Feel the vibe.
A sight to behold with its rainbow-hued facades, stylish restaurants, bars, nightclubs, shops, and sparkling seas, Casco Viejo (or “old quarter”) in Panama City is having a moment. Here are some reasons why you need to go now.
Casco Viejo has many stunning rooftops, so if you’re looking for an excellent view, it’s hard to go wrong. But one of the best is Casa Casco, offering a fab 360-degree sunset view over the sparkling city and the bay. Arrive at 6 pm, order a cocktail, and enjoy the show. Occupying a gorgeous old colonial mansion, the venue also has three restaurants and a club for those who want to make a night of it.
The Freshest Fish
The lively, outdoor Mercado de Mariscos is not just a seafood market; it’s a place to spend an eye-opening afternoon with locals, sampling some of the freshest seafood around. The local specialty is fresh ceviche fish or octopus, paired with ice-cold Panama beer. Or, order a delectable catch-of-the-day platter (be it fish, mussels, or prawns), with a side of fries.
Music on Every Alley and Corner—and/or in a Club
Strolling the barrio’s picture-perfect brick lanes, there’s no shortage of Instagram-worthy shots and you wouldn’t be shamed for thinking you’ve stepped onto a movie set. And then, you hear the clapping chorus of tamborito—with women dancing in their flouncy polleras and men in traditional sombreros—and the rhythmic beat of típico—with its upbeat tempo of conga, guira, and accordion— and you know you’ve stepped away from the everyday. The Plaza de la Independencia, in front of the beautifully baroque Catedral Metropolitana, is a popular spot to catch an impromptu jam.
The Champagne of Coffees
Geisha is Panama’s coffee pride and joy, reigning as the world’s most expensive cup of joe—in 2018, a Geisha variety sold for $803 per pound at auction. The delicate, floral, rare bean is derived from the towering slopes of Volcàn Barù in Boquete (in central Panama) where coffee cherries are handpicked and dried for eight days, then sold “green.” Bajareque Coffee House, where the owner produces his own beans from the family’s Boquete farm, offers a 10-ounce mug for $9, so it’s definitely a place to indulge.
THE Place to Buy a Panama Hat
Even though Panama hats are actually from Ecuador—they were shipped abroad via the Panama Canal, which explains the misdirected nomenclature—they’ve become a Panama mainstay. And you’ll find them for sale everywhere in Casco Viejo, from street stalls for $10 and up to $800 at the finest boutiques. The secret is looking at the weave—the tighter the weaver, the better quality (and pricier) the hat. You can’t go wrong at Victor’s Panamá Hat on San Felipe.
Panama Canal Views
Not every neighborhood overlooks an amazing engineering feat, much less the country’s star attraction. But Casco Viejo does. Watch ships making their way through the canal from Esteban Huertas, a bougainvillea-shaded promenade where locals sell Panama hats (molas), painted feathers, jewelry, and more. You can learn all about the canal at the neighborhood’s Interoceanic Canal Museum, which occupies an elegant 19th-century building on Cathedral Square that once headquartered the original French canal company.
Rum Cocktails Everywhere
Some say Panamanian rum is ranked in the world’s best, and the influx of bars serving specialty cocktails in Casco Viejo—based on said rum—proves the point. Among the rum hot spots, Pedro Mandinga is the first craft rum bar to open in the quarter. And if you choose to dine, rejoice that rum is used in the dishes as well.
Bars and nightclubs in Casco Viejo are upon at least until 3 a.m. Sundays to Wednesdays, and 4 a.m. Thursday to Saturday. You’ll find a vibe for everyone, from immense and cosmic to understated and covert. Among the buzziest hot spots, Teatro Amador is a magnificent three-story historic theater that has been beautifully restored with a modern touch. Go early to learn salsa moves, then settle in for crazy dancing, live DJs, and massive parties.
Unique Cityscapes by Paddleboard or Kayak
The sea laps the edges of Casco Viejo, an eternal reminder of the old town’s connection with the sea. Panama City was founded here, after all, (in 1519) making it the oldest continuously occupied European settlement on the Pacific Coast of the Americas. One of the best ways to experience it is aboard a kayak, taking in the ancient steeples and red-tiled rooftops from the vantage of dazzling blue waters. Aventuras Panamà offers sunrise tours launching from the beach in Casco.