What to do in Panama City, Panama

The list of what to do in Panama City, Panama, is long. Very long. It has a rich and well-preserved history. Yet it’s uber-modern with a variety of trendy restaurants, plenty of shopping and vibrant nightlife. And don’t forget about the picture-postcard beaches and islands nearby.

Below we’ll break it down into spots to visit within the city and end with some easy day trips if you can break away from all the excitement of Panama City. 

Let’s get going!

Navigating the City 

Panama City highway


You will most likely arrive at Tocumen International Airport, a quick 40-minute bus or minivan ride to Panama City. 

Soon you’ll discover that the city is broken into three sections, a historic district, a rebuilt district and an area with modern high-rise dwellings. Of course, you could stay in these modern high-rises, but we think Casco Viejo (see below) is a better place to base yourself. 

Stroll around Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo buildings

First up is Casco Viejo, the oldest neighborhood and a UNESCO-protected district. Since being renovated in the 2000s, the area has evolved from a crime-ridden neighborhood to a tourist hot spot oozing colonial charm. 

Spend time soaking up the atmosphere. The historical square and colorful streets are beautiful to explore during the day and really come alive at night with an abundance of rooftop bars. It is a dramatic difference from the modern parts of Panama City.

Some key places to visit in Casco Viejo include the Metropolitan Archcathedral Basilica of Santa María la Antigua and Museo de La Historia de Panama (it’s small but provides an in-depth history of the city). 

If you’re not a history buff, head to the rooftop bars, which provide epic views and great happy hour deals. Yippee! The best ones to check out include Salvaje Rooftop, LAZOTEA and Tantalo (if you’re traveling on a budget). 

If you are looking for nightlife in Panama City, Panama, look no further than Casco Viejo. 

Pro tip: A trip to Panama is not complete without purchasing a Panama hat. We recommend trying some in Casco Viejo. Since many shops are selling them, prices range from $25 to $200 depending on the quality. 

Visit the world-famous Panama Canal

Ship in Panama Canal

You will no doubt want to visit the Panama Canal. While it is a manufactured industrial structure, the 82 km (51 miles) waterway connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. As the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are at different levels, a three-lock system controls the water flow as ships pass through. 

One of the most renowned spots to witness the lock system is the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center, located less than 30-minutes from downtown Panama City. Here you can learn about the canal’s history in its movie theater and exhibition halls. 

See the F&T Tower 

Panama City skyline

One of Panama’s most architecturally unique buildings (and the one that stands out the most, too) is the F&T Tower. Also known as the El Tornillo or the Big Screw, the building has won many awards for its functionality and design. 

To marvel at the spiral skyrise, you can opt to visit the building itself or view it from a distance. We prefer viewing it from afar, as it allows you to really marvel at the beauty of the whole building.

Pro tip: The Hard Rock pool bar offers fabulous views of the F&T Tower.

Wander through the abandoned ruins of Panama Viejo

Ruins of building in Panama Viejo

Not to be confused with Casco Viejo, Panama Viejo is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was once used by the Spaniards before they abandoned it and moved down the coast to Casco Viejo. This area plays an integral part in the history of the country as it was the first permanent European settlement built on the Pacific coast. 

Today you can explore the archaeological site’s famous ruins. 

Take a bike to Amador Causeway and explore the artisan markets

Amador Causeway coastline

The Amador Causeway and its islands lay on the south side of the city. Just minutes from downtown Panama City this must-visit location is connected by a thin strip of land. It is oceanfront at its best, with incredible views of the city. 

If you are feeling active, why not rent a bike, scooter or segway? There are specific lanes for these modes of transport down the entire length of the Amador Causeway. It’s a great way to take in the views. You will spot the Bridge of the Americas, built by the United States in 1962. The massive bridge spans the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal.  

During your visit, explore the enormous Centro Artisan Market, selling all the jewelry, hats, souvenirs and knick-knacks you could fit in your suitcase. 

And don’t miss the Biomuseo, which was designed by Frank Gehry. Even the outside of the building is extraordinary with its colorful origami-style structure.

Check out the Seafood Market

fishing ships
©Harvey Barrison, Flickr

The fish market in Panama City, otherwise known as Mercado de Mariscos, is situated by the water near the entrance to Casco Viejo. It’s not a touristy trap. It’s where a lot of locals come to buy fresh seafood. 

You can wander around, but we highly recommend trying some of the dishes at one of the restaurants. The seafood market may not come up when you search best restaurants in Panama City, but it’s safe to say you won’t be disappointed. The no-frills restaurants serve up some of the freshest seafood (and food) in the city. 

Day Trips from Panama City 

Still wondering what to do in Panama City, Panama? Well, if time allows, here are some of the best places to visit close to the city. 

  1. Go on a group tour to Monkey Island 
mama and baby monkey

If you are looking for unique things to do in Panama City, then a day trip to Monkey Island is a must. Located north of the Miraflores Locks, this cluster of islands in Gatun Lake is home to a bunch of monkey species. You’ll see Panamanian white-faced capuchin, Geoffroy’s tamarin, lemurine owl monkeys and mantled howler monkeys.

Why not join a 4-hour group tour that will take you up the Panama Canal (kill two birds with one stone) and then visit Monkey Island? It makes for a fun outing. 

  1. Visit some of the neighboring islands
palm tree with coconuts

A lot of people come to Panama because of the insanely beautiful islands. While some will require more than a day trip from the city, others are doable in a day. Taboga Island is only 12 miles from the city. The ferry that departs from the Amador Causeway takes about 30 minutes.

The island is the perfect place to chill in the sun for the day. But if your partner or friends aren’t the lie in the sun types, explore the island village or go on a hike. 

The views looking back over Panama City are some of the best! 

Heading further afield, where should I go?

Once you have spent time exploring the attractions in Panama City, it’s time to see what the rest of the country has to offer. Some of the most picturesque locations outside the city include the San Blas Islands, Bocas del Toro, and Santa Catalina. 

Got more travel plans? Check out all the places Bookaway goes in Panama.

FAQ

What is the best time to visit Panama?

If you’re looking for the best weather conditions, visit in the dry season from December to April. 

Is Panama expensive to travel to?

It’s certainly not the cheapest country to travel to in Central America, but it is also not the most expensive. You can definitely visit Panama on a budget! 

Is it safe to travel to Panama City? 

Panama is actually considered one of the safest countries in the Central American region. However, just as in any big city, mugging and pickpocketing occur. The best idea is to ask at your hostel or hotel which areas to avoid. They’ll steer you in the right direction. 

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