Panamá City is the capital of Panama, the cosmopolitan heart of the country. Located at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal, Panamá City is home to more than half of the country’s population. The city has a little bit of everything. You’ll find an interesting combination of the medieval, old, and modern – Spanish colonial architecture in the historic city center, American buildings and suburbs from the days of U.S. control of the canal, and the modern skyscrapers and high rises found in the city’s financial district. But then you’ll also find a city tempered by surrounding lush tropical rainforests, beautiful beaches, and a breathtaking coastline.
Panamá City was founded in 1519 by the Spanish and became a base where the Conquistadors, including the famous Francisco Pizarro, launched their campaigns to conquer Peru. The city’s isthmus was used to transport the plundered treasures by land and then by boat back to Spain. Panamá City soon became one of the richest colonial cities in the continent, attracting the attention of pirates including the famous Henry Morgan. In 1671, Morgan and his men sacked, destroyed, and looted the city. Panamá City was rebuilt at a new location about five miles away.
In the 19th century, Panamá City grew in its prosperity as it became the hub for travelers crossing the isthmus from the Atlantic to the Pacific and vice-versus. The construction of the Panama Canal in the early 20th century and the establishment of U.S. military bases in the Panama Canal Zone during WWII further increased the city’s prosperity. But tension arose from the 1960s to the 1980s over U.S. presence. During this time, Panamá City became an international banking center and was also the setting of the 1980s American invasion of Panama to depose its leader, General Noriega, who was indicted for drug trafficking. Today, Panamá City remains an important international shipping and banking center and political tensions have waned considerably.
Panamá City has a multitude of tourist attractions. The city has a highly developed tourist infrastructure, full of fine hotels, restaurants, and shops. Most of the tourist sites, if not all, are located in Casco Viejo. This is the old historic city of Panama back in the 16th and 17th centuries before the pirate Henry Morgan sacked it. The buildings are mostly old here, some have been restored while others remain dilapidated and crumbling. You’ll see wrought-iron balconies, cobblestone streets, crumbling walls, and a mix of Spanish colonial, neoclassical, baroque, and art nouveau architecture. Casco Viejo provides a true glimpse of what a colonial city in the past looked like.
One of the sites in Casco Viejo that you’ll see is Las Bóvedas, an area that was once used to defend against pirate attacks and today is one of the more beautiful sites of Panamá City. Las Bóvedas is highlighted by a walkway that curves around and provides an incredible view of the city and the ocean. In the early 16th century, the dungeons at Las Bóvedas were used to imprison criminals or prisoners of war. The dungeons are particularly interesting in that they fill with water at high tide and water levels would reach just below the neck of the prisoner. This along with the blazing summer heat made the prison torturous for its occupants.
The Plaza de Francia is right across from Las Bóvedas. Plaza de Francia is a walled plaza located at the end of Casco Viejo. The plaza is dedicated to the laborers who died in the 19th century trying to build the Panama Canal. It provides a beautiful view of the Panama Bay and the Amador Causeway.
Several architectural marvels in Casco Viejo are worth checking out. The Palacio Municipal is one of them; it is the City Hall and one among a number of Casco’s old architectural structures. This white colonial building served as the legislature for Panama in the Spanish colonial days. About a few blocks north, you’ll find the Palacio de las Garzas, a great example of neoclassical architecture. It is the white presidential palace where the country’s president lives. Unfortunately, it is not open to the public but the exteriors of the building are stunning to look at.
There are also some old-style churches in Casco Viejo like the Santo Domingo Church and Convent, which is a 17th century building, entranced by a stubby arch called Arco Chato. The Church of San José is worth seeing as well, mostly for its famous ornate gold altar which was one of the few remnants of the old city of any value that was not pilfered by Henry Morgan.
Another building that might interest a few people is the National Theater or Teatro Nacional. This is one of the newer buildings used today for orchestra and symphony performances. The building is very extravagant on the inside with gold balconies and chandeliers. There are paintings inside by Roberto Lewis that tell the story of Panama’s history.
There are also a few museums like the Museo del Canal Interoceanico and the Reina Torres de Araúz Anthropological Museum in Casco Viejo. The Museo del Canal Interoceanico is Panama’s best museum and is dedicated to showcasing the history, artifacts, and objects related to the building of the Panama Canal. The Reina Torres de Araúz Anthropological Museum houses a collection of pre-Columbian artifacts, paintings, and jewelry from various Panamian indigenous cultures that date back thousands of years.
Outside of Casco Viejo, you’ll find most of the restaurants, hotels, and nightlife attractions of the city, especially in the Calidonia, Bella Vista, El Cangrejo, El Obarrio, and Marbella districts.
While Panamá City offers several lively bars and dance clubs, it is most notable for its many casinos. The nicest casino is probably the Caesar Park in the San Francisco district.
The most expensive shopping is in the Marbella district. These shopping neighborhood sells brand name European and American goods at lower prices.
For handicrafts, souvenirs, and indigenous items, it is best to visit the markets at Panamá Viejo and Centro Municipal de Artesanias Panameñas.