Featuring artisan crafts, snorkeling, and plenty of coffee
Panama may be best known for its 50-mile canal, which links the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, but its capital has become one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Central America. Historically a hub of trade and immigration, Panama City is now a destination for art buffs, gourmands, and active travelers alike. The city will celebrate its 500th anniversary in 2019, but there are plenty of other reasons to plan a visit—particularly during the dry season between December and April. Here, a weekend guide to one of the most vibrant cities in the Americas.
WHERE TO STAY
To be in the center of the action, book a room at the American Trade Hotel. Nestled in a beautifully restored building in the desirable Casco Viejo neighborhood—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—the luxury boutique hotel blends old-world elegance with modern design. Spend your days lounging at the rooftop pool deck, sipping a cold brew at Café Unido, or enjoying live music and craft cocktails at Danilo’s Jazz Club.
Also in the neighborhood is La Isabela Suites, another boutique favorite known for its authentic Panamanian art, classic Colonial architecture, and spacious suites—all of which come with balconies. The larger, two-bedroom suites also have access to a greenery-filled internal courtyard.
Locals love Mentiritas Blancas, which serves bracing cups of Panamanian coffee and nutritious dishes like colorful quinoa bowls and avocado toast with eggs.
Choose Your Afternoon Adventure
OPTION 1: CULTURE
No trip to Panama City would be complete without exploring the famed canal. Head to the Miraflores Visitor Center for information and exhibits on the landmark, in addition to viewing platforms where you can watch the boats come in. If you’re craving a relaxed lunch, return to Casco Viejo for a meal at Tío Navaja. The restaurant has an airy, laid-back vibe and serves creative spins on Panamanian staples including tasty tortas, crispy plantains, and homemade soups (don’t miss their sancocho stew).
OPTION 2: FITNESS
Skip breakfast at the restaurant and grab something on-the-go, so you can make a 7 a.m. start time for a jaunt outside the city with Xplora Panama Tours. After a scenic drive through the mountains, an hour-and-a-half hike in the forest will lead you to a magnificent waterfall, where you can swim surrounded by the local flora and fauna. After the excursion, the company provides an authentic Panamanian lunch at a traditional restaurant.
Return to Casco Viejo for dinner at Tantalo Kitchen in the trendy Tantalo Hotel. The menu fuses flavors from around the globe with offerings like steamed mussels with pineapple green curry, ginger-sesame tuna tartare, and Cuban-style pulled pork. Once the sun has set, head to the Roofbar, where you can dance surrounded by panoramic views of the Old Quarter.
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Enjoy a leisurely morning at the Papaya Planet café. Try their green shakshuka with kale and feta, sample a fruit salad, or order the smoked salmon plate with pumpernickel and arugula salad. Afterwards, weave through their on-site bookstore, art gallery, and gift shop, perhaps picking up some collectible wares or reading material to bring back.
Choose your Afternoon Adventure
OPTION 1: CULTURE
If you aren’t able to find the perfect souvenir at Papaya Planet, check out the Balboa neighborhood. Spend the afternoon strolling through the Mercado de Artesanías, where you can find woven baskets, tapestries, and paper masks—all made by local artisans. Afterwards, walk to Café Boulevard Balboa, a popular no-frills eatery known for their refreshing fruit smoothies and hearty Cuban sandwiches.
OPTION 2: FITNESS
Escape the city with a day trip to Taboga Island, located 12 miles off the coast (approximately 30 minutes aboard the Taboga Express.) Taboga Tour Center can organize guided island tours and snorkeling excursions along Taboga’s coral reefs, and driving trips through the mountains. Or, find your own way, and take a scenic three-hour hike on Camino de la Cruz up to La Vigia, a World War II watchtower. Grab a late lunch of shrimp and plantains at Restaurante Playa Honda before returning to the mainland.
Don’t leave Panama City without a meal at Donde Jose—it’s an exclusive spot, so be sure to make a reservation at least a month in advance. The restaurant boasts an ever-changing, eight-course tasting menu of elevated Panamanian fare prepared using seasonal ingredients. If you’re feeling celebratory, book seats at the chef’s table for an unforgettable dining experience.