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The Best of Panama City, Panama: Central America’s Most Cosmopolitan Capital

Panama once bridged two oceans, but today it’s even more.

The country’s capital, Panama City, is arguably the most cosmopolitan of any in Central America. It’s fast, modern, and hip and growing at an almost lightning pace. Here’s a quick guide to slowing down and enjoying the best the city has to offer.

Do

We’re loath to say “no trip to Panama is complete without …”, but really: no trip to Panama is complete without visiting the Panama Canal. The project was unimaginable when it was conceived more than 100 years ago. Even by today’s standards, it’s a marvel of architecture, planning, and human perseverance (more than 20,000 people died in its construction). In the years since it’s almost singlehandedly defined the country as a commercial hub for the Americas. It’s best seen from the water, however, several land-side points of interest are also worthwhile. Miraflores Visitor Center is just a 20-minute cab ride from city center. The aptly named Atlantic & Pacific Co. restaurant is an ideal spot to while away an afternoon. Skip the overpriced lunch buffet in favor of a la carte dinner on the balcony — the perfect vantage point to watch the ships go by.

Atlantic & Pacific Co
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Famed architect, Frank Gehry, cemented his love for his Panamanian wife by gifting Panama City with a stunning and unique museum. Biomuseo features eight individual galleries with a singular focus: to illustrate the biodiversity of Panama and its tremendous impact on the global environment. The bizarre and groundbreaking architecture alone make it worth a visit.

Related: An Island in the Sun: Pelican Island, San Blas Islands, Panama

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Isla Taboga
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Panama City may be cosmopolitan but it can still feel just as gritty as any Latin American city. In spite of its waterfront location, the closest decent beach is nearly two hours away. Instead, hop the cheap, one-hour ferry ride to Isla Taboga. Known as the “The Island of Flowers”, this tiny spot of land feels worlds away from downtown. It’s quaint, quiet, and peppered with less than 1,000 locals who enjoy living a simpler, slower pace of life. Bring plenty of cash and suntan lotion as most folks visit the island for just one thing: the beach.

Eat & Drink

A walk along Cinta Costera is a great way to (almost) escape the city’s urban hustle. The 35-hectare green space connects the 500-year-old colonial ruins of Panama Viejo (a UNESCO world heritage site) with the ultra-modern skyscrapers of downtown. Stop along the way at the city’s popular fish market for fresh ceviche — prepared with locally caught seafood that was likely swimming in Panama Bay only hours prior to finding its way to your plate.

Panama Viejo
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For more upscale and experimental dining, look to Donde Jose. The restaurant cooks with the freshest, finest ingredients sourced almost entirely from Panama and the menu changes often. The intimate dining space seats just 16 patrons at any one time with only two seatings nightly. Needless to say: reservations are required.

Stay

Le Méridien Panama
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Le Méridien Panama is like a sideways version of a W Hotel. It’s swanky, stylish, and ultramodern but without all the uppity, South Beach-esque pretense of the latter. Adjacent the lobby lies Saril Kitchen & Lounge — a dark, chic restaurant where every surface seems to glisten and sparkle. The adjacent bar/lounge opens to an al fresco terrace, ideal for people-watching while sipping an aged Ron Abuelo Añejo on the rocks. The real showstopper though is the hotel’s rooftop deck which features a pool and a wraparound layout with panoramic bay and city views.

Mike Richard
Mike Richard has traveled the world since 2008. He's kayaked in Antarctica, tracked endangered African wild dogs in South…
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