Casco Viejo, the “old quarter” of Panama City, is ritzy: filled with boutique hotels, fancy restaurants, government buildings, nightlife and museums, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and on everybody’s top 10 things to do in Panama list.
However, “ritzy” and “my kids” don’t usually go well together, so making a visit to Casco Viejo work for everyone took a little effort. It was well worth it.
These were my favorite things to do in Casco Viejo, Panama with kids:
Eat Pancakes at Cafe Coca Cola
Hear me out. Cafe Coca Cola dates back to 1875, with preserved charm and a lunch counter that makes it well worth a visit for anyone. Revolutionaries such as Che Guevara ate there, along with a host of other famous characters from history, from kings and presidents to athletes and poets.
It also turned out to be one of the least expensive places we ate in Casco Viejo. Rice, beans and meat are plentiful here, and my kids loved the pancakes; in retrospect we wished we’d eaten here every day!
Cafe Coca Cola is located in front of Santa Ana Park, at the intersection of Central Avenue and Calle 12 Oeste.
Take a Million Photos of the Architecture
Casco Viejo may echo New Orleans for you, and there’s a reason for that: the buildings here are a blend of Spanish colonial and French architecture, because the French workers who made the first attempt at the Panama Canal lived here in the 19th century.
Cobblestone streets with flowers draped over wrought-iron balconies may not matter to your kids, but if you give them a camera they too will become enamored with the shadows, light and color here.
Hang Out at the Plazas
Casco Viejo features four main plazas: Plaza de Independencia, Plaza Bolivar, Plaza Herrera, and Plaza de Francia. Featuring monuments, shade trees and benches and surrounded by stunning buildings, these make an excellent stop for a rest, especially with an ice-cream in hand.
The plazas also feature open-air dining from nearby restaurants and come alive at night. A Saturday night at Plaza Herrera was a party, with live music, families and couples roaming the streets.
Although we try not to be out at night in foreign places with the kids for safety’s sake, Casco Viejo, filled with expensive restaurants and government buildings, also featured a heavy police presence and always felt very safe.
Absorb Some History
In the 17th century, the old town of Panama was destroyed, and the city was relocated to this area. The Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama dates back to 1796 and is a must-see. The Arco Chato, another landmark, is is the remainder of the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo after a fire destroyed the rest in 1756.
The landmarks in Casco Viejo are well-marked with informational signs, so you can easily keep yourself busy on a self-guided walking tour.
The Panama Canal Museum and the Museo de la Historia de Panama are easy to find, featured right there at Plaza de Independencia, and if you’re kids are into history well worth a visit.
We had just visited the Panama Canal and our kids figured they knew everything already, so we skipped this one, but especially if you don’t make it to the canal, make sure to hit the museum.
Go Souvenir Shopping on Paseo Las Bovedas
Ah, what is a trip with kids without souvenir shopping? Casco Viejo features lots of upscale boutiques, including art galleries and whole shops dedicated entirely to Panama hats, of course.
B for more fun and less expense, head to the Paseo Las Bovedas, a promenade that swings around the Plaza de Francia. It features excellent views of the Panama City Skyline and the monument to the French canal workers. Along the way, you may find buskers, but also Kuna Yala women selling traditional handicrafts; consider doing your souvenir shopping here.
Visit the Fish Market
My fish-obsessed family ran out of time to visit Mercado de Mariscos, but don’t let that happen to you, because I think a visit to a good fish market is a cultural experience everybody ought to have. If you are staying in an Airbnb in Casco Viejo (which I highly recommend by the way—it worked well for us here) and have a kitchen, you could even cook it up!
Rumor has it there are plenty of people selling excellent ceviche here, too.
Explore the Amador Causeway and the Biomuseo
While not technically in Casco Viejo, the Amador Causeway is right next door and an easy ride away. A long (and hot) strip of land, it has plenty of amusements available—it’s a great place to ride bikes, shop, and eat (we had ridiculous but enjoyable pirate-themed lunch at Restaurante Bucaneros).
My main destination on the causeway was the Biomuseo, a Frank Gehry-designed museum dedicated to the natural history of Panama. This is a partnership with the Smithsonian, and it did not disappoint.
Panama is an isthmus and the landbridge between North and South America, making it one of the most biodiverse places in the world. The Biomuseo features excellent exhibits dedicated to the past, present and future of life in Panama, including an exhibit at the end on the people of Panama which was fascinating.
Don’t miss it.