Travel Guide: Panama City
Panama City was a delight: a very-modern downtown, dozens of great restaurant choices, friendly people, plenty of museums, a colorful colonial old town, lots of green park space. Not to mention the bucket list experience of going to see the canal! And we didn’t even get out of the city into the rainforest or at the beach, which are all a short ways away. We ended up here because it was a convenient stop, but I definitely would recommend it for a visit. There’s a little something for everyone.
Pro tip: the US Dollar is used as currency in Panama. Don’t make the same mistake we did and take out money at the ATM before discovering this!
If I could stay anywhere, I’d stay in Casco Viejo which is the Panama City old town. There was a beautiful hotel there called the American Trade Hotel that was right in the middle of old town in front of a beautiful plaza.
Alternately, stay right on the water! There are several hotels right along Cinta Costera, which is this lovely walking street right along the coast.
Saril - Okay, so it’s a hotel restaurant (it’s located in the lobby of Le Meridien). But it was our favorite dinner in Panama City, and has amazing reviews on Google. The restaurant was really lovely, great service, and the seafood was fresh and well-cooked. I’d definitely recommend!
Market - An American restaurant, which was exactly what we were craving after being away for so long. A casual, industrial vibe with butcher paper menus and steel tables. Really liked it here!
Azahar - A trendy restaurant located inside a flower shop that’s inside of a condo building (confusing, I know). It has a great balcony that looks out over the water!
CasaCasco - This is one of the “it” restaurants in Panama City right now. There are 4 levels with different restaurants on each, including a rooftop cocktail bar with great views. The restaurants get more expensive as you go up, FYI ;)
Ochoymedia - This tapas restaurant came highly recommended by 3 different people, although we didn’t have time to go. I heard that the caramelized pineapple dessert with coconut ice cream is divine (and dairy free!).
Biomuseo - Frank Gehry gifted the plans for this building to the City of Panama (because his wife is from here!), and then the city spent $80 Million to build it. The building is really creative and the setting is even better, with a view of the canal from the cafe and right at the beginning of the Amador Causeway. Plus, the exhibit is great! There’s something for everyone and it’s a very well done museum (unlike many museums I’ve been to in small cities).
Amador Causeway - The absolute loveliest causeway lined with palm trees with a view of downtown Panama City on one side, and a view of boats in the canal on the other. Definitely make time to go for a stroll or a run or a bike ride here - it’s delightful!
Miraflores Locks - Since they are a 15 minute drive from downtown, these are the most visited locks on the Panama Canal. I really enjoyed the museum and visitor center because I was interested, but it’s not very well-organized. (I’ve heard there are better museums in PTY about the canal and at the other visitor centers). If you don’t care much about the museum, you can skip the entry fee and instead go to Atlantic Pacific, a restaurant at the Locks that has a view of the canal and pretty good reviews of food! Whichever way you visit, have your hotel concierge call ahead and ask what time boats are coming through so that you can make sure to be there at the right time - it’s usually a dead zone in the middle of the day (11 am - 2 pm). One other note: you can totally skip the intro movie: it is hilarious how irrelevant it is (you can just see the creative team around the table pitching "what if we told the history of Panama through the eyes of kids! No one really cares about the details of the canal, do they?")
Transit the canal - I tried to convince Mike to do this, but we just didn’t have time. You can book a partial transit or a full transit where you get on a boat and go through the canal and the locks. A couple we met at our hotel went and LOVED it, and thought it was really neat to see up close the mechanics of how the boats are towed and all the pieces that go into getting boats through. Tours are abut $150 and do take a big chunk of the day if you have the time!