There’s a chasm of difference between visiting and experiencing a city. Nowhere is that more true than in Panama’s dramatic capital. Its spectacular cityscape is filled with towers of glass and steel around the bay reaching high into the sky, catching the rosy hues of sunset or sunrise during the day and at night lighting the sky like some permanents firework display. But the most desirable hotels in Panama and the city’s pulsating heart are not high in the air but in the historic Casco Viejo with its colonial and art deco architecture, narrow brick-paved streets, shady plazas, colorful shops, bars, restaurants and buzzing nightlife. Of all the neighborhoods with hotels in Panama it’s the one to stay in, not just visit for a few short hours.

Panama las bovedas monument
Panama historic facades
Panama Monument Simon Bolivar

The attractions of the modern city are obvious. Amidst the shiny cathedrals of commerce are hotels in Panama with accommodation, casinos and spas that are every bit as luxurious and comfortable as anywhere on earth. Truth be told, many of them could be anywhere on earth. The decor’s the same, right down to the bath fittings. Even the breakfast buffet has a feeling of global familiarity. There’s a story told of how Stevie Wonder would insist on staying in Holiday Inns when he was touring because the layout of every room was identical. You certainly can’t say that of a luxury boutique hotel such as Amarla. All our rooms are very different, they have to be, to fit the colonial design of our historic building. No way does this mean you’re dialing down on luxury. It’s just a little more personal, a little less corporate than many other hotels in Panama.

At Amarla you’ll quickly become friends with our staff. It’s a small hotel so there aren’t too many of us, or too many guests. What we share is knowledge and a passion for Panama and the Casco Viejo in particular.  It’s a compact neighborhood made to be explored by foot. The streets are too narrow to make any other form of transport impractical.

‘We are at the heart of the most vibrant, historic and beautiful part of the city.’

panama converted homes
historic facades old town known as casco viejo panama city panama central america


Amarla Boutique Hotel in Casco Viejo, is located in one of the best neighbourhoods for discovering the origins of Panama City. The colorful historic streets are ready to great you from the moment you step outside, which is far more preferential than if you were to stay in a large modern hotel. From one of those you could start the day with a shower and enjoy a leisurely breakfast before grabbing a taxi over to our historic quarter. But, there’s a catch. Panama’s in the tropics. Our year-round daily temperatures are in the low thirties centigrade, the high eighties Fahrenheit, and humid. Exploring really is best done early in the day or at night. In fact, many shops and even some restaurants close in the afternoon. Some of our guests enjoy making their first forays into the streets even before they’ve had their breakfast. It’s a way of breaking sightseeing into manageable chunks. Walk a little. Eat breakfast. Walk a little more. Lunch. Siesta. A drink with a sunset view. Dinner. Then it’s time to enjoy the Casco Viejo’s vibrant nightlife. It wouldn’t be quite the same if you had to keep finding a taxi to and from the historic heart of Panama.

No matter how early in the morning you hit the streets from one of the Casco Viejo Panama hotels there’s always life. For instance, as soon as the fish market, ‘Mercado de Mariscos’, opens at 6am, it’s bustling with shopkeepers, restaurateurs and hotel chefs stocking up for the day ahead. It’s one of the great unsung sights of Panama City filled with characters as colorful as the mounds of seafood on sale. You’ll find the freshest oysters, lobster, shrimp, black and blue marlin, yellowtail tuna, amberjack, wahoo, sailfish, roosterfish, dorada and many others. It’s not for nothing that Panama means ‘abundance of fish’ in one of the local indigenous languages. You may think it’s pointless to buy any of this amazing seafood without a kitchen to prepare it. You’d be wrong. On the second floor of the market there’s a kitchen that’ll prepare and cook your purchase exactly how you want it. Perhaps not first thing in the morning. But, outside, stalls are already doing a brisk trade in coffee, ‘patacones’ – Panama’s ubiquitous fried plantains – cerviche and more than the odd cooling beer. There’s no better place to mingle with the locals. And if you’re staying in the Casco Viejo it’s easy to stroll back to the Casco Viejo Panama afterwards.

Panama Palacio Bolivar

What might surprise you, having seen the historic streets teeming with locals not long after dawn, is just how many Panamanians pack the Casco Viejo at night. Once again, it’s the climate. In the afternoon everywhere seems deserted,  shops and even restaurants bring their shutters down. Nobody wants to be outside in the tropical heat. Reenergized, the crowds return as the sun goes down. Everybody comes to the Casco Viejo to eat, drink and dance. Panama’s position at the crossroads of the world, thanks to the canal, has created a uniquely cosmopolitan nightlife. You’ll find restaurants representing every cuisine: Colombian, French, American, Italian, Chinese, Cuban all within walking distance of Casco Viejo Panama hotels. The list is endless and constantly changing along with the coolest bars and nightspots. Many follow a common trajectory of popularity. They go from being a secret known only to a few insiders to a fashionable hotspot before becoming oversubscribed and, eventually, last year’s model. Then they reinvent themselves. Or die. That’s another advantage of staying at a place such as the Amarla. Working in the heart of the Casco Viejo our staff know which places are on the up and which are on the way down. They love to share their insider information with our guests.

panorama-casco viejo historic district panama city sunset unesco world heritage central america

As you wander the constantly surprising streets around the hotel you can see what drives this constant sense of flux. The colonial buildings are filled with nooks and crannies, each of which could represent a home for somebody’s dream of a bar or restaurant. Like many of the world’s hippest urban neighborhoods Casco Viejo was, until quite recently distinctly edgy. It’s original reason for existence was it was seen as easier to defend after the original city center, Panama Viejo, was plundered and destroyed by the English privateer Henry Morgan in 1671. The whole city went into decline not long after as it lost its place as a key port in the Spanish Empire. Since then it’s had brief booms and longer busts as first railroad building then the canal brought French and American companies along with hordes of migrant labor. All have left their cosmopolitan legacy in the culture, cuisine and architecture of Panama, nowhere more than in the Casco Viejo. But it used to be be hard to see beneath the crumbling facades. Then, beginning in the 1980s, artists, specialist shopkeepers, restaurateurs and nightclub owners recognized the potential of the beautiful buildings available for what were then peppercorn prices. For the cognoscenti Casco Viejo became the place to go.

The icing on the cake came in 1997 when UNESCO granted the Casco Viejo world heritage status. With that came investment. The Panamanian government recognized the jewel it had hidden in its capital city. Tourist police appeared in reassuring numbers, replacing the gangs who used to run the neighborhood. Crumbling colonial buildings were restored to often more than their former glory – centuries-old glamour with modern amenities. New restaurants appeared, each with a different twist to their cuisine, amidst the lively bars and nightclubs spilling on to the streets. And, of course, many of the historic mansions found new purpose as chic Casco Viejo Panama hotels, such as the Amarla.

‘We’d love you to come and share our experience of our favorite place in Panama.’.

 – Amarla Boutique Hotel