Founded by the Spanish in 1519, Panama City is the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas that has been continuously occupied since its establishment.
The original city center was located in Panama Viejo for 152 years. Following a series of slave rebellions, fire and pirate attacks, the city center was moved in 1673 approximately 7.5 kilometers southeast to the area known today as Casco Viejo. The relocated town, positioned on a small peninsula at the foot of Ancon hill, had better access to water and, more importantly, could be fortified. Casco Viejo’s morphological conditions were advantageous for military engineers during the construction of a city wall, which prevented direct naval approaches by an enemy. While in Casco Viejo, check out Las Bóvedas. Las Bóvedas, or The Vaults, is the name commonly used to refer to the structures that form the walls that surround the Plaza de Francia, or France Plaza. The monumental complex consists of seven vaulted spaces that made up the city’s defensive system.
Casco Viejo as a Museum
Casco Viejo, Panama’s modern day historic district and home to an array of hotels, restaurants and bars, could be considered a museum itself. Its narrow streets, colonial facades and colorful residents make any trip through Casco Viejo a unique, exciting experience. Check out 10 unique things to do in Casco Viejo.
Declared a UNESCO protected district in 1997, Casco Viejo is home to several buildings that are important for Panama’s 17th-20th century heritage. Take a walking tour of Casco Viejo to discover them all. Amongst the various structures, the most notable are the churches, especially the cathedral with its five aisles and timber roof, as well as San Felipe Neri, San José, San Francisco and La Merced, which features a well-preserved colonial timber roof. All are included within the Casco Viejo walking tour.
Present-day Casco Viejo is characterized by a unique blend of 19th and early 20th century architecture inspired in late colonial, Caribbean, Gulf Coast, French and eclectic (mostly Neo-Renaissance) styles. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, building styles underwent significant changes, though spatial principles were fundamentally preserved. Casco Viejo’s layout, a complex grid with streets and blocks of different widths and sizes, is an exceptional and probably unique example of 17th century colonial town planning in the Americas. These special qualities, which differentiate Casco Viejo from other colonial cities in Latin America and the Caribbean, resulted from the construction of the railroad (1850-55) and the canal (1880-1914) that linked the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Museums in Casco Viejo
While in Casco Viejo, check out the following museums.
Panama Canal Museum
The Panama Canal Museum, or Museo del Canal Interoceánico de Panamá in Spanish, is a non-profit museum open to the public in Casco Viejo Panama. Located within Plaza de la Independencia on Calle 5a Este, it showcases the history of the construction of the Panama Canal and the efforts that were made to construct the canal, including the first time canal construction that was attempted (but then abandoned) by the French. The Panama Canal Museum traces the history of the construction by the United States and the transfer of its control to the Panamanian government.
The building that houses the Panama Canal Museum is historically significant. Constructed around 1874, it served as the original headquarters for both the French Canal Company and the United States Isthmian Canal Commission. In 1912, the building served as Panama City’s Main Post Office.
The Canal Museum is filled with planning materials and interesting artifacts from the construction. Photos, site plans and much more are on display. The construction was an engineering feat for its time and placed the republic of Panama on the map. The entire museum is signposted in Spanish, and there are English speaking guides available, as well as audio tours that you can purchase for a small fee. Admission is free to Panamanians and legal residents on Sundays.
Panama History Museum
The Panama History Museum, or Museo de La Historia de Panamá, is housed within the Demetrio H. Brid Municipal Palace, located in front of the Plaza de la Independencia, diagonal to the Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama. The Municipal Palace is the seat of the mayor’s office and the council of the municipality of the district of Panama.
The Municipal Palace’s current structure, designed in the neoclassical style by Italian architect Genaro Ruggieri, who also designed the National Theater of Panama, was inaugurated in 1910. The colonial structure that stood prior to the current Municipal Palace was the Cabildo, or Town Council, that existed during the Spanish colonization. Despite the building’s relatively new construction, Panama’s Municipal Council is the oldest government institution on Tierra Firme of the American continent, initially founded in 1510 by Diego de Nicuesa in Santa María la Antigua of the Darién province and transferred to Panama City in 1519. The independence of Panama from Spain and from Colombia were declared during the Town councils of 1821 and 1903, respectively. The original acts are located within the Manuel A. Guerrero Session Room. The property was restored around 1975.
The current Panama History Museum was inaugurated in 1977 on the building’s second floor. The museum is framed in the context of the country’s history during the colonial period (1501 – 1821) the departmental period (1821 – 1903) and the republican period (1903 – present). The first Panamanian flag is housed within the museum, made by María Ossa de Amador, wife of Manuel Amador Guerrero, who also played a decisive role during the movement that led to the proclamation of the Republic of Panama.
Endara House Museum
Endara House Museum, or Museo Casa Endara, located on Avenida A and Calle 12, is the former residence of Panama photographer Carlos Endara. The building’s construction was completed in 1910, and has been beautifully restored. The museum opened in November 2008 and houses a selection of photographs and objects of Carlos Endara. A must for those interested in photography!
Museum of Religious Art
The Museum of Religious Art, located on Calle 53 Este, is part of the Santo Domingo Convent, which belongs to the list of 18 museums that are managed by the National Historical Heritage Office of the National Culture Institute (INAC). The Museum of Religious Art is Panama’s only colonial religious museum, featuring primarily visual arts from the 16th and 17th centuries and offering insight into Panama’s religious art history.
Casa Góngora, located on the corner of Avenida Central and Calle 4a Este, is the 17th century home of Paul Góngora Caceres, a Spanish pearl merchant. Casa Góngora is one of Panama’s oldest houses and an incredibly important piece of Panama’s colonial history. The house was originally constructed around 1760 and was restored in 1998-99. During the renovation, much of the original woodworking from the 17th century, including ornate doors, balconies and armor, was all kept in their original nature. The home is now owned by the government of Panama and it is the site of regular artist exhibitions featuring prominent Panamanian artists.