Panama City is a compact capital, crammed with must-see sights, world-class restaurants, and so much more. You could easily spend a week enjoying all the city has to offer. But what if you’re short on time?
Never fear, you can do a lot in a 24-hour stay…if you plan it right. I’ve been living here and writing about Panama for over 12 years. Plus, I’ve had plenty of friends visit from the U.S., so you could say I’ve learned a thing or two. Here’s how I would do it…
I have friends who never give themselves adequate time to pack (and get a good night’s sleep) before a trip. Do what you can to avoid this mistake. You want to get here feeling rested and ready to seize the day if you’re to make the most of your 24 hours here. If you take a “red-eye” flight that gets you here in the morning, then do what you can to get some sleep before and not just during the flight. (For example, flights from Los Angeles are only about six-and-a-half hours, so you won’t get a full night’s rest just by sleeping on the plane.)
Breakfast at the American Trade Hotel
No visitor to Panama City should miss the historic sector of Casco Viejo. Its stately plazas and wrought iron balconies photograph beautifully in the soft light of morning (or the golden rays of late afternoon). Don’t miss the gem that is Plaza Bolívar, where you can see the St. Francis of Assisi church and the neoclassical façade of the Teatro Nacional. My other favorites in Casco include the seaside walkway known as Paseo Esteban Huertas, the handicraft shops on First Street, and the “V Piso” rooftop bar of Tomillo restaurant, located in the ruins of an old convent.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head to Café Unido at the American Trade Hotel. One of Casco’s most striking restorations, the American Trade has custom, colonial-era tile floors, classic and contemporary furnishings, all of it punctuated with a stylish mishmash of greenery, art, prints, and textiles. Treat yourself to coffee fit for royalty (try the Elida Estates pour-over) and a classic chicken empanada or a chocolate croissant.
Marvel at a Man-Made Wonder
If you’re interested in Panama’s rich, exciting history, you won’t want to miss the Panama Canal’s Miraflores Visitor Center. You can see the actual canal (and its massive hydraulic locks) up close, plus there’s a museum, an excellent gift shop, and a restaurant overlooking the water. Get out of the hot noon-time sun while you tour the museum’s four floors, see a short but fascinating video on the history of the canal, and watch ships raised and lowered into the locks. Canal experts regale visitors with interesting facts as they watch from the shaded viewing platform. It doesn’t take an interest in engineering to appreciate the grand scale of the canal and its effect on Panamanian history and culture.
I don’t recommend shelling out a lot of money on a mediocre lunch here. I’d get a cold beverage at the restaurant (the views are great), and move on…
The Quirky Bridge of Life Museum
Panama City is home to more than a few quirky buildings, and locals love to debate which is the prettiest and which is the ugliest. Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder when it comes to architecture in Panama. Want to join the debate? You’ll likely catch glimpses of the crazy corkscrew of the F&F Tower and the sail shape of the former Trump Ocean Club, recently re-branded as a JW Marriot, when passing through the city center. But the quirkiest bit of construction in Panama City has to be the Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo, also known as the Bridge of Life museum. The wildly-colored structure took nearly 10 years to build. One look at its façade—reminiscent of origami—will tell you why.
The Biomuseo enjoys a prime location on the long avenue and promenade known as the Amador Causeway. (Locals regularly refer to it as “El Causeway,” in a quintessentially Panamanian joining of Spanish and English.) There are restaurants, cafes and shops…you can rent a bicycle or join the many pedestrians in walking the length of the causeway, which connects four small islands. It’s the perfect place for a late lunch or sunset cocktail. For a quick, casual lunch by the water, try the Amador Yacht Club. You can get excellent ceviche, grilled fish, and more at Pencas, which has a rooftop terrace. Service here tends to be slow, so be prepared to linger.
Enjoy the PTY Nightlife
Panama City—or PTY, as it’s known to residents—boasts the kind of nightlife you’ll find in world-class capitals like New York and London. And it doesn’t hurt that it has a mild, tropical climate and a sparkling skyline that curves along the deep blue Panama Bay. Here, the palm-lined Cinta Costera is a great place for an evening stroll.
Stellar restaurants like Makoto, Segundo Muelle (Balboa Ave. location), and hidden-gem Azahar offer incredible views from high above the bustling streets of the banking district. You’ll find nearly every cuisine imaginable in this city, not to mention some of Latin America’s most talented chefs. Want to see what’s new or trending? Visit local restaurant review site DegustaPanama.com and you can even make reservations online. If you want to eat at the city’s most renowned restaurants, particularly Maito or Donde José, be sure to reserve more than a week in advance.
Take in a movie or a show after dinner. Movie theaters here have “VIP” rooms where you can watch the latest films from the comfort of reclining chairs, complete with leg rests and call buttons for in-seat service. Order popcorn, drinks, and more while you watch the previews. Films are usually shown in English with Spanish subtitles. Whether you like—opera, the ballet, jazz, symphonies, or mixed martial arts—we have it here. To find out what’s on, check Facebook events or ask your hotel concierge for a copy of The Visitor, a local bilingual newspaper.
“Late night” Done Right
If you’re not quite ready for the fun to end, don’t worry. It doesn’t have to. Take in an after-hours jazz show at Danilo’s, go dancing at Casa Jaguar, or visit the small, sky-high Ocean Sun Casino. For a late night or early a.m. snack, try the 24-hour Niko’s on Via Israel. Around 2 a.m. on weekends, this Greek-Panamanian diner is usually full of happy, tipsy locals. You can get Panamanian breakfast and hangover specialties like sancocho, carimañolas, and hojaldre here.
Sancocho is a Panamanian version of chicken soup often served after midnight at weddings, as guests tend to drink and dance into the wee hours. It’s best with rice. Carimañolas are mashed, fried yuca croquettes filled with meat (usually beef)—delicious with local D’Elidas hot sauce. My favorite, hojaldre, is a fried bread often served with scrambled eggs or steak and onions. Not sure what to order? Just ask one of the friendly servers or diners what’s fresh and good.