Neoclassical nirvana American Trade has a particularly storied past life. Over the past century, the five-storey stucco – once the city’s tallest – has seen itself as luxury flats, a department store, a squat for local gangs and finally the headquarters of the American Trade Developing Company (go figure). Nowadays, thanks to an upscale makeover, the hotel pays homage to the city’s importance as a crossroads of 20th-century commerce with interiors that mix-and-match Latin American modernism, Italian PoMo and flights of mid-century European fancy. And while it’s no longer the city’s tallest building, views from the rooftop pool continue to impress.
12 noon, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 3pm.
Double rooms from £203.72 ($257), including tax at 10 per cent.
Standard rates don’t include a buffet breakfast, but a B&B rate is optional.
The hotel has two wheelchair-accessible rooms situated on the ground floor.
At the hotel
Jazz club, gym, coffee shop, interior courtyard, library, free WiFi. In rooms: TV, coffee- and tea-making kit, minibar, air-conditioning, bathrobes, Aesop bath products.
Our favourite rooms
Rooms are similarly styled reflecting both the city’s multiculturalism and Casco Viejo’s past and present. As such, there are Mexican weavings on sofas and beds, plantation chairs, furnishings made using reclaimed hardwood from the aftermath of Nicaragua’s Hurricane Mitch and mid-century flourishes. All are very stylish and have luxurious touches (hello, Frette linens and Aesop toiletries), but fittingly named Panorama is a cut above for its scenic vista over Casco Viejo, Panama City and Panama Bay; Jardin has its own private leafy terrace; and suites have oodles of space.
Up on the roof, from which Panama’s Casco Viejo is laid out like a vintage treasure map, there’s a sapphire square of pool – best suited to plunging than paddling – stripy loungers and day-beds (inspired by designer Mathieu Mategot, no less), and light-reflector-style shades that’ll make you feel like you’re at a photoshoot. Drinks can be ordered up here.
There’s no spa, but there is a small gym with treadmills and weights.
Evocative of the style construction workers wore as they worked on Panama’s Canal, the Panama hat (actually Ecuadorian in origin) is a very wearable and stylish national symbol. So, bring yours if you have one or leave space in your suitcase for a custom one
The hotel was once the tallest building in Panama City, even though this short king topped out at three storeys.
Children can stay in rooms that fit an extra bed ($35 a night, or $60 with breakfast), but unless they’re budding jazz aficionados there’s little to entertain onsite.
The Commune Design group may have come up with a whole new – not entirely true – backstory for the 1917 building the hotel’s housed in, which at one time or another has been a bank, the American Trade department store and a squat; however, their tender loving care for the building is very real indeed. Restoration work has been carried out where possible, vintage furnishings pay homage to the past, and more modern designs are meaningfully done, incorporating local craftwork and style. In rooms, floors are made from century-old wood from Gatun lake, while panels and headboards have been made with repurposed wood salvaged from Nicaragua's hurricane Mitch. In the kitchen, food is sourced locally and sustainably. And, the hip Atelier Ace hotel group the stay is part of has teamed up with Conservatorio, a Panama-based property developer that implements sustainable building techniques and human-centred design.
Turn the romance up to 11 with a table in front of the grand piano.
Bring your Ace-game – the hotel group have turned this into one polished Panamanian.
Thanks to the sun-bathed floor-to-ceiling windows, the hotel’s formal restaurant, The Dining Room is an understandable crowd-pleaser. Famed for its weekend brunches, you’ll find clued-up Panamanians flocking here for eggs benedict, fluffy pancakes and envy-inducing Instagram opportunities courtesy of the restaurant’s funky tiled floors. Come evening, you’ll find a diverse menu of international dishes infused with Panamanian flair.
‘Lobby bar’ isn’t always an exciting phrase, but here the soaring lobby, with its intricate custom-tiled floor, macrame hangings, Italian sconces, English chintz sofas, plantation to Panton to Clara Porset-style seating, enormous arched windows and tropical greenery is really quite inviting. Or take to the interior courtyard to perch on a Bertoia chair in the sunshine. There are myriad drinkables, but something rum-heavy is always reliable. Equally strong and satisfying is Panamanian coffee, which you can drink till you’re shaking at Tiempos café. All beans are locally sourced and small batch, but pour-overs rarely come posher than Panamanian Geisha, the world’s most expensive cup of joe – pair with a pastry (of which you’ll find the usual suspects, croissants and pain au chocolat alongside more local favourites like Latin American orejitas and Panamanian mafás) from the hotel’s own bakers. The cold-brew isn’t bad either. And, for finger-clicks and cool cats there’s Danilo’s Jazz Club, directed by legendary pianist Danilo Pérez; it’s a spot with so much cred that it hosts the city’s annual jazz festival.
Breakfast runs from 6am till 11am, lunch from 11.30am till 4pm, dinner from 6pm till 11pm. Sunday brunch is from 11am to 3pm.
The American Trade Hotel is the largest and most head-turning building around Plaza Herrera in the increasingly cool Casco Viejo (Old Town).
Tocumen International Airport is just a 40-minute drive away and has good direct links throughout the Americas and to major European cities. From here, transfers can be arranged for $40, plus tax, for two people. Albrook Gelabert airport is just a 15-minute drive away, but only has direct domestic routes.
Estación 5 de Mayo is the closest underground hub, around a 10-minute walk away; it’s on Line 1 which goes from north to south. The only major overground service is the historic Canal Railway (a major player in the canal’s construction), which rides up and down the isthmus once a day to colourful Colón and back – the scenery and culture at either end make it well worth the ride.
Driving in Panama isn’t as stressful as in some other Central American cities, but keep in mind that signage and traffic lights can be scant. To keep stress levels low, avoid rush hour and download the Waze app for navigation. But, should you choose to go car-free, Ubers, the subway and your own two feet will take you where you need to go. There’s free parking at the hotel.
Worth getting out of bed for
The Unesco-protected Old Town, which American Trade Hotel is lucky enough to call home, has something of an identity crisis: you’ll invariably hear it called Casco Viejo, Casco Antiguo or even San Felipe. It might have been established in the 17th century, but now it’s fully arrived as one of Panama City’s coolest neighbourhoods thanks to major urban regeneration projects (it wasn’t always as neatly trimmed around these parts). Follow its brick-paved streets and you’ll see colourful colonials with frilly balconies, peaceful leafy plazas, antique churches and eye-catching street art. And there are meatier cultural mores to get your teeth into – say the Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseum, that looks like collapsed origami, but delves into the natural history of Panama and how its isthmus evolved. Or the Panama Canal Museum, where you can learn about this vast man-made undertaking; follow up your visit with a boat tour along the famed waterway itself – most take around six hours. The Church of San Jose has an Eldorado’s worth of gold in its altarpiece, the National Theatre is about a 20-minute walk away and the MAC modern art gallery about 30 minutes. Plaza Herrera, on your doorstep is good for a wander, and other picturesque stops include Paseo Las Bóvedas (once used to defend against pirates), ruined monastery Arco Chato, and Independence Square, where you’ll find the lavish Metropolitan Cathedral. And Panama doesn’t just excel at hats and cross-country construction – the Pedro Mandinga rum distillery is just around the corner from the hotel. And, if you want some bucolic peace, the Metropolitan Natural Park covers hundred of acres – although it’s almost as busy as the urban sprawl with 45 species of mammal (sloths are probably the easiest spotted) and many more birds and reptiles. Or you can take a day trip into Gamboa Rainforest, which borders the city.
It seems incredible that once Casco Viejo – especially the Plaza Herrera – was a no-go nighttime spot, because now it seems like the only place to be after dark. Regeneration has brought with it a hearty crop of restaurants, representing the criss-cross-cultural cuisines of Panama, with a focus on seafood, naturally. Fonda Lo Que Hay is an upmarket version of a ‘fonda’, a kind of roadside cafe. It’s popular because the prices are reasonable, but the likes of toasted yucca with tuna carpaccio and onion ceviche; penne with smoked tongue and plantain; and octopus empanadas with cheese are served here. Maito has earnt many accolades for its flavour-bending dishes and chic dining room; try carimañolas stuffed with yucca and short rib, seabass and pork crackling in a Creole sauce, or lamb shoulder with green-mojo sauce. Aside from its punny name, Beauty and the Butcher is designed in eye-sizzling style, with neon, monochrome stripes, jazzily patterned tiles and more, and does a fine line in gourmet burgers – order the slider tower if you dare. Restaurante Tomillo is a little more traditional, serving mushroom-stuffed chicken roulade in a piquant chorizo sauce; Serrano ham with gravlax and smoked mushrooms on mashed avocado; and aged steaks. And, to sup the sea, grab a cup of ceviche or something freshly grilled from Mercado de Mariscos, the unfancy but dee-licious fish market.
The well-heeled Wonkas at Oro Moreno Autentico Chocolate Panameño delight in delicious style – all their chocolate is rich and dreamy, but we especially like their boxes of treats inspired by Panamanian fauna – especially the golden frogs. And the sweet of tooth are even more spoiled at Granclement ice-cream store – for a cool hit of Panama’s finest, go for a pint of coffee or rum-and-raisin.
Panamanians bring the party – and Casco Viejo is where you’ll find most of them imbibing something stiff-with-rum. Coctelería Amano is jungly and jumping with some very talented barkeeps who make their own distillates and style cocktails by season. For scenic socialising head up to Gatto Blanco Rooftop Club, which serves skyline with DJ soundtracks and delectable drinkables.