Up until a few years ago, the capital of Panama was perpetually short on hotel rooms. You took what you could get, paid too much for it, and couldn’t grumble too much about the blah rooms or lousy service.
Thankfully Panama City is a whole different scene now. The constant din of construction and the skyline of cranes has impacted the hotel industry, with a flurry of new openings the past few years. You can actually choose now based on where you want to stay, rather than who has rooms left. The most notable changes are the increase in luxury hotels in the city and the increase in places with some real style. Since this is the most cosmopolitan city south of Miami, it’s nice to see that reflected now in a range of artsy, design-oriented hotels.
Here’s where to stay if you have aesthetics and style at the top of your want list.
Tantalo in Casco Viejo
The historic Casco Viejo section of Panama City is a mellower, small-scale alternative to the noisy business district and 12-room Tantalo stands out for having the best rooftop bar and the most interesting rooms.
From the bottom to the top this is a visually arresting place to stay and a vertical garden physically runs from the bottom to the top, greenery growing from the wall (with a good bit of daily spritzing and care). The whimsical design starts in the lobby, where coffee tables are actually old steamer trunks and suitcases. The adjoining restaurant, which has a reasonably daily lunch special, has long communal high tables that encourage mingling.
Each room is the result of a local artist allowed to cut loose, so none of them are even close to being the same: peruse the photos on the website to get a delight instead of an unpleasant surprise. As in how comfortable are you looking up at spikes over your head when you’re in bed? This place rates high on the value scale, with its sub-$150 rates including complimentary full breakfast, free bike rental, free Wi-Fi, and free yoga classes. Don’t come here if you’re a light sleeper though: the rooftop bar stays hopping late.
Riande has two hotels in the city, but one’s out at the airport. Like the Tantalo, the Riande Granada is hotel with design cachet but doesn’t come with a big price tag. This hotel has many of the elements you’ll find in many design hotels around the world, but at a far less snobby rate: you can often find a double online for under $100 a night—with breakfast.
This hotel is smack in the business district though, within walking distance to other bars and restaurants. The ones on site are certainly stylish and attractive enough, however, that you may not want to leave.
Rooms are comfortable and well-equipped and the hotel offers a pool, gym, 24-hour room service, and complimentary Wi-Fi. Staffers speak English and service is good: when the hot water wasn’t working in my shower, I got ushered into a suite with my change of clothes to use the one there.
Manrey is so cool it doesn’t even need a website. Well, not a real one anyway: it’s a one-page site that only goes to a booking engine. Talk about relying on word of mouth!
The cool crowd with money in Panama City definitely knows about this place though because of its bar, a serious hotspot on hopping Calle Uruguay. It’s a place to look beautiful and order beautiful cocktails—which in this duty-free city will set you back a fraction of what those cocktails cost you in New York or London.
Manrey is straight out of the “Creative Class” handbook, with lots of lounging space, electronic music, pool cabanas, and iEverything. You’ll get a room here for about 1/3 of your typical W though, even though you do get robes and nice toiletries. Don’t come here for peace and quiet, but if you’re the type that rocks it hard until the wee hours, there are heavy blackout curtains for the windows.
Decapolis Panama City
This hotel operated for more than a decade as a Radisson, but is now an independent property. The Decapolis in Panama City is actually the longest-running hip hotel in the city, open before any of the above came along and still a stylish place to drink or eat.
Its calling card is the contemporary lounge off the lobby, which looks pretty much the same each year, but still seems fresh when you walk in: a testament to the good taste of the designer. The other standout is the restaurant pictured here, where you’re looked down upon by a god-like statue from a forgotten island.
Even if you’re not staying here (and are around the corner at the Hard Rock Panama perhaps), this is a good spot for a dinner or late-night drink.
Article by travel destinations expert Tim Leffel, editor of Hotel Scoop, who was hosted at Riande by Panama Tourism while researching a magazine article. He visited the others while touring the city. All photos by Leffel except the Manrey photo, courtesy of the hotel.