on his personal holidays. Whether it is horse riding in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains, exploring the backstreets of Bogotá, or sipping a glass of moschofilero in a Greek beachside taverna, Koen loves to immerse himself into the local culture, explore new places and eat and drink himself around the world.

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