Casa del Horno, Avenue B and Eighth Street; +507 212 0052; rooms from $250 for two-person suite
The year-old Tantalo Hotel has 12 rooms, each designed by a different Panamanian artist. Designs range from gentle and flowery to seductive, with red-and-black walls and silver ceiling studs.
Downstairs, a "living wall" is made from 900 lush plants. The restaurant dishes up Panama-style tapas, such as octopus with lemongrass and ginger. Cocktails, wine and several dishes to share will cost around $30 a head.
Each month, paintings in the communal areas change.
"The idea is for the fourth floor to be like an art gallery that you can wander around with a drink," says assistant manager Catalina Bermudez.
The big, buzzing rooftop bar has panoramic views and hosts events including a monthly Cuban music evening.
Tantalo, Avenue B and Eighth Street; +507 262 4030; rooms from $120
Canal House is a creaky 19th-century mansion in Casco Viejo, and checking in feels like staying with a stately aunt. With just three suites set around a large wooden staircase, this high-end guesthouse is owned by two sisters and loved for its quirky charm and homemade cooking. It was called "the finest accommodation that exists in Panama," by Panama 980 magazine.
Canal House, Calle 5a Este; +507 228-1907; rooms from $195, suites from $320
Dining and nightlife
Restaurante Angel (Via Argentina No. 6868, El Cangrejo; +507 263 6411) is the city's special occasion Spanish restaurant. You'll get impeccably prepared seafood, beef, lamb and rabbit in an elegant setting with crisp service for around $20-25 per person, not including drinks.
There's big food and big atmosphere for reasonable prices at Las Bovedas (Plaza Francia; +507 228 8058), a French restaurant set in the arched vaults of a 300-year-old fort in Casco Viejo. Fresh seafood, steaks, snails (it's a signature dish) and great service are the hallmarks at this dressy classic.
Panamanian food is a mix of European, Asian and African tastes. The best way to experience the fusion is at Maito (Calle 50, Coco del Mar; +507 391 4657). It's not often you order plantain hash with fried ceviche and come out smiling. Then there's the ropa vieja main of shredded beef with a goat cheese sauce. Panamanian chef Mario Castrellón trained in Barcelona and returned to his hometown with a mission to start a "new gastronomy" inspired by the canal -- the idea being that the waterway literally brings these different influences to the city.
For the indecisive gourmand, Manolo Caracol (Avenida Central and Calle 3, +507 228 4640) serves a set nine-course tasting menu for $36 per person. Busy and smart, yet relaxed, the open kitchen churns out seafood, meat and vegetable dishes made with local ingredients, the majority of which come straight from chef Caracol's farm. Highlights include seafood bisque, corn tortilla with chorizo, and coconut fish curry with yuca tortillas.
Not exactly luxury but tasty and cheap all the same, Mercado del Marisco seafood market (Avenida Balboa and Calle Eloy Alfaro) is a great place to wander. When Anthony Bourdain came to Panama, this was his first stop. Here you'll find rows of al fresco stalls selling ceviche for $1.25 a cup. There's also an upstairs restaurant with a larger menu with hearty fish stews and filleted sea bass.
New Casco Viejo coffeehouse Bajareque sells the world's most expensive coffee, Geisha, for a reasonable $6.50 a cup. Panama is the world's only producer of this rare coffee, which typically retails for $172.50 per kilo. Fitting for its name, Geisha coffee mainly sells in Japan and costs $50 a cup at Tokyo coffee shops like Horiguchi Coffee.
The primary nightlife spots are Calle Uruguay and Casco Viejo, both of which are lined with places to sample Panama's four national beers, Panama, Balboa, Suarana and Atlas, for a couple of dollars.
In Casco Viejo, Habana Panama (Calle Eloy Alfaro y Calle 12 Este; +507 212 0152), isn't just the hottest dance spot in the city, it's an atmospheric salsa hall that recalls the elegance of old Cuba and Ricky Ricardo style. Live bands typically don't hit the stage until midnight. For a typical $10 cover you'll find fewer better shows (or more fun) anywhere.
Then there's Barlovento (Calle 10 A; +507 6613 4345), a tropical-style rooftop bar where the beautifuls hang. With views over Casco Viejo (rather than the Panama City skyline over at Tántalo) and a DJ playing a mix of electronic music and Latin beats, the place is pumping on the weekends. Again there's a $10 cover charge (if you're male that is; women enter free) but you'd easily pay a $25 cover for the same deal in Mexico City.
The oldest section of the city, Panama Viejo was burned to the ground in the late 17th century by British pirate (or privateer, depending who you ask) Sir Henry Morgan.
The crumbling remains of towers, forts and houses run along the coast waiting to be explored. The visitors center has a model showing the city before Morgan showed up.