From the cobbled streets of Casco Viejo to the sleek skyscrapers of the downtown business district, Panama’s cosmopolitan capital has many distinct communities tucked away in its neighborhoods. Panama City is a vibrant hub for history, business and culture – there’s even a rainforest within the city limits.
But where should you base yourself while you’re there? Whether you’re looking for a party night, locavore treats, family-friendly fun, a slice of colonial history, or the comforts of a contemporary metropolis, you can find it in the following five neighborhoods.
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Best for architecture, culture and cocktails
Dating back to 1673, compact Casco Viejo is the city’s cultural heart – if you only visit one neighborhood, make it this one! Once a no-go zone, Casco Viejo’s historic, pastel-colored mansions have been restored and now house stylish boutique hotels such as the American Trade Hotel and hip hostels such as Selina.
Casco’s cobbled streets were made for idle wandering. Dip into the incense-scented Iglesia de San José and marvel at its glittering golden altar, or people-watch in the Plaza de la Independencia while slurping an artisan ice cream from Benissimo.
Discover Panama’s unique textile art at the Museo de la Mola and shop for locally made crafts at the Karavan Gallery, then break for a Geisha coffee – one of the world’s finest and most expensive brews – at the vegan-friendly Sisu Coffee Studio.
At sundown, head to a rooftop bar – Tántalo is a long-time favorite for a happy-hour cocktail – before some creative Panamanian fusion fare at Fonda Lo Que Hay. Then dance the night away at CasaCasco or Teatro Amador.
The Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo in Amador is a striking jumble of shapes and colors © GoGri / Shutterstock
Best for families with kids and world-class museums
To the south of the city, Amador’s namesake causeway juts into the bay, with views over the skyscraping city skyline on one side, and views of supersized ships sailing under the Bridge of the Americas as they enter and exit the Panama Canal on the other.
Created from rocks unearthed during the canal’s construction, this skinny sliver of land has been revitalized and is now a firm favorite with local families and a bridge to the pocket-sized islands of Culebra, Perico, Naos and Flamenco.
Start your journey along the 6km (3.7-mile) causeway by renting a bike from Bicicletas Moses. Drop into the striking, Frank Gehry-designed BioMuseo to learn about Panama’s spectacular biodiversity, before stopping off for a seafood feast at the ever-popular Mi Ranchito on Isla Naos while you drink in the views.
To get active, take to the water with StandUp Panama, which caters to paddle boarders of all levels, including people with disabilities. Alternatively, hop on the ferry for the 30-minute ride to volcanic Isla Taboga, the historic Island of Flowers, for a taste of tropical island life (arrange activities at Taboga Tour Center).
The neighborhood of San Francisco is a great place to sample local treats such as ceviche © ScarletRE / Shutterstock
Best for foodies
In the middle of the metropolis, sprawling San Francisco is a favorite stop for local foodies. It’s the home base for many of the city’s top food trucks, and at the city’s first designated food truck park, Urbano67, you’ll find everything from sticky ribs to well-stuffed tacos, craft beer to cocktails, and live music to artisan market stalls.
For more tasty treats, food-truck-turned-restaurant Esa Flaca Rica serves up flavorful meat and veggie burgers. There’s also a branch of El Trapiche serving its popular menu of affordable and filling Panamanian fare. Meanwhile, caffeine lovers can sample the country’s best coffee at Cafe Unido.
You can burn off those extra calories at the alfresco gyms and jogging trails of Parque Recreativo Omar, one of the city’s green lungs, which hosts free open-air concerts and art exhibitions in summer.
Cerro Ancón offers sweeping views over the skyscrapers of downtown Panama City © DavorLovincic / iStockphoto / Getty Images
Best for green spaces and contemporary art
Part of the former Canal Zone, the tranquil residential neighborhood of Ancón is home to the city’s highest point, Cerro Ancón, which rises to 200m (650ft) above sea level, with an iconic Panama flag – said to be larger than a basketball court – fluttering at its peak.
Set your alarm and hit the paved trail to the summit, winding up slopes thick with rainforest vegetation and sprinkled with tropical flowers. Keep your eyes peeled for slow-moving sloths, diminutive Geoffroy’s tamarin monkeys and raccoon-like coatis. Alongside wildlife encounters, you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views over the tiled rooftops of Casco and downtown’s sparkling steel-and-glass towers.
For an art fix, stop off at the imposing Panama Canal Administration Building on the hill’s western slope to see the powerful murals depicting the epic struggle to build the canal. Then head east to the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MAC Panamá), which showcases local and Latin American art, with an interesting line-up of temporary exhibitions.
Locals gather on the Cinta Costera every morning to exercise and soak up the views © diego_cervo / iStockphoto / Getty Images
Best for glitzy hotels and designer stores
Punta Pacifica is one of the city’s newest and most exclusive neighborhoods, where eye-wateringly expensive high-rise condos stand shoulder-to-shoulder on a petite peninsula overlooking the ocean. There are top-notch shopping and international restaurants to match, but alongside designer stores, the Multiplaza Mall has around 50 eateries to suit all budgets.
For sea views, walk down to Cinta Costera, which hugs the coast as far as Casco Viejo and runs parallel to Avenida Balboa. Every Sunday morning, the beltway is transformed into a ciclovía (cycleway), so hire a bike and join the throng of riders. Behind Punta Pacific are the lively, multicultural barrios of Obarrio and El Cangrejo, offering more wallet-friendly accommodation.
If you’re not staying at the sail-shaped JW Marriott, you can get a taste of the showstopping views at Panaviera, said to be the highest rooftop bar in Central America. Alternatively, try to bag yourself a luxe Airbnb, where you can watch the twinkling lights of ships as they wait to enter the canal.