Last updated on January 31st, 2024
Meet Joey Bonura, a nomad from Louisville, Kentucky who packed up and studied abroad in Panama at the age of 20 and hasn’t moved back since. What started as a semester trip to Panamá has turned into 10+ years of living in Latin America and becoming a full-time travel blogger. He now rotates between living in Panama City, Bogotá, and Lima and he runs the much-loved Panama lifestyle blog Pty.Life. In this Panama City local guide, he provides his picks of the very best the waterfront city has to offer.
The best pool in the city: JW Marriott
JW Marriott has one of the most beautiful and luxurious swimming areas in Panama City. There’s plenty of seating, an infinity pool with unobstructed views of the water (you really forget you’re in the middle of a city), and great cocktails and service. However, if your goal is to get tan during your trip you might be a little let down because the sun only hits the pool in the morning hours. Overall, if you’re looking for an urban oasis to unwind and relax, the swimming pool at JW Marriott will impress you.
The best restaurant: Fonda Lo Que Hay
Experience lunch or dinner at Fonda Lo Que Hay. This casual eatery was opened by legendary local chef José O. Carles and is a gourmet version of a fonda or local Panamanian cafeteria. The menu is refreshed every few months but it’s guaranteed to be delicious. The best place to sit is the inner courtyard garden. Here, you’ll be surrounded by tropical greenery and close to the bar to try a unique cocktail.
The best rooftop bar: Selina
Selina is where you’ll find the cool kids of Panama City sipping on cocktails and craft beer. The decor is tropical chic, utilizing lots of plants and vibrant murals splashed along the walls. They organize lots of weekly events like live salsa music, electronic music DJs, acoustic concerts, and more so you can always count on something going on.
The best dish to try: The corvina (sea bass) plate at Fonda Lo Que Hay
If you want to try a dish that represents so many interesting flavors of Panama in one bite, order the corvina (sea bass) plate at Fonda Lo Que Hay. The dish comes with a seared sea bass fillet, garlic sauce, patacones (fried plantains), pickled vegetables, and a tamal de olla (tamale) sauce. An insider tip is to use the patacones as a base and then add a little bit of all the ingredients on top. It’s an explosion of flavors.
The best place to work remotely: Mentiritas Blancas
Mentiritas Blancas is a coffee shop situated in the heart of Panama City’s funky Via Argentina neighborhood. As you enter the place, you are welcomed by a cozy, intimate setting that instantly makes you feel at home. Along one wall is a row of bar stools where you may find digital nomads working away online, and a couch at the end provides a comfortable setting to catch up with friends.
The aroma of coffee and freshly baked pastries fills the air. I think what sets this coffee shop apart from the rest is the customer experience they provide. The owners and baristas are super knowledgeable and take the time to help you choose the right cup of coffee based on what you like or are up for trying.
The best souvenir to buy: Chocolate that you made
Love chocolate? During the Panamanian Chocolate Experience at Nomé Chocolate, you’ll make your very own chocolate bar to take home. You’ll learn about the entire chocolate-making process, from bean to bar, at their chocolate factory in Casco Viejo. You’ll also get to sample some of the store’s signature “bonbon” chocolates (the passion fruit chocolates are amazing) and enjoy a special chocolate drink. It’s guaranteed to be a “sweet” time.
The best boutique hotel: American Trade Hotel
The American Trade Hotel is one of the most stylish places to stay in the historic Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. Besides the eye-catching lobby and rooms, the hotel has an array of amenities to keep you entertained. Grab a premium cup of coffee at the attached Tiempos cafe, enjoy fine dining at the lobby-level restaurant, listen to an amazing jazz concert at Danilo’s Jazz Club, and take a dip in the rooftop pool after a hot day of exploring Casco Viejo.
The best drink to sip on: Mojitos at Pedro Mandinga
Pedro Mandinga is the type of place that I feel has successfully captured the essence of Panama. It is Panama’s first artisanal rum distillery and bar and that’s situated in the heart of Casco Viejo near Plaza Herrera. It is the kind of place where you can hang out for hours sipping the amazing house specialty rum cocktails and losing track of time with old friends.
The best view in all of the city: El Faro Rooftop
El Faro translates to the lighthouse and it’s where you’ll find a 360-degree view of Panamá. El Faro has one of the best views and sits on the border of Casco Viejo and the skyscrapers of Panama City view a gorgeous view of both. They are famous for their seafood dishes, mojitos, and other rum-based drinks.
The best things to do in Panama City on a short layover
The best island getaway: Sonny Island Resort
Since there isn’t a beach in Panama City, you should plan to spend a day on one of the stunning islands off the coast. The Pearl Islands aren’t heavy on the tourist trail and offer some of the most beautiful beaches you’ll find near Panama City. The journey here is easy, and just involves hopping on a ferry.
The best island to visit is Sonny Island Resort and they have an incredible day trip package for $125 that includes a round-trip ferry, lunch, snacks, beverages, snorkeling equipment, and all access to the island’s facilities. This is for people looking for a barefoot luxury island experience rather than some of the more rustic options that you’ll find on other islands in the country.
Beaches here are never crowded and offer the picturesque white sand and turquoise waters that sun-seekers are looking for. Also, if you happen to be here between July and October, it offers some incredible whale-watching opportunities on the way.
The most unique place to stay in Panama (countrywide): Bambuda Castle
Ever wanted to stay in a castle? Bambuda Castle is an affordable hotel and hostel in Boquete, Panama that well, looks like a castle. The property features an indoor swimming pool, jacuzzi, and an outdoor rock climbing wall. In addition to offering castle accommodation, they also have hobbit housing. Each hobbit dome is fully covered in grass and flowers to blend into the garden and has everything you need for a comfortable weekend of hobbit living. Bambuda Castle also offers reasonably priced tours to Boquete’s most amazing outdoor experiences.
The best reason to come to Panama: Experience the nature
What makes Panama unique compared to its neighboring countries of Costa Rica and Colombia is the number of pristine islands you can visit. Both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of Panama are lined with 100s of small islands that aren’t overrun with tourists. On the Pacific side, you’ve got the Pearl Islands, Taboga, Boca Chica Islands, Isla Iguana, and Coiba Islands. On the Atlantic, you’ll find San Blas (over 300 islands), Isla Grande and Mamey, and the famous Bocas del Toro islands.
If you enjoyed this Panama City local guide, follow Joey on Instagram @joeybonura and visit Pty.Life for more tips about the isthmus. If you’re visiting Panama, don’t miss Joey’s top-rated 4-hour city tour that’s bookable via Airbnb Experiences.