There are many interesting things to do in Panama City. The Panamanian capital is a great place to visit – despite all my misconceptions, it ended up being my favorite destination in the country, and I enjoyed way better than more remote destinations such as Bocas del Toro.
Panama City has long been situated at an important crossroads of trade. Its history charts the history of globalized trade itself, with Spanish colonists setting up shop here to transport wealth back to Europe.
The capital of Panama remains an important stop, being the last (or first) port of call for vessels chugging through the Panama Canal. It’s a cosmopolitan city where vestiges of its past sit in the shadow of its sparkling skyscrapers.
But it’s not all about trade and modern marvels. Just a stone’s throw from the city you can find national parks and nature reserves for intrepid hikes and to discover some of the nation’s varied wildlife for yourself.
With so many things to do in Panama City, you should definitely plan to spend at least three full days in the city to take it all in. Curious to find out more? Continue reading as I highlight the best attractions and things to do in Panama City, Panama.
You should also read my post 15 Best Things To Do In Panama.
The Best Things To Do In Panama City, Panama
Explore the Casco Viejo
One of the unmissable things to do in Panama City is exploring the Casco Viejo. This is Panama City’s old town, a history-stuffed district that’s recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. As well as Casco Viejo, this part of the Panamanian capital goes under several different names including San Felipe and Casco Antiguo.
This is a good place to start your exploration of the otherwise skyscraper-clad capital city. It’s where many visitors become enthralled with the city and its mix of old and new.
The district first sprang up after the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan ransacked the city in 1671 (he later used the loot to purchase three plantations on Jamaica). The citizens of Panama City at the time moved to a new location and put up a wall around the town to protect against further attacks by pirates. This would become known as Casco Viejo.
Here along cobbled lanes and alleyways, lined with colorful buildings that boast balconies and flower boxes, you’ll stumble across several places sure to pique your interest. Here you’ll find old churches, boutiques, cafes, and trendy bars. Some of the old buildings have been converted into luxury apartment blocks and beautifully curated museums and hotels, too.
There are four main plazas that make up Casco Viejo, with four main thoroughfares to wander along, too. These are: Plaza Bolívar (more on that in a moment), Plaza de Francia, Plaza Herrera and Plaza de la Independencia.
One of the top sights in Casco Viejo is the former headquarters of the French company, and later the American one, behind the construction of the Panama Canal. Built in 1874, today it houses the Panama Canal History Museum.
But overall, aside from specific sights, it’s an interesting area to explore on foot with no particular aim. There are boutiques where you can pick up local handicrafts, rooftop bars to sit with cocktails or glasses of wine, and plenty of places to grab a fresh cup of coffee.
For a guided tour of Casco Viejo, click here.
For a tour of Panama City that also goes to Casco Viejo, click here.
Hang out in Plaza Bolivar
One of the main plazas of Casco Viejo, Plaza Bolivar is a thriving hub of social interaction in the city. Here you’ll find street food vendors serving up traditional street food fare, as well as refreshing raspao (shaved ice).
It’s a meeting place for locals and a magnet for visitors. The plaza comes alive as night falls, with bars spilling out onto terraces where friends sip bottles of beer and eat good food — often to the sound of musicians performing in the square.
The plaza itself dates back to 1883 and is edged by colonial era buildings. It takes its name from Simon Bolivar, the man behind the independence of much of South America, whose monumental statue can also be found at the center of the plaza (complete with an Andean condor rising above).
On the plaza there are a number of interesting buildings to check out. These include the San Francisco church, which has roots in the 18th century, the recently restored Iglesia de San Felipe de Neri, and the prestigious Hotel Colombia, which opened in 1937; once Panama’s premiere hotel, it forms luxury apartments today.
Go to Panama Viejo
Among the unmissable things to do in Panama City, there’s visiting Panama Viejo. The name means meaning “Old Panama”, and indeed the place plays an integral part to the history of the region. This part of the city was the first European settlement to be built on the Pacific coast of the American continent.
It was the jumping off point for a number of important expeditions — to Peru, for example — and was where riches taken from the continent were sent back to Spain.
Founded in 1519 by Pedrarías Dávila, a conquistador, this was for a long time the center of the city but was largely abandoned following its sack by Henry Morgan. The 1671 attack left the city in ruins, with much of it destroyed by fire, and most of its 10,000 inhabitants fleeing to what would become Casco Viejo.
In 1997 this part of the city, now tucked in the suburbs (a 30-minute bus ride from the city center), became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since then, it has attracted tourists from across the globe, who come to see its stark colonial ruins.
Sights include the Old Panama Cathedral; you can still climb up to the bell tower of this 330-year-old religious building and get a great view of the Panama City skyline.
For a guided tour of Panama Viejo, click here.
Take in the views of the skyline
But there are, of course, more places to see the skyscrapers of Panama City in all their glory than from the old cathedral. There are several rooftop bars where you can get a great panorama of Panama City’s skyline. Panaviera Rooftop Bar is on the 66th floor of Trump Tower, and sunset views from here — complete with a bite to eat and a drink — are incredible.
Elsewhere there’s Plaza de Francia. Located at the tip of Casco Viejo, the square features a monument to the French heritage involved in the roots of the Panama Canal. Jutting out to sea, and with a number of stairways that lead up to different levels, it’s a great place to glimpse back at the skyscrapers of the cityscape.
At Casa Casco you can enjoy dinner and drinks as the sun sets over the city, surrounded by the red roofs of the old town. There’s also the Old Town Lighthouse (as the name suggests, it’s a former lighthouse), which features a 360-degree view of Panama City.
Check out the Amador Causeway
The construction of the Panama Canal in the early 20th century resulted in a lot of rock and sediment being excavated from the landscape. One particularly strenuous section of the project was the Culebra Cut, which sliced through the mountain range. This meant a lot of rubble needed to be taken away and disposed of.
However, instead of just piling the rubble up, it was decided that it would be put to good use. In 1913 it was used as a breakwater for the entrance to the canal and was developed into a promenade that actually connected the mainland with four islands just off the coast: Islas Culebra, Flamenco, Perico and Naos.
Originally the construction made up part of a military stronghold — Fort Amador — that the US established at the mouth of this side of the Panama Canal. You can still see remnants of its former military use.
Today Amador Causeway (named after Panama’s first president, Manuel Amador Guerrero) is primarily for recreation, and one of the best things to do in Panama City is going to the long promenade for jogging, strolling, cycling or just sitting and taking in some coastal views. Here you can catch sight of ships queuing up to enter the Panama Canal. There’s even shops, restaurants and marinas located along the causeway.
Hike around Parque Naturale Metropolitano
This large, protected area can be found just north of downtown Panama City. Spanning an area of 265 hectares, the green space consists of a vast swath of forested hillside. Taking a trip here is the perfect escape from the sweltering heat of city life, and a nice breather away from the bustling streets.
There are a handful of trails that wind around the park here, including Titi Monkey Trail and the Nature Trail. Along the way, make sure to stop by the Mirador. Situated at 150 meters (492 feet) high, it provides a great view down over the city, across the bay, including the Panama Canal and even the Miraflores Locks.
The park is a haven for local wildlife, which you may be able to spot as you hike around. It’s home to anteaters, titi monkeys and iguanas; there are also hundreds of species of birds that live in the area too.
Walk up Cerro Ancon
Looking for more fun things to do in Panama City? Hike up Cerro Ancon (Ancon Hill) to get an amazing view of Panama City. At almost 200 meters (656 feet) high, this is one of the most popular viewpoints and also the highest point in the city.
Here atop the hill, you can glimpse a comprehensive view over Casco Viejo, the gleaming modern city, and Panama Canal too. But more than just being a viewpoint, it’s also a nature reserve, and hiking to its summit is also a chance to see some flora and fauna along the way, including sloths, armadillos, and deer — even toucans and wild guinea pigs.
The route to the top of the hill opens early in the morning, so it’s possible to walk up here early to catch the sunrise. It’s pretty straightforward, with the trail consisting of a paved road that winds up the hill through dense jungle.
Through gaps in the trees on the hike up, you’ll see different views of the city down below. Once you’ve reached the summit there are two viewing platforms to check out. The smaller one offers a vista out over Casco Viejo, while the other is larger, features a seating area and boasts views of the modern city and the Pacific Ocean.
Discover the beauty of Soberania National Park
You don’t have to travel far from Panama City to see some of the country’s most far-flung feeling natural landscapes. Just around a half-hour drive from the capital, Soberania National Park is conveniently located for anybody to enjoy a slice of wilderness.
It comprises around 200 square kilometers (77 square miles) of rainforest that is teeming with life.
Here along well marked and guided trails you can spot over 100 species of mammals, hundreds of bird species and 79 reptile species. Once you enter into the park, make sure to stop by the visitor center to pick up a leaflet which will give you information on the hiking routes and walks available.
For a guided hike in Soberania National Park, click here.
Enjoy a walk (or jog) along the Cinta Costera
You don’t have to leave the city behind to enjoy some time out in green space. The busy coastal boulevard of Cinta Costera offers up a seven-kilometer (4.3-mile) route along Panama Bay, with greenery edging the route and views of skyscrapers to lap up.
Made up of reclaimed land in a project first completed in 2009, there are now three main sections to the route. It leads from the neighborhood of Paitilla all the way to Casco Viejo, and then to El Chorrillo.
Along the way, as you stroll or jog (or even cycle, thanks to the dedicated paths), you can stop off at the Japanese garden, refresh yourself with a raspao, or go for seafood at one of the many restaurants along the coast. Or you could just find a bench and enjoy the city views.
Have lunch at the Mercado de Mariscos
Mercado de Mariscos is Panama City’s colorful fish market. Needless to say, I recommend visiting as one of the unmissable things to do in Panama. Situated on the outskirts of Casco Viejo, it’s a modern space that opened in the mid-1990s to host the various seafood vendors scattered around the area, bringing them all under one roof.
The seafront location makes it not only a picturesque place to eat, but also one of the top spots to grab fresh fish in the city. Here you can stop by one (or more) of the 70 or so stalls, gaze at the various seafood on sale, and upstairs there’s a restaurant where they’ll prepare fish right from the market below market. Even Anthony Bourdain enjoyed a meal here!
It’s super cheap; a cup of ceviche here can cost around USD $1. The outdoors area is where you’ll find stalls where you can eat there and then, making it a good spot to rub shoulders with locals as you chow down on delicious food.
Spend some time in the Contemporary Art Museum
Known as MAC Panama, and located near Ancon Hill, this is the only contemporary art museum in Panama City.
It first opened its doors in 1962 as a non-profit organization to display modern art from Panama but found a permanent home in 1983 when it moved into the Old Masonic Temple in Ancon, where it continues to showcase the country’s artistic talent.
Visiting the city’s Contemporary Art Museum puts around 700 pieces of art at your fingertips, from drawings and illustrations to photography and ceramics. As well as a permanent collection, the museum also has a program of temporary exhibitions, with a focus on harboring the work of emerging talents.
Take a day trip to the Panama Canal
If you’re in the capital, a trip to the Panama Canal is definitely one of the best things to do in Panama City. Whether you take a cruise along the canal to experience one of its locks, or if you just take a trip to one of the visitor centers, it’s amazing to see the sheer size of this man-made wonder.
Getting to the nearest visitor center, at Miraflores Locks, from Panama City is best done by car, otherwise you can simply hop in a taxi to take you there easily. There are even some good tours that whisk you around hotspots of the canal.
Once you’re at Miraflores Locks, you can glimpse the ships passing along the canal up close as they move slowly through the giant locks. Make sure to visit either before 10:30 am or in the afternoon (after 2:00 pm), as it’s unlikely you’ll see boats in the middle of the day. You can even go for dinner at the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center.
For a cruise along the Panama Canal, southbound, click here.
For a northbound cruise, click here.
Head over to my post A Guide To Visiting The Panama Canal.
Go on a tour to Monkey Island
Lake Gatun is one of several artificial lakes that were created during the construction of the Panama Canal. Originally a valley, when it was dammed by the Gatun Dam, it became a vast lake, and its tree-covered hills became islands dotting the surface.
Gatun Lake may be integral to the workings of the canal, with the hydroelectric dam supplying power to its locks, but the now isolated islands provide a haven for wildlife.
Here you’ll find several species of monkeys that are native to the region, including mantled howler monkeys. Visiting is one of the best things to do in Panama City to appreciate the variety of wildlife in the regione.
The only real way to see animals is on a boat tour; these can be specific to the island itself or part of a longer day tour that includes Lake Gatun on its itinerary.
For a guided tour that goes to the Gatun Locks and Monkey Island, click here.
If you just want to visit Monkey Island, a tour such as this small-group boat tour (taking three hours) is ideal, allowing you to see the monkeys and other wildlife along the way.
For something more in depth, this 5-hour cruise takes you around a number of sights around Lake Gatun and Soberania National Park. You’ll get to go on a walk through the jungle, swing by Monkey Island, as well as other islands on the lake.
There are more tours on offer too. For example, you could consider this guided tour that goes to Monkey Island and then stops at an Embera (local indigenous communities) village.
For a guided tour of the Panama Canal and Monkey Island, click here.
For more help in planning your trip to Panama, you should also read the following posts:
- Where To Stay In Panama City
- A Guide To Sailing San Blas Islands, Panama
- A Guide To Bocas Del Toro, Panama: 12 Best Things To Do
- A Guide To Portobelo, Panama
- 22 Things To Know Before Visiting Panama