Cathedral Tower at Panama Viejo. Best things to do in Panama City

The 10 Best Things to do in Panama City, Panama

Best Things to Do in Panama City

Looking for things to do in Panama City? Read on!

Panama City is the wealthiest metropolis in Central America. Its business district brims with skyscrapers and upscale hotels catering to international financiers. But that’s only one part of this sprawling capital. Nature is on full tropical display in its parks; historic colonial architecture and museums abound in the old town; and ships of every flag line up at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. Are you into trendy nightclubs? Innovative gastronomy? This cosmopolitan “Crossroads of the World” has you covered. These are the 10 best things to do in Panama City, Panama.

Panama Viejo [Old Panama]

Spain founded the city of Panama in 1519. It was the first European settlement on the Pacific coast and prospered until 1671, when it was sacked by Captain Henry Morgan and his pirate army.

You can explore the ruins of the original city in Panama Viejo, a UNESCO world heritage archeological site. Admission includes entrance to the Plaza Mayor Museum. Located near the iconic cathedral tower, this fascinating collection of artifacts chronicles 1500 years of Panama City history, going back to its earliest origins as a native fishing village. After you’ve done the museum, climb the 115 steps to the top of the tower for panoramic views of the crumbling homes, convents, and churches.

The site is large (70 acres) and shadeless in many areas, so wear a hat or bring an umbrella to fend off the tropic sun.

Casco Viejo [Old Quarter]

Casco Viejo panama

After the first Panama City was destroyed, the Spaniards started over, building a second city 5 miles to the west, in a more defensible location. This colonial settlement, now known as Casco Viejo, survived to become Panama City’s premier tourism and nightlife destination. Many of the historic Spanish buildings have been meticulously restored, leading UNESCO to bestow world heritage status on the entire neighborhood.

It’s expensive to stay, dine, and drink in Casco, but worth every cent if you prefer the atmosphere of a picturesque colonial town to the contemporary urban look of the new city. A room at the American Trade Hotel will take you back in time in terms of both architecture and entertainment. Their club regularly features live jazz and tango music, and the bartenders mix some fine retro cocktails.

cathedral and gazebo Independence square casco viejo things to do in Panama City
Independence Square, Casco Viejo

Restaurants featuring cutting-edge Panamanian cuisine thrive in Casco. Try the Sexy Rice, with smoked tomatoes or clams, at Lo Que Hay. My favorite spot to while away an afternoon is the Plaza Bolivar, preferably at a small table outside La Divina Comida, with a good book, a cup of coffee, and a prime view of the blooming bougainvillea. The ornate National Theater is just across the square, if you’re up for an evening performance.

Rooftop bars are popular, and great places to grab a sundowner. If clubbing is more your thing, over-the-top danceterias like Casa Jaguar rage all night.

Museum highlights include the Panama Canal Museum, The Mola Museum (native textiles), the History of Panama Museum, and the Museum of Colonial Religious Art, attached to the ruins of the Santo Domingo convent. Don’t miss the famous Golden Altar in San Jose Church.

Accommodation in Panama City

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Mercado de Mariscos [Fish Market]

Mercado de Mariscos panama city

If you don’t mind sitting in plastic chairs (and sometimes eating with plastic forks), walk along the waterfront from Casco Viejo to the Fish Market. The seafood at any of the stalls is delicious, and the prices are a fraction of what you’d pay in Casco.

Start with a cup of tasty ceviche and a cold Balboa beer, then move on to the catch of the day, which you’ll see being unloaded from boats in the harbor.

Santa Ana

santa ana panama city

This neighborhood is just outside Casco Viejo, but it’s not nearly as affluent. Most of the dilapidated colonial buildings are still awaiting Casco-style refurbs. As a result, everything is much more affordable here. Whether shopping on the pedestrian-only Avenida Central or munching on beef and rice at the historic Café Coca-Cola (1875), you’ll pay what typical Panamanians pay.

I like to sit around the Plaza Santa Ana under a shady tree and watch the motley, never-ending parade of shoppers on Central Ave. Don’t roam around here at night, though. There are high-crime slums in Santa Ana and neighboring Chorrillo.

Cinta Costera

cinta costera panama city

The Cinta Costera (coastal beltway) runs from Paitilla in downtown Panama City, around Casco Viejo (over the water!), all the way to Chorrillo. It’s possible to walk the whole length, but it’s over 4 miles and there isn’t much shade. If you attempt it, go early and take plenty of water. You’ll see runners, rollerbladers, skateboarders, cyclists, and people just hanging out eating raspados (shaved ice) from carts. There are fantastic views of both the new and old towns all along the way, as well as gardens, playgrounds, and parks.

Parque Natural Metropolitano

Parque Natural Metropolitano panama city

This 355-acre park is a protected wilderness just outside bustling downtown Panama City. There are two nature trails that meet at a hilltop lookout where you can see all the way to the Panama Canal.

You might also spot some wildlife. Iguanas, sloths, titi monkeys, and anteaters all live here, along with over 250 species of birds. Check the park’s website for opening hours and admission fees.

Parque Urraca

skyscrapers at Parque Urraca  Best things to do in Panama City

Surrounded by skyscrapers, this downtown greenspace is a great place to experience Panama City’s contemporary architecture. Walk out on the pedestrian bridge that spans Avenida Balboa for especially vertiginous upward views.

Various events take place here throughout the year, and there’s a bandstand for live music.

Amador Causeway

BioMuseo Best things to do in Panama City

This 1.5-mile causeway was built with material removed during the cutting of the Panama Canal. It connects the nearshore islands of Naos, Culebra, Perico and Flamenco. Like the Cinta Costera, it’s a popular place to jog or cycle in the mornings. Come evening, the waterside restaurants fill up with hungry locals.

You’ll find architect Frank Gehry’s eye-catching BioMuseo near the start of the causeway. Entry is a bit pricey, but you’ll learn a lot about the rich diversity of species that exist (or used to exist) in Panama.

Sloth in tree Punta Culebra Best things to do in Panama City
Three-toed Sloth at Punta Culebra Nature Center

My favorite place on the Causeway is the Punta Culebra Nature Center on Naos Island. There are hiking trails through the dry forest where you can see sloths, iguanas, raccoons, armadillos, and more. The kid-friendly exhibits, operated by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center, showcase Panama’s frogs, fish, and geology. Engaging scientists in training will help you identify animal bones and peep through microscopes at volcanic sand. If you’re into nature, Punta Culebra is definitely one of the best things to do in Panama City.

Accommodation in Panama City

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Ancon Hill

At 654 feet, Cerro Ancon is the highest point in Panama City. The hike to the top takes about a half hour, but you’ll spend considerably more time enjoying the vistas along the way. There are fantastic views of the Panama Canal and the Bridge of the Americas, as well as Casco Viejo and the downtown skyline. The hill is forested, so you might encounter wildlife, too.

There’s a replica colonial village called Mi Pueblito near the trailhead which has an entrance fee, but there’s no charge to hike up the hill.

Panama Canal Miraflores Locks

Miraflores Locks Panama Canal Best things to do in Panama City

Many visitors come to Panama to witness the workings of one of the world’s great engineering marvels, the Panama Canal. The multimillion-dollar Visitor’s Center at the Miraflores Locks offers the best introduction to this wondrous waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Start in the state-of-the-art IMAX Theater, where Morgan Freeman narrates a short 3D film about the construction and operation of the canal. Get more history in the Exhibition Halls, then move on to the main event out on the terraces. Here, you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of ships passing through the locks, while an entertaining commentator narrates the whole process.

A taxi from Panama City to the Miraflores Locks should cost about $30 roundtrip.

If you are interested in seeing the rest of the canal, here’s our guide for How to Cruise the Panama Canal.

After Panama City: Visit Gamboa

Gamboa colorful houses  Best things to do in Panama City

Now that you’ve enjoyed the 10 best things to do in Panama City, you might want to retreat from the crowds and relax for a while. Gamboa, a laidback jungle town in the heart of the Canal Zone, is a great place to commune with nature. Here’s a guide for spotting wildlife in Gamboa.

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