Casco Viejo is one of the top 10 experiences in Panama City’s historic old quarter

Panama City’s hippest neighborhood is also its smallest. Just four avenues wide, Casco Viejo (literally meaning 'old quarter') is a Unesco-protected district and a barrio on the up. It wasn’t long ago that gangs patrolled these narrow brick streets and visitors kept far away, but these days the grand old colonial houses and crumbling pastel facades have become some of the capital’s most stylish addresses.

Groups of people sit at tables installed with large umbrellas outside of a restaurant next to cobbled stone streets in the historic Casco Viejo
Enjoy an evening in the charming corridors of Casco Viejo © E_Rojas / Getty Images

Discover Panama’s star attraction

Building a cross-country canal to link the Pacific and Atlantic oceans was always an ambitious idea, not to mention an ill-planned one. Work started on this 48-mile waterway in 1880 and, by the time it was completed in 1914, some 25,000 people had died, mostly owing to tropical disease.

Today, however, this feat of engineering is the country’s star attraction. Learn all about it with an audio guide at the Interoceanic Canal Museum located in one of the neighborhood’s most handsome buildings.

A man pours hot water into a paper filter filled with coffee grounds into a glass container on a counter in a cafe in Panama. Behind him is a blackboard menu of the cafe's offerings and the cost.
Owner and roaster of Cafe Unido, Alberto Bermúdez, prepares a cup of Geisha coffee © Victoria Westmacott / Lonely Planet

Taste the champagne of coffees

There’s coffee and then there’s Geisha coffee, Panama’s prized brew that’s one of the world’s best – and most expensive – cups of joe. Originally brought over from Ethiopia, local growers found that Geisha coffee beans thrived in Panama’s climate.

But you’ll have to save your dollars; Geisha coffee has sold for as much as $600USD per pound. In Casco, sip the champagne of coffees at Café Unido located within The American Trade Hotel at Plaza Herrera.

A man and a woman sit at at wooden bar in front of a bartender. The woman is holding a menu. To the left is a shelf filled with large wooden barrels. In front of the shelves is a small table with a pair of chairs. There are two rattan campaign chairs in the middle of the bar.
Snag a mojito at the Pedro Mandinga, the first dedicated rum bar to open in Casco Viejo © Victoria Westmacott / Lonely Planet

Get into the spirit

For tropical vibes and rum-packed drinks, step inside Pedro Mandinga, the first dedicated rum bar to open in Casco Viejo. Tropical print armchairs, rattan ceiling fans and vintage salsa records make this an easy spot to while away the afternoon, especially given that happy hour runs daily from noon – 6pm. Before ordering your drink, ask to sample the silver and spiced house rums. The menu boasts a great line in cocktails but nothing beats the Mandinga mojitos.

Pick up a Panama hat

Worn by everyone from gold rush pioneers to US presidents, not to mention spies the world over, the Panama hat has become synonymous with this Central American country. Although Ecuadorian in origin, these straw hats are everywhere in Panama with prices starting from $15 on street stalls to $800 in shops (the tighter the weave, the pricier the hat). At Victor’s Hats, rows of shelves display a variety of styles and colors. If in doubt, stick to the classic.

A stand filled with colorful and inA stand filled with colorful and intricately designed fabrics hang from a clothes hanger and are also laid out on a table. A collection of bags with wooden handles dangle from the front of the table.tricately designed fabrics hang from clothes hanger and are laid out on a table. A collection of bags with wooden handles dangle from the front of the table.
Kuna women sell embroidered molas along the Paseo Esteban Huertas © Victoria Westmacott / Lonely Planet

Shop for molas along the seafront

Casco’s characterful streets are packed into a small peninsula that juts into the Pacific. The view from here is impressive: ships wait to pass through the canal against the modern downtown skyline.

The best outlook is from the Esteban Huertas, a promenade built atop the old city’s outer wall. The paseo (scenic path) runs from the Plaza de Francia to the former Union Club under a canopy of bougainvillea. Here, Kuna women sell the embroidered molas for which they are famous.

Grab a cup of ceviche

The lively Mercado de Mariscos, Panama’s fish market, opens for business daily at 5am. Stalls display huge spiny lobsters on ice, filleted fish neatly stacked and freshly caught shrimp piled high. It’s a fun spot for lunch where the catch of the day can be bought and cooked to order at the restaurant upstairs. Don’t miss the citrus-sharp ceviche that’s served heaped into Styrofoam cups. This popular Panamanian dish is best paired with an ice-cold beer. 

A pair of white bar chairs and a small table are pushed up against a rail on a rooftop bar in Panama. From this vantage point you can see downtown Casco Viejo.
The rooftop bar at Casa Casco overlooks Plaza Herrera and The American Trade Hotel © Victoria Westmacott / Lonely Planet

Rooftop sundowner

Casco sheds its languid island vibe as soon as dusk falls. The alleys come to life with open-air restaurants, live music and hip drinking dens. A rooftop bar is the best place to watch the neighborhood spring into action. Well-established Tantalo is one of the most popular spots with the party continuing into the early hours at weekends. Beautiful people flock to Casa Casco for its 360-degree views of the bay and city.

The best scoop in town

For the best ice cream in the capital, if not the whole of Panama, head to Granclement. This French ice cream parlor located in a pretty, restored colonial home is no ordinary helado shop, however. The 30-something flavors on display include the usual suspects as well as some oddball creations such as peppermint (Hierbabuena), basil (Albahaca) and banana, all made using natural ingredients. 

Join the late-night party

Teatro Amador was one of Panama’s first theaters built in 1908, where Charlie Chaplin movies would entertain the Panamanian elite and canal engineers on their days off. It was beautifully restored in 2012 and today is home to one of Casco’s hottest nightclubs.

A DJ takes to the stage on weekends and the occasional live band plays too. If you're looking to impress, book dinner in the first floor Caliope restaurant before you take to the dance floor.

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Originally published Nov. 2016. Updated Dec. 2019.

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