The Churches of Old Goa, the lanes of Panaji

When visiting Goa, you shouldn’t miss the Old Goa and the state’s capital, Panaji (Panjim). Panaji is probably the quietest and most pleasant of all Indian capitals. The labyrinthine Latin Quarter is full of beautifully renovated, colonial-era buildings. Meanwhile, the nearby Old Goa lures with innumerable, white-washed churches which hasn’t changed a bit since they were built by the Portuguese 400 years ago. Both places are deservedly UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

A mossy stone cross stands on a high platfrom overlooking green plains and Mandovi river in Old Goa
Cross in front of the Church of Our Lady on the Mount in Old Goa

Panaji on a budget

I have bad news: accommodation in Panaji is expensive. You can’t expect to find anything within the historical Latin Quarter (aka Fontainhas) for less than 1 500 INR, especially at the weekend. I’ve seen some places looking cheaper, but they don’t take foreign tourists. The Bambolim beach could be more affordable, but it’s so far away from all the cultural sights that staying there doesn’t make much sense.

A view from the bridge through the canal to the waterfront colonial buildings of the Fontainhas district
A small canal divides Panaji bus station and office district from the historical, posh Fontainhas where most accommodation can be found

The cheapest place we found was a clean, well furnished, air-conditioned room located in a peaceful, leafy Altinho neighbourhood. The tiny problem was that getting there required climbing a hill. It was some 2 km away from the bus stand and there were no shops or eateries anywhere within a 1 km radius. Despite all this, I was happy with this choice.

Well-furnished room in Panaji with perfectly white bed sheets
Although more expensive than any other places we stayed in Goa, this very good quality room was still the cheapest to get in Panaji

The capital’s food, on the other hand, is dirt cheap. Provided you don’t decide to dine in the Fontainhas where prices are higher than on the Goan beaches. We were blown away by the amount and quality of the food served at an eatery between the bus stand and the Fontainhas footbridge. Even cheaper was a very standard KTC canteen inside Panaji KTC bus station. I haven’t seen many places to eat in Old Goa, apart from snacks. It’s better to have a meal in Panaji before or after the Old Goa trip.

A Goan thali (steel plate) with rice, flat bread and bowls containing dal (watery pulse stew), mixed vegetables, curry and semolina dessert
A hearty, diverse, delicious and very reasonably priced thali in Panaji

Last but not least, it is free to see all the Old Goa churches! It also helps that free water purifying machines stand in front of the most important churches in Old Goa (Bom Jesus and St. Francis of Assisi).

Panaji

The most important place to explore in Panaji is the 18th-century Portuguese district called Fontainhas. It’s small, so it’s easy to cover it on foot in around an hour. Apart from the small, 19th-century Chapel of St. Sebastian, there is no one particular sight to see. Simply get yourself lost in the district’s narrow alleys and admire the architecture around you.

The author stands in a narrow lane in Fontainhas between old, colonial, colourfully houses and decorative plants
On the streets of Fontainhas district

Don’t skip the city’s landmark – the Immaculate Conception Church, widely known as Panaji Church. Its most striking feature is an iconic staircase. Sadly, it was closed to visitors due to COVID.

A white staircase zig-zags up to the terrace and a baroque facade of the Panaji church
The Immaculate Conception Church – Panaji’s landmark

After visiting Panjim church, you could carry on further along quiet, neat streets lined with European-style houses. A fleet of stairs would lead you up Altinho hill, where the Archbishops Palace and Sunaparanta Goa Centre for the Arts are located. We stayed right next to the art centre but had so little time we glimpsed this sprawling colonial residence only from the outside.

The author stands at the wide stairway leading along old trees down to the streets of Old Goa
Staircase to Altinho district in Panaji

Old Goa (Goa Velha)

We focused on Old Goa, knowing exploring this large area on foot would take us much longer time. The bus stops right in front of the most famous church – Basilica Bom Jesus. This central location isn’t ideal if you want to cover both distant ends of the area (2.5 km in a straight line). Luckily for us, the local tourists seemed to be interested only in Bom Jesus and the immediate surroundings. Most of the churches we visited were empty.

A brown, rectangular shape of Bom Jesus basilica from a distance
Immediately recognisable Bom Jesus Basilica

Bom Jesus is instantly recognisable as it’s the only church in Old Goa that isn’t white. Unlike other churches, you’re not allowed to take photos inside. It’s a shame, as the interior hides a masterpiece of Indo- European art: a 17th- century silver and glass casket containing the body of St Francis Xavier.

A close-up of  richly decorated, Baroque facade of Bom Jesus Basilica crowned with IHS letters on top
Bom Jesus basilica facade

St. Francis Xavier was one of the first Jesuits, actively engaged in missionary work in the 16th century Portuguese Goa (including the work of the infamous inquisition). He died in China and as the legend goes, his body was intact and odourless when it reached Malacca (Malaysia), after many months’ journey. The body still gets exposed to the public every 10 years. The church has a patio which you cannot enter and a small museum with an entrance fee. We didn’t really have time to check out, though.

Carved arches of St Francis of Asissi church and a wooden, gilded 15th century altar at the back.
Inside St. Francis of Asisi church

Right across the road from Bom Jesus stands a cluster of churches. The church of St. Francis of Assisi has a portal made in characteristic Manueline style and fine baroque interior. Past a small lapidarium, you can find a small and uninteresting Chapel of St. Catherina of Alexandria.

Two mossy, stone Portuguese tombs and a plain brick chapel in Old Goa
The old tombs, lapidarium and the back of St. Catherina’s chapel

Walk to the right from St Francis church and you’ll get to the main entrance of the imposing Se Cathedral. Make sure you step inside as the interior doesn’t disappoint.

Flowers grow in front of white-washed, imposing Se Cathedral in Old Goa
Se Cathedral

You can leave through the eastern gate to walk to St Cajetan church. This mini-copy of Rome’s St. Peter’s basilica looks most impressive from the outside. Just before the church, hidden in the garden is an unassuming stone doorway – all that is left from the 16th century Adil Shah Palace.

A baroque white facade of St Cajetan Church in Goa with corinthian columns, two small bell towers and a small dome.
St Cajetan Church – one of the most beautiful Goan churches usually stays empty

From there, it’s also just a stone-throw to the Viceroys Arch: a portal leading to the mangrove-fringed Mandovi River. If you have your own vehicle, a car ferry can take you to the large island for a feel of rural Goa.

Two stray dogs walk an empty tarmac road leading through a stone gate with Vasco da  Gama statue
Viceroy’s Arch leads directly to Mandovi river

You’d need to retrace your steps slightly and then take a quiet, 1.5 km uphill road to get to the Our Lady on the Mount Church. Trust me, it’s worth it. The church itself is boarded up and plain, but the view from the top is mindblowing. You’ll see a sea of green, a blue ribbon of the Mandovi and white towers of the churches. In the afternoon, the view at the churches is against the sun. However, the viewing platform makes for a great sunset spot.

A bird-eye view of green expanses with a fw white churches of Old Goa rising above the tree line and a wide, winding Mandovi river far in the background
White towers of Old Goa churches pop from the sea of greenery with Mandovi river glistening in the distance

As we still had to catch the bus back, we rushed all the way we came from, past Bom Jesus and up the hill to see the ruins of the Augustine convent in the red glow of the setting sun.

Remnants of the towers of Goan Augustine convent are half in shadow, half lit by the setting sun
The remnants of St. Augustine convent in the sunset

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Panaji and Old Goa?

By bus
Panaji is well connected with all cities and towns in Goa via bus network. The fastest Kadamba (state corporation) shuttle will take you from Panjim to Margao in just 45min. Remember that Kadamba shuttle always has a separate ticket office (and you can’t buy those in advance). Kadamba shuttle bus Mapusa- Panaji takes 20 min. Both run very often in the morning but less frequently during the day.
The Fontainhas is a short walk from the Panaji KTC bus station.

By train
The train station (Karmali) is less useful. It’s located midway between Panjim and Old Goa and the local connections are very infrequent. You can get to Karmali from Pernem, Thivim or Madgao.

How to get from Panaji to Old Goa?

To get from Panaji to Old Goa, head to the Panjim Bus Stand (just before KTC Panaji bus stand) and take one of the regular buses plying the route. Make sure to ask when is the last one back!

Brand new, modern interior of the air-conditioned bus in Goa
The empty interior of the posh AC Kadamba shuttle

Prices [in Indian rupees as of February 2022]

1 000 INR good standard double ensuite AC room in Altinho district, Panaji
90 INR rich thali in an eatery near Panaji bus station
50 INR A/C Kadamba shuttle Panaji – Madgao (30 km)
40 INR coconut at Panaji bus stand
35 INR pau baji (bread with chickpea stew) at KTC canteen (inside Panjim bus stand)
22 INR Kadamba shuttle bus Mapusa – Panaji (12 km)
20 INR regular, private bus Panaji bus station – Old Goa (10km)

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