Panama City bills itself as the hub of the Americas. From a geographical standpoint, it is certainly true. The city sits at the joining of the continents, as well as at the mouth of the Panama Canal which joins the oceans. The city is modern and bustling, vibrant and historic, a financial center, transit hub, and an impressive tourist destination. This guide will give you the information you need to know to plan your Panama getaway!
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Modern and vibrant
Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport is probably the largest in Central America, and the only international airline that hubs in the region, Copa, hubs here, flying all over the Americas. Many other major airlines also fly here due to the city’s importance as a banking center. (Seriously, it seems half the buildings in Panama City are bank headquarters.)
From the airport, it is a fairly quick drive into town, although traffic can be brutal. Take an Uber – they are cheaper than taxis, and much cheaper than equivalent rides would be in the US.
Traffic here is rough. Keep that in mind when transiting Panama City. However, with that said, Uber rides – even those taking 30 minutes or more – will rarely cost you more than $10. Moving between neighborhoods, this is your best bet, and best value.
Within neighborhoods, especially the Casco Viejo (the old city), walking is relatively easy, although there are a couple things to keep in mind. First of all, drivers are aggressive, so truly make sure to look before crossing a street. Secondly, sidewalks are not of the best quality, with open holes, cracks, and uneven terrain. Be careful.
Panama City also has a subway, and buses, but with Uber so cheap, I never found reason to use them.
The night view from L’Azotea, an amazing lounge just a short Uber away from your hotel
Where to Stay
While it is charming, I don’t recommend staying in the Casco Viejo. It is crowded and loud. Most western hotel chains are in the more modern downtown districts. I stayed at the Doubletree in El Carmen and was satisfied with both the property and the location, though neither was really anything special. However, at least at the time of my booking, a night there was only 10,000 Hilton points, making it a steal, especially with the fifth night free on points stays.
Every major US brand has a number of properties here, from the lower end (Holiday Inn and the like) to the upper (Intercontinental and equivalent). You will find one right for you.
The Casco Viejo is lovely, but stay somewhere else
What to Do
There is a lot to do here. Most importantly, take a Panamá Canal tour, whether it is just to the Miraflores Locks (you can take a local bus even) or all the way to Colon and traversing the length. This place exists due to the Canal, and it needs to be seen and understood.
Wander the cobblestone streets of the Casco Viejo. The parks, churches, monuments, and even normal buildings are lovely, and the Panama Canal Museum – though only about 20% is in English – is pretty great. The view from here of downtown is also phenomenal. Casco Viejo is also the hub of Panama City’s legendary nightlife. Find a rooftop lounge and enjoy!
Spend a few hours at Biomuseo, a world class museum dedicated to the history and biodiversity of Panama. It is an architectural gem, and even has views of the Pacific side of the Canal!
There are also plenty of day trip options – or overnights – from local tropical islands, to beaches, to jungle treks. Enjoy all of these aspects of nature if you have time!
Watching a ship in the Panama Canal locks
What to Eat
Food here is good, although prices are more equivalent to the US than the rest of Central America. It is also very international. Within a short walk of my hotel were Colombian, Greek, Italian, Mexican, and Portuguese, along with countless others I didn’t even explore.
So, you ask what is local Panamanian food. For that, visit El Trapiche. They offer a fiesta platter that includes small portions of at least six dishes, most of which I loved (along with a couple misses). If you go late, there is also a show of local dancing.
For my favorite meal of my trip, go to Restaurante Santa Rita, a tapas bar in Casco Viejo. Get the melty provolone. It is heavenly. After dinner, go upstairs to L’Azotea, a rooftop bar with an incredible view, live music, and a great vibe!
El Trapiche’s fiesta platter
Other Useful Information
Panama uses the US dollar as its official currency, and many prices are in line with those in the US. This is not a cheap place to visit in comparison to the rest of the region.
It is hot and humid here basically every day. It will often rain, seemingly in 40 minute spurts. Carry water, wear sunscreen and mosquito repellant, and just beware of overheating. The struggle is real.
Tips are expected, but only around 10% for normal service. However, given the prices here for things like housing and cars, along with wages nowhere near those in the States, consider tipping more. It really helps.
One more note on traffic: it rivals my home of Los Angeles. It can be stopped at any time of day, and drivers are aggressive. Be careful even crossing with right of way as you’ll be fighting those in a hurry making sudden swerves.
Biomuseo is a must-visit
Panama City, Panama is definitely worth a trip, especially as many regional itineraries will have you changing planes here anyway. So, might as well add a few days and see this vibrant metropolis! Good food, some cool sights, and a ton of diversity awaits.
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