Mastering a Layover in Panama City

Layover in Panama City {PTY}

36 Hours in Panama City

After our week in Honduras, we made our way back to St. Maarten via Panama City. Neither of us had spent any time in Panama City previously and it was a city that had intrigued us. We ended up having two nights, and one full day in Panama’s capital. Here’s how we maximized our time:

Panama City

Arrive in Panama City // 7PM

We arrived into PTY after 7PM and had pre-arranged our transfer with our hotel to make things simple. This ended up being brilliant. Here are two suggestion to begin your stay on a great foot: choose a central, well located hotel so you’re not wasting time on transport once you’ve arrived. There are a slew 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 thirty minute drive to Casco Viejo was a breeze and the car was even equipped with wi-fi to allow us to maximize transfer time. Score. {Our pre-arranged cab was $40 for the one-way transfer.}

Appetizer Crawl around Casco Viejo // 8:15PM

Panama City

Lest we waste anytime, we got to our rooms, cleaned up very 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 dinner. I’m more of an appetizer/tapas person anyway (I can never really do a full entree) 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 here for hours watching the lights bounce off the water.

CBP, Panama City

From there, we moved on 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 3 – 4. 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.

Coffee + a Stroll Around Casco Viejo // 9:30AM

Panama CityPanama City

Maximize your first day with coffee to go! We each grabbed a piping hot Americano for the road at Casa Sucre, a coffee shop/boutique hotel in Casco Viejo. While 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 the excitement that will be your lunch.) 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.

Panama City

Lunch at Mercado de Mariscos // 11:30AM

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. I mean really, how many fish are there in the sea though?!

Mercado de Pescado, Panama City

The market is pretty spectacular. Inside you’ll see stall after stall selling fresh fish and/or fresh ceviche or 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 – $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 on offer: corvina, concha negra (black clam), Mediterranean, and shrimp.

Mercado de Pescado, Panama CityMercado de Pescado, Panama City

Glimpse the Panama Canal {& Museum} // 1PM

Can 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.

Panama Canal

The way that the system works, 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, environmental considerations, etc. 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 the US’ jurisdiction), which has had a hugely 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’s involved! Also, if you time it right, be sure to watch the quick 10-minute video on the canal shown at the theatre inside. We did it right at the outset which laid a great foundation for our visit. Entrance fees are around $15 for adults. {Cab from Casco Viejo to Panama Canal was $10.}

Afternoon Brew // 3:30PM

La Rana Dorada, Panama City

We initally 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. Not the case (at least not for us). We ended up arriving back in Casco Viejo shortly after 3PM which gave us plenty of time to stop and hang. To round out our afternoon we stopped at 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 US citizens looking for a warm weather getaway in an approachable setting.

Cocktail Crawl // 5PM

Tantalo Hotel, PanamaTantalo Hotel, Panama

Okay, 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 wall 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 touch up of hair and make up – and out the door we went to enjoy our second and final night in Panama. With so little time, we had approximately zero minutes to waste.

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.

Jeronimo, PAnama City

Around 8PM, 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 US city and the quality and creativity reflects what you’d see at a top-notch spot in any hip city.

Appetizer Crawl, Part II // 8:45PM

Panama City

Leaving Jeronimo, we were ready to grab a bite before closing out our final night in Panama City. With a 7:30AM flight, we had an early morning wake-up call to look forward to. Nearby there was a restaurant that we’d seen online that piqued our interest. Dubbed a ‘vegetarian and sea food restaurant’, Veggie Moon was 100% up my alley and the fact that Scott was also interested was a slam dunk.

We’d learned our lesson at Grapes the night before and opted out of table seating and grabbed two seats closer to the action at the bar. We split two small plates that were a perfect balance: seared tuna, and goat cheese with tempura veggies. Delicious on both accounts. Our plan to make this an appetizer crawl was failing. By the time we were done with this first stop, we were both pretty content.

Lest we cut ourselves short, we chose a perfect final bite for the night before heading to bed: we tried the food at Tantalo. We recalled that we actually found Tantalo as an accommodation option because we found the restaurant first. And the restaurant – super hip with a great menu – is clearly doing something right. It was packed at 10PM and no one was showing any sign of leaving. Tucked into a corner, we split a sushi roll as I began to fade. Luckily, it was just a short elevator ride to bed.

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 our home base in St. Maarten and brings a totally different experience in many ways. It’s a city – a true 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. For a layover? Excelente.

Have you been to Panama City? How would you spend a long layover in Panama City?

Shannon Kircher, The Wanderlust Effect

More about Shannon Kircher

Shannon Kircher is the founder and editor of The Wanderlust Effect. Founded in 2009, she has continued to document her international escapes as an expat in Europe and the Caribbean. Additionally, Shannon is the founder of Compass & Vine, a luxury boutique travel design firm, and is the Director of Marketing for the Frangipani Beach Resort. Shannon holds an MSc in Social Policy and Development from the London School of Economics and is a current candidate for WSET Level 3 in Wines & Spirits.