Ask anyone where to stay in Panama City and they’re bound to say Casco Viejo. It’s a piece of advice you likely wouldn’t have heard even just five years ago, but now gentrification, restoration and UNESCO World Heritage Status have turned this historic old neighborhood into one of Panama City’s hippest places to be.
Casco Viejo was first settled in 1673; today the old neighborhood boasts some of the first buildings, churches and plazas of the now super-cosmopolitan Panama City. But what is so unique about the old town is not just its historic roots, but also the blatant juxtaposition of old and new.
Walking along the cobblestone roads of Casco Viejo, it all feels very New Orleans-esque (largely due to the unique fusion of early Spanish, French and American influences). But just one peek through a small alley reveals a glimpse of downtown Panama City’s iconic skyline, towering above the Pacific in stark contrast to Casco Viejo’s colonial churches and palaces.
Continue your stroll through Casco Viejo and you’ll find the Presidential Palace next to crumbling pastel-colored buildings; the National Theater adjacent to wild, overgrown ruins; restored art galleries flanking makeshift scaffolding; and a sleek and shiny gelato shop sharing the sidewalk with a local street vendor. It’s this confluence of pretty and gritty, safe but rough-around-the-edges that makes Casco Viejo so interesting and unique amidst the plethora of historic colonial neighborhoods of Central America.
As more and more expats and Panamanians discover the antique appeal of Casco Viejo, the neighborhood is bound to become increasingly stylish, with abandoned houses transformed into boutique hotels and colonial plazas increasingly lined with glitzy restaurants and bars. We won’t argue whether all of that is a good thing or not. However, it is obvious that the unique characteristics of Casco Viejo right now are what make it such an interesting place to explore.
What to See:
While you’re exploring Casco Viejo’s countless juxtapositions, take note of a few of these historic buildings along the way:
*The Flat Arch and Church of Santo Domingo: The ruins of the church and convent remain an important monumental site, even after the fire of 1756 burned all the woodwork away. That’s because the ‘flat arch’ is so flat it is actually considered an architectural feat.
*The Fish Market: Donated to Panama City by the Japanese government, the fish market sells an array of local fish and seafood, including prawns, octopus, ceviche, red snapper and more. It’s a great place to get a fresh, inexpensive lunch.
*Plaza de Francia: Originally the main square of the city, the plaza now hosts a monument to the engineers and workers who died while building the Panama Canal.
*The Cathedral Metropolitana: The heart of Casco Vejo and an important landmark due to its symbol of Panamanian independence. The surrounding plaza is also used as a bullring.
*La Inglesia de la Merced: One of the oldest buildings in Casco Viejo
*The National Theater: Originally opened in 1908, the National Theater has recently been restored and now features a performance center with seating for 800. There are regular music, dance and theater productions.
Where to Stay:
Easily one of the most beautiful boutique hotels we’ve ever stayed at, Las Clementinas is the obvious choice for accommodation on any visit to Panama City, especially if you want to sleep in the heart and center of Casco Viejo.
Originally a 1930s apartment building, the elegant corner townhouse now boasts 6 large, one-bedroom suites. Each suite comes with a fully equipped kitchen, large living area, and spacious bedroom. The décor is different for each room; we stayed in Chamber 1, which featured modern but elegant furnishings, bright colors, miniature palm trees, and abstract art accents. The high-vaulted ceilings and restored wood floors were particularly nice touches. Our room struck the perfect balance between homey and luxurious.
The lovely rooftop terrace and lush garden make the perfect place to relax with a cup of coffee, though since we were visiting in the height of summer we preferred to use the high-speed WiFi from the comfort of our air-conditioned room.
The ground floor of Las Clementinas is home to the popular café and restaurant by the same name. Having just been in France a few weeks prior to our stay at Las Clementinas, we found the restaurant to have a distinct French brassiere feel to it, while still remaining authentically Panamanian. The quinoa veggie burritos were our breakfast of choice each morning, and proved a scrumptious way to start our day.
Las Clementinas was our first stop on our Panamanian adventure, and we couldn’t have been more pleased with our welcome to the country. You really can’t go wrong with a stay at Las Clementinas—which is probably why they are ranked on TripAdvisor as the number one hotel in Panama City.
If you have the chance to visit Casco Viejo, do so soon. While we’re certain the historic neighborhood will continue to be just as charming when it sees more renovation, this Panama City gem is in an especially sweet spot right now, the perfect balance of old and new, authentic but contemporary.
A huge thank you to Las Clementinas for hosting us during our stay in Panama City. All thoughts and opinions remain our own.
Facts and information about Casco Viejo’s historic buildings sourced from the Casco Viejo website.