In Panama City, Panama, a historic city core juxtaposes with modernity in the most intriguing ways. The Central American destination has a skyscraper-studded skyline, almost reminiscent of Miami’s Brickell neighborhood, yet uniquely its own.
But step foot on the cobblestone streets of Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by neoclassical architecture and elegant French Colonial structures, with wrought-iron balconies fronting sherbet-colored buildings that draw comparisons to New Orleans’ French Quarter.
Simultaneously old and new, Panama City is having a moment, and travel experts say the destination is piquing the interest of tourists and resonating with digital nomads and expats, poised to be an “it” destination in 2024.
Tocumen International Airport’s new terminal allows for several new direct flights into Panama from the U.S., plus a golden visa and a digital nomad program are easier to secure and access compared to other programs around the world.
Depending on where you’re from, the architecture may feel familiar. But with those modern skyscrapers and the European flair, plus the Spanish and Afro-Caribbean culture, Panamá City provides a diverse experience that can’t be found anywhere else, says Ivan Saprov, founder and CEO at Voyagu, which connects travelers with travel agents.
“At the same time all the perks of a big city are there, including both authentic and haute cuisine restaurants plus pedestrian areas,” he says.
For vacationers, the small, tropical country has everything from rainforests to beaches on both coastlines, the Caribbean and Pacific, all within driving distance of Panamá City, says Mercedes Zach, a travel agent and expert with Asaptickets. What’s more, the development of places like Pearl Island means that travelers can have a two-for-one experience in the vibrant city and on a secluded island, a short helicopter ride away.
Of course, there’s the perennially popular Panama Canal Zone, too, where you can get an in-depth look at the intricate system of locks that operates the canal, Zach says.
Ahead, the reasons behind Panama City’s allure for both travelers and those looking for a second home.
Why Visit Casco Viejo, Panama In 2024?
Put on your comfiest shoes and take a stroll through the Casco Viejo, Panama neighborhood, gawking at the array of architecture and cooling down with a raspado (which may look like a snow cone, but is sweetened with condensed milk).
The area is lined with shops and galleries, including Galeria de Arte Inigena, where you can find handmade crafts like jewelry, animal figurines carved from tagua palm seeds and hammocks.
Revving up the excitement in the historic neighborhood is Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo’s recent arrival, which brings a French brand of luxury to the area. The hotel’s 159 chic guest rooms have taken over the former Union Club, which was established at the beginning of the 20th century and frequented by Albert Einstein and Queen Elizabeth II.
The historic building retains its beautiful French Colonial façade. Inside, find artful assemblages of encaustic tiles on the floors, climbing the walls and trimming the fountains—and, most importantly, the glossy turquoise and gold ones showcased in the lobby that form a map of the Panama Canal.
A little bit harder to find is the hotel’s secret rum bar Arcano, which is hidden behind a library shelf on the top floor and requires a unique passcode to enter. Mixologists can read guests’ tarot cards to help reveal which rum-forward cocktails are “written in their stars.”
Anchoring the hotel is a terrace with an oceanfront infinity pool, and many of the rooms are outfitted with wrought-iron and brass balconies that provide views of the water as well as the glimmering skyline.
The hotel has five restaurants and bars, from seafood-forward Caleta, helmed by Michelin-starred Executive Chef Lorenzo Di Gravio, to Vera Cafe, a cute lobby-level jewel box serving croissants, pastries, sandwiches and coffee.
Across the street from Sofitel Legend is Panama’s Teatro Nacional, which was recently restored to its former splendor and is the stage for evening performances.
The must-snag brunch reservation is at Casa Catedral, where vintage cars fill the airy space.
The neighborhood is also home to BioMuseo, a museum focused on biodiversity that opened right before the pandemic and is the first Frank Gehry-designed building in the region. At Museo de la Mola, see, on dispaly, 200 molas, which are artistic and colorful blouse panels with elaborate patterns crafted by Guna women using a reverse appliqué technique.
Panama’s Shorter-Term Work And Golden Visas
Those who visit Panama City often want to stick around longer and get to know the city even better.
To attract more digital nomads, the government rolled out a short-term work visa that’s available for up to nine months and costs $300—the only caveat being you need to earn about $3,000 USD monthly to qualify, points out Franklin Forbes, who is Panamanian-American and the founder and CEO of Blistey, a travel website and app for the BIPOC community.
“Some of the things that make Panama City appealing to digital nomads is its proximity to the United States, its rich culture, and the fact that many of its residents are bilingual, especially in the capital,” Forbes says. Fast internet and a fast metro system that’s growing and linking neighborhoods also makes it easy on those with short-term visas, he says.
Also, a few years ago, Panama rolled out its “Golden Visa” program, which allows high-net-worth individuals to become residents by investing $300,000 or more in Panamanian property, which is a far lower threshold than that of other countries. Those who own property can apply for citizenship in five years. Giving Panama a competitive edge is the fact that it doesn’t tax income that’s earned abroad.
To meet the interest, communities like The Santa Maria are appealing to expats, global investors and retirees who want to live abroad in a community setting with access to a thrumming museum and culinary scene. Top design firms like La Maison by Fendi and Allegra are building in the gated community, where inventory includes luxury apartments, high-end single-family homes and opulent condos.
Plus, residents of The Santa Maria have access to amenities like pickleball courts, pools, and an 18-hole, 72-par signature Jack Nicklaus golf course with panoramic views of the Panama City skyline. The course is hosting the 2024 Latin American Amateur Golf Championships.