Panama City is much more than the gatekeeper of the world’s most important shipping artery, the Panama Canal—it’s also a cosmopolitan nexus populated by the descendants of the international workers and merchants, from France to China, lured to the area long ago by the promise of opportunity. And their heritage has had a lasting impact on the city’s style, vibe, and flavors.
Originally settled by Spanish conquistadors in search of kingdoms of gold and everlasting youth, the city’s skeleton still has a cobblestone core—Casco Viejo. In recent years, the area was overrun with slums and gangs, but gentrification has turned the community into its own version of Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan, with brightly colored facades guiding the way between cathedrals and tree-shaded squares.
The American Trade Hotel, run by the Ace Hotel Group, acts as a beacon for U.S. visitors and the city’s local elite. And although the rooms are fairly generic, its public spaces have an undeniable Havana-chic appeal; you’d half expect to find Hemingway in a dark corner puffing on a cigar.
Up the block, where the paved cobblestones give way to ricketier side alleys, is the brand-new La Concordia, a boutique hotel owned and operated by a fun-loving Spanish family with a disciplined approach to service on the inside and a free-swinging approach to nightlife on the roof. Across the street is Donde Jose, a three-table dinner venue where owner Jose educates customers on the expansive definition of Panamanian cuisine with his prix fixe experiments. During the day, you can find him at his hole-in-the-wall (fonda) lunch joint, Lo Que Hay, where delicious workaday recipes are slung cafeteria-style to locals.
Beyond the dense colonial core, the rest of Panama’s capital is a labyrinth of commercial and residential towers that push against the encroaching jungle. The thriving fish market, Mercado de Mariscos, offers an unpolished glimpse of the city’s inner workings, and it’s a great place to grab a dollar cup of ceviche served unceremoniously in Styrofoam. The Gehry-designed Biomuseo looks like a miniature, primary-colored version of his museum in Bilbao, Spain, and helps illuminate the natural history of the land that rings around Panama City like a verdant halo.
Once you’ve checked off all of Pan City’s to-dos, base yourself at the stately Bristol Panama and enlist the help of Namu Travel to tackle day trips to the San Blas Islands, into the cloud forests of Gamboa’s Pipeline Road, and to the Embera Indian Village inside Chagres National Park. Or follow the Panama Canal through the country’s interior lagoons and end up in the warm Caribbean waters.
We talked with the head of NAMU who gave us some excellent tips on planning a Panama retreat.