Panama: Come for the Canal; Stay for the Sofitel Legend Hotel

Panama City is best known to travelers for its famous canal, but a new hotel from Sofitel Legend is elevating the city’s profile.

Exterior of hotel and pool at sunset

The vibe: Understated elegance with a lot of history

Location: C. 8a Este, Panama City, Panama | View on Google Maps

Book now: Website


The AFAR take

Though it only opened in January 2023, the Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo, Panama City arrived on the scene already loaded with history, thanks to its historic building and location, plus the high standards of the Sofitel Legend brand. The hotel is emerging as an understatedly elegant grande dame that solidly hits its marks: The design is lovely, the staff is excellent, the food is delicious, and the behind-the-scenes mission is commendable.

In January 2023, the Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo, Panama City debuted in a French-colonial style complex in Casco Viejo, the city’s cobblestoned, historic center that’s listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Originally opened as a social club in 1917 and then abandoned in 1989, the building was carefully re-created from its ruins to honor the city’s past while also incorporating a sophisticated modern interior design that’s ushering in a new generation of guests. Look for French-inspired touches like the wrought-iron room balconies and the marble checkerboard floor in the ballroom.

In the lobby, evidence of Panamanian history abounds. Ship-lantern centerpieces speak to the city’s maritime roots, and a gallery of photos and a giant map trace the story of the Panama Canal, from the failed first effort by the French in the 1880s to the successful one by the United States completed in 1914 to the canal’s return to Panamanian sovereignty in 1999. Staff will walk you through the display when you arrive.

Who’s it for?

The hotel is perfect for travelers who want to be in the middle of everything but don’t want to feel like it—its location on a quiet block at the edge of the Casco Viejo historic district by the water helps achieve this balance. Inside, social butterflies will appreciate the property’s hip and vibrant public spaces: a destination restaurant, a laid-back lobby bar, a hopping rooftop bar, and a pool. But couples will appreciate that those spaces all have comfortable nooks for privacy too.

The history

There are only six Sofitel Legend hotels in the world, and they all inhabit heritage buildings with rich backstories. The Panamanian addition fits right in.

The hotel was rebuilt on the former site of Club Union, a social center that hosted the likes of Queen Elizabeth, Albert Einstein, and Helen Keller. In 1968, the military took over the club and turned it into an activity center for officers. In 1989, the U.S. bombed it, thinking that General Manuel Antonio Noriega—the former CIA informant–turned–Panamanian dictator wanted for murder—was hiding there (he was not). Even after that, the shell of the building remained illustrious: Movies including James Bond’s Quantum of Solace were shot here, and one of my city tour guides said he and his friends used to go to raves in the ruins. Experts specializing in building restoration (including Panamanian architect Manuel Choy) conserved what was left and re-created the rest from extensive research and according to UNESCO guidelines.

The location

The hotel is in Panama City’s old town, Casco Viejo, set off from the city center on a tiny peninsula. It’s a lively pedestrian-friendly enclave full of bars, restaurants, museums, tourists, and a festive vibe thanks to music performances and alfresco dining in the park-like squares that dot the neighborhood. (It also gets an influx of cruise passengers every time a ship docks.) Casco Viejo was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, and as a result, you’ll spot renovated, flower-draped French colonial hotels and shops right next to abandoned, crumbling buildings that have yet to be restored—likely due to lack of funds and strict historic-preservation rules. It’s a beautiful effect, but it signals the city’s complex past, present, and future that are still being figured out.

The Sofitel sits right on the water, with views of the modern section of the city and of the Pacific Ocean from almost all parts of the property, including the room balconies, pool, and rooftop bar. But it’s a block or two away from the neighborhood’s busy main squares, which makes it refreshingly peaceful. It’s also next to the public waterfront promenade lined with local vendors (I found a beautiful hand-painted bookmark), and, like everything in Casco Viejo, it’s within walking distance of various restaurants and bars, ranging from upscale eateries to quick-bite cafés run by locals.

In a car, give yourself extra time to get where you’re going. Traffic congestion is common between the peninsula and the main city, and Casco Viejo’s narrow, one-way streets get backed up easily.

The hotel is positioned right on the bay-facing tip of Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage neighborhood with a French colonial feel.

The rooms

Four-poster beds carved out of dark wood, parquet floors, and brass fixtures lend the hotel’s 159 guest rooms and 35 suites a colonial feel. But pops of color, like sleek velvet sofas and chairs, update the Old World feel with a midcentury-modern aesthetic. It’s worth snagging one of the 159 rooms with wrought-iron balconies, where cushioned chairs are perfectly positioned for a morning or afternoon gazing out at the Panama Bay and Pacific beyond it.

You’ll find evidence of Sofitel’s commitment to sustainability everywhere. The hotel uses wooden key cards instead of plastic ones, and there’s no single-use plastic anywhere. The hotel also showcases Panamanian culture: The embroidery on the staff uniforms is designed by a Panama City artist, soaps are made by a local shop, and the house coffee is grown and blended by a nearby coffee farm.

A bar with green walls and fringed pendant lamps at the Sofitel Legend hotel

Grab a smoothie or a cocktail from the hotel’s pool bar.

Photo by Billie Cohen

The food and drink

Do not skip dinner at Caleta, the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, which has become a destination for Panama City residents. Executive chef Lorenzo Di Gravio, previously at the Michelin-starred restaurant Assaje in Rome, is behind the Mediterranean bistro-inspired menu that focuses on seafood and local produce. My friends and I found that simple ingredients added up to more than the sum of their parts. The stand-out dishes for my meat-eating companions were the grilled octopus with pumpkin and celeriac, and the suckling pig with otoe puree and escarole. I was initially disappointed that the vegetarian option on the menu was spinach ravioli. But I was wrong to have doubts: The super-light pasta pillows were perfectly stuffed with herbed ricotta and spinach and were doused in a saffron fondue so delicate and savory that I could have eaten that dish for every meal during my stay.

For lighter fare, the bright and airy café by the pool offers a casual menu of smoothies and bowls. (Pro tip: take a breakfast table out here rather than inside in Caleta.) And the lobby bar, Mayda—an expanse of sleek couches—is ideal for early evening cocktails; you have to walk through it to get to or from the hotel rooms anyway, so you might as well stop for a French-inspired refresher and chat with the friendly staff. Rooftop bars are common in this city, but the Sofitel’s take, Ammi, has a few slightly different twists that make it a fun addition worth its own visit. For one, it’s ringed by several private-feeling nooks and terraces perfect for small groups or couples. For another, it regularly hosts live Latin music performances. And finally, Ammi hides an intimate speakeasy: Push through a secret door to find a dark and cozy bar with jungle-printed walls.

 Mola textiles handing on lines among trees

Walk the promenade by the hotel and look for mola textiles handmade by artisans of Panama’s Guna Indigenous community.

Courtesy of Sofitel Legend Panama City Casco Viejo

Things to do

In Casco Viejo, all streets lead to a few central tree-lined, statue-filled squares, where you’ll find bars and restaurants with outdoor seating (and occasionally a musical performance or a pop-up movie).

The bars and restaurants do all cater to tourists (this area can feel like an EPCOT version of Panama City at first glance), but there are plenty of opportunities to scratch beneath the surface and meet and mingle with Panamanians who work or live nearby. Browse the crafts at Mía Mia Centro Artesanal, which showcases handmade works from Panamanian craftspeople; stop into the bright-pink boutique Rako to chat with artist Andres Rivera about his flashy pop-art prints and clothing; look for Jabriel Lafrance painting in his open-door gallery and ask him about his creations. And talk to the women from the Guna community (one of Panama’s Indigenous peoples). They display and sell their traditional molas in a couple of park areas (Plaza Carlos V and along the Paseo las Bóvedas promenade next to the Sofitel). The handmade embroidered textiles have roots in Guna mythology and are used in clothing and stand-alone artworks—and the women selling their wares are impressive artists. You can learn more about them in the Mola Museum, a small gallery in Casco Viejo with exhibits on the history, significance, and process of making molas.

The Panama Canal is the big draw in Panama City, and the Miraflores Visitors Center, the most popular spot to view boats coming through the locks, is a 30-minute drive away. Arrive as it opens at 8 a.m. to avoid the worst of the crowds and be sure to time your visit so you can catch the hourly IMAX 3D movie about the history and future of the canal. To further understand what you saw at the locks, stop at the Panama Canal Museum, located back by the hotel in Casco Viejo. The Biomuseo is also worth the 20-minute drive from the hotel (and not just for Frank Gehry’s wavy architecture). Even if you’re not into science, this museum dedicated to Panama’s biodiversity is engaging, relevant, and fun to walk through.

Staff and service

The discreet staff at the Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo Panama City is well practiced, even for having opened only a few months before my friends and I arrived. Decked out in traditional suits and dresses (white with embroidery designed by a local artist), they never looked harried or tired of our endless questions or our excited, long-winded downloads when we returned after a day of touring.


Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo has three ADA rooms; one is a suite. They feature grab bars and a handheld shower head, water controls within reach, and a folding seat. The hotel also has a mobile ADA pool lift and is ADA compliant with ramps and accessibility.

Sustainability and community support

The hotel partners with a Panamanian company to collect recyclables and is working on measuring the environmental impact of that effort. It also purchases its seafood and produce from Panamanian micro-enterprises, volunteers to do beach cleanups in the neighborhood, and delivers compostable kitchen waste to a nearby community garden. The hotel has a goal of reducing its food waste by 15% in 2023, and 50% by 2025.

Community relationship building is a focus, too. On a tour of the hotel, general manager David Kianni talked to me about a partnership with the FSC Indigenous Foundation (a global organization elevating and protecting Indigenous resources and rights), through which Sofitel staff provide business coaching to local artists and artisans. The hotel also provides space for those artisans to sell their products, which could be set up in meetings rooms or at the pool bar, depending on the event or guest experience.

The property has also just launched a collaboration with Fundación Iguales, a nonprofit organization based in Panama City that works to promote LGBTQIA+ rights. Through the partnership, the hotel will offer internship training programs to Fundación members in various areas of hotel management, including concierge, reception, and restaurants.

Billie Cohen is executive editor of AFAR. She covers all areas of travel, and has soft spots for nerd travel, maps, intel, history, architecture, art, design, people, dessert, street art, and Oreo flavors around the world. Follow her @billietravels.
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