My recent trip to Panama City, Panama absolutely blew me away. This Central American city is a dazzling international hot spot, where delicious gastronomy, historic ruins, unique architecture, massive skyscrapers and dense rainforest come together. As such, there are so many things to do in Panama City, Panama!
Panama is warm year-round and fairly inexpensive to visit. It is the only capital city in the world that has a tropical rainforest within city limits. The city also borders the famous Panama Canal, which revolutionized global shipping by creating a passage between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.
So, if you’re craving a warm tropical getaway, inexpensive luxury, or first-hand views of an incredible man-made wonder, it’s time to check out Panama City. To help you plan your next trip to Central America, here are the top things to do in Panama City, Panama.
SheBuysTravel tip: In Panama, you can pay in either USD or in the local currency, balboas, which has the exact same value as the US dollar. Avoid ATM fees by withdrawing money in the US before your trip.
1. Explore Casco Viejo
Panama City’s old town has several names, including Casco Antiguo and San Felipe, but it’s most commonly referred to as Casco Viejo. Panamanians moved here in 1671 after pirates destroyed their original capital, Panama Viejo. Although Casco Viejo deteriorated over time, significant efforts have been made to restore the area after it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.
Now, Casco Viejo is a charming neighborhood featuring restored 16th & 17th Century Spanish Colonial Architecture, cobblestone streets, ornate churches, lively plazas and historic ruins. Here, visitors will find boutique hotels, cute cafes, rooftop bars and lots of delicious restaurants with cuisine from all over the world.
To appreciate the area’s history and architecture, travelers can take a guided tour, or explore the area independently. Some must-see sites include the Plaza de la Cathedral, Plaza Francia, the Metropolitan Cathedral, Church of the Society of Jesus and the Fish Market.
SheBuysTravel tip: Uber is very inexpensive in Panama City, and drivers arrive within minutes, so make sure you have the app downloaded and ready to go before your trip.
2. Visit the Panama Canal
Visit one of the most impressive man-made industrial feats. Completed in 1914, the Panama Canal continues to have a profound effect on the shipping industry.
The best way to see this canal is from the Miraflores Visitor Center, located 20 minutes from Panama City in a small city called Clayton. This center overlooks the Miraflores Locks, one of the three locks that make up the Panama Canal. From here, visitors can watch boats pass through the canal while learning about the mechanics of these locks.
There is also an IMAX movie theater that plays a 45-minute IMAX documentary about the canal’s history narrated by Morgan Freeman. The visitor center features a gift shop, a snack shop and a restaurant.
3. Explore Panama Viejo
The ruins of Panama Viejo, the original city destroyed by pirates, are also a Panama City must-see. Founded in 1519, the city was the first European settlement on the Pacific Ocean.
This archeological site spans 57 acres and includes more than a dozen ruins. For great views of the city, climb up the old bell tower. There is also a fantastic museum (truly one of my favorite museums in Central America) that traces Panamanian history from before the arrival of the Spanish, to the pirate attack and beyond. I recommend visiting the museum first before exploring the ruins.
4. Bike along Cinta Costera
Cinta Costera is a waterfront boulevard that meanders through the city. The path stretches for 4.3 miles and includes a walking and a biking path. Cinta Costera is divided into three sections, starting in the upscale neighborhood of Paitilla, skirting Panama Bay and ending near Casco Viejo. Much of the trail is lined with palm trees, parks and street vendors while running parallel to Avenida Balboa, the large downtown highway.
During my visit, I stayed in Casco Viejo and spent one afternoon cycling the path’s third section, aptly named Cinta Costera 3. This is a coastal beltway that forms a wide ark around Casco Viejo, boasting beautiful views of the city. There are several concrete decks along the way where I could stop and take pictures.
5. Visit the San Blas islands
The San Blas islands are the picture of paradise. Although not exactly in Panama City, travelers can see the islands on a day trip or weekend excursion. These well-protected Caribbean islands are home to crystal clear waters, palm-fringed beaches and rich indigenous culture. With no internet, visitors will find themselves completely immersed in island life.
The islands are governed by the Guna, a Panamanian indigenous group. While visiting the islands, you’ll get to experience Guna culture. Sample the local cuisine, get to know the locals and shop for unique handmade goods. The Guna are most famous for creating Molas, stunning woven textiles that make a one-of-a-kind gift.
There are a variety of accommodation options on the islands, including beach bungalows and cabins. Those hoping to see several islands can book an overnight boat tour and live on a sailboat while going island-hopping.
6. Take a boat tour to Monkey Island
Monkey Island is a cluster of islands located in the man-made Gatun Lake. Aptly named, the islands are home to a variety of monkey species, including white-faced capuchin monkeys and howler monkeys.
Monkey Island boat tours include a pick-up from most hotels before guests are taken on a scenic drive through Soberanía National Park. At Gatun Lake, the tour continues via boat. Keep an eye out for monkeys but also toucans, sloths, iguanas and crocodiles, all of which dwell on the island. You may even get the chance to feed the monkeys.
Some tours also include a visit to a sloth sanctuary. Most of the tours are half-day, like this one, although there are some full-day tours available that include a tour of an indigenous village.
7. Drink cocktails on a rooftop bar
Panama City has a flourishing nightlife scene, and one of the best ways to experience is at one of Casco Viejo’s many rooftop bars.
An unofficial rooftop bar connoisseur, I visited a new rooftop bar nearly every night of my trip. My favorite was the Selina, which has live music and salsa dancing every Wednesday night. Sama Sky Lounge, the tallest rooftop in Casco Viejo, was a close second. It is disco-themed and boasts a beautiful skyline view. CasaCasco is great for a romantic date night and Tantalo is the best rooftop for late-night dancing.
To drink a cocktail among the skyscrapers, visit the Panaviera which is on the 66th floor of the Ocean Sun Casino, part of the JW Marriott Hotel.
8. Enjoy panoramic views from Ancon Hill
Ancon Hill is a popular viewpoint that overlooks Panama City. Reaching the top of Ancon Hill takes 30 minutes and is considered a moderate hike. You’ll be walking up a mainly paved road that cuts through the jungle. I recommend doing this hike early in the morning when it’s not quite as hot.
Ancon Hill is also a great place to see wildlife. When I did the hike, I spotted an adorable sleeping sloth in the trees above the path and a coati running into the jungle. Other hikers have reported seeing armadillos, tamarins and deer.
9. Zoom down the Amador Causeway
I had an absolute blast speeding down the Amador Causeway on a rented E-scooter. This strip of land connects the mainland to three islands, Naos, Perico, and Flamenco. It was constructed using rocks excavated during the building of the Panama Canal. The Causeway, as it is often called, has a wide bike line and there are lots of bike rentals in the area.
My family and I rented E-scooters from a rental shop near the Biomuseo. The scooters went surprisingly fast (yay, adrenaline!) and we were able to soak up beautiful skyline views. There are also regular bike, double bike and regular scooter rentals available.
Once you reach the islands, there are lots of shops, restaurants and bars, perfect for a biking break. For an education stop, explore the Punta Culebra Nature Center, an open-air museum operated by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.
10. Shop at Albrook Mall
Albrook Mall is a huge (I’ll repeat, huge) mall in the city. The length of the mall is equivalent to seven football fields, making it the largest mall in Central America.
There are several food courts and more than 700 stores selling inexpensive clothing, perfume, toys, jewelry, shoes and just about anything else. The mall is open from 10 am to 8 pm, with many restaurants staying open until 9 pm. So if you’re looking to shop and get some exercise, spend a day exploring Albrook Mall. Just don’t forget to wear a good pair of walking shoes!
11. Tour the Canal Museum
Before heading to Miraflores and seeing the Panama Canal in action, spend some time in the Canal Museum, located in Casco Viejo. This museum has a wealth of information, photographs, and artifacts that trace the history of the canal and its impact on Panama.
12. See Gamboa Rainforest
If you’ve come to Panama City, chances are you’d like to experience the unspoiled nature that surrounds the capital city. The Gamboa Rainforest is the best place for that. Located 30 minutes from Panama City, this rainforest sits at the intersection of the Chagres River and the Panama Canal.
To experience this dense rainforest, visitors can go zip lining, take an aerial tram over the treetops, visit a sloth sanctuary, go on a bird-watching tour, learn about the Embera indigenous group, go on a night safari or go kayaking in the Chagres River. For more activities in Gamboa, check this link.
13. Visit the Biomuseo
Learn about Panama’s natural history at the Biomuseo, located on the Amador Causeway. This museum was designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry and is an architectural marvel in itself. Colorful panels cut into odd shapes make up the building’s exterior.
The interior is full of exhibits that describe the migration that occurred when Panama connected North and South America. There are also two aquariums and a projection space that highlights Panama’s biodiversity. My favorite exhibit showed 3D models of animals that crossed the isthmus of Panama three million years ago.
14. Sample fish at the Mercado de Mariscos
Visit an authentic fish market in the heart of Panama City. The Mercado de Mariscos is a bustling market, within walking distance from Casco Viejo. It is packed with local Panamanians selling fresh fish, which includes anything from octopus to lobster to white snapper. If you can handle the strong smell of raw fish, this market is certainly worth a visit.
One section of the market sells raw fish, while the other sells dishes. Be sure to try some ceviche, the local specialty. Salsa and merengue music booms from speakers and there are plenty of places to sit.