Panama City is a place that was never high on my list (you know the list right?), but I arrived to sunshine and clear skies on a warm day in January (!), and it completely stole my heart. Just a confession right up front - the majority of these recommendations are from the Casco Viejo area - their culture, architecture, street art, food was so intoxicating that I couldn't pull myself away. If you ever find yourself in the area, see below to make the most of your time in this beautiful city of contradictions.
- La Posta in downtown Panama City - Any place that greets you with a champagne apertif will warm its way into your heart. The charming waitstaff and delicious food (try the risotto!) won't disappoint. Located downtown.
- CascoMar - Fairly new in an obscure location, CascoMar will reward your journey to find it with ambiance in spades. Fresh bread, Panamanian specialties like Pulpos a la Gallega and croquetas, and an on-the-street seating area with enough passersby to make you feel like a local celebrity. The excellent service will make you want to stay for hours.
- Casa Sucre Coffeehouse - An eclectic shop with fresh juices and pastries. Free wi-fi and friendly staff (notice a pattern in Panama City yet?) are just what you need for a lazy morning in Casco Viejo.
- Granclement - A refreshing stop for helado on a hot summer day. You won't regret it. You're on vacation.
- Barrio Pizza - The delicious smell of baking dough at Barrio will literally pull you in off the street. You'll be walking for days in Casco Viejo, so this filling treat will hit the spot.
- Bistro at Las Clementinas - After a long day, I stumbled into Las Clementinas based solely on the atmosphere. A glass of vino and a patient waitstaff (that encouragingly allowed me to stumble through my order in Spanish) instantly washed away the day. The pleasant music drifting through the garden and resident feline friend will make you feel like you fell back in time - Panamanian time.
- American Trade Dining Room & Bar (+ Danilo's Jazz Bar) - Sometimes I think back about this restaurant (and star hotel mentioned below) and think it was all a dream. Breathtaking mid-century design, friendly bartenders with a curated cocktail list, pop instrumentals softly floating through the loudspeakers, intricate and bold Spanish-tiled floors. My metaphorical teeth were rotting from the eye candy. Oh, plus the menu was filled with authentic fresh and delicious Panamanian food. Heaven? Stop in here for a pre-dinner cocktail, followed by dinner and hit the jazz bar next door to wind down your evening.
- American Trade Hotel - Prior to restoration local gangs used the building as a gang headquarters and covered every inch in graffiti. Knowing this sordid past, I was even more eager to step inside this beautifully renovated masterpiece. Every inch has been beautifully curated to evoke feelings of the past in a truly modern and luxurious way. Don't miss the library, outdoor patio, and rooftop sinking pool. As if it could get any better, the toiletries are aesop. Just go.
- Las Clementinas Hotel - a gorgeous and clean boutique hotel in the heart of Casco Viejo. Just going to say it - a solid choice if you can't book into ATH.
SEE & DO
- Street art in Casco Viejo - While the regeneration of Casco Viejo has been decades in the making at this point, the street art in the area continues to tell the story of its colorful past exploits. Take a stroll and practice your photography as every turn around the corner brings further socially challenging and artistic delight.
- The ruins of the church and convent of Santo Domingo - Casco Viejo is over 340 years old and was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997. Their city was almost completely destroyed by pirate pillagers in the 1600s and then again by fire in 1756. Revel in the idea that if this church is still standing, you'll survive your hardest battle too. Life lessons from architecture. Easily found on a stroll around the old city.
- Miraflores Locks & Panama Canal - Visit a key point of international maritime trade and wonder at the sight of this system connecting the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean.
- Casco Viejo has been regenerated from a city riddled with bullet holes and dark alleyways, thanks to the Esperanza Social Club, you can take a tour of the city through a former gang member's eyes.
- I was only able to experience Panama City, but I'm most looking forward to getting out to the beaches, like Bocas del Toro!, on my next visit.