21 Things You MUST DO In Panama City
Want to get to know the real Panama City, Panama? I’ve worked to narrow down everything there is to do in Panama City to 21 of the must-dos. Don’t worry if you can’t get to them all! You can always come back.
The Panama Canal
I’m kicking off the list with the most obvious must-do in Panama City: The Panama Canal. You just can’t leave here without seeing one of the most significant accomplishments in Panama’s history.
You can visit the Miraflores Visitor Center, which is about a 20-minute drive or cab ride (also accessible by Metro Bus) from Panama City and there’s an interactive museum and viewing deck where you can watch the locks in action as large cargo and cruise ships pass through the Miraflores Locks.
Operating Hours: Monday – Sunday (holidays included) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m
Tickets: $15 for visitors | $10 for students | $3 for Panama residents
If you want to skip the museum you can also go for dinner. Make a dinner reservation at the Atlantic & Pacific Co. restaurant (this is at the Miraflores locks, same place as the museum) and request to sit on the balcony so you can see the boats. Don’t go for lunch because it’s an overpriced buffet but the dinner is excellent, and entrees are $20-$25.
Mercado Artesanias de 5 de Mayo (Artisan Market)
This is my go-to place to bring visiting friends for souvenir shopping because:
1. It’s hidden in not the best area of town, so there are almost never any other tourists there and it makes for a way more local/memorable experience than going into a random gift shop.
2. Since this is in a gritty / non-touristy area, the prices are better, and you are usually dealing directly with the artisans themselves.
The easiest way to get here is to take the Metro to the 5 de Mayo station and then cross the street. The entrance is a little hidden so be sure to ask a local if you have trouble finding it.
One of the best things I’ve figured out to do is you can buy a Mola made by one of the Guna’s there and then visit one of the tailoring stations in the same area and ask them to make a pillow out of it. You total cost will be way less than buying a mola pillow from a souvenir shop.
Attend a soccer / football / fútbol game
However you like to say or spell it – if there’s a soccer game going on while you are in Panama, you must go! I’m not a soccer fan, but I have so much fun going to the games in Panama. And be prepared to get wet! Panamanians traditionally throw their beer in the air when their team scores a goal. Check out my complete guide to going to a soccer game in Panama.
There’s one story that Captain Morgan burned down the city and another version where the Panamanians burned down the town before he arrived to make it look like it had already been taken over.
There is an $8 entrance fee to walk through the ruins.
Casco Viejo (also called Casco Antiguo) is my favorite neighborhood in Panama City, and I recommend staying in this area if you can. It’s a stark contrast from Panama City’s chaotic metropolis and instantly feels like you have traveled to a completely different world, even though it’s only a few minutes away.
Casco is a mix of restored Spanish colonial buildings that are now boutique hotels & hostels, apartments, trendy bars, and restaurants. Interspersed between these are condemned buildings where a few local families live that proudly blast their music all day, with their windows and doors wide open, and a good view of what they are watching on their large flat screen TV.
Simply strolling through the streets and taking in the scenes a great way to spend the day. While you’re here you can also do activities like paddle boarding, Spanish lessons, send a postcard home, and of course, visit these historic sites.
Get a photo in front of the Panama sign
So this is a bit touristy, but it is a cool picture to get. There are two places you can get a photo in front of the Panama sign: Cinta Costera or the Amador Causeway.
Fortaleza “Gang” Tour
The Casco Viejo that you see today is a huge contrast from as little as 5 years ago. Many parts that you will walk through now were once extremely dangerous “red zones” run by several gangs that would rob tourists.
A group called Esperanza Social Venture Club has taken in many of the former gang members and helped them to reintegrate into society by training them to work at the new surrounding hotels and restaurants or starting their own businesses.
One of the companies born from this program is Fortaleza Tours, which is lead by five former gang members and gives you a glimpse of the “real Casco Viejo.” You’ll hear stories of what life used to be like in the area and how these guys have changed their lives while also influencing others in the neighborhood to do the same. It’s one of the most unique tours I’ve been on and the #1 thing on this list that you must do in Panama City.
The cost of the tour is $30 a person, or you can also pay for a full tour for $30 which includes dinner and drinks made by the former gang members. If you speak Spanish, you can contact Jaffet via Whatsapp at +50760318961 to set up the tour or send a message to the Esperanza Facebook Page for communication in English. This tour is in Spanish, and a translator is available upon request.
Take a walk on Cinta Costera
Panama City has an insanely beautiful long stretch of waterfront park where you can go running, biking, do yoga, use free workout equipment, play basketball, soccer, volleyball, tennis, ping pong, or just sit on a bench and people watch while enjoying a raspao. I recommend going after 5 pm because the heat can be intense!
Participate in the Sunday Ciclovia
Every Sunday from 6 am to 12 pm the main roads of Avenida Balboa, Via Israel, and Cincuentenario are shut down for biking, walking, hoverboarding, or anything else you want to do. Free bikes are available for rent at the Cinta Costera parking lot in front of Multicentro (must bring passport or cedula).
Eat Ceviche at the Mercado de Mariscos (Fish Market)
Enjoy freshly caught seafood with the locals at Panama City’s fish market located along the Cinta Costera. Be sure to try the locally prepared ceviche!
Walk down Avenida Central
See where the real locals do shopping in Panama City’s only pedestrian district, Avenida Central. This part of town has seen better days, but it’s one of my favorite areas of the city for its vibrancy, street art, noise, and interesting people. It’s also easily accessible from Casco Viejo or the 5 de Mayo metro station.
Take a day trip to San Blas or Contadora
So these aren’t located in Panama City, but they are quick and easy escapes to paradise complete with white sand beaches and clear, turquoise water.
San Blas: This is made up of over 300 rustic islands inhabited by Panama’s Guna natives. If you’re looking for that unique, once in a lifetime experience – this is where you need to go. San Blas Beach Trip does an excellent day tour there for $95 that includes transport from Panama City, island hopping, and lunch. There is also an entrance fee to Guna Yala of $20 for foreigners and $5 for Panama residents and a $2 port fee.
Contadora: If roughing it on a deserted island isn’t for you, then I recommend staying a night on Isla Contadora in the archipelago of Panama’s Pearl Islands. The island is a two-hour ferry ride or 15-minute flight from Panama City and has stunning beaches, hotels, and restaurants. Check out my Conquering Contadora Guide for details on planning a trip here.
Or head to the mountains of El Valle for a night
Not a beach person? Head to Panama’s nearby highlands in El Valle de Anton for cooler temperatures, beautiful hikes, and pristine waterfalls. El Valle is easily accessible from Panama City for just $4.25 via a 2.5-hour bus ride that leaves every hour. For tips on everything to do and see in El Valle, check out my Quick Guide to El Valle de Anton (coming soon).
Have dinner at Donde José
Donde José provides one of the most unique culinary experiences you can have in Panama City with an intimate maximum 16-person seating per meal. They focus on using local Panamanian ingredients and dishes and come out with a new set menu every few months.
Located in Casco Viejo on Avenida Central and Calle 11. Must make a reservation in advance.
The newly opened Biomuseo, designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, features eight galleries focussing on the origin of the Panamanian isthmus and its impact on the planet’s biodiversity.
Located on the Amador Causeway | Operating Hours: Monday 10:00 am – 4:00 pm, Tuesday Closed, Wednesday thru Friday 10:00 am – 4:00 pm, Saturday and Sunday 10:00 am – 5:00 pm | Entrance: $22 for foreigners & $12 for Panama residents
Try Geisha Coffee
Geisha coffee is one of the most premium and expensive coffees in the world and can sell for up to $170 a pound. Panama is one of the top producers of this particular blend of coffee, and you have to try it while you are here. While in Casco Viejo you can try the $9 cup at Bajareque Coffee House featuring Geisha from the Elida farm in Boquete, Panama.
Hike at Parque Metropolitano or Cero Ancon
Located at the edge of Panama City lies a massive nature reserve that is perfect for hiking. You can usually spot some exotic animals, birds, plants, and I’ve even seen monkeys there before! It also provides a panoramic view of Panama City at the top.
Watch the sunset from Panaviera
Panaviera is located on the 66th floor of the Sun Casino in Trump Ocean Club and offers some of the most stunning city and ocean views I have seen in Panama City. Head up here by 6:30 pm to watch an incredible sunset over the city.
Experience the nightlife
You can’t leave Panama City without heading out and experiencing the nightlife! Most of the city’s best bars and “discos” are located in Casco Viejo, so this is a good spot to base yourself for a night out. The Soy del Casco Night Pass is one of the most economical ways to bar hop this part of town. Be sure also to visit the PTY Life Event Page for the best parties happening every weekend!
Sip on rum at Pedro Mandinga
Pedro Mandinga is the type of place that I feel has successfully captured the essence of Panama. It is Panama’s first artisanal rum distillery and bar and situated in the heart of Casco Viejo near Plaza Herrera and across from the iconic Rolo de Sedas mami murals. It is the kind of place you can hang out for hours, sipping the amazing house specialty rum cocktails and losing track of time with old friends.
Experience Panama City like a local
Experience life like a local during an urban walk with me through the real Panama City. Every tour is unique and customized to what your group would like to do and our pace moving throughout the city. Just a general idea of some of the things you can do are: stroll the historic streets of Casco Viejo, buy the freshest seafood at the Mercado de Mariscos, visit local coffee shops and craft beer breweries, eat at a typical Panamanian restaurant, pool crashing, light hiking, going to the top of a skyscraper to watch the sunset, visiting hidden artisan markets, and a few other hidden gems. Click here for more information.