Casco Viejo’s renaissance is Panama City’s best-kept secret.
Panama City’s glittering high rises are no longer the city’s main attraction—for that, you’ll have to head to the city’s old town, Casco Viejo. Though once burned to the ground by Captain Morgan (the real Captain Morgan) and then overrun by gang warfare in the early 1990s, the neighborhood has turned over a new leaf and emerged as one of the hippest spots in the city. Here are six reasons why the time to go to this UNESCO World Heritage Site is now.
2. Everybody loves a good redemption story. Dig deeper into the storied history of the neighborhood with The Fortaleza Tour. Led by former gang members, the tour takes a look back into the darker history of Casco Viejo and provides insight into how the neighborhood rapidly transformed from a “red zone” to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The unique service is run by some of the key actors who led the area's revitalization, including K.C. Hardin, who provided much of the financial backing, and the Esperanza Social Venture Club, the organization responsible for a 10-week intervention program that teaches former gang members valuable job skills and helps them to reintegrate into society. (In fact, many of the bartenders and shopkeepers in the area are graduates of the program.) Finally, when the tour passes by Panama’s Presidential Palace, you’ll learn about how the presidential security detail has helped transform Casco Viejo into one of the safest neighborhoods in Panama City.
4. The cuisine is Michelin-worthy. In 2013, Michelin-starred chef Andres Madrigal moved from Spain to Panama and opened his eponymous restaurant, Madrigal. The restaurant, housed in a renovated two-story Spanish Colonial building, radiates a classic and sophisticated ambience. The menu, which blends Spanish and Mediterranean cuisine in locally sourced dishes, changes daily—but the sea bass ceviche in sweet citrus juice is a regular favorite that keeps both locals and travelers coming back for more. For dessert, try the “Valle de Antón,” a delicacy that pays homage to the nearby Anton Valley volcano with a crater-shaped tart topped in crushed chocolate, edible flowers, and beet ice cream representing lava.
5. The local jazz is HOT! Stroll by Plaza Herrera in the heart of Casco Viejo on any weekend night and you will be serenaded by the sound of a saxophone wafting through the doors of Danilo’s Jazz Club. The club has played host to internationally acclaimed local artists, such as Panamanian jazz icon Reubén Blades and the country’s First Lady of Jazz, Idania Dowman. Housed in the same building as the American Trade Hotel, this intimate 50-seat club, along with the city’s yearly jazz festival, is putting Panama on the world’s music map. Part of the proceeds from Danilo’s goes to the Danilo Perez Foundation, which supports emerging local musicians. The mix of sultry jazz and Panamanian rum drinks makes a great nightcap to a day of exploring. Try the Canal Jumper, a rum and citrus combination.
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