It’s not all about the canal, you know? As Panama City marks its 500th anniversary, there’s plenty to celebrate in this venerable, lively capital, writes Vanessa Gibbs…
Panama City marks its 500th anniversary this August, and although parts of the metropolis are upgrading, there are plenty of neighbourhoods holding on to their old-time charm.
Crumbling colonial exteriors, sleepy plazas and markets filled with local food and crafts can still be found away from the skyscrapers and malls.
The capital is also celebrating in style. Jazz festivals and murals are popping up to honour the big year, and even the churches got a makeover for the Pope’s visit in early 2019.
A wave of chic dining spots, bars and plush hotels are making themselves at home, too, often inside renovated buildings with their original pastel-coloured façades.
Then there’s old classics like the UNESCO-listed areas of Casco Viejo and Panamá Viejo and, of course, the famous canal. Just don’t neglect the winding streets, hidden cafés and local stalls that make this city special.
Panama City has two airports: Tocumen (international) and Albrook (domestic).
There are no non-stop flights from the UK, so most flights go via Europe or the USA to Tocumen, which is 35km from the city centre.
Expect a small airport with spotty WiFi and few food options but plenty of taxi ranks and rental car stands.
Taxis are the easiest and most convenient way into the city centre.
Pass the touts vying for attention by the exit and head to the taxi stand outside, where you’ll be given the real price and forgo a hefty tip – expect to pay about US$25 (£19).
For cheaper options, an Uber ride comes to about US$14 (£10).
There's a bus station across the street from the airport where you can get into town for US$1.25 (£1), but you’ll have to find a local willing to swipe their Metrobus card, in return for the cash.
Buses from across the country arrive in Albrook Bus Terminal, which is just a short taxi ride from the city centre.
Boats from Colombia dock in the Port of Balboa or Fuerte Amador.
Get to the heart of the old city and head to Casco Viejo. Here you’ll find cobbles and colonial-era buildings among the shiny cafés, boutique shops and ice-cream parlours.
Wander the streets of this once-gritty-now-chic corner. Stop for a banana-leaf tamale in Casa Sucre, which overlooks a plaza. Then, while you’re in the area, check out the nearby Panama Canal Museum, where you can get an English-language audio guide for a history lesson on the engineering marvel.
Head north for a stroll along Avenida Central, a pedestrianised shopping street, then hail a taxi (they’re cheap and plentiful) to Parque Natural Metropolitano. A paved trail takes you through the lush forest to a 150m-high mirador (lookout point) with sweeping views of the city. Lucky visitors can spot sloths, anteaters and monkeys along the way, but the more common birds and reptiles are just as interesting.
Head into the city for lunch in the El Cangrejo district. Try El Trapiche for local dishes like fried plantain and corn empanadas (pasties) or one of their generous sharing platters. Next, make for the coast to walk or cycle (bike rental from US$4/£3 per hour) the Cinta Costera, a manicured path along the seafront with views of the ocean, Casco Viejo and city centre.
Once back in Casco Viejo, try the 2.5-hour evening Taste of Panama City tour with Barefoot Panama. Sample ceviche at the seafood market, sip on local craft beer and get foodie tips for the rest of your stay. End the day with a drink at hip rooftop bar Salvaje and fine views over the twinkling cityscape.
Though there are plenty of glitzy hotels in the city, Tántalo Hotel offers substance for the money.
Set in the historic Casco Viejo district, its funky rooms are adorned with bright art, while the rooftop bar has a jazzy cocktail menu and skyline views.
The city-centre Innfiniti Hotel & Suites is five minutes’ taxi ride from Casco Viejo and a stroll to the seafront.
But the draw is its rooftop infinity-edge pool with a panorama of the sea and city. Inside, rooms are rather comfy, modern and have great views.
Panama House is a quaint B&B in El Carmen neighbourhood. The nearest metro is a five-minute walk away but bicycle hire is nearby.
Rooms are simple and clean, and the on-site restaurant has a wide menu.
Although you could easily spend days in the city centre, no visit to Panama is complete without a visit to its 80km-long canal, connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
Take a 20-minute taxi or hop the bus to the Miraflores Visitors Center and head to the viewing decks to watch the huge container ships pass through the impressive structure. The interactive exhibits inside are also worth a visit.
Get out of the city to experience the wild side of Panama. For a party vibe, head to the Caribbean. Bocas del Toro is a one-hour flight away, or for more of an adventure, take a bus or rent a car and drive to Santa Catalina on the Pacific coast for surf spots and laidback beach huts. The five-hour drive is an experience in itself, with its roads leading you on a scenic drive through tiny towns.
For a castaway feel, grab a boat from Santa Catalina to Isla de Coiba National Park, an old prison colony turned paradise, for snorkelling and diving off its abandoned coast.
Spanish, though English is widely spoken in tourism areas.
International dialling code:
Visas are not required for UK nationals unless you’re arriving by sea; apply for this at the Panama consulate in the UK ($100/£77). By air, you’ll need proof of an onward journey and can stay in the country for up to 180 days.
Panamanian Balboa (PAB), currently around PAB1.30 to the UK£. US dollars are also accepted.
Head to Ancon Hill and climb the 196m rise for views over the city centre and Casco Viejo.
Tap water is safe to drink. The Zika virus is present and is spread through mosquito bites. Symptoms are usually very mild and last four to seven days, but pregnant women are advised against all but essential travel to Panama.
Lonely Planet’s Panama guide (2016) offers handy maps and reliable restaurant recommendations.
Panama Info is great for finding restaurants, nightlife and other things to do in the capital.
The temperature typically hovers around 30 degrees (ºC) all year; the rainy season runs from April to November.
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