Walking down the narrow brick streets, you’re surrounded by grand old houses with pastel facades and wrought-iron balconies. Overgrown courtyards are full of huge palm trees. It’s hot and humid, despite how close you are to the water. Plazas are surrounded by cafés, art galleries, and clubs. Someone is working on a drum beat behind an open window. And the churches are both places of worship and social hubs.
This step back in time could be in Old San Juan, Cartagena, or New Orleans–in the off-season. But this time, you’re in Casco Viejo. The historic quarter of Panama City sits on the southeastern tip of the city. From the promenade, you look out over the Pacific Ocean, downtown’s skyscrapers, and the famous canal entrance. Casco Viejo is mellow during the daytime. Sip coffee at sidewalk cafés. Watch ships line up to enter the Panama Canal from the old defensive walls. And visit museums, the cathedral, and the Presidential Palace. But Casco Viejo really lights up at night. The formerly quiet streets are now full of well-dressed people. Music performances, which are flowing into one another, inspire couples to start dancing. And the drinks keep flowing.
Two of the most popular places to hang out in Casco Viejo also happen to be in the area’s newest hotels. Eat dinner at Las Clementinas. The French-style bistro has large, arched windows, though the best seats are on the mossy walled patio. Carimañolas, seafood risotto, and bottles of white wine will make you linger outside for hours. While upstairs, six open, airy suites have tropical hardwood floors and painted tiles. Climb up to the roof for views of the city skyline.
For even better views though, head to the Tántalo Hotel. The eco-friendly hotel has a living wall featuring more than 900 native plants. Boho-chic rooms are full of art, murals, and graffiti. But your favorite seat in the house will be at a high table at Encima, the rooftop bar. A DJ is spinning and watermelon mojitos are circulating, but you’re watching the city lights sparkle over the bay.
You may have booked a trip to the historic district, but Casco Viejo is quickly becoming Panama City’s hippest neighborhood. Now you just have to work on your salsa moves.