The high-rise skyline of hotels in Panama City

The Best Areas and Places to Stay in Panama City, Panama

Panama City is, of course, the vibrant capital of Panama, the southernmost country in Central America. Panama City was my last stop before I headed to Colombia via the (very eventful) boat trip through the San Blas Islands.

Panama is the fourth and final country that I’ll write about in this crazy series on Central America, because I didn’t go to Belize and we skipped straight through El Salvador and Honduras, literally only stopping for a meal in each country. I absolutely want to go back to these countries and write about them for you, but for now, after these last articles on Panama (plus a few other Central America articles that I missed along the way), I’m going to get started on my South America content and boy oh boy am I excited to share with you everything I discovered and experienced in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. 

Yep, that’s a lot of countries in just a few months!

I only spent a few days in Panama City, but I did a lot of exploring-on-foot and of course I went to watch a boat crossing the ever so famous Panama Canal. (I’m going to be honest, I get that this is a great feat of engineering but it was bloody boring to watch a boat go through. You’re better off watching it sped up on YouTube.)

Panama City is also, surprisingly, practically surrounded by national parks. This makes it a great place if you, like me, love hiking, although I didn’t visit any of them during my days in Panama City as I was so busy catching up with a friend who’d moved there a few months before and preparing for the San Blas boat trip.

Whether you’re visiting for business, leisure or something in between, here’s a quick download of the best places and areas to stay in Panama City, plus a few hotel and hostel recommendations. (Note that these recommendations have come from fellow travellers, I haven’t stayed in any of them!).

Where I Stayed in Panama City

I didn’t have much reference before I arrived in Panama City, so I booked into the hostel that was recommended by the company that ran my boat tour and crossed my fingers. 

That was Mamallena Hostel in Perejil, a “real Panamanian neighbourhood”, as they state on their website. Now, whilst that is true, we all know that this is code for “not a particularly safe area”, and that was correct. Personally, I went out a few times during the day and got catcalled and stared at a lot. I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to walk around there at nighttime.

The hostel has a really cool vibe; they have a bar, outdoor swimming pool, loads of communal spaces and even hostel dogs! They have a twenty four hour reception as well, which comes in very handy if you arrive off the popular night bus from Bocas del Toro at 5am like I did. 

The dorms in Mamallena Hostel are really spacious rooms, the beds are HUGE, and all of the bedrooms have air conditioning, which was a huge win because Panama City was hot hot hot. I can’t fault the hostel itself, it’s only the location that perhaps isn’t ideal for female solo travellers. 

It’s also kind of awkwardly in the middle of the modern city centre and the Casco Viejo, which means you can walk to both within about 40 minutes but you’re not actually in either one. It was pretty easy to get an Uber to the Panama Canal from here, because it was close to main roads rather than being stuck inside the city. Which brings me to…

Where to Stay for Easy Access to Panama Canal

If you want to visit the iconic Panama Canal (and, despite what I said earlier, I do think it’s worth going), the easiest way to get there is to take a taxi or Uber. I think we paid around $4 split between three people, so really it’s a cheap way to get around. You can also take the bus to the Panama Canal from the main transport station (Gran Terminal Nacional De Transporte, next to Albrook Mall), but it seems like quite the hassle.

If you’re staying with the Panama Canal in mind, I’d stay close to one of the main roads, so you don’t end up racking up a bill stuck in traffic in your taxi or Uber. This could be in El Cangrejo, a great location in the main city centre of Panama City, or at Mamallena Hostel. I wouldn’t recommend staying in Casco Viejo if you’re planning your trip around the canal.

More on Panama: The Best Beaches in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Where to Stay for Easy Access to the Airport

Okay, first things first: it’s essential to note that there are two international airports in Panama City. There is the Tocumen International Airport, which is the larger of the two, and Panamá Pacífico International Airport, which is smaller but also serves a variety of international routes. So, make sure you’re looking at the right airport!

(I’m telling you this from experience; I made this mistake in Medellín in Colombia and almost missed my flight…)

The Tocumen International Airport is, as usual, pretty far from the city, so if you actually want to see anything in Panama City then it’s worth making the journey into the centre if you have time. If you just want to stay the night close to the airport there is the Crowne Plaza Hotel right by the airport which offers a shuttle service to and from the airport. There is also a really cheap hotel by the airport but it has really terrible reviews…

The Panamá Pacífico International Airport is literally on the other side of the city, but has surprisingly easy access to the Panama Canal (just a 20 minutes’ drive) for a day trip if you want to stay close to the airport for an early flight. It is generally closer to the city anyway.

More on Panama: Is it Safe to Travel Alone in Panama?

Where to Stay for Easy Access to the Business District

Panamá City brings a lot of international business, and it has the sweeping skyline of high rises to match which is really distinct amongst the very flat cityscapes of other major cities in Central America. Obarrio is sort of the business centre of Panama City, well-known for its luxury hotels and apartments and high-end dining, and is generally the best area to stay if you go to Panama City for business. 

Hotel Riu Plaza Panama provides spacious, private rooms, a fitness centre (with air conditioning), an outdoor swimming pool and incredible views of the business district.

Where to Stay in Panama City Centre

El Cangrejo

El Cangrejo is a relatively safe and modern area of the new centre of Panama City, with lots of things to do and great restaurants.

Obarrio

Obarrio is known for luxury hotels, highrises, fine dining and the like. It’s a great area to stay if you’re looking to splash out and you want to be around some modern amenities, but definitely not a budget option for a backpacker like me!

San Francisco

San Francisco is a slightly quieter, more residential area that is still close to the city centre’s major attractions. It’s a bit more laid back but still plenty safe for travellers.

Panama City Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo, or the historical centre of Panama City, is one of the most common areas to stay in Panama City. Whilst it lacks the highrises, you do get a great view of them from across the bay. Again this area is safe, as long as you stay within the Casco Viejo itself. Just beyond this area it starts to get a bit sketchy. (I walked by myself from Mamallena Hostel to Casco Viejo to meet some friends, and by the time I arrived I was SWEATING. And I mean from looking over my shoulder walking down dodgy streets, not from the weather.)

Casco Viejo is the best area to stay if you’re feeling on the timid side. It’s where most backpackers and travellers stay, and it’s safe, open and well-lit without being overly touristy.

If you’re looking for luxury, go for the American Trade Hotel or Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo. You can tell from my knowledge of nice hotels in Panama City that it was at this point in my trip (about 1 month in) that I started daydreaming of sneaking off to a nice hotel for a night or two to catch up on some sleep…

There are also a bunch of hostels around here if you’re looking for a more budget option!

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