Casco Viejo, Panama’s Quaint Old City
7 Cool Things to do in Panama City
After exploring the beautiful beaches and mountains of Panama, it was time to head to our last destination, Panama City. After much reading, we chose to make the old city, known as Casco Viejo, the final destination for our week in Panama.
Casco Viejo has had a bit of resurgence in last 20 years. After being declared a UNESCO heritage site in 2003, restoration projects began shortly after. Many of the old buildings are being brought back to life with updated and re-energized efforts. Throughout the old city, you will see many shells of buildings being gentrified for living and commerce purposes, with the facades remaining intact. This can make walking on already narrow sidewalks a bit tricky, but it’s interesting to get a glimpse into old buildings that are now being restored, while preserving their original architectural features.
Staying in the Old City means waking up in the midst of narrow streets of what once was a fortress defending from pirate attacks. The Old City is filled with museums, old churches, stylish restaurants, and rooftop and craft bars.
We spent a day exploring Casco Viejo and fell in love with the architecture and the winding streets of the old city Panama. Although we had planned to let ourselves get lost along the narrow streets of Casco Viejo, our hotel strongly recommended that we stay within a specific area, as some parts of the old city are still holding on to its more dodgy past.
The first thing to do in Panama City is to make your way to the southern most point of Casco Viejo, to the Plaza Francia. We caught a great view of the skyline of Panama City, as well as watching birds fly by over the ocean. The Plaza offers perfect photo opportunities for the family with either the sea in the background or the tall buildings of the modern city and the ocean to be the your background of choice.
There are also vendors selling artisanal (some not so artisanal) items throughout the plaza walkway. Many of the indigenous Kuna people make a living from their rich tradition of handcrafts. The most famous of these is the Mola, a patchwork of colorful cloth depicting nature scenes. Looking at the array of subjects and approaches to the art is part of the fun of buying. We did buy several Molas, which was difficult as there were so many beautiful molas to choose from.
Iglesia San Jose
The gold altarpiece is the main attraction of this church built in the 1670’s. It has a great story–yet deemed to be true or not–of how a priest painted the altar piece black and convinced Captain Morgan (the real-life pirate, not the rum) it had already been stolen. After Captain Morgan raided Panama Viejo, the priest moved the piece to its current location. Kids will love hearing the tale of the pirate.
Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo
We enjoyed exploring this shell of a church. Only the exterior walls still exist and the kids liked the wide openness of it. It is a great example of the continued preservation of the old city of Panama. Originally built in 1678, the church succumbed to two fires. You can get an idea of the flat arches designed for acoustics (and have your kids take lots of selfies in the unique background).
Iglesia de La Merced
This church located around the corner from our hotel. The façade is made of stone, transferred stone by stone from Panama Viejo. As you are walking in, you know you are in the New World, yet there is an Old World feel. This embodies colonial Spain, the Conquistadors building the church based on their European examples. The high ceiling is all wood as well as the majority of the altar piece.
This is the largest Cathedral in Central America. The scale will not get lost on kids; they will be easily impressed by how massive it is inside. The altarpiece is large, ornate, and made of marble.
Pedro Mandinga Rum Bar
After walking past the Pedro Mandinga Rum Bar, we knew we’d need to have a drink there. The wood-line bar opens to the street, with a long bar along the back wall. Antique ceiling fans swish slowly overhead, and the furniture is wicker and floral motifed. The bar was built as a showcase for Pedro Mandinga, which is Puerto Rico’s first craft rum distillery.
I can’t pass up a real, handmade Daquiri, which bears no resemblance to the ersatz syrup usually served. The Pedro’s Daiquiri is made with Pedro Mandingo Silver rum, lime juice, sugar, and egg white. It did not disappoint. We asked if the bartender could whip up mocktails for the kids. They sipped on their handmade concoctions of fresh fruit juices while we drank our more adult beverages. The bar has a selection of small plates as well. While a bar might not be the typical “family” spot, this is a good place to take a break and grab a bite in the mid-afternoon and evening, and treat yourself while the kids recharge.
Centro Natural Punta Culebra
A short drive away from Panama City, at the end of the Panama Causeway, is a small marine museum run by the Smithsonian Institute. While the name says its Smithsonian, it’s a fairly modest center. Some small marine exhibits of frogs, snakes, and fish are spread across the cape. A small concrete pool holds sea turtles that have been rescued and cannot live in the wild. If you are lucky enough, you will find a sloth hanging around the trees.
Most of the exhibits look over the ocean where you will find plenty of birds flying by as well as large vessels making their way to and from the Panama Canal. There is a short path to walk through, where you and your kids can look for iguanas and sloths. A raccoon has even taken up residence here as well. The staff is very helpful and excited to tell you about the wildlife seen in the exhibits. Adjusting expectations, it’s a good chance to learn about the local ecosystem and get a good view of the City and Canal maritime traffic. You can combine it with a visit to the Biomuseo, which was designed by Frank Gehry. We ran out of time and couldn’t squeeze it into our afternoon.
Be aware it will be a bit hard to find an Uber to take you back to the city, but there are taxis roaming around the area, eager for fares. If you take a taxi, it’s best to negotiate the fare in advance.
Where to Stay
Many of the hotels in Casco Viejo have been renovated with great rooftop bars, updated, modern, rooms, new restaurants and lounges, and the prices are still relatively low. We stayed in La Concordia, a boutique hotel located in central Casco Viejo. The rooms are spacious and the bathrooms massive and modern, yet maintaining an historic feel. The building itself has been a host to several businesses. The original building burnt down in the start of the 1900’s, but was rebuilt the next year.
The rooms themselves can only accommodate up to three guests (the third guest will have to sleep on a roll-away bed), and none of the rooms connect. Keep this is mind if you are a larger family, you will most likely have to book two rooms if staying at La Concordia. However, breakfast is included–full menu with fresh ingredients and fresh fruit drinks to accommodate with your meal. The hotel also offers guests a free drink on the rooftop bar, if you can find time out of your busy day to go up and relax while looking out on the Old City of Panama.
If you are planning to stay in Casco Viejo, be warned that on weekends the party starts around 9:00PM with loud, competing salsa, merengue, and some reggaeton beats. The party doesn’t end until the wee hours of the morning and it is loud. The streets are packed to a standstill with cars booming out music, and the sidewalks are full of (largely inebriated) partygoers. Most of the hotels in Casco Viejo are older buildings and not well sound proofed to drown out the sounds of the party in the old city of Panama. Our hotel provided us with earplugs. It wasn’t enough for me. Truthfully, if you can plan your trip so that you are in Casco Viejo midweek, you and your family might be happier.
Places to Eat
It was hard to choose where to eat in Casco Viejo, we only had two nights and a many great looking options. After researching where to eat, we decided to try out Fonda lo Que Hay. A small counter service, pop-up by a famous, award winning, Panamanian chef, José Carlos who owns a much more well known establishment, Donde José. On paper, it’s ideal: a casual, counter service restaurant by one of the country’s top chefs. You will find delicious food here—clever twists on Panamanian classics. What you won’t find are Panamanians. It’s catering to the tourist trade. It is really kid friendly, though, and does give you a chance to eat some sophisticated food, grab a glass of wine or a beer, and get tired kids in and out in nearly fast-food time.
We ate breakfast at Lola Mia, the hotel’s restaurant. It was a big and welcome surprise. The food was beautifully prepared and presented. We tried their twist on Panamanian breakfast, with tasajo (jerked beef), fried eggs, tortillas, cheese, and avocado. The kids loved their chocolate crepes, and the quiche was excellent.
The second night we stayed in Casco Viejo (thanks to our flight being canceled), we decided to try out something a bit more fancy and refined. Around the corner from our hotel La Concordia in the old city of Panama we ventured out to Caliope. The entrance to the restaurant is through a dark foyer in what seems like a residential, old building and up an elevator.
The restaurant is modern with massive, modern paintings of women adorned with jewelry on the walls. The food was sophisticated and well presented. Our kids felt welcome and had a good time but this is a place that’s definitely only for the older ones. It’s a bit too formal, and the pace a bit too languid for younger kids.