The Things You Should Actually Do in Panama City, Panama There are, frankly, a lot of lists recommending the top tours and sights in Panama City, to the point when it can be difficult to decide which you should follow. I lived in Panama for almost three years, including in Panama City, and in that […]
There are, frankly, a lot of lists recommending the top tours and sights in Panama City, to the point when it can be difficult to decide which you should follow. I lived in Panama for almost three years, including in Panama City, and in that time settled in on what is actually worth doing and seeing. Honestly, I think you can and should do the city in one day and one night – the rest of Panama is beautiful and interesting and much more worth your time if you only have a few days or a couple of weeks. This post will help you make your one day there efficient, so you can get out and see the beaches, the cloud forest, the indigenous cultures, the jungles, and all of the other amazing experiences Panama has to offer.
There is a reason this area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the architecture is funky and old and the cobbled streets pull you back in time. The oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas, the buildings are a mix of French, Spanish, and American influence. It has good restaurants on just about every block, and some nice bars and cafes with views of the ocean and Panama City skyline. Panama in general, to be honest, has pretty boring food, which makes Casco Viejo a bit of an oasis. The restaurants here will be more expensive than pretty much anywhere else in the country, but that’s more of a testament to how cheap Panama is, than to outrageous prices in Casco Viejo. If you want coffee, definitely try to get some that was grown in Panama – it is consistently ranked some of the best in the world. This shouldn’t be difficult, but it is worth at least asking the server if their coffee is from Chiriqui (the province in which most coffee is grown). Panama also has some of the cheapest beer in the world, so if you go with one of the four national brands (Balboa, Atlas, Panama, or Soberana), you’ll almost certainly get a low price. Casco Viejo also has arguably the best night life in the city – the ambiance of the entire area is great, it’s safe, and it has the highest concentration of non-grimy bars in Panama City.
(By the way, Casco Viejo is not to be confused with Panama Viejo, which often listed as a must-see in Panama, but is honestly kind of ‘meh’).
As far as things to do in Panama City, the Canal is a must-see – it’s an incredible feat of engineering, most of which was designed and built over 100 years ago and hasn’t needed an update. The most common ways to experience the Canal are by viewing from one of the locks, taking a boat for a partial transit, or doing a full transit. I personally found the partial transit pretty boring – the allure of being inside the Canal wears off quickly, the boat moves slowly, and most of the transits include a guide talking over a loudspeaker. The Mirasflores Locks, however, are well worth visiting. The museum is interesting and informative, and there is a covered balcony with a perfect view of the locks, so you can watch some of the world’s largest vessels raised and lowered over 80 feet (~25 meters) by harnessing the power of water. The staff also does a good job of letting you know when a boat is about to go through the locks, so you can enjoy the museum without worrying that you will miss a transit. Before you visit, I highly recommend reading The Path Between the Seas – it reads like a piece of fiction and will teach you everything you need to know about the history of the Canal and of the founding of Panama.
A head-on view of the Mirasflores Locks from the museum’s observation deck
One of Panama City’s most endearing qualities is its skyline along the coast. During the day, you see the city and sea shining around you, reflecting the tropical sun. At night, the city lights end abruptly at the dark edges of the ocean, and in the distance, you can see the lights of boats slowly sliding through the Canal, or waiting in clusters at its mouth. In the evening, you could get dinner in Casco Viejo or the fish market and then walk along the Cinta Costera towards the downtown. This will afford you great views in either direction from ground level, and a chance to mingle with the local crowds of couples, families, and joggers enjoying the relative moderation of the evening temperatures. You can walk the whole thing in 30 minutes, or walk a little and get a taxi to your final destination. There are several buildings and hotels with rooftop bars, including the Hard Rock hotel, which are well worth the elevated drink prices to get an awesome view.
The Cinta Costera, Casco Viejo, and (in the distance) boats waiting to enter the Panama Canal
Thrust into the ocean between Casco Viejo and the Panama Canal, the Amador Causeway is a great spot for a bike ride, a long walk, or a meal. On the way in, you should definitely stop in the Biodiversity Museum (whose building was designed by Frank Gehry). Panama has more bird, mammal, and reptile species than the entire United States and Canada combined, which is particularly impressive for a country approximately the size of South Carolina. Walking the entire Causeway takes quite a while, and it is typically pretty hot during the days in Panama, which is why a lot of people choose to rent a bicycle. The bike paths begin a bit after the museum, and there are ample places to rent along the way. Once you reach the restaurants, there are several that afford front-row views of boats entering and exiting the mouth of the Panama Canal.
Panama City skyline from the Amador Causeway
If you like fish, and particularly if you like ceviche, you should definitely stop into the Mercado de Mariscos. Fortunately, it is located just a five minute walk from Casco Viejo, so you can easily make a detour to get a cup of ceviche, or make it part of your route as you make your way down the Cinta Costera in pursuit of a rooftop bar. One of my personal favorite dinners in Panama City is grabbing a large cup of ceviche and a cold beer, and finding a spot on the grass facing Panama’s skyline – you get a satisfying meal and incredible ambiance for about $5. This area is also a great example of the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty in Panama City and the fascinating cultural friction that comes with it. (For more about culture in Panama, check out our post that breaks down the nuances you’ll find all over the country).
Me enjoying a cup of ceviche next to fish market
Unless you’re on a long, slow trip through Latin America, these are the things to do in Panama City in one day and one night. This gives you enough time to hit the top highlights, experience some local cuisine and culture, and go out at night for a few drinks. During the day, you should definitely see the Panama Canal (at the locks, not in a boat), the Amador Causeway (by bike is nice), and by night, I recommend Casco Viejo, the Fish Market, and a rooftop bar along Avenida Balboa. If you do have more time in Panama, be sure to check out my post about things to do all over the country. Enjoy your stay in Panama City and feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want some help putting together an itinerary!