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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How to get to Panaji and Old Goa?
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.
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!
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)