I recently traveled to Panama City, Panama to celebrate my 30th birthday, and I absolutely loved it! I wanted to spend my birthday away from the U.S. on a trip full of culture, fun, relaxation, and warm weather. Panama City didn’t disappoint. This trip was more than I could ever imagine.
Although Panama City is a progressive metropolitan area, it is very rich in culture. There is a lot of history within the city, and I admire how the people know their country's history and take pride in it. I met some of the most genuine people while in Panama, and I had some of the best drivers who were able to enlighten me with historical facts about the city and sites to see, as well as other cultural nuggets. Panama City’s diverse culture is evident in the people. There are so many different shades of beautiful people, which made me smile and feel at home. A lot of people moved to Panama from the Caribbean, Asia, and other Central and South American countries to help build the Panama Canal, and decided to stay. Of course, they brought their own native traditions and food, which all contribute to Panama’s diverse culture.
The entire country of Panama has so much to offer. However, I decided to stay in Panama City the entire trip since I was only there for four days, and there was so much to do in and around the city itself from tours, sight seeing, and good eats. The city somewhat reminded me of Miami (minus the beach).
PANAMA: Things to Know
The Panamanian Balboa (PAB) is the official currency of Panama. However, the USD is widely accepted.
Were to Stay:
I stayed at the Waldorf Astoria Panama, which is conveniently located downtown. There are tons of restaurants, entertainment, and shopping within walking distance. The Waldorf Astoria is rated as a five-star hotel, so the accommodations were the best of the best. My favorite features of the hotel were the city views, pool, and bar. The bartender served some of the best handcrafted cocktails I’ve ever had.
There's tons of places to eat in Panama from Traditional Panamanian food to Caribbean cuisine to Chinese food to typical American restaurants. You name it, they've got it. Here are a few highly recommended dining options while in Panama City, Panama:
El Caribe – My favorite restaurant from the trip! The menu offers a plethora of traditional Caribbean favorites including jerk chicken, ox tails, plantains, and more. The owner, her daughter, and the rest of the staff were very welcoming and served some of the best jerk chicken (and rum punch) I've ever had. They also have karaoke on Friday nights! I actually dined here twice because it was that good! Plus, it’s also owned by a Howard University alum :)
Restaurante Tinajas – Want to get a real Panamanian dining experience? Try Restaurante Tinajas! This restaurant serves traditional Panamanian food, and it comes with a live show (check their calendar for show times and make your reservation accordingly). The dinner show features traditional Panamanian dancers, and the narrator takes guests on a journey through the history of the country and the dances. I ate the fried red snapper and the chicken with rice. It was so good! Also, the sangria was absolutely amazing.
Diablicos – Located in Casco Viejo, this restaurant also serves traditional Panamanian food. I had the garlic fish with plantains, rice and peas. The food was delicious and full of flavor. It's a great spot for lunch, especially if you're already in the Casco Viejo area.
Tántalo – They have Taco Tuesday (or as they call it – Open Taco) and you get to try all of their tacos (beef, pork, chicken, fish, veggie). It’s also located in Casco Viejo, and also features a rooftop bar (with music) where you can get some of the best views of the city especially at night.
Prime Steakhouse – This downtown steakhouse reminded me of STK, but better. It's located in Hotel Sortis, which also houses a casino. I ordered the ribeye steak, which was served on a hot stone, so it was still cooking when it arrived at my table. SI'm a self-proclaimed steak connoisseur, and this ribeye didn't disappoint. The sides were very flavorful, as well. This is a nice break from traditional Panamanian food, and highly recommended if you like steakhouses.
Donde José – Unfortunately, they were closed during my trip to Panama, but it's definitely at the top of my list for when I return. This intimate Panamanian dining experience serves guests a nine-course meal created with native ingredients to reflect the various flavors, culture, and history of the country. This restaurant was highly recommended, and it's in high demand since each evening only allows for 16 guests. Advanced reservations are a must.
Things to Do:
Panama City has A LOT to do. Here are a few of my "must do" activities if you're visiting Panama City, Panama:
Panama Canal (Miraflores Locks) – You can’t travel to Panama without seeing the famous Panama Canal, which was built to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Miraflores Locks is one of three sets of locks on the Panama Canal. This attraction features a museum and an IMAX theatre experience (narrated by Morgan Freeman) that gives visitors a behind-the-scenes look into how the Panama Canal was constructed, the history, and current operations. This visitor center also includes observation decks to see actual ships passing through the locks, which was pretty amazing!
Casco Viejo – Casco Viejo is a historical area of Panama City and features a ton of colonial-era landmarks. Although, it's the old town area, it's very hip with a lot to see and do. Some recommended sites to see are: Iglesia de San Jose, Palacia de Garza, El Arco Chato, Plaza Bolivar, Plaza de Francia, and Metropolitan Cathedral. Casco Viejo offers the balance between historical education and fun. There are tons of museums, art galleries, historical sites, good food, and shopping. It's also known for its great nightlife and rooftop bars.
Metropolitan Natural Park – This park is the only the wildlife refuge within Central America located within a city. This tropical oasis is home to tons of wildlife species, birds, and trees. I hiked over two miles to the top, where I was able to see breathtaking views of the city and even the Panama Canal. Might as well add some exercise to your trip and get rewarded with some of the best views of the city. It's definitely worth visiting!
Panama Sign – There are two Panama signs to take photos with. One is centrally located at Cintra Costera, which is a beautiful waterfront boulevard located in the heart of the city. The other Panama sign is located at the marina on Isla Flamenco, which is a small island that isn't too far from the city's center.
Bridge of the Americas – This road bridge spans the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal and connects North and South America. I was able to see it while traveling to Isla Flamenco. It's a beautiful sight to see.
Embera Village Tour – I didn’t have time to do this excursion, but it’s highly recommended. These tours immerse guests with the Embera people who still live in indigenous traditional villages located in the rainforest. It's an authentic educational experience where you can interact with the Embera people while learning about their culture, history, food, and other traditions.
Mercado de Mariscos – If you like ceviche (or even if you don't), Mercado de Mariscos is the place to try it. This local fish market is known for their ceviche and other fresh fish dishes, so be sure to add it your list of places to check out.
Shopping – Panama City offers something for everyone in terms of shopping from traditional markets to outlets to high-end retailers. Your shopping needs can be fulfilled at Multiplaza, Megapolis Outlets, Albrook Mall, or Plaza de Francia depending on your wants and needs. I recommend Multiplaza for everyday mall shopping, and Plaza de Francia for traditional souvenir shopping.
Visit the beach - Although there aren’t actual beaches in Panama City, you can book day tours that will take you to various beaches throughout the country. The most recommended beaches were San Blas Islands and Isla Grande. For this particular trip, I was fine relaxing at our hotel pool and bar when I wasn’t running the streets, but I'll definitely be adding the beach to my itinerary next time.
There’s so much to see in the beautiful country of Panama, and I honestly didn’t have enough time. Words and photos can't even do this trip justice. I’ll definitely be going back to experience more of the culture, visit Colon, and check out the beaches. Overall, I had an amazing trip, learned a lot, met some of the nicest people, sipped the best drinks, and ate some of the most delicious food!
I highly recommend visiting Panama. This was one of my favorite trips. I can’t wait to go back (or maybe even move there)!