The country of Panama as a whole enjoys a muted destination profile compared to its neighbor Costa Rica, and not many people take the time to explore it. We were not an exception on our only foray to Central America so far, but we did arrange for a stopover in Panama City on the way to Costa Rica to explore its main attractions a bit.
The historic town center, Casco Viejo ♥♥, which is part of the UNESCO WH inscription, is in places very picturesque, a mishmash of old colonial styles, and quite literally a town of thousand balconies. There are some ruins and building carcasses right in the middle of renovated blocks, which creates an interesting juxtaposition. There are several outstanding churches: La Merced ♥♥ with its thin wooden columns and varied chapel altarpieces, San Jose ♥♥ with the Golden Altar (and if you come around Christmastime, with an altogether incredible Nativity display), the Metropolitan Cathedral ♥♥ with its outstanding facade of weathered stone flanked by gleaming-white towers and the colorful marble altar, and also San Francisco ♥ with its relatively modern-looking altar and chapels.
Nighttime Casco Viejo can be enchanting in places, but also somewhat deserted in others. Festive lighting was frequent during Christmastime, but I have no evidence of whether it remains on at other times.
The second part of the same WH property is Panama Viejo ♥, the site of the original settlement in the area that was abandoned in the 17th century. It is located to the northeast of the city center and is practically all ruins, with just a couple of standing structures, most notably the cathedral tower. The museum on premises offers a very detailed picture of the history of the settlement.
Visiting the Panama Canal may be the only true “must” when in Panama City. The Miraflores Lock ♥ provides a great overview of how the canal works and allows reasonably close observation with ongoing commentary flowing from the speakers. Note that things proceed very slowly and the place is usually fairly crowded.
There are a couple of museums in Casco Viejo that may be interesting to visit given extra time, such as Museo de La Historia de Panamá or the Panama Canal Museum. A striking building on the Amador Causeway is Biomuseum, and further on Naos Island is the Punta Culebra Nature Center, which we also could not fit in our limited time. One other further afield attraction that may be worth consideration is the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve, with several places of interest including Monkey Islands.
As you walk through town, you may decide to taste raspa’o, the local concoction of shaved ice fortified with condensed milk and fruit flavors. Refreshing, although in my view it is below Sicilian granita in terms of enjoyment.
Places to Eat
We only had one meal out in Panama City in late 2022, and this is more of a locale recommendation rather than a specific place, but it is hard to imagine a more romantic feel in Casco Viejo for outdoor seating than in Plaza Bolivar. Appropriately, we picked Feeling ♥ for the meal, which offered a good and varied menu, with ceviche, fish dishes, pizza, pasta, etc. Our damage: $66 for three people with drinks and tips. Neighboring Restaurante Casa Blanca seemed both more popular and busier, with live music late into the night.
In late 2022, we stayed at Le Meridien ♥ in Downtown Panama City. Nice big room with ocean view, with all amenities and a confounding interior feature of a bathroom barn door that did not fully close. Open terrace on the 6th floor with a small pool and spa. A very good full-service bar and restaurant in-house (slow service but great food – try boulabaisse, sopa de mariscos, and tres leches cake). Extensive buffet breakfast. The hotel is about 20 minutes from the airport without traffic and about 15 minutes from Casco Viejo.