A Traveler’s Guide for Panama City, Panama
—Amy M. Gardner
Five hundred year old Panama City, Panama was never on my travel radar until last January when a friend emailed that he was planning a gathering there to celebrate his birthday. Within less than an hour, we had checked flight availability and booked miles tickets on Copa via United. Fast forward to Thanksgiving Day, when we were among the few intrepid travelers at O’Hare awaiting a very early morning direct flight to Panama City.
Five days later, we were back at the Panama City airport for another very early morning flight. (Little did we know that we would end up 4+ hours late thanks to a refueling detour and deicing . . . .) In between, we had a great time exploring Panama City and spending time with friends. Here are some tips for your own trip to Panama City. Note that all prices are in US dollars — Panama uses the dollar — and many places (particularly museums) did not accept credit cards. ATMs are not plentiful in all areas, so bring cash from the US or at the airport and save yourself some time.
Getting around: Uber is very inexpensive in Panama City and the prices were much lower than we were quoted by taxis. (A 20 minute Uber ride is about $5.) Just be prepared when you arrive at the airport to meet your ride across the street in the parking lot. There was only one time when we had to wait more than a couple of minutes for an Uber, and that was at an out of town boat harbor.
Reality check: The traffic in the old town area can be . . . intense . . . and the only traffic control on most blocks seemed to come from citizens who appeared to just randomly walk into intersections and start directing traffic. (The most memorable “volunteer” traffic conductor appeared to be doing this for tips.) Most of the time it is faster to just walk a few blocks than to get an Uber. Pack walking shoes and only rely on Uber for longer distances.
Favorite experiences in Panama City: We concentrated most of our time in Casco Viejo (a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the historic district), but were able to see a lot over the course of our stay.
The Panama Canal is of course a big draw. Of the three locks that make up the canal, the closest to Panama City is the Miraflores lock, and getting to watch ships go through it is fascinating. (Our hosts were kind enough to host private buses and our canal admission, but you can also take an Uber for about $5 or take a group tour.) There is a $20 admission fee to enter the Miraflores Visitor Center (the only way to really see anything), which includes watching ships go through the lock from one of three viewing levels, as well as learning more about the canal and the entire process by watching a movie at the theatre on the first floor, and by going through exhibitions about the Canal. There is, of course, a gift shop on the ground floor. In addition to a sit-down restaurant on the fourth floor (where you can sit on a balcony and skip the admission fee), there is a small snack shop on the first floor of the visitor center.
As much as we both enjoyed visiting the canal, we were very glad we had also visited the Museo del Canal in Casco Viejo in advance. The museum has an extensive audio guide and parts of the exhibits make it very clear that at least some Panamanians were not huge fans of US involvement in the building and operation of the canal. (Also that the French may have been able to build the Suez Canal, but had no idea what they were doing with the very different terrain of Panama. And that French corruption didn’t help.) Definitely give yourself a few hours to go through the museum, as it will add greatly to your visit to the Panama Canal itself.
The Museo de Historia de Panama (museum about the history of Panama) in the white Municipal Palace Building on Plaza Cathedral is worth a quick visit. The museum is small and only open week days, but the explanations of the canal building process and government corruption (hello, Manuel Noriega!) are fascinating, particularly if you remember learning about this in school from the American perspective. Admission is only a dollar (less if you’re out of cash and a friend covers you (thanks, Brian!)). Various websites say the museum is closed, and we were a little confused ourselves, but if you walk in the building and say Museo?, you will be taken through an office and shown to the museum. Give yourself 15-30 minutes to see the entire space.
Reality check: If you are an American offended by being referred to as an imperialist, the canal and history museums will not make you happy. But if you want to learn about history and/or the Panama Canal, they’re both worth the stops.
The Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo is located about 15 minutes from Casco Viejo and was part of a group excursion. Admission is $10 for adults to visit the instantly recognizable building, Gehry’s only in Latin America. Aside from the architecture, the building contains exhibits centered on the biodiversity of Panama. In addition to the interesting exhibitions, the staff are very memorable, going out of their way to engage and excite. If you’re trying to get images of the architecture itself, you may have better luck getting interesting shots by going out the back of the building rather than from the front.
Reality check: If you ever saw video of Chicago weatherman Tom Skilling overcome with emotion seeing the solar eclipse, you get a sense of the Biomuseo staff. These are people who will pass up a winning lottery ticket if they can teach you about science, and will not be held back by fear of seeming too enthusiastic. Once you realize it isn’t an act, they are a welcome break from all the “docents” who sit on their phones or take a nap on a stool at other museums.
The Cathedral is being renovated (it reopened during our visit, but work was ongoing) and is worth a stop.
The Cinta Costera is the waterfront boulevard and 60+ acre park connecting Casco Viejo and the downtown area. Because of difficulties running in Casco Viejo, I ended up running along the Cinta Costera most days during our stay. You’ll find a small area of people selling handcrafts near the Casco Viejo portion of the Cinta Costera, and an assortment of gathering spaces and playgrounds in other areas. Just be aware that there isn’t really any shade, so you’ll want to go out early if you plan on running. (I was kicking myself on the days I went out as late as 8.)
Reality check: Saying it was “difficult” to run in Casco Viejo is like saying Chicagoans have opinions about pizza. The sidewalks are usually so narrow that passing someone can require that one person step into the street, and the traffic is so busy that running in the street isn’t really a good idea. Unless you’re out by 6 am or so, you’ll spend so much time bouncing between the sidewalk and street that you won’t get very far. You’ll also find several government buildings where the block around the building is closed, also limiting your running options. Save yourself the irritation and just go to the Cinta Costera. Just be sure to bring water as the only options to buy water along the path are at one of the fish restaurants near the boat docks or from someone selling beverages from a shopping cart. Even if you aren’t running, walk along the Cinta Costera for great views (and photos) of the downtown skyline, the chance to see the fishing boats go out and come back, and to see Panamanians at play.
If you’re in need of a beach day, there are much better beaches in Panama than you’ll find close to Panama City. But if you aren’t able to visit other parts of the country, it’s easy to visit the beach for a few hours. Check out our post on how to easily and inexpensively visit the beach from Panama City.
Meals under $25 (all in Casco Viejo):
You’ll be hard pressed to eat for $25 for two in Panama City, but these all come close.
La Fonda Que Hay was the best inexpensive restaurant we ate at in Panama City. It’s a little intimidating because you walk in the door and immediately have to order based on a white board listing the choices in Spanish. Then you hand your ticket to the t-shirt and short-clad chefs, who cook your food as you watch. (There are a few tables, but we sat at the counter to watch the action.) The chefs were maybe the most meticulous I’ve ever seen, wiping every single drop, working as a team while barely speaking to put out beautiful plates of Panamanian food. The amount of effort put into making sure every sauce was perfect rivaled any Michelin starred restaurant. It was funny to watch, though, as the owner came in and threw a wrench into the whole operation. (It was clear the crew knew he was on his way in as someone got a text and they immediately changed and turned up the music.) Besides getting to study the workplace dynamic, though, the large portions were well prepared and very good. It evidently has the same owner as the more expensive, formal, and well-known Donde Jose restaurant. If you go to La Fonda Que Hay, be sure to check in advance — in trying and failing to find a website, I read that the restaurant may have moved.
Nomada Eatery is great for a casual (if not necessarily speedy) lunch. (It’s also open for breakfast and dinner.)
Super Gourmet is a little tricky to find (the signage is on eye level but may be blocked by parked cars or trucks) but is worth the hunt for good sandwiches and better daily specials. You order at a counter and wait for your order to be called. The friendly staff were more than willing to show of the daily special and make recommendations.
If you are looking for a quiet, romantic meal, run away from Diablicos. But it’s ideal if you want traditional Panamanian food and an incredible, high energy music and dancing show. The prices are pretty reasonable (around $15-20 for a large entree), especially when you consider that there’s no cover charge. I loved my meal (Pechuga de pollo Diablicos (chicken breast stuffed with plantains and cheese)) but those who ordered less traditional food weren’t as happy with their choices.
For a truly amazing, fine dining experience in Panama City, Caliope is excellent. The service, setting, and food were wonderful. We were able to eat there with a large group with a fixed menu, but everything we had was delicious. Definitely don’t skip dessert or the Caliope Punch, and do make a reservation in advance.
Casco Viejo has many rooftop bars. We visited several of them during our brief stay, and the prices were usually around $10 for a mixed drink. Of the ones we visited, our favorite was Capital Bistro Panama. It’s located right on the edge of Casco Viejo and looks onto the bay, with the Cinta Costera stretching out below you, and the downtown skyline straight ahead. (It’s just across the street from the Nomada Eatery.) It’s a great place to watch and photograph the sunset (if you want the downtown skyline in your photos). We didn’t order food there because we were headed to a dinner afterwards, but entrees are around $25 and up.
Danilo’s Jazz Club in the American Trade Hotel has great jazz late at night Wednesday-Saturday. There is a cover charge, and you may want to book seats in advance if you can.
Reality check: Listing only one rooftop bar here is intentional. Let’s just say we felt . . . not quite cool enough for some of the others we visited, and some were just plain crazy expensive. But whether you want a quiet drink while you watch the sunset (Capital Bistro) or a more happening scene, you can find it in Casco Viejo. (For the latter, try the top floor of Tantalo.)
We split our time between La Isabella Suites and the American Trade Hotel. La Isabella Suites is made up of apartments at two properties, and the one we were placed at was several blocks from where we thought we’d be staying. Our apartment was a large one bedroom apartment with a kitchenette overlooking Plaza Bolivar.
The American Trade Hotel is a beautiful boutique property in Casco Viejo. It has a tiny outdoor swimming pool and a gym, a ground floor restaurant and bar, and very helpful service. The hotel also has a library where we did a memorable Facebook Live. If you missed it, two confused people in swim suits wandered into the library, apparently looking for the pool, and couldn’t seem to figure out who we were talking to.
Reality check: We initially booked a significantly cheaper hotel that decided to close just a month before our visit, leaving us to scramble for another option. At least for the dates of our trip, there were very few reasonably priced hotels in the Casco Viejo area. If you’re willing to stay in the modern downtown area, you’ll find just about every chain hotel option and at lower prices, if without the charm and convenience of the historic center. (The Waldorf Astoria downtown was actually less expensive than most of the Casco Viejo options.) But if you want to be in the Casco Viejo area and don’t mind paying more, these could both be good choices.
Panama City, Panama may not have been part of our original plans for 2018 travel, but the chance to celebrate a big birthday with a dear friend changed that. Panama City being a hub for Copa Airlines and the lack of jet lag (Panama City is on Eastern time) make it an easy trip from most of the US. You don’t even need to change money, and while Spanish helps, you can get by without it if necessary. It is not inexpensive compared to neighboring Colombia, but the Panama Canal and other sights make Panama City an interesting stop for a few days. Next time, I’d probably focus on other parts of Panama to see the rainforest and beaches.