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Jetsetter Guides

48 Hours in Panama City

A five-hour direct flight from the East Coast, Panama City packs towering skyscrapers, an artsy old quarter and animal encounters into its urban landscape. Nikki Ridgway plots the must-see sights

See recent posts by Nikki Ridgway

FRIDAY

For time-poor travelers, Panama City’s charming and rapidly changing Old Town (Casco Viejo) is a natural base: The streets are walkable (a novelty in the sidewalk-phobic city), plazas plentiful and there are new restaurants and bars opening every month. Check-in at your hotel then explore Casco’s cobblestone streets with a wander along the sea wall to Plaza Francia, a well-manicured square with views across the city and to the lines of tankers waiting to enter the Panama Canal.

In the evening, join a hip crowd for inventive tapas dishes in the open-plan dining room of Tantalo Hotel, but skip the all-American desserts (cupcakes, s’mores and cookie sandwiches) in favor of the sceney rooftop bar. You’ll have to enter the crush at the bar, but the cocktails and panoramic views of Casco’s red rooftops, the inky bay and Punta Pacifica’s cloud punching skyscrapers are well worth the wait.

SATURDAY

Reward an early start with a sweet pastry and a caffeine fix at Bajareque Coffee House, a new neighborhood spot known for its award-winning (and pricey) Geisha beans. Suitably buzzed, put that energy to good use on the one-hour walk to the summit of Cerro Ancon for knockout views of Casco, Panama Bay and the Miraflores Locks, plus almost guaranteed sightings of toucans, sloths and tropical birds in the rainforest.

Consider a quick stop at the working fish market on the outskirts of Casco for a tasty $2 ceviche served in a plastic cup, or head to Ciao Pescao for a hearty seafood lunch and a cold Panama beer in Plaza Bolivar. But don’t linger too long. Ships begin their passage through the southern entrance of the Panama Canal from around 1 p.m., so flag a cab and join the crowds on the viewing platform of the Miraflores Locks. The small visitors center is worth a look but skip the three restaurants.

Spend the rest of the day getting to know Casco’s creative side in artist centers like Los del Patio, where there’s also a lovely outdoor bar, and the trailblazing “creative think tank,” Diablo Rosso. This two-story gallery/cafe/boutique is a well-curated showcase of local and emerging artists, and a great spot for unique gifts and souvenirs.

If you splurge on one meal this weekend, make it chef Manolo Madueño’s prix-fixe feast at Manolo Caracol. Dishes reflect Panama’s eclectic culinary heritage, with sashimi, ceviches, quesadillas and curries served in eight to 12 small bite dishes. After dinner, keep things low-key at romantic wine bar Di Vino Enoteca or join the raucous scene behind the velvet curtains at sexy salsa joint, Habana Panama.

SUNDAY

Do as locals do this Sunday morning and head to Las Clementinas for the neighborhood’s best brunch. The three-course prix-fixe menu includes inventive Panamanian dishes like sweet plantains with brie, tostones with black beans and lamb burritos, as well as the must-try fritters with honey and cinnamon.

Afterwards, bike or cab it to the eagerly anticipated Frank Gehry–designed BioMuseo. The sprawling complex — a showcase of Panama’s extreme biodiversity — is scheduled to open this August, but until then, visitors can join hard hat tours every Saturday and Sunday from noon until 5 p.m. From here, wander all or part of the Amador Causeway that stretches between the mainland and an archipelago of four islands, and snap more photographs of ships entering the canal and all of Panama Bay.

With a few hours to spare, shop for Panamanian arts and crafts in the boutiques along Avenida Central or at lovely interiors boutique, Karavan Gallery, and get a sweet-tooth fix at classy ice cream joint, Grancelement. Finally, squeeze in a last tipple in the garden of Mojitos Sin Mojitos; check out the new subterranean music venue, Onplog; or join a well quaffed crowd for brews with a view at rooftop spot, Barlovento.

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