If you’re reading this post, I’m assuming that you’re passing through Panama City on your way to Bocas del Toro, Playa Venao, or the San Blas Islands.
Or you’re attending a wedding there. Or going for work reasons and want to tack on a day to sightsee.
Or you’re wondering whether you should visit Panama City at all during your grand tour through Central America.
Look, one of my peeves with modern travel writing is that bloggers and travel writers rarely tell you to skip anything. Everything has its redeeming features, or its teachable moments. It’s like it’s a personal moral failing if you can’t wring an authentic, memorable experience out of every travel destination. And I guess it’s a great goal to enjoy yourself no matter what the circumstances. However, 99.9% of the world has limited vacation time and a limited vacation budget and we all want to deploy our resources wisely.
So I’m going to be honest with you. Panama City is boring.
OK, maybe that is not true for everybody who visits Panama City. But for my husband and I, two curious travelers who like to try the local and traditional food, learn something new, immerse ourselves in the culture, spend less and get more, and just generally dive in to something unfamiliar, Panama City was a bit of a let down. We’ve heard this from other travelers as well.
If you blindfolded me and dropped me in Panama City, I would look around at the glass high rises, the shiny stores and the Latinos speaking perfect English, and I would guess I was in Miami. But then I would quickly figure out something is off, when I started wandering around and was unable to find art galleries or other interesting things to do.
Panama City is simply not built for tourists. Frankly, they don’t care if you visit. They’re all set economically without catering to your silly touristic need needs for cultural immersion and cocktails. They’re just living their lives and enjoying the flow of tax loophole money from the world’s richest.
We weren’t there to be tourists anyway – we were there to visit with old friends. Not that we didn’t try our darnedest to escavate some culture out of it.
That doesn’t mean we hated Panama City. Not at all! It’s just that we wouldn’t tell anyone to book their next full week’s vacation there. (Unless you’re like my friend who had a bit of an obsession with the Panama Canal and hung out for a week trying to hitch a ride on a container ship. In that case, you do you.)
The upside of Panama is that the people there are really warm, lovely humans. So if you focus on anything, focus on the people, not the things.
I don’t say things like this lightly, though, so allow me to explain a little more why, exactly, we were underwhelmed by Panama. (If you hate history, then scroll down to my recommendations for food and things to do.)
It’s very Americanized.
The whole country of Panama was essentially created in order to form a business relationship with the U.S. Formerly part of Colombia, the business community of this isthmus staged a revolution (with the United States’ help) in 1903 so they could entice the U.S. to take over building the canal from a defunct French company. As a result, the U.S. Army had a large base there until the 1990s and controlled the Canal Zone up until the official 1999 handover. Despite the U.S. and Panama having a fraught relationship for almost 100 years, the presence of Americans within Panama’s borders (I’m going to use the term American here to reference U.S. people and culture, though I know that some Central and South Americans would protest. Just because nobody uses the term “United Statesian.” Yet.) has had an outsized influence on Panama City’s culture.
And the U.S. still influences Panama. Panamanians learn English from the age of three and watch TV and movies in English without subtitles. The economy of Panama, and Panama City, is based on Canal traffic and offshore banking. As products (and money) flow from all over the world through the canal to the U.S.’s two coasts, they pass right through Panama, and Panama City takes advantage. You’ll find American-style superstores, American-style restaurants, American-style hotels, and American fashion.
What is harder to find in Panama City and even the rest of Panama is “authentic” food and culture. Ask a Panamanian what a typical Panama food is, as we did, and they’ll pause and think hard, before coming up with sancocho, which is essentially chicken soup with yucca. What about traditional clothing? Well, you could point to molas by the Guna Yala people, but they don’t live in Panama City – they actually have their own territory which they control separate from the state of Panama.
I wandered around looking for sustainable and ethical shopping, and could only find the same sort of stuff I would find in, you guessed it, Miami. “Panama hats” are actually from Ecuador. Traditional dance? There’s one involving twirling dresses but you’re not going to wander into a bar and find the locals doing it. Music? Forget about it. This may by the oldest European settlement in the New World on the Pacific, but Panamanians aren’t in the habit of holding on to the past. They would prefer to take full advantage of of all the shiny new toys (helicopters, sky scrapers) that money can buy. Speaking of…
If you’re looking to get a lot of value for your vacation dollars, Panama City is not your destination. It’s the most expensive city in Central America, according to Expatistan, and in the top five for South America.
The Panama currency, the Balboa, is tied to the dollar, and there are plenty of high-paying jobs to be found in the finance and trade sector. Combine those two factors and you have a city of fancy restaurants and fancy hotels, expensive taxi rides and pricey cocktails. We saved money by crashing at the large home of our friends in an upscale gated neighborhood – the husband works for a beer corporation, and the wife works for a bank. Sorry that I don’t have hotel recommendations for you (I know how unhelpful that is as advice) but I’m just sharing so you have an accurate picture of what Panama City is like. This is not Indonesia, or even Medellin. This is firmly in First World territory, and you’ll pay for it in American dollars.
Hey, if you like luxury hotels, helicopter rides, and white-tablecloth sushi dinners, then you’ll have a blast. But as long-term travelers, experiencing Panama City as a tourist was a bit of a shock after the value of Mexico.
The upside of all the above is that you don’t have to FOMO or stress yourself out running around trying to do everything. You just need one day and you’re all set. What a relief!
Things to Do in Panama City
Visit the Miraflores Locks – This is literally the thing to do in Panama City. You can’t come to Panama without stopping by to watch the container ships from all over the world going through the complex system of water locks.
We were told we could skip the entrance fee and museum by saying we were going to the restaurant, but that little lie no longer flies. Anyway, I’m a dork and personally enjoyed the museum and learning about the history of building the canal, plus Panama’s rich biodiversity on the museum’s second floor. The restaurant is nice for a slightly overpriced sunset drink on the balcony while you watch the boats, as long as it’s not too sunny and hot.
It’s a great activity if you feel like getting philosophical about globalization.
Walk around Casco Viejo – What an odd little historic center, and one of the least touristy UNESCO World Heritage sites I’ve ever seen.
Upscale organic cafés, boutique hotels, and sushi restaurants crowd at one end of the colonial downtown, quickly descending into gorgeously decayed ruins. Observe entire stone facades with peeling pastel paint that house nothing but trees growing out of rubble. And it’s weirdly empty. You can turn the corner from the main square and find yourself on a beautiful but empty street. The bizarre vibe prompted a lot of questions from me to our friends and the internet. How could such a charming, beautiful capital city have such a vacant and run down historical center?
Apparently, Panama City residents took yet another page out of the U.S.’s book, and all moved out to the suburbs around 50 years ago, vacating the beautiful old buildings for new homes and leaving behind poverty and crime. But in the past decade, local and international developers have begun the painstaking process of renovating the old town, building by building, while preserving it’s aesthetic and trying to respect the locals that live there. (Here’s a good article that dives deeper into developers’ attempts to be a little more conscious and not go full-on gentrification).
The result is that the only walkable neighborhood in the city has become a safe and charming place to go both during the day for a walkabout, and at night for a rooftop cocktail.
I’m usually a big fan of walking tours in order to get familiar with a city, and Panama City actually offers a $25 (IN CASH) walking tour hosted by a reformed gang member through downtown. If that is not your style, you could try this highly-rated walking tour that includes samplings of all Panamanian-made food, such as ceviche, chocolate, and craft beer, as well as some visits to historic sites.
Make sure to stroll down the boardwalk between Avenida A and Plaza de Francia that overlooks the water. The bougainvillea-covered walkway has vendors selling artisan (and non-artisan tourist) items from Central America and elsewhere. It should take you only 20 minutes if you walk slowly, but it’s pretty romantic.
At night, come back to Casco Viejo (if you’re not staying there already) and have a cocktail with a view. There are plenty of rooftop bars to choose from, but our personal favorite was Gatto Blanco, which had a chill, unpretentious vibe and quality DJs.
Take a free bike out for Ciclovia – Every Sunday from 6 am to noon they shut down the Cinta Costera, the long oceanfront boardwalk that spans from Paitilla to Casco Viejo, and provide free bikes. Get there early to ensure you actually get one of them.
Visit the BioMuseo – Learn about the natural history of the isthmus and its impact on the world’s biodiversity at this recently-opened Frank Gehry building. It’s not quite fully open yet in terms of exhibits, so it will only take you an hour, two at the most, to go through.
Walk to the top of Ancon Hill – This protected area has plenty of wildlife (toucans and sloths) and jungle vibes, right in the city, plus provides you with a fantastic view of the city and the canal when you get to the top. It’s pretty hot and sweaty, so bring an insulated water bottle filled with cold water!
Take a boat to Taboga – Despite being surrounded by water, Panama City doesn’t really have beaches, just tidal mud flats. So if you don’t have a few days to leave Panama City but need some beach time, hop on a ferry for a short ride to Isla Taboga. It is quiet, with a few restaurants and hotels that will bring you fresh lobster while you sunbathe. Or bring your own picnic! You can also do some light hiking. I would only recommend this if you are not headed on to one of Panama’s fantastic island or beach areas, however, as it is a little bit underwhelming compared to, say, the San Blas islands.
Where to Find Healthy, Local, Organic Food in Panama City
I’ll be straight with you: Panama is not known for its rich food culture.
There’s an episode of Narcos that made my husband and I laugh so hard, where a character playing one of Pablo Escobar’s friends is in exile with him from Colombia in Panama City, and complains in Spanish, “All the money in the world and we can’t find any fucking good food.” That was back in the 80s, though. Does that still apply?
Pretty much. but if you know where to look, there are now some Panamanian chefs trying to redeem Panama’s good name. The fish in Panama City is super fresh. And if all else fails, some restaurants will serve you the healthy, organic, vegetarian stuff.
Mahalo – We liked this delicious and healthy restaurant so much we went twice! It has a lovely backyard garden, and serves nourishing salads, smoothies, and sandwiches. It also sells some organic beauty products in the front.
Mercado de Mariscos – It’s intensely fishy, but this market is the best place to get super-fresh and affordable ceviche and a cold beer on a hot day.
Donde Jose – A small restaurant with a fixed multi-course menu based on traditional Panamanian dishes, and tasty cocktails. Make a reservation a week in advance and request a seat at the bar so you can watch them prepare the food.
Fondo Lo Qué Hay – A more casual restaurant by the same chef as Donde José.
Cafe Unido – This upscale and sustainable coffee shop has multiple locations throughout Panama City, serving brunch all day. The above picture is from the Multiplaza location, but the Casco Viejo location is GORGEOUS. Don’t miss it!
Papaya Planet – Has healthy salads and the like.
This is the more hipster part of Panama City, where you’ll find the modern organic restaurants frequented by residents.
Maito – As one of the top restaurants in Latin America, this restaurant is singlehandedly trying to put Panamanian cuisine on the map. The chef works with indigenous communities to source ingredients. We of course had a lot of questions while we looked at the menu, and the waiter was game to answer them all. For example, the pineapple was from the best pineapple-producing region in Panama. Watch out – they do serve plastic straws and complimentary cookies in plastic bags at the end of your meal.
El Mercadito Biologico – find simple but delicious organic food loved by the locals.
Botanica Pizza – By the same chef as Maito, this casual restaurant serves more than just just organic pizza, and it is all delicious.
Atmana Juiceria – a yoga studio with a juice bar attached
I hope I’m not offending anyone with this post, but judging from the under-the-table advice and conversation I’ve had with other travelers, I’m not alone in thinking Panama City is not a life-changing cultural hub to visit. But that’s ok. If you just want to eat a little bit of good food, learn a little bit of history, and top it off with an excellent cocktail, this capital city will do you just fine.