Panama City City Guide
Often called the Dubai of Latin America due to its rapid development, Panama City is a vibrant and modern metropolis with a cosmopolitan soul and a multicultural population. It can be argued whether the capital of Panama owes its commercial success to the highly liberal business system or to the Panama Canal, which has facilitated trade between east and west for more than a century. Whatever the truth, it is undeniable that the city is an attractive destination for business and leisure travellers alike.
Panama City combines the best of both worlds – old and new – in a way that offers visitors experiences and sights that range from traditional to contemporary. The business district with its glass and steel towers is the commercial heart of the city and a nightlife destination with stylish restaurants, bars and clubs; while the old town, with its quaint Colonial architecture and closely-knit community, offers modern dining and authentic cultural experiences.
Sightseeing, attractions and nightlife
Well over a 100 years after its construction, the Panama Canal remains one of the most visited sites in the capital. More than a million vessels have crossed it throughout its history and nowadays many tourists eager to see this engineering marvel do the same by taking boat cruises. Once you have seen the Canal, though, your sightseeing options are far from exhausted.
The most charming part of Panama City is the old town of Casco Viejo, which was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in the 1990s. Casco Viejo brings together all major architectural styles on the South American continent in one single district that you would love to get lost in. The old town has been experiencing a lot of change in the past decade and today it is a strange but charming mix of stunning Colonial houses restored to their former glory and dilapidated, crumbling sites awaiting their turn to undergo renovation.
The quaint and colourful period homes, churches and administrative buildings are not the only allure, though. Many fine restaurants, bars and cafés are located here, as are lots of shops specialising in art, design and souvenirs. While in Casco Viejo you can also visit the Panama Canal Museum and learn about the history and construction of this monumental engineering achievement. Throughout the year, the neighbourhood hosts lots of events, from outdoor music gigs to indoor fashion shows, so it's worth keeping an eye on the local events calendar when in town.
For a picturesque walk or drive, head to the Cinta Costera, a wide coastal boulevard that runs for miles along the Pacific Ocean on one side, and the shiny office towers of the business district on the other. There are cycling lanes for those who want to bike along the waterfront and a grassy park dotted with palms also runs parallel to the boulevard, so you can take a break and spread out a picnic blanket when you tire of strolling or cycling.
You needn't spend too long in Panama to learn that locals love to party and to dress up for the occasion. This is evident in the many bars, pubs, nightclubs, salsa establishments and casinos that dot the capital. The business district is one of the main nightlife hot spots and its rooftop bars are second to none. Some of the most popular spots include the Tantalo rooftop bar and the Hard Rock Lounge with its open-air pool. No less attractive are the slightly more sophisticated Barlovento Rooftop Bar and the Manrey Rooftop Pool Bar and Lounge, which host DJ nights.
Escaping the city
The choice of beaches within driving distance from Panama stretches from the Caribbean to the Pacific coast. A 15-minute drive out of town takes you to the Playa Bonita, a lovely beach where Panamanians head when they need a breath of fresh ocean air and a tan. Further afield (about an hour's drive from the capital) you can find resorts, golf courses and beaches with high swells that are perfect for surfing.
You can quickly escape from the steel, concrete and brick cityscape without even having to leave the capital. Simply pay a visit to the Parque Natural Metropolitano and you are in the tropical rainforest. Spread over more than 250 hectares; this fantastic park is a real oasis of dense tropical vegetation. Hiking trails meander among groves filled with exotic butterflies, birds, monkeys, iguanas and even deer.
Finally, make sure to pop into the Museum of Biodiversity (or simply BioMuseo). This museum which boasts a funky, modern design, is a great place to learn about the rich flora and fauna of Panama (and the marine life on both sides of the country) through interactive exhibits that are amusing for both adults and kids.