City guide: Panama City

Banking, real estate and shipping dominate the economy in this Latin American city.

While the canal gets all the glory, there’s more to Panama City than a waterway. The capital has seen a dramatic rise in popularity among tourists thanks to its natural beauty, revitalized Old Town and a designation as one of the safest cities in Latin America.

Panama City is the financial epicenter of Panama. The economy is dominated by banking, real estate, commercial trade and shipping associated with the Panama Canal and Port of Balboa. The number of international visitors is growing, and several global hotel chains have opened recently or have plans to open in the near future.

Getting to and from the airport

Tocumen International Airport is 35 kilometers (about 22 miles) north of the city center. Taxis are available at stands within the airport. A one-way fare downtown is about US$30. The trip takes 20 minutes in light traffic but over an hour during peak times. Taxis in Panama are not metered, so state your destination and agree on a rate before your journey starts.

Public bus routes link the airport to central Panama City for a fare of about US$1.25. The problem is that fares only can be paid with a refillable Metrocard, but the cards are not available for purchase at the airport.

Note that both the Panamanian balboa and the U.S. dollar are accepted currencies. The value of the balboa tracks with the value of the U.S. dollar.

Getting around Panama City

The Metrobus system operates within the city and surrounding area, but it can be difficult for a visitor to navigate. Locals and bus drivers are usually willing to offer guidance, but you may need some rudimentary Spanish to get by. The easiest way to get from point A to B is to hail a taxi. Cabs are plentiful and quite cheap, but, again, they aren’t metered. Ask hotel staff for general rates to your destination, so you have an idea of what to pay. Taxi drivers have been known to take advantage of naïve tourists. A trip within the city center usually won’t exceed US$4.

Where to stay

For luxury and upscale hotel options, try Waldorf Astoria Panama (47th Street and Uruguay Street, Panama City; Ph: 507-294-8000), Marriott Panama Hotel (Calle 52 and Ricardo Arias, Panama City; Ph: 507-210-9100), Sheraton Grand Panama (Via Israel and 77th Street, Panama City; Ph: 507-305-5100), Aloft Panama (Via Israel and Calle 76; Panama City; Ph: 507-282-6000) or Radisson Decapolis Panama City (Avenida Balboa-Multicentro, Panama City; Ph: 507-215-5000).

Midscale options include Country Inn & Suites by Carlson Panama City (Boulevard El Dorado, Panama City; Ph: 507-300-3700), Hyatt Place Panama City (Avenida Aquilino de La Guardia, Panama City; Ph: 507-307-1234) or Wyndham Garden Panama City (10 58th St., Panama City; Ph: 507-212-5700).

Things to see and do

The Panama Canal must be on your itinerary. It is, after all, one of mankind’s greatest engineering marvels. The waterway provides a thoroughfare between the Pacific and Atlantic. It stretches 77 kilometers (48 miles) and was completed in 1914. In recent years, the canal underwent a US$5 billion upgrade to accommodate larger ships.

The best place to start a canal tour is at the Miraflores Visitors Center. Exhibits showcase the canal’s history and document its construction. You can view ships passing through the locks from the observation deck. The center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is US$15. If you have time, get on the water. A partial transit tour goes through three locks and takes about five hours. The full transit travels the entire canal—through all six locks and past Lake Gatun—and takes about eight hours.

If you want more of the outdoors, go to Metropolitan National Park. The 265-hectare escape is a protected area of tropical forest tucked within city limits. Trails are well maintained and marked. Lookout points offer panoramic views of the skyline, canal and Port of Balboa. Watch for monkeys, anteaters, sloths, white-tailed deer, iguanas and turtles, as well as 250 species of birds. The park is open from 6 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Entrance is US$2.

Casco Viejo, or Old Town, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s looking better than ever after recent revitalization. Start at the Plaza de la Independencia—the site of Panama’s declaration of independence from Colombia in 1903. Landmarks include Metropolitan Cathedral—one of the largest in Central America—and Museo del Canal Interoceánico, a classic example of French architecture. The Presidential Palace is just a few minutes away on foot. Panama’s answer to the White House is a meticulously maintained Spanish mansion flanked with fountains and Colonial-style arches. You’ll have to admire it from the street, as entry is not permitted. Just to walk by, you need to show your passport to a security guard.

The Biomuseo (Biodiversity Museum) is the first Latin American project by famed architect Frank Gehry. The vivid hues of the sloping roof panels are striking and intended to represent Panama’s landmass rising out of the sea to unite the drifting continents of North and South America millions of years ago. The museum contains eight exhibitions showcasing Panama’s unique biodiversity, as well as a botanical garden. It’s open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is US$22.

Where to eat

La Posta, in a restored home, is a fine-dining favorite of expats and business travelers. The menu—a fusion of Latin American and European flavors—changes depending on fresh ingredients in season. Highlights include octopus carpaccio, yellowfin tuna ceviche and wood-fired oven pizzas. Ask for a table on the back patio overlooking a beautiful tropical garden. Find it at Calle República de Uruguay, Panama City; Ph: 507-269-1076.

Brunch lovers will be in paradise at Las Clementinas. The bright dining room is reminiscent of a Parisian bistro with tile floors, marble bar and large windows. The cuisine is a modern mix of international and Panamanian dishes. A three course, prix-fixe brunch includes a mimosa or Bloody Mary and unlimited coffee or tea. It’s at Las Clementinas Chambers, Calle 11 and Avenue B, Casco Antiguo, Panama City; Ph: 507-308-6550.

Tantalo Kitchen is a whimsical tapas bar in the Casco Viejo neighborhood. Come with a group and taste as many dishes as possible. The menu offers fish and chips, Cuban pulled pork, Creole picadillo and stuffed calamari, to name a few. Cap off your meal with sweets—the delectable banana cake is the most popular. Then head to the upstairs bar for signature cocktails and a great view of the city. Find it at Calle 8 Este con Avenida B, Casco Viejo, Panama City; Ph: 507-262-4030.

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