The very best of Panama City: A local’s guide

Last updated on January 31st, 2024

Panama City local guide - Joey Bonura from Pty Life - Sunset over Panama Bay Cinta Costera

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. 


Map created using Wanderlog, a road trip planner on iOS and Android


Panama City local guide - Joey Bonura from Pty Life


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.


Panama City local guide - Joey Bonura from Pty Life - JW Marriott Panama City



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.


Panama City local guide - Joey Bonura from Pty Life - Selina rooftop



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.


Panama City local guide - Joey Bonura from Pty Life - Mentiritas Blancas



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.


Panama City local guide - Joey Bonura from Pty Life - American Trade Hotel



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.


Panama City local guide - Joey Bonura from Pty Life - El Faro rooftop


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.


Panama City local guide - Joey Bonura from Pty Life - Sonny Island Resort



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.


Panama City local guide - Joey Bonura from Pty Life - nature


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.



What currency do you need in Panama?

Bring U.S. dollars for your stay in Panama. You can also withdraw cash from any ATM upon arrival. Note that there are high ATM fees for foreign bank cards throughout Panama. You will also see the Balboa which is the national currency that exists alongside the Dollar in coin format only.


What language is spoken in Panama?

Panama’s official language is Spanish but you’ll hear a lot of English, especially in the old town of Panama City (Casco Viejo) which sees a lot of tourists. If you need to freshen up your Spanish schools while you’re in the capital, book a short course with Casco Antiguo Spanish School.


Is Panama safe?

Panama is the safest country in Central America. It is notably safer than neighboring Costa Rica and Colombia but not without its dangers. Your level of safety naturally depends on where you go. The port city of Colon (not to be confused with Isla Colon in Bocas del Toro) is a complete no-go zone. In Panama City, the Calidonia, El Chorillo, and San Miguelito neighborhoods have the most reports of crime. The Darién Gap is one of the most dangerous (and least visited) places in the world so visit at your own risk. Like anywhere, you should keep your wits about you in Panama but for the most part, your trip should be smooth sailing.


What is the best travel insurance for Panama?

Safety Wing is the ultimate made-for-nomads-by-nomads travel insurance provider. Protect yourself while in Panama with their flexible nomad insurance.


Can you drink the tap water in Panama?

Panama City is the only place in Panama where it is genuinely safe to drink water from the tap. Some say that Playa Venao also has drinkable water but it’s best to stick to filtered water anywhere outside the capital city.


How can I get a SIM card in Panama City?

It’s very straightforward and easy to get a local SIM card and data plan in Panama. The main networks are Más Movil, Digicel, and Movistar. You can also get a digital sim card from Airalo that covers Panama (or any country in the world) before you arrive in the country so you never have to bother going into a shop. With the Airalo app, you can keep track of your data usage at all times and top up easily. 


How can I travel around Panama?

From Albrook Bus Station in Panama City, you can get a bus to many outlying destinations around the country. If you’d rather rent a car and drive, use Discover Cars to compare different car rental companies. You can check ratings for different factors like efficiency, pick-up procedure, and overall value. Be aware of bumpy and incomplete roads in some rural areas. If you wish to drive to the San Blas Islands, you will need a 4×4.


What are the best tours to book in Panama?

Use Viator to plan ahead and search for highly-rated tours all around Panama. You can find tours with various price points and the site has a stellar 24-hour cancellation policy.


Do I need a visa for Panama?

Nationals of the U.S., Canada, the UK, Australia, and European Union countries can enter Panama without a visa. The maximum amount of time that you can stay in Panama is three months.


How can I search for a hotel in Panama?

There are great deals to be found for short and longer stays (of up to 30 days) in Panama on You can search for accommodations and filter according to criteria like desks, air conditioning, private bathrooms, and complimentary Wi-Fi.

Hi, I'm Rosie Bell, a location-independent writer, editor and lifestyle entrepreneur. If you want inspiration and support to live, travel and work anywhere, look no further. Let's talk right here.