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Why You Should Visit Panama City: the Old and the New

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When you visit Panama City, you learn it is hiding an old Panama City and a new Panama City. Though, to be more accurate, it’s an old ruin, a historic old town, and a modern area. This post will highlight Panama Viejo, the ruin of the original Panama City and Casco Viejo, the historic old town in the modern city.

The two areas together comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are called the “Archaeological Site of Panama Viejo and Historic District of Panama.” UNESCO recognizes places that are unique and special due to cultural, historical, scientific, or other significance, and they are legally protected by international treaties. In my opinion, they are special places worth visiting and I always look for them when I travel. Here’s why you want to know more.

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Panama Viejo

Panama Viejo, also known as Panama la Vieja, is the ruin of the original settlement of Panama City. Castilla del Oro, as it was originally known, was founded on August 15, 1510, by Pedro Ariad de Ávila of Spain. This settlement is significant as it was the first European settlement founded on the Pacific Ocean. It was a stop used on the way back to Spain for the export of gold and silver from Peru. It is a must-see when you visit Panama City to really get an understanding of the history here.

In less than 150 years, the settlement grew to 10,000. At its prime, it included the large cathedral, Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, Plaza Mayor, five churches and convents, a hospital, a bell tower standing several stories, and just under 1,000 houses.

This settlement thrived and grew for 150 years, however, the 17th century posed many challenges. It was attacked by pirates several times then in 1620, an earthquake damaged many of the buildings. In 1644 the “Great Fire” added more damage.

However, the final blow was in 1671 when pirate Henry Morgan and his army sacked the city. A raging fire burned down the city and it is debated if Morgan’s men started it or if the leader of Panama, Don Juan Pérez de Guzmán, ordered it, vowing to not give in to the pirates. Either way, the city was destroyed and thousands were killed.

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Panama Viejo is a Must-See When You Visit Panama City

Today, Panama Viejo is an active archaeological site in the suburbs of Panama City in a poor residential neighborhood. The city was built up around it and some of the original city remains buried. What is above ground was left to the elements for hundreds of years. You can visit the central area of the city to see the ruins remaining. The bell tower has been reconstructed along with the outline of the cathedral and some of the buildings around Plaza Mayor.

I read reviews that there isn’t much to see and while I agree to some extent, I still thought it was very interesting to visit. the foundation of some of the buildings were reconstructed and there are plaques at each building with images of what it had originally looked like and what the historical significance was. Bring an open mind and your imagination and you will love it. I did.

You can walk through the crumbling ruins where buildings once stood. You can even climb the bell tower to enjoy the views of the ruined city and see the interesting juxtaposition of the modern city in the backdrop.

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Panama Viejo Museum

The Panama Viejo Museum is magnificent, modern, and fairly new. It is a good size and walks you through what life was like when the original Panama City settlement was thriving. There are quite a few artifacts you can look at and a lot of reading you can do about the people and the history of this city.

One of my favorite parts of the museum was the scale model of the original city. Around the model is a list of the significant buildings and you can press a button that shines a light to show you where it is.

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Though we went to the museum after we walked around the site, I would recommend visiting the museum first. It really provides a good background of the city that would be helpful before you walk around.

Panama Viejo is such an important place for this local history, so it’s a must-see when you visit Panama City.

Panama Viejo is open from 8 to 5 every day except for Monday. (Note: the 8 a.m. open time is a bit of a suggestion, and we found that they didn’t really open for tickets until around 8:30). It is located at Vía Cincuentenario, Panamá, Panama. Tickets are $15 USD and though I read some comments that it was overpriced, I felt it was a reasonable value given that it’s an active archaeological site and the museum is great.

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Bell Tower

Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo, meaning “old quarter” in Spanish, is the historic old town of Panama City. It is the location where the survivors of Panama Viejo moved in order to re-establish the city in 1673. It is sometimes referred to as Casco Antiguo or San Felipe.

We did take a free walking tour that I found on Free Tour, which is no longer listed. It was ok enough, but our guide seemed to have a set agenda for what he would cover. Though only my friend and I were on the tour, he didn’t seem open to varying it at all when he was losing our attention. Having said that, I would highly recommend doing a walking tour of this area so you can learn the history and the significance of some of the places you will see.

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Why Casco Viejo Should be on Your List When You Visit Panama City

There are a lot of beautiful and historic places to see in the old quarter, and it’s an area you won’t want to miss when you visit Panama City. Walk around to take it all in. You’ll notice right away that there is a tremendous amount of construction and some impressively dilapidated buildings. I am curious to go back to see it in a few years!

What’s impressive is that there is a requirement that any renovations honor the existing structure, so they cannot make any changes. For example, many of the buildings have a concrete base but the upper floor is constructed of wood. They must maintain that, though they can have just the face of the building be of wood if they wish.

Apparently, until a few years ago this area was heavily patrolled by gangs and people did not visit, especially tourists. Now it’s a beautiful place, albeit a bit crumbling in areas, with a lot of promise to be every bit as stunning as many of the old historic centers of other cities, like Cartagena.

I really enjoyed this neighborhood and highly recommend you check it out when you visit Panama City. Following is a list are some of my favorite places that I recommend visiting while you are there.

The Cathedral (La Catedral Metropolitana)

This is the main Catholic church in Panama City and it is magnificent, inside and outside. It was originally built with wood and burned down in a fire in the mid-1700s and it was reconstructed with concrete.

It went through a massive $14M USD renovation early in 2019 for Pope Francis’ visit and will be a highlight when you visit Panama City. He came for four days to see the Cathedral and Panama City. It was the first time a Pope visited since 1985 when Pope John Paul visited for one day only.

The front of the church has three doorways representing the father, son, and the holy spirit. The 12 apostles are represented on the front of the church. Inside, there is a large white chair from the Pope’s visit and some other incredible statues.

The Cathedral is on one side of this large plaza called Independence Plaza (Plaza de la Independencia) and there is a good-sized gazebo where you can sit and watch the people go by.

On the opposite side of the Cathedral is the Central Hotel Panama. It’s large and beautiful and was one of the first hotels built there. Go inside and enjoy a glass of mimosa to appreciate the inside as well as the outside.

Church of San José (Iglesia de San José)

This church, also known as Capilla San José, was the first church built in this area. It is very simple-looking on the outside so you might not expect much inside. But, think again! This church has not one, but two, incredible aspects to it.

First is the golden altar (Altar de Oro), which is one of the few things that survived the plundering of the area by pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. There are several stories about how this golden altar was saved. One is that it was taken apart and hidden in the waters off the coast of Casco Viejo. The other story is that they painted it black to conceal the gold hidden beneath. Either way, It survived and found its home in the Church of San José.

Continue on to the back room and you will see a large and incredibly-detailed nativity scene with many stories from biblical history including the birth of Jesus and when the Jews became slaves in Egypt and eventually gained their freedom. We were told that the nativity has over 350 pieces and it was brought from Italy and Spain. It took 8 months to create it, and it’s impressive and worth seeing. The room also has a number of wooden carved statues as well, but the nativity scene steals the show.

The Church of San José is located at Avenida A y, Calle 8a Oeste, Panamá, Panama.

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Gilded Altar in the Church of San José
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Nativity Scene in the Church of San José

Plaza Herrera

This plaza is dedicated to General Tomás Herrera, (Tomás José Ramón del Carmen de Herrera y Pérez Dávila). He became the leader of what now is Panama for a short time in the mid-1800s leading Panama to separate from Colombia.

Plaza Herrera is located on the edge of a gentrified area and when we went, there were a bunch of city workers taking a break from their day.

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Statue of General Herrera

Church of la Merced (La Iglesia de la Merced)

The outside of this church is made of stones recovered from Panama Viejo, the ruins of the original Panama City. It is one of the oldest churches in the area, dating back to 1680. Inside, there is a statue of María de Cervelló holding a ship in her hand. She was a 13th-century saint believed to rescue ships at risk of shipwreck.

The Church of La Merced is located towards the beginning of the historic old area of Casco Viejo where the majority of the sites are, only a few blocks from the Cathedral.

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Church and Convent of Santo Domingo: Flat Arch (Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo: Arco Chato)

The Church and Convent of Santo Domingo was built in 1678 but burned down in a fire in 1756. It has been crumbling ruin since with no roof. The most famous aspect of it is the Flat Arch that spans almost 50 feet across and 35 feet high. There is nothing supporting the arch, which is quite impressive. Apparently, this was part of the justification made to support Panama being the location for the canal given the proof of seismic stability.

Ironically, the Flat Arch did fall in 2003 but has been restored. The church is located at Avenida A and Calle 3, Panama City, Panama.

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Góngora House (Casa Góngora)

Casa Góngora is one of the oldest in Panama, built in around 1760. It is one of the last surviving examples in Panama City of domestic colonial architecture from that time. Casa Góngora was named after Paul Góngora Caceres, a prominent merchant.

It is empty though it does feature art exhibits occasionally. Visiting is free of charge and only takes a few minutes to walk through.

Casa Góngora is open from Monday to Friday from 9 – 4 and it is located at Calle 4 & 7 Avenida Central, Panama City, Panama.

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Plaza de Francia

Plaza de Francia is a memorial to the 22,000 people who lost their lives trying to build the Panama Canal during the first attempt led by France. It is located at the southern point of Casco Viejo. If you walk around it and up the stairs, you can see a good view of the Cinta Costera loop. This is sometimes known locally as the “American Highway” and it loops around this area of the city.

There are a number of statues including one honoring Cuban doctor Carlos J Finlay. He discovered that mosquitos carried yellow fever and malaria. This led to treatments to eradicate the problems that plagued the French attempt to build the canal.

Plaza de Francia is located at Calle 2a Oeste 85-81, Panama City, Panama.

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Shop for Molas

If you continue up the steps behind Plaza Francia towards the water, you will see the Esteban Huertas promenade built on top of the old city’s outer wall. Here, under a bougainvillea canopy, the Kuna tribe sells embroidered molas and other wonderful souvenirs. You can bargain if you wish and can get some good prices here. Better than in the rest of the old town.

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Church and Convent of San Francisco de Asis (Iglesia de San Francisco)

This church sits right on the waterfront at the edge of Casco Viejo. It has a stunning bell tower that looks over the area and the building has been beautifully restored.

The Church and Convent of San Francisco de Asis is located at Avenida B & Calle 3a Este, Panama City, Panama.

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Plaza Bolivar and San Francisco Church

Palace of the Herons (El Palacio de la Garzas)

This is the residence of the President of Panama and the government office. It was named after the large African herons that reside there roaming free in the courtyard, given as a gift to the former president. It was built in the 17th-century and served as a customs house before it was converted to the presidential residence in 1922. You will notice a significant increase in police presence in this area.

Palace tours are offered Monday through Friday from 9 to 4 and must be booked at least two weeks ahead of time. To book a tour, email [email protected] with a preferred date and time, the full name and passport numbers for everyone who will attend. Once the tour is approved, you will receive a confirmation email. Make sure you bring your identification with you when you arrive for the tour or you will not be allowed in.

The Palace of the Herons is located at Avenida Eloy Alfaro, Panamá, Panama. Tours are free if you book two weeks in advance and last for 30-45 minutes.

San Felipe de Neri Church (Iglesia San Felipe de Neri)

There is another huge nativity scene in a small, unassuming church that is work seeing. It’s not quite as large as the one in the Church of San José but it is worth seeing. This one is behind glass to protect it which makes pictures more challenging, but it’s every bit as detailed and impressive.

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San Felipe de Neri Church is located at Avenida 8, Panama City, Panama.

Panama Canal Museum (Museo del Canal Interoceanico de Panama)

This non-profit museum showcases the history of the Panama Canal from the first efforts by the French, to the successful construction in partnership with Panama and the United States. It features photos, artifacts, planning materials and more. It is more extensive than the museum at Miraflores Locks and is highly recommended.

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The building served as the original headquarters for both the French Canal Company and the United States Isthmian Canal Commission while they were working on the canal.

The Panama Canal Museum is open from 9 to 5 from Tuesday through Sunday and entrance costs $10 USD. It is located at Plaza de la Independencia, Calle 5a Este, Panama City, Panama.

Casco Viejo Restaurants

When you’re visiting Casco Viejo, you’re only a ten-to-fifteen minute walk to the Fish Market (Mercado de Mariscos). I highly recommend it as you can see the fishermen bringing in their fresh catches early in the morning. Another great option is Marzola Parilla Argentina. It looked really fun with bright and festive colors and seating on the ceiling. Yes, I did write that.

Where to Stay in Casco Viejo

As I mentioned in my other post about coming to Panama City, Panama, most people stay in either Casco Viejo or they stay in El Cangrejo, which is convenient and the prices are usually more affordable. If you stay in El Cangrejo, Uber costs less than $5 USD each way to get to Casco Viejo.

If you decide to stay in Panama City, the Central Hotel Panama looked really nice and is very well located right on Independence Plaza. There are also a number of apartments and more affordable hotels available.

When you visit Panama City, these are two areas that you can’t miss. They both offer more about the history and people of Panama City and are very different experiences. I encourage you to take the time to check them both out. Enjoy!

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