Panama City distinguishes itself from other Latin American cities with its modern city centre. But that doesn’t mean the city is devoid of history. On the other side of town lies the old district Casco Viejo, which was founded in 1671. Packed with cathedrals, museums, restaurants and jazz clubs, Casco Viejo is one of the most charming neighbourhoods of Panama City.
Plaza de la Francia is the perfect starting place to explore Casco Viejo. From the old city square you can see both the bay and the city skyline. The square and the obelisk were built as a tribute to the French contribution to the Panama Canal and in particular to the workers who died during its construction. Many workers succumbed to yellow fever and malaria. It may seem morbid but the former dungeons make for an interesting visit. Today, these accommodate shops and restaurants.
The fish market El Mercado de Mariscos is an attraction in itself. Fresh shrimp, tuna, sea bream and octopus: here you will find the freshest products at great prices. You may also buy your fish downstairs in the market hall and then take it upstairs to the restaurant where the kitchen will cook it up into a delicious fresh meal. This is a popular destination for locals, so queues may be long. Order a dish of ceviche – raw fish marinated in lime juice – to enjoy while you wait.
The Iglesia de San Jose is one of the most beloved wedding destinations for Panamanians. Perhaps the history of the golden altar has something to do with this. It is said that in the 17th century the altar was moved to Casco Viejo from another church in Panama Viejo. A priest deliberately painted the altar black to keep pirate Henry Morgan from stealing this treasure from Panama City.
The Plaza Bolivar is home to a very unique restaurant: Ciao Pescao. The menu is mainly composed of 2 items: beer and ceviche. There are more than 12 different types of ceviche and the owner stocks more than 30 types of beer. Not a beer fan? You can also choose from 7 different mojitos prepared with local fruit.
The later it gets, the more lively Casco Viejo becomes, especially on weekends. To catch some great music there is no need to head into a club. Many places offer live music on Friday and Saturday nights, not only inside but also outside on the street. In the mood for some jazz? Be sure to visit the famous café-restaurant Las Bovedas. The venue is located inside the old city walls, a great backdrop for the excellent Panamanian jazz band that performs here every Friday night.