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 uber 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. Just don’t go between 10 am – 2 pm or you won’t see any ships passing through. Operating Hours: Monday – Sunday (holidays included) from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets: $15 for visitors | $10 for students | $3 for Panama residents TEMPORARILY CLOSED DUE TO PANDEMIC
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)TEMPORARILY CLOSED DUE TO PANDEMIC 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. You can also read my post How To Properly Visit The Panama Canal for more ways to experience it.
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 but there is so much more to do! Check out my “Quick Guide to Casco Viejo” article with insider tips on Panama’s coolest neighborhood.
Stay in Casco Viejo:
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 a $12 entrance fee to walk through the ruins and visit the museum.
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.
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 (exit towards 3 de Noviembre) and then take a left. It’s located between a row of pink containers under the overpass.
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. Your total cost will be way less than buying a mola pillow from a souvenir shop.
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.
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! My personal favorite ceviche spot is La Bendicion, which has a brightly colored green stand.
Spend the day on a catamaran
Hop aboard a catamaran and enjoy an open bar, music, and food as you make your way to Taboga Island, the closest island to the city! Sunbathe, lay down and enjoy the big deck with huge nets and speakers. Once the boat gets to the island you’ll have a chance to swim, snorkel, explore the island, or just hang out on the boat! The catamaran departs every Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday – RESERVE YOUR SPOT HERE.
Take a walk on Cinta Costera
Panama City has an insanely beautiful long stretch of waterfront park called Cinta Costera 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!
Visit Monkey Island & An Indigenous Village
Ever wanted to see monkeys up close in the wild? Well, Panama has an island full of them! The Monkey Island and Indian Village Tour is one of the best values because you get to visit Monkey Island and the Embera Indigenous Community which is not offered by most guides. You’ll start with exploring Lake Gatun by boat where you’ll see local wildlife and monkeys and then head to the indigenous community where you’ll learn about the local culture, history, and crafts. Then, hike along a short trail to see the plants that grow in this area and how they use them (practical, artist or medical uses) and see a dance that is part of their customs. More info here.
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 trip to San Blas or The Pearl Islands
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. You can choose to just visit San Blas for the day (check out this day trip here) or stay overnight in one of the following recommended options.
The Pearl Islands: The Pearl Islands aren’t heavy on the tourist trail and offer some of the most beautiful beaches you’ll find near Panama City. Some of the most popular islands to visit include Contadora, Saboga, Bolaños, and Viveros. This is for people looking for a barefoot luxury island experience rather than some of the more rustic options that you’ll find in other islands in the country. Beaches here are never crowded and offer the picturesque white sand and turquoise waters that sun-seekers are looking for. Also if you happen to be here between July–October, it offers some incredible whale-watching opportunities. Oferta Simple (Panama’s version of Groupon) constantly has 50% discounts for ferry service to the island (only for day trips) or you can book ferry service via Sea Las Perlas ($95 round-trip). If you’re staying overnight, just be sure to book the ferry to the correct island. The ferry starts boarding at 6:45 AM at the Flamenco Marina Dock on the Amador Causeway. The total journey takes around 1.5 hours. Recommended places to stay included Saboga Lodge, El Remanso, Villa Condesa del Mar, and Sonny Island.
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.
Experience the two faces of Panama City
Want to experience the other side of Casco Viejo? Victor Peretz is a passionate local taking visitors off the beaten path in El Chorillo, the forgotten side of Panama City. Get off the beaten path with Victor and see where boxer Roberto Duran trained, learn about how the U.S. invasion of Panama affected this neighborhood, try local food and drinks, visit the park where dominoes are played, chat with the locals in their homes and get to know the people of this area, and learn about the gentrification that has taken place in the now trendy Casco Viejo historic district. Reserve your spot here.
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. If you don’t want to pay the entrance fee, the funky design is definitely worth a photo.
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. Read my post, “10 Must-Try Coffee Shops In Panama City” to find out the best spots to try Geisha coffee.
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! Either hike you choose 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 JW Marriott 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. Check out this post for the best current spots to party.
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 the city like a local on the Panama Detour
Discover the pulse of Panama City on a 4-hour urban food walk with the author of this website! The Panama Detour is for people that like spontaneous adventure and getting to know a city through its food, drinks, and streets! Click here for more information.