Panama City’s old town, Casco Viejo, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was built after the sack of the original site of Panama City by legendary pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. It features many important historic sites, a few museums, and some churches.
Plaza de Francia
A good place to start exploring Casco Viejo is at Plaza de Francia. It sits at the very end of the small peninsula where Casco Viejo is located.
A ruined building sits along the ocean near the street to Plaza de Francia. Club de Clases y Tropas was once a popular hangout of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. It was destroyed in the 1989 US invasion, but it was undergoing restoration at the time of my visit.
Next to the ruined club is a beautiful park with more great views of the modern city.
Another important plaza, Plaza Bolívar, is where Simón Bolívar held a meeting, the Amphyctionic Congress urging the union of Latin American countries against Spain. This took place on 15 July 1826 in the Palacio Bolívar, which is now used as the foreign ministry. Apparently there is a museum inside where you can view the room where the meeting took place.
The magnificent Teatro Nacional (built in 1907) also sits on Plaza Bolívar. There is a large monument to the liberator in the center of the plaza.
Plaza Mayor, the old town’s main plaza, is where Panama declared its independence from Colombia in 1903. It’s surrounded by several beautiful buildings.
The Palacio Municipal on Plaza Mayor houses the small but worthwhile Museo de Historia de Panamá. It covers Panamanian history from the beginnings to independence and the construction of the Panama Canal, the 1964 riots against the US (Martyrs’ Day), and finally the Noriega years and the 1989 US invasion up to the present. Admission is US$1 and it included a guided tour in Spanish. It’s open 9am to 4pm Monday through Friday.
Next to it is a fantastic museum about the history and construction of the Panama Canal. The Museo del Canal Interoceánico is worth spending a couple hours in for canal junkies. It features fascinating photos and artifacts from both the French and American attempts at building the canal. Admission is US$2. The majority of the exhibits are in Spanish but an audioguide is available for US$5. Hours are 9am to 5pm daily except Mondays.
Another interesting building is the historic Hotel Central.
Palacio de las Garzas
To the north of Plaza Mayor is Palacio de las Garzas, which is the home of the president of Panama. As you can imagine, the area is heavily guarded and restricted. I was only able to get a glimpse from a distance.
Parque Herrera is a nice park on the western end of Casco Viejo. It features several benches and trees and is surrounded by a couple restaurants.
Also on the western end is the Casa de la Municipalidad, which houses the government offices of the municipality.
Casco Viejo has a unique mix of architecture with Spanish, French, and American styles. Many of the buildings have undergone extensive restorations. Simply wandering the streets in this area is a treat, especially with the odd run-down building mixed in.
A note on safety: Casco Viejo is safe but don’t wander too far off the peninsula. It is connected to one of the worst areas in Panama City. If you do plan to go inland, do it during the daytime only, stay along Avenida Central, and don’t wander off onto any side streets.
To get to Casco Viejo, you can take the metro to Plaza Cinco de Mayo and take a taxi. That should only cost US$3. From other tourist areas with many hotels like El Cangrejo or Obarrio, it should cost about US$10 (as of May 2015).