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Casco Viejo: The second city

Panama’s historic district

Casco Viejo: The second city

The first Panama City

Founded with the name of Our Lady of the Assumption of Panama on August 15, 1519 by Pedro Arias Dávila, with a population of 100 inhabitants, this was the first Spanish city on the coasts of the South Sea or Pacific Ocean, becoming the capital of Castilla del Oro. Its foundation replaced the previous cities of Santa María la Antigua del Darién and Acla. And on September 15, 1521, it received, by Royal Decree, the title of City and a Coat of Arms conferred by Charles V of Spain.

Lithograph, 1842

Henry Morgan, The Bucaneer

Collection of the National Library of Wales

The pirate

Henry Morgan

On January 28th, 1671, the feared Welsh pirate Henry Morgan led a daring and devastating attack on Panama City, which at the time was one of the richest and most prosperous cities in Spanish America. Morgan’s objective was to plunder the city and seize the valuable treasures found there.

Morgan’s attack was carefully planned and executed. It had a fleet of ships and a group of 1,400 highly experienced pirates. They reached the Panamanian coast and advanced towards Panama City, facing a series of natural obstacles and Spanish defenses along the way.

On January 29th, Morgan’s forces reached the outskirts of the city and began the siege. Despite the efforts of the Spanish defenders, the city fell into the hands of the pirates. What followed was a brutal looting in which Panama City was ransacked. The governor at the time, Juan Pérez de Guzmán y Gonzaga, ordered the city to be abandoned, but not before exploding the gunpowder deposits, which caused a large fire that destroyed the entire city. This measure was to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.

The ruins still remain, including the tower of its cathedral, and are a tourist attraction known as the historic monumental complex of Panama La Vieja, recognized as a world heritage site.
Henry Morgan’s sack of Panama City had important historical consequences. It contributed to the weakening of Spanish control in the region and encouraged the creation of new defense strategies and the construction of safer cities in Latin America. Furthermore, the event became a legend in the history of piracy and in the figure of Henry Morgan, who was eventually arrested and taken back to England.

Panama City reboot.

The Spanish crown then approved the transfer of the city to a small peninsula that at that time was called Azuero, located approximately 8 km from the previous city. This peninsula was surrounded by reefs that were exposed when the tide was low, which would make it difficult for enemy ships to approach. The original city was abandoned after the sack and a new city was established. This is how Panama La Nueva, the second city of Panama, was born. And the first city was renamed Panama La Vieja.

Can’t miss it

Aero City Tour

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The second city

Panamá La Nueva

Panama la Nueva was founded as a response to the need to establish a safer city than the previous one. The construction was an effort by the Spanish authorities to establish a new city with a better structured design.

The construction work was supervised by the new governor, Antonio Fernández de Córdoba , a soldier with vast experience in the construction of military fortifications. The founding ceremony of the new city took place on January 21, 1673, two years after the pirate attack. Initially it was made up of about 300 homes belonging to the wealthy families of the time and surrounded by thick walls that excluded it from the rest of the population. The central point of this new city was the Plaza Mayor

360° view of Plaza Herrera

The system of walls built around this city had an eminently military purpose, in order to prevent a new attack by pirates. This is how three powerful bastions were built: Barlovento, Mano de Tigre and Puerta de Tierra . The latter had the function of entering and exiting the city towards the suburb , as the city outside the walls was called.

Despite all the efforts to keep the city safe from external dangers, the new city was the victim during the 18TH century of three large fires that partially destroyed it and modified its initial structure.
And this new city would eventually become what we know today as the Casco Viejo or Casco Antiguo of Panama City, a historically and culturally rich place that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997 due to its historical importance and its well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture.

Places to visit in Casco Viejo

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Religious Monuments

In addition to the Cathedral, among the religious monuments that are currently preserved are the church of San José, famous for its golden altar; the church of San Francisco of Asís, whose tower stands in front of Plaza Bolívar; the church of San Felipe de Neri and the church of La Merced . The façade of the latter was moved stone by stone from the old church located in Panama Viejo .

Remember to dress appropriately when you visit churches and temples

Official Buildings

You will find many government buildings in this area, starting with the presidency of the Republic, whose name is the Palacio de las Garzas (Palace of the Storks). You will also find the Ministry of Government, the Government Palace, the Palace of Justice, The Legation, The Bolívar Palace, The National Institute of Culture, the Municipal Palace and the Municipality House, all of an official nature.

Art, Museums, Historic places

You will be able to appreciate buildings such as La Casa Art Decó, Casa Góngora, La Casa Boyacá. And along Avenue A, some houses to mention are: the Testa house, colonial style; the Calvo mansion, neoclassical style; the Art Deco house, whose name honors its architectural style and the Obarrio house, current headquarters of the Old Town Office.

Another group of houses are the Heurtematte houses, built in 1877 and of special interest since it was there where the act of independence was drafted in 1903. 12 This group of houses is located on Avenue B on one side of Plaza Bolívar and of the National Theater.

And of course you can’t miss visiting The Panama Canal Museum, which tells the history of the construction and operation of this engineering work, and El Paseo de las Bóvedas and the Plaza de Francia, a boardwalk that offers a spectacular view of the sunset and the bay.

360° view of Plaza de Francia