If you’re visiting Panama City soon, you’ve come to the right place. After reading this guide, you’ll know which area to stay in, where to find the best restaurants and how to get around Panama’s vibrant capital city.
What to expect in Panama City
Capital cities in Central America don’t have the best reputations. Often people advise you to skip it, or simply use it as a transportation hub.
That’s not the case with Panama City. It’s a truly cosmopolitan city that’s a fascinating blend of history and the future. The contrast is starkly visible, with skyscrapers towering over colourful colonial neighbourhoods.
It’s a city that’s buzzing with activity due to its role in connecting the world. It’s home to the busiest airport in Central America, offering flights to the rest of Latin America and Europe.
Is Panama City worth visiting?
Panama City is also where you’ll find one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World: the Panama Canal. Around 14,000 ships pass through here every year!
Not only does Panama City beautifully blend the old and the new, it also incorporates nature into its design. Panama City is the only capital in the world with a tropical rainforest within its city limits. You can even spot sloths at Metropolitan Natural Park.
Panama City is a fascinating place to explore, as well as a great jumping-off point to stunning beaches and paradise islands. It has to feature on your Panama itinerary.
How many days should you spend in Panama City?
Panama City is a must visit, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be for long.
We’d say that 2-3 days is enough to see a lot of what Panama City has to offer and absorb its vibe. There is so much to see in the rest of Panama, that you probably don’t want to spend too much time in a big city.
However, there are a lot of day trips that you can do from Panama City, so make sure to account enough time for those.
To help you make the most of your time in Panama City, we’ve put together a list of the top things to do in Panama City.
Where to stay in Panama City
Panama City is pretty big and overall a relatively safe capital city. There are some areas that are probably better avoided and others that just aren’t worth visiting as a tourist.
To make sure that you stay in the best areas in Panama City, here are our 3 favourite neighbourhoods:
Casco Viejo — stunning and colourful historic centre
Best for: colourful colonial-style streets that are full of history. Casco Viejo is the historic centre and a UNESCO World Heritage Site after all.
Who is it for: first-time visitors and those who are looking to stay at the heart of the city. It’s a vibrant area that’s full of energy.
Don’t miss: the rooftop bars with insane views of Panama City.
Biggest downside: accommodation can be expensive.
Accommodation in Casco Viejo
All of the reasons that make Casco Viejo a good place to stay also make it a popular and expensive choice.
There isn’t an abundance of accommodation in Casa Viejo, which means that places get booked up quickly and prices can be high.
For example, private rooms start at around $40 a night.
Here you can find hotels, Airbnbs, hostels and homestays.
Obarrio — a cheaper area in the centre of Panama City
Best for: architecture. Obarrio boasts an interesting array of architecture, blending together both the modern and old. It’s considered a reasonably hip and safe place to stay.
Who is it for: those looking for a cheap place to stay in the centre of Panama City.
Don’t miss: the quirky cafes, restaurants and boutiques.
Biggest downside: there isn’t really one. You could argue that it’s not as vibrant as Casco Viejo, but Obarrio really is a great option.
Accommodation in Obarrio
Obarrio is perfect if you’re travelling on a budget. Private rooms start at around $30 per night.
A lot of Panama City’s hostels can be found in this area, as well as more budget hotels.
San Francisco — the best neighbourhood for nightlife
Best for: nightlife and unforgettable food spots. You’ll either be eating your way through some incredible food, or partying the night away.
Who is it for: San Francisco is for those looking to party! Stay at the centre of the action and save on the late night cabs.
Don’t miss: the great food spots. Some of Panama City’s best restaurants are here.
Biggest downside: if you’re not in Panama City to party, then San Francisco may not be your vibe.
Accommodation in San Francisco
Prices are pretty similar in San Francisco as Obarrio, so pick the area whose vibe resonates with you the most.
Private rooms start at around $30 per night too. Here you can also find hotels, Airbnbs and some hostels.
Best places to eat in Panama City
Panama City is a place that’s bursting with flavours from all around the world. You can find Japanese, European, Italian, and of course Panamanian cuisines.
Being the capital city, this is where you’ll find most of the best restaurants in the country. There are a number of fine-dining establishments that implement creative twists to traditional dishes.
To make sure you eat at the best restaurants in Panama City, here are our top 3 spots:
Fonda Lo Que Hay — some of the best flavours in Panama City
You’ll want to order everything on the menu at Fonda Lo Que Hay as it all sounds too good. It does taste as good as the menu reads! The crispy chicken and tuna carpaccio are two must trys.
As well as fantastic food, the cocktails are also exciting and good quality. All of this is served to you in a perfectly lit and modern space that’s dotted with vegetation.
Nazca 21 — get a taste of Peru without getting on a plane
If you don’t have the chance to go to Peru, but would like to try some great Peruvian cuisine, then head to Nazca 21. The food here isn’t about being fancy, it’s made to be flavourful.
Indulge in some fresh ceviche, delicious seafood and Peruvian Causa – an appetiser made of potatoes, avocado and usually fish. The staff are friendly and very welcoming, making it a lovely place to enjoy some lunch or dinner.
Brutto Restaurant — delicious food in a beautifully decorated restaurant
Brutto Restaurant is more than just somewhere to eat some food. It’s an experience! The service is phenomenal, the interior is thoughtful and the ambience is perfect.
The food is created with passion and imagination. Every dish is magnificently presented, with fantastic flavours that match the appearance. The seafood here is delicious.
How to get around Panama City
Panama City is relatively big. If you wanted to see it all on foot you’d spend more time walking between neighbourhoods than actually seeing them.
Thankfully, Panama City has a number of transportation options that are cheap and efficient.
Here are the best ways to get around in Panama City:
Thankfully Uber operates in Panama City, meaning that you can order a ride wherever you are and pay a fair price. Uber can be a better option over local taxis as they tend to be safer, and you know the price before you get in.
If your phone runs out of battery, or it’s more convenient to hail a local taxi from the street, then it’s still a good way to get around.
The bright yellow taxis are everywhere, so you won’t struggle to find one. They’ll probably also give you a honk as they’re driving past.
Make sure to agree on the price before getting in. Most destinations within Panama City should cost around $2, but some taxis will try to charge you between $5-10.
Panama City is a pretty big city and getting between the different neighbourhoods by foot can take a long time. That’s why most tourists use taxis to get around.
However, once you’re in Casco Viejo, the best way to explore this colonial neighbourhood is with your own two feet. Most of this area is pedestrianised, so really it’s your only way too.
There are also a number of walkways running along the coast that are built just for walking along and admiring the views.
Panama City has a modern, comfortable and efficient bus system. A bus can also be a great way to explore the city. It’s just figuring out which bus you need to be on that can be difficult.
The buses do have their destination in their front window, so this may help you a little bit. You can always ask your accommodation for help with the buses.
If you’re unsure which line to use, then the best route for getting around the city is the Panama Viejo Via Israel-Mariscos. This route goes round in a circle and covers a lot of popular spots in Panama City.
How to use the buses in Panama City
To use the bus you’ll need a Metro Card which can be purchased for $2 from most grocery stores and bus terminals.
After you purchase the card, most rides cost only $0.25 each way.
Panama City’s first and only metro line opened in 2014. The metro is very clean, reliable and easy to use as there’s only one line. You can’t really go wrong!
Each ride costs only $0.35, and you’ll also need a Metro Card to ride the metro.
Now that you’ve finished reading this guide, you’re almost ready for your adventure in Panama City. The next step is to create your personalised itinerary with our top picks of things to do in Panama City. Simply choose your favourite activities and places to visit, and you’re all set to make lasting memories in Panama.
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Kate is a writer, (ex)Management Consultant and avid traveller. She recently returned from a 2-year career break exploring the world and decided corporate life wasn’t for her. She’ll soon be testing life as a digital nomad. She’s visited over 40 countries and fell in love with Latin America in particular. Her travelling has inspired a passion for yoga, salsa, hiking and Spanish.