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36 hours in Panama City

Tips to take in appetizer crawls, brewpubs & charming neighborhoods

Shannon & Scott at their wedding cocktail party
From time to time I'll be offering cruisers and travelers tips on how to spend a day or two in a foreign port. You might visit during what travel professionals call a pre- or post-stay. Or you might have time during a day trip to visit some of these points of interest. Either way, venture forth and share your own experiences with Cruiseable.

 

On  recent getaway to Honduras and St. Maarten, my husband and I had 36 hours to spend in Panama City. Neither of us had spent any time in Panama City before, and it was a city that intrigued us. Here’s a quick guide to how we maximized our time in Panama's capital.

Arrive in Panama City

 
TRAVEL DISPATCHES
 
Postcard from Panama City
 
 

7:00pmWe arrived at Panama City Airport after 7 pm, and we'd pre-arranged our transfer with our hotel to make things simple. This ended up being brilliant. Here's a suggestion to begin your stay on a great note: Choose a central, well-located hotel so you waste no time getting around this sprawling city once you’ve arrived. There are a host of great hotels available in Panama City, but we chose Tantalo Hotel/Kitchen/Roofbar located in Casco Viejo, Panama’s charming old city.

Our driver was primed and ready to swoop us up from the airport and the ride was much more modern than what we’d experienced in Honduras. The 30-minute drive to Casco Viejo was a breeze and the car was even equipped with wi-fi to allow us to use our travel time wisely. Score. Our pre-arranged cab cost $40 for the one-way transfer.

Capital Bistro Panama, a bustling spot with great views of the city skyline.
Photo by Shannon Kircher / Special to CruiseableCapital Bistro Panama, a bustling spot with great views of the city skyline.

Appetizer crawl around Casco Viejo

8:15pmLest we waste any time, we got to our rooms, cleaned up quickly and made our way out to explore. When we have limited time in a city, one of our favorite things to do for dinner is an appetizer crawl in lieu of a traditional evening meal. I’m more of an appetizer/tapas person anyway so this suits my style perfectly, plus it’s a great way to get a taste and feel for a variety of spots with limited time.

Tantalo’s location was great, nestled right in the heart of the old city. Within a five-minute walk, we hit the waterfront and stumbled into Capital Bistro Panama, a bustling spot with an unbeatable view of the Panama City skyline. For our first stop, we each grabbed a drink — sangria for me, Manhattan for him — plus an appetizer to share (the salmon crispy rice, which was a major score). The view here is enough of a draw — I could have sat for hours watching the lights bounce off the water.

The view from Capital Bistro Panama.
Photo by Shannon Kircher / Special to CruiseableThe view from Capital Bistro Panama.

From there, we migrated to Grapes, a more upscale restaurant on a street perpendicular to the waterfront. I think we both envisioned a swanky, dimly lit wine bar with a sexy city vibe. It ended up being a little less fun and more fancy than I expected, honestly. The service was lovely and their cheese plate is enough for a party of three to four. A good note about Grapes: if you do go in and you want more of the sexy city feel I’m referring to, sit at the bar. The bar set-up is lovely and perfect for a glass of wine and a bite.

The Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City.
Photo by Shannon Kircher / Special to CruiseableThe Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City.

Morning coffee & a stroll around Casco Viejo

9:30amStart your morning off on the move and get a coffee to go! We each grabbed a piping hot Americano for the road at Casa Sucre, a coffee shop/boutique hotel in Casco Viejo. As the clouds burned off, we began strolling the Old Town to take it all in. Unless you’re a big eater, save your appetite for lunch, which gives you a better feel for the city you are visiting. The architecture is lovely in the old city, and the dilapidated bits are charming in the way that old cities tend to be. There are markets nearby where you can score brightly colored handicrafts to take home with you.

Check out the skyline by day, too — it’s definitely a beautiful picture.

Lunch doesn’t get better than on the waterfront along Mercado de Mariscos.
Photo by Scott Kircher / Special to CruiseableLunch doesn’t get better than on the waterfront along Mercado de Mariscos.

Lunch at Mercado de Mariscos

11:30am

A dish at Mercado de Mariscos.
Photo by Shannon Kircher / Special to CruiseableA dish at Mercado de Mariscos.

In my book, lunch doesn’t get better than a Mercado de Mariscos lunch. This. Is. Perfection.

Fishermen bring in loads of fish, with corvina being the go-to white fish for the ever-present ceviche. Shrimp, lobster, black clams and octopus make the cut, too. At one point I looked at Scott and asked, “How are there any fish left in the sea?” There are unbelievable amounts of fish being brought in, I can’t help but wonder if a) it all gets eaten, and b) how sustainable this is. No, really, how many fish are there?

The market is pretty spectacular. Inside you’ll see stall after stall selling fresh fish and/or fresh ceviche and cocktails. Outside you’ll see a stream of brightly colored stalls doling out varieties of ceviche, too (less of the fresh fish, more of the ready-to-eat food). Score a small serving of ceviche for $1.50 to $3.75 depending on which variety piques your interest. We ended up doing a ceviche crawl, popping into four places and trying the different varieties offered: corvina, concha negra (black clam), Mediterranean and shrimp.

Glimpse the Panama Canal (& Museum)

1:00pmCan you visit Panama and not visit the Panama Canal? Well, we considered it and then felt like utter heathens for entertaining the thought. The Panama Canal is one of the most impressive feats of modern engineering in the last century (well, one of the most impressive engineering feats ever, actually) and to see it and better understand it is pretty cool.

Head to the Panama Canal Museum for a tour of the canal's fascinating history.
Photo by Scott Kircher / Special to CruiseableHead to the Panama Canal Museum for a tour of the canal's fascinating history.

The way that the series of locks work, and understanding the efforts and sacrifices made to complete this project, is pretty remarkable. The museum at the canal is worth the time. It’s separated into four levels, each providing insights into different facets of the canal: history, logistics, economic impact and environmental considerations. It’s well done and definitely kid-friendly in the way that it’s designed.

Panama now oversees the canal entirely (it used to fall under U.S. jurisdiction), which has had a positive economic impact on the country. When you see the figures — how many ships are coming through the canal, what types of ships and the fees imposed on each — you’ll be blown away by how much money is involved! Also, if you time it right, be sure to watch the 10-minute video on the canal shown at the theater inside. We viewed the video before starting to wander in the museum, which laid a great foundation for our visit. Entrance fees were about $15 for adults. (The cab ride from Casco Viejo to the Panama Canal cost $10.)

La Rana Dorada.
Photo by Shannon Kircher / Special to CruiseableLa Rana Dorada serves handcrafted brews.

Afternoon brew

3:30pmWe initially thought that walking around Casco Viejo plus seeing the Panama Canal would take our entire day, giving us just enough time to get back and clean up for dinner. This was not the case for us, and we ended up arriving back in Casco Viejo shortly after 3 pm, giving us plenty of time to stop and soak up the city. We popped into La Rana Dorada, a bar doling out its own brews to discerning beer drinkers. We started off with a beer tasting, which was offered up freely by the bartender to showcase the five beers made in-house. Scott chose his favorite; I chose a capirinha to prep my palate for our upcoming trip to Brazil.

We ended up chatting with fellow Americans visiting Panama and noticed that unlike Honduras, where we were seemingly the only tourists, Panama was teeming with U.S. citizens looking for a warm weather getaway in an approachable setting.

Tantalo’s Roofbar
Photo by Scott Kircher / Special to CruiseableThe view from Tantalo’s Roofbar. 

Cocktail crawl

5:00pmOK, I know what you’re thinking at this point … how many cocktails and appetizers can one couple possibly ingest? It’s honestly just too fun exploring and experiencing a range of restaurants, bars and lounges. I love people watching and taking in the vibes, and I can’t very well sit in a bar or restaurant and not order anything.

First stop on the cocktail crawl: Tantalo’s Roofbar. If you stay at the hotel, you’ll get bracelets for access to their roofbar at night without a cover charge, plus you’ll get two drink tickets valid for a beer or for a cocktail (mojitos are big in Panama City, and I’m a big fan of mojitos, so this was a win-win for me). We used our drink tickets during the afternoon to soak up the last bit of the afternoon before the evening set. One thing we quickly noticed: Panamanians are well dressed. Very well dressed.

With the evening setting, we quickly got ready — a quick rinse, a touchup of hair and makeup — and out the door we went to enjoy our second and final night in Panama. 

Next stop on the cocktail crawl was our tried-and-true Capital Bistro Panama, where we’d had an exceptional view, wonderful drinks and even better food the night before. We headed down to take in the skyline again and feel the buzz of a city. Fabulous.

Cocktails at Capital Bistro Panama.
Photo by Shannon Kircher / Special to CruiseableCocktails at Capital Bistro Panama.

Around 8 pm, we wanted to pick our final cocktail stop wisely so we headed in the direction of Clementine as we’d read great things about it. We arrived to find that it seemed a bit too … established, plus the vibe wasn’t as energized as we’d hoped. It simply wasn’t a good fit for that point in our evening despite being a cute and highly acclaimed spot.

Instead, we found ourselves walking into an art gallery-cum-bar that piqued our interest. We walked through the bright art space and into a dimly lit cave bar in the back called Jeronimo, a speakeasy-style setting with a wicked cocktail list. The drinks are priced on par with what you’d pay in any major U.S. city and the quality and creativity reflects what you’d see at a top-notch spot in any hip city.

For a mere 36 hours, I can confidently say we feel like we got a solid feel for Panama City, and I left feeling as though I could easily go back for an extended weekend. It’s a mere 2 hour and 40 minute flight from St. Maarten (close to our home in Anguilla) and brings a totally different experience in many ways. It’s a lively, buzzing city, and the skyline is a stunner. There are a number of cool restaurants and hip bars that make you feel as though you may have been transported to any of the world’s hottest cities.

A local we met there commented on how the city is actually relatively small and feels that way when you live there. That very well may be true, and I can certainly understand that feeling. As a visitor, though, Panama City offers such a great blend of big city, old town and colonial architecture, Latin American culture, plus the approachability and modernity to make it an easy-to-visit locale. Excelente.

Have you been to Panama City? How would you spend a day or evening there?

Republished from an earlier date.

Day Tripping: Other articles in our series

Shannon Kircher
Shannon Kircher is the Chief Curator at Cruiseable, hotel marketer and travel blogger based on the Caribbean island of Anguilla.

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