Before heading to the beach, take time to experience Panama’s Top 12 treasures. You'll experience local flavor at the fish market and produce market and exotic elegance at the Westin or Gamboa resorts.
- Panama Canal. You can’t come to Panama without seeing the canal that helped shaped Panama into what it is today. Although the Panama Canal can seem like a tourist trap if you are crushed by other tourists, try to go on a weekday morning or late in the afternoon when crowds are lighter. The canal is more fascinating if you can take your time. Take the whole tour for $10. This includes a movie, a map, and a tour through the gift shop. There is also a restaurant at the Miraflores Locks where you can also eat a buffet lunch and watch the ships as you linger over lunch.
- Westin Playa Bonita. This is the only resort of its kind in Panama City. Situated just 15 minutes from the heart of Panama City, Playa Bonita is a private beachfront village. Have lunch at one of the many restaurants, enjoy a drink or meal poolside, take a walk on the beach, or just lounge with a cocktail as you watch over 50 ships line up to get through the Panama Canal. Playa Bonita is a private gated community but I’d love for you to be my guest. Just email me and we can set a beach play date. You can enjoy the amenities of Playa Bonita and take a tour of Casa Bonita, condo where I live full time. It’s the only true resort living in Panama City.
- Cinta Costera. The Cinta Costera is Panama City's waterfront area, with wide walking trails, biking trails, workout stations, playgrounds, tennis courts, and more. On a weekend morning, it's a place to see and be seen while you're walking your dog, roller blading, riding your bike, playing tennis, or just out for a leisurely stroll.
- Fish Market. The fish market is an easy stroll down the Cinta Costera. It is open daily and offers a wide selection of freshly caught fish, from Corvina to Octopus to Prawns. Aside from buying fish for your evening meal, you can get dozens of different types of fresh ceviche. The ceviche is served in big Styrofoam cups and comes with crackers. For $2-$3, you can sit outside the fish market and have a light meal. If you are staying in town and want to cook, fresh sushi grade Ahi tuna is only $2.50 per pound.
- Casco Viejo. If you are walking down the Cinta Costera and hit the fish market, it's only a few more minutes to Casco Viejo where you'll find more bars, restaurants and shops than you'll know what to do with. This is the old town and is definitely a must-see tourist destination. You'll see tourists mixing with artists stirred in with locals of all flavors. This is a great place to buy gifts from local artisans. You can get everything from handheld fans to Panama hats to handcrafted jewelry. Be sure to try a scoop of ice cream from Granclement or a snow cone from a street vendor. (If you like coconut, it’s the most amazing coconut snow cone you’ve ever tasted!)
- Wholesale Produce Market. This is one of the hidden treasures of Panama City. It’s more the size of a shopping mall than a farmer’s market. You pay a quarter to drive in and then go to different areas of the market for different items. There is a pineapple area, a melon area, a citrus area, a banana area, and so on. This is where restaurants go to shop, so there are mountains of each type of produce at dirt cheap prices. For example, for $1 you can get any of the following: 12 bananas, 2 pineapples, 2 huge bunches of basil, a watermelon, 2 coconuts, 20 limes, and more. This is a working produce market so wear clothes that can be easily washed. When it rains, you might get muddy, and when it’s hot, you’ll definitely smell the ripe (or rotting) produce, but the abundance of cheap just-picked produce makes the experience worthwhile. Each week I stuff my SUV with ultra-fresh produce for under $20.
- Hard Rock Hotel. No trip to Panama City would be complete without a trip to the Hard Rock Hotel. It’s centrally located on Avenida Balboa right next to MultiCentro Mall. Go to the second floor and order a Ciao Lobster Roll sandwich and pair it with a lychee martini. This is a place to go to see and be seen so be sure to wear something nice.
- Gamboa Rainforest. A mere 30 minutes from the heart of Panama City is the Gamboa Rainforest. The rainforest offers a whole spectrum of things to do, and you could literally spend days in this area. The flora and fauna of the rainforest are unique to this area, and if you go early in the morning, you’ll see monkeys and exotic birds. Plus, it’s typically much cooler in the rainforest than it is in the city. At the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, check out the tour desk. You can take a Gatun Lake expedition by boat, an aerial tram tour, a bird watching tour, a night safari, or even take you kayaking through the Panama Canal.
- Sunday Brunch at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. This is the best Sunday brunch in Panama. For $37, you can enjoy unlimited brunch with champagne or wine. The offerings include handmade sushi, fresh sashimi, sautéed local lobster, a meat carving station, cold salads, a dozen hot entrees, and more individual dessert choices than you can possibly try. Everything is beautifully presented on small dishes and served with five-star elegance. Enjoy your brunch with live music and a view of Gatun Lake. Be sure to make reservations, though, as it fills up quickly. Call 507-314-5000 and ask for the Corotu Restaurant.
- Trump Tower. Trump Tower is a hotel, a residential tower, a small shopping mall, and home to nine restaurants, bars and cafes. Not only is it famous for bearing the Trump name, but it’s also the tallest building in Latin America. Shaped like a sail, Trump Tower is a glamorous icon of the Panama City skyline. Stroll the shops at the lobby level, and then have lunch at one of two outdoor restaurants on the water. If you want something fancier, there are several elegant restaurants upstairs. (If you’re looking for real estate in the city, look here first, but then let me take you next door to the Grand Tower, a beautiful new building with a comparable view, incredible amenities, and a lesser price tag!)
- Amador Causeway. The Causeway not only connects three islands, but it’s also the Pacific Ocean entrance to the Panama Canal. Drive next to ships as they enter and exit the canal as you take the beautiful drive down the Causeway. It’s about three kilometers long and extends into the Pacific Ocean. Enjoy the beautiful views of the ocean, the ships as they enter the canal, the Panama City skyline, and the yachts in the harbor as you walk or bike on the trail or eat at one of the many local restaurants. Be sure to linger over coffee or ice cream and enjoy the view.
- Whale Watching. A day trip on a boat during whale migration season will bring a smile to your face. You’ll enjoy the sparkling water, see whales playing in the water, and you can even swim with the dolphins. You pay based on the number of people who go, so the more people the less expensive it is. Be prepared to pay $100-$200 per person and to bring your own lunch and drinks. Even though it’s a pricey activity, it’s a once in a lifetime adventure you won’t want to miss.
As you can see, there’s enough to do to keep you busy for a week or more while you’re a tourist. If you want more suggestions, please contact me. I’d love to share more of my city with you.