What to See & Where to Eat in Panama
Before I arrived in Panama, I knew practically nothing about the country. While I’m usually the type of person to painstakingly plan my trips, sometimes down to the last half hour, my visit to Panama was less recreational, and more about spending time with my family. That being said, my dad is probably one of the best tour guides, and my time in Panama City was spent getting to know more of the city’s little-known neighborhoods and restaurants. Here’s my guide on what to see and where to eat in Panama.
Panama’s identity is an interesting intersection of global capitalism and a distinctly unique regional identity. One of the things that always struck me during my time in the country is how easy it was to feel like I was back in the U.S. In between passing a Krispy Kreme or driving down the tollway, it wasn’t until a brightly colored Diabio Rojos bus rumbled by and I heard the distant shouts of Spanish that I was reminded I was traveling abroad.
GETTING AROUND IN PANAMA
Whenever I would talk to my dad, he would always complain about driving in traffic, but I thought this was a simple exaggeration. Y’all, traffic in Panama is no joke! If you’ve ever driven in Los Angeles, picture your worst experience and multiply that by 10, except you’re traveling a considerably short distance.
The city has a few options for getting around, including a fairly robust public transportation system for a city of its size. The standard MetroBus fare is only 25 cents - yes, you heard me correctly, one big, shiny American quarter. If you’re looking for something even cheaper, say a prayer and hop on a Diablo Rojo (“the Red Devil”) - which follow the same MetroBus routes - for as low as 5 cents. I’d recommend taking the Panama Viejo-Via Israel-Mariscos route, which pass through major tourist attractions, to orient yourself to the system.
Panama has Uber, but if you don’t have an international data plan or near public WiFi, catching a taxi is also another affordable option. However, unlike the familiar yellow cabs of NYC, Panama taxis are not regulated. Instead, riders have to barter with the driver before even hopping in, so make sure to brush up on your Spanish. The driver isn’t obligated to accept the ride if they doesn’t want to. Taxis also function as mini-carpools (think Lyft Line, but without any rhyme or reason), so it’s not uncommon for the driver to pick up other passengers along the way.
WHERE TO VISIT IN PANAMA
The Panama Canal is probably what most people know about the country, but here’s a massive pro-tip: don’t waste your money at the Museum and Visitor Center. The museum still offers nice context about the area’s history, but the viewing of the canal only shows how the boats are slowly raised, which is honestly incredibly boring and takes up to two hours. Ain’t nobody got time for that!
Instead, drive (or take the bus, which is conveniently a few stops away) five minutes down the road to the local’s only spot. It’s literally just a parking lot, but this location is more intimate. You can see up close not only the tugboats and how the huge ships are maneuvered into the canal, but you are so close to the action you can literally wave and shout to the ship workers.
The Amador is a long boardwalk west of the city, and includes Frank Gehry's beautifully designed BioMuseum, and a pedestrian/bike-friendly causeway that connects four islands. If it’s a beautiful day - which is most days in Panama - swing by to rent a bike, and view the city at one of its most picturesque locations. However, if you’re looking to get a picture by the Panama sign, I would skip the one that’s located here, and instead head to the one off of Cinta Costera, which is less crowded and has a cleaner background view.
This spot was initially too touristy for me (you can always tell by the strategically placed frozen yogurt shops and multiple souvenir stores that offer the exact same things) but I quickly fell in love with the district’s tiny streets and historic charm.
Casco Viejo, which means “Old Quarter,” was established in the 1670s by Spanish settlers and still retains an Old World charm more than 300 years later. The area has several historic churches and wide, open plazas that have public WiFi. It’s also a great location for colorful walls, doors, and side streets. However, due to the large amounts of tourist foot traffic, the food is incredibly overpriced (and not that great) so keep that in mind if you’re planning on spending an extended amount of time here.
WHAT TO EAT IN PANAMA
One of the things I noticed in Panama is that there are so many gelato and yogurt shops. In less than a ¼ mile from my dad’s apartment, I counted at least 5 different shops! All of this is to say, Panama has some pretty great cold treats to help with the heat and humidity. If you’re looking for a quick snack to keep you cool while wandering around Casco Viejo, Stickhouse Cafe has a wide variety of fruit and gelato popsicles. I tried the chocolate hazelnut, and while you can never go wrong with covering nuts in chocolate, this one was incredibly delicious.
Cafe Medero’s decor alone would have me going back for seconds, but its food is also spot on. Located in Obarrio, Medero offers classic breakfast staples, as well as savory Panamanian and Central American dishes. Our group ordered everything from pancakes and sausage, to well-seasoned skirt steak and an avocado salad. While the pancakes were enjoyable, I’d recommend stepping out of your brunch comfort zone and trying the Panamanian breakfast, which includes a carimañola, the country’s famous meat pie yucca fritter.
In a city with $9 cups of artisanal coffee, Panamanians treat their afternoon cappuccino as an experience, rather than the go-go-go attitude that’s found in most NYC coffee shops. Leto Coffee Brew Bar, which has two locations in San Francisco and Costa del Este, is where serious coffee drinkers go to unwind. In addition to your standard coffeeshop fare, Leto also has tasty pastries, friendly English-speaking staff and interior decorating that’s worthy of any Instagram feed.
On your way to Casco Viejo or the Amador, you’ll pass the Panamanian fish market. For a city that’s adjacent to both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, the city does not disappoint with fresh fish, and Mr. Limon, a Peruvian-inspired restaurant in Costa del Este, is a great way to experience it. The ceviche, which comes either cold, or in a tasty, crunchy fried ball, nicely combines the salty brininess of the fish with freshly squeezed lime and chili flakes. The fish dishes, which came in a bright white wine broth and tons of veggies, tasted so fresh, I could have sworn the bass was scooped out of the ocean that day.
Yoi Koren Fried Chicken
When you think of good eats in Panama, Korean fried chicken is probably the last thing on your mind, but y’all trust me on this one. Yoi is probably the best fast casual Korean fusion food I’ve had - and I live in New York City. The chicken, with comes with two different sauce options, was nice and crispy on the outside, while remaining tender and juicy on the inside. Their affordable lunch boxes come with a side of white rice, a small salad and rotating iced tea options.