Panama City Travel Guide

Panama City Travel Guide

Referred to as Little Miami by some and the Dubai of Latin America by others, Panamá City is hard to pin down, with its impressive ever-developing skyline, proximity to lush rainforest-covered islands and over 500 years of history as capital city to the nation of Panamá. Much more than a cluster of sleek skyscrapers and pulsating nightlife, Panamá City is a vibrant meeting point between East and West, currently experiencing rapid economic growth and burgeoning tourism thanks to its tropical beach retreats, canal cruises, and incredible wildlife. Panamá City’s restaurants tend to be casual affairs, from diner to beachfront café to roadside fonda, and here you’ll catch fragrant blends of traditional Panamanian, Afro-Caribbean, indigenous and Spanish influences, incorporating the region’s tropical produce and heritage as a melting pot of cultures. While Catholic orthodoxy means that the city’s gay scene is kept largely underground and sexual orientation is not often flaunted, an integrated LGBT community can be found, particularly in expat hubs such as Bocas del Toro and Boquete. Wondering what to see and what to do in Panamá City? Let our Panamá city gay travel guide fill you in.

The best hotels in Panama City

Panamá City can be a bit overwhelming so what better way to start our Panamá City travel guide than to retreat to the wilderness with a stay at El Otro Lado. This 5-star private retreat is superbly located alongside Portobelo Bay inside Portobelo National Park and boasts stylish villas overlooking a spectacular infinity pool. Panamá City is about an hour’s drive away from El Otro Lado, making it easy to explore the city and then return to your villa to retreat in paradise. To be closer to the city without compromising on luxury, the stunning American Trade Hotel, just a stone’s throw away the best Panamá City points of interest in the historic district, is perhaps perfect. After a full day of sightseeing, unwind here with enjoyment of the outdoor pool, jazz bar and stylish air-conditioned rooms.

If fairy-tale vibes are what you’re after, consider Villa Caprichosa, a luxury B&B on Taboga Island, accessible from Panamá City by 30-minute ferry. Constructed with love out of concrete by famed designer Diane Burn, Villa Caprichosa offers the best of island living with its beautiful beachside terraces, selection of private pools and exotic garden surroundings. The food here is also worthy of a mention, presented to perfection at gourmet restaurant Caffe Capri.

Another of Panamá City’s hidden gems is La Concordia, a newly renovated boutique hotel based in Casco Antiguo, the vibrant centre of the old town. Each of La Concordia’s ten sophisticated rooms boast bright design and a private balcony, while the communal areas balance heritage with modernity, across the Mediterranean-style restaurant, Tarraco, and 360° rooftop bar, Numen Gastro Lounge, where guests can enjoy a fusion of Japanese, European and Peruvian flavours while watching the boats go by. For a longer more spacious stay, La Isabela Suites provide a choice of full-service luxury apartments in the heart of Casco Viejo. Not only are they the largest suites in the city, but they are also stylishly designed with optional services from their concierge, masseuse and private chef.

El Otro Lado

El Otro Lado

American Trade Hotel | Photo: Spencer Lowell

American Trade Hotel | Photo: Spencer Lowell

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Recommended hotels in Panama City
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El Otro Lado

El Otro Lado

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Based on the Caribbean coast beside the Costa Rican border, Bocas del Toro is comprised of a chain of nine tropical islands, where the weather is impeccable throughout the year

Things to do in Panama City

While the most famous Panamá City sightseeing spots are no doubt the Panamá Canal and the old towns, Panamá City isn’t done there: there are mountains, beaches and islands to be explored yet! Of its best beaches, Bluff Beach in Bocas del Toro turns heads. Based on the Caribbean coast beside the Costa Rican border, Bocas del Toro is comprised of a chain of nine tropical islands, where the weather is impeccable throughout the year. Colon Island’s Bluff Beach in particular is where we lay our beach towels, a hip, super relaxed spot popular among LGBTQ travellers for its gay-owned accommodation options (such as Plantation, Lula’s B&B and Bocas Beach Club) as well as the great BomBom beach bar where you can fill up on cocktails and pizza before getting nude and enjoying the sandy, salty seclusion. While Bluff is only accessible by plane or a bus and boat combo, an easier to reach daytrip can be had at Santa Clara.

Another dream island escape is at the tropical deserted island of Guna Yala (otherwise known as San Blas). Made up of over 300 islands and inhabited solely by Guna natives, this underdeveloped stunner charms with its rustic experience and tranquillity. While San Blas is just a day trip from Panamá City, to fully appreciate the island’s off-the-radar ambience consider staying a few nights. Despite the hype, a stay in Panamá City would not be complete without catching sight of the Panamá Canal. While you could choose to tour a museum explaining the US participation behind the canal, another more adventurous option is to take an eco-tour and get up close and personal with the ecology and wildlife on the water. The Gatun Lake Jungle Eco Cruise is one choice, taking you along the canal to Gatun Lake and on to Monkey Island where you should keep your eye out for monkeys, sloths and crocodiles.

Photo: Etienne Beauregard Riverin

Photo: Etienne Beauregard Riverin

Those who prefer high altitudes should consider heading to El Valle de Anton, the Panamanian highlands. Reachable by bus (2.5 hours) from Panamá City, this mountain valley benefits from cooler temperatures, beautiful hiking trails and pristine waterfalls. Many of the hikes traverse the ridge of the valley’s volcanic crater giving unmatched views of the region’s best sights and surrounding nature. If you’re not quite out of energy, get yourself on an activity tour to the highlands of Boquete to try ziplining through the rainforest. Bookable through numerous agencies in the city, this tour is also available in Bocas Del Toro and takes about 3 hours roundtrip. But wait a second because Boquete is famous for something more than thrill-seeking; its coffee plantations are famous for their ‘geisha coffee’ creation. One of the most expensive premium coffees in the world, geisha coffee sells for up to $170 a pound and Panamá is one of the top producers, with Boquete’s cooler temperatures making for the perfect ground.

Photo: Rocio Guillen

Panama Rainforest Beach | Photo: Rocio Guillen

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Recommended experiences in Panama City
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Thanks to recent restoration and UNESCO World Heritage Status, Casco Viejo has been transformed into one of Panamá City’s trendiest places to be

Things to see in Panama City

The historic neighbourhood of Casco Viejo is where most travellers begin their city exploration and for good reason. Thanks to recent restoration and UNESCO World Heritage Status, Casco Viejo has been transformed into one of Panamá City’s trendiest places to be. Its historical roots date back to 1673, and the unique fusion of Spanish, French and American influence remains today. As you wander along the cobblestone roads and crumbling pastel-coloured buildings, keep your eyes peeled for the Presidential Palace and La Iglesia de la Merced, one of the oldest buildings in Panamá. Come nightfall, Casco Viejo gets even better, offering fine dining and vibrant nightlife in glitzy surroundings.

Before the rise of Casco Viejo, another town reigned in popularity. This was Panamá Viejo (northeast of Casco Viejo), the oldest European town on the American mainland, which was plundered by pirates and burnt down in 1672. Since then, after extensive renovation, the entire town of Panamá Viejo has become an open-air museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the perfect place to immerse yourself in Panamá’s rich culture and history.

Aside from hitting the beaches, escaping the heat can be hard in Panamá City. At The BioMuseo however, visitors can retreat into air-conditioned wonderment while learning about Panamá’s rich history and biodiversity. Hosting ever-changing interactive exhibits, The BioMuseo is also an architectural delight with nearly unbeatable views, from the mind of world-renowned architect Frank Gehry.

For a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, a visit to the lovely residential neighbourhood of Ancon wouldn’t go amiss. The walkers among you may also be interested in climbing Cerro Ancón (Ancon Hill), the lush green stub visible from anywhere in the city. At 654-foot above sea level, this untouched natural beauty bears the Panamanian flag and little else asides from panoramic views of Panamá City and glimpses of the nearby Panamá Canal. There’s also the option to get high elsewhere in the city, with the sunset view from the Panaviera said to be the most stunning thing you’ll see during your trip. Located on the 66th floor of the Sun Casino, Panaviera is best experienced at around 6.30pm when the bar’s cocktails and champagne are complemented by orange hues and ocean views for days.

Photo: Maria Fernanda Gonzalez

Photo: Maria Fernanda Gonzalez

Where to eat in Panama City

For an intimate affair, head to Donde Jose. This 14-seat restaurant allows patrons to get up close and personal to Chef Jose as he prepares an exquisite meal based on New Panamanian cuisine. If you can, request a seat at the chef’s table (it only seats four.) However, no matter where you’re seated, expect the staff to walk you through each course while they explain the local ingredients and significance of the dish. If you can’t get a reservation at Donde Jose and you’re in the neighbourhood of Cangrejo, then stop by the lovely Riesen. This family-run restaurant features beautifully prepared farm-to-table Panamanian cuisine.

Panamanians love to party, and you’ll certainly have no shortage of venues to dance the night away. Calle Uruguay is arguably the most glitzy, full of renovated clubs and fancy lounges. BLG is perhaps the nicest gay club in Panama City, and located here.

If you prefer a glass of wine and a fantastic view, then Tantalo Rooftop Bar in Casco Viejo is a glamorous but unpretentious choice. For something a bit less formal, head to the Amador Causeway where you’ll find a handful of open-air bars and lounges. Sip on a cool cocktail and enjoy the tropical sea breeze.

Finally, you don’t have to be a savvy salsa dancer to enjoy Habana Panama (also in Casco Viejo). The dancers at this vintage salsa bar will leave you spellbound.

Donde Jose

Donde Jose

If you prefer Panamanian arts and crafts to fish and squid, then the Mercado de Buhonerias y Artesanias is the perfect choice

Shopping in Panama City

True shopaholics might be interested in exploring the largest mall in Central America, the Albrook Mall. However, we suggest avoiding the malls in favour of a few unique finds throughout the city. A one-of-a-kind souvenir is a mola. Molas are traditionally an outfit for indigenous Kuna women on the islands between Panama and Colombia, but you will also find handmade molas for display and decoration. Flory Saltzman Molas is the best place for this.

Don’t miss the Mercado del Marisco for the most mouth-watering fish anywhere in Panama City. Meander around the stalls downstairs, then head upstairs to the restaurant to find the freshest selection prepared on demand. Whether it’s octopus, fish, shrimp or king lobster, you can expect it all (and more) here. If you prefer Panamanian arts and crafts to fish and squid, then the Mercado de Buhonerias y Artesanias is the perfect choice. Located on Av. Central España, you’ll discover fantastic handmade souvenirs in this outdoor market.

Photo: Allef Vinicius

Photo: Allef Vinicius

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It is in Calle Uruguay, Amador Causeway and Casco Viejo where you’ll find the biggest concentrations of bars and clubs, with Casco Viejo home to the city’s somewhat hidden LGBT scene

Panamá City nightlife

A party town with nightly events and entertainment brightening the streets, there are countless ways to start the night off in Panamá City. While laid-back locals gather around cases of ice-cold beer to background beats of reggaeton, other more neatly dressed citizens will head to the elegant rooftop terraces to mingle with internationals and dance to DJ-spun tunes. Either way, its Calle Uruguay, Amador Causeway and Casco Viejo where you’ll find the biggest concentrations of bars and clubs, with Casco Viejo home to the city’s somewhat hidden LGBT scene. Although small, our Panamá City gay nightlife guide has still managed to put together a few top options. Gatto Blanco Rooftop Bar is our first, the perfect spot for early evening cocktails with a view. Located atop the Gatto Blanco hotel, this rooftop bar is an LGBTQ favourite thanks to its cute bartenders, lounge seating and rotating line-up of DJs playing everything from electro to Latino pop.

Casa Casco

Casa Casco

Another of Panamá City’s hottest rooftops is Casa Casco, sat atop a beautiful colonial mansion overlooking the ocean and all the architectural glory of Plaza Tomás Herrera, with three restaurants and a club on site. Over in the neighbourhood of Bella Vista lies El Apartamento y El Sotano, an exciting event venue within a vast canary-coloured villa, serving up indie jams in the main apartment and rock music in the basement. Feeling like one big house party where no two nights are ever the same, El Apartamento party house has no sign but is easy to find on Avenida Federico Boyd, giving off a bohemian air and the aroma of Panamanian-Asian fusion cuisine.

The beer drinkers among you should also know about La Rana Dorada (or Golden Frog), a local brewery specialising in high-quality artisanal beers available for purchasing or guzzling on the spot at either one of their pubs in Via Argentina and Casco Viejo. Keeping the pub vibes going over in the old city is gastropub Casa Jaguar where you’ll find a combination of locally-adapted international cuisine alongside an excellent range of cocktails, spirits and wines, in a modern artful setting where music takes centre stage. Our next offering is a dynamic bar and kitchen, with a stock market-style pricing strategy. This is Wall Street, where the cocktail prices vary depending on demand and where the open terrace ambience gives an ideal setting to try their international cuisine on any warm day or night.

Lastly, bringing some much-needed glitz to the streets is a new addition to Panamá City’s nightlife scene, Envy Club Panamá, located on Calle Aquilino de la Guardia in front of the Hyatt. Packed with sexy guys and a full line-up of LGBT events, Envy Club is a late-night hotspot for karaoke nights, drag shows or even to watch competitors battle it out for the title of Mr Gay Central America.

Photo: Kevin Mueller

Photo: Kevin Mueller

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