At the crossroads of two oceans and two continents, Panama City is a dynamic metropolis. That’s never been truer than it is today. Everywhere in this steamy tropical town are foreign investors talking shop in upscale cafés, expat fortune-seekers toasting their fates in wine bars, cranes stalking the rooftops of a skyline that seems to grow before your eyes, and — on the downside — traffic that puts even the most congested North American city to shame. All of the building and hype has local residents calling Panama City the “Dubai of the Americas.” They’re only half-joking.
1 Start With Ceviche 3 p.m.
The Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio’s ceviche restaurant La Mar (507-209-3323; lamarcebicheria. com) serves an eclectic selection of citrus-marinated fish, from the classic to the Asian-inspired perú tai. For Panamanian-style ceviche, walk the Cinta Costera — a boardwalk park that follows the waterfront — to the Fish Market (Panamerican Highway and Calle 15 Este), where paper cups of shrimp, octopus, corvina, or black conch ceviche are priced for snacking. Or buy fresh fish or lobster and head upstairs to the restaurant, which will cook your catch for a modest fee.
2 The Old Neighborhood 6 p.m.
On the cusp of revival for years, Casco Viejo, the city’s formerly dilapidated colonial quarter, has turned the corner. The area still buzzes with a creative energy. But, for good or ill, the old town seems comfortable in its newly painted, nouveau-riche skin. Watch the sun set with a glass of wine or a cold Panamanian cerveza while neighborhood kids play among the mangroves in front of La Rosa de los Vientos (Calle Octava, Casco Viejo; 507-211-2065), an Italian restaurant with waterfront seating. After sunset, explore the avant-garde scene at the neighborhood’s shops and galleries.
3 Caribbean Style 8:30 p.m. Manolo Caracol (Avenida Central and Calle 3, Casco Viejo; 507-228-4640; manolocaracol. net; $$) holds a mirror to the place it calls home, reflecting the country’s Caribbean-infused culinary traditions with a swaggering self-confidence. Stashed away on a side street across from a ruined church, the restaurant takes its name from a famous Spanish flamenco singer. But the real star here is the restaurant’s Spanish owner, Manuel Madueño, whose 10-course chef’s menu offers simple preparations of seasonal ingredients, like essence-of-seafood soup or a salad of bitter lettuce and green mango.
4 Moonlit Promenade 10 p.m.
Walk off dinner on the promenade, where lovers canoodle in the moonlight. Then kill an hour at DiVino Enoteca (Avenida A and Calle 4, Casco Viejo; 507-202-6867; enotecadivino. com), an upscale wine bar with low light, Iberian ham hanging behind the counter, and black-and-white movies playing silently on a far wall. Peruse the lounge’s art, food, and design books, or schmooze with the crowd of urbane expats, artists, and intellectuals.
5 Shake a Tail Feather 11:30 p.m.
In keeping with its old Cuba vibe, Habana Panama (Calle Eloy Alfaro and Calle 12 Este, Casco Viejo; 507-212-0152; habanapanama. com) blends in with the crumbling edifices at the edge of Casco Viejo’s refurbished core. Inside this retro dance hall, there’s a plush red interior featuring photographs of Cuban musical greats and hours of steamy salsa dancing. With live bands, a modest cover charge, and a clientele of limited inhibitions, this is one of the hottest dance spots in town.
6 Euro-Panamanian Mix 10 a.m.
Set up in the home of the French designer Hélène Breebaart, a former Christian Dior representative who has lived in Panama for more than 40 years, Breebaart Boutique (Calle Abel Bravo, Casa No. 5; Obarrio; 507- 264-5937; breebaartpanama.com) produces custom clothing that puts a contemporary spin on the elaborate textile art of the country’s indigenous Guna people. Embroidered napkins are easily affordable; clothing is varied in price and the production time is about a week.
7 Gehry Tours 1 p.m.
The new BioMuseo (Amador Causeway; www.biomuseopanama.org), devoted to exhibitions on natural history and science, was expected to be a multiyear building project from the start of construction in 2004, and delays stretched it out farther and farther, with opening day postponed more than once. But even unfinished, this eye-popping Frank Gehry–designed structure, combining Gehry’s signature clash of angles and shapes with vivid exterior colors, quickly became an attraction just for its mind-bending appearance. You won’t miss it on the skyline, but for a closer view, sign up for a tour.
8 Fast Boat, Slow Boat 3 p.m.
See the Panama Canal from the vantage of the ships that use it. From the Balboa Yacht Club (Amador Causeway; 507-228-5196) take the “rapida” (fast boat) to Taboga Island, the day trip of choice for beach-obsessed Panamanians. The 30-minute, 12-mile trip departs from the Amador Causeway, a palm-tree-lined peninsula built from canal construction debris, and makes its way through the maze of freighters lined up at the waterway’s mouth. Taboga, nicknamed the Island of Flowers, is famous for its varied flora, its tan beaches, and its fish shacks. Splash in the warm Pacific before returning on the 5 p.m. slow boat, the Calypso Queen ferry (Isla Naos, Amador Causeway; 507-314-1730).
9 Into the Night 7 p.m. La Posta (Calle Uruguay and Calle 49; 507-269-1076; lapostapanama.com; $$) is the flagship restaurant in the David Henesy– Carolina Rodriguez mini-empire. The place has an unpretentious air — fans whirring overhead, joshing guayabera-wearing servers. The fare is Caribbean-Italian, and reservations are a must on weekend nights. Try house-made pasta or seafood dishes like jumbo prawns with passion fruit. Have an after-dinner beer at La Rana Dorada (Via Argentina and Calle Arturo Motta, El Cangrejo; 507-269-2989), an Irish pub-style bar named for Panama’s most famous endangered species, the golden frog. Later, move on to the poolside lounge on the roof of the Manrey Hotel (Calle Uruguay and Avenida 5a Sur, Bella Vista; 507-203-0000; manreypanama.com), where DJs play on weekends.
10 Prix Fixe Brunch 10 a.m.
For a leisurely meal, Las Clementinas (Avenida B and Calle 11, Casco Viejo; 507-228-7613; lasclementinas.com) has a fixed-price brunch that includes a selection of omelets, empanadas, risottos, and parfaits. There are English-language magazines to skim and a collection of New York–centric sketches and memorabilia on the bathroom walls.
11 Green Zone Noon
Succumb to the weekend’s lazy pace with a stroll through Parque Recreativo Omar (Avenida Belisario Porras), a 140-acre expanse of green at the city’s center. Omar is a respite from urban life and home to an impressive sculpture garden, the National Library, and a prominent statue of the Virgin Mary. There are also soccer and baseball fields, tennis courts, and a flower-lined swimming pool. Pick up a fresh fruit juice near the park’s entrance. Then savor your tropical elixir beneath a towering tree on a picnic-perfect lawn.