Panama is a gateway city
If you’re flying from North America to the Caribbean, Central, or South America, you’re most likely making a connection in Panama City. Panama’s Tocumen International Airport serves as a regional hub serving millions of passengers a year traveling from the U.S., Canada and a handful of European cities to destinations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Copa Airlines, a Star Alliance member, is headquartered in Panama and has partnered with the Panamanian Tourism Authority to encourage travelers to choose an extended layover with no extra fees so that you can take advantage of Panama’s fantastic capital city. Plus, you get more bang for your buck, visiting two destinations for the price of one!
If you do find yourself making a connection in Panama, definitely stay for an extended layover. The city’s historic district, Casco Viejo, is a perfect and charming stopover location. Located just 15 miles (25 km) from the airport, the Casco Viejo neighborhood (also called Casco Antiguo or San Felipe) is walkable and compact with lots to see, eat and drink. With just 24 hours, you can experience Panama City’s historic gem. At just 30 square blocks, Casco Viejo has everything you could hope for to see and do in a day. You can take a food tour, experience great nightlife, wake up in a beautiful hotel, and wander around the cobblestone streets taking in the beautiful architecture, historic landmarks, colorful scenery, stunning vistas, delectable street food, sophisticated restaurants and even a cool brewery. You can even fit in a jungle hike! Do yourself a favor and give Panama a little bit of your time, and she might convince you to come back on your next trip.
Arriving to Panama City, Panama
Panama’s Tocumen airport is easy and modern. Once you pass through customs and immigration downstairs, walk outside and grab a taxi. No need to exchange money, Panama uses US Dollars (Panamanians call them Balboas). Tell the driver “San Felipe” and agree on the price, it should be $30. You’ll cruise along the Corridor Sur, a wide modern toll road that zips you through Panama’s flashy downtown and delivers you to the old town in about 20 minutes (traffic at rush hour can be horrendous, so beware and plan accordingly!). To make it super easy on yourself, contact Magnolia Inn’s concierge service who will make arrangements to have you picked up and dropped off at the airport hassle free!
Take advantage of Magnolia Inn’s perfect location and stay in the center of Panama’s old town. Arrive at the hotel and drop off your bags. Walk around the corner to Cafe UNIDO Coffee Roasters on Calle 9a and Avenida Central. Here you can perk up with a world-renowned, exquisite cup of Geisha coffee in the retro-glamorous interior lobby of the American Trade Hotel and meet up with Joey for a Panama Detour walking tour.
Joey can personalize the tours to cater to visitors’ time and interests, but a food tour can be a great idea to pass the evening! Sample Panama’s variety of local flavors – dark, rich chocolate made from locally grown cacao, smooth Panamanian rum cocktails, fresh ceviche at the Fish Market, and even locally brewed craft beer – while walking around Casco Viejo’s charming cobbled stone streets in the beautiful evening light with someone who knows (and appreciates) the lay of the land. After the tour, you can keep the party going and head to the rooftop deck of Tantalo for a drink and spectacular view, or head in for the evening and enjoy a good night’s rest.
Morning in Panama
Wake early and grab a coffee and breakfast sandwich from Super Gourmet located on Avenida A, between Calle 6a & 7a. Take a taxi or Uber to Ancon Hill to enjoy a 2 km (1 ¼ mi) morning walk up the hill. The tree canopy offers shade and there are benches along the way to relax and enjoy to views. If you’re lucky you’ll see sloths, white-nosed coati, nine-banded armadillos, Geoffroy’s tamarins, or deer on Ancon Hill. At the top, enjoy the excellent view of Panama City and Casco Viejo to the southeast, and spectacular views of the Panama Canal with the new expanded locks and the Centennial Bridge can be seen to the west.
Head back to Casco Viejo for a quick shower to cool down and head over to Rene Cafe in the Plaza de la Independencia to take advantage of their lunch special – a salad, entree, main and dessert – for $10. The food is nice, the atmosphere is relaxed and the staff is hospitable. Located in Casco Viejo’s main square, the cafe is a great starting spot for a self-guided sightseeing tour around the old city. (If you prefer to use a personal audio guided walking tour app check out our recent blog post: 10 Unique Things to Do in Casco Viejo.)
Take in the Panama sights
Panama declared its independence from Colombia on November 3, 1903 in the Plaza de la Independencia, and it’s in this main square that you can see several important landmarks. From Rene Café, the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral) is on your right. On the opposite (south side) of the plaza is the Museo del Canal Interoceánico. The neoclassical building was built in 1875 as the Gran Hotel, and converted into Canal Headquarters by the French in 1881; later it was used as offices for the U.S. canal commission, today it houses the Canal Museum.
From the cafe, head east (away from the Cathedral) to Calle 6a Este. Take a left and Calle 6a Este leads to the Palacio Presidencial (Presidential Palace). Bring your passport (or a copy) to show to the security guards on the street in order to pass. The Spanish mansion houses the offices of Panama’s President, and two African herons — whose Spanish name, garza, is the reason the palace is also called the Palacio de las Garzas. Here you can also enjoy the views of the city skyline.
After posing for a few pictures, turn right on Calle 5a Este, and head south one block, then turn left on Avenida B. Walk one block until you reach Plaza Bolívar. One of Casco Viejo’s prettiest spots, Plaza Bolívar was named in 1883 in honor of Simon Bolívar, widely considered in Latin America to be the hero of independence from Spain and whose monument adorns the center of the plaza. The Ministry of Foreign Relations on the northeast edge next to the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco de Asís (Church and Convent of St. Francis of Assisi), one of the original structures from Casco Viejo but nearly totally destroyed by fires in 1737 and 1756. Across the plaza is the Iglesia San Felipe de Neri, one of the first churches built in Casco Viejo (1684-88).
On the corner of Calle 3a and Avenida B you can see the Teatro Nacional (National Theater). Built between 1905 and 1908, on the grounds of the old Concepción Monastery, the Teatro Nacional opened in 1908 with a presentation of Verdi’s Aida, and it is perhaps best known for the frescoes rendered by Panama’s most famous painter, Roberto Lewis and its baroque decor (unfortunately you won’t be able to view the scarlet and gilded tiered balconies and a grand chandelier inside, since the theater is closed for renovations at this time).
Continue along Avenida B (the street bends and changes names for one block to Calle 2a) until it ends at Avenida Central. Turn left on Avenida Central (Calle 1a) and follow it to the stairs. When you head up the stairs, the walkway turns into the lovely and inviting Paseo Esteban Huertas, which is partially covered by pretty bougainvillea. As you soak in the surroundings, keep in mind that you’re walking on top of las bóvedas, or “the vaults,” which originally functioned as a Spanish dungeon and later as a jail, storehouse, and offices. This walkway also runs along the old defensive wall that once protected the city. Walk all the way around to see the amazing views. From this vantage point you can see the Bridge of the Americas and ships lining up for their turn to enter the canal. Continue along the walkway and down the stairs to the Plaza de Francia (French Plaza). Built originally as the main plaza (Plaza de Armas) of Panama City, it is now a commemorative monument to the failed French canal effort.
From the Plaza de Francia take either road back to Av. A and walk west (left) until reaching Calle 3a. Here you’ll find the ruins of Iglesia de Santo Domingo, built in 1678 but victim of several fires including one in 1781, from which time it was never rebuilt. The church is worth a visit, however, because still standing is the building’s unusual supporting arch made of stone, which survived the fire. The arch, called Arco Chato was unusual in that it was long and not very arching, seemingly defying gravity. When U.S. senators debated whether to build a canal in Panama or Nicaragua, they took the arch’s longevity to mean that little earthquake activity made Panama a safer place to build. Next to the ruin site is the Museo de Arte Religioso Colonial.
Walk up Avenida A one more block to Calle 4a, turn right and walk one block to Avenida Central. Casa Góngora is on the east corner. This structure is the best-preserved example of a Spanish colonial home in Casco Viejo. The house, built in 1760 by a wealthy merchant, was renovated with city funds, and much of its original woodwork, including ceiling beams, has been maintained.
Across from Casa Góngora, take a pit stop at Granclement ice cream shop. They make all of their ice cream from scratch and by hand. You’ll want to taste some of the exotic flavors before you make your choice from about twenty flavors.
Continue the tour by taking a left out of Granclement, heading west on Avenida Central to Calle 9a. At the corner is Iglesia de la Merced. Built in 1680, this church was moved, stone by stone, from its Panama Viejo site. The facade is still an excellent example of one of Casco Viejo’s oldest buildings. Walk south down Calle 9a until you come to Plaza Herrera. Here you can take a seat in the park benches for some great people watching.
When you’re ready, walk one block east on Avenida A to Calle 8a. You’ll come to Casco Viejo’s most famous church, Iglesia de San José with its baroque golden altar. The story goes that when pirate Henry Morgan raided Panama Viejo, a priest had the altar painted black to hide it from looters, later moving the altar to Casco Viejo. Studies of the altar’s stylistic details cast doubt on the story, nonetheless it’s worth a stop to view a beautiful piece of art.
From here you’re just around the corner from the hotel. When you’re ready you can grab your bags and have a prearranged taxi pick you up and take you to the airport.