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 traveled 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.
7 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. Most restaurants do take credit cards so you don’t always need to worry about carrying cash.
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”. Shorts are ok during the day but 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 (Apple maps does not work well) 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.
6) You can drink the water. Yes, the tap water in Panama City and most of Panama is safe to drink so you don’t need to buy loads of bottled water. However, anytime you’re on an island the water is not usually drinkable.
7). Avoid the mid-day heat. It’s extremely hot and humid in Panama so be sure avoid the worst of the heat from 11 am – 3 pm. Plan outdoor activities before or after these times or be prepared to sweat. You typically won’t see locals enjoying the outdoor Cinta Costera park until at least 5 pm because of the heat.
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.
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 your idea of a vacation is visiting countless museums, Panama City may not be the place for you. Panama City is about experiencing life through its 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. There is 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. Be sure to also read my post “How To Properly Visit The Panama Canal” for all the ways you can see Panama’s #1 attraction.
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.
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 3 pm 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, ping-pong, or just sit on a bench and people watch while enjoying a raspao snow cone.
Panama Detour: Discover the pulse of Panama City on a 5-hour personalized urban walking food tour with blogger Joey Bonura from PTY Life. Visit the historic district & eclectic local neighborhoods while sampling flavorful dishes. Take in city views and back alleyways filled with street art, sample the world’s most expensive coffee, uncover the local craft beer & cocktail scene, bargain at artisan markets, or be spontaneous and take on the day! 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 ($): This is best low-key spot to go to try typical Panamanian cuisine like Tamal de Olla, Ropa Viejo, Arroz con Pollo, Patacones, and more! They have a few locations but their new San Francisco location is my favorite.
Esa Flaca Rica ($): Panama City’s most famous food truck is definitely Esa Flaca Rica and they now have multiple locations throughout the city. However, if you want the full food truck experience, go to their San Francisco location. Here you’ll typically find a line of people patiently waiting for one of their iconic burgers and fries. While they are most famous for their burgers, my favorite thing to order here is actually the Busca Pleitos, a sandwich that uses fried corn tortillas as the buns with flavorful “ropa vieja” shredded beef inside.
Restaurante Mercado de Mariscos ($): A truly unique experience in Panama City is dining at the Mercado de Mariscos (Seafood Market) for lunch. The market is divided into an outdoor area with ceviche stands and an indoor market where they actually sell fish. You want to head to the indoor market (the indoor market is only open until 2:30 pm but the outdoor area is open until 10 pm). Once you’re here you can purchase raw seafood and then visit the restaurant on the second floor and they will cook it for you! I typically get a pound of fillet and have the restaurant prepare it “apanada” (breaded and fried) or “a parilla” (gilled) and a pound of shrimp that I have prepared “al ajillo” (garlic sauce), be sure to also request for them to take off the shells. They charge around $8/pound to prepare the food and each pound includes a side item (get the coconut rice).
Tomillo ($$): Tomillo is a hidden gem off a side street in Casco Viejo that’s set in an open-air shell of a building. The food is tapas style and a mix of local ingredients with international fusions. Be sure to order the Rigatoni con Cordero and secret Kaboom dessert while you’re there. After your meal, head up to the V Piso Rooftop located here for a well-prepared craft cocktail.
Donde Jose ($$$): Donde José provides one of the most unique culinary experiences you can have in Panama City with an intimate maximum 16-person seating per meal. They focus on using local Panamanian ingredients and dishes and come out with a new set menu every few months.
Fonda Lo Que Hay ($$): This casual eatery was opened by legendary local chef José O. Carles of the Dónde José restaurant and is a gourmet version of a fonda or local Panamanian cafeteria. The menu changes almost weekly, so you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s guaranteed to be delicious.
Brutto ($$): Brutto is an upscale eatery located in the San Francisco neighborhood and fits right in with any world-class restaurant. The Pulpo Tapioca and Taco don Julio are some of my favorite appetizers while the Corvina Acevichada or Cochinillo for the main dish is outstanding.
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 the 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.
Mentiritas Blancas: Mentiritas Blancas is a coffee shop situated in the heart of Panama City’s funky Via Argentina neighborhood. As you enter the place, you are welcomed by a cozy, intimate setting that instantly makes you feel at home. Along one wall is a row of bar stools where you may find digital nomads working away online, and a couch at the end provides a comfortable setting to catch up with friends. The aroma of coffee and freshly baked pastries fills the air. I think what sets this coffee shop apart from the rest is the customer experience they provide. The owners and baristas are super knowledgeable and take the time to help you choose the right cup of coffee for you.
Leto: Leto is a coffee brew bar that just opened in the San Francisco neighborhood of Panama City. They specialize in providing premium cups of Panamanian coffee that is sourced from Boquete and Volcan in the Chiriqui province of Panama. Whether you like your coffee prepared in a pour over, Aeropress, Chemex, siphon or just want a cappuccino with fancy latte art, this is a nice spot to go.
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.
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. Bars are allowed to stay open until 3 am Sunday – Wednesday and close at 4 am on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Here are some of the hottest bars and nightclubs to visit in Panama City.
La Tana: La Tana is a favorite spot for locals that are seeking a lush club experience. They typically play a mix of reggaeton, electronic, and current top 40 music with lots of theme nights.
El Social: When you need a chill, tropical ambiance for a few drinks – El Social is the perfect spot to be social in Casco Viejo.
Silo: Silo is a newly opened spot that’s reminiscent of a Berlin nightlight for underground electronic music lovers.
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.
Gatto Blanco: This is located on the roof of the Gatto Blanco Hotel in Casco Viejo and specializes in groovy house music. The relaxed intimate setting provides great views of the Panama City skyline and Casco Viejo.
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, San Francisco, Via Argentina, and Costa del Este.
Envy: A popular gay nightclub located in Panama City that plays mostly electronic music, hosts special theme nights, and has an open bar most days of the week included with the cover.
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.
Selina: The brand new Selina Hostel in Casco Viejo is easily the most beautiful hostel available right now, but it’s also one of the most expensive so it’s not for your budget traveler. However, the common spaces are gorgeous and the building has a rooftop pool so you get what you pay for. Selina is actually more like a hotel than a hostel and they have a mix of dorms, private rooms, and apartment suites to choose from.
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!
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.
Bodhi Panama City: Located in the heart of the tallest mountain in Panama City, Cerro Ancon, Bodhi Hostel Panama City is the best option for travelers who love nature and still want to be located near all the action that Panama City has to offer.
American Trade Hotel: Stay at one of the most beautifully restored buildings in Casco Viejo. Also features a swimming pool and a gym, which are very rare amenities in the historic district.
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.