In 1671, after the Pirate Henry Morgan attacked, looted and destroyed the Old City, Panama Viejo. Its residents and settlers, desperate for a safer and easier location to defend themselves against future seige, decided on what is now Casco Viejo (The Old Quarter).
This unique walled city, consisting of 16th & 17th Century Spanish Colonial Architecture, is a gem which was unknown to most of the outside world until 1997 when UNESCO named Casco Viejo a World Heritage Site. Shortly there after, investments and foreign expats started to poor into Casco Viejo (at that time a deteriorating slum which most Panamanians wouldn't dare visit) in what has been one of the greatest and fastest urban revitalizations in all of the Americas!
Today, Casco Viejo (aka. Casco Antiguo, San Felipe or El Casco) is a vibrant community consisting of a sharp contrast of old and new, local and foreign. The buildings are in various stages or redevelopment and renovation, with a strictly enforced standard of Historical Authenticity. There is tremendous culture and a feeling which is unique only to this neighborhood in Panama.
Essentially, Casco Viejo is a melting pot of many cultures converging in one place which is truly unlike any other! Casco Viejo is also home to the Presidential Palace (Palacia de la Garzas - or Heron's Palace), named for the resident Heron's which live in the courtyard of the Moorish inspired palace. The plazas of Casco Viejo, such as Plaza de Catedral, Plaza Bolivar, Plaza de Francia, Plaza Herrera and others, are social meeting places for residents and visitors alike. There are restaurants (some of the best in the city in fact), cafes, boutiques, shops, beautiful buildings surrounding the plazas and immaculately manicured gardens. As you stroll through the old streets from one plaza to the next, you'll meet vendors selling everything from Empenadas and Enchilladas to flavored shaved ice called "raspao" (shaved by hand and only sets you back 50 cents!) to cool you down from the heat.
Casco Viejo is the second only to the Panama Canal as a tourist destination in Panama. However, the streets are not crowded with tourists and there are not the typical solicitors in the streets as you would find in many other cities in Central America. One of the best hotels the city has to offer, they are located in Casco Viejo (in historically preserved buildings). They range from small hotels like Casa Sucre Bed & Breakfast, to hostels like Luna's Castle (one of the top ranked hostels worldwide!) to 5 star high end Boutique hotels such as the ACE hotel American Trade. If you plan on staying a little longer, rent a beautiful apartment in Casco Viejo.
As mentioned before, Casco Viejo is home to some of the best restaurants in Panama City. You will find everything from Tapas and Sushi to Italian and French, or you may opt for a surprise 12 course meal at the famous Manolo Caracol. There is nothing like sitting in Plaza Bolivar on a warm night with a local musician playing, a cold Panama (one of the local beers) in hand and enjoying good food with friends.
Another one of the must see places in Casco Viejo is at the entrance to the neighborhood, the Fish Market (El Mercado del Mariscos). In what is one of the most impressive displays of local fish and seafood you'll find anything from fresh yellow fin tuna, shrimp & prawns the size of your hand, red snapper (pargo rojo), mahi mahi (dorado), octopus (pulpo) and much more! The best part is that you can select a fresh piece of fish downstairs and take it upstairs with you to the quaint restaurant where for $6 they will prepare it for you any way you like! Or you can simply order off the menu. But be prepared to wait in line, as this little secret is highly popular among the locals and on any give Sunday afternoon there could be a line all the way the stairs. However, if you find yourself having to wait, make sure you pick up a cup of fresh ceviche from the "Ceviche Girls" downstairs to munch on while you wait. This ceviche is known throughout Panama and at only $1 - $2 a cup, it is a must!
Casco Viejo is something you can not miss in Panama, along with the Panama Canal. In fact, Casco alone is a good reason to come to Panama... once you see it you may not leave! Opening up your French Doors out on to your street facing balcony in the morning with a cup off coffee (maybe from Boquete) never ceases to put a smile on your face. The sound of people in the streets, music (which never ends here) and the call of the street vendors is alluring and almost magic; There is no other place like Casco Viejo. Come find out for yourself!