Panama City’s Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo is up-and-coming part of Panama City. Which might sound like an odd thing to say about some of the oldest parts of the oldest city on the Pacific coast of the Americas.

Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
Last Updated:

Casco Viejo is an up-and-coming part of Panama City. This might sound like an odd thing to say about some of the oldest parts of the oldest city on the Pacific coast of the Americas. Quite a few of the buildings date back to the late-1600s.

But for a long time, it was neglected. The original settlement was actually a bit further around the bay, but that proved indefensible against raiders, so the town was moved onto a peninsula surrounded by shallow reefs, a position much easier to defend. And for a while, the town thrived, as you can tell from the beautiful churches and buildings. But the rich who once called Casco Viejo home moved to other parts of the city and established new downtowns. Through neglect, large parts of Casco Viejo became dilapidated.

That’s changing, but slowly. The area is now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And some of its beautiful Spanish colonial architecture has been meticulously restored.

But there’s still a long way to go—the area has been up-and-coming for a long time now. In my totally unscientific count when wandering around the area’s streets, about a third of the buildings seem to be legitimately occupied, many of them with high-end and trendy bars, a few shops, and hotels. About a third appear to be occupied by squatters in barely habitable conditions. And about a third are totally abandoned, many of them hollow shells, often without roofs.

Now that it has been reaping the income from the reclaimed Panama Canal, the country has money that can go towards restoring the area if it wants to. The buildings ooze charm, and with cobblestone streets, historic churches and public squares, the presidential palace, and all on a peninsula jutting out into the Pacific Ocean with sweeping views of the more-modern skyline of the new downtown of Panama City (and, unfortunately, the much less attractive Cinta Costera III highway just offshore). In short, Casco Viejo is brimming with possibility. In ten years it could be quite something to behold. But it also wouldn’t surprise me if in ten years nothing much has changed, and we might still be saying then that it’s still up and coming.

For now, it’s an area in transition. I’m a fan, but if you go you should expect the odd mix of abandoned buildings that hint of both potential splendor but also something of a ghost town feel. A fancy new nightclub or hotel will probably share a wall with an abandoned shell of a building. On weekends, the area’s new rooftop bars are the places to be, and traffic pours in and clogs the roads.

Some hotels, like the American Trade Hotel right in the heart of it, are looking to recapture the old-world Havana-esque charms and have done a remarkable job of it. Others are going to need far more than a new coat of paint.

Photos of Casco Viejo

Ancon Hill Panama City View of Casco Viejo and Coastal Beltway
View of Casco Viejo and Coastal Beltway from Ancon Hill. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Paseo de Las Bovedas, Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
Paseo de Las Bovedas. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Couple Enjoying Evening View of Punta Paitilla Waterfront with Boats in Panama City, Panama
Enjoying the dusk view of Punta Paitilla waterfront. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Shaved Ice in Casco Viejo Panama City Panama
Shaved ice. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Paseo de Las Bovedas, Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
Paseo de Las Bovedas. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Graffiti in Casco Viejo, Panama City
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Plaza de la Catedral Casco Viejo Panama City
Plaza de la Catedral. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Iglesia San Francisco de Asis Casco Viejo Panama
Iglesia San Francisco de Asis. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Casco Viejo Waterfront Buildings
The waterfront as seen from the Coastal Beltway. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
Avenida Central. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Casto Viejo Boardwalk
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Plaza Carlos V, Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
Plaza Carlos V. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Rocky Shoreline of Casco Viejo
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Nave of Oratorio San Felipe Neri, Panama City, Panama
Nave of Oratorio San Felipe Neri. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Fishing Boats and Modern Panama City
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Panamanian Fishing Boats
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
American Trade Hotel in Casco Viejo Panama City
American Trade Hotel. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Panama Hats for Sale in Panama City Panama
Panama hats for sale. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Shaved Ice in Casco Viejo Panama City Panama
Sahved ice. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Iglesia San Francisco de Asis Casco Viejo Panama
Iglesia San Francisco de Asis. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Graffiti in Casco Viejo, Panama City
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Ancon Hill Panama City View of Casco Viejo and Coastal Beltway
View of Casco Viejo from Ancon Hill. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Graffiti in Casco Viejo, Panama City
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, Panama City
Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Iglesia Santo Domingo in Casco Viejo
Iglesia Santo Domingo (Arco Chato). Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
La Iglesia de la Merced Casco Viejo Panama City
La Iglesia de la Merced. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Bell Tower of Iglesia San Jose Casco Viejo Panama City Panama
Bell Tower of Iglesia San Jose. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Casco Viejo Waterfront Buildings
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Catedral Metropolitana, Panama City, Panama
Catedral Metropolitana. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Casco Viejo Street Market Panama City Panama
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Streets of Historic Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Iglesia San Jose Casco Viejo Panama City Panama
Iglesia San Jose. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com

What To Know Before You Go

  • You’ll also sometimes see the area called San Felipe.
  • You can stay in one of the newer areas Panama City and cab into Casco Viejo, but it’s also possible to stay right in the heart of it. There are an increasing number of hotels setting up, from hostels to higher-end hotels.
  • Because the presidential palace is here, there are a lot of presidential police out and about (they’re the ones in the red berets). There are also tourist police around with a ostentatious presence day and night. So those streets are safe (with sensible personal safety precautions, of course). There are, however, some surrounding areas that aren’t recommended for walking at night, as well as some neighboring areas that aren’t considered safe during the day either.
  • The mix of occupied and unoccupied buildings creates a bit of an odd feel, which is worth anticipating.
  • On weekend nights, it’s buzzing as partiers flock to the bars and nightclubs. That means lots of traffic, lots of horn tooting, and lots street noise. Some streets are obviously quieter than others–it varies block by block. But if you stay in a hotel in the thick of it, be prepared for street noise and church bells.

Where to Next?

David Coleman / Photographer
by David Coleman

I'm a freelance travel photographer based in Washington DC. Seven continents, up mountains, underwater, and a bunch of places in between. My images have appeared in numerous publications, and you can check out some of my gear reviews and tips here. More »