Panama stands out among the world’s top expat destinations, due to its solid infrastructure, First World amenities, beautiful beaches, and proximity to the U.S. But, there is so much more to this country than meets the eye. Panama City for example offers every option, for the foodie, culture vulture, or tree hugger in all of us.
1. Visit the Panama Canal
If you’re interested in Panamanian culture, history, engineering, or indeed all three, this is a must-see modern marvel.
At the Miraflores Visitor Center just outside the city’s Clayton neighborhood, you’ll find an excellent small museum and gift shop. Exit onto one of the viewing terraces and you’ll be amazed at how close you are to the action. Especially if there’s a ship in transit. If you’d rather skip the museum, I recommend making dinner reservations at the onsite restaurant, and requesting an outdoor table. The terrace offers spectacular views of the beautifully lit canal.
On the other hand, if you’d like to do more than just watch a ship transit the canal. You can take a partial or full Panama Canal transit cruise with companies like Panama Marine Adventures or canal and Bay Tours.
2. Hike a Rare City-Rainforest Park
Much of life in Panama City is lived outdoors, and there are many parks where you can get your daily dose of sunshine. In fact, it’s the only capital to boast a rainforest reserve, right in the city limits. That honor goes to the Parque Metropolitano, which offers expansive park and city-views, a butterfly enclosure, and hiking trails. In fact, it’s home to some 227-bird species, as well as 45 species of mammals, 36 species of reptiles, and 14 species of amphibians. I highly recommend asking one of the park’s guides for a tour, as they point out many things the average hiker would miss.
Other park areas worth visiting include Cerro Ancon (Ancon Hill), the crowning glory of the green Ancon sector, and Parque Soberanía, about a 30-minute drive from the town center. Full of wildlife, Soberanía is a great place to watch for agoutis, sloths, coatis, and more. From here you can also book a boat tour to Monkey Island, an aptly-named ecosystem, followed by a stop at an inhabited indigenous village.
3. Rent a Bike at the Amador Causeway.
La Calzada de Amador, also known as The Causeway, is a road and breakwater built from material excavated from the Panama Canal. The road links four tiny islands, offering never-ending views of the deep blue tropical Pacific. Parts of the causeway are lined with restaurants, shops and cafés, so you can eat, shop, and get some exercise. For typical Panamanian fare try Pencas. Service is slow, but the food is excellent, and if you go at night they often have live entertainment.
You’ll find Panama’s Biomuseo on the causeway; it’s the only Frank Gehry designed structure in Latin America. The wildly colored facade is picture-worthy, and the exhibits are fascinating.
4. Enjoy Colonial Casco Viejo
Panama City’s most romantic quarter is Casco Viejo, also known as El Casco Antiguo. Founded in 1673, its stately plazas and brick roads are filled with Spanish and French architecture. You’ll find museums, monuments, handicraft stalls and artsy shops here, as well as a wide array of restaurants and nightspots.
You can walk to Casco from the center of town during the cool morning hours, enjoying unparalleled views from the promenade and recreation area known as the Cinta Costera. Have a leisurely brunch, then take a guided tour or wander on your own. Before evening falls, find a spot in any of the plazas and enjoy a cocktail as the sun goes down and the day grows cooler. Then it’s time for dinner, or jazz at Danilo’s, or even dancing at Zaza if you are in the mood.
5. Take Photos at Panama La Vieja
The conquistadors’ first attempt at founding a city in Panamanian territory was Panama La Vieja in 1519. As such, it’s the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas. The ruins are perfectly picturesque, so is ideal for some excellent selfies or group shots. The old cathedral tower here overlooks the oceanside settlement, and you can see the former governor’s house, and the royal treasury. There’s also a small artisan marketplace and a museum with an attractive gift shop.
In the 1600s, Panama City was a hub for New World treasure bound for Spain. As one of the richest cities in the world, it was a prime target for pirates. In 1671, the English buccaneer Henry Morgan sacked and burned the settlement nearly to the ground. This prompted the colonizers to move to what became known as Casco Viejo, mentioned above.
6. Enjoy the City’s Modern Side
Though the city’s colonial sectors are fascinating, it would be remiss to ignore the city’s more modern side. After all, many a visitor is shocked by the sparkling skyline, featuring some of the world’s most modern and remarkable towers. The sail-shaped tower formerly known as the Trump Ocean Club (soon to be re-branded as a JW Marriott) is one of the largest buildings in Latin America. The spiral shaped F&F Tower, or Revolution Tower, was recognized as one of the 10 best skyscrapers in the world in 2011. The YOO Panama is another building worth seeing, inside and out. Inspired by the style of Philippe Starck, it is home to several restaurants as well as condos. The building won “Best Interior Design Apartment” in the Central and South America category of the 2014 International Property Awards for the Americas.
7. Eat and Drink a Lo Panameño
A visit to Panama City wouldn’t be complete, without sampling some of the best local food and drinks. Seafood lovers will be in heaven here. Corvina, Panama’s most popular fish is light and flaky like sea bass, and consumed in ceviches, al ajillo (grilled with garlic and butter), or a la criolla (in a savory red annatto sauce, with peppers, tomato and onion).
Rums made here include the affordable and affable Ron Abuelo. Microbrews are popping up everywhere, as are craft bottled beers, such as Casa Bruja. The beauty of Lo Panameño, is that you can head to a local brewhouse, like Brew Stop ,or Rana Dorada, sample specialty local rum at Pedro Mandinga, and dine out a restaurants featuring locally inspired dishes, like firm favorite Maito. Annual events to keep an eye out for include; foodie fair Panamá Gastronómica, for beer lovers Microbrewfest, and for wine lovers Expovino.
As you can see, Panama City is the capital that keeps on giving. And remember still, beyond the city lies a country that has everything to offer—from mountains and hiking trails, to beautiful islands waiting to be discovered.