Top 5 Reasons to Visit Panama City, Panama

I just got back from my tenth visit to Panama’s capital. And while it’s far from the biggest metropolis in Latin America, Panama City is destined to be one of the region’s top must-see destinations. Here are just a few reasons to put Panama City on your wish list.

1. The Historic (& Hip) Heart: The Casco Antiguo, the city’s historic downtown, is populated with a marvelously eclectic range of landmark-worthy architecture. And it’s looking better than ever, as restoration efforts continue. Many of the narrow streets are lined with new bricks, and interesting new businesses are attracting a well-heeled crowd to hip hotels like Tantalo and the cheap-but-cool hostel called Panamericana, both of which have popular rooftop bars. You can also check into Canal House, where Daniel Craig stayed while filming the James Bond flick “Quantum of Solace” — Panama City, in fact, is one of the top Latin America cities used in James Bond films in recent years.

2. The Canal: It’s been around for more than a century, but the Panama Canal is no less impressive than when it first opened. The current expansion project — which will widen and deepen existing channels and add two new sets of locks — are bringing this feat of engineering into the 21st century. Head to the Miraflores Visitors Center to get the details, and watch a ship or two transit the locks (the visitors center will expand when the canal does). Local tour operator EcoCircuitos offers excellent tours that range from half-day excursions to multi-day trips throughout Panama.

3. The Progress: Visiting Panama City offers a rare opportunity to witness a metropolis truly in transition, on a grand scale. It’s with good reason that Panama City has been compared to Dubai and Singapore. Sparkling skyscrapers continue to sprout as if they’d never heard the term “global recession.” A brand-new bus system has replaced the colorful-but-clanky old service, while construction is underway on Central America’s first metro rail system. The city has become a hub for shoppers around Latin America, and retail centers including the upscale Multiplaza and something-for-everyone Albrook Mall continue to expand. In 2013, a new attraction opens that will surely secure much attention: the BioMuseo, a biodiversity museum that is the first project in Latin America by world-famous architect Frank Gehry (check out my exclusive hard-hat tour video here).

4. The Food and Culture: Considering that Panama City is an international hub for finance, business and transportation, it’s no surprise that the cuisine is quite international. But don’t leave without sampling a few Panamanian specialties, including patacones (fried green plantains), sancocho (a rich stew), carimañolas (made from yucca and stuffed with pork) and fresh-caught seafood. A must-see restaurant for first-time visitors is Tinajas, a venue that stages an entertaining dinner show of traditional Panamanian dance (for a sample, watch my Panamanian dance video from Tinajas).

5. The Hotels: Few cities in the hemisphere — or perhaps the planet — are experiencing a surge of hotel construction as great as Panama City. Now, you can choose from an array of stylish luxury hotels to suit a variety of tastes. Among the best new choices are the iconic Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower, set in an eye-catching 70-story tower that resembles a giant oceanfront sail, the TRYP by Wyndham Panama Centro, an attractive, value-priced hotel that offers the best combination of price, location and amenities, and the luxurious Bristol Panama, a truly upscale gem that’s a member of The Leading Hotels of the World (the corner suites in the new tower are especially amazing here). Those seeking a bit of beach time should consider the new Westin Playa Bonita, a resort-style hotel that sits just outside the city limits.

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About the Author

The founder and editor of LatinFlyer.com, Mark has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and manager. He's worked with some of the biggest consumer, in-flight and travel trade publishers that cover Latin America.


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