In fact, we recommend spending a night in the capital to pretty much everyone who travels with us. In addition to seeing the Canal (and, let’s face it, when you return from Panama, everyone is going to ask if you did), the city offers places to escape into nature, indulge in great local and global cuisine, and step back in time to learn about Panama’s history. For couples and honeymooners there’s salsa dancing and vibrant nightlife, while families and groups can relish a chance to drink in Panama’s history and culture before embarking on the second leg of their journey.
However, if you simply show up in Panama City, your experience might not be the greatest. We’ve found that a memorable day-into-night in the capital requires a mild dose of planning, since it is a multifaceted place that speaks to different travel preferences depending on where you go and what you do.
This post will help guide your hotel & sightseeing choices so you can experience the side of Panama City that caters to your individual interests.
Which begs the question: what are your individual interests? Do you…
…want to immerse in the history and culture of this nearly-500-year-old city?
Or would you rather…
…experience the international flavors of 21st-century Panama City?
Maybe it’s a bit of both – and you’ll find options for both, below, color-coded for easy identification.
Red = traditional, historic, steeped in local culture
Blue = modern, international
Both = a well–rounded experience
Where to Stay
We can’t vouch for the service you’ll individually receive at any of these hotels – but we know from experience that they’re all fine places to spend the night.
Tip: If you’re most interested in the Old World charm of a UNESCO-preserved historic district, you’ll definitely want to stay in Casco Viejo – it’s tricky to get in and out of, so you’ll appreciate your proximity to the nightlife and restaurants.
Calle 5a y Avenida A | Casco Viejo
Enjoy a comfortable stay at this 3-room boutique hotel. This is a finely-appointed and carefully-restored building from the late-19th century. Service is generally very good, and both the older historic district and newer business districts are easily accessible from this elegant guesthouse.
Avenida B Calle 8 | Casco Viejo
A hip spot with a lively late-night “scene”, concentrated at its rooftop bar. Stay at this 13-room boutique hotel if you don’t mind crowds and noise, but do enjoy artistic interiors, good cocktails, and mingling. If you have an early flight the next morning, you better be a sound sleeper.
Avenida Aquilino de la Guardia
A high-end hotel located among the businesses and restaurants of the city center, and the only local brand option for luxury travelers in Panama City. Guests accustomed to personalized luxury will be very happy here.
Via Veneto | El Cangrejo Bellavista
A nice, no-fuss option with appealing rooms and satisfactory service. Located within walking distance of good restaurants and nightlife, including El Trapiche, an authentic Panamanian diner favored by locals.
Calle Punta Colon | Punta Pacifica
Well-placed within overall Panama City life in the affluent neighborhood of Punta Pacifica, this striking sail-shaped tower offers comfortable, stylish rooms, though service receives mixed reviews. For what the hotel lacks in boutique luxury appeal, grab a taxi out to find a local restaurant.
Where to Eat
There’s no shortage of excellent dining options in Panama City, but we have a few favorites worth telling you about. If you discover a great place not on our list, feel free to share it in the comments section, for the benefit of other Panama City explorers (and us!).
Dinner, $$ | Casco Viejo, corner of Avenida Central & Calle 3 Oeste
A one-of-a-kind dining experience, dinner at Manolo Caracol is always prix-fixe; the menu changes daily to feature in-season produce and just-caught local seafood in an array of inspired dishes.
Lunch, $ | Downtown, Via Argentina
An authentic Panamanian diner where locals meet for lunch, El Trapiche’s generous portions provide a satisfying sample platter of Panamanian specialties like ropa vieja, carimañolas, and tamal de olla.
Lunch, $$ | Casco Viejo, Plaza Bolivar
Snatch a seat in Casco’s Plaza Bolivar for lunch at Ciao Pescao, where you can pair one of twelve ceviches with an ice-cold brew from their extensive international beer list while you watch children at play on recess while visitors from all over the world filter through this lively historic square.
Dinner, $$$ | Downtown, Calle Uruguay
The refined tropical decor and posh clientele make you feel like you’re walking into 1950s Havana at this fixture of fine dining in Panama City. One of the best places in the city to get an expertly-made classic cocktail, and you can’t go wrong no matter what you choose from their simple, gourmet menu.
Dinner, $$ | Downtown, San Francisco, Calle 74
A trendy Argentinian steakhouse and bar frequented by the business elite. We’ve enjoyed many a casual dinner here with new acquaintances in the city and always leave smiling ear to hear and stuffed to the gills — in Panama City, this is where you go to indulge in a good steak and an impressive wine list. Sit in the lounge to soak up the friendly local atmosphere.
Dinner, $$$ | Downtown, Final de la Calle 50
The consummate Panamanian fine dining experience — be sure to brush up on your Spanish and don your evening best. The cuisine at Maito presents traditional dishes with a twist: think staples of Panamanian cuisine like fresh seafood and hearty yuca, combined in a creative fusion of international culinary techniques.
Lunch, $ | Entrance to Casco Viejo
Hold your nose and choose from just-caught pargo, yellowfin tuna, mahi-mahi, giant shrimp and prawns, octopus, and more in-season seafood – then take your purchase upstairs to the restaurant above the market, where for under $10 you can have it prepared any way you like.
Snack, $ | Amador Causeway & Casco Viejo
These cool treats sell like hotcakes in Panama City, along the Amador Causeway and in the plazas of Casco Viejo. Shaved ice, fruit syrup, and a drizzle of condensed milk – simply delicious and highly addictive. Your friendly vendor has likely been selling raspados for years – see if he’ll treat you to a story from his years in the capital, too.
Lunch/Dinner, $$ | Downtown, San Francisco, Via Cincuentenaria
This Greek family restaurant is a longtime favorite of city locals. Sit on the breezy outdoor patio, and don’t let the extensive menu intimidate you – everything is good. You can’t miss with a choice from the grill, though; our favorites include the grilled corvina and the steak (it comes out sizzling and stuffed with roasted garlic), although the octopus pasta and roasted eggplant are both dishes we’d order again.
What to Do
Panama City boasts a few undisputed must-sees and a bevy of other worthwhile options. If you’d like to adopt a winning itinerary, read our post on a day in Panama City that takes you to its three main attractions. Or, if you prefer to design your own, browse the activities listed below according to your interest and time frame. Whether your layover in Panama City is 2 hours, or 8, there are cool things to do.
Tip: For recommendations tailored to families with children, read “Family Fun in Panama City“.
A tour of the iconic Canal lasts 1-4 hours, depending on your interest. Watch a ship pass through the locks and walk through the museum in the Visitor’s Center; dining at Miraflores Restaurant is an option, as is a canal safari – a thrilling way to witness passing ships and learn about the canal’s history from your guide.
Highlights of this UNESCO-preserved historic district include the seaside promenade, plazas where local artisans sell colorful molas and handmade jewelry, and the stinky but fun seafood market. Adults and kids alike can enjoy Casco – narrow cobblestone streets lend an air of Old World romance, and the history simply seeps from the ancient façades.
The ruins of the original Panama City are a peaceful retreat from the bustle of the city, and well worth a visit whether you like nature, history, or both. While Panama Viejo is not very far from the modern city, a 20-minute taxi ride to get there can stretch to an hour or longer during heavy traffic times, such as weekday mid-afternoons.
Great for running, hiking, wildlife-spotting, and making a jungly getaway in the heart of the city. If you’re not into engineering, you’ll find Ancon Hill a fine alternative to the Panama Canal tour — take in the sight of the famous canal from your birds-eye view atop this 654-foot hill, with a gorgeous panorama of the capital and coastline to boot.
A scenic spot to stroll or ride a bike alongside the ocean, with food stalls to taste some of Panama’s refreshing beverage concoctions and cool treats. A great pick for those traveling with children, or for avid runners or walkers who wish to start the day on this stunning oceanside boardwalk.
And a few non-essential things to do, if you have time…
- Habana Panama: A salsa club in Casco Viejo serving up food, drinks, low-lit ambiance and great live music.
- Platea: A jazz bar in Casco with live salsa & rock music on the weekends.
- Cinta Costera: A waterfront boulevard overlooking the Bay of Panama: great place to stroll, sample from food stalls and hit up street vendors for cool treats.
- Museum of Contemporary Art: An offbeat option for art-lovers exploring Panama City; the museum features works by Panamanian and Central American artists.
- Parque Metropolitano: An escape from the city, within the city: a few paces into this park and you’re in the Panamanian jungle. A good place for morning birdwatching before you depart the capital.