Looking for things to do in Panama City, Panama? Whether you are going on a cruise through the Panama Canal or escaping to one of Panama’s luxurious islands, chances are you are going to visit Panama City for at least a day or two. This Panama City guide will help you plan your time there.
We first visited Panama City when we were invited to check out all the cool elements of the Hard Rock Hotel downtown Panama. Not only was it a cool hotel, but the city also blew us away! It has the perfect blend of a high-tech modern metropolis combined with a well-preserved history in its old town and historic ruins.
Things to do in Panama City
During our first time in Panama City, we spent a week exploring everything it had to offer in the downtown core. We visited the Old Town, and the waterfront, and stayed at one of Panama City’s most recognizable hotels, the Hard Rock Hotel Panama. (rumour has it that this hotel is now closed but the website is still up and running so it is unconfirmed)
Recently, we returned to Panama with Uncruise to sail to Costa Rica from Panama and had the chance to tick off the rest of our Panama City bucket list. This city is a modern wonder that has blended its state-of-the-art architecture with its historic center. If you are visiting Central America, make sure to spend at least a few days exploring the best of Panama City. Enjoy these must-see attractions in Panama City and extra travel tips to help you make the most of your stay!
1. Panama Canal – Miraflores
The obvious choice for first-time visitors to Panama City is to check out the Panama Canal. The closest locks to Panama City are the Miraflores Locks located less than 30 minutes from downtown making it an easy day trip. It is amazing to see the crowds that the locks still attract and even we were a bit giddy when we viewed a cargo ship going through.
The Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic ocean with the Pacific ocean, is one of the Seven Industrial Wonders of the World and when you walk through the fabulous interactive Miraflores visitors center, you’ll understand why! This was not an easy waterway to make. There are two levels of viewing platforms to watch the ships and a Panama Canal museum. It is definitely the number 1 thing to do in Panama City.
First time to Panama City? This city tour is a great introduction to Panama where you’ll visit many of the top attractions including the Miraflores Locks visitor center where you’ll skip the lines arriving as soon as they open. After you’ve seen the famous Panama Canal, you’ll make your way to Casco Viejo, the Amador Causeway, the viewpoint of Panama City, and the boardwalk and waterfront with your local expert guide.
2. Casco Viejo
No visit to Panama City would be complete without taking a stroll through its old town. Casco Viejo, (Old Town) is the historic center of Panama City that is being restored to its original glory. Dating back to 1673, Casco Viejo is worth visiting on a tour to learn about all the buildings, cathedrals, and history of the area.
The historic center of Panama is a must-visit. It reminded us of the old town of Havana, Cuba and I can envision it being as beautiful in just a few short years as hotels and corporations transform the crumbling ruins into boutique hotels. This 2-hour walking tour takes you through the old quarter, where you’ll see the top tourist attractions including San Francisco de Asis and San José churches, the Panama waterfront and admire the architecture inspired by Spanish, French and early Americans.
3. Plaza de Francia
While in Casco Viejo make sure to visit Plaza de Francia. Also, known as The French Plaza, Plaza de Francia is a monument dedicated to the 22,000 workers who died during the construction of the Panama Canal. Here you’ll be able to see the Instituto Nacional de Cultura (National Institute of Culture) that houses a theater and cultural events. The statues and tablets depict the role that the French played in the construction of the Panama Canal.
Fun Fact: It is here that you’ll see a plaque dedicated to the Cuban doctor Carlos J. Finlay, who discovered out how mosquitoes transmitted yellow fever.
4. Convent Santo Domingo
Located in the Casco Viejo, a quick photography stop is the Convent Santo Domingo and its Flat Arch (El Arco Chato). Similar to another popular tourist attraction in Panama (eh-hem, The Panama Canal), the arch is a feat of engineering for its time. Spanning nearly 50 feet without any support, it stood the test of time and helped solidify Panama as the place for the canal connecting the two oceans. Since it had stood since the 17th century, it proved that Panama wasn’t as prone to earthquakes at Nicaragua, thus making for better, … for the Panama Canal.
5. Plaza de la Independencia (Independence Square)
Also known as Plaza Mayor or Cathedral Plaza, Plaza de la Independencia is a plaza with the Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama (Basilica of the Virgin of Santa María la Antigua) standing proud at its center. It is a quiet respite from the city with colonial architecture housing restaurants, shops and boutique shopping. You’ll also see the Panama Canal Museum and the headquarters of the Municipal Council in Plaza de la Independencia. We stumbled upon this square during a walk around the city and fell in love with its colonial architecture, its lovely white gazebo and the shady trees lining the square.
6. Iglesia San Felipe Nativity Scene
Even if you are not religious, this nativity scene in Iglesia San Felipe is impressive. For years, families in Panama set up their own nativity scenes around the city but after the restoration of Iglesia San Felipe de Neri, one family donated their massive scene that they built up over the years for everyone to enjoy. If you take a walking tour of the Old Town, chances are your guide will take you into this hidden gem.
Other Things to see in Casco Viejo
You should spend at least an afternoon in Caso Viejo. Take a walking tour of Casco Viejo to see all the main sites and attractions. Check out this city tour with GetYourGuide
One of the best ways we explored Panama was on a private tour. This highly rated private tour lets you explore Panama at your own pace with a customizable tour to suit your desires. Follow your local guide to top-rated attractions such as Casco Viejo, The Causeway, and other parts of the city as you learn insider tips, such as the best places to eat, buy groceries and the easiest ways to get around.
Historic Society of JesusChurch of San Jose – Gold Altar
Gentrification is becoming a problem for the local families that lived in this neighborhood rent-free, so I do hope the government takes care of the people who are the heartbeat of Panama City. But I do also believe in progress, and turning this UNESCO World Heritage Site into a maze of walking streets filled with boutiques, cafés, and restaurants, will help everyone in the long run.
7. Panama Viejo
Not to be confused with Casco Viejo, Panama Viejo is a fascinating tour through the abandoned ruins of the original city. The highway once ran directly through these historic monuments, but thankfully, it was diverted before it all disappeared.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, dating back to 1519, Panama Viejo was the heart of the economic power of trade, religion, and commerce. The city was in use until 1671 when the Spaniards sacked the city themselves before moving to what we know today as Panama Viejo.
Panama was the first European settlement on the Pacific Coast and became a strategic location for mining gold and silver. There are several walls and facades remaining and they are doing regular restoration. The most impressive ruin is the Cathedral – Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción where you can climb up the bell tower for a panoramic view of Panama City.
8. Cinta Costera
Cinta Costera is the beating heart of Panama City. This 64-acre oceanfront parkway is within walking distance from the major hotels, shopping malls and restaurants. One of our favorite things to do in Panama was to walk along the walking trails of Cinta Costera taking in the views of the city. Spanish for Coastal Walkway, tourists and visitors alike use this greenspace for cycling, working out or simply taking relaxing away from the hustle and bustle.
You can rent bikes or hire a rickshaw to take you on a tour of Cinta Costera to explore many of the top attractions in Panama City.
9. Balboa Avenue
Avenue Balboa is Panama City’s downtown neighborhood with skyscrapers lining the waterfront. This ultra-modern waterfront neighborhood is a fun place to hang out for the afternoon.
There’s a paved walkway for cycling or walking. You can walk all the way along the 3km route to Casco Viejo. We stopped in at five-star hotels for a cocktail and for rooftop views of the bay.
10. Amador Causeway
This incredible 6km stretch of road houses some of Panama’s top attractions. It’s located 20 minutes outside the city and offers excellent views of Panama.
It is here, that you can enjoy some fun in the sun paddle boarding, hanging out at the pool bars or do some shopping. You can also hop on the aqua bus here for a view of Panama from the water.
11. Centro Artisan Market
Located at the Amador Causeway, this huge Artisan Market is a great place to shop for your souvenirs. I’ve picked up many a necklace from here, but you can also get masks, jewelry, Panama hats, and other nick nacks here. For another great shopping experience check out the pedestrian mall at the end of Avenida Central.
12. Albrook Mall
If shopping is your thing, pay a visit to Albrook Mall. It is the largest shopping mall in Central America. This mall really is a tourist attraction unto itself. It’s the 14th largest mall in the world and that’s saying a lot. When you think about the mega malls found in Dubai and Asia, its’ amazing that one of the top 20 is in Panama. The mall is located close to the airport and is just minutes from three of Panama’s most popular tourist attractions, the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal, the historic area of Casco Antiguo, and the Causeway.
The Wyndham Hotel is connected to the Albrook Mall making it a good choice to stay in Panama if you are flying out the next day.
13. Bridge of the Americas
It is from the Amador Causeway that you can see the Bridge of the Americas. This massive bridge spans the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal. It was built by the United States in 1962. What is so unique about this bridge? It connects the landmasses of North America and South America.
14. Sunset at the JW Marriott 65 Floor
Another residential neighborhood popular with ex-pats is Punta Pacifica. It’s about a 20-minute walk from Balboa Avenue, or you can take an Uber or taxi for a reasonable price.
The JW Marriott has a huge Casino attached to the main floor. If you go here, take the elevators up to the 65th floor to the rooftop bar overlooking the infinity pool. This rooftop pool and bar is one of the most chic areas in the city. It’s one of the best sunset views in the city!
15. Marvel at El Tornillo
Definitely, the most unique building in Panama City is the spiral skyrise of El Tornillo. The best view we found of it was from the Hard Rock pool bar, but we also went for a walk to check it out up close. There isn’t a lot around there, so we suggest viewing it from afar instead.
16. Buy a Panama Hat
Here’s a fun fact. Panama Hats are not made in Panama. Panama Hats originated in Ecuador and are still made there. The Panama Hat got its name when President Roosevelt was photographed wearing one while visiting the Panama Canal.
The name stuck and even though they are not made here, they are very popular. In Casca Viejo, you can find many Panama Hats on sale at shops. Victor’s is the most popular spot for purchasing a hat. What we loved about buying a Panama Hat in the shops, is that there is no bargaining. You can buy high quality or cheaper imitations ranging from $25 – $200.
Designed by architect Frank Gehry, the Biomuseo explores the biodiversity of Panama. Its unique location bridges North and South America. It’s also a pretty cool and funky building!
18. Ancon Hill
For one of the best overhead views of Panama, Ancon Hill is a great stop. It is included in many Panama City Day Tours, so if you don’t have transportation, chances are you’ll be able to see it if you book a tour!
Panama City Day Trips
19. San Lorenzo Fort
Checking out the San Lorenzo Fort was a part of our UnCruise itinerary and I am so glad we had the chance to see this! Another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Panama, this former Spanish military fort was a strategic location for the gold trade. Located on a beautiful clifftop the ocean and Chargras River views are extraordinary. Plus, it is a well-preserved fort dating back to the 1500s.
20. Monkey Island of Gatun Lake
As part of the UnCruise land extension for their Panama to Costa Rica cruise, Gatun Lake is an excellent way to see Panama wildlife such as iguanas, crocodiles, monkeys, toucans, and sloths. I had no idea that the Panama Canal was intertwined with wide and vast waterways.
This highly rated tour takes you to Monkey Island where you’ll catch a riverboat to the Chagres River to see the monkeys of Monkey Island including white-face monkeys, howler monkeys and tamarinds on this island in Gatun Lake.
21. Agua Clara Visitor Center
This Panama Canal expansion is located at Gatun Lake and is an interesting trip to the small town of Colon City. This lock was made to accommodate larger ships sailing through the Panama Canal. You can watch the cruise ships and cargo ships go through from the viewing platforms.
There is a projection room, restaurants, and a hiking trails where you can to try to spot wildlife. You Can visit Colon, Agua Clara, and San Lorenzo Fort on a day tour with Get Your Guide from Panama City.
Enjoy our Video Tour of Panama City
No trip to Central America would be complete without getting on the water, and this boat tour out of Panama City takes you to Taboga Island where you’ll hop aboard a catamaran for a 45-minute cruise where you’ll see the extraordinary Panama City skyline, and Cinta Costera with light snacks, lunch and an all-inclusive bar included.
22. San Blas Islands
San Blas Island has gained in popularity since the Netflix series Money Heist featured the beautiful and secluded white sand beaches of the San Blas Islands surrounded by turquoise water. San Blas Port is located 2.5 hours outside of Panama City and from here you’ll take a Pangas boat to the islands. If you have more time, we suggest spending a night or two on the island, but day tours are offered from downtown.
You can book a Money Heist-themed tour to San Blas Islands from Panama City. ON this tour you’ll visit four islands in one day including snorkeling at Perro Chico, known as the best snorkeling spot in the San Blas Islands, Waily Lodge, Pelicano and the natural swimming pool on a sand bar in the middle of the ocean.
Where to Stay in Panama City
Bella Vista Neighborhood
Bristol Hotel – We enjoyed our stay at the Bristol Hotel and found it to be an even better location than the Hard Rock. It didn’t have the amenities of the Hard Rock though if you are looking for a full service hotel. Instead, it is a good luxury choice for a couple of days of sightseeing. We loved the breakfast. Check Availability and Prices on Booking.com or TripAdvisor
Punta Pacifica Neighborhood
JW Marriott – We didn’t find this area to be ideally located as it is away from most of Panama’s top attractions. But the hotel is luxurious with full amenities and an excellent view of the city. Check Availability and Prices on Booking.com or TripAdvisor
Casco Viejo Neighborhood
Central Hotel Panama – Casco Viejo is probably the best location to stay in Panama if you want to be in the heart of the action. Most nightlife has moved to this area and it is near plenty of shopping and culture. Check Availability and Prices on Booking.com or TripAdvisor
Panama City Facts
Panama uses the USD currency. It is $1 – $1. When shopping at markets, it is fair to bargain, but when going into shops, prices are fixed. Uber is available in downtown Panama City. When taking taxis be sure to negotiate prices first. The main international airport of Panama City is Tocumen Airport Panama is a good walking city and we felt safe walking around during the day. Use caution when walking at night.
Book your own Panama / Costa Rica Panama trip within the next year with UnCruise, you’ll get $100 per person savings on the same 10-night trip we are taking!
And these are the best things to do in Panama City. Make sure to spend a few days exploring Panama City before you set out on your Panama Cruise or Panama tour, you will love it!
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