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.
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 US$350 per pound (your local coffee chain pays around US$2). In Casco, sip the champagne of coffees at Café Unido for $7 a pop. Café Unido is located within The American Trade Hotel at Plaza Herrera.
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.
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 12 – 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 US$15 on street stalls to US$800 in shops (the tighter the weave, the pricier the hat). In Victor’s Hats, rows of shelves display a variety of styles and colors. If in doubt, stick to the classic.
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.
Uncover Casco’s gangland past
Up until a few years ago Casco Viejo was a no-go zone in Panama City. The area was controlled by gangs, violence was rife and any tourist foolish enough to step inside was quickly relieved of their possessions. Today, however, former gang members of the 'Ciudad de Dios' lead what is one of the city’s most original walks, the Fortaleza Tour. The guides tell the history of the area and their personal stories, pointing out their hangouts, mothers’ homes and gang graffiti.
The daily tours are conducted in Spanish and translators are available on request. The meeting point is at Plaza Herrera at 5pm, and tours run US$20 per person ($10 for children 7-15 years). US$30 includes dinner prepared by the guides and their families. For reservations, call Jaffet at (+507) 6031-8961.
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 lavender, basil and Earl Grey, all made using natural ingredients. At US$2.75 per scoop it’s not cheap, but this truly is the stuff (ice cream) dreams are made of.
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.