How To Spend A Weekend In Panama City: A Local’s Guide
With a warm tropical climate, a bustling cosmopolitan center, a laid-back historic area, and a trendy nightlife scene, Panama City is one of Latin America’s hottest destinations year-round. Here’s how to make the most of a weekend getaway in Panama City, Panama.
Start your weekend trip to Panama City by staying in the historic district. Known as Casco Viejo, Casco Antiguo, or simply just Casco by locals – this is the place to be. It oozes Spanish colonial charm and has become the hotspot in the last few years. The narrow brick streets are lined with hip coffee shops, breweries, boutiques, and over 70 places to eat & drink so you’ll be steps away from all the action. It’s also where all the nightlife is located if you like to party.
If you need a cheap place to stay in Casco then Hospedaje Casco Viejo, Luna’s Castle, Magnolia Inn, and Hotel Casco Antiguo have dorms starting around $15/night and private rooms around $30 – $80/night. The Villa Palma Boutique Hotel, La Isabela Suites, American Trade Hotel, and Casa Garay are secluded from the rowdy party crowd but will run you a bit more. However, with only one weekend in Panama City, I would go with a room at Tantalo Hotel. With rooms as low as $104/night, it offers the perfect combination of style, price, and location for a weekend jet-setter.
Start the day off with breakfast at Cafe Coca Cola (Ave Central & Calle 12 Este, Casco Viejo). This historic diner is over 100 years old and is the oldest still operating cafe in Panama. It’s not a fancy place, and you’ll mostly see old men reading the paper and discussing politics. You can order a cafe negro, hojaldre (fried bread dough), and (huevos revueltos) scrambled eggs for under $5.
After breakfast take some time to wander the streets of Casco and learn about its rich history. Download the app Live Walk PTY for an entertaining and cheap walking tour of the historic district. It will guide you to the main points of interest like the Golden Altar, various plazas, the National Theatre and more with an engaging audio speech from locals that bring the old town back to life.
Once your audio walk is finished, grab lunch at Fonda Lo Que Hay (Calle 5 & Ave A, Casco Viejo). This new eatery was opened by legendary local chef José O. Carles of the Dónde José restaurant and is a gourmet version of a fonda or local Panamanian cafeteria. The menu changes almost weekly, so you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s guaranteed to be delicious. One thing that is always on the menu is the Raspao, a Panamanian snowcone, and their spin on it is a blessing on a hot day.
After lunch stop by Pedro Mandinga Rum Bar for the best mojito I have ever had (and I’ve been to Cuba). They only cost $5 before 7 pm so you might end up getting more than one. Save room for one more drink though! Walk over to the Tantalo Rooftop by 6 pm to watch the sun go down over the city (and they have half-price cocktails before 7 pm on weekdays).
At this point, you’re probably covered in a film of jungle sweat so grab a shower and get ready for the rest of the night! People in Panama City dress up when they go out so leave the shorts, flip-flops, and tanks back at the hotel.
Casco Viejo is a mecca of gastronomic dining options. A few of my favorite spots include the open-air ambiance of Tomillo (you must order the Rigatoni con Cordero and secret Kaboom desert), the intimate 16-seater dining experience of Dónde José, and the creativity of dishes at Manolo Caracol.
The night cannot be concluded without a little partying! Purchase a Soy del Casco Night Pass for $25 to fully experience Panama’s energetic nightlife. The pass includes a free drink at seven different bars in Casco Viejo (Nomada, Relic, Lazotea, Gatto Blanco, Zaza, Septima, and Casa Jaguar) and free cover if the bars are charging. If you don’t make it to all seven, you can save a couple of spots for the next day.
Your vacation to Panama City should include some sun & sand so spend Saturday recovering at the beach. Toboga Island is just a 30-minute ferry ride from Panama City, making it one of the most accessible beach getaways. Besides relaxing at the beach be sure to walk through the quaint local town, hike to the top of El Cruce for a fantastic view, and have lunch at the gorgeous La Vista restaurant. The easiest way to arrive at Taboga is via the Taboga Express which leaves from the Amador Causeway and costs $20 round-trip. You can also take a catamaran there with Panama Sailing Tours departing from the Trump Hotel for $89 which includes an open bar, snacks, and lunch.
At this point, you still haven’t seen the Panama Canal so kill two birds with one stone and make a dinner reservation at the Atlantic & Pacific Co. restaurant (this is at the Miraflores locks, same place as the museum). Request to sit on the balcony so you can see the boats and locks operate. Don’t go for lunch because it’s an overpriced buffet but the dinner is excellent, and main courses cost $20-$25 plus you don’t have to pay the $15 museum entrance fee (better to apply that money to food).
After dinner, it’s time for drinks at Casa Nolita in the city center. This tropical mansion is where you’ll find Panama City’s young & trendy crowd, especially if a particular event is going on. The decor is gorgeous and worth stopping by for a few photos alone. Once you’re loosened up and ready to dance, take an Uber to Moloko in Casco Viejo. This speakeasy disco only allows you to enter through a sketchy back alley after midnight. Inside you’ll find Panama City’s alternative crowd dancing to electronic beats until 4 am.
Start your Sunday off with breakfast at El Trapiche in the Via Argentina neighborhood (don’t go to the Albrook one) for traditional Panamanian dishes. Order Sancocho, a chicken soup that is locally known to cure hangovers and a few carimañolas, the most amazing fried thing you will ever eat.
After breakfast walk around the corner to Mentiritas Blancas to sample locally grown coffee. Order a cup of Geisha for $6.50, which is the world’s most expensive coffee, typically sold for at least $100/pound and proudly grown in the highlands of Panama. If you have a sweet tooth be sure to also order a red velvet cookie or the Nutella cheesecake.
Now with some fuel in your system it’s time to go on a hike in the rainforest. Panama has a massive natural reserve on the edge of the city called Parque Metropolitano full of lush tropical greenery, monkeys, and other wildlife. If also has a killer view of the city skyline once you reach the top!
For lunch, you are going to eat at the best seafood restaurant in Panama City: Peach Fuzz International. I’ve had a lot of seafood in Panama and this off the beaten path spot kills it. It’s located in Curudu, which is a neighborhood most people will warn you not to go to, but you’re missing out if you don’t. The specialty is the whole fried fish, but EVERYTHING on the menu is outstanding. You MUST use Uber to arrive here, putting Peach Fuzz International as the end destination. There are not addresses in Panama, and this is off the beaten path, so taxi drivers will not know what you’re talking about.
Walk off your lunch on the beautiful Cinta Costera, Panama’s oceanfront walkway. Tons of locals visit here on Sundays with their family, and it’s a great place to people watch. Walk in the direction towards Casco Viejo (opposite of the tall buildings), and you’ll eventually encounter the Mercado de Mariscos (Seafood Market). Sit down at one of the outdoor tables and order ceviche for $2 and local beer for $1! You can easily make this a dinner by ordering two ceviches to try, or they also have main plates of seafood.
Now sit back, watch the sun go down, and start planning your next trip to Panama City 🙂
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