With a warm tropical climate, a bustling cosmopolitan center, a laid-back historical area, and a trendy nightlife scene, Panama City is one of Latin America’s hottest destinations year-round. Here’s a quick guide on what to do, see, eat, drink, and party in Panama City, Panama.
In The Guide
Panama City has this incredible vibe that is a little hard to describe and it doesn’t click with everyone. It’s a hodgepodge of old, new, dirty, clean, ultra-modern, ultra run-down, laid back but also chaotic… and it somehow all works.
It is really the only city of its kind within Central America. This concrete jungle is made up 100’s of tall buildings and ranks 16th in the world for number of skyscrapers, trailing only New York and Chicago in the Americas, and ahead of Miami. The city center is incredibly modern and features creative architecture like the twist tower, locally known as “El Tornillo”.
When you need a break from the chaotic city center you can head over to the much calmer Casco Viejo area. This is the historic district which has undergone major restoration over the years. The Spanish colonial buildings make you feel like you have travelled to a completely different country, even though it’s only a few minutes away. It’s also where the city’s trendiest bars, restaurants, and boutique hotels are located so this makes a great neighborhood to stay in during your trip.
While some people just decide to visit Panama City for just a day or skip it all together before heading to one of the beach towns, it really is worth getting to know. Here’s a quick guide I’ve put together on all there is to do and see in Panama City, Panama.
5 Travel Tips
1) Small bills are better. Panama may have the convenience of the U.S. dollar but it’s not always convenient to break a 20. Bring plenty of $1, $5, and $10 bills with you while you’re out.
2) Dress Nicely. Panama City is a place where people live & work – not a beach town. So if you choose to walk around in shorts, flip flops, and a tank top you will look like a “gringo”. GUYS especially do not wear shorts out in the evenings because you risk not being able to get into some of the bars and restaurants.
3) Tipping is not the norm. You don’t need to tip the taxi driver, the man selling empanadas on the street, or the lady at the cash register. These people will actually be confused about the money you’re leaving and might try to give it back. You can however leave a 10% tip (or a little more if you received good service) at restaurants.
4) There are no addresses. Street signs and addresses aren’t really a thing in Panama City, which can make finding spots a bit difficult. Luckily the majority of the points of interest show up in Google Maps so you can use that to navigate to where you need to go.
5) Use Uber to get around. Taxis are not metered and drivers like to rip tourists off so save yourself some money and have a pleasant transportation experience by downloading Uber. Be sure to slide the marker over to Uber X for the more economically priced service and most of your rides within the city will cost approximately $3. If you’re a first time Uber user you can enter the promo code UBERPTYLIFE for $10 off your first ride.
El Cangrejo: Older neighborhood in the center of the city that’s popular among young expats. Be sure to walk along Via Argentina and to try some local dining options. View hotels in this neighborhood
San Francisco: A residential area that is a mix of high-rises, houses, and the beautiful Parque Omar, Panama City’s version of Central Park. Lot’s of new restaurants and bars opening their doors in this neighborhood. View hotels in this neighborhood
Punta Pacifica: Very luxurious and expensive neighborhood in Panama with oceanfront views. Steps away from Multiplaza Mall. View hotels in this neighborhood
Paitilla: This is an older prestigious neighborhood located next to Punta Pacifica where most of the Jewish community in Panama resides and where you can find plenty of kosher restaurants and supermarkets. View hotels in this neighborhood
Avenida Balboa: One of the most recognized areas as you drive into the city. A row of new high rises overlooking the ocean and the beautiful Cinta Costera park. Places to stay include the newly opened Hilton and Hard Rock Hotel.
Marbella: Located right behind Avenida Balboa, this area offers some great new developments.
Casco Viejo: This is the historic district of Panama, full of one of a kind Spanish colonial buildings and where the city’s best nightlife is located. View hotels in this neighborhood
Obarrio: A central location to stay in the city near the financial district with plenty of high-end dining options, luxury shopping at SOHO Mall, and boutique stores. View hotels in this neighborhood
Costa del Este: A high-end neighborhood located a few minutes from the main part of the city that is a mix of residential towers, office buildings, and luxury gated communities. View hotels in this neighborhood
Things To Do
If you’re idea of a vacation is visiting countless museums, Panama City may not be the place for you. Panama City is about experiencing life through it’s streets, music, food, and beautiful surroundings. Here are some of the sites not to miss, including a few museums, during your trip to Panama City.
The Panama Canal: You just can’t leave Panama without seeing one of the most important accomplishments in Panama’s history. You can visit the Miraflores Visitor Center, which is about a 20 minute drive or cab ride (also accessible by Metro Bus) from Panama City and there’s an interactive museum and viewing deck where you can actually watch the locks in action as large cargo and cruise ships pass through the Miraflores Locks.
Casco Viejo: Casco is a mix of restored Spanish colonial buildings that are now boutique hotels & hostels, apartments, trendy bars, and restaurants. Interspersed between these are condemned buildings where a few local families live that proudly blast their music all day, with their windows and doors wide open, and a good view of what they are watching on their massive flat screen TV. Simply strolling through the streets and taking in the scenes a great way to spend the day.
Panama Viejo: Panama Viejo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the first location of Panama City. It was abandoned in the mid-17th century and relocated to where Casco Viejo is located today. There’s one story that Captain Morgan burned down the city and another version where the Panamanians burned down the city before he arrived to make it look like it had already been taken over. Panama Viejo is easily accessible by Metro Bus.
Biomuseo: The newly opened Biomuseo, designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, features eight galleries focussing on the origin of the Panamanian isthmus and its impact on the planet’s biodiversity.
Metropolitan Park: Located at the edge of Panama City lies a massive nature reserve that is perfect for hiking. You can usually spot some interesting animals, birds, plants, and I’ve even seen monkeys there before! It also provides a panoramic view of Panama City at the top.
Ancon Hill: Hiking not your thing but still want a killer view? Call an Uber and have them take you to the top of Ancon Hill for a breathtaking view of the city. If you want to go up in a car you must arrive before 3pm but it’s available for pedestrians anytime.
Mercado de Mariscos: Enjoy freshly caught seafood with the locals at Panama City’s fish market located along the Cinta Costera. Be sure to try the locally prepared ceviche!
Cinta Costera: Panama City has an insanely beautiful long stretch of waterfront park where you can go running, biking, do yoga, use free workout equipment, play basketball, soccer, volleyball, tennis, pingpong, or just sit on a bench and people watch while enjoying a raspao.
Panama Detour: Experience life like a local during an urban walk through the real Panama City. Every tour is unique and customized to what your group would like to do and our pace moving throughout the city. Just a general idea of some of the things you can do are… stroll the historic streets of Casco Viejo, buy the freshest seafood at the Mercado de Mariscos, visit local coffee shops and craft beer breweries, eat at a typical Panamanian restaurant, pool crashing, light hiking, going to the top of a skyscraper to watch the sunset, visiting hidden artisan markets, and a few other hidden gems. Click here for more information.
Panama City is steadily becoming a top culinary destination in Latin America with the introduction of several amazing new restaurants and innovative chefs over the years. Here are some great local restaurants to try while you are here.
Cafe Coca Cola ($): Originally opened in 1906, this is the oldest still operating diner in Panama. It’s located on the border of Casco Viejo and Santa Ana and is a great spot to go for an affordable local style breakfast or lunch.
Trapiche ($): This is best low-key spot to go to try typical Panamanian cuisine like Tamal de Olla, Ropa Viejo, Arroz con Pollo, Patacones, and more! They have a few locations but the Via Argentina one is my favorite.
Eco Gourmet ($$): This hidden gem in Casco Viejo is the spot to go for trying innovative latin-inspired dishes.
La Septima Central ($$): A fun atmosphere with creative food. Once the clock strikes 11:30pm the music starts, the lights go down, and it’s time to party!
Donde Jose ($$$): Donde José provides one of the most unique culinary experiences you can have in Panama City with an intimate maximum 16-person seating per a meal. They focus on using local Panamanian ingredients and dishes and come out with a new set menu every few months.
Maito ($$$): Another must-try restaurant for foodies located in the quiet San Francisco neighborhood of Panama City. The restaurant utilizes fresh herbs from their garden and focusses on dishes that highlight local flavors.
One of the things Panama is known for is its high quality coffee produced in the highlands of Boquete and it’s a MUST to try a cup or 10 while you’re here. So skip Starbucks and head over to one of these spots to try best local coffee produced in Panama.
Bajareque: A small coffee shop in Casco Viejo is home to some of the best coffee in Panama. Bajareque Coffee House features high quality coffee from the Elida and El Burro Estates in Boquete, Panama. What’s great about this place is that the farms and coffee house are the same owners so you know you are getting their best batches of coffee. If you’re in Casco you must swing by and try a pour over of their award winning Geisha coffee!
Cafe Unido: Unido’s cozy, chic cafes make a great spot to hang out for a cup of coffee in Panama. They opened their first cafe in Panama City’s Coco del Mar neighborhood in early 2014 and since then they have opened coffee shops in Casco Viejo, Costa del Este, Marbella, and Multiplaza. Their stores feature six different blends of gourmet roasted coffee from Panama and they also serve fantastic breakfast, sandwiches, and salad options.
Casa Sucre: Casa Sucre Coffeehouse is a cozy getaway in Casco Viejo where you can enjoy one of their many varieties of Panamanian coffee and breakfast / lunch options.
Athanasiou: Besides having great coffee and tea, Athanasiou is home to one of the best bakeries in Panama and the store is covered wall-to-wall in chocolates, artisan bread, and pastries. They have locations in Costa del Este, Via Porras, and Paitilla.
Kotowa: Kotowa is an award winning and well-known coffee brand from Boquete, Panama. They have several locations throughout Panama and in Panama City you can always find them inside the Deli Gourmet stores.
Bars & Nightlife
Panama City nightlife is so difficult to keep up with because new places are constantly opening and the “cool place” is always changing. The majority of the nightlife in Panama City has now moved to the historic district in Casco Viejo but a few spots still remain on Calle Uruguay. There is also another party district called Zona Viva on the Amador Causeway – you don’t need to go there. Bars are allowed to stay open until 3am Sunday – Wednesday and at 4am on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Here are some of the hottest bars and nightclubs to visit in Panama City.
Teatro Amador: This restored theatre has turned into one of Panama’s top spots to party at! Every Thursday Teatro Amador features underground electronic music by local and international DJs as part of their Late Night Music series. Then on Friday the atmosphere becomes hot and tropical with latin and salsa sounds for their Dizzfruta night. And on Saturday anything goes with their PUNCH party series featuring the latest crossover music.
Casa Jaguar: One of the newer spots to open up. Once the clock strikes midnight, Casa Jaguar starts to get wild on any given Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday.
Tantalo: Stringed lights, good DJ, skyline view, and trendy Panamanians and foreigners always create the perfect party atmosphere at Tantalo’s Rooftop. On Tuesday’s they have Artes Martes where they have a live artistic performance, Wednesday is Latin Night, Thursday is Ladies Night, and on Friday, Saturday, & Sunday you’ll find a trendy crowd dancing to the latest DJ mixes.
El Sotano / El Apartamento: There’s no place like home, right? El Sotano (The Basement) and El Apartamento (The Apartment) has transformed a giant yellow house in Bella Vista into a bar and event venue. You can usually find live rock music on the first floor or head up to El Apartamento, which literally looks like an apartment, to listen to chill indie jams and enjoy a few drinks.
Mojitos Sin Mojitos: Chill and casual spot to go in Casco Viejo for some well-priced beers.
Relic: This was one of the first really good bars in Casco to open and it’s still a really popular place to go. It’s located on the bottom floor of Luna’s Castle Hostel with a large outdoor terrace and a cave-like indoor bar. Relic usually has a good mix of backpackers, foreigners, and locals. It gets extremely crowded on Friday and Saturday so if you want a more chill atmosphere go on Thursday. Free cover here.
La Rana Dorada: La Rana Dorada is a popular spot to go for their local house-brewed beers. Be sure to get the boat sampler before you order so you can try them all! They have locations in Casco Viejo, Via Argentina, and Costa del Este.
Piña Calavera: The black door covered in stickers near La Rana Dorada in Casco Viejo – that’s where you will find Piña Calaveras (formerly Onplog). I would describe Onplog as the coolest basement lair you never had. Low ceilings, walls made of computer parts, vintage TVs, and pallet couches are what you’ll find here. Try to locate the “secret door” within and you’ll fall into a room of mystical floating umbrellas, pool tables, and vintage airline seats.
Praga: A popular gay nightclub located at Plaza Paitilla in Panama City that plays mostly electronic music, hosts special theme nights, and has an open bar until midnight on Friday & Saturday.
Panama City is becoming one of the top shopping destinations in Latin America due to it’s central location and booming economy. Every brand in the world seems to be opening up shop in Panama and here are the best places to find them.
SOHO: A new luxury shopping mall on Calle 50 that houses some of the world’s most exclusive brands like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Bottega Veneta.
Multiplaza: The best variety of shopping can be found at Multiplaza Mall in the San Francisco neighborhood of Panama City. The mall has several department stores, several American, European, and Latin American name brands, and even a nightclub.
Albrook: The largest mall in Panama and Latin America is a place where you can truly find anything. Tons of affordable departments stores, name brands, a bowling alley and more. It’s also easily accessible by taking the metro to the Albrook stop.
Altaplaza: Another mall that has recently opened its door in Panama and is home to the city’s first 4D movie theater.
Multicentro: A several story mall located on Avenida Balboa with lots of shopping options and a few stores where you can find affordable furniture.
Where To Stay
Every major hotel chain seems to be opening doors in Panama City, Panama so how do you choose the best one? These recommended hostels and hotels are in central, safe areas and offer a unique place to stay in Panama City.
Magnolia Inn: This is a luxury hostel and hotel located in the heart of Casco Viejo and it’s best for if you want an affordable and nice hostel to stay in Casco Viejo without a party atmosphere. Each bed even has its own plug and wall lamp!
Luna’s Castle: Located at the entrance of Casco Viejo so you’re surrounded by Panama City’s top bars and restaurants, and you have the city’s coolest underground bar located downstairs. Also one of the most popular spots to stay for backpackers so it’s great spot to meet people.
El Machico Hostel: Located in the Marbella district in Panama City, El Machico Hostel boasts a swimming pool and free WiFi throughout the property. The rooms are equipped with a shared bathroom, air conditioning, hairdryer, cable TV, bed linens and Playstation.
Los Mostros Hostel: Offering an outdoor pool and a restaurant, Los Mostros Hostel is located in Panama City, right in the city center.
Villa Palma Boutique Hotel: The Villa Palma Boutique Hotel is elegantly decorated and one of the best values for luxury accommodation in Casco Viejo. It’s also located away from any noisy establishments so you can actually get some sleep if that’s what you’re after.
Sortis: Beautiful, modern, chic hotel that recently opened in Panama City. Within the hotel there is one of the best pools in Panama City, a casino, and several great restaurants within the hotel. The location is also superb! You are just a few blocks away from the new luxury SOHO mall, calle 50, the Via Argentina metro stop, and several other key spots in Panama City.
JW Marriott: This is the most beautiful and luxurious swimming area in Panama City. There’s plenty of seating, an infinity pool with unobstructed views of the ocean (you really forget you’re in the middle of a city), and great cocktails & service. However, if your goal is to get tan during your trip you might be a little let down because the sun only hits the pool in the morning hours and then gets blocked by the surrounding buildings. Overall, if you’re looking for an urban oasis to unwind and relax, the swimming pool at JW Marriott will impress you.