Published on February 23rd, 2014 | by Mark Chesnut
Panama Travel Tips: The Best Shopping, Restaurants & Hotels in Casco Antiguo
I fell in love with the Casco Antiguo — Panama City’s historic heart — more than a decade ago, when I first visited this Central American nation. Back then, of course, there wasn’t as much to do in this neighborhood, which is also called the Casco Viejo, or simply the Casco. But the eclectic, historic architecture, which ranges from Colonial fortifications to art deco treasures, was enough to keep my camera snapping.
In recent years, the Casco Antiguo has found new life as probably the trendiest place to be in Panama, if not in all of Central America. Money has poured into the neighborhood, with new roadways and renovated historic architecture that increasingly houses stylish dining, shopping and hotel options. It’s quickly become a hotspot for Panama’s thriving nightlife scene (check out my roundup of some of the best bars and nightlife in Panama City here).
I visit Panama nearly every year, and always find something new to explore. And while I miss the grittier days when I felt like I was one of the few people exploring the Casco Antiguo, I’m excited about the much-deserved attention that it receives now. Today, no visit to Panama City — whether on a business trip or on vacation — would be complete without at least having drinks or dinner in the neighborhood.
Here are some of my own personal favorite travel tips for visiting Panama City’s Casco Antiguo (and check out my photo gallery of the historic architecture of the Casco Antiguo).
Casco Antiguo Shopping: One of my favorite shops is Diablo Rosso, a multifaceted space that carries unique, original artwork, gifts and clothing by local and international designers and artists (it also has a cafe and art gallery space). Karavan Gallery exhibits a variety of colorful artwork, including paintings and masks that evoke the creativity and talent of Panama’s indigenous people. For a lovely array of paper-based gifts, head to Papiro y Yo, which opened in 2009 and features artwork, stationery and home decor items.
Casco Antiguo Restaurants: For a cheap but tasty lunch, try the Menu Ejecutivo at Tántalo, a cool hotel that has a lobby bar and restaurant as well as a rooftop bar, or the smaller Swag (prices at both in the $5.50 to $7.50 range, including soda). Lovaina is a tiny spot that serves inexpensive but tasty meals ($6 to $9) as well as good drinks in a hip environment. Ego y Narciso offers indoor and outdoor dining on Plaza Bolivar, with upscale fusion cuisine that often works Peruvian flavor into the mix; I especially liked the langostino wontons. Dignitaries and upscale travelers flock to Manolo Caracol, which is casual but elegant and offers international delicacies like tuna sashimi, Andalusian gazpacho and mandarin ice cream.
Casco Antiguo Nightlife: My partner and I loved the cocktails at Las Clementinas, an award-winning hotel that has an excellent bar and restaurant. The rooftop bar at Tántalo hotel is one of the best places to enjoy the warm breezes and cocktails. Next door, Gatto Blanco — perched atop the Casa Nuratti hotel — is another rooftop hotspot, where I’ve enjoyed tropical cocktails like the Maracuba (rum, coconut, azucar machado, maracuya) and listened to DJ Giselle Oro spin. On a larger scale, Espacio Panama is an impressive, open-air nightclub set in the remnants of a historic building. Live DJs, art and occasional film showings keep the cool vibe flowing here for a young, hip and international crowd.
Casco Antiguo Tourist Attractions: Don’t be so distracted by the hip new venues that you forget to appreciate the neighborhood’s historic beauty. Top sites include Las Bóvedas (former dungeons that make up part of a giant wall that once protected the city from attacks), the Teatro Nacional (an ornate theater that opened in 1908), the Catedral Metropolitana (Panama City’s cathedral, which was completed in 1796), and the Panama Canal Museum (located on the same lovely plaza as the cathedral; it offers an interesting introduction to the history not only of the canal, but of the city itself). Allow plenty of time to stroll the narrow streets and gaze at the architecture.
Casco Antiguo Hotels: We stayed most recently at Las Clementinas, a gorgeous small hotel set in a lovingly restored and revamped historic apartment building (read my detailed review of Las Clementinas here). Also worthwhile is the decidedly upscale Canal House. I hate to say that the American Trade Hotel wasn’t open yet during my visit in December — but this new property, which is run by the folks behind the chic Ace Hotels brand in the USA — is getting a lot of ink for its accommodations as well as its overall cool scene.
MORE PANAMA TRAVEL TIPS:
• A Guide to Panama City’s Best Bars & Nightlife (PHOTOS)
• Beautiful Faces of Panama’s Embera People: Taking a Tour Back in Time (PHOTOS)
• “My Panama” — Travel Tips from David Gold, Casco Antiguo Spanish School