Casco Viejo is a historic quarter featuring restored colonial buildings converted into high-end stores and galleries, restaurants and boutique hotels interspersed with condemned structures with collapsing façades and gutted interiors. The neighborhood depicts the perturbing extent of Panama’s wealth disparity. But the convergence of beautiful and gritty, old and new is what makes this area of Panama City the most fascinating. I recommend booking a hotel in Casco, rather than downtown, and allowing a few days to explore the neighborhood. Here are the stops that I recommend checking out.
This upscale gallery with beautiful handicrafts, colorful masks, handwoven baskets and multihued artwork is a good place to buy memorable souvenirs.
Avenida A at Calle 5a Oeste. Tel. (507) 228-9828
Founded by renowned Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez, this atmospheric 50-seat jazz club in the American Trade Hotel is a pleasant way to spend the evening, enjoying local talent with a glass of wine or a cocktail.
Danilo’s Jazz Club
Plaza Herrera, Calle José D. de la Obaldía. Tel. (507) 211-2000
This designer boutique offers luxurious scarves and ties for women and men. The high-quality items feature unique mola patterns and color schemes inspired by the indigenous Guna Yala community in northeast Panama.
Avenida B. Tel. (507) 388-4396
This restaurant is famous for its nightly shows of traditional Panamanian dancing. The authentic costumes, lively band and spirited dancers create the convivial atmosphere of a house party. The food is second-rate, but I recommend ordering a dessert and drink from the lengthy menu while enjoying the performance.
Avenida Central. Tel. (507) 228-9495
Madrigal is an excellent restaurant serving Spanish and Mediterranean cuisine that employs local ingredients. The daily changing menu offers unique dishes that combine unexpected textures, aromas and flavors. I suggest ordering the sautéed octopus with a cumin, paprika and picona pepper glaze. The main course of cannelloni stuffed with ropa vieja (traditional stewed beef) was exceptional.
Avenida A at Calle 5a Oeste. Tel. (507) 211-1956
For artisanal Panamanian chocolate, head to the tropically designed Oro Moreno. The wide assortment of sweets made from sustainably grown cocoa all sound tempting. Oro Moreno refers to its process of production as “from tree to bar,” and the knowledgeable and passionate staff are wonderful to chat with. Our favorite is the sea-salt-and-caramel dark chocolate bar made with 60 percent cocoa, but the passion fruit bar is also hard to resist.
Calle 6a Oeste. Tel. (507) 388-6843
Panama’s craft rum distillery, Pedro Mandinga, has opened a bar in Casco. As the first dedicated rum bar in the neighborhood, it is a buzzy hot spot ideal for afternoon or post-dinner drinks. The air-conditioned interior is a welcome respite from the heat and humidity, and the signature house cocktails, tropical-print furniture and salsa music lend a festive mood. The artisanal rums are distilled from raspadura, a traditional Latin American and Caribbean unrefined sugar boiled down from cane, made on a family-run farm in Chiriquí. The frothy egg white topper in the “daiquiri” was perfectly balanced with the flagship silver rum and candied lemon.
Pedro Mandinga Rum Bar
Avenida A. Tel. (507) 391-5596
Panama hats originated in Ecuador, but Panama got the credit because the hats were shipped from its ports. The hat’s origins go back to the 17th century, when the conquistadores obliged natives by adapting the straw hats to European styles. They became particularly popular with the gold rush forty-niners, many of whom made their way to California via Panama. When construction began on the Panama Canal, workers favored the hats because they breathed. Theodore Roosevelt also donned one when he visited the Panama Canal, which helped to further boost its appeal. In my opinion, the Montecristi label, based in New Mexico, produces the most superior incarnation, and I bought a high-quality one from Orvis a few years ago. But if you’re in the area and wanting to purchase a traditional Panama hat, Victor’s is the place to go.
Victor’s Panamá Hat
Calle 3a Oeste. Tel. (507) 211-0756
This beautiful five-floor colonial-style structure on the Plaza Herrera boasts panoramic views of the bay — dotted with ships docked waiting to pass through the Panama Canal — the colorful Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo and the gray high-rises of the downtown skyline. CasaCasco comprises three restaurants, a nightclub and an impressive rooftop terrace. I recommend heading to the rooftop in the early evening, ordering tapas and Champagne, and watching the sun set over the water.
Plaza Herrera, Calle 10 at Avenida A. Tel. (507) 6288-9024