Have you ever set foot in a new place and instantly felt like something just, well, clicked? Like you could happily cancel your return flight home and spend the rest of your days making this place your own? Panama City, and specifically Casco Viejo, was that place for me.
This was my kind of ‘hood, guys. The combination of rich cultural history alongside hip urban and international commercial development, quaint neighborhoods against a backdrop of modern city skyscrapers, all decorated with colorful Spanish Colonial homes, crumbly stone ruins, and beautifully appointed plazas give the “old city” by the water its typical Panamanian charm and make it a must-see UNESCO World Heritage Site. But far from being a purely tourist attraction, the neighborhood is filled with locals who either live in one of the many pastel-hued Casco Viejo apartments or flock to the area for good food and coffee. I spent a few days wandering the mazes of brick streets, chatting with shopkeepers, and consuming all the food & coffee I could get my hands on.
Here were some of my favorite places to eat, sip, and shop in Casco Viejo, Panama City:
Capital Bistró Panamá: There’s nothing to welcome you to a city like a decadent local meal overlooking the water and city skyline. But CBP has even more to offer than that – with a lively, hip vibe matched by outstanding wait staff who are clearly obsessed with the restaurant’s food and eager to offer recommendations (our waiter even treated us to some drinks and a dessert because the prospect of us not trying the homemade opera cake was too sad for him to handle), it’s the perfect place to first fall in love with Panama City. Weather permitting, grab a seat on the rooftop which, because the restaurant is situated along a cliff, actually sits level with the street on one side, while boasting an unobstructed view of the ocean and Quinto Centenario park on the other. I ordered an appetizer of fresh and fried squid stuffed with smoky chorizo served atop roasted pepper puree, ginger syrup, and creamy fried yucca pies, which was so dang delicious it was silly. Followed by a simpler, perfectly prepared filet mignon which had the most welcome surprise of being wrapped ever-so-delicately in bacon, because why the heck not. The only way the evening could have gotten better is if someone set off fireworks into the night sky for us to watch from the roof . . . oh wait, that happened, too.
Casa Sucre Coffeehouse: With eclectic vintage furnishings, a dusty piano, crumbly stone walls, and heaps of natural light streaming through the multiple arched doorways, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back in time to a cigar-smoking, yellow cab-roaming, colonial Panama like something out of a Hemingway novel, which, to be fair, is still kind of what Casco Viejo is today. Although everything on the menu looks delicious here, I insist that you order the tamales for breakfast (and then maybe lunch and dinner, too). Make friends with Isidro and Maria who seem to run the place and will charm your faces off while forcing you to speak only in Spanish, even if “tamale” is about all you’ve got. Good luck trying to get the recipe from Maria for these warm bundles of tamale heaven wrapped in banana leaves (if you’re successful, send it to me ASAP). The coffee is wonderful here, too, as most Panamanian coffee is, and there’s a great selection of flavored Panamanian chocolates to grab as souvenirs that will likely never make it home. Casa Sucre also lets apartments, so you never have to leave.
Mahalo Cucina & Jardin: When you want local ingredients but your rookie body is struggling to function on a diet of various fried meats and carbs, head to Mahalo. The front is modest and easy to miss, but once you step inside you’ll be met by a tiny hippie foodie oasis. The front of the restaurant offers a selection of locally-made products such as soaps and lip balm, as well as edible favorites like Panamanian coffee and cocoa nibs. Once you make your way through and buy a few goodies, grab a seat in the secluded back patio adorned with bistro lights, palm-printed cushions, and lush rain forest plants all over the place. While the food here isn’t your typical Panamanian cuisine, it’s still a pretty spectacular fresh/wellness menu, with blended fruit bowls and fresh juices and avocado toast and a tuna melt that’ll bring happy tears to your eyes. For entertainment, there are board games and occasional live music, as well as yoga and Pilates classes for a fee.
Unido: Located at the bottom of the pristine white colonial American Trade Hotel, Unido is the lesser-known sister to the famous Hotel’s picturesque restaurant. The food at the restaurant is definitely good, but I totally support foregoing the pricey dinner for a more reasonable coffee break at Unido. It’s a coffee-lover’s dream, with a variety of options for both bean and brew. My hope is that when you visit, they’ll have available the bourbon-barrel pour over coffee, which has a subtle but unmistakable boozy undertone that will make you fall in love with the caffeinated beverage all over again. Pair it with the crispy, flaky orejitas cookies filled with creamy dulce de leche and people-watch from a window seat. Rinse and repeat.
La Rana Dorada: Although perhaps known more for its rum, Panama does still love its beer. Aside from the reliably refreshing cold bottles of Balboa and Panama beer offered pretty much everywhere, head to La Rana Dorada for a sampling of some really unique in-house brews. Mention the beer flight and your server will run away, then reappear with a wooden boat supporting up to six tastes of their own beers. The light, floral blanca was my favorite, but the coffee-flavored porter and seasonal red beer with aromas of cinnamon and clove (i.e., Christmas in Panama) came in a close second and third. The flight is free (cheers!) but I’m sure you’ll want to grab a pint or two after trying them out. Beers are 50% off during happy hour.
Papaya Planet Bookstore & Café: Although this place technically wasn’t open yet when I visited, the beautiful signage and alluring concept (ahem – books and coffee in one place? yes, please!) compelled me to smoosh my face up to the locked window and grab the staff’s attention. They were having a private tasting before the café’s official opening day, but allowed us to come inside and look around. True to form, the front of the café has a shelved selection of staff-picked books, a spacious reading area, and some locally-made wooden goods to buy if you’re feeling particularly hip (you’re in a bookcafe, so my guess is that you are). The back half of Papaya is a long coffee bar with swoon-worthy natural light, industrial metal hardware, and the typical wood + colorful floor tiling + tropical plant thing going on all over Casco Viejo which honestly never gets old. I can’t exactly vouch for the coffee, because I didn’t have any, but the pretty interior and cozy concept and friendly staff are the stuff of dreams, so I feel confident that the coffee keeps in pace.
Selina Embassy: A concept from Selina Hostels, this little warehouse-style shop offers a wonderful selection of locally designed products while also serving as a tour agency. Peruse the quirky men’s graphic tees and lightweight button-downs, colorful statement jewelry, swimwear, and vintage finds while maybe grabbing a drink from behind the register (there seemed to be a pretty full bar back there, and I’m assuming it’s not for decoration) and chilling in the suspended wooden swing or a colorful poufs. And while you’re at it, you can book a city walking tour or a trip to the San Blas islands or one of the many other activities that Selina offers.
Undercover Store: Though she be but little, she is fierce. What Undercover Store lacks in square footage it makes up for in its variety of quality retail treasures. The small shop which is somehow the only rain boot store in Panama is jam-packed with everything from local artwork to funky accessories to cutesy household knick-knacks to, of course, rain boots, all brightly and unapologetically colored in typical Panamanian style. Our loot included a pair of fuchsia and orange fringe statement earrings and a pineapple-adorned Spanish planner, but there were about seven gazillion other things I wanted to shove into my suitcase and take home.
El Palacio Del Sombrero: Obviously you’re coming home from Panama with a Panama hat. And why wouldn’t you? The authentic, natural, hand-woven ones (not the cheap souvenir shop, Made-in-China ones) are so durable that you can (and should) roll them up, shove them in a suitcase, and watch them spring back to life when you arrive at your destination. It’s an accessory-loving traveler’s dream. This hat shop has a variety of options from the very traditional style of Panama hat to versions in different shapes, colors, and patterns if you’re wanting to mix things up a bit. Prices range from $40-$350+ depending on quality, but there is at least a little room to negotiate here, especially if the shop owner is around. Have fun playing hat dress-up, learn how to roll them up, and promise promise promisewhoever is working that you won’t wear the hat in the rain (which will cause your new favorite accessory to shrink up and warp).
Of course, there is so much more to see and do in Panama City outside of Casco Viejo. For example, spend a a few hours visiting the engineering marvel that is the Panama Canal, hiking the rain forest trail up Ancon Hill, and exploring the other wonderful food/fashion/coffee havens scattered throughout the city (honorable mention to El Trapiche, a fantastic authentic casual Panamanian restaurant, and La Plural, a co-op of dozens of unique and talented fashion/home goods/floral designers – both of which are located just a short and cheap Uber ride away from Casco Viejo!).
Is Panama City on your bucket list? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments below!