Panama City – Casco Viejo
History & Architecture
Casco Viejo (Spanish for Old Town and also referred to as Casco Antiguo or San Felipe) is a UNESCO World Heritage site that is quickly revitalizing after years of neglect. The neighborhood is where Panama City was founded in 1673 after the original Pacific settlement (Panama Viejo) was sacked by the pirate Henry Morgan. This city was built surrounded by a defensive system of walls on a peninsula surrounded by the Pacific. It remained the center of Panamanian life for nearly 300 years, until the 1930’s, when, like most old quarters in Latin America, Casco Viejo declined as many Panamanians moved to the suburbs.
The reasons for the exodus are typically attributed to the emergence of the automobile, which made suburban living feasible and downtown living more difficult. In the case of Casco, these pressures were exacerbated by the fact that the boundaries of the Panama Canal Zone, which was off limits to Panamanians, were drawn so as to pinch the Old Town neighborhood off from the rest of the city, leaving only one narrow road for entrance and exit.
The handover of the Panama Canal in 1999 as well as the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1997 ushered in an era of revitalization by government, entrepreneurs and international organizations.
The 100-acre peninsula’s legacy of Spanish, French and American colonial, neoclassical and art nouveau architecture is unique. Certain styles, particularly the narrow 16th through 18th century houses with internal courtyards, are specific to the region. So, while people often refer to Casco Viejo as a “colonial city”, the current city-scape is more dominated by French and neoclassical architecture.
UNESCO points out in its justification of World Heritage status, that the French and neoclassical styles “lend it a special quality that other colonial cities in Latin America lack”. The French stayed in Casco Viejo when they made their attempt to build the Panama Canal in 1881 so naturally there is French architecture with balconies reminiscent of the French Quarter of New Orleans.
Casco Viejo is a place where the affluent, wealthy and the marginalized or poor are working closely together (via resident associations in partnership with local businesses) to create a first class neighborhood with new opportunities for all and to preserve and enhance Casco’s rich history and culture. The collection of the people who inhabit Casco Viejo are reflections of Panama’s fascinating eclectic cultural makeup and heritage because of Panama’s historical role as a world crossroads with inter-oceanic trade through the Isthmus.
Whether you pick up a map or just start walking around, you’ll always see an interesting sites such as churches, museums, plazas, grand buildings and historical landmarks. You’ll also have incredible views of the skyline of Panama City across the bay.
Plaza de la Independencia. The main square in Old Town is Plaza de la Independencia (Independence Plaza) or Parque Catedral (Cathedral Park). There is a large gazebo in the center of the square. This magnificent plaza contains The Metropolitan Cathedral, renovated in 2003, features the twin mother-of-pearl studded towers surrounding the ancient stone front facade with massive wooden entrance doors.
Museo del Canal Interoceanico. The most dignified building on the plaza is the mansard-roofed Canal Museum housing an impressive overview of the history and construction of the engineering marvel, the Panama Canal.
Under construction is the former Hotel Central, once among the most luxurious hotels in the Americas and now being turned into a 150-room hotel by a company from Spain. It will open soon under the name Gran Evenia Hotel & Spa.
Another plaza is La Plaza Francia. couples and tourists can take a charming stroll on the Paseo Las Bovedas on top of the Old Spanish Seawall that wraps around the French Plaza and Institute of Culture. It also offers a view of the Bridge of the Americas. La Plaza Francia is also the current location of the French Embassy and the restaurant Las Bovedas.
Plaza Bolivar is a small plaza and park surrounded with sidewalk cafes with umbrellas over the table for shade where you can enjoy a rich cup of cappuccino or have a casual lunch and people-watch. You’ll have a view of the stunning Hotel Columbia, as well as the St. Francis Church with a beautiful bell tower and the Palace Bolivar. A monument with a statue of the “Liberator of Latin America”, Venezuelan general Simon Bolivar is a focus point of the plaza.
Old Town also is host to the Palacio Presidential ( The Presidential Palace) is the official residence of the President. While It is closed to the public, depending upon who is at guard, there’s stories of people getting a glimpse of the lobby.
The most recent hotspot is Cafe Havana which has an old Cuba ambiance with lively bands. There are several restaurants and dance clubs in Casco Viejo with live music.