Panama City is such a vibrant place! It’s one of the most diversify cities I’ve visited lately and it has so much things to offer. The weather is perfect all year long, it has surprising cosmopolitan vibe as long as many laid-back historic areas, trendy clubs and gourmet restaurants. It’s one of the hottest city break destinations in Central America. I love it so much, so I’ve prepared my personal list of must do experiences in Panama City that could be done during weekend gateway. Enjoy!
1. Wander the streets of Casco Viejo (the Old Town)
Casco Viejo (the Old Town) is definitely the most charming area in Panama City. It was founded in 1671, after a raid, in which captain Morgan plundered the whole city. Although the Old Town nowadays is a mix of old and modern architecture, you can still find there really impressive buildings, constructed in the end of 17th century. In 2003 Casco Viejo was inscribed on the World Heritage List UNESCO and since that moment the area has evolved from former city slums to a pride of the whole city. Casco Viejo is relatively small, encircled from three sides by water but it has lots of colorful tenements with specific vibe. The main monuments can be easily reached by foot. Some of the attractions that you should totally see are majestic Iglesia i Convento de la Compañía de Jesus, Iglesia i Convento de Santo Domingo with unique arch and Paseo de las Bovedas. They are famous of their numerous cafes, restaurants and incredible pubs right at the rooftops of the tenements. Perfect to wander in the day and in the evening.
2. Visit the Panama Canal
A trip to Panama would not be complete if you missed the famous Panama Canal. Depending on how interested in it you are and how many time you can spare, you can take a ride on a boat across the canal or just go to a viewing platform on land to see the sluices. If you are interested only in the sluices, you should go to the Miraflores Touristic Center, where you can find: a museum, viewing platforms and also the Atlantic & Pacific restaurant, offering very tasty Sunday brunches, which you can eat while observing the channel. The best time to visit it would be between 9 and 11 AM and 3 and 5 P
3. Learn something new in Biomuseo
While watching the ocean from the Old City, you’ll see a colorful building, standing next to the mouth of the canal. This is the Biomuseo (Museum of Bio Diversity at Panama). It was designed by a famous architect, Frank Gehry. There are eight galleries there, in which natural and cultural history of Panama is presented. You can ask a free of charge guide there, they answer all questions eagerly.
4. Go shopping in Paseo de las Bovedas
If you want to buy souvenirs from Panama, you should start with Paseo de las Bovedas or Estaban Huertas, commonly known as the Lovers Lane. The boardwalk stretches out along the southern edge of Casco Viejo. This is where the local sellers gather, offering works of art and crafts. By the way, from this place you can admire a beautiful panorama of the city and its skyscrapers, which emphasizes the spectacular nature of Panama City. Walking further, you’ll reach Plaza de Francia, a small park with a monument, commemorating relationship between Panama and France.
5. Visit the most often photographed church Iglesia y Convento de la Compañía de Jesus in Casco Viejo
Iglesia y Convento de la Compañía de Jesus is situated south-west from Plaza de la Independencia and it was built in 1741. Unfortunately, what left are generally tall walls and arches. However, it’s a central landmark and one of the most impressive and most often photographed place in the Old City. It works well as a stop during the day, if you want to hide from the sun and heat of Panama. In the night, floodlights illuminate the building, creating dramatic views and this, in my opinion, is the best time to go to see this church.
6. Immerse yourself in jazz in Panama City
7. Visit the oldest cafe in Panama - Cafe Coca-Cola
In the heart of Casco Viejo, very close to Santa Ana Park, there is a legendary Cafe Coca Cola, the oldest opened restaurant in Panama. Among its guests were such famous and legendary figures like Che Guevara, Evita Peron, and even Teddy Roosevelt himself. Cafe Coca Cola serves meals and coffee since 19th century and it silently witnessed the evolution of Casco Vieja, from the most important part of the town, through its fall into ruin and spectacular rebirth. Despite of the surrounding changes, this cafe managed to stick to its old image: good, homemade food, local flavors, huge portions and low prices.
8. Go on a trip following tracks of captain Morgan and rum
The famous Captain Morgan, known mostly as a figure on a rum bottle, is actually a historical figure and his story is bound to the history of Panama. He was also called Henry The Terrible, which suits his way of conduct. In 1670 he invaded and attacked Panama City. Allegedly, he made a fortune in this raid and hid his booty in Jamaica. After some time he became a governor of Jamaica and later also a producer of delicious rum, which he named after himself. Quite a scamp, wasn’t he? But the quality and uniqueness of his rum persisted, as the recipe hasn’t changed since 17th century. If you like unconventional trips, you should consider PTY Life, following historical tracks of rum, which combines lesson of history with cuisines and rum tasting. On TripAdvisor it has the best rating. If you don’t want to choose this one, another well rated one is Viator.
9. Forget yourself in a chocolate feast in Mosaico Chocolate
The next stop in Casco Viejo should definitely be a chocolate cafe Mosaico Chocolate, in which local products are being manufactured. It’s basically a paradise of sweetness – beginning from desserts, through hot chocolate, to chocolates in various tastes, which look like small pieces of art (I particularly recommend you the ones with coconut and Bailey’s liquor – tastes heavenly!). It’s a very cool place to buy presents but only if Panama City is your last stop in your journey. Otherwise the whole chocolate would just melt down and waste in these temperatures.
10. Stay in a unique boutique hotel in the heart of Casco Viejo
If you want to make your stay in Panama a full one, you should stay in two sorts of hotels. First of all, you should definitely book a room in one of the skyscraper hotels with almost unbelievable view over the city, which is a huge attraction on its own. Second of all, you should combine it with staying in one of the unique boutique hotels, which Casco Viejo is famous of. A very good example is American Trade Hotel, which belongs to an elite group of “small luxurious hotels”. Its history is also remarkable, because only a few years ago it served as headquarters to a very dangerous gang. Now it’s one of the best places there. It was originally built in 1917, in “Bellavista” style and it was a meeting place for Panamanian elites during the economic boom after creation of the Panama Canal. Later on, when this part of the city became deserted, the gangs stepped in but finally this building became one of the most luxurious and climatic hotels in the Old Town. If you want another remarkable hotel in such style, I definitely recommend Tantalo i Las Clementinas.
11. See the golden altar in San Jose church
San Jose church (La Inglesia de San Jose) in Casco Viejo, locally known as La Inglesia de San Jose, is one of the most interesting places in the Old City. From the outside this building is rather inconspicuous-looking, but inside there is an unusual golden altar. It was made of carved wood, which was later coated with golden flakes. The de Oro altar was originally kept in Panama La Vieja church. According to the legend, when the English pirate, Henry Morgan, attacked the city, the Jesuit priests of the Order of Saint Augustine painted the Golden Altar black, to hide the gold from the pirates. Morgan plundered and burnt Panama La Vieja. Order of Saint Augustine moved the altar to a new church in Casco Viejo, where it stayed for good. It’s really worth to dedicate some time to it while walking the streets of Casco Viejo.
12. Enjoy the street art of Panama
In Panama City you can really enjoy creative street art to the fullest. And not only in the most known and touristic part of the Casco Viejo Old Town but generally walking anywhere would let you discover new colorful corners. I recommend you to visit Avenida Central and Santa Ana, where you can find remarkable murals.
13. Have a drink in a rooftop bar in Casco Viejo
An absolute must do in Panama City. First of all, because bars in Casco Viejo are really unique – they have the vibe, they are very diverse, vibrant with life and good music. Second of all, because from these rooftops you’d have an awesome view not only over the Old Town but also over the whole city, what makes them a very good observation point. And lastly, Panamanians know really well how to prepare fantastic and often surprisingly tasting cocktails (choose those based on rum – they are incredible!). In Casco Viejo there are lots of bars and restaurants with terraces on the rooftops, so you can just wander about and choose spontaneously. One of the places I would recommend, especially for a sunset, is Casa Casco (with music served by a DJ, while maracuja drinks served there will knock you off your feet – positively!) and also the brilliant Tacos la Neta – awesome Mexican tacos and local beer, mixed with relaxed, back-packer atmosphere… And those views! What more you could wish for at the end of the day?
14. Visit Diablo Rosso gallery
Founded in 2006, Diablo Rosso is one of the few experimental spaces in Panama, which main goal is supporting and promoting young artists. The gallery is a multifunctional, innovative center and is made of a show room and a conceptual shop. Not only art exhibits take place there but there are also screenings, lectures and dance performances. In the shop you can find articles and clothes designed by young, independent local and international designers. A very inspiring place!
15. Taste local street food on the streets of Panama City
Panama is a city of food. There are literally thousands of options to eat cheap, tasty, local snacks. It’s definitely worth to try street food and the food truck business is also really well developed there. In addition, if you want to check what the locals eat, cheap and fast too, you should definitely drop by to one of their fast foods – “Comida economica”. These small diners offer a whole menu of homemade meals. They are very similar to our ready-made food, but in Panamanian style and they are always stormed by crowds of people who eat there while going to or from work. Panama is a clean city, in which you can safely drink tap water, so you don’t have to worry about street food giving you a food poisoning (of course basic hygiene rules apply everywhere). You can also taste fruit juices or chopped fresh fruits.
16. Buy an original Panamanian hat (not Ecuadorian!)
Just don’t make a mistake and buy the proper one. The white hats with black ribbons, like you’ve seen in gangster movies, were actually produced in Ecuador. The original Panamanian hats are more round and they don’t have any decoration. It’s best to hunt for them in shops in Casco Viejo or in stands that you’ll be walking past. Attention! You can try to haggle a bit, because sometimes the starting price could knock you off your feet.
17. Trip to Parque Nacional Soberania
Just to break away from street noise, you can go to Parque Nacional Soberania. This is absolutely awesome about Panama, because rainforests with birds and animals are so close at hand, even if you live in a well-developed urban area. Parque Nacional Soberania is one of the most popular parks in this country, offering a couple of tourist routes, including one leading to a waterfall. Over 500 bird species live there and Pipeline Road is one of the most popular places to watch birds in Panama. Except for birds, the greenery is full of mammals, amphibians and reptiles. If you want to make the fullest of this place, you can hire a guide, who knows where to look for animals.
18. Taste the most expensive coffee in the world in Geisha coffee in Café Undio
If you thought that the most expensive coffee in the world is Indonesian Kopi Luwak, then welcome to Panama. Geisha coffee, sometimes called also Gesha, is a variant of coffee, which most probably originates from Ethiopia. It was brought to the Boquete region in Panama from Costa Rica. Geisha coffee might cost even USD 600 for a pound! It’s the highest price ever paid for green coffee. This silky smooth and fruity coffee might resemble tea and it’s different from any other coffee you could try. Geisha is the purest coffee available for purchase. It’s gathered by hand at Volcán Barú, the highest mountain in Panama. In the wide world a cup might cost even USD 100 but in Panama you can have one for about 9 dollars. If this has just become your goal, I recommend to drop in to Café Undio (nearby the American Trade Hotel) – a beautiful cafe, which offers this unique beverage. Even watching the procedure of preparing the coffee is an interesting experience.
19. Stay in a luxurious hotel and swim in an infinity pool on a roof
To squeeze the most out of your journey to Panama City, it’s really worth to stay at least for one night in one of the spectacular 5-star skyscraper hotels. The views are spectacular, while hotels’ rooftop bars guarantee awesome drinks but what’s most important, is that many of these hotels have rooftop swimming pools, with view over the whole city. I spent a few days in JW Mariott Panama, which is the only hotel in the city situated directly at the shore, while its infinity pool simply took my breath away. Swimming in this pool during sunrise, with the whole city slowly waking up below you is one of my most cherished memories from Panama City.
20. Go on a city walk with a local guide
If you love strolling around the city with a guide, who will flood you with facts, tidbits and anecdotes and take you to less known tourist corners, you should consider walking tours with PTY Life Panama Detour. Groups are small and you will also visit a couple of local joints with food and drinks. It’s a very convenient way to get to know the city better and use a few hours in a really good way.
21. Drink Panamanian rum in a cozy Pedro Mandinga Rum pub
Pedro Mandinga Rum is the first craft rum distillery in Panama. The name is a tribute to Pedro Mandinga, Panamanian chief of Cimarron tribe, who was strong, charismatic and friendly. Original rum lines are distilled of raspadura, which is cooked of juice squeezed of sugar cane gathered by hand in a family farm in Chiriquí. You can taste it in a gangster movie-like bar but you can also choose a tour of the distillery.
22. Eat the most fresh seafood for lunch in Fonda Lo Que Hay
Fonda Lo Que Hay is an totally informal place in industrial style but the food is absolutely fantastic. The daily menu is based on fresh seafood and is written on a huge board, hanging on the wall. You can choose from eight dishes (which for me is perfect, because I don’t have to think for hours, what I want to try), all inspired by Panamanian cuisine but with a subtle accent, which combines and mixes diversity of cultures and tastes. Salmon ceviche was more than perfect and I still can bring this taste back in my head.
23. Admire colorful textile art of Kuna women in Mola Museum
Mola Museum (Museo de la Mola or MUMO) is an unusual place, in which local art is cultivated. 183 molas are gathered there, all made by Indian women of Kuna tribe. Mola is a traditional form of textile art, made by Kuna group, indigenous to Panama (and Columbia). In Kuna language (known also as Dulegaya) “mola” means “clothes” or “shirt”. Mola derived from Kuna Indians tradition, according to which their women painted their bodies in geometrical patterns, using naturally available colors. After the Spanish colonization and making contact with missionaries, the Kuna Indians slowly started to transfer these designs to fabrics – at first they only painted them, then they started to use the reverse application technique. Weaving one mola might take even half a year and they are truly pieces of art. It’s really worth to dedicate some time to look closer.
24. Forget about your diet and go crazy with Panamanian cuisine in El Trapiche
Everybody recommends this place. And there’s a reason for it. Meals are very home-like, local and authentic. But beware! Don’t expect low-fat dishes, because the El Trapiche’s menu is full of fried or coated meals. This tasty culinary tradition is deep-rooted in customs of peasants, who emigrated to the capital city, looking for jobs. El Trapiche’s goal is to make the guest feel like they returned to a farm. You should definitely try carimañola (manioc pancake stuffed with meat), hojaldre (fried pie) and corn tortillas with chicharrón (pork scratchings). You can order panameña (a tester) if you want to try a bit of everything.
25. Meet sloths in Panama Rainforest Discovery Center
Rainforest Discovery Center is situated less than an hour drive from Panama City and it’s a remarkable place to go to with children. One of the biggest attractions there is climbing a 100 meters tall tower and admiring the jungle. You can reach the tower by a kilometer long way, which runs next to the Calamito Lake, so it’s another occasion to admire the nature. There is a huge chance that you would see sloths, monkeys, honey possums and toucans. Another attraction is watching hummingbirds, which are the smallest birds in our world.
26. Have a drink in an exclusive rooftop bar with a view over Panama City
Panama City surprises with how many skyscrapers are built there. It looks like Hong Kong or Miami but with even more skyscrapers, which are definitely more spectacular. Many of them are hotels with exclusive rooftop bars. It’s a bit different experience than having a drink in a tenement rooftop bar in Casco Viejo. First of all, these bars are placed on the last floors of the skyscrapers, so the view over the city is simply remarkable. Moreover, in these places you should dress fine, which only adds a different vibe to the whole experience. I recommend you to put on your best outfit and afford at least one exclusive night among the clouds. The best rooftop bars in Panama City are Panaviera, Casa Caso czy WPanama.