Main Street in Casco Viejo

The main street cuts through the heart of this historic city. (Photo: Getty Images)

Weekend Getaways

Explore the Rich History and Culture of Panama City, Panama

Make the most of a three-day stay in one of Central America’s most cosmopolitan cities. Located at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal, as a destination, Panama City often flies under the radar. But in-the-know travelers will be delighted to find world-class restaurants and fascinating history nestled against lush jungle and sandy beaches.

Historically, the famous canal meant this city was the spot where commerce from all over the world converged, creating a thrilling confluence of cultures that can still be felt today in the diverse architecture, inventive cuisine and fantastic shopping.

As always, check for travel restrictions and closures before planning your trip.

Friday: Visit a UNESCO World Heritage Site

For your first day in Panama City, start off with a stroll along the waterfront Cinta Costera Park. Enjoy the miles of pathways, adjacent to Avenida Balboa, the city’s main thoroughfare. Watch joggers do their thing and admire the city skyline and the sea.

For breakfast, make a stop at the nearby Restaurant Boulevard Balboa for Cuban-inspired fare. Opt for the eggs with Catalan sausage and grab a seat on the patio, which has ocean views and a refreshing ocean breeze coming through.

From here, take a taxi to the Amador Causeway and visit the Biomuseo. Designed by Frank Gehry, this colorful museum houses ultramodern displays that show how the Isthmus of Panama served as a land bridge that altered migration routes, evolution and the climate.

Lebanese dinner spread
Fill up on delicious Lebanese cuisine. (Photo: Getty Images)

Walk to the end of the scenic Amador Causeway for lunch at Beirut, known for traditional Lebanese dishes and great city views. Once you’re settled up, head back toward the Biomuseo, stopping at the Smithsonian Institution’s Punta Culebra Tropical Research Institute to watch mesmerizing sharks, turtles and fish. A short trail takes you through an area where you might spot sloths and armadillos.

Hop in a taxi to the Panamá Viejo archaeological site, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. Maps, artifacts and dioramas cover the city’s history, from its founding by the Spanish in 1519 to its sacking by Henry Morgan. An earthquake leveled most of the original settlement, but you can tour a few of the remaining buildings.

For dinner, check out the only restaurant in Panama that consistently makes the World’s 50 Best List for Latin America. At Maito, expect chic presentations, surprising combinations and unusual ingredients — think palm fruit in corn sauce and blood sausage made with red rice from the Darién Gap jungle.

Cap off the night with a seasonal craft cocktail like the “Fosforito,” made with mezcal, tawny port, melon cordial, spicy agave and lime juice at aMano.

Saturday: Explore Casco Viejo

Colorful street in Casco Viejo
You can spend all day in the historic Casco Viejo. (Photo: Getty Images)

Casco Viejo — both the oldest and hippest neighborhood in Panama City — deserves a day dedicated to shopping, eating and sightseeing.

For breakfast (or brunch, depending on your alarm time), make a stop at Dodó Bon Pan Café. The menu is inclusive, offering vegan options alongside toasts piled high with salmon, sprouts and more. From here, head to the remains of the Santo Domingo Church and don’t miss the oddly flat, 50-foot brick arch built by Dominican friars.

Next up: shopping. For modern designer jewelry with recycled elements, pop into Mitchelle Q. Joyería. Browse or buy at the DiabloRosso art gallery, which highlights the work of local artists and has sold pieces to the Tate Modern and the Guggenheim.

Once hunger hits, you’re off to one of the city’s most popular spots. The country’s first craft brewpub now has multiple outlets around Panama City, but the original Casco Viejo location of La Rana Dorada continues to shine. Choose from six craft brews on tap, and pair it all with well-executed bar food. If the plantain pizza is on the menu, order it.

In preparation for tomorrow’s Panama Canal adventure, visit the nearby Canal Museum of Panama, where exhibits cover the history of the canal, as well as the engineering.

Your next stop is the Metropolitan Cathedral, which was completed in the late 1700s after a century of construction and features a mix of architectural styles. It anchors Plaza de la Independencia — where modern Panama was born when the nascent country declared its independence from Colombia in 1903.

From here, celebrate the crafts of the Panamanian Caribbean coast at Karavan Gallery, which offers textiles with traditional Kuna molas, hats woven by the Sofre people, masks made by the Emberá people and more.

For dinner, make a reservation at Donde José (it only has 16 seats) to enjoy the inventive tasting menu from chef José Olmedo Carles. Dishes celebrate the country’s biodiversity and may include specials like sea snails and cashews in a squash and clam broth. After dinner, head to the Strangers Club for artful cocktails with a focus on tequila, mezcal and rum.

Sunday: Take a Ride Through the Panama Canal

Aerial view of the Panama Canal
Take a tour and explore the famous Panama Canal. (Photo: Getty Images)

You’re hitting the water today, so grab some coffee (and a snack) at your hotel before kicking off your final morning in Panama City. The Panama Canal is central to the city’s economy and industry, so a tour of this historic waterway is a quintessential part of any trip.

You can book a partial or complete tour of the canal with Panama Marine Adventures. Partial transits pass through the Miraflores lock, the San Miguel lock and the Culebra Cut, giving you a unique glimpse of the city that you can’t find at any other vantage point.

Full transits travel from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean through all six locks on the original Panama Canal — plus the Culebra Cut and Gatún Lake. All transits include breakfast and lunch, a guide to explain canal history, engineering and the process of moving vessels (carefully!) through the locks.

The canal tour will take up the majority of your morning and afternoon, so once you hit dry land, it’s already time to start thinking about dinner.

On that note, enjoy what the first winner of “Top Chef Panama,” chef Hernán Correa, is creating at his Riesen Restaurante, where he uses 100% local ingredients to create seven-course tasting menus featuring dishes like Panamanian-style ceviche, Indigenous rice porridge and cold-smoked yellowfin tuna.

To cap off a weekend in Panama City, head to Soléo at the Westin Playa Bonita for cocktails and let-your-hair-down fun. Every night delivers different good-time activities, like salsa dancing lessons and sets from locally famous DJs.