Historic Casco Viejo

Start: At Plaza Independencia.

Finish: At Iglesia de San José (a 2-block walk from Plaza Independencia).

Time: Approximately 1 to 2 hours.

Best Times: The streets are quieter on Sundays, and churches are most active. Some restaurants and museums are closed either Sunday or Monday.

1. Plaza de la Independencia

Take a taxi to Plaza de la Independencia and begin your tour. This plaza is where Panama declared its independence from Colombia on November 3, 1903. There are several important landmarks here, notably the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral), easily recognizable by its contrasting gray, ashlar-stone facade flanked by two white neoclassical bell towers inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The cathedral took more than 100 years to build, and is one of the largest in Central America. On the south side of the plaza is the must-see Museo del Canal Interoceánico. The neoclassical building was built in 1875 as the Gran Hotel, and converted into Canal Headquarters by the French in 1881; later it was used as offices for the U.S. canal commission. It is considered to be the finest example of French architecture in Casco Viejo. Next door, on the second floor of the Palacio Municipal, is the Museo de la Historia de Panamá, a ho-hum display of exhibits charting the history of the Panamanian republic. The Hotel Central, on the east side of the plaza, was once among the most luxurious hotels in the Americas, built in 1880. Today it sits abandoned while its two owners bicker about its fate.

Walk north on Calle 6a Este (from the middle of the plaza, toward the city skyline of Panama City) to Av. Alfaro, and turn right.

2. Palacio Presidencial (Presidential Palace)

Calle 6a Este leads to the Presidential Palace, but you'll have to show your passport (or a copy) to the security guards on the street before they'll let you pass. This is the White House of Panama, the offices of Panama's President Torrijos, and it is a gorgeous Spanish mansion with a Moorish interior patio and fountain (you can't enter, but you can take a peek from the outside). Two African herons -- whose Spanish name, garza, is the reason the palace is also called the Palacio de las Garzas -- glide back and forth across the front patio. The city skyline views from this street are outstanding.

Turn right on Calle 5a Este, and head south 1 block, then turn left on Av. B. Walk 1 block until you reach Parque Bolívar.

3. Plaza Bolívar

One of Casco Viejo's prettiest spots, Plaza Bolívar and the buildings that surround it have undergone a face-lift over the past few years, and there are several cafes here for those who feel like stopping for a coffee or snack. The plaza originally was called Plaza de San Francisco, but was renamed in 1883 in honor of Simon Bolívar, widely considered in Latin America to be the hero of independence from Spain. There is a commemorative monument to Bolívar in the center of the plaza. The grand Palacio Bolívar (now the offices of the Ministry of Foreign Relations), on the northeast edge of the plaza, was built on the grounds of a former Franciscan monastery that succumbed to various fires. Of interest here is the totally restored Salón Bolívar (tel. 228-9594; Tues-Sat 9am-4pm, Sun 1-5pm; $1/50p adults, 25¢/15p students), site of the famous 1826 congress organized by Bolívar to discuss the unification of Colombia, Mexico, and Central America. The historical importance of this salon prompted UNESCO to declare Casco Viejo a World Heritage Site. During office hours (Mon-Fri 9am-3pm), it is possible to visit the courtyard inside the Palacio and admire the building's lovely architecture and tile work. Next to the Palacio is the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco de Asís (Church and Convent of St. Francis of Assisi), one of the original structures from Casco Viejo but nearly totally destroyed by fires in 1737 and 1756. It has most recently been restored in 1998.

Across the plaza, on Avenida B and Calle 4 Este (you'll pass it when arriving at the plaza), is the Iglesia San Felipe de Neri, one of the first churches built in Casco Viejo (1684-88). Though damaged by fires, the church has recently been restored and is worth checking out, at least from the outside. The church apparently opens to the public only twice a year.

Turn left on the south end of the plaza onto Av. B to visit the:

4. Teatro Nacional (National Theater)

Built between 1905 and 1908, on the grounds of the old Concepción Monastery, the lovely Teatro Nacional hosts theater and classical-music and ballet performances; unfortunately, they do not have a website and their show calendar is available only by calling tel. 262-3525, or by visiting www.thepanamanews.com and clicking on "Calendar." The theater opened in 1908 with a presentation of Verdi's Aida, and it is perhaps best known for the frescoes rendered by Panama's most famous painter, Roberto Lewis. Recent renovations have preserved both the frescoes and the baroque decor (scarlet and gilded tiered balconies, and a grand chandelier). The cost to enter and poke around is $1 (50p) per person. It's open Monday to Friday 8am to 4pm and sometimes on the weekends (but with no set schedule). Following Avenida B, behind the National Theater, is the Ministerio de Gobierno y Justicia, initially designed as a presidential building and built, in a neoclassical design, in 1908 in tandem with the National Theater by the Italian architect Genaro Ruggieri.

Continue along Av. B (the street bends and changes names for 1 block to Calle 2da) until it ends at Av. Central. Turn left on Av. Central (Calle 1a) and follow until arriving at the stairs to the Esteban Huertas walkway. Walk up and circle the:

5. Plaza de Francia

The Plaza de Francia (French Plaza) is a Casco Viejo highlight, a historically important site and a delightful place to stroll around and crunch on a raspado (Sno-cone) from one of the several vendors. There is also a wonderful fresh breeze here. When you head down Calle 1a, the road turns into an inviting and lovely walkway called Paseo Esteban Huertas, which is partially covered by pretty bougainvillea. You're walking atop las bóvedas, or "the vaults," which originally functioned as a Spanish dungeon and later as a jail, storehouse, and offices. Oficina Casco Antiguo (tel. 228-3664; boveda1@cwpanama.net), offers free Saturday tours (in Spanish), leaving from its offices at 9:30am. This walkway also runs along the old defensive wall that once protected the city. From this vantage point you can see the Bridge of the Americas and ships lining up for their turn to enter the canal. Continue along the walkway and down to the French Plaza. Originally the main plaza (Plaza de Armas) of Panama City, it is now a commemorative monument to the failed French canal effort. Also here at the plaza is INAC, the National Institute of Culture, which has an art gallery (Mon-Fri 8am-5pm) and the French Embassy.

Head back to Av. A and walk west until reaching Calle 3ra. Here you'll find the:

6. Iglesia de Santo Domingo & Museo de Arte Religioso Colonial

Only ruins remain of Iglesia de Santo Domingo, built in 1678 but victim of several fires including one in 1781, from which time it was never rebuilt. The church kept its fame, however, through the building's unusual supporting arch made of stone, which survived the fire. The arch, called Arco Chato, was unusual in that it was long and not very arching, seemingly defying gravity. When U.S. senators debated whether to build a canal in Panama or Nicaragua, they took the arch's longevity to mean that little earthquake activity made Panama a safer place to build. Next to the ruin site is the Museo de Arte Religioso Colonial.

Continue 1 more block to Calle 4ta, turn right and walk 1 block to Av. Central. Here on the east corner is:

7. Casa Góngora

This structure is the best preserved example of a Spanish colonial home in Casco Viejo. The house, built in 1760 by a wealthy merchant, was renovated with city funds, and much of its original woodwork, including ceiling beams, has been maintained. The Casa is also now home to the Casa de la Cultura y del Artista Panameño (tel. 212-0388), a cultural center for local artists, with occasional live jazz music, folkloric presentations, fashion shows, and changing art exhibitions. Drop by to see what's happening or check out the newspaper's calendar listings for shows.

Head up Av. Central, crossing the Plaza de la Independencia (where you started). Continue on to Calle 9a to:

8. Iglesia de la Merced

Built in 1680, this church was transferred, stone by stone, from its Panama Viejo site. The facade is still an excellent example of one of Casco Viejo's oldest buildings.

Walk south down Calle 9a until you come to:

9. Plaza Herrera

The lively Plaza Herrera is dedicated to General Tomás Herrera, in honor of his battle for independence when Panama was still part of Colombia. Park benches here are good for people-watching or just for resting.

Walk 1 block east on Av. A to Calle 8a. You'll come to:

10. Iglesia de San José

Your last stop is at the most famous of Casco Viejo's churches, the Iglesia de San José, and its baroque golden altar. The story goes that when pirate Henry Morgan raided Panama Viejo, a priest had the altar painted black to hide it from looters, later moving the altar to Casco Viejo. However, studies place the altar's stylistic details in the 18th century, casting doubt on this legend. It's a gorgeous work of art nevertheless, and worth a stop. From here you can head back to Plaza Independencia by walking 1 more block east on Avenida A, turning left on Calle 7, and walking 1 block.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.