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  • Writer's pictureMark Vogel

Casco Viejo: Exploring Panama City's Historic District

Panama City, Panama

Casco Viejo in Panama City, Panama
Casco Viejo in Panama City, Panama

When people think of Panama City, Panama, their minds often jump straight to the famous Panama Canal. But during my recent visit, I found that there's a lot more to this city than its world-renowned waterway. I spent a day in Casco Viejo, exploring the beauty of Panama City’s historic district.

Book a Tour: Top Casco Viejo Tours

“While its cobbled streets and colonial buildings speak of a bygone era, the modern touches and spirited community vibe make it a dynamic and must-visit part of Panama City.”

Casco Viejo, is also known as Casco Antiguo and San Felipe. Established back in 1673, it replaced the original Panama Viejo, which had been devastated by pirates. Casco Viejo represents the rich history of the country, its varied architectural styles representing the layers of history from Spanish colonial buildings to French and Antillean townhouses.

My journey began with the narrow cobblestone streets, each turn revealing charming plazas, centuries-old churches, and beautifully restored colonial houses. I was particularly impressed by the Metropolitan Cathedral, with its imposing presence and intricate facades.

As I strolled through the streets, the contrast of old and new became evident. Modern skyscrapers rose in the distance, creating a striking juxtaposition against the timeworn beauty of Casco Viejo.

The Panama Canal Museum

While in Casco Viejo, I decided to check out the Panama Canal Museum. Located in a beautifully restored building which used to be the headquarters of the original French Canal Company, the Panama Canal Museum offers an in-depth look into the construction, history, and significance of the Panama Canal. This isn't your average museum; it's immersive, engaging, and enlightening.

Walking through the various exhibits, I was introduced to the challenges faced during the canal's construction, the diverse workforce that contributed to its completion, and the political and economic implications of this colossal project. Detailed maps, old photographs, and artifacts painted a vivid picture of the past, and interactive displays offered an engaging learning experience.

Casco Viejo is a treasure trove of history, culture, and architectural beauty. In 1997, UNESCO recognized Casco Viejo as a World Heritage Site due to its unique blend of Spanish, French, and early American architectural styles. This recognition has helped to ensure the preservation and restoration of many of its historic buildings.

Features and Attractions of Casco Viejo:

Arco Chato (Flat Arch)

This remains a notable structure located next to the Church of Santo Domingo. The arch was part of a larger complex that was destroyed in a fire in the 18th century. Interestingly, the arch was used as a significant argument for the feasibility of the Panama Canal; its long-standing resistance to earthquakes suggested that the area was seismically stable.

Teatro Nacional

Opened in 1908, the National Theatre is a beautiful example of neoclassical architecture. Inside, you'll find a magnificent array of murals and a stunningly detailed ceiling. The theatre continues to host various performances, from classical music to plays, offering a cultural immersion into Panamanian arts.

Plaza de Francia

Dedicated to the French contribution to the Panama Canal's construction, this plaza is located at the tip of the peninsula. Here, you'll find statues, plaques, and a beautiful obelisk topped with a rooster, symbolizing the French spirit.

Artisan Markets

Casco Viejo boasts a variety of artisan markets, where you can find handmade crafts, jewelry, and souvenirs unique to Panama. It's a fantastic place to shop for authentic Panamanian gifts and to support local artisans.

Nightlife and Dining

Beyond the traditional and historical, Casco Viejo is a lively district once the sun sets. Trendy bars, rooftop lounges, and gourmet restaurants come alive. From enjoying a Panamanian coffee at a local café to dancing the night away at a salsa club, there's a festive energy that takes over the streets. I enjoyed a wonderful meal at Lula Casco, a kosher restaurant in the heart of Casco Viejo.

Community Initiatives

In recent years, there have been many community-driven initiatives aimed at preserving the cultural essence of Casco Viejo while improving the quality of life for its residents. These initiatives include educational programs, restoration projects, and local engagement activities that ensure the district remains authentic.

Casco Viejo is a delightful blend of the old and the new. While its cobbled streets and colonial buildings speak of a bygone era, the modern touches and spirited community vibe make it a dynamic and must-visit part of Panama City. My day in Casco Viejo included a mix of history and culture. If you ever find yourself in Panama City, make sure to set aside a day for Casco Viejo. It's an experience you won't soon forget.

Book a Tour: Top Casco Viejo Tours


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