I left Panama City kicking and screaming — in just eight days, the metropolis had joined a lofty list of my favorite urban centers around the globe. And I’ve taken on spreading the word about this newly cherished destination as something of a personal cause.
Far too many tourists only stay in Panama City long enough to cast a glance on the canal before hightailing it to more exotic destinations elsewhere. Don’t make the same mistake! Give Panama City the time it deserves and don’t dare leave without….
1. Laying Eyes on The Panama Canal
Yes, there’s more to Panama City than the canal. But the canal is pretty damn cool! The visitor’s center at The Miraflores Locks is without question crowded and touristy. Yet it’s also fantastically organized and presented. There’s a 3D theater featuring beautiful footage of the canal, a four-level interactive museum, and three observation decks from which to wave to passing ships.
It doesn’t matter how you slice it — The Panama Canal is simply fascinating. Its history and politics are steeped in drama, its construction is a mind-blowing feat of human engineering, and its current impact on world trade and economics is immeasurable. My poor brain could barely keep up with all the information coming its way.
2. Strolling through Casco Viejo
Ideally, you won’t just be visiting Panama City’s most charming neighborhood — you’ll also be staying there. But regardless, don’t even think about leaving Panama City without spending a few hours cruising around the Casco — a restored historic neighborhood overflowing with chic boutiques, trendy restaurants, and red hot nightlife.
3. Getting a Taste of Panamanian Culture
Panama is a nation of diverse cultures and indigenous groups, and they have a wealth of musical, fashionable, and culinary traditions to prove it. You can get a fun — and delicious — primer on all of the above by attending a cultural dance performance in Panama City.
On our visit, we sampled Panamanian specialties like sancocho, a country-style chicken soup, ropa vieja, a spicy shredded beef and the national dish, and tres leches, a delicious cake that I blame for the fact that I left the country with a few extra pounds for a souvenir. As we noshed, we enjoyed live music accompanied by an endless swirl of colorful costumes, passionate live music and elaborate dances.
4. Cruising Along the Amador Causeway
The Causeway, a 2km long man-made link between the mainland and four small islands dotting the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, is an attraction in its own right. It’s a popular stretch for locals and tourists alike to get in a dose of oceanfront exercise by bicycling, jogging, or rollerblading up and down the calzada.
Along the way, you can stop to take in the nearly finished Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo, spot wild sloths at the Smithsonian-operated Centro de Exhibiciones Marinas, and watch ships roll into the Canal from one of the many seaside restaurants. We visited the Causeway as part of a Panama City day tour with Barefoot Panama, a trip that also took in the Miraflores Locks, Cerro Ancon hill, and Casco Viejo.
5. Diving into Downtown
Panama City’s concrete jungle of skyscrapers sets it apart from any other Central American capital. Not only is Panama City’s downtown a major center for international banking and commerce, it’s also a top shopping destination for Latin America’s elite. Those who once upon a time would flock to Miami for their retail fixes have set their sights on Panama thanks to the USA’s ever tightening borders and unpleasant airport experience, meaning today, a Prada bag is considered as good a Panama souvenir as any.
With taxis charging an expensive Gringo Tax, we opted to cruise through downtown with a Hop On Hop Off bus pass, which picked us up right in our home base of Casco Viejo. I wasn’t kidding about the shopping obsession — three out of the fifteen stops are malls.
Not that I’m talking smack about malls. I was thrilled to restock on some hard-to-find products (hello, Lush solid shampoo!), bask in air conditioning and frozen yogurt stands, and see a movie in a theatre instead of on my laptop. While those things might not seem thrilling to someone on a quick vacation, to those who have been long-term backpacking through Latin America, they are a fairly close simulation of heaven.
Looking for a seriously good-value downtown date? On a Wednesday, head to Sukhi Thai for their weekly $10 all-you can-eat curry buffet — some of the best Thai food I found in Latin America — and then waddle your way over to the Cinépolis Multiplaza, Panama City’s plushest retail palace, to take advantage of Wednesday night half-price movie tickets.
6. Hiking in Metropolitan Park
Every urban jungle needs a green oasis of respite within city limits — in New York City, it’s Central Park; in Panama City, it’s Parque Metropolitano.
With a $4 entrance fee and five interlocking trails that total an estimated 4+ hours of hiking time, a morning at Metropolitan Park is a great value (though we found the trails took us about half the time that the maps estimated). The park is well maintained and informative signs help you choose a trail based on what you’re after: an easy walk, a challenging hike, a great view, birdwatching, etc.
Our wildlife encounters were limited to some eerie spiders and the rustling of a few monkeys in the distance, but we heard of others coming across anteaters, sloths, and white-tailed deer along the trails. One thing that would be impossible to miss? The views from the 150 meter high mirador.
7. Riding the Panama Railway
The historic Panama Railroad spans the entire width of the American continent — which in Panama, means just under an hour on the rails. Constructed in 1855, the Panama Railroad took five years and $8 million dollars to build — at the time, it was per-kilometer the most expensive set of tracks ever built. Today, you can ride from Pacific to Atlantic for just $25, taking in views of Gatun Lake, the Panama Canal, and the country’s diverse tropical rainforest along the way.
8. Going Back in Time at Panama Viejo
Panama City, like many national capitals, has gone through a few phases. Currently, it is centered around the skyscraper-laden Downtown. Previously, it was based in the charming area of Casco Viejo. And originally, from 1519, it was rooted in Panama Viejo — the first European settlement anywhere along the Pacific!
Today, the site is mostly dismantled and the ruins are, well, in ruin. But the lively history makes up for the what’s neglected of the Unesco World Heritage Site. For over 150 years after its founding the city thrived thanks to the gold being plundered from Peru and siphoned back to Spain through Panama, and the natural barriers that made Panama Viejo an unstoppable fortress. So historians are still baffled as to why, in 1671, the Spanish soldiers abandoned their city stronghold in order to meet Captain Henry Morgain’s pirates, who were approaching Panama Viejo from the Atlantic side of the country. It was a fatal mistake, and Panama Viejo was plundered and burned to the ground as a result.
While it’s certainly not the most intact ancient city I’ve ever visited, Panama Viejo is a must-see in my books due to the pirate-y lore, the historical significance and the juxtaposition of looking out at a modern metropolis from the crumbling carcass of its past.
While visiting the ruins is free, the onsite museum has a $3 entrance fee — don’t make the same mistake as I did and visit on a Monday when it’s closed! To avoid high taxi prices from Casco Viejo, we visited as a stop on our Hop On Hop Off tour.
Have you been to Panama City? Have I left anything off the list?
Your blog is my new obsession, I absolutely love it! You make me want to travel the world too! Panama has never even been on my list of places to visit (despite friends who say it’s brilliant) but it’s leapt into the top 10 after this post and your one about places to stay!
If you’re interested in reading about boring London life, would love if you had a little look at my blog too!
So glad to hear Panama is now on your list, Cate! I’m sure it would be a worthy journey all the way from London 🙂 Great blog header, by the way!
We are thinking of getting married in Clayton, Panama.
Did you see any small chapels?
I’m so sorry Karen — I don’t recall! Best of luck planning your wedding and good luck!
Haha I thought you were going to finish that sentence with “without buying a Panama hat.” 😉 Panama looks AMAZING!!!! High on my dream destination list.
Ha, I was super excited to buy a Panama hat but they simply did not suit me 🙂 I did try some on though!
You missed Fort San Lorenzo and Portobelo (Atlantic coast), the first two fortresses sacked by Morgan the Pirate. You also missed the fabulous beaches on the Pacific coast, west of Panama City. And you missed Barú, a mountain (collapsed volcano), only place in the world where you can see both Atlantic and Pacific Oceans at the same time. Finally, you missed the northern part of Panama, which has mountains and a much cooler climate. But that would have taken you another week to see.
Hey Margaret, I actually did every single one of those things 🙂 However this post was limited to Panama City activities… I’ll cover my adventures further afield in future ones!
You pretty much hit on every single activity I did while in Panama! It goes to show just how much you can experience (without burnout) within a short period of time. I’ll also add take a day trip to Taboga Island. It was extremely beautiful and perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon.
I think this was the perfect amount of activities for eight days, because only a few of them were full day things. Most of them were just a few hours, which left plenty of time for working and unwinding. Someone on a shorter vacation could easily cram them all into four or five.
Nice trip down memory lane for me too. I can’t wait to get back to Panama city. Many good restaurants too.
The canal was very interesting. They’re building a wider canal next to it. You can also see the former US military base along the road next to the canal.
On my train trip day I visited the new expansion site — it was pretty interesting! However only about a week later they halted construction due to budget issues. I’ll be curious to see what goes down…
looks like fun! 🙂 But seriously, I know like NOTHING about the importance of the panama canal.. gonna need to spend some time on wiki!
Or just come to Panama 🙂 Just kidding. I wish I had written down the statistics, but it’s amazing the amount of products we use that have passed through that canal! It really does connect the world.
With Central/South America coming up later this year, I’ll definitely make sure to slow down and really take in Panama!Random, but it seems like you really like the Lush shampoo. It looks like it’d be much easier to travel with – have you used the conditioner too? How is it?
Hey Emily! I did try the conditioner and it just didn’t work for my hair… I didn’t love it. I’m sticking to liquid conditioner for now but am definitely open to keep trying!
You’ve sold it! I love a good crumbling ruin and a city park!
Yay, glad so many people are feeling these Panama posts 🙂
the Amador Causeway looks amazing. I would love to see it!
I’m so darn bummed the BioMuseo wasn’t open! I’ll have to return to see it someday 🙂
Great pics Alex. It all looks wonderful especially Casco Viejo. The architecture is so pretty.
That was my favorite part of Panama City, as you might be able to tell from my many posts!
Great post. I would probably be one of those guilty of only spending one day here…I’m not really a city person, but you do have a good argument!
Well, I’m definitely a mix of a city and beach girl… which is why I spend plenty of time in both 🙂
Hey, Alex! Love your blog. I actually have a question about LUSH solid shampoo (because, you know, priorities). How do you pack yours? I bought the special LUSH containers before my last big trip, and the shampoo ended up almost melting and getting stuck in there!
I’ve heard that complaint from other people but I didn’t really have a problem with it! I think it can be the type you use… for me, the jumping juniper dried out easier than one of the green-colored ones I tried later. I did hear from one reader who uses Bubble Yum cases to hold it!
STOP IT. Your posts are making me get so wanderlust-y for Panama. It looks like a place I would LOVE.
I can see you as a Panama City expat, D 🙂
Alex! I had heard about Panama City from other travellers and have been trying to convince my sister to go with me. After reading your posts, Panama is most definitely sitting very high on my travel bucket list! Thanks for the inspiration.
Maybe try sending her some of these posts! There’s nothing like a bit of visual inspiration 🙂 Good luck… I can’t recommend it more!
Your last few posts have definitely bumped Panama higher up on my bucket list – it seems like my kind of place!
Love your blog Alex 🙂
Aw, thank you so much Lisa! I love to hear that, you are too kind!
Panama looks great. It seems to be the perfect combination of old and new. I also love the fact that you get nature as well as the convenience of a modern metropolis.
Yeah, Panama City truly is an urban jungle! It’s amazing how small of a distance you need to travel from the tangle of skyscrapers to be face to face with exotic wildlife. Crazy place!
Sold! My friend is heading through Central America later this year, and Panama only got a tiny feature in her itinerary. I sent her your blog and she’s now dedicating two weeks to it, hahaha. The government should cut you some commission! xx
Ha, I’d settle for them just sharing these posts on their Facebook pages! Your friend is going to have an awesome time… thanks for sending her these (and more to come!)
Great summary for someone visiting Panama! And it’s always nice to see that you are inspiring wanderlust in others on places that are sometimes less visited/appreciated than others 🙂
Thanks Sandra! And yes, I’m loving shining a spotlight on a place a little less appreciated!
I had to leave my room for a few after seeing that spider! Geez!! lol. Panama City looks beautiful. I think I’d prefer it to Panama City, Florida, since PCB is the ONLY place my family likes to vacation. Smh.
Ha, anytime I wanted to search for something in Panama City, the one in Florida always popped up in search results. I think they are QUITE different!
The more I read about Panama the more I want to go. Looks wonderful Alex. Great post.
Thanks Stephen! It was actually really fun going to a place that didn’t have much hype. I got to be pleasantly surprised every day!
We went through the Canal on a cruise several years ago and only stopped briefly in Panama City. Can’t say we were terribly impressed, but seem like we may need to give it another look.
I wrote in another post that I think the key to enjoying Panama City is staying in Casco Viejo! Those that do seem to love it, and those that don’t are neutral.
Thanks for sharing, you provided some great tips! I really liked how you provided a wide variety of activities. Really enjoying your articles, keep up the great work!
Thanks Jason! We like to shake things up 🙂
Thanks for this, Alex! I trust your judgement so much, so this is a really helpful guide for when I do make it to Panama. I am enamored just from reading your posts!
So glad to hear that, Jen! Happy to spread some Panama love around 🙂
I was only there two days, and I agree about PC being an amazing urban center for travelers! Also, try sailing through the Panama Canal in its entirety–SO COOL.
My mom also sailed through the Panama Canal and was devastated we couldn’t arrange to do the same! Unfortunately it’s kind of stupidly expensive/difficult/illogical to do unless you’re already on a voyage passing that way. I’ll just have to experience it through your stories! 🙂
Alex, I just discovered your blog and it has quickly become my personal travel bible. I’m going to Panama with a few friends next week and stumbling upon this post has made me even more excited. Also, my fiancé and I are planning an epic (very) extended-honey-moon after we get married this summer and I have already added so many destinations to our to our list because of you. AND, we’re getting scuba certified- something that has been a little daunting for me but I’m feeling much better about it, thanks to all your amazing diving posts. Thank you, from a fellow Brooklynite 🙂
What a lovely compliment, Tory! So happy to hear it 🙂 Panama is one of my favorite countries — soak it up girl! And your honeymoon does indeed sound epic. Let me know if I can be of any help!
Hi Alex! Thanks for the great info…it’s helped to know what are ‘must sees’ for our Panama City stopover before heading to our place in Nicaragua. We unfortunately only have 3 nights there but are going to make the most of it for sure! Would you suggest staying in the Casco area, and if not, what would your ideal area be?? And, are bikes a good option for seeing the Causeway area? We want to make the most of our limited time. Thanks in advance! Found your blog searching info for Panama City, but realized you’ve been soooo many places we’ve also been and love reading about them and seeing someone else’s perspective. Keep up the amazing blog!
Hey Julie! Absolutely the Casco area. I can’t imagine having stayed anywhere else — it’s where all the best food and nightlife and wandering is! Bikes definitely seem like a great way to see the Causeway, though I didn’t do it myself. I loooooved Panama City — hope you do too! Thanks for reading 🙂
Hey Alex, thanks for this blog post! Can you take the question to Colon and back to Panama City in the same day? How did that work for you? Did you have to pass some time in Colon? Thanks in advance!
Do you mean the train, Katie? I believe it is possible but you’ll have many hours to kill in Colon. I did a tour, though, so only took the train one way — read more here! Hope it helps.
We went to Sukhi Thai, unfortunately they no longer do Wednesday night buffets 🙁 and it looks as though the Panamerican hostel is closed, sadly. There’s a great restaurant called Tantalos though that’s in Casco Viejo.
I love Tantalo, and wrote about it in another post! 🙂 So good. Bummer to hear about Sukhi Thai, though I believe you are mistaken about Panamericana — I just had a friend stay there very recently! Why do you think it is closed?
I’m dying to go there! Thanks for the guide ideas!!!
You’re so welcome Jake! Thanks for reading!
Hey, I have a question. Do you remember which tour did you book? (the red bus on the place #8?)
Thanks in advance
Hi there! We booked that tour through Viator, it is linked to in the post. Enjoy!
1 – your site is the first place I go now to research a destination.
2 – I have wanderlust super bad right now, even though I’ve only been back from my last trip for 2 weeks. Jonesing for another trip and I found $300 Thanksgiving flights from Chicago to Panama City….eek! Not sure I can pass this up!
Thanks for all of the info you post, tremendously helpful, not only in deciding a destination, but just for pure entertainment!
That’s an amazing price… I’d jump on it! Panama is one of my favorite countries in the world. You really can’t go wrong… I would move to Panama City in a heartbeat if I could nab a little apartment in Casco Viejo!
Loved your article! We went to Panama a couple of years ago and highly recommend it too. A must do for me is to visit the fish markets next to casco viejo and eat fresh cerviche. We also did a day tour to the jungle and went along the river (Amazon lite) in a boat and saw crocodiles and fed the monkeys in the trees, as well as some other very unusual local creatures (60kg rodents). We stayed in a cute boutique hotel called Tantalo in Casco, well known for its food and rooftop bar. Then a couple of days at the high rise Trump hotel to enjoy their incredible swimming pools and relax at the end of the long trip. Hotel Americano is next on our list for Panama.
I adored eating and drinking at Tantalo — and I’d jump at the chance to try all three of those hotels! Las Clementinas was fantastic, too, if you’re ever looking for yet another place to stay.
Panama is truly a place I wanted to visit and never had a chance and after reading your post. I would have to find time and energy to go visit. It looks amazing and I am sure the Panama canal is a must see. Thank you for the great photos you took. I felt like I was there.
Thanks Marc. Panama remains one of my favorite countries. Hope you get there soon!
Ok. You’ve persuaded me, Panama is now on the “to do” list. Been through the canal on a cruise ship so have “seen” the country but never set foot on it.
I actually regularly list Panama as one of my favorite countries in the world. It so took me by surprise. Love!
next time you come here, take the Fortaleza tour. A tour provided by former gang members of Casco Viejo who guide you through their neighborhood and tell their stories. These guys have gone from bad to good and deserve it.
Furthermore, visitors, even for a couple of days, should try to push in a day trip to either the islands of San Blas or Isla Contadora for some beach and local time.
And Uber is always a better choice than Taxis.
That sounds like a fascinating tour, Diana. Uber wasn’t in Panama City yet when I arrived but I’d definitely take it if I returned now!
Nice blog! Do you (or anyone els) know it’s save to travel in Panama (city) with teenagers?
I felt super safe in Panama City, Mariken. At my hostel they drew us a map showing us what areas we shouldn’t venture into and we followed their advice and had no issues. I’d definitely bring teenagers there.
Hey Alex! I came across your blog and couldn’t be more excited to continue reading and fallow you in your journeys. Panama City has sparked great interest for my boyfriend and I. We own a salon in Palm Beach Fl, and have been looking to travel (possibly move) internationally. Casco Viejo has really caught our eye. We have both traveled quite a bit, and would like to do a lot more with a lifestyle to allows us to do so.
In your personal opinion do you think there is a lot of opportunity for young American entrepreneurs to create a business in Panama? I have read that you felt safe while traveling around Panama, if you were to move there what would be your favorite neighborhood to live?
Hey Jessica — I would totally move to Casco Viejo in a heartbeat if I were relocating to Panama City! I believe it can be a pricey area to move into, but it’s so charming I think it would be worth the splurge. There appeared to be several international expats who had started businesses in the area, so seems like a good sign! Good luck!
I came across this blog and it leaves me very disappointed.You focus too much on the glitz and glamour of Panama, the concrete jungles and material wealth instead of also focusing on the people, culture, the natural environment and even some rural areas.Anyone can find all this information that you have online.Next time don’t just cut and paste what others have written about Panama and use your own words, but write something more creative with a little bit of stories from the road less traveled and think more out of the box
Well, Ben, to start, this is a post about Panama City. I also wrote extensively about more rural and naturally beautiful Panamanian destinations such as El Valle, Santa Catalina, Isla de Coiba and Boquete, if that’s what you’re looking for. And I also wrote a less informative, yet more editorial piece about the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City, if that’s what you’re looking for.
But even in this post about Panama City, which I loved very much, I included information about museums, cultural shows, historical ruins, as well as hiking in the jungle and biking along the sea. So frankly, I’m not quite understanding your criticism that I haven’t focused on the culture and the natural environment.
And I can assure you I have never copied and pasted a word of another person’s writing onto this blog and called it my own.
Panama City is also one of my favorite retreats. It’s allure keeps drawing me back. In addition to your suggestions I would like to suggest Ancon Hill for looking down over both the city and canal (beautiful views) and visiting Mola shops for colorful Indian wall hangings and clothing.
I’d love to go back again someday Biff! Loved the gorgeous views from Metropolitan Park, will have to check out Ancon Hill next time.
Great post! It’s so true that Panama City is something special. My husband is a small town boy who hates just about every city we’ve ever visited and he still talks about how much he liked Panama City!! The Metropolitan Park was such a nice surprise in the middle of it all too.
I know, I am always baffled when I talk to people who DIDN’T like it. I’m like, did you go to Casco Viejo?! Ha ha. I hope I can go back someday soon…
When did you travel to panama city ? Im looking to go Sept 22-oct 7! But all the websites say its thunderstorming and always raining! but im wondering it was like this when you went too?
Would you not suggest to go at this time of year?
Hi Ravyn! I was in Panama in late January/early February, I believe. I’m not sure what it’s like other months of the year — best of luck finding the perfect timing for your trip 🙂