The question of where to live anywhere in the world is a very personal one, and there is a never-ending list of factors that come into play. What do you want versus what do you need? What can you afford? What quality of life are you looking for? And what would you like to get out of the city?
Panama City in particular, is one of many contrasts. Historic UNESCO heritage site Casco Viejo, meets the futuristic skyscrapers of the city centre, granting Panama City the moniker of “Miami of the South”. Each paradise has its problems as well as perks. So, questions that may be pertinent to your decision on where to stay in the city may include:
– What are my commuting requirements (if any)?
– Ocean view or cityscape?
– Close to the tourist fanfare or quieter and farther from the action?
– Business or pleasure?
– Short-term or long-term stay?
When you first arrive in Panama City, I recommend looking on Encuentra24 for apartments and make friends with Airbnb. You can even dip your feet into different neighbourhoods to see what appeals to you best. For all short-term visitors, nothing will beat the experience of staying in Casco Viejo however. It is the part of Panama City, which helps tourists and travellers fall in love with Panama, and pretty much has everything your heart will desire. It’s pedestrian friendly and holds the bulk of Panama’s best restaurants, accommodations, sightseeing and even nightlife. Casco Viejo is the second most visited part of Panama after the canal. Here is a little bit about each neighbourhood to help you make an informed decision on where to stay in this metropolitan paradise.
Casco Viejo proudly wears the title of coolest neighbourhood in Panama City and all but some of the nightlife has moved here. In the day, your time will be spent taking in the beautiful narrow streets, endless viewpoints of the Pacific and a ton of attractions. Casco has several names (Casco Viejo, Casco Antiguo and San Felipe) and was bestowed with UNESCO World Heritage status in 1997 and is a place of contrasts, the juxtaposition of old and new. It is experiencing a lot of regeneration and painfully quaint cafes are popping up at an alarming rate. If you will frequent these said cafes and restaurants, it might make sense to situate yourself here in Casco instead of making the commute from downtown Panamá each day. Casco is also exceptionally safe and has a robust police presence due to the president’s offices being located right here.
Staying in Casco also means that you’re a stones throw from Cinta Costera, the most adorable oceanfront walkway and park. A stroll from Casco through the fish market (Mercado de Mariscos) and onto Cinta Costera will bring you face to face with the city’s famed skyline as well as a huge Panama sign to enable you fulfil your Insta-bragging duties.
In Casco Antiguo you have everything (almost) under one roof: yoga studios, hotels, hostels, restaurants, decadent rooftop bars caressing the sky, gelaterias, cafes, churches, shops and historical squares – there are four (Plaza Herrera, Plaza Bolivar and Plaza de Francia, Plaza Mayor, also known as Plaza de la Independencia). Within Casco’s collection of dreamy balconies and narrow streets, you WILL be spoiled for choice.
Not staying in Casco is a regret visitors to Panama City often have. It’s indisputably the most magical part of Panamá to stay and your experience will be richer for it. It’s the most popular destination in Panama City for good reason with its beautiful charm that is near logic defying.
Yoga: Casco Yoga
Bars: La Rana Dorada, Casa Bruja, Pedro Mandinga, Malibu Spirits and Eatery, Teatro Amador, Zaza, Casa Jaguar, Lazotea, 360 Rooftop, ‘t Bier Klooster, Chupitos, Tantalo, Piña Calavera, Casa Casco, V Piso
Restaurants: Diablicos, Donde Jose (Panamanian,) Nazca 21 (Peruvian), Tacos la Neta (Mexican), Mahalo (Hawaiian and has live music on Saturdays), Restaurante Tomillo
Cafes: Nomada Eatery, Café Unido at the American Trade Hotel, Super Gourmet, Bajareque Coffee House, Casa Sucre, Caffe Per Due, Benissimo, Saquella Espresso Club, Ay Mi Negra, Espresso Americano, Papaya Planet
Schools: Casco Antiguo Spanish School
If eating out is your bread and butter, you’ll love San Francisco, as there’s a truckload of food trucks dotted around the neighbourhood. Esa Flaca Rica serves up the juiciest burgers and you can enjoy some fine Argentine Choripan right here in Panama. What da Fork, Pig Backside, The Smoke Truck and Anti-Burger also serve carnivores well.
If there’s a major event going on in Panama, it’s most likely to be held at the ATLAPA Convention Center, which is the largest in the country. Park Omar Torrijos is here too, which has free exercise classes every single day.
Restaurants: Guadúa (Ecuadorian), Gasthuis Rincon Alemán (German), Viarepa (Venezuelan), Taco T, El Charro (Mexican), Los Años Locos (Argentinian), Golden Dragon, Golden Unicorn (Chinese), Al Andalus (Spanish), Roadster’s Diner (American)
Bars: Istmo Brew Pub, Lynchburg Gastro Pub for German food, LB Bieren (a specialty beer store where you can drink your purchases on site), La Rana Dorada
Cafes: Leto Café, Miranda Bakery & Café, Athanasiou Vía Porras
Schools: Colegio Europeo Panamá, Instituto Italiano Enrico Erni, Don Bosco Technical Institute
To live in Punta Pacifica is lush to say the least, given its location right in front of the Pacific (the name gives it away). This exclusive area has an abundance of shops, private schools and a private hospital, John Hopkins with English-speaking doctors.
It’s part of the district of San Francisco and is home to Multiplaza Mall (which houses all your favourite brand stores from back home) as well as the Panaviera bar at the Ocean Sun Casino, which is the highest pool bar in Panama and Central America as a whole. Ferry Las Perlas will also take you to Contadora and Saboga islands in no time.
Restaurants: Metsuyan, ZK Nikkei (Japanese), La Vespa Ristorante Vista Mare (Italian), PF Chang’s in Multiplaza (Chinese), Tony Roma’s (steakhouse in Multiplaza), Os Segredos da Carne, Fire of Brazil (Brazilian)
Cafes: Café Unido, Saquella Espresso Club, Juan Valdez Café, The Cofee Bean & Tea Leaf and Paul Bakery Panama all at Multiplaza Mall
El Cangrejo & Via Argentina
“The crab” as it was so called due to the way the streets sprawl out, is wholly cosmopolitan, yet tranquil enough to actually live in. El Cangrejo is a former Jewish enclave, though much of the population has since moved to upscale Paitilla and Punta Pacifica. A nod to its past is still evident through the rather large statue of Albert Einstein in the aptly named Plaza Einstein.
Today, El Cangrejo could be perceived to be Panama City’s most multicultural neighbourhood, judging by the sheer magnitude of restaurants serving international cuisine.
For greenery, there is Parque Andres Bello and Recreational Park Omar Torrijos is a 40-minute walk if you’d like to get your heart rate pumping. Like Casco Viejo, it is one of the few neighbourhoods that lends itself to walking.
Restaurants: El Trapiche (Panamanian), Asu Mare (Peruvian), Mordida del Burro (Mexican), Ginza (Japanese), Palacio Lung Fung (Chinese), Chez Titi, Petit Paris (French), Avatar (Indian), Sabores de mi Tierra (Colombian) Donde el Toro, Angel, Taberna 21 (Spanish)
Cafes: Mentiritas Blancas, The New York Bagel Company
Bars: La Rana Dorada, Biergarten at the Riande Granada Hotel, Istmo Brew Pub, Brew Stop
Schools: Canadian International School, Oxford School Panama, Colegio De La Salle
Balboa Avenue is a tourist attraction in itself, but it might not be the calmest place to live given the estimated 75,000 vehicles, which pass by per day. It is however, practically smack on the Pacific Ocean and many apartments here will leave you drooling at the decadent views. You will probably also pay a premium for having the water right on your doorstep, but at least you’ll be able to say you have the president as a neighbour (he lives in the Intercontinental Miramar hotel). Another benefit of living on Avenida Balboa is that you have a park right in front of you, the ever-photogenic Cinta Costera. It’s also great for it’s proximity to Casco Viejo. It is a short walk or bike ride from here to the old quarter.
Restaurants: Merey Bistro (Venezuelan), Segundo Muelle, Mr Limon (Peruvian), Cocina de la India (Indian), Hip (Vegetarian), Unagi (fusion), Aglio Rosso (Italian)
Bars: Panama Brews and Inedito Rooftop Lounge at Balboa Boutiques
Cafes: La Tapa del Frasco, Café Mar, Brun, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf at Balboa Boutiques
Everything’s within walking distance in Marbella, a modern neighbourhood behind Avenida Balboa. It’s also a stones throw from Calle Uruguay which used be the city’s nightlife haven. Now it’s a quiet area to dine on the fancy food you fancy in peace, a bounty of skyscrapers and Parque Ricardo Galindo. Close to the ocean belt, Marbella means the “beautiful sea”, and it is indeed one of the most beautiful parts of the city to see.
Restaurants: Tinajas (Panamanian), Mar de Grau (Peruvian restaurant), Sabor Brazil (Brazilian), Sabor de la India (India)
Bars: Brew Stop, La Milonga
Costa del Este
This 310-hectare area is one of the grandest real estate developments in the city. Since the project was dreamt up in the mid-90s, it has become a skyscraper car park to the East of Panama la Vieja. Many multinationals have set up their headquarters here in Costa del Este including Unilever, Copa Airlines and DHL. The area is proudly home to not one but two malls, Atrio and Town centre.
Restaurants: Caminitos (Argentinean), Brava Pizza & Espuma (pizzeria)
Schools: Colegio San Augustin, Academia Interamericana de Panamá
Obarrio is not the cheapest place to live and its streets are lined with embassies, shops, restaurants, hotels and casinos. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA Panama) breathes some creative flair into the region and co-working spaces like Workings attract freelancers and remote workers en masse.
Restaurants: Brazzeiro (Brazilian restaurant in Soho mall), Makoto, Sushi Itto and Hikaru (Japanese), Tataki Market (Sushi Thai and Peruvian fusion), Rausch (French), Al Basha and Habibi’s (Lebanese), La Locanda and Restaurante Napoli (Italian), Mar de Grau (Peruvian)
Bars: Sortis Hotel Spa & Casino
Cafes: Café Unido Marbella, Chocolatisimo Panama, Athanasiou Obarrio, Slabon Café bistro
Co-working & Work Spaces: Workings, Workspace Business Center, My Office Panama
Albrook has the benefit of housing the largest mall in the Americas, the bus terminal, as well as the domestic airport, Marcos A. Gelabert Albrook Airport (PAC), making weekend getaways from Panama City ridiculously convenient if you live here. Albrook is exceptionally family-friendly with lots of open space and parks as well as two public pools.
Clayton is a family friendly district near Albrook in the west of the city. It has lots of leafy green space, a public pool, international organisations, international schools and the American embassy. Within Clayton is the Ciudad del Saber (City of Knowledge), a cluster of governmental and non-governmental academies, tech companies and organisations. It also plays host to array of events including the annual Panama Jazz Festival. Clayton is a 15-minute drive from Casco Viejo without traffic.
Schools: Colegio Isaac Rabin, Metropolitan School of Panama and Balboa Academy at the Ciudad del Saber, King’s College, The British School of Panama
A scenic drive away, Panama Pacifico houses a small International airport on the former Howard Air Force Base, Panama Pacifico International Airport (BLB), a spate of international schools and large corporations like Dell.
Schools: Knightsbridge Schools International Panama, Lycée Francais Paul Gauguin de Panama, Howard Academy
Panama is a country with many archipelagos, one of which is right here in the city. The Amador Causeway is a road that connects the mainland with an archipelago of four small islands called Culebra, Flamenco, Perico and Naos. It is extremely popular for biking, jogging and brisk walks. It offers spectacular views of the Bridge of the Americas (Puente de las Americas) as well as the entrance of the Panama Canal. The most popular landmark here is the multicoloured Biomuseum designed by Frank Gehry.
Restaurants: Beirut (Lebanese), Mi Ranchito (steakhouse), Sirena (seafood), Leños y Carbon (steakhouse)
Rosie Bell is an international travel writer, author of the book “Escape To Self”, and Content Editor for Club Elsewhere. Follow her on Instagram @TheBeachBell.