Panama-City is mostly known for its proximity to the Panama canal and its financial sector which have transformed the Panamanian capital into the region’s economic powerhouse. Panama-City constitutes the Pacific entrance to its primary connection with the Atlantic and thereby plays a major role in global trade. While most travellers consider Panama-City soulless and unexciting, there is quite a lot more to this city than banks and a famous shipping route.
History and overview:
The capital city of the small Central American nation of Panama was founded on 15th August 1519 by Spanish conquistador Pedro Arias Dávila as a starting point for expeditions towards the Inca Empire in Peru.
The city moreover served as a stopover point on one of the major gold and silver trade routes from Spain to the Americas.
On January 28, 1671, the original colonial city, Panama Viejo, was destroyed by a fire when the city was sacked by British privateers. The city was re-established in another location a few years later and the site of the old destroyed city centre is nowadays a major tourist attraction.
The unveiling of the Panama Canal in 1914 was of great benefit to the infrastructure and economy and made Panama-City the Hub of Central America.
The 70s and 80s heralded the dawn of Panama-City’s financial centre, which is nowadays the city’s primary economic sector. The centre fell under heavy international scrutiny during the aftermath of the Panama Papers scandal in 2016.
Panama-City is today the most developed and wealthiest city in Central America. Its international Tocumen Airport is the major gateway from the region to the rest of the world and Panama’s economic strength is visible all over the city. Over 120 skyscrapers are currently forming the city’s impressive skyline and another 110 are under construction or in planning phase.
The two main areas which are recommendable when it comes to accommodation are Marbella (close to the main transportation hubs and the business district) and Casco Viejo (beautiful colonial buildings and great food and nightlife options but located a bit further away from the transportation hubs). Find your place to stay in Casco in Viejo here
Here are some options in the city centre:
Sercotel Princess: A good option right in Marbella with a lot of facilities and an excellent price quality relation.
Waldorf Astoria Panama: Probably the best hotel in Panama-City and the first Waldorf Astoria in Latin America. This high end hotel will enable you to spend some nights in sheer unlimited comfort and style right in the centre of Panama-City.
Hostal Carolina Princess Marbella: A great hostel close to the famous Hard Rock Hotel with a nice swimming pool and lovely decorated rooms.
Hostal el Machico: Another hip hostel in the city centre close to the busy Calle Uruguay with all the usual amenities.
Cultural offer and activities:
Miraflores Locks – Panama Canal: You obviously cannot visit Panama-City without having a look at the famous Canal. The lock in Miraflores is a sight in itself and contains an instructive museum. Make sure to wait long enough in order to see a ship passing through the lock, which is a spectacular sight.
Casco Viejo area: The Old Town is a colourful maze of colonial buildings, churches and alleys. An absolute must visit area in Panama-City and a lovely contrast to the imposing skyline.
Ancon Hill: Cerro Ancon is the highest point of Panama-City’s most visited and most beautiful natural park and its proximity to the city centre makes this an excellent choice for a day trip. The hill moreover offers stunning views over the Panamanian capital.
Biomuseo: The striking building which was designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry is his first in Latin America and contains interesting exhibitions about Panama’s cultural and natural history, mostly about the 20th century.
Hard Rock Hotel observatory: A fantastic viewpoint in one of the tallest buildings in Panama-City. The best place to take your camera and take some pictures of Panama’s jaw dropping architectural masterpieces.
Las Bovedas & Calzada de Amador: two beautiful waterfront promenades which are great for a stroll on the Pacific shore.
Wine & Dine:
Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse: (Bisca Financial Centre) A fantastic steakhouse in the heart of the business district.
Calle Uruguay: One of the best areas for restaurants in the business district. Calle Uruguay used to be Panama-City’s main nightlife strip as well but the party animals are now mostly in Casco Viejo (see nightlife section of the guide)
Teatro Amador: (Avenida Central) One of the city’s first movie theatres which opened its doors in 1912 is today a popular nightclub playing a variety of music genres ranging from salsa to reggaeton, jazz and electro.
Blarney Stone Pub: (Calle 47 Este) One of the coolest pubs in the city with a great beer selection and a nice air conditioned (yes that’s actually necessary) terrace.
Casco Viejo area: Our favourite place to go out in Panama-City. The beautiful colonial buildings host some of the best bars and clubs in Central America in a lovely architectural setting and Casco Viejo therefore gets the FWB seal of excellence.
El Apartamento y El Sotano: (Avenida Frederico Boyd) Two bars right next to each other in the business district with a cool interior, great music and a large cocktail selection.
Tanatalo’s Rooftop Bar: (Calle 8 Este con Avenida B) One of the best rooftop bars in the Old Town where you will be able to enjoy a high-quality drink while glancing at the beautiful facades of Casco Viejo.
Relic: (Calle 9a Este 3-28) Another great bar in the Casco Viejo area with a young and hip crowd and great international music.
Final tips & verdict:
Be aware of the extreme wealth disparities between Panama-City and the rest of the country. Panama is not a rich country and it is important to keep that in mind when glancing at the spectacular high rises in the capital.
This is also the reason why officials strongly discourage a visit to certain outskirts of Panama-City. The areas of Chorillo and San Miguelito amongst others are no go areas for tourists but the city centre is similar to any large city in the US. With an adequate level of caution, Panama-City is one of the safest cities in Central America, just be informed and use common sense, especially when going out at night.
Panama-City is not the most exciting city in Latin America but still has much more to offer than banks and a canal. Panama’s airport moreover has excellent connections to South and North America and the city can therefore easily be visited on a layover.
In the business district, English levels are higher than in most Latin American countries, it is nonetheless highly recommendable to learn Spanish when visiting Panama-City, especially if you plan to explore more than the main financial centre.
The weather is like anywhere else in this region, unforgiving heat coupled to extreme humidity, expect a lot of rain if you visit between May and October.
The shiny new metro in Panama-City is the first in Central America and mostly connects the major bus stations and the business district. Taxis and Uber are also a good option. The famous colourful buses are not as frequent in the city centre but you will spot and use them if you plan on travelling outside of the capital city.