It may be best known for its famous canal, but today’s Panama City is home to so much more. Thirty-six hours in this hot spot—which straddles the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea—will showcase the city’s natural wonders, arts and culture, and its buzz-worthy dining and nightlife. There are even archaeological sites, jungles and islands to explore, and if you come during one of its festivals, you’re in for an even bigger (and more colorful) experience. Note: Major U.S. airlines like American, Delta and Continental service Panama City, and U.S. travelers are required to have a visa in advance.
Start the trip at one of Panama City’s most scenic spots. Built using stones culled from the construction of the Panama Canal, the Amador Causeway is a long boardwalk and cycling path connecting the mainland to three small islands, flanked by views of the city skyline, the Bridge of the Americas, the ocean and the canal. Visitors can spend hours browsing the shops, cafés and restaurants along the road. Our Tip: Hop a cab to one end of the causeway, then stroll or bike through the main section, enjoying the views and stopping for a coffee along the way. Bike rentals are available on-site.
Built in the early 1900s, the Panama Canal helps close to 15,000 ships a year connect from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. Watching the ships pass in and out is a Panama City must. A few of the locks are open to visitors, but the most accessible is Miraflores, where you can visit the modern museum and movie theater, then tuck into a buffet lunch at the Miraflores Restaurant (reservations required). Grab a table outside for prime views.
|The Casco Viejo District is full of Spanish colonial architecture and gardens.|
Post-lunch, visit one of the city’s museums. The Museo de Historia de Panamá is home to colonial-era documents and artifacts, while the Museo de Ciencias Naturales focuses on geology and paleontology. The Museo de Arte Religioso Colonial has a variety of sacred items, from paintings to objects made of silver and bone.
After regrouping at the hotel, head to Casco Viejo, also known as Casco Antiguo and which was where the “new” colonial city of Panama was built in 1673. The charming area is full of historical architecture and narrow stone streets. Don’t miss the baroque San Jose Church, home to an altar made of gold, and have your photo snapped in the picturesque Plaza de la Independencia. Top Tip: Try to visit around dusk, when the whole area takes on a magical quality. One Sunday per month, Casco Viejo hosts a market where guests can sample local delicacies, pick up handicrafts made by local Embera Indians, and enjoy music and dance performances.
After your stroll, enjoy dinner at one of the many restaurants in Casco Viejo. Manolo Caracol (manolocaracol.com) is considered one of the best spots in town for its creative prix-fixe tapas menu highlighting seasonal ingredients.
Lined with bars and nightclubs, Calle Uruguay is popular with locals and visitors looking for lively nightlife. Steel yourself with a shot of Panamanian coffee, then stroll the street to find your favorite spot.
Modern Panama City may have skyscrapers and contemporary style (and, in 2012, a cool new Bio-Museum designed by Frank Gehry), but its origins are still visible in Old Town. Visit this Pacific Ocean-side area (called Panama Vieja) for a walk past stone cathedrals, monasteries and public buildings built in the 1600s.
Considered an oasis in the city, Mi Pueblito is a cultural museum that brings to life the history and culture of the area’s indigenous and ethnic communities. Replicas of traditional thatched and adobe dwellings dot several acres. You can also watch Kuna Indian artisans at work, and pick up souvenirs like handicrafts, artwork, traditional Mola blouses and decorative panels.
Head back to the Amador Causeway for lunch at one of the waterside eateries, then enjoy a short walk along the water afterward, ideally with an ice-cream cone in hand.
Hop the ferry for the 45-minute ride to the island of Taboga, home to a fishing village, white-sand beaches, and historical structures like the Church of San Pedro, founded in 1524. Enjoy a walk through the quaint town and the stunning views of the water—all of which inspired painter Paul Gaugin when he stopped here on the way to Tahiti. At certain times during a year, the west side of the island plays host to over a hundred pelicans. End the day with a sunset dinner on the island.