11 Best Things to Do in Panama City and Around
Get inspired by 11 best things to do in Panama City and its surroundings and enjoy your visit to one of the most inspiring capital cities of Central America.
Panama City, the capital city of Central American country Panama has a different vibe than other capital cities in South and Central America. Or at least it had for us. It felt less crowded than Bogota, safer than Quito, friendlier than Lima and we could continue for long. It was probably the mixture of old and new we could see right after we landed and the fact that after eight months of traveling in South America we moved to Central America and felt a new impulse and excitement to start exploring new places as lately we had a feeling that nothing can surprise us in South America anymore.
The coastal city might be a little bit overlooked as a tourist destination, but we think Panama City deserves at least two or three days of your time. Not only there is quite a lot of things to do right in the city, but the near surroundings of Panama's capital also offer plenty of distraction which can keep you busy for weeks.
Panama is a country which uses US dollars as official currency (similar to Ecuador in South America), and its national airline Copa runs quite a lot of direct flights between Panama City and the USA, so you will for sure meet a lot of Americans in the city. Maybe this can be the reason behind the fact that services such as entrance fees and accommodation are quite pricey, and we did not find this destination particularly budget-friendly.
But with careful planning and prioritizing, we believe you will be able to enjoy Panama City as we did.
We've put together a list of 11 things to do you shouldn't miss when in the city.
We don't mention here any fancy dining or coffee shops, because unlike during our stay in the colonial town of Paraty in Brazil, we had to stay on our budget in Panama City and in our price range the food was as usual - tasteless.
HOW TO GET AROUND PANAMA CITY
Panama City has an extensive system of public transport consisting of buses and the metro.
To get around, you need to buy a rechargeable card for $3 (in the subway), and then charge it for the number of rides you are planning to do (the minimum is $ 1) - one ride by metro cost $0.35, and bus cost $0.25. The only exception is the old and crowded chicken buses where you can pay cash. Using public transport is by no means the cheapest way how to get around the city.
We found useful Uber, especially when we needed to get from the airport, it was half the price of a standard taxi.
When you want to get the standard local cab, negotiate the price in advance. We were never able to get a decent price as we always were asked for what we call a gringo surcharge.
THE PANAMA CANAL
Without any doubts, the Panama Canal is one of the most visited places not only in Panama City but in the country overall, and it’s a must-include in your Panama travel itinerary.
Even when you are not a fan of technical attractions, it is almost essential to see one of the greatest accomplishments in Panama's history, the canal which connects the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Without realizing it, we all profit from it as most of the goods sent via sea around the world most likely undertakes this passageway.
It is easy to visit Panama Canal and Miraflores Visitor Center - you can take either taxi or a bus from Albrook Station from platform D which goes approximately every 20 minutes and cost $0.25, you must have the plastic card with credit.
We felt that the entrance fee to see the Panama Canal is a bit overpriced and the cost is higher every year. In March 2019, the entrance fee for foreigners was $20, and it includes the entry to the museum, cinema (where you can watch the history of the Panama Canal), and you can, of course, go to the viewing platform. The Canal is not very interesting without seeing the big ships pass - your best bet to see boats are between 9 AM - 12 PM and from 3 PM to 5 PM.
There are an on-site restaurant and cafe, but if traveling on a budget, we recommend you to bring your snack.
Or you can join a popular tour from Panama City and visit a Panama Canal, Gatun Lake, Monkey Island and enjoy the train ride in one day.
Panama Viejo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a place which in the 16th century was a bustling center of at that time newly established Panama City.
Panama Viejo was a well laid out and planned a city with a cathedral, port, and citizen house, but everything changed since then. Not only Panama Viejo is no longer a city center (today it lies on an outskirt of Panama City), but only ruins in otherwise modern neighborhood remained here. Although Panama Viejo was ruined by fire at the end of the 17th century (and meanwhile many times attacked by pirates), a careful restoration has been taking place here, and you can wander around the site and admire restored cathedral, tower or visit the on-site museum to learn more about Panama City's history.
Although Panama Viejo site in on UNESCO list, we still think that the $15 entrance fee is quite steep, but hope it will at least help fund renovation process. To get there, stop any bus on the main highway with a sign Panama Viejo, it takes about 25 minutes to get there from the city center.
EXPLORE THE COLONIAL TOWN OF CASCO VIEJO
We had a feeling that the most beautiful part of Panama City, Casco Viejo is waking up from a deep sleep, it almost seems like the local authorities just now realized the potential of the UNESCO protected district and want to restore all buildings at once.
Strolling through the picturesque old streets while admiring houses, churches or squares will cost you nothing, so enjoy your time leisurely here. Restaurants and cafes are pretty expensive in the area, so if you want to save some money, eat before entering Casco Viejo.
Joining a guided tour might be a good idea if you are not comfortable exploring on your own.
It is interesting that not many years ago the area was considered unsafe and it was a no-go zone for tourists, but the situation has changed a lot.
You can read our post including safety tips and advice on how to stay safe in South America - Central America is very similar when it comes to safety.
HIKE AT PARQUE METROPOLITANO OR CERRO ANCON
Parque Metropolitano or Cerro Anton are the closest areas where to find nature and nice views within Panama City.
It is not an exception to spot here colorful birds or monkeys. From both, Metropolitano Parque and Cerro Anton you can also enjoy nice vistas of Panama City, and you don't need to pay an entrance fee. Metropolitano Park is on a city's outskirts, but it is not hard to reach it by bus. Cerro Ancon is near Casco Viejo, but instead of walking we recommend you taking Uber to the entrance gate.
We tried to walk there through a shabby neighborhood but were stopped by a policeman who advised us to take a taxi saying it is dangerous and there is a high chance we will be robbed. It quite surprised us as we did not read anything about robbing tourists in the area, but he probably knew something we did not, so rather take a cab or go with a larger group.
If you are coming from a city such as Calgary where skyscrapers are a common thing, you will soon feel comfortable here, and Panama City will look somehow familiar to you.
The modern area grew quickly in the past few years, and it seems that the growth won't stop any time soon. It is not comfortable walking among skyscrapers as the pedestrian infrastructure is missing, so it is much better to admire the cityscape from a distance.
The most notable skyscraper of Panama City is for sure the F & F Tower nicknamed as EL Tornillo alias screw for its unusual shape.
The high of this tower is 236 meters, so it is almost impossible to miss it when walking around Panama City.
The award-winning skyscraper is a remarkable sight which is the best appreciated from a distance, so you don't need to head to the office district, but it is better to walk around the waterfront to enjoy city's panorama from full perspective.
HEAD TO SOBERANIA NATIONAL PARK
Parque Nacional Soberania is one of the most visited national parks in Panama, and the reason is simple. It is so close to Panama City that the park serves on a daily basis as a gateway for all people living in the city who want to get out and escape the busy streets. The park lies within tropical rainforest and thanks to its accessibility, and fauna and flora diversity, it’s a perfect destination for hikers and birdwatchers.
The easiest way how to reach Soberania National Park is by car or with a tour where a guide will point out all animal species along the way. You can take any Gamboa-bound bus from Albrook station which will take you to the national park headquarters, but it is still quite far from trailheads, so it is much convenient to take a taxi.
Entrance fee to the park is $5.
Cinta Costera is a beautiful, 8 kilometers long waterfront stretch where you can walk, jog or cycle in case you need to stretch your legs a bit after leisure strolling around the city.
The only obstacle can be the heat because when we were in Panama City it was so hot the last thing we wanted to do was move fast, so it is better to hit Cinta Costera early in the morning or later in the afternoon.
Recently renovated, Amador Causeway was brought back to life and serves as another place where locals or visitors can spend their free time. The Amador Causeway is a thin strip of land which connects Panama City with Amador Island, where you can walk, jog or have lunch with of city skyline.
HIT THE BEACH
Although Panama City has some beaches, they are not well-known for their beauty.
That's why the most popular escape from the city is to nearby islands which can be visited on a one-day or multi-day trip. The best way how to enjoy the beach is to take a tour (it is complicated to get there on your own but not impossible) to San Blas Islands or to Pearl Islands - the price is around $90 per day and includes food, transport, and accommodation.
You can also visit Isla Grande and colonial city of Portobelo on a day tour from Panam City.
ESCAPE TO EL VALLE DE ANTON
Only two and half hours by bus from Panama City lies a small town El Valle de Anton surrounded by lush green hills and waterfalls. The town was built in a crater and from a small settlement grew bigger in all directions, so the crater is filled today with many houses as El Valle serves as a retreat for wealthy Panamians.
Otherwise, El Valle de Anton is a perfect place not only for avid hikers (there are several trails), but also for families and nature lovers. It is one of those places where you can visit the orchids garden, butterfly garden or hot springs and it reminded us a bit a small village Mindo in Ecuador.
WHERE TO STAY IN PANAMA CITY
The most popular and also convenient place to stay in Panama City is within the historical center of Panama Viejo or in one of the modern chain hotels offering the sea view. If you are looking for something cheaper, look for a room in other areas.
Budget | Hotel Valencia - This budget-friendly hotel is located within walking distance to the historic center, metro station, and bus station. Staff is friendly, and the place is safe. We spent our stay there and can recommend it to all budget travelers.
Mid-range | Tryp by Wyndham Panama Centro - Beautifully appointed and air-conditioned rooms close to the city center offers the best value in Panama City. Among the best features belong outdoor pool, fitness center, and rooftop view.
Luxury | Hard Rock Hotel Panama Megapolis - A stylish accommodation overlooking the city and oceanfront has everything you might think of including spa, sauna and steam bath.
You can also search for all hostel options using HostelWorld.
HOW TO TRAVEL FROM PANAMA CITY
Panama city is well-connected with the USA or South America by air, but if you are planning on traveling the country by land, there is nothing easier than to head to the national and international bus terminal Albrook from where you can travel literally to any place within Panama or even to Costa Rica.
If you need to get to Colombia, the most popular way is to do the sailing tour via San Blas Islands or by plane.
If you are arriving via Tocumen International Airport, you can also rent a car there.
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