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Panama City, Old and New

Panama City skyline at night

Panama City is a jumping-off point for the country's spectacular beaches and jungles-and the site of its most famous attraction: the Panama Canal, the roughly 50-mile-long waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But there is much more to see in this sprawling, modern capital-if you know where to look.

Start your tour in the compact, walkable Casco Viejo, also known as Casco Antiguo, the Old Quarter where Spanish colonial life took root in the late 17th century. This increasingly chic neighborhood, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is filled with monuments, churches, museums, boutiques, galleries, restaurants and hotels. Its wrought iron grillwork, colorful façades and narrow cobblestone streets are reminiscent of New Orleans' French Quarter.

Two leading attractions, the National Theatre and the Metropolitan Cathedral, have been undergoing renovation for the pope's planned 2019 visit. But you can admire the Baroque façade of the Church of Mercy, rescued stone by stone from the first Spanish settlement, as well as the gilded Baroque altar of the Church of San José, the imposing Presidential Palace and the Moorish-influenced architecture of Plaza Bolívar.

Adjoining the Museum of Colonial Religious Art are the ruins of a 17th-century church and convent and the celebrated Flat Arch. The arch's centuries-long survival contributed to the decision to locate the canal in Panama rather than in more earthquake-prone Nicaragua. (The arch was rebuilt after collapsing in 2003.) On Independence Plaza, the building that once housed the headquarters of the French Panama Canal Company and the U.S. Isthmian Canal Commission is now home to the Panama Canal Museum. Dense with historical detail, the museum recounts the engineering and human challenges of constructing the canal, whose ownership finally passed to Panama in 1999.

Once you've seen the old town, explore the even older town: Panamá Viejo, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The location of the original Spanish settlement in 1519, it was incinerated and abandoned following a 1671 invasion by English pirates. Today, it's a magnificent, eerie collection of partially restored monuments whose centerpiece is the bell tower of the Cathedral of Nuestra Señora de la Asuncíon. Take time to wander through the picturesque remains of other religious and public structures and to visit the museum, which recounts the settlement's history.

For a change of pace, spend a morning-go as early as you can, because it's hot-at the Metropolitan Natural Park. A 10-minute taxi ride from the city center, this tropical rainforest and dry forest habitat offer seductive, foliage-framed views of the city skyline and the canal. Stop at the visitor center for a trail guide, and don't miss the butterfly garden.

To learn more about the isthmus' flora and fauna-and to admire Frank Gehry's distinctive architecture-take a ride down the Amador Causeway to the Biomuseo, completed in 2014. This is the only Latin American work by Gehry, best known for his Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Its exterior features a multihued set of panels evoking a faceted crystal, along with the bright colors of the tropics. Its interactive core exhibition on evolution and biodiversity in Panama is excellent. As you wander the Park of Biodiversity, notice the gleaming white spires of the city skyline and local fishermen casting their lines into the Bay of Panama.

Finally, because you must, there's the canal tour-either a full or partial transit, both rich in history and scenery. A partial transit via Canal & Bay Tours requires hotel pickup at dawn, with a return in the afternoon or early evening. Tour groups converge on these boats, which glide in a stately fashion through the canal's locks and are accompanied by bilingual commentary and a buffet breakfast and lunch. A good alternative is a stop at the Miraflores Visitor Center, which features canal exhibits, a restaurant and terraces from which you can wave at boats navigating the Miraflores Locks.

Where to Stay

Hotels outside the Casco Viejo are great bargains. In the city's Bella Vista neighborhood, try The Bristol Hotel, whose Salsipuedes restaurant has inventive Panamanian cuisine. And adjacent to the Multicentro Mall in Marbella is the Radisson Decapolis Hotel, with snazzy contemporary décor, a pool and excellent food. thebristol.com

Where to Shop

At the outdoor artisan market in Casco Viejo, indigenous Panamanians sell shell jewelry, appliquéd and embroidered textiles and other crafts. Another good choice is the indoor Centro Artesanal de Panamá Viejo.

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