Panama City truly is a city of contrasts. On one side of the city, ultra modern skyscrapers create a skyline that brings to mind Dubai, while on the other side, colonial neighborhoods are a mix of revitalized and crumbling buildings. There is so much beauty in the city’s contradictions, so much of the old and new, so much of the past and the future. In the most cosmopolitan city in all of Central America you will definitely never suffer from a shortage of things to do.
Here is my guide to a few essential Panama City experiences to consider when visiting.
EAT AT MERCADO DE MARISCOS
There are 2 ways to eat at Mercado de Mariscos. #1. You can go the official route: Start by perusing the freshly caught fish inside the market, and be sure to try some ceviche from the ladies who serve everyone with a smile. Next, head up the stairs (past the really intense smell of fish) to the restaurant that sits at the top. Order any of the delicious items from the menu (I’d recommend getting a whole fried fish) and enjoy the breeze.
While this experience is lovely, it is likely the only Marcado experience you will read about in most guidebooks and travel blogs. Option #2, however, offers what I feel is the superior experience and takes place right outside the market building: Set up to the side and all around the official building of Mercado De Mariscos is a stretch of stalls serving fresh seafood at far better prices than the restaurant upstairs. The minimal decor–a mish-mash of plastic tables and chairs, local Panamanians drinking $1 beers, spectators watching dance performances and loud music all create the very best energy. For travelers who enjoy a lively scene, it is even better to visit at sundown when the music and laughter are at their height. There are so many different stands to try, however, I suggest always going to vendors with the largest crowds. Trust the locals.
STAY IN CASCO VIEJO
Casco Viejo has to be one of the coolest neighborhoods, not just in Central America, but in the world. The number of boutique hotels that are popping up everywhere are a testament to this. Because it is situated far from the glitz and glam of Skyscraper hotels and Trump towers, the neighborhood feels so very authentic. There’s so much to explore down the different alleyways that it makes sense to make this neighborhood your base.
Two boutique hotels come highly recommended: Las Clementinas which is delightfully chic and sits close to what some might call the grittier part of town. (Gritty because it’s not tourist filled.)
On the other end of the spectrum, the American Trade Hotel (which is a favorite with the trendy and celeb crowd) delivers glamour while maintaining the most welcoming atmosphere.
VISIT THE PANAMA CANAL
When we spoke to locals, there was one thing we kept hearing, “Go to the Canal, but you might leave unimpressed”. Upon arriving, even our cab driver told us we wouldn’t need more than 20 minutes to see it all. After so many disclaimers, we figured we would visit just to check it off our list.
The ticket to the Canal allows entry to the museum and a short film. I am so happy the first thing we did was watch the film. We were so much more informed as to the significance and commercial importance of the Canal and also how much of an engineering feat it was to build. From the short film, we moved to the museum to see the tools that were used, pictures and names of laborers from all over the world who came to Panama to make their fortunes. From the Caribbean, Asia and Africa, so many worker died building the worlds largest canal of its time. We spent over 2 hours at the Canal and left with a much better appreciation for the people, the science, the history of the Panama than we did going in.
GRAB A DRINK ON TANTALO’S ROOF
Or grab some food. Whatever you do, get yourself to Tantalo’s roof. The hotel/restaurant bar is centrally located in Casco Viejo and serves delicious and affordable small plates. When the sun goes down, you have a diverse crowd, couples on romantic dates, visitors taking pics and party goers ready to dance the night away. For the record: Panamanians can party and party ’til way past dawn.
WALK ALONG THE CINTA COSTERA
This waterfront strip that stretches for over 3 miles is an excellent place for a stroll anytime of day. Lined with plam trees, and with sidewalks and steps you can sit on, its a great place to people watch or take in views of both ends of the city skyline. There’s shaved ice vendors, trinkets being sold, family gatherings and teenagers skateboarding. All in all, a perfectly chill way to close out a sweet trip to Panama City.
Quick Tip: If purchased in advance, airfares can often be found between $400 and $500, and travel time is just a short 5 hour flight from New York City.