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In January 2018 I jetted off to Panama City for two weeks to celebrate the wedding of two of my good friends. Panama was a destination that I had never really contemplated visiting, well to be honest I didn’t know much about it. I knew of the canal, the infamous canoe man and the famous Panama hat – that’s it!
However I am SO glad I had the chance to visit this amazing country – my boyfriend and I were shown around by our friends and we got to thoroughly explore the capital city and further beyond into the countryside – there were so many things to do! Some of the spots we visited were stunning and were places we had never heard of before. I found the Panamanian people I met during my stay to be extremely friendly, generous and good fun.
Here is a rundown of some of the places I visited during my stay that first time visitors might like to visit.
This historic old town in Panama is one of the hippest neighbourhoods and also a UNESCO world heritage site. The presidential palace is located here amongst many old crumbling colonial houses, boutique hotels and high quality restaurants.
Casco Viejo is a popular place for locals to party as the area has many bars, nightclubs and hostels, so expect a lot of traffic in the narrow streets during the weekend nights. I recommend dining in the open air restaurants in the main square at night to enjoy the surroundings and the live music.
The Cinta Costera is a 9km palm-tree lined strip along the waterfront that links the modern area of Punta Paitilla to the Casco Viejo district. It is a great place for a leisurely walk and you’ll see many locals here exercising by jogging, cycling or using some of the outdoor gym equipment.
Mercado de Mariscos
Take a visit to this seafood market just outside Casco Viejo and browse the many tiny stalls outside selling fresh fish dishes. Take a seat on one of the open air plastic table and chairs and order some super cheap fresh ceviche (a local speciality of raw fish “cooked” in citrus juices) for around $2 a cup, and cans of ice cold beers for about $1 each. Perfect.
The most famous landmark in Panama is a 100 year old engineering marvel and located a 20 minute drive from the city. An adult ticket to the Miraflores visitor centre costs $15 and includes entry to the viewing deck to view large cargo ships pass through the locks.
It also includes museum and gift shop entry, access to a coffee shop and a cinema that shows a short 5 minute film on loop in different languages. If you can – try and time it so your visit does not coincide with a large American cruise ship for a much more pleasant experience!
This is an easy hour and half ferry ride away (or 15 minute flight) from Panama City. Located in the Pearl islands region, Contradora boasts some beautiful white sand beaches and crystal clear turquiose waters.
Visiting the island can be done as a day trip or you can stay overnight at one of the hotel resorts. Ferry ticket prices are a bit expensive at around $100 return (Book here) so keep an eye out for discounted tickets on Offerta Simple (a discount buying website).
Tabago island is also lovely and a little closer if you are pushed for time and it is a bit cheaper to get to.
An oasis in the middle of a busy city, Parque Metropolitano is a mini tropical rainforest. The 655-acre park is a fantastic place to admire flora and fauna, and spot wildlife including turtles, monkeys, white-tailed deer and sloths. There are 5 different hikes you can choose to do, with some that take you to the top for excellent views of the city skyline. Entry is $4, and you can pay a bit more for a private guided tour.
Panama Viejo is a a UNESCO world heritage site and the first settlement of Panama City. It was abandoned in the mid-17th century and relocated to where Casco Viejo is located today. It is a 20 minute drive out into the suburbs to reach the site, and the entrance fee is $12 to walk through the ancient ruins and visit the museum.
Gamboa is a small rainforest town near the Panama Canal and a 30 minute drive from Panama City. Head to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort to enjoy some of the activities they have on offer: a 1 hour boat trip around Monkey Island to spot wildlife, the aerial tram to take you to an observation tower, the butterfly house, the sloth house, an orchid garden, a spa, kayaking plus lots more.
Enjoy lunch or dinner with a view afterwards on the resort restaurant terrace. It is best to book your activities in advance as this place is very popular, click here to book directly with the hotel or check Offerta Simple for any discounted tours they might have on offer.
The Panama sign
A cheesy ‘must do’ on anyone’s Panama Itinerary is to have their photograph taken with this large sign. There is one on Cinta Costera and another on Amador Causeway.
El Valle de Antón
El Valle is a beautiful town high in the mountains of Panama and located inside the crater of an extinct volcano (yep – how cool!). There is plenty to do here for a day trip or if you fancy staying longer there is lots of accommodation. Enjoy the waterfalls, the hot springs, a brewery, a gorgeous arts and crafts market, the zoo “El Nispero” and the Orchid Centre. You can take a bus from the Albrook Terminal for just $4.25 and be directly in the center of town in 2.5 hours.
Punta Culebra Nature Center
View Golden Frogs, Sloths, Starfish (you get to touch them!), turtles and exotic fish in this small but cute oceanside open air spot. Entry is $5 and located on Amador Causeway.
Panama City nightlife
This bar in Casco Viejo has a fantastic rooftop with wonderful views of the city skyline. Arrive early to make sure you get a good seat and enjoy the sunset (and enjoy happy hour on a weekday!).
La Rana Dorada
A great craft beer bar/brewery loacted in Casco Viejo, with a cool interior and awesome tunes. They also serve food but have a limited menu of simple dishes such as fish and chips, and pizzas. This place is very popular and it will be hard to find a table at the weekends, but visit on a weekday from noon to six pm and you can enjoy happy hour prices!
Eating and drinking in Panama City
El Trapiche Restaurante
This traditional Panamanian restaurant (as featured on TV’s Delicious Destinations) is known for its authentic and affordable meals. There are two branches, one in Via Argentina and one in Albrook Mall, and you will usually find them packed with locals.
I recommend trying the ‘Fiesta Panamena’ platter for a mix of local specialities as an introduction to the best of Panamanian food. The Sancocho chicken soup is amazing (it is famously used as a hangover cure)… as are the sandwiches. I ate here about 3 times during my stay!
Esa Flaca Rica
This joint is totally worth the uber ride price to get there. Located a bit further inland from the seafront, Flaca Rica is a food truck with a large outdoor seating set up. The wait for food is long as it gets pretty busy, but don’t let that put you off as these are some of the best burgers I’ve ever eaten (no joke!). There are 5 different burgers on the menu, and I recommend trying the one with cheese, bacon and pork crackling inside or the one with deep fried cheese. Divine.
This rooftop bar has a downstairs dining area that serves up a lovely breakfast, which is a great start to a morning of sightseeing in Casco Viejo. I recommend the griddle-cooked chopped beef tenderloin with onions, bell peppers, tomatoes and garlic, served with a fried egg and Panamanian “Hojaldre” bread – so delicious!
Panama City accommodation
I mostly stayed with friends during my time in Panama City, but here are two hotels we stayed at:
Plaza Paitilla Inn
Cheap and cheerful hotel in a fairly good location with direct access to the Cinta Costera walkway, and across the road from a large mall (Multicentro). Make sure you book a sea view room – the windows in the room are huge and the city views were just a bit dull! We offered to pay for an upgrade but the woman at reception was having none of it though! Bah! Book Plaza Paitilla Inn
InterContinental Miramar Panama
We stayed here for one night during the wedding and had a fantastic room with great views of the ocean and Cinta Costera. The rooms and the pool were large and the buffet breakfast was pretty good. Apprantly they do an amazing Sunday brunch so check that out if you like those! Book InterContinental Miramar
Panama City travel guide – Good to know
• Uber is a great and inexpensive way to get around the city. As is the metro.
• Always carry your passport identification with you when you are out and about as the Police do regular checks.
• Rush hour in Panama City is awful, avoid getting taxi’s during those times of day.
• Language is Spanish, Get your ‘gracias’s’ ready!
• Currency is USD.
• Tap water is safe to drink.
• Panama’s dry season runs from December to April.
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