Panama City’s modern centre sets it apart from other Latin-American cities but there is still plenty of history to be found. On the other side of the city is the old district of Casco Viejo. This part of the city dates from 1671 and is bursting with cathedrals, museums, restaurants and jazz clubs. It is perhaps the most attractive district to visit and the route highlighted below has the most interesting stops.
Plaza de la Francia is the ideal starting point for discovering Casco Viejo. From this old town square you can see both the bay and the city skyline. The square and the obelisk in it were created as a tribute to the French contribution to the Panama Canal and the workers who died in particular. It was not from violence but from yellow fever and malaria that the workers lost their lives. It might sound a little morbid, but the former dungeons that were part of the Spanish forts are fun to visit. These days they serve as shops and inviting restaurants.
The Mercado de Mariscos fish market is an attraction in its own right. Fresh prawns, tuna, sea bream, squid - all things marine and edible are sold here. It is also possible to order fish downstairs in the hall and then take it up to the restaurant above the market where it is immediately transformed into a meal. Naturally, many locals know about this and there will undoubtedly be a queue. But a cup of ceviche – raw fish marinated in vinegar – will make the wait seem shorter.
The Iglesia de San Jose is for many Panamanians the ultimate place to get married. Perhaps the history of the golden alter of this church has something to do with it. The altar originally stood in another church in Panama Viejo and was reputedly brought to Casco Viejo in the seventeenth century. A priest deliberately painted it black and by doing so ensured that the pirate Henry Morgan did not plunder this treasure from Panama City.
On the Plaza Bolivar is an unusual restaurant: Ciao Pescao. The menu consists mostly of two items - beer and the seafood dish ceviche. There are at least a dozen varieties of ceviche and the owner stocks more than 30 different beers. The third main item on the menu (which also includes sandwiches and a few fish dishes) is the range of mojitos. The seven different versions have one thing in common: They all contain local fruit.
The later it gets the more Casco Viejo comes to life, especially at weekends. On Friday and Saturday evenings live music is de rigueur, both indoors and on the street. So for good music it’s really not necessary to visit a discotheque. For an evening of jazz, the famous café-restaurant Las Bovedas is highly recommended. The establishment is housed in the old city wall, an unusual location where every Friday night a fantastic Panamanian jazz band plays.