Design lovers (and history buffs) take note: This Casco Viejo hotel is one seriously stylish stay, thanks to a collaboration between Atelier Ace (the creative force behind the Ace Hotels), Panama City-based Conservatorio (a real estate developer committed to the preservation of Casco Viejo, the city’s historic district), and L.A.-based Commune Design. The nearly 100-year-old building once housed a department store, a bank, and the national headquarters for several U.S. and foreign companies. Now, it’s the ultimate marriage of historic and current design, from groovy mid-century furnishings to soaring iron and glass-paned doors and windows. Other highlights: graphic tiled floors in a sea of blues, tropical palm-leaf fabrics, and sleek brass lighting.
For panoramic views of the entire city, walk up Ancon Hill, a lush 650-foot reserve located in the former Panama Canal Zone. The largely undeveloped area is the highest point in Panama City, and is home to all sorts of jungle wildlife, including sloths, armadillos, tropical birds, and several types of monkeys. Summiting the hill takes about 45 minutes to an hour but it's worth the work: at the top, you’ll find sweeping views of the city’s skyscrapers and harbor on one side and the Panama Canal and the Bridge of the Americas on the other.
Although it did not originate in Panama, ceviche is one of the country’s culinary specialties, and the best place to try it may well be Panama City’s Mercado de Mariscos, or the Seafood Market. Situated at the edge of Casco Viejo, the city’s historic district, the market consists of two sections: the actual fish market, where you can buy all kinds of fresh fish and seafood pulled in from the fishing boats in the bay, and the restaurant section, where you can sample the haul. A cup of ceviche, prepared simply with lime juice and salt, plus a side of fries and a Panamanian beer will run you a couple of dollars.
The city’s historic district sits at the southwestern tip of Panama City, overlooking the Pacific Ocean entrance to the Panama Canal, and it dates back to 1673, when the neighborhood was developed following the destruction of the original Panama City (Panama Viejo) by pirates. Today, it’s the epicenter of the city’s stylish transformation, with new hotels, restaurants, and shops opening behind the centuries-old facades almost daily. Since the neighborhood is not large, you can stroll its cobblestone streets with virtually no agenda, taking an architectural tour through the city’s history from the seventeenth century ruins to the grand art deco apartment buildings. Some highlights not to miss: La Catedral Metropolitana, the National Theater, the Panama Canal Museum, La Iglesia de La Merced, and Plaza Bolivar.
Yet another item that did not originate in Panama—the Panama hat. Despite its name, the black-banded, brimmed hat woven with toquilla palm fibers was first made in Ecuador. It was popularized during the building of the Panama Canal, when thousands of local and American workers donned the topper for protection from the intense sunlight and heat. Today, you can pick up one of the country’s signature sartorial statement pieces at stands and shops throughout Casco Viejo, the city’s historic district.
Panama City has developed quite a cocktail scene, and there’s no better place to taste the fresh flavors than the American Trade Hotel lobby bar. Chef Clara Icaza has crafted a menu inspired by the Panamanian nightclubs of the 1920s and 1930s, with a focus on fresh fruits, like grapefruit, lime, banana, and even raspberry, and artisanal ingredients.
No trip to Panama City would be complete without a stop at the Canal, one of the famed seven wonders of the modern world. From downtown or Casco Viejo, the visitor center at the Miraflores locks is the most accessible place from which to observe ships passing through. (Entry is $15 for adults.) Inside, you can learn about how the Canal was built and its impact on the Panamanian economy by wandering through the museum and watching a short film; outside, you can watch the ships making their way through the locks—and get a bite to eat and a cocktail—from a shaded observation deck. Most hotels can arrange an English-speaking driver to take you to the locks for a nominal charge. The 30-minute car ride from Casco Viejo to the visitor center is part of the experience: you’ll pass through the beautiful residential neighborhood within the former Canal Zone, where the U.S. military was based from 1903 to 1979.
Although the water is visible from almost anywhere in the city, the best views—of brightly colored fishing skiffs bobbing in the Pacific ocean, ships lining up to enter the canal, and the ultra-sleek skyline—are seen from the Amador Causeway, a three-mile-long breakwater that juts out into Panama Bay to connect several small islands. Rent bikes from Bikes and More at the beginning of the causeway, then cruise out to the islands along the palm tree-lined pedestrian and bicycle path. Stop at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute for an up-close encounter with sloths and other jungle creatures, then brake for a classic Panamanian lunch of fried plantains and ceviche de corvina (Sea Bass) at Mi Ranchito, a thatch-roofed hut overlooking the harbor.
At the entrance to the Amador Causeway stands the Frank Gehry-designed BioMuseo, which opened in late 2014. The angular, brightly-hued museum’s eight permanent exhibits show how the formation of the Panamanian isthmus paved the way for a massive migration of species between North and South America and became a teeming cradle of biodiversity. Don’t miss: the gift shop or the photo ops from the museum’s outdoor breezeways that overlook the Pacific Ocean.
As the capital city on the land bridge that connects the Americas and a global center of trade, Panama City is cultural melting pot. Nowhere is that more evident than in its cuisine, in which traditional Panamanian dishes are creatively infused with European and Asian influences. Taste the city’s quintessential fusion fare at Las Clementinas, a beautifully restored Casco Viejo café with an equally beautiful patio garden. Don’t miss the Sunday brunch!
The relaxed seaside town of Coronado, Panama’s first resort development, is only an hour from Panama City, making it an easy day trip excursion for beach lovers. The town’s wide black and white sand beaches are perfect for sunning or walking, while the Pacific Ocean’s surprisingly warm temperatures along this stretch of the coast are ideal for swimming and surfing. With nearby mountains, golf clubs, and equestrian centers, along with full-scale supermarkets and a lively shopping and restaurant scene, Coronado has also become a popular community for expats.