If you’re starting a trip in Panama then it’s likely you’ll be flying into Panama City, or if you’re travelling overland then once again it’s inevitable that at some point you’ll be spending at least a day or so in the city before getting another bus.
It’s a vibrant city, with a colourful old town popular with tourists as well as an impressive skyline across the water.
Where to stay
Most tourists opt to stay in Casco Viejo, and a top choice is the Magnolia Inn, a hotel/boutique hostel with an excellent location in the middle of the action, but located on a peaceful street so you’re not woken up by parties at nearby bars. The building itself is a purple colonial style building with an impressive facade including pretty balconies looking out onto the street below.
It has a number of private rooms with air con and flat screen TVs, as well as some luxury dorms, a kitchen and communal areas. The private rooms come with all the mod cons of a boutique hotel but with a much better price tag than many of the competitors in the area. There are well equipped bathrooms, as well as a daily housekeeping service and comfortable mattresses.
The staff are helpful and friendly, offering advice on buses, where to visit and good places in the area to eat.
Where to eat & drink
Salvaje rooftop bar
Sundowner drinks are a popular pastime in the old town, and for good reason. There are rooftop bars aplenty, most with great views over the water and the modern side of Panama City. If you head down towards Cinta Costera however, just before you reach it, there are a number of bars where you can actually get a great view of both the skyscraper skyline as well as Casco Viejo. Drinks offers vary daily, but it’s worth asking about them as prices can be fairly steep on the rooftops.
The popular corner restaurant and bar is often from morning until the last revellers leave at night. Breakfast options are varied and tasty. ranging from specialities like the Panamanian steak and eggs to yoghurt with homemade granola.
Evening times then the bar comes alive, with a popular happy hour on the roof terrace. The dinner menu is tasty but not cheap, although Panama City in general is usually beyond a backpacker budget.
Tacos La Neta
For your Mexican fix head to Tacos La Neta. A highly rated cafe/restaurant with a simple menu done properly. They have special offers including on drinks making it a more affordable offering in a fairly expensive city by Central American standards.
A favourite is the fried fish taco, and every table has a range of in house salsas and spicy relishes for those that want more of a kick.
What to do
Explore Casco Viejo – Panama City’s historic district is popular with tourists for good reason. It’s a beautiful, colourful area with colonial architecture and pretty multicoloured buildings and romantic balconies.
The streets are dotted with white churches, grand hotels and cute boutiques, while dilapidated buildings maintain an almost Cuban charm despite being so run down.
It’s a fairly expensive area, but there’s a lot of fun to be had, and if you’re on a budget, even a simple walk around the area with a camera will be enjoyable.
Head to Mercado de Mariscos – The daily fish market, opening early morning until 5pm is a fun and lively experience for locals and tourists alike. It’s loud and busy, with tens of stalls selling every kind of fish and seafood.
The vendors shout out all around you and the floor is wet and slippy, but it’s a great glimpse into the daily life here. Many of the vendors will be happy to tell you what they are selling and if you head to the outdoor food area next door you’ll be able to try fresh cerviche at reasonable prices.
Visit the Panama Canal – No visit to Panama City would be complete without visiting the Panama Canal. Ships tend to head through around 9-10am and then again at 3pm so try to arrange your visits for these times.
The easiest way to reach Miraflores locks and it’s visitor centre is via uber. (Around $5 from Casco Viejo.)
It costs $20 to get inside the visitor centre which includes a film and a lot of history about the canal. If you’re not so keen on the history side then it’s possible to get a ticket from the left of the ticket kiosk for the restaurant only and get in for free to the viewing deck. You’ll have to buy a beer but for less than $5 it makes it much more affordable for those on a budget.