From tropical forests to rooftop bars: how to spend a perfect weekend in Panama City

A weekend in Panama City offers much more than the canal. Panama’s capital is home to island escapades, ravishing rooftops and tropical cuisines. The hardest part of the weekend trip will be deciding where to begin, so here’s our suggestions for how to spend the perfect weekend in Panama City. 

From rooftop bars to quick island getaways, a weekend in Panama City offers a long list of activities to enjoy © Rosie Bell / Lonely Planet

Friday

Evening

Check in to your hotel. It’s no exaggeration to say that Panama City is Central America’s most stylish capital, so great hotels are plentiful. In the historic quarter of Casco Viejo, your best bet is the American Trade Hotel, a charming building restored to perfection while maintaining its Old-Word feel. The 50-room boutique hotel has a grand dining hall and an elegant rooftop pool overlooking the church bells of Iglesia La Merced. If you’d feel more at home among the skyscrapers of ‘new Panama‘, opt for the W Panama where local influences inform the menus and décor. Make a splash on the 15th floor at the aptly named Wet Deck with outdoor pool, cabanas and two bars.

Once settled in, your first port of call should be wandering around Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the epicenter of activity. Here, crumbling and palatial buildings coexist peacefully along narrow cobblestone streets. Traipse through the squares to enjoy Spanish colonial architecture, uncover ruins and hunt precious treasure like the Golden Altar at Iglesia de San José. Buy souvenirs like Panama hats and Mola fabrics from Kuna women along Paseo Esteban Huertas, a seafront walkway with great views of the Bridge of the Americas.

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For dinner, enjoy live music at Plaza Bolivar’s al fresco restaurants or dine underneath dozens of devil masks at Diablicos, a traditional Panamanian eatery. Be sure to try sancocho, Panama’s national dish (and a well-respected hangover cure). For dessert, have a condensed milk-drizzled raspao, a Panamanian snow cone, at Fonda Lo Que Hay. Casco isn’t short of ice-cream parlors (heladerias). Head over to Insta-famous Ay Mi Negra, Palettamérica or The Cookie Jaar for generous portions and free samples.

The Panamanian heat can be punishing, so escaping to a breezy rooftop is always wise. Casco’s rooftop bars and clubs are infamous, and your evening can be as mild or wild as you want it to be. For the latter, sign up for Panama Bar Crawl which is arguably the best way to take in these sky-high venues all at once. Along with multilingual guides you’ll visit five glittering locations, including Tantalo, where you may salsa the night away, wind in hair.

You don't have to travel far from downtown Panama City for views like this © Dixon Hamby / Shutterstock

Saturday

Morning

Break your fast with a no-frills meal at Café Coca Cola. Panama’s oldest café is well past the century mark and will fill you up without emptying your wallet. Literary and historical giants have dined at this humble Casco establishment, including Pablo Neruda and Che Guevara.

Taxi on over to the scenic Amador Causeway where you’ll find the Frank Gehry-designed BioMuseo. Learn how this isthmus changed the world as well as other little-known tidbits such as Scotland’s failed Panamanian invasion via the Darién, one of the world’s wildest jungles.

Related article: Exploring the Amador Causeway 

Stay on the Amador and take a 10-minute taxi to Taboga Express’ ferry terminal. Panama has over 1,500 miles of shoreline and over 1,400 islands, so a weekend in Panama City can easily be combined with a beach trip. The most accessible island is Taboga, a mere 30 minutes away by ferry ($20 round trip). Nicknamed ‘Island of the flowers‘, its beauty attracted French impressionist Paul Gauguin, who lived there in 1887. The last ferry back to the city is at 5pm, so don't be late.

Afternoon

Back on solid ground, return to your hotel to shake the sand off and change out of your beach attire. Make your way to Mercado de Mariscos (the fish market) to satisfy your seafood cravings with freshly caught fare. 

Night

Begin the evening with a stroll along Cinta Costera, the city’s prized outdoor park and waterfront promenade to enjoy the sunset. From the fish market, walk until you get to the kaleidoscopic Panama sign to snap your obligatory photo.

Still on foot, head back to Casco to enjoy the sparkling skyline at Salvaje. Those with a penchant for nightlife will appreciate this popular rooftop club and restaurant which adopts a tropical ethos and has one of the best views in Casco. Alternatively, consider Danilo’s Jazz Club where the crème de la crème of Panama’s jazz scene play to an elegant, intimate crowd.

Sample one of the most expensive coffees in the world at American Trade Hotel © Rosie Bell / Lonely Planet

Sunday

Morning

American Trade Hotel’s on-site café, Tiempos, offers the Panamanian Geisha – one of the most expensive coffees in the world. Dubbed ‘the Champagne of coffees’, it incidentally tastes more like tea.

Up next is Panama’s star attraction, the canal. A weekend in Panama without witnessing the canal is like Paris with no Eiffel Tower. Wake up bright and early and make your way to the Miraflores Visitor Center to witness passing ships. To guarantee a sighting, it’s best to visit when it opens at 8am. Tickets cost $20 and there are observation decks with varied views, as well as, an interactive, multi-story museum that takes around two hours.

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Afternoon

For nature lovers, Panama City is blessed with two tropical forests where, if luck is on your side, you’ll spot monkeys, sloths and toucans. Take a taxi from the canal to Cerro Ancon or Parque Natural Metropolitano. Both reward visitors with sweeping panoramic views after a brisk hike.

 Night

As the sun sets on your weekend, order a cocktail at the highest pool bar in Central America – the Panaviera - or find yourself at the city’s first beach club, Lost. Panamanians delight in dressing well, so do follow suit. Wrap up your weekend with dinner at Donde José with experimental Panamanian cuisine courtesy of the country’s top chef. It’s a hot ticket so you’ll need to book ahead.  

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