The cosmopolitan banking metropolis on the canal is one of the oldest cities on the continent.
The first Panama City was founded on the isthmus by Pedro Arias Dávila on August 15, 1519. Panama Viejo or Panama La Vieja, as it is called today, became a victim of the greed of the pirate Henry Morgan as early as 1671, who had it burned down after plundering it. The ruins of the former “Queen of the Pacific” are located 8 km east of today’s city center.
The second, colonial Panama City was founded in 1673 and consists of buildings and churches whose architectural style is predominantly French in addition to Spanish and Italian accents. It is no coincidence that today’s “Casco Viejo” is reminiscent of New Orleans’ “French Quarter” in many places. The architectural ensemble of this old quarter around the Plaza de Francia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its most important buildings are the former monastery of Santo Domingo with its famous flat arch, the city’s cathedral called ” Arco Chato”, the former dungeons of the Spanish prison – “Las Bóvedas”, the National Theater, the Garzas Palace, today the presidential palace, the church of San José with its golden baroque altar as well as other churches and museums. While many historic buildings are being restored and redeveloped into luxury properties and expensive restaurants, pubs and bars are springing up on many corners, whole streets of Casco Viejos seem to remain in a state of decay and are considered a ‘no go area’ for visitors even during the day.
Finally, the third, modern Panama City is a lively and, in some parts, chaotic metropolis with a dominant skyline with new steel skeletons of unfinished skyscrapers constantly rising up. In the street canyons between the palaces of international banks and insurance companies, countless stores range from international designer fashion to consumer electronics or cheap Chinese imports. Restaurants of all styles and price ranges, casinos and nightclubs complement the picture in Panama City.
The population of the surprisingly small metropolis with less than one million inhabitants is just as cosmopolitan: Traditionally dressed indigenous people, who often offer elaborate textile and wickerwork, are an equally common sight in the streets of the capital as Chinese, Orthodox Jews or Afro-Panamanians. In addition, there are Europeans and U.S. Americans in traditional business outfits. The U.S. had created a city within the city in the canal zone under their control. In Balboa, the district at the southern end of the canal, the administrative buildings, housing estates with stores, casinos and the former yacht club still dominate the picture today. Panama’s national airport, Marcos A. Gelabert, is also located here, on the site of the former Albrook Air Base. Domestic flights take off and land here, e.g. to and from David, the Bocas del Toro or the Kuna Yala (Guna Yala) province. Along the Amador Causeway or Calzada de Amador, the promenade leading to Fort Amador, more and more shopping malls following the U.S. model, restaurants and cafes are springing up. In the evening, the street is a popular promenade with a view of Panama City’s sea of lights. Frank O. Gehry’s colorful Museo de la Biodiversidad, dedicated to biodiversity on Panama’s land bridge and nicknamed “Puente de Vida” – Bridge of Life – is the new eye-catcher of the Calzada Amador.
The largest square in the historic district is also known as Parque Catedral or Plaza de la Independencia. It is surrounded by the Cathedral, the Palacio Municipal, the Canal Museum and the ruins of the Jesuit church Compania de Jesus. It was here that Panama declared its independence from Colombia on November 3, 1903. The square at the southern tip of the Casco Viejo peninsula is dedicated to the failed French canal builders around Ferdinand De Lesseps. Plaques for the 22,000 dead workers, mostly from France, Guadeloupe and Martinique, who mainly became victims of malaria and yellow fever, are lined up around the central obelisk. One of the plaques commemorates Cuban doctor Carlos J. Finlay, who discovered that mosquitoes acted as vectors of yellow fever, and thus provided the basis for the eradication of the disease in the Canal Zone. Plaza de Francia is also home to the French Embassy, the Instituto Nacional de Cultura and the Bóvedas dungeons. The Iglesia de San José (Calle A, Casco Viejo) holds the famous Baroque altar “Altar de Oro”, the only valuable work of art that survived Henry Morgan’s attack on Panamá Viejo because, according to legend, a priest painted its gold with black paint and convinced the pirate that someone else had been faster and had already stolen the altar. The Palacio de las Garzas (the former Customs House) was first restored in 1922 to serve as the President’s official residence. The building owes its name as ‘Palace of the Herons’ to the birds that live in its entrance lobby. Parque Bolívar (Calle 3a Este, Casco Viejo) is dominated by the monument to South America’s most important freedom hero. The Museo del Canal Interoceánico is highly interesting, but requires a certain level of Spanish, unless you rent an English-speaking audio guide. The Club de Clases y Tropas (Calle 1a Oeste, Casco Viejo), once the preferred residence of Manuel Noriega and the Panamanian elite, was almost completely bombed during the 1989 us invasion and is now only a concrete skeleton. The selectively applied coat of paint dates back to filming of the movie “The Tailor of Panama” in 2000.
Among the attractions outside Casco Viejo is the Museo Afro-Antilleano (corner of Av Justo Arosemena & Calle 24 Este, Calidonia) in the former Christian Mission Church, dedicated to the black immigrants from the Antilles who worked on the railroad construction and the canal. The Museo Antropológico Reina Torres de Araúz (Av. Ascanio Villalaz, at the entrance to the Parque Natural Metropolitano) houses Panama’s most important collection of pre-Columbian artifacts, among other things. The privately funded Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (Avenida de los Mártires/ Calle San Blas, Ancón) features an impressive collection of Latin American contemporary art. The Parque Natural Metropolitano (Av Juan Pablo II, Curundú) is a 256-hectare nature reserve on the northern edge of the city center that protects one of the last tropical dry forests and its native flora and fauna. The four trails can be combined to form a circuit.