While Panama City, Panama might not be as overwhelmingly charming as colonial neighbor Cartagena, Colombia, or as clean and green as northern Costa Rica, don’t count out this incredible metropolis when creating your travel plans. Far too many travelers skip it entirely, just spend a layover in this city, only to discover just how much Panama City, Panama has to offer. If you visit Central America, don’t miss out on the wonders Panama City has to offer.
In this ultimate guide to the best things to do in Panama City, Panama, we’ll show you some of our favorite attractions in Panama City and the best ways to spend an unforgettable day. From exploring historic cobblestone streets to wandering along scenic causeways and tasting fresh seafood, Panama City is brimming with great things to do if you just give it a chance to show its stuff.
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Things To Do in Panama City, Panama
1. Explore Casco Viejo
What was formerly a rundown, less-desirable neighborhood just a few decades ago has undergone a huge renaissance. With projects dedicated to restoring historic structures to their former glory, while bringing new spaces for dining, playing, and staying to the neighborhood, Panama City’s Casco Viejo (also known as Casco Antiguo) is now officially the place to be.
From fine dining to cool rooftop bars and cafes boasting the best coffee in the country, Casco Viejo has it all, certainly enough to warrant a full day exploring the neighborhood – it’s even considered one of the best places to stay in Panama City.
Looking for things to do in Casco Viejo? While just wandering this charming neighborhood and strolling down its cobblestone streets is a pleasure, here are some of the neighborhood’s highlights:
- Eat at Mahalo Cocina y Jardin, the cute (and delicious!) restaurant inside Las Clementinas.
- Visit the ruins of the Iglesia de la Sociedad de Jesús.
- Pop into Hotel La Compañía, right next door to the ruined church, for a drink. Even better, stay the night! This restored historic hotel is one of the best hotels in Panama City.
- Visit Pedro Mandiga, the country’s first artisanal rum distillery, for a proper taste test
- Visit the Iglesia de San Jose church and marvel at the impressive golden altar, one of the few remaining relics of the 1671 pirate sacking of the city by famed pirate Henry Morgan
- Have a photoshoot among murals, historic walls, and colonial churches. While there are plenty of spots for photography in Panama City, this is one of the best!
2. Explore Soberania National Park
Just 45 minutes outside Panama City, Soberanía National Park is a hidden gem for travelers looking to escape from the excitement of Panama City. You’ll find lush rainforests, impressive flora and fauna, and countless activities that make for an unforgettable trip.
Visitors can enjoy ziplining over the jungle with Gamboa Tree Trek Adventure Park for an exciting way to see the beauty of the national park from above.
If you’re looking for a less adventurous but equally impressive aerial view of the park, head to the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center. Here you’ll find a giant platform – the Canopy Tower – with a spiral staircase that reaches over 100 feet (about 32 meters) into the air for a stunning view of the treetops.
The park is easily accessible via group excursion, private tour, or by taking a taxi or your own private transport just outside of the city, making for a perfect half-day or full-day trip. It’s one of the best things to do in Panama City, Panama.
3. Sip Coffee in Chiriqui
Chiriquí might not be located in Panama City proper, but taking a day trip to this stunning spot is certainly one of the best things to do in Panama City, Panama! Located in the western part of Panama, the stunning Chiriquí region is known for having an incredible mix of white sand beaches, cloud forests, and other attractive spots that draw plenty of visitors, but did you know it’s also home to the world’s most valuable coffee?
Visitors searching for the valuable “Geisha coffee” can tour coffee farms and meet with producers who have perfected their craft. Tours include learning about the agricultural process of coffee, trekking through the hillsides, and of course, the opportunity to taste this special coffee!
Chiriquí is about an hour away from Panama City by plane, or around seven hours by car, so it makes for a perfect overnight trip or weekend excursion. However you visit, you won’t want to miss this unforgettable corner of this lovely country.
4. Visit the San Blas Islands
Just a tiny spray of white sands islands in the Caribbean Sea, Panama’s San Blas Islands are among the best Caribbean island destinations for travelers looking for an off-the-beaten-path getaway. While they’ve long been a popular destination with backpackers, the San Blas islands still have that deserted island, hidden gem feel you’ll love.
As the islands are quite isolated, most travelers visit by day trip from Panama City, or by booking on to a multi-day tour. Even if you’re not usually a tour person, this is the spot for it – it makes island-hopping around the archipelago a breeze, and takes care of all transport, lodging, and food in an area where you’ll sometimes get limited internet, and where transport can be a bit more challenging than it is on the mainland.
These are popular options to consider:
While the San Blas Islands are technically a part of the country of Panama, these islands are also known as Guna Yala, the name given to them by the local Guna people and signifying “Guna’s Land.” These islands are semi-autonomous, and while you’ll certainly see and interact with Guna people on your trip, the islands this people group populates are mostly not the ones that tourists visit.
Your tourism dollars in the San Blas Islands support these communities, making a trip to these pristine Caribbean islands a particularly impactful one.
5. Visit the Panama Canal
Would it be a visit to Panama without visiting its most famous attraction? The historic Panama Canal, completed in 1914 after more than a decade of effort sliding through jungle and mountains, has completely transformed the history of Panama – and of the entire world, still dependent on this critical shipping channel.
Located within the city (just south of the Casco Viejo), the Panama Canal is easily accessible to the rest of the city, and makes for a great half-day excursion. You’ll find great half-day tours of both the city and the canal, which makes for a great way to kill two birds with one stone, especially if you’re visiting the city on a short trip.
If you can fit it into your itinerary, try to find an experience (THIS one!) that includes actually sailing on a stretch of the canal. While the Panama Canal is impressive from the popular viewpoints and the Miraflores Visitor Center, there’s nothing like actually getting to ride this waterway, even if just for a short stretch.
6. Visit the Biomuseo
Panama City’s Biomuseo is more than just your average natural history museum. This stunning building is complete with botanical gardens, a cafe, and impressive gallery rooms, as well as boasting a full list of rotating events and exhibits. It is one of the best things to do in Panama City, Panama, and a favorite spot with travelers and locals alike.
Designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, its dramatic facade makes an incredible impression along the oceanfront on the Amador Causeway at the southern entrance to the Panama Canal – it’s worth taking a peek from the outside, even if you don’t intend to go inside!
Open from Thursdays to Sundays, this institution is well worth adding to your Panama City itinerary. Make sure to check the schedule beforehand to see if your visit coincides with any events!
7. Stay in a Historic Hotel (Or, One With a Pool Deck!)
You’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to finding where to stay in Panama City. From ultra-modern hotels in the business center of the city to intricately restored historic spots in the Casco Viejo, there is something for everyone in Panama City.
Panama City has a crop of new hotels in the Casco Viejo that have been a part of taking this historic district back to its historic glory. Las Clementinas has been around for a few years now, but Hotel La Compañía is the true star of the neighborhood.
This building was formerly the convent used by practicants at the neighboring Iglesia de la Sociedad de Jesus, and after a meticulous restoration is now a stunning mix of historically faithful details and modern luxury. A stay at Hotel La Compania is truly an experience in itself.
Keep in mind that as a coastal city, Panama City can get quite hot, so if you’re open to staying in a more modern spot, choose one of the city’s hotels with a rooftop pool. W Panama, located in the business district, and JW Marriott Panama, located along the coast, are particularly stunning and boast jaw-droppingly beautiful views of the city and ocean.
Read More: 8 Best Hotels in Panama City, Panama
8. Explore Panama La Vieja
Panama La Vieja – also known as Panama Viejo – is not the city’s historic center, as it might seem. Panama La Vieja, in fact, is much older. Located near the modern-day upscale Costa del Este neighborhood towards the north of the City, the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as Panama La Vieja (or Panama Viejo) is actually the ruins of the first Panama City, famously destroyed in record-setting 1671 pirate raid.
Visiting the ruins of the original Panama City is easily among the most fascinating things to do in Panama City, Panama, whether you’re a history buff or not. The infamous pirate Henry Morgan (of Capitan Morgan rum fame) sacked the city, leaving barely a stone standing of what was previously an incredibly wealthy city.
Rather than rebuilding on the same site, the Spanish rebuilt slightly south, in the area that is currently the city’s Casco Viejo. You’ll love exploring what remains of the original city while imagining pirates storming and looting the area centuries ago. Give yourself at least an hour to explore, but make sure you book your ticket online ahead of time!
9. Bike the Cinta Costera
Arching along the waterway from just north of the Casco Viejo towards the upscale Punta Pacifica neighborhood, the Cinta Costera is one of the most emblematic images of Panama City, as well as one of its most beautiful spots. This coastal waterfront walkway and bike path is hugely popular with locals and travelers alike for its ocean breezes, incredible city viewpoints, and beautifully manicured lawns. It’s no wonder it’s one of the best things to do in Panama City, Panama.
Whether you want to congregate with locals at sundown, enjoy showstopping sunsets, or start your day with a morning jog in one of the city’s most beautiful areas, this is a must-visit destination. With a leisurely stroll from one end to the other taking just over 45 minutes to an hour, it’s not a bad way to start an evening.
10. Take a Day Trip to Taboga Island
Just south of Panama City lies the paradise island known as Taboga Island, whose white sand beaches and impossibly clear waters make it one of the most popular day trips from Panama City. Known as the “island of the flowers,” this lush island has great hiking trails, activities such as whale watching, and beautiful beaches with great snorkeling.
While you can catch a thirty-minute ferry from the city to Taboga Island, it costs about $20 for the trip, so many travelers opt to pay a bit more and travel on a small group excursion. Favorite excursions to Taboga Island include full-day trips to Taboga Island via catamaran, with all food and drinks included.
These excursions make for a truly unforgettable day on the water – stops along the way for swimming and cooling off, as well as plenty of time at the beach, means you’ll have the best beach day you can imagine, plus plenty of space to spread out on board means you’re traveling in style.
Looking for even more privacy? You can also have an ultra-romantic excursion to the island on your own private charter to Taboga Island – or, book a private charter for your group of friends or family!
11. Eat Ceviche
Think ceviche is only at its best in Peru? Panama City, Panama is another spot for savoring this ultra-fresh seafood dish. With its envious coastal location and long history of fishing, you can’t find a fresher ceviche than the dishes you’ll savor in Panama City.
Featuring sea bass, shrimp, octopus, or conch, all “cooked” in lime juice and seasoned with onions, peppers, salt, and pepper, it’s the ultimate refreshment on a hot day.
Looking for the best ceviche in the city? Whether you want a local spot or an upscale fine dining experience, these are some of the best places in Panama City to order this favorite dish.
- Nazca 21 is a Peruvian take on ceviche!
- Santa Rita Casco Viejo offers inventive, creative dishes in a beautiful, even romantic, setting just shy of fine dining. The Casco Viejo location is enviable.
- El Mercado de Mariscos for the absolute freshest and cheapest ceviche in town at the local fish market. Expect zero frills but the most delicious and authentic ceviche you’ve ever tasted.
12. Take in the View from a Rooftop Bar
With its coastal location and glittering, modern skyline, Panama City is a place to enjoy some incredible views. Located on the Pacific Coast, Panama City looks best at sunset, making this a prime destination to head for a rooftop bar or restaurant to enjoy the incredible evening colors, drink in hand.
Punta Pacifica and other modern areas of the city boast some stunning views and great places to eat and drink, with Luna Rooftop being one of the most famous spots in this part of the city for incredible views and great atmosphere alike. Panaviera, at the JW Marriott Panama on the 66th floor, is Central America’s highest rooftop bar – absolutely worth a visit for at least one drink!
However, Casco Viejo has officially put modern Panama City on notice, with an incredible array of rooftops with both bars and delicious dining options to choose from. We’ll take a Casco Viejo rooftop over one in a more modern part of the city any time! These are some of the city’s favorites:
- Selina Casco Viejo, on the rooftop of the Selina coliving and coworking space, is a popular bar choice with a lovely and youthful atmosphere, especially in the evening.
- Tántalo is a favorite, one of the first great rooftop spaces in Casco Viejo, offering the very best in music, drinks, and food – with great views.
- Vista Corona, on top of Casco Viejo’s Gold House, makes you feel like you’re among the historic heart of the city, with views of church bell towers and steeples. A laid-back atmosphere with delicious food brings people back again and again.
13. Enjoy High-End Shopping
As the busiest city and most important financial capital in Central America, Panama City has a lot of wealth, and with that comes plenty of high-end brands looking to woo consumers. The city is filled with malls packed with designer brands, so if you’re in the mood for some shopping you’re certainly in luck. Multiplaza Mall in Punta Paitilla on the Punta Pacifica is one of the city’s most upscale malls, while Albrook Mall has more affordable options for shoppers on all budgets.
Does the idea of visiting a mall sound like sacrilege on a vacation, especially in a new city? While it might be an unexpected way to spend time while traveling for some, Panama City’s malls are truly impressive and packed with movie theaters, restaurants, cafes, and other things to do as well.
14. Go Ziplining
Once you’ve thoroughly explored Panama City, it’s time to take a breath of fresh air and explore some of the country’s other world-class spots. One of the best ways to see a whole other side of Panama is by ziplining over the canopy, a popular and easy excursion from the city that takes travelers to the interior of the country.
The tiny town of Gamboa along the Panama Canal is the access point for the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve, home to an impressive ziplining course perfect for an adventurous city escape. While many visitors book just an excursion to Gamboa from Panama City, others choose to make ziplining part of a Panama Canal tour, a convenient way to pack two incredible experiences into one hassle-free day.
15. Visit Monkey Island
If you’re looking for a great day trip from Panama City but ziplining isn’t exactly your thing, how about a visit to Monkey Island? Monkey Island is a part of the Panama Canal waterway not far from Gamboa. Explore by boat and spot howler monkeys and capuchin monkeys playing and searching for food.
Truthfully, Monkey Island is not the most “in-the-wild” experience with monkeys you could have in the jungles of Panama; if you have time on your itinerary to visit one of Panama’s ecolodges or eco-resorts in the verdant interior of the country, you’ll have a much more meaningful experience with playful monkeys. However, as a day trip from Panama City, it’s a fun way to spend an afternoon and a great, scenic escape!
16. Test Your Luck at a Casino
Panama City is quite well known for its casinos, so if you’re looking for a fun way to spend an evening – or even just an interesting part of the city to explore – head to one of the city’s several casinos. While the city has a number of different spots, including Sortis Casino and StarBay Casino, the most impressive by far is the Ocean Sun Casino, located high up in the modern, coastal JW Marriott Panama.
The views from the casino will wow you! Remember how I said the Panaviera at the JW Marriott was worth a visit? This casino shares a location with the Panaviera – and the same spectacular views. As far as the casino goes, it’s well-equipped, has plenty of machines and tables for games, and is overall quite impressive. Whether you’re drawn here to play or just enjoy the view, it makes for a great evening.
Carley Rojas Avila is a bilingual New York-based travel writer, editor, content marketer, and the founder of the digital travel publications Explorers Away and Home to Havana. Carley is an expert on all things Latin America, the Caribbean, and Cuba, having lived and worked in four different countries in the region. Her writing has appeared on the Associated Press wires and in Travel + Leisure, Yahoo, MSN, Euronews, The Weather Channel, and more. When she's not writing about her travels, find her front row at a Bad Bunny concert, befriending street cats, and taste-testing every pizza in Havana.