Colorful and compact, Casco Viejo or Panama’s Old City is a great place to visit while in Panama. Located just a few kilometers from the heart of Panama City, this historic old town is considered a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Site. Although compact, Casco Viejo packs a punch with many historical sites, beautiful architecture and great food! It’s also a really good place to stay while in Panama City. This post covers the best things to see and do in Casco Viejo.
What to See and Do in Casco Viejo
Plaza de la Independencia
This plaza is where Panama declared its independence from Colombia on November 3, 1903. Panama is one of the few countries in the world to have 2 independence days. One of November 3rd and the other on November 28th (the day Panama gained independence from Spain). I visited during one of these days and there was a lot of cultural activities going on in the square, including folk dances.
The Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Santa Maria the Ancient is the episcopal see of the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Panama. The cathedral took more than 100 years to build, and is one of the largest in Central America.
This plaza was originally called Plaza de San Francisco but was renamed in 1883 in honor of Simon Bolívar. You may be familiar with this name if you have been to other countries in Latin America. Simon Bolivar is considered to be the hero who helped gain independence from Spain.
This theater was built (between 1905-1098) on what used to be the grounds of the old Concepción Monastery. Today, it hosts classical-music and ballet performances along with theater productions.
Plaza de Francia
Facing the sea, this beautiful plaza pays homage to the French role in the construction of the canal. Its large stone tablets and statues are dedicated to the memory of the 22,000 workers who died trying to create the canal. There is a walkway called Paseo Esteban Huertas here where you will find vendors selling souvenirs. This walkway sits atop what used to be Spanish dungeons back in the day.
Convent and Church of Santo Domingo and Arco Chato
Built in 1678 and destroyed by fire in 1781, this ruined church and convent is famous for its long but relatively flat arch. The arch, called Arco Chato not only defied the fire but also seems to defy gravity!
Iglesia de la Merced
Iglesia de la Merced was originally located at Panama Viejo (Panama’s first city). However this current church was built in 1680 at this site after the fire that destroyed that first city forced everything to move to Casco Viejo. This church was transferred, stone by stone, from its Panama Viejo location.
A laid back plaza in the middle of some great resturants and bars. This plaza is dedicated to General Tomás Herrera for his part in the battle for independence against Colombia.
Iglesia de San José
Iglesia de San José is famous for its ornate golden altar, carved of wood and painted in gold flake. Legend has it that when pirate Henry Morgan raided Panama Viejo, a priest had the altar painted in black to hide it from looters, later moving the altar to Casco Viejo. However, the style of the alter (possibly from the 18th century) casts doubts on the timing of this legend which is from the 1600s. True or not, it still makes for an interesting story!
Wander and Admire the Architecture
The colorful buildings and houses cascading with flowers from balconies reminded me a little of Cartagena in Colombia. But of course, Casco Viejo is unique in its own sense and wandering round the somewhat narrow streets gives you a good taste of this city.
Check Out the Street Art
You will see street art in random corners all over Casco Viejo. My favorite was near Plaza de Francia at Paseo Esteban Huertas.
Eat Your Way Through Casco Viejo!
Casco Viejo has some amazing restuarants and bars! From amazing seafood to tapas, there’s enough places to fill up all your lunches and dinners in the city. Check out my detailed guide on where to find the best restuarants and bars in Casco Viejo HERE
How to Get Around
Casco Viejo is compact that it is very walkable. Uber works the best if you want to get else where or return back to Casco Viejo. Using Uber will ensure you get the best rate and that there is no negotiating involved. It’s about $20 USD to the international airport and $4 USD to the domestic airport from Casco Viejo.
Where I Stayed
I stayed at the beautiful Las Clementinas. This hotel has a great location and is super close to all the attractions and places to eat. I stayed here twice on my trip and the second time, I was upgraded to a beautiful colonial style suite. The hotel also has a terrace with good views of Panama City. Furthermore, the highly rated restaurant Mahalo is located at the bottom of the hotel adding to the convivence of staying here.
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