The first thing that’ll catch your eye when you arrive in the “old town” of Panama, is the beautiful architecture and variety of pastel colors. I’m pretty sure Casco Viejo (also known as Casco Antiguo) is like a mini version of Havana (minus the cars and cigars). You’ll find a mix of old and new buildings here – which only adds to the charm – and even though it’s really small, you’ll probably get lost at least once. Before you go, you should know that this part of Panama City is definitely for the rich folks. Compared to European standards, we found that eating, drinking or sleeping here is expensive. However, it should still be on your itinerary since it’s part of a total ‘Panama experience’.
If you feel like doing some shopping, Casco Viejo is a pretty good spot for that – but again, it’s easy to break the bank doing so here. There are a lot of nice boutiques, but also plenty of stalls that sell more of the typical local things (think: ponchos, the “Panama” hat, jewelry, bags, …). It all depends on what you’re looking for, and how much you’re willing to spend (and bargain) for it.
Most of the sightseeing in Casco Viejo revolves around churches, which are free to enter. It’s not hard to tick them off your list, and they’re usually very beautiful from the inside and out. If you want to learn more about the history of Casco Viejo, there are several walking tours you can do with a guide.
When it comes to food – whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner – you’ll find plenty of options in the small streets of Casco Viejo. Again, many of these places come with quite the price tag so it’s up to you to decide if you’re willing to spend it or not. We decided to treat ourselves on a couple of occasions, and picked more budget-friendly options during the rest of the trip. Out of all the spots here, Tantalo was hands down my favorite. When you go for lunch (the portions are big & delicious), you even get a better price than during dinner. Go here and order the burger. Other fun spots are Tacos la Neta (3 tacos, 10 dollars) and Casa Sucre (good for easy breakfast and coffee).
If you’re looking for other breakfast or lunch options, there’s also Dodo, Super Gourmet or Mahalo – but honestly I thought these were too expensive for what you got in return. A great, affordable dinner option is Nazca 21. This is a Peruvian restaurant where they serve the best ceviche and yummy pisco sour cocktails. A spot we didn’t get to try (but looked good) was Barrio Pizza. For my birthday, we went all out and reserved a seat at Dondé José. This is a small, high-end restaurant with a cool vibe. The chef is a young guy with a passion for Panama and its food. You can expect 10 (small) portions here, and it won’t be like anything you’ve eaten before.
Of course, there’s also the fish market close by but I was very unimpressed with the ceviche here after eating it the night before at Nazca 21. The “traditional” ceviche in Panama is flavored with vinegar, whilst the other one I tried was seasoned with fresh lime and some herbs – a much better way to go in my opinion.
COFFEE & COCKTAILS
Coffee to start the day, cocktails to end the night – does that sound about right? Drink a cup of black gold or enjoy a little snack at the beautiful American Trade Hotel (their coffee shop is called Café Unido), or enjoy the terrace at Mahalo (even though it will probably be so hot you won’t survive very long). Don’t skip Lumaca Café, it’s a cute little place where you can drink coffee, eat pastries and do some shopping too. Bajareque (for coffee) and Oro Moreno (for chocolates) where recommended to me as well, but we didn’t get to try those. When it comes to cocktails, the lovely Pedro Mandingo Rum Bar takes the prime spot on my list. The interior is so lovely, and I pretty much drank the best mojito of my life here! They also do a (long) happy hour in the afternoon, when they serve cocktails at 5 Euros until 6PM – after that they’re 8 Euros, which is still great value for what you’re getting. I should note that their appetizers are also delicious – safe to say that I simply loved this place.
NIGHTLIFE & ROOFTOPS
Casco Viejo is as lively at night as it is by day, and I’m pretty sure you can find something to do any day of the week. We were extra lucky since it was Panama Jazz festival when we were there, which meant after-party performances in the middle of Casco. Otherwise, there’s always the many rooftop bars where you can enjoy the view over Panama City whilst sipping your (expensive – what did you expect?) cocktail.