Because we were travelling from Colombia to Costa Rica, AJ and I decided that it would be a shame to miss out on visiting the Panama Canal while we had the chance, so added in a quick four-day stopover in Panama City. We didn’t really know what to expect from the city, and were pleasantly surprised by our time exploring the Casco Viejo, or old city. Panama City is in the middle of a revival; walking around the city you can see brand new restored buildings side-by-side with crumbling facades waiting to be restored. It has a quirky, bohemian feel to it thanks to the amount of American expats and tourists, and is a good place to wander around and relax in. In this article I’ll discuss the various things to do and see while staying in the old town of Panama City.
- Visit the Panama Canal
This is an absolute must-do when staying in Panama City; it’s Panama’s biggest tourist attraction and well-deserves its reputation. We went on a tour from our hotel which cost $9, not including the entry fee; this included transportation there and back, and getting driven to different parts along the canal to see the narrowest part of the canal and the Culebra Cut before heading to the visitor’s centre at the Miraflores Lock. If you’re not bothered about that and there’s a few of you travelling, you could probably get a taxi there for cheaper. The entry fee into the centre is $15 and is well-worth it; the museum inside spans four floors and lays out the entire history from the creation of the canal up to the recent expansion, along with the daily workings of the canal and the ships that pass through it. There are observation decks outside where you can watch the massive ships pass through the lock – ask your hotel/guide for the ship timings for the day you are going to ensure you see one passing through the locks. It is a seriously impressive sight to see such a huge vessel pass through the lock with only a one foot gap either side.
- Eat in Super Gourmet
This restaurant was recommended to us by our hostel; we were promised good food with high quality ingredients and that is exactly what we got. You can get everything from soups to sandwiches to salads, delicious imported cheeses like brie and feta, smoked meats and their famous empanadas. The restaurant is really bright and airy, and the staff are really friendly, especially the owner Mark. We went there twice during our visit and were really happy each time. I would personally recommend the chicken salad, the spinach and cream cheese empanada, the grilled chicken sandwich, and a chorizo, pepperjack cheese, and egg arepa.
- Visit the Plazas
There are four plazas in the old town; Plaza Herrera, Plaza Cathedral, Plaza Bolivar and Plaza de Francia. All of them are great places to sit and relax in, and contain at least one interesting statue to admire.
During our visit Plaza Cathedral was a bit of a mess because a lot of the buildings around it were being restored, including the Cathedral, which was a shame. However it was easy to see that once the building work was done it would look absolutely stunning. The Panama Canal Museum is there as well, but if you’ve already been to the visitor’s centre at the Miraflores Lock then it’s not really necessary to go in there. You will also find a small handcraft market within the plaza, which has some really nice souvenirs.
Plaza Bolivar is surrounded by beautiful pieces of architecture including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Church of San Francisco de Asis, and it’s near the coast where you can get a great view over to the business side of Panama with its towering skyscrapers, a really interesting contrast to the colonial look of the old town.
Plaza de Francia was my favourite plaza to spend time in; there’s a huge monument dedicated to France’s role in the building of the Panama Canal, including a rooster statue at the top of a large column, and there’s a tiny park that is FULL of birds; it’s wonderful to just sit there and listen to the noise of the birds, most of which are unlike anything I’ve ever heard before.
- Go For Pizza In Colleseum
Sometimes, all you really want at the end of the day is pizza; we had one such day while in Panama City, so after a quick search headed for the nearest pizza place, Colleseum, an Italian restaurant that had a mixture of mid-range and expensive dishes. The pizzas are around $13-$15 for nice-sized pizzas that have a thin, crispy base, and delicious, fresh toppings. A definite if you’re just in the mood for some easy food.
- Visit the Churches
Due to it being renovated, we weren’t able to visit the Cathedral, but we were still able to visit a few churches in the city, each of which was stunning in its own way.
The Church of San Francisco de Asis is a monstrously large building that is stunningly beautiful inside and outside. Outside there are beautiful carvings around the doors, while inside there are large murals and intricate stained-glass windows.
In the Church of San Felipe de Neri you can see parts of the original murals that had been painted on the walls of the church when it was first built, along with a spectacularly painted ceiling and altar piece.
La Merced Church really shows off gorgeous woodwork inside; a collection of different altar pieces line the walls of the church, each dedicated to a different saint, while a huge organ sits upstairs at the back.
The Church of San Jose is in serious need of a renovation on the outside, but inside it’s really beautiful. My favourite part is the “Golden Altar” which has a few legends surrounding its history, including a story about parts of it being painted black or thrown in the sea to prevent them from being stolen by pirates.
- Arco Chato Ruins and Religious Museum
This site comprises of two buildings; a small religious museum with some really beautiful pieces of artwork and sculptures and a large altar piece, and the ruins of the Convent of Santo Domingo. This was one of the first churches to be founded in the new city of Panama but was ruined by a fire in the 1700s. It’s free to enter and definitely worth a visit; the ruins are really impressive to see, and the museum has a small, but interesting collection of religious artefacts.
- Walk along the boardwalk and browse the Artisanal Market
The boardwalk runs along the southeast corner of the old town. On one side, you have a lovely view of the new town of Panama City and the ocean, while on the other, you have a really cute artisanal market where you can find all sorts of handmade objects and trinkets. It’s a really scenic walk, especially when the weather is good (which it usually is), and also gives you the chance to get a little bit of shopping done if you fancy it. Walking along the boardwalk will take you straight to Plaza de Francia, so you can end your stroll with a sit down in the park.
- Admire the architecture and statues
As previously mentioned, Panama City is currently in the midst of being completely refurbished; because of this there’s a mixture of redone and old buildings throughout the city, and it’s really impressive to see how beautiful the buildings look when they’re completed compared to the original buildings. The government have sensibly decided to maintain the traditional colonial appeal of the area and have decreed that the original facades of the buildings must be kept in their original form throughout restoration works, although the insides can be completely removed if desired. This means that there are numerous buildings which are literally just the front wall of the building propped up by scaffolding waiting for the restorations to begin. When all the work is completed Panama City will easily contain one of the most beautiful colonial areas in Latin America.
While the canal is the main attraction for tourists, there is a lot more on offer to see and do when visiting the city. If you’re planning on going to Panama City, make sure to spare a few days to explore and appreciate this wonderful area.