Panama, the waistline of the Americas, has it all: a big metropolitan capital city, old streets, wildlife, waterfalls and palm tree lined beaches. Panama has a long rain season, the best time to visit is from December to March when there’s hardly any rain. Below are my Panama travel tips and my food hotspots.
Your first port of call is probably Panama City. With its many skyscrapers you might think you’re in Chicago until you see the palm trees and feel the sunshine.
If you like big shopping malls and exclusive hotels Central Panama City and Bella Vista are the neighborhoods for you. You can for example go for a drink at BITS, the highest rooftop bar of Latin America. It’s located at the 62nd floor of the Hard Rock Hotel.
East of the city you’ll find Panama Viejo, the site where the first buildings of Panama City once stood.
From Panama City it’s a short taxi ride to the Panama Canal. A must-see experience when in Panama. The taxi driver will drop you off at the visitors center of the Miraflores Locks, one of the 3 locks of the canal. Here you can see how the huge ships higher 26 meters to reach the height of the canal and the lake. Try to be there at 9am when the visitors center opens. In the morning the ships will enter from the Pacific Ocean, so you’ll get some good shots of the arriving ships. In the afternoon the ships from the Atlantic Ocean will pass the canal, so be aware that there’s a gap of a few hours in which you won’t see any ships.
Close to the Miraflores Locks is the Parque Nacional Soberania. It’s an easy accessible rainforest with different walking trails. Just pay 5$ at the park guide that awaits at the start of the trail and start exploring. You might see toucans, anteaters and beautiful birds and butterflies. If you like wildlife, check out the islands linked by the Causeway (Calle Amador). We spotted iguanas and sloths.
Casco Viejo (or Casco Antiguo) is by far my favorite neighborhood in Panama City. Casco Viejo was the city back in 1904 when the canal was built. But when the population grew and the city expanded eastwards, the elite abandoned the old city which became an urban slum. Nowadays however, Caso Viejo is getting a huge make-over. A big part of the neighborhood is renovated and it now houses many restaurants and bars. As long as you stay on the red bricked roads, you’re absolutely safe. You can have a drink at ‘La Rana Dorada’, a cerveceria where they brew their own beers, or have an icecream at Palettamerica. There are so many options, that it might be difficult to make a choice.
I’ve listed my favorite food hotspots in Casco Viejo below.
My absolute favorite place in Casco Viejo is Tantalo. Tantalo is an hotel, has a rooftop bar and a restaurant downstairs. While travelling I often find it challenging to eat healthy and to get my daily intake of vegetables. Tantalo granted my wishes with many vegetarian (and even some vegan) dishes. The portions are smaller than regular, but bigger than tapas. With two people you can order around 4 dishes. They have red beet carpaccio, vegetarian empanadas and roasted tomatoes with baba ganoush. Besides the great food, they also have original lamps and beautiful wall paintings.
Casa Sucre is a boutique hotel meets coffeehouse and a great spot for breakfast or lunch. While most hotels in Panama City love scrambled eggs and white bread for breakfast, you can get your fiber fix with a toasted wholegrain bagel with cream cheese at Casa Sucre. If you feel like you’ve deserved a dessert after this healthy breakfast, you can stay seated. Casa Sucre has great tiramisu, chocolate cake and passion fruit panna cotta.
La Jirafa de Maria del Alma is the first restaurant you’ll see when entering Casco Viejo. This Mexican restaurant has 4 stories, but all levels are quite small. Every floor is very colorful, but the best place to sit is at the rooftop terrace. While you sip on your frozen strawberry margarita you’ve got a great view of Casco Viejo and the skyscrapers at the other side of town.
You can order your tacos in serves of three, or you can order them seperate so you can try different combinations. They also have great salads, for example with goat cheese and walnuts.
Diablicos serves traditional Panamanian food. They also got several meat and many fish dishes and a couple of salads. But when you go to Diablicos, the best option is one of their ‘tipicos’, their traditional Panamanian meals. You can have your serving of ‘Arroz con Pollo’ (rice with chicken) at their streetside terrace.If you go there on a Sunday afternoon or a Friday or Saturday evening you can see their show. It’s Panamanian dance which showcases the battle between the devil and an angel.
Sante has two branches in Panama City. The one in Casco Viejo is located next to Diablicos. They’ve got several burgers, sandwiches and pasta dishes here. But my favorites are the huge salads. They have a delicious one with goat cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms and grilled chicken.
Just like their neighboring restaurant, Sante also has some tables outside so you can have your dinner in the warm evening air of Panama. When we were there the service was fast and friendly, but I’ve also heard different stories on this matter.
On the border of Casco Viejo and Central Panama City you’ll find the Mercado de Mariscos, the fish market. Come early to see the bristling fish market. Or enjoy a seafood lunch at one of the many small restaurants. You won’t be able to have a proper conversation with the music pumping through the speakers, but it’s a great place for a traditional ‘ceviche’. Most restaurants offer different sizes of this dish containing seafood and onions marinated in lemon juice. I recommend getting the smallest one for just a couple of dollars to try it out. Most restaurants also serve fish fingers, filet, fish cocktails and french fries.
Lazotea is a beautiful rooftop bar in Casco Viejo. It’s located at the top floor of the Hotel Casa Panama. The bar/restaurant is also open for visitors, so you don’t have to be staying at the hotel (although the hotel itself is also beautiful).
Lazotea has a swimming pool and beautiful views of the city. You can have lunch or dinner here, but I prefer it for a pre-dinner drink at one of their comfortable sofas. Since they’re open till late, it’s also a nice spot for a drink after dinner.
Picasso is a nice spot for cocktails or some comfort food. We love guacamole so we were very happy that they have both a guacamole burger as a guacamole wrap on the menu.
And, as mentioned, they have an excessive cocktail list.
The food is not very special, but it’s a nice laidback spot for a burger and fries with a strawberry daiquiri on the side.
El Valle, short for El Valle de Anton, is a nice day trip from Panama City. We drove via Punta Chame, a peninsula with mangroves and many kite surfers. El Valle is a small town located in the crater of an extinct volcano. There are many walking trails that will show you beautiful waterfalls, butterflies and frogs.
At El Valle you can have lunch at El Valle Gourmet & Coffee shop where they serve nice (vegetarian) panini’s and where you can stock up on drinks and snacks before you go into the forests. Across the road you’ll find La Fruteria, where you can get fruit and vegetable juices.
San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands, or Comarca de Kuna Yala, in the north east of Panama are like paradise. Here you’ll find hundreds of islands with nothing but white sand and palm trees. The islands are inhibited by the Kuna. We went on a tour with Cacique Cruiser. They offer two different kind of tours (including pickup and dropoff at your hotel in Panama City) which you can extend with any amount of days. In general, I think 3 days/2 nights should do, since there’s not much to do at the islands but snorkeling, eating and reading. It’s the perfect way to rest with a beautiful backdrop!
You can watch my video of Panama here: