Panama City is the original international metropolis. A melting pot of cultures, cuisines and peoples, this city is an outstanding tourist destination that is easily one of the most cosmopolitan places in Central America. It is the perfect introduction to Latin America and the ideal location for a convenient-yet-exotic holiday.
At the heart of Panama City is Casco Viejo, the Old Quarter. Casco Viejo is filled with Spanish colonial buildings. The entire district was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. Sightseers come here to snap photos of places like the Palacio Nacional, the Plaza de la Independencia and the Metropolitan Cathedral. Even the "regular" structures in this area fit with the timeless ambiance. Most of the buildings are in excellent condition, making this one of the world’s most-livable and pleasant Old Quarters. Some of the oldest villas have been renovated and converted into hotels, so you can spend all your time in Panama City reveling in the romance of Casco.
Getting In and Getting Around
Since Panama City is a hub for the country, it is easy to fly directly here from anywhere in the world. Copa Airlines offers the most flights to Tocumen International Airport (just outside the city’s core), though most major international carriers also have service. Taxis are cheap and plentiful within the city. However, many places within Casco Viejo can be reached on foot. There is a luxury train that runs along the Canal between Panama City and Colon. Service is offered daily. This is the one must-make trip outside of Casco Viejo.
Casco Viejo, just called Casco by locals, is separate from the rest of Panama City. It sits on a peninsula that juts out into the sea. It’s said that every street in the district leads to the sea, and that is nearly the truth. Because of this, it’s very hard to get lost when strolling around Casco. This place is very walkable. Yes, you’ll want to check out the landmark buildings, but this can be done in an afternoon. During your sightseeing walk, you can indulge in a little local color by visiting the Mercado de Mariscos, which is the largest seafood market in all of Panama City. Once you have gotten your sightseeing out of the way, you can feel free to delve deeper into Casco.
A Slice of Cafe Culture
The streets and pleasant plazas of Casco Viejo are lined with open air cafes and stylishly low-key restaurants. One of the best things to do in Panama ICty is to sit in a Casco cafe and watch the scenes taking place in the shady plazas and historic lanes. Hearty home-cooking, Panamanian style, can be found at casual places like El Cafe Vienna, Saint Phillipe Cafe and the al fresco favorite Ciao Pescao. If you want to catch a street scene buzz without stepping into a cafe, you can wander down Paseo Esteban Huertas, a promenade that is lined with shops. It is popular with tourists as well as local couples. It is at its liveliest in the afternoon.
Casco Viejo has become a hip place for Panama City’s young professionals. A number of classy bars and jazz clubs are filled each night with revelers. Habana Panama is one of Central America’s hottest salsa clubs. Its stage hosts live bands and the dance floor draws some seriously good salsa dancers.The venue’s red leather booths are comfortable for people who want to sip a tropical cocktail and watch the action on the floor. Platea Jazz Bar, housed inside one of Casco’s historic mansions, is another good option, as is the casual Mojitos sin Mojitos. The National Theater (Teatro Nacional) offers some highbrow entertainment. Even if you don’t see a performance, the grand and historic building is worth a look.
Staying in Casco Viejo
As we said, the best plan is to stay in Casco Viejo. The American Trade Hotel is housed inside a renovated Casco Viejo villa. With Spanish colonial architecture, balconies and airy lobby and courtyard areas, this place is not short on ambiance. Danilo’s Jazz Club, which is adjacent to the hotel, has some of the best jazz in the city. Operated by Ace Hotels, American Trade gives guest a truly boutique experience.
What is your favorite Old Quarter? Have you been to Casco Viejo? Use the comments section to share your thoughts and insights with us.