PANAMA CITY, PANAMA VISITOR INFORMATION
I get no compensation from any merchants or service providers listed below. This visitor information is provided because I want your stay in Panama/Bocas to be as pleasant as possible, so that someday you'll come back to our paradise...
José Saenz, and his fleet of drivers, are your best friends while in the city of Panama, starting from when they pick you up at the airport.
LODGING IN PANAMA:
These are my favorite hotels to stay at whenever I'm in Panama:
Plaza Paitilla Inn - From $95/night. Via Italia, Punta Paitilla. I love the convenience of this hotel. It has nice amenities too. Make sure to ask for a room on a high floor with a bay view. This hotel is located in the Paitilla neighborhood, within easy walking distance of the large Multicentro Shopping Plaza, which has great shopping, a cinema, a Hard Rock Café, and of course one of my favorite restaurants, El Amir. Next door to Multicentro is Decapolis, a dance club, as well as a posh (read expensive) sushi restaurant, and casino. Across the street from Multicentro is a huge farmacia called La Arrocha. So, if you forget to pack anything, you can easily just walk half a block to buy anything you need. Plaza Paitilla Inn has refrigerators in most of their rooms, which I find convenient for leftovers or groceries bought. Internet access, business center.
Hotel El Panama - From $120/night. Via España 111. Centrally located. This is Panama's old-school hotel, with history and a charm to it. The best part of this hotel is the swimming pool and their huge complementary breakfast buffet with tons of fresh tropical fruits and juices. The pool is beautiful, with a swim-up bar and poolside restaurant where it's fun to lounge at night listening to the live music they have. The palm trees and flowers around the pool are lit up colorfully, creating a nice ambience. There are also a couple of dance clubs in the hotel, as well as a casino. Hotel El Panama is located in bustling downtown, with a large grocery store called El Rey nearby, a La Rocha farmacia, as well as other shops, including one of my favorites, Sol de India. Internet access, business center. Ask for a poolside room on a high floor.
Las Vegas Hotel Suites- From $77/night. Av. Eusebio A. Morales at Vía Veneto. This is not a fancy hotel, but the amenities are decent enough for the price, and it's in the same neighborhood as the Hotel El Panama, so it's centrally located. You can always go to the Hotel El Panama and pay for their breakfast buffet, and hang-out at the poolside restaurant/bar at night (but swimming is for guests only). The rooms at Las Vegas Hotel are simple, but large, with a refrigerator. Suites are not that much more money, and are very large, having a separate living room, a full-sized kitchen, and laundry tub. Downstairs, in Hotel Las Vegas, is an Italian restaurant, which is okay if you're into pasta & pizza, both of which I try to stay away from, but sometimes as a vegetarian, that's the only option, or if you just want room-service for the night. There are better restaurants in Panama, which I'll cover later. Business center.
Some drivers in Panama get a kick-back from a hotel called Plaza Roma, which I DON'T recommend. If someone wants to take you there, don't go.
For HOSTELS in Panama click here. I've never stayed in a hostel in Panama, but for the budget traveler, they are ideal, and can be a fun way to meet people from all over the world. From what I hear, Luna's Castle is supposed to be a good one, and is located in historic Casco Viejo.
If you want a vegetarian only restaurant, check out the HAPPY COW website for listings. There are quite a few of them in Panama, the best of which is supposed to be the newly opened La Novena. I much prefer "regular" restaurants that are vegetarian friendly, as it seems the variety is wider, the quality of food is higher, the ambiance is more fun, and it also allows more freedom for people you may be traveling with that aren't vegetarian and want to try Panama's seafood.
El Amir - Multicentro Shopping Center, Balboa Avenue, Punta Paitilla. I eat here more than any other restaurant in Panama. It has a huge menu, for all types of eaters (carnivores and vegetarians alike). Veggie options include, but are not limited to: falafel, hummus, tabouli, lentil soup (made with veggie-stock), mutabal (baba ganoush), spinach pies, fatoush salad, foul (fava beans in garlic, lemon & olive oil - yum), stuffed grape leaves, spiced olives, tzadziky (cucumber yoghurt dip), marinated mushrooms & artichoke hearts, fried eggplant, and too many other things to mention. For people who aren't necessarily into Lebanese or vegetarian food, they also offer pizza, pasta, burgers, fresh seafood, as well as an outdoor grill for specialties. El Amir is located conveniently in the Multicentro Shopping Center, which is within easy walking distance of the Plaza Paitilla Inn Hotel. If you sit outside you get a feel for bustling Balboa Avenue while feeling warm breezes and a side view of the bay. Hookas.
Taj Mahal - Calle 42. This restaurant is a treat to go to. It is on my must eat at list whenever I'm in Panama. I love to go here for get my fix of traditional Indian food. It has a great ambiance, with great music and also has a large flat-screen television on the wall that displays an ongoing montage of Bollywood music videos, which I find mesmerizing. This restaurant caters to both vegetarian and carnivorous palates. The vegetarian portion of the menu is extensive. I suggest the Thali, for a large variety of dishes, of course!
Tinajas - This is a fun place to go because it's dinner-theatre. Here is where you will get to experience Panama's traditional national folkloric dance, with stunningly elaborate dresses and jewelry for the ladies. Both the men and women sing and dance on stage to entertain you while you dine. Traditional Panamanian food on the regular menu, or you can actually book a pre-fix dinner & show online at Orbitz for $57. When you book it through Orbitz, included in the price is transportation to the restaurant. They will pick you up at your hotel. It sounds touristy, but it's not - actually many Panamanians go here. Many Panamanian families go here to celebrate birthdays and other special occasions. Remember to please be polite and respect the performers who are there pouring their hearts out to you - clap after every song to let them know you appreciate the years of training it took for them to hone their craft, and keep talking quiet so as to not interfere with their performance. Tables are close together - they fit a lot of people in there, but the show makes it all worth it. This is the only place you'll see this traditional kind of dance. They do have a vegetarian plate that includes sautéed plaintains, steamed veggies, beans & rice, and salad. Dinner is included in the price. Drinks are extra. Tip is NOT included in the price. Reservations neccessary. Dinner and show lasts 3 hours.
Habibis - Calle Uruguay and 48. This is a Lebanese restaurant, which is very good and is located on the hot-spot of Calle Uruguay, which is the location of the dance clubs in Panama. Ouside dining and hookahs. Habib restaurant is open very late (until 2:00 a.m.), and is a spot that young people go to before their night of clubbing on Calle Uruguay. This restaurant is not far from Hotel El Panama & Hotel Las Vegas.
Masala - Another Indian restaurant in Panama, which is very good. It's smaller and more intimate than Taj Mahal. Wonderful decorations. It has more of a family feel to it, but doesn't have Bollywood videos, which could be - depending on if you have a dining parter (I often eat alone) - could be either distracting or entertaining. Again, you can't go wrong with ordering the Thali. They recently changed locations. It is NOT on calle 42, as most listings will tell you. I'll update with the new address soon.
Madame Chang - Av. 5A and Calle Uruguay. What is said to be the best Chinese food in Panama City.
A note on drinks. For non-alcoholic treats order a "batida", a drink made with fresh tropical fruit, ice, and either water or milk. They typically add sugar, so if you'd like it without sugar then order it "sin azucar". For no milk order it "sin leche". It's like a piña colada "sin alcohol".
A note about restaurants in Panama. Many restaurants add a 10% gratuity onto the bill, but some don't. Check to bill to see if the 10% tip is on there. I like to add another 10% on top of that, making it a 20% tip. The very minimum tip should be 15%. Ice & water is fine to drink in Panama. For some reason waiters typically won't bring you your check unless you ask for it. So, when you know you're done, just say, "La Cuenta, Por Favor" (the check, please). Most hotels in Panama will have a fridge in the rooms for midnight-snack leftovers.
If you're not vegetarian and want fresh seafood, I'm told that the fish-market is the place to go. There is a seafood restaurant in the market, where mostly only Panamanians eat. It's supposed to be cheap, casual, and is freshly caught.
(even if you don't drink alcohol, these places can be fun for live music appreciation or dancing to a hot DJ)
La Casona de las Brujas - Plaza Herrera, Casco Viejo. Club and art gallery, located in an old mansion. A new, hip place to hang-out. Laid-back, casual, bohemian crowd. Live Music. Beautiful courtyard.
Bar Platea Jazz Club - Located In front of old Club Union, Casco Viejo. Downstairs from the upscale Mediterranian restaurant S'Cena. Live Jazz. Doors open at 7pm, except on Mondays, and live music begins at 10pm on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Often, Platea hosts hot salsa bands.
Las Bovedas - Plaza Francia, Casco Viejo. 17th-century Spanish dungeon, built in the historic fortress inside a defensive seawall. French food. Live jazz on Fridays and Saturdays from 9pm to 1am.
Ego Urbano - Plaza
Bolivar, Casco Viejo. Chic, contempo decor and ambient music coupled with
creative tapas dishes.
Decapolis Radisson Sushi Bar & Martini Lounge - Avenida Balboa, Multicentro, Punta Paitilla.
Guru - Next to Mystik just off Calle Uruguay. Panama's largest club. VIP rooms, dance floors, stage, high-tech sound/light system.
Seis - Calle Uruguay/Calle 48 Este between Avenida 4A and 5A. Two story bar/club/sushi restaurant.
One Night Club - Calle Uruguay Area. Dance club. Live Reggaeton artists and DJs.
The Gallery - Located in Plaza New York, second floor, Calle Uruguay area. Art and music in two areas: The Main Room and The Blue Room.
Organica - Health food store. Paitilla Mall.
Rey - Large grocery store chain, most open 24 hours. Good prices. Convenient locations around the city.
Riba Smith - Many american foods. Good produce. Relatively expensive.
La Arrocha is the largest farmacia chain in Panama. A big one is in the Paitilla neighborhood across the street from Multicentro Shopping Center (near the Plaza Paitilla Inn). They have a wide variety of stuff, including sunscreen, bug-spray, batteries, cosmetics, toiletries, sunglasses, or anything else you may have forgotten to pack. Farmacias in Panama sell antibiotics over the counter in case you want them. Antibiotics are generally not a good thing to take, as they eventually lower your immune system, but if for some reason you need or want them to take back to the States, you can get them here easy and cheap.
For shopping there are three large centers.
Multicentro Shopping Center - Balboa Avenue, Punta Paitilla. includes plenty of clothes stores, a cinema, Hard Rock Café and my favorite restaurant, El Amir. For inexpensive clothing go to the Conway store here.
Albrook Mall - Near the Albook Airport. This large, indoor mall offers a wide variety of discount stores and boutiques, as well as a food court. For inexpensive clothes go to the store Conway, which is good if you forgot to pack anything.
Multiplaza - Punta Pacifica. A higher-end, expensive shopping plaza with designer clothes and a sushi restaurant.
Private City Tours are booked through José Saenz, the same guy who has drivers to pick you up at the airport. When emailing josé, you may want to request that your driver speak English. City tours in your own car are the best, and aren't that expensive either - cheaper than a taxi! Some highlights of a city tour, not to be missed are the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal (make sure to stay long enough to watch a ship traverse the locks), the top of Ancon Hill with it's stupendous views, and seeing the wonderful architecture of romantic Casco Viejo (Old Town), and a ride out to the Amador Causeway. You can have your driver wait for you while you have lunch somewhere and/or shop. José's drivers are reliable and trustworthy - it's safe to leave your stuff in their car while you do your thing. If you have time you can spend a couple of hours in the Parque Natural Metropolitano - an unspoiled park in a rainforest setting, covering 655 acres, a 10-minute drive north of downtown, with spectacular nature trails for bird watching, and wonderful views (wear walking/hiking shoes).