It’s not often that a UNESCO-listed district can claim a new addition. The historic quarter of Panama City, Casco Viejo (also known as Casco Antiguo), and its brick-lined streets haven’t changed much since the 17th century.
Centuries-old churches and the presidential palace brush up against colonial-style, pastel buildings with wrought-iron balconies reminiscent of Old San Juan in Puerto Rico and New Orleans. But one of the most iconic buildings in Casco Viejo is the former Union Club, built in 1917. It sat empty for more than 30 years — its abandoned shell was used as a backdrop in films like the 2008 James Bond movie “Quantum of Solace.” Now, it’s transformed into the area’s newest hotel: the Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo.
With only the original French colonial façade still standing — Panamanian politician Manuel Noriega supposedly once hid out here, and the building was bombed in 1989 during the American invasion — local architect Manuel Choy looked to old photos for design inspiration. The images served as a guide during the five-year restoration project that transformed Panama’s former social club into the 159-room Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo Panama, which debuted last month.
Strategically sandwiched between the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal and “new Panama,” the financial district dominated by skyscrapers, the hotel sits on the edge of Casco Viejo, away from the foot traffic of cruise ship tourists shopping for Panama hats. “We are a hidden oasis,” general manager David Kianni tells me. “When you are looking at the building from outside, it looks small, like there’s no life behind it.”
From the exterior, it really is tough to gauge the size of the hotel. As I was whisked through the same regal, art nouveau–columned entrance that the likes of Albert Einstein and Queen Elizabeth II once passed through, I got my first taste of Panamanian culture as doormen donning Panama hats and women outfitted in cream-colored, embroidered dresses greeted me. Panamanian designer Federico Visuetti designed the uniform around “anecdotes from yesterday’s Panama, recreating the elegance of the ’40s, ’50s, and part of the ’60s, fusing it with Parisian-chic and providing the local touch with embroidered details that pay homage to la pollera, recognized as one of the most beautiful and expensive traditional dresses of the world,” he says.
The Panamanian history lesson continues in the lobby, where the patterned cement floor and wall tile, handmade in Nicaragua, mimics a process invented in 1860s Paris that was popular during Casco’s French canal era. It’s when many of Casco Viejo’s buildings were constructed. The Panama Canal is really the central driving factor in the décor, with nautical motifs, historic, black-and-white photographs lining the walls, and a statement-making tile mural of the canal.
The majority of Panama’s orchids are exported, but a variety of different types — the country is home to more than a thousand species — are showcased in bouquets topping tables and embedded in the central plaza courtyard gardens. Those gardens, incidentally, are where I spotted singer Gloria Estefan having lunch the day I arrived.
“Architects worked diligently to preserve as much as possible of the history and patrimony of the building, which holds an importance both for Panama and the Panamanian people,” Kianni explains. “We wanted to make sure we had this historic, colonial feel, but even though the rooms feel colonial in many ways, they are also very French and stylish — they’re still contemporary.”
Similar to how Panama City preserves its cultural heritage through Casco Viejo while continuing to modernize the newer part of town, Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo seamlessly incorporates elements of Panama’s past through features like elegant standing tubs with bronze and porcelain handles, and an evening sunset ceremony with elaborate costumes and dancing. Rooms are stocked with Diptyque toiletries, but my majordomo (butler service is a perk for those in one of the 35 suites) brought a selection of scented artisanal soaps and drew a lavender bud–sprinkled bubble bath that was hard to peel myself out of in the evenings.
The pool — the largest in Casco — adds to the resort feel, with loungers in the water and a sophisticated indoor bar that delivers fresh juices, smoothies, cocktails, and the country’s namesake beer right to your sun bed. While tanning poolside, it felt like I slipped away to one of Panama’s private island resorts, while being just steps from fantastic restaurants like Fonda Lo Que Hay, the bustling fish market Mercado de Mariscos, and family estate-run coffee shop Sisi.
Italian chef Lorenzo Di Gravio helms the five restaurants and bars. He sources as locally as possible, with flowers and greens coming from a farm in the province of Chiriquí; meat from the Volcán Barú area; fish, like red snapper and grouper, from a local company with two boats, one based in the Atlantic, the other in the Pacific; and homemade corn buns and chicken tamales (served at breakfast) made by a small artisan producer in La Chorrera, an hour’s drive from the capital.
The signature restaurant, Caleta, may be modeled after a Mediterranean brasserie, but the chef wants the ingredients to reflect what’s found right here in Panama. (Di Gravio is serving suckling pig with taro root puree and escarole, and seafood salad with mandarin and lemon aioli.)
French-style Vera Café brews specialty coffee sourced from a small, fifth-generation producer, Santos Café, in the Panamanian highlands. And vitrines display freshly baked croissants as delicate as you’d find in Paris — I can judge since I’ve had my fair share over the past decade that I’ve lived in France. The soon-to-debut speakeasy, Ammi, meanwhile, is poised to be one of Casco’s hottest new rooftop craft cocktail bars, complete with skyline views of the modern city.
Panama is a hub, with its canal connecting all corners of the globe. The country sits at the crossroads of North and South America, the isthmus dividing the Atlantic from the Pacific Ocean, but it’s known less as a tourist destination and more as a cruise ship stop. “We recognize that the country is a gem, that there’s so much to offer,” Kianni says. “Now, with a luxury hotel like us coming in and promoting the destination, we’re showing just how rich Panama is culturally.”