Table of Contents
Things to do in Panama City – Understand
Panama City is Central American’s success story – a melting pot that offers an bridge between US dominated North and the Spanish dominated South America. It boasts the world most famous canal, gleaming sky scrapers reminiscent of Hong Kong and an important global airport hub. However when you come closer things get blurry quickly – the canal is creaky and a largely American heritage, the city dangerous (at times) and not urban at all. The airport sees worse crowds with much fewer amenities than Istanbuls’ crazy Ataturk hub (that I try my best to avoid these days).
Panama has it work cut out to become a ‘Singapore of the Americas’. It is committed to this mission but corruption, bureaucracy and a general lack of urgency often get in the way of these ‘Panamanian visions’.
Panama uses the US dollar as a currency and the price level is what you know from the US with food a bit higher.
Panama is tropical and hot and humid year round. It seems to get a bit less rain than other tropical places (like Kuala Lumpur or Singapore) from my limited observation. It also feels a little less hot than those two.
Things to do in Panama City – Safety
I felt Panama City’s state of affairs is better than the image. Daytime seems fine in all the areas you will be exposed to. At night you better get a car to take you even on short distances.
Things to do in Panama City – Get around
UberX is now in the city and the constant taxi hassle has been solved. While the airport ride is fixed around $27, city rides cost just about $20 per hour of driving. There is really no reason to not ride with a friendly Uber driver. It’s almost as cheap as the bus, much less hassle then the crazy taxi drivers and you can’t really be outside in the gleaming heat most of the day.
In case you are wondering Panama City barely has any sidewalks. Locals see no use for it anyways and I can’t blame them given the lack of public transport and the brutal afternoon heat.
Things to do in Panama City – Sights
A must-do for every Panama City visitor. There are two gates the Pacific and Atlantic gates you can visit. The Pacific (Miraflores) gates are just a few miles outside the city and just a 10 minute ride form the old town of Panama City. The bad news – it’s somewhat unpredictable when ships will show up. There can be long lulls – when I visited it took almost 4 hours for a ship to come through. The visitor center also gets crowded and hot and food is of limited quality.
Note that it will be impossible to find cabs o your way back. I literally walked two years ago since nobody would take me under $50.
The Gatun Atlantic gates are a better deal but it’s a two hour drive to get there and you also need to get back likely to your flight within 24 hours.
The Panama City Old Town (Casco Viejo, also known as Casco Antiguo or San Felipe)
Long flirting with a oblivion the old town is back – big time. The rejuvenation is in full steam and many old buildings are already beautifully restored. The city also just finished a huge causeway (Cinta Costera) around the old town (that seems to have no impact on the traffic though).
The area has a number of very well rated places that are worth your time – Granclément for ice cream, Unido Coffee Roasters have a branch, La Rana Dorada has awesome beers Maisa serves delicious ceviche.
In the gulf countries they would call it a Corniche. This section of the cinta costera is a proper one at that. Let’s recall the ingredient – it’s brutally hot until sundown (check), it’s a half perpendicular bay (check), it’s where everyone comes out just before sunset (check), it offers beautiful views (check) and it safe even until late (check, ok the Gulf countries are the definition of safety).
The walk along the sea is a great way to experience the local life and get an idea how this city comes together.
I’m not sure if I should list an outdoor experience in such a hot city – but if you are up for it – this place has the views, the trails and the bugs that make this a truly tropical experience.
What’s amiss in Panama city? Beaches!
Panama City is a swamp and mangroves rule here – you will have to go to Playa El Palmar or the Atlantic coast to find a proper beach to tan (and roast).
Things to do in Panama City – Food and Drinks
Cafe Miranda is a hidden location in a one story building behind a bunch of high rises. It’s easy to miss which would be a shame. The tiny little affair churns out great looking burgers (that actually have some taste), fantastic desserts and good coffee. It’s not cheap but a unpretentious setting. This is a great place to get inspired for writing on that book you always wanted to work on. But be ready to be distracted by incredibly delicious desserts!
Sadly I only had two long 23 hour layovers in Panama – I never made it to a proper dining since the first happened over Christmas and during my last layover it was a Monday when most restaurants are closed. These are the places that came up repeatedly during my research – if you go let us how things went!
Things to do in Panama City – Coffee
Panama City has a bunch of coffee entrepreneurs and while artisan coffee is far from a mainstream phenomenon it’s happening already.
This is a bakery chain that serves Mediterranean inspired delicacies across several artsy locations across town. There coffee is no home run but certainly beats Starbucks & Co easily.
This IS the hipster coffee you were craving for. Lovely espresso in a stylish, yet down-to-earth set up. The pastries aren’t what you should come here for though. Prices are comparable to say Seattle. I bit less than Bay Area and NYC but not much less. The place is teeming with hipster wannabees – so grab your plaid shirt, don’t shave for a week and see what happens.