15 Best Things to do in Panama City, Panama
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Not sure how to spend your time in Panama City? Well, lucky for you I spent lots of time exploring the city and surrounds and have written this detailed blog on the absolute best things to do in Panama City, Panama!
Panama City, Panama doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being the most exciting destination in Central America. Even on my trip through Latin America, I never once thought to myself “wow, I’m excited to go to Panama City.” I mean, I didn’t even know about any things to do in Panama City!?
The great thing about cities like that, however, is there’s always a chance they’ll surprise you. Funny enough, Panama City did just that.
Panama City was our first stop in Panama and we were excited to explore our first destination in Central America. As it turns out, Panama City is the perfect place to brush up on some very important history in Latin America, see some amazing architecture, and get introduced to some of the wildlife that makes this part of the world so special.
Looking back, I’m so glad I made the most of my time in Panama City and really think others should too! To get you excited and hopefully help plan your trip, here are the 15 best things to do in Panama City, Panama!
15 BEST Things to do in Panama City
1. Visit the Panama Canal
The most iconic thing to do in Panama City, and something everyone should do, is to visit the Panama Canal! The Panama Canal is well known around the world and it’s vital to world trade. The canal stretches over 82 kilometers (51 miles) and is made up of artificial lakes, and of course, those thin canals you’ve likely seen in photos.
The French began construction of the Panama Canal in 1881 but had to stop construction dues to high worker death rates and construction problems. The United States took over the project in 1904 and finished it in 1914.
Of course, there are so many more interesting facts about the canal but, you’ll learn about them more when you go. There are a few different tours to the Panama Canal you can do with the easiest and most popular a guided tour to the Miraflores Locks with a city tour.
The Miraflores Locks is the Panama Canal visitor center and viewing deck. The center is home to a museum and the best seat in the house to watch huge ships navigate the canal. You can visit the Miraflores Locks on tour or on your own. The entrance to the museum and viewing deck is $15 USD for adults and $10 USD for children. I personally visited the locks on this full-day guided tour that visited lots of other attractions around the city.
If you don’t just want to watch the ships go through the canal then you can also do this partial Panama Canal cruise or this full cruise through the canal. These tours have you literally one a boat going through the canal. The partial cruise just takes you through on section of the narrow canal whereas the full tour takes you through all 3 canals and the man-made lake from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean.
There’s no doubt that the Panama Canal is a must-visit in Panama City. How you do it is up to you, but this unique attraction is well worth exploring!
2. Walk the old city of Casco Viejo
When people think of Panama City they think of tall skyscrapers and large casinos. However, the area of Casco Viejo (aka San Felipe) is the old part of the city and where much of the city’s charm lies. Here you can find that stunning colonial architecture, beautiful churches, quaint restaurants, and much of Panama’s history.
There are a few ways to explore this old part of the city. You can either just walk around on your own and admire the architecture and many coffee shops. This would still be a great experience and perfect for those on a tight budget (Panama isn’t exactly cheap.) However, if you’re like me and love learning about the history of important cities, then a Casco Viejo guided tour is a must!
As mentioned above, I did a full-day guided tour that visited many attractions and included an in-depth walk of Casco Viejo, a visit to Ancon Hill, and a short stop at the Amador Causeway. On the old city part of the tour, we dove deep into the history, visited a famous coffee show, and learned so much that we were actually very impressed. Without a doubt, I think that a guided tour is the way to go.
Exploring Casco Viejo is definitely one of the best things to do in Panama City and I would highly suggest staying in the area. In Casco Viejo, you can find many of the best hotels in the city and stay in a safe and beautiful neighborhood.
3. Visit Plaza Bolivar
Next on my list is a place you’ll visit on any guided tour on Casco Viejo. However, if you’re not doing a guided tour then you must visit Plaza Bolivar on your own anyways.
For those who don’t know, Simon Bolivar is one of the most important people in South America. He created what was known as the Gran Colombia that included Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Peru. He did this by liberating the northern region of South America from the Spanish.
Unfortunately, the Gran Colombia never stayed together, but Simon Bolivar went down in history and his story and life accomplishments shaped those countries into what they are today.
At Plaza Bolivar, there is a really cool statue of Simon Bolivar. In fact, I’d say it’s the most beautiful one I have seen of the famous leader during my travels. A visit here is short and sweet but you’ll get to see a piece of history and also admire a beautiful plaza.
4. Punta Culebra Nature Center
If you’re a wildlife lover like myself then you’ll enjoy a visit to the Punta Culebra Nature Center. The great thing about this nature center is that you don’t have to leave the city to see some really cool wildlife including one of my favorite animals on the planet, the humble sloth!
The center isn’t huge and you only need an hour or so to explore the grounds. There is a large outdoor park where you can find iguanas and sloths and then also indoor enclosures featuring frogs, starfish and even turtles.
I will say that the turtle encloser was a little underwhelming and could definitely benefit from some upgrades. The animals here, however, were confiscated from people who had them as pets and the nature park is a sanctuary for them as they simply wouldn’t survive in the wild.
Entrance to the park is only $7 USD and if seeing a sloth is on your bucket list, then this is a convenient way to check that off without having to leave Panama City. For me personally, visiting this nature center was one of the most unique things to do in Panama City, Panama!
5. San Blas Islands tour
The San Blas Islands are a highlight in Panama! For most people, including myself, it is the reason we ended up in Panama City. For those who don’t know, the San Blas Islands are a group of 378 remote islands off the coast of Panama. The water here is turquoise, the beaches are pearly white, and the coconuts and abundance of sea life make it one of the most beautiful island paradises on earth – and a top attraction in Panama!
Visiting the San Blas Islands is most commonly done on a 3 to 4-night adventure from Cartagena in Colombia to Panama City (or vise versa.) This is the best way to see the islands and if you have time I highly recommend it.
Of course, you can also do the 3-night adventure starting in Panama City and also returning to Panama City. This is a great option if you don’t plan on visiting Colombia (although you should!) You can book this 4 day San Blas Island tour from Panama City (back to Panama City) with the company San Blas Adventures (who I did my tour with.)
However, if you’re just reading about the islands now or you’re short on time, you can actually do day trips and overnight tours from Panama City. This way you won’t miss out on your taste of paradise.
This specific day tour takes you to visit 4 islands in one day from Panama City. With that said, I will warn you it involves just over 6 hours of driving and the tour lasts for 14 hours! Instead, I would highly suggest doing an overnight tour like this one. They’re not much more expensive and you’ll only do 3 hours of driving each day and spend way more time enjoying the stunning islands.
6. Visit Monkey Island for a unique wildlife experience
Coming to Panama City, I really wanted to make sure I got to see some of the country’s wildlife. People often forget just how diverse this part of the world is, so I decided to do the tour to Monkey Island on the Chagres River and Gatun Lake.
Our tour began in Panama City but we quickly left the city and headed to Gamboa Marina to catch our boat out to the island. The tour through the river and lake was interesting. Both the Gatun Lake and the Chagres River are actually part of the Panama Canal and you can often see ships making their journey through the canal.
However, the highlight of my tour was of course the monkeys! There are 4 different species that call Monkey Island home, they are the Mantled Howler Monkey, White-Faced Capuchin Monkey, Tamarin Monkey, and the Lemurine Owl Monkey.
You aren’t allowed to leave the boat and walk on Monkey Island, but the guides on the boat use special calls to get the monkeys’ attention. We saw 3 monkey species on our trip as well as a crocodile!
I really enjoyed the tour and seeing so many monkeys was a great experience. Although we didn’t feed the monkeys, other people on our boat did and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. The monkeys here are supposed to be wild and I wasn’t aware before that tour groups feed them.
This is one of those wildlife experiences that borders the line of being unethical. Yes, the island is protected and the monkeys are only fed bananas, but you’ll have to decide for yourself if this is the tour for you!
We decided to take a tour to Monkey Island for $70 USD. From pickup to drop off it took just over 3 hours and the tour was really fun! You can book the tour I did here in advance.
Without a tour: If you want to save money you can visit Monkey Island without a tour from Panama City. I had a friend who went with a group and it cost $40 USD per person for the boat ride and taxi there and back. To do so, get a taxi or Uber to Gamboa Marina. You’ll need your taxi driver to wait for you as it’s hard to get a taxi back to the city from here. If you don’t speak Spanish then you’ll struggle with negotiations, but expect to pay around $30 USD per person for a 30-minute tour (depending on group size.)
7. Eat and drink your way around the city on a food tour
When I mentioned before that doing a tour through Casco Viejo was a must, some people most likely weren’t that excited. I get it, city tours can be boring especially if you’re not into history – that’s where this next tour comes I handy!
This food and drink tour through Panama City is a great option for those who find traditional walking tours a little boring. Instead of just talking about Panama City’s history, you’ll also visit some of the best places in Panama City to eat and drink. We sampled craft beer, enjoyed Panamanian coffee and chocolate, and even indulged in some ceviche at a local seafood market.
The tour will have you learning, eating, and drinking your way through the most beautiful part of Panama City, and the best part is that you won’t leave hungry!
The tour lasts for 2 hours, so it’s short and sweet. In my opinion, if you plan on doing this tour, do it when you first arrive! This way you can revisit the places on the tour as they are amazing!
8. Hike up Ancon Hill
During my stay in Panama City, I wanted to escape the concrete jungle and go for a nice walk one morning. So, I asked my hotel where the best place close by to go would be and they suggested Ancon Hill.
From Casco Viejo, I took a short taxi ride to the park, and wow, was it beautiful! Despite the busy surrounding streets, the minute I entered the park the city seemed long gone. As we walked up the path to the top of the hill the trees where alive… literally! We could hear all sorts of animals and saw a lot of lizards. You can also see sloths and monkeys in the park, but we weren’t that lucky!
The hike ends at the top of Ancon Hill and the views of the city are incredible! The walk to the top takes around 35 minutes at a steady pace and is almost completely shaded. There isn’t much to do at the top except admire the view, but the walk there is beautiful and this is easily one of the best things to do in Panama City!
9. Walk the Amador Causeway and enjoy a meal
The Amador Causeway is a man-made road that stretches 3 kilometers into the Pacific Ocean to some small islands. At the end of the causeway, the views of the city are beautiful and visiting is a great short activity in Panama City!
From your hotel, the Amador Causeway is easy to visit. I recommend getting a taxi to the start of the causeway and taking a nice stroll to the end where you’ll find lots of beautiful restaurants with views of the city.
You can also bike the causeway for really cheap. The company Burke Bikes rents bikes for around $10 an hour depending on the style of bike. They are located on the islands, so get your taxi to drop you at the end of the causeway if you want to do this.
You can visit at sunset and I regret not doing so. However, the views on a sunny day are also amazing. We had lunch at a small restaurant and enjoyed a few cocktails before heading back to our hotel.
It was a short but sweet visit and a great thing to do in Panama City!
10. Explore Panama Viejo
When I told you about Casco Viejo, I said this was the old part of the city. Although true, it’s not the oldest part. Panama Viejo is the oldest part of Panama City and today it’s an archaeological site that’s a popular place to visit in Panama City.
Panama Viejo was actually the first city built on the pacific coast of the Americas and was an important trade route. Because of this, the city was often attacked by pirates. Unfortunately, pirates completely destroyed the city in 1671, and the ruins of the city’s former self only remain.
These days, the ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the perfect place to visit to learn about the city’s history and importance during that time. The site has interpretive signs in both English and Spanish and only takes an hour or so to explore.
This is a must-do activity for history buffs or those fascinated with pirates!
Important info: Entrance to Panama Viejo is only $6 USD for adults and that includes a visit to the museum and viewing tower. To get there, just get a taxi from Casco Viejo. The drive only takes about 20 minutes.
11. Go on a day trip to Soberania National Park
Getting out of the hustle and bustle of Panama City is actually really easy and one of the best places to do it is at Soberania National Park. Located only 45 minutes from the city, Soberania National Park is a tropical paradise filled with wildlife. In fact, the park is known as one of the best places in Panama for bird watching!
Visiting Soberania National Park is really easy from Panama City and there are two main options for places to visit and hiking trails.
The first is called the Rainforest Discovery Center and here there are lots of marked trails as well as an observation tower to climb. The trails at the Discovery Center are shorter and more suited to families or those who don’t hike. The entrance here is $30 USD.
The second is Pipeline Road. This is a much cheaper option and also more authentic. In total, Pipeline Road has 17 kilometers of hiking trails and is where you can spot monkeys, sloths, and a huge range of birds and reptiles. It only costs $5 USD to enter Pipeline road.
Getting there: Guided tours are very common in the park, but you can also just drive yourself or get a taxi. The only problem is getting a taxi back. To avoid getting stuck, organize with the same driver to pick you up later. It should only cost $45 to $50 USD each way for a taxi. You also must negotiate a price before.
12. Enjoy the beauty of La Iglesia del Carmen
Another quick stop on this list of the best things to do in Panama City, Panama is a visit to the La Iglesia del Carmen (also known as the Church of our Lady of Mount Carmen.) This stunning Gothic Church is one of the most beautiful buildings in the city!
Although a visit to the church isn’t the most exciting experience you’ll have in Panama City, this quick stop is still worth it especially while you’re out exploring the city. But don’t just take a snap from the outside, you can also enter the church to admire the inside too!
You can reach the church by taxi or even public transport as the church sits across the road from the metro station “Estación Iglesia del Carmen”.
13. Explore other islands near Panama City
Most people have heard of the San Blas Islands, but what they don’t know is that there are lots of other amazing islands to explore from Panama City. In fact, most are much closer which makes them more convenient to visit. Below are the best nearby islands you can do amazing day or multi-day trips to:
Taboga Island is one of the closest islands to Pamana City and only takes 30 minutes by ferry to reach. Once on the island, you can either stay for the day or stay at one of the hotels on the island and turn this adventure into a relaxing getaway. The ferry leaves from the Amador Causeway and costs $20 USD for an adult. If you want an even better experience then this all-inclusive half-day catamaran tour is a great option.
Another very popular island to visit is Saboga Island. Located 35 miles from Panama City the island is easily reached by ferry with the company Ferry Las Perlas. There are only a couple of hotels on the island and the island is home to 10 beautiful beaches. Saboga Island is great to visit for a day trip but if you want to spend a few nights I’d recommend staying at the island below and visiting from there. The ferry to the island leaves from the Trump Tower and costs $98 USD return for adults.
Contadora Island is located right next to Saboga Island and is home to many great hotels and restaurants (which makes it more popular for overnight trips.) From Contadora you can easily take a ferry to Saboga Island but stay in nicer hotels and enjoy the beaches on the island too. The ferry to Contadora Island leaves from the same place and costs the same for a return trip.
Regardless of which island you choose to visit, island hopping is something you should consider on your trip as it’s one of the best things to do in Panama City!
14. Eat some local food
I never like to complete a list of the best things to do in any place without mentioning some great local food to try. You simply can’t leave Panama City without sampling some local dishes. One of the best in Panama, and a super authentic dish loved by almost the entire population, is Ropa Vieja.
Ropa Vieja is shredded beef usually served with rice and beans and is commonly eaten for breakfast or lunch. The flavors of the meat are delicious and the entire meal is very hearty and filled with energy for a big day out.
Alternatively, if you don’t do the food tour I mentioned above but you love seafood, then head to the seafood market called “Mercado De Marisco Cinta Costera” to get that fresh ceviche I was talking about above! The market is walking distance from the area of Casco Viejo or you can get a taxi for a few dollars. The market opens at 5 am and you should get there early if you want to buy fresh seafood, but if you go for the ceviche, then lunchtime is fine!
Regardless, get out and try some Panamanian food! I guarantee you won’t be disappointed!
15. Wander Metropolitan National Park
Last on our list of the best things to do in Panama City is another attraction that gets you out of the city without actually leaving. In fact, Metropolitan National Park in Panama City is the only protected national park located within a city’s limits in Central America.
The park is filled with great hiking trails and you can see an array of wildlife including monkeys, sloths, and birds. The wildlife isn’t as present as other parks and you do have to spend some time searching for them, but they are there is you’re patient enough.
To get to Metropolitan National Park, simply jump in an Uber and get dropped at the visitor center within the park and head off and explore. During my visit, I hiked all the trails and it took just over 3 hours at a steady but enjoyable pace. Be sure to hike the Mirador Cerro Cedro trail, from there you get magnificent views of the city.
Entrance to the park is only $2 USD and it is open from Monday to Friday – 7am – 5.30pm and Saturdays 8am – 1pm.
Where to Stay in Panama City, Panama
Los Mostros Hostel – For budget travelers, Los Mostros Hostel is a great option. The hostel is located in the Marbella neighborhood which is a trendy area with lots of cafes and bars. It’s also centrally located to explore the city. The hostel as a pool and includes breakfast.
Check availability on Booking.com
Lunas Castle Hostel – If you want a budget option but want to stay in Casco Viejo, then Lunas Castle Hostel is one of your only options. Despite this, it is a great choice overall. The hostel is social and includes breakfast. However, they only have large dorm rooms.
Magnolia Inn – If you’re in the medium budget range then Magnolia Inn is the best option available within Casco Viejo. The hotel has really good reviews and the location is perfect. Not to mention, the building is a great example of immaculate colonial architecture!
Check availability on Booking.com
American Trade Hotel – American Trade Hotel is the most famous and luxurious hotel in Panama City. This hotel has housed many famous people over the years but unfortunately for me, I only saw the hotel from the outside. Rooms here cost around $250 USD per night but are very luxurious!
Check availability on Booking.com
Before you go…
There really are so many amazing things to do in Panama City, Panama and this list proves that. The city is safe, the people are friendly, and the wildlife is well, wild! So don’t let Panama City just be a stopover and instead enjoy some, or all of these activities to make it a city to remember!
Thanks so much for reading and be sure to check out some of our other blogs from Central America and South America. We don’t have many other blogs on Panama, but we have this great guide to Bocos del Toro you should check out, or this blog on crossing the border from Panama to Costa Rica!
July 15, 2020