Casco Viejo has always had a romantic look, but for decades the romance has been of the tropical-decadence, paint-peeling-from-rotting-walls variety. For more than a decade, though, it’s been undergoing a tasteful and large-scale restoration that’s giving the old buildings new luster and has turned the area into one of the city’s most fashionable destinations for a night out.
Elegant bars, restaurants, and sidewalk cafés have opened. Hotels and hostels are arriving. Little tourist shops are popping up. Amazingly, this is being done with careful attention to keeping the old charm of the place alive. In some places the district now resembles the French Quarter of New Orleans. It also looks very much like a smaller, much-less-touristy Cartagena. Unfortunately, the renovation is squeezing out the poorer residents who’ve lived here for ages.
The “Old Part,” also known as Casco Antiguo or the San Felipe district, was the second site of Panama City, and it continued to be the heart of the city during the first decades of the 20th century. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1997. It’s a city within the city—940 buildings, 747 of which are houses—and one from a different age. It’s a great place for a walking tour.
You can wander down narrow brick streets, sip an espresso at an outdoor café, visit old churches, and gaze up at wrought-iron balconies spilling over with bright tropical plants. Its buildings feature an unusual blend of architectural styles, most notably rows of ornate Spanish- and French-colonial houses but also a smattering of art deco and neoclassical buildings.
In some respects Sunday is a good day for exploring Casco Viejo. For one thing, it’s the likeliest time to find the churches open and in use. However, though more bars and restaurants are now staying open on Sunday, many others aren’t, and even some of the museums are closed. Several places are also closed on Monday. Getting a look inside historic buildings and museums is easiest during the week, especially since some are in government offices open only during normal business hours. Churches open and close rather erratically. Friday and Saturday nights are the best bets for dining and partying.
Even with the makeover, Casco Viejo is not the safest part of Panama City . I’ve long urged visitors (and locals) to explore the area, and I’ve never felt threatened myself, but it’s become less safe in the last few years. Ironically, the area’s renaissance seems to be driving it: With more tourists and affluent residents in Casco Viejo, there’s just more to steal.
There’s no reason to be overly concerned, but use common sense in exploring Casco Viejo. If you’re pale and gringo, you’re going to stand out, but try to look as though you’re a resident foreigner. Look at the map of Casco Viejo and mentally draw a line from Luna’s Castle  to Parque Herrera: At night, do not venture west of this area on foot. Also avoid the block of Calle 4 between Avenida Central and Avenida B at night. Parque Herrera is beginning to gentrify, but it’s still on the edge of a sketchy area.
All that said, the neighborhood is well patrolled by the policía de turismo (tourism police), who cruise around on bicycles and are easy to spot in their short-pants uniforms. They’ve been trained specifically to serve tourists, and they’re doing an impressive job. It’s not unusual for them to greet foreign tourists with a handshake and a smile and offer them an insider’s tour of the area or help with whatever they need. Visitors have reported many pleasant encounters with them.
Don’t hesitate to ask them for help or directions. Their station is next to Manolo Caracol  and across the street from the Ministerio de Gobierno y Justicia (Avenida Central between Calle 2 Oeste and Calle 3 Este, tel. 211-2410 or 211-1929). It’s open 24 hours, and the officers will safely guide you to your destination night or day.
There are two places in Casco Viejo proper to withdraw cash. The first, and safest, is next to the tourism police station on Avenida Central near Calle 2. The other is a Banco Nacional de Panamá ATM on Calle 3 Oeste between Avenida Central and Avenida A. It’s behind the large outer doors of an office at the side of the Teatro Nacional, and because of that it’s only accessible during regular business hours during the week. There’s a guard by the door. Ideally, though, come to Casco Viejo with sufficient cash.
A good way to explore the area is to come with a knowledgeable guide or taxi driver who can drop you in different areas to explore on foot. Safety aside, you’ll probably save time this way, as the streets are confusing and it’s easy to get lost. Do major exploring only during the daytime; those who come at night should taxi in and out to specific destinations. Restaurant and bar owners can call a cab for the trip back.
Those who prefer to drive should note that even locals get lost here. Watch out for narrow one-way streets and blind intersections. Street parking is hard to find in the day and on weekend nights. There’s a paid lot with an attendant on the side of the Teatro Nacional that faces Panama Bay. It’s open 24 hours a day and costs US$0.50/hour.