Get your bucket list ready. In this guide, we’ll show you the best things to do in Panama City and how to experience them. Need help planning your trip? Check out our tips for visiting Panama City — you’ll find the best restaurants, where to stay, how to get around and more!
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.
Top tours in and around Panama City
- Fascinating city tour including the Panama Canal for $67
- 6-hour cruise along the Panama Canal for $145
- Day trip to four San Blas islands for $159
- 4 day San Blas Islands sailing trip for $539
#1 Watch a ship pass through the locks of the Panama Canal
A lot of people like to tick off the Seven Wonders of the World, but have you been keeping track of the Seven Wonders of the MODERN World?
If not, then your trip to Panama City is a great time to start — the Panama Canal is one of them!
This man-made wonder showcases the impressiveness of human engineering. The star of the show are the locks which lower and elevate the massive ships, using just the water levels.
Why was the Panama Canal built?
The Panama Canal was completed in 1914 to save ships a lot of time!
Before the Panama Canal was built, ships travelling from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast had to go around the Cape Horn in South America, adding around 8,000 nautical miles to their journey. That’s a lot of time and money.
Now, ships can pass through the 50-mile (80km) long canal in around 8-10 hours. The Panama Canal, which has now seen around 900,000 ships pass through, showcases engineering genius.
How to visit the Panama Canal
The part of the Panama Canal that you should see are the locks. The locks are needed to raise and lower the ships over the elevation change that occurs throughout the canal’s path.
The Miraflores Lock sits closest to the centre of Panama City and therefore is the easiest to visit. There is a viewing platform, visitor centre and museum that you can visit there.
The viewing platform provides a perfect spot to observe a ship passing through the lock. Make sure to ask at the visitor centre what time a ship will be passing through so that you can watch the whole process.
Whilst you’re there, the museum is a good way to learn about how the Panama Canal works, its history and how it was built. There is also a cinema where you can watch a 20-minute video about the canal.
Tickets for the Miraflores Visitor Centre cost $10 per person.
Take a cruise along the Panama Canal
If watching the process isn’t enough for you, you can actually experience it yourself by joining a cruise.
You can travel all the way from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean, going through all three sets of locks during this time. Along the way enjoy Gutan Lake and the Chagres River, whilst learning about the history and construction of the canal from your guide.
There are a number of options to cruise the Panama Canal:
- 8-hour full canal tour for $195
- 6-hour northbound partial canal tour for $145
- 6-hour southbound partial canal tour for $145
#2 Explore the historic centre of Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo can easily be described as the beating heart of Panama City.
Its colonial streets are lined with colourful buildings adorned with balconies, flowers, greenery and flags. It always feels bright in Casco Viejo, even when the sun isn’t out.
Being the historic centre and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s one of the most popular neighbourhoods in Panama City.
It’s also where you’ll find lots of restaurants, cafes, bars, boutiques, museums and churches. Essentially, there’s a lot to keep you busy in Casco Viejo.
If you want to fall in love with more than just its beauty, we’d recommend joining this intimate tour of Casco Viejo to learn about the stories behind the beautiful facades.
#3 Explore Casco Viejo in a slightly different way
Casco Viejo isn’t a place solely for the daytime, it comes to life even more at night.
This Panama Barcrawl will take you to some of the best bars and clubs in Casco Viejo. You’ll do this alongside other travellers and locals also looking to have a good time.
With a drink included in all five spots that you visit, it’s a guaranteed good night!
#4 Join a walking tour
One of the best ways to get to know a city is to take a walking tour. Learning about the city’s history, culture and traditions really helps to bring the place alive.
Free Walking Tour
The Free Walking Tour of Panama City is a tip-based tour. This means that at the end of the tour, you pay what you think the tour was worth.
This particular tour takes you on a journey through the historic centre of Panama City, covering spots such as Plaza de la Independencia, Plaza Herrera, Santo Domingo Church, Esteban Huertas promenade and more.
The tour lasts for 2.5 hours, so there is plenty of time to learn.
City tour and Panama Canal
If 2.5 hours of exploring isn’t quite enough for you, then you can join this 5-hour city tour that also includes the Panama Canal (entrance to Miraflores Visitor Centre not included).
Throughout the tour you’ll discover the secrets and hidden stories of the historic centre, visit Amador Causeway and of course the Panama Canal.
The tour can be done as a group tour or private, starting from $67.
#5 Take a bike tour of Panama City
For those who don’t love to use their own two feet, why not switch them for two wheels instead?
Taking a bike tour of Panama City combines learning with exercise and fun. It’s a great way to cover more ground too.
This 2-3 hour bike tour for $30 covers the Cinta Costera, Casco Viejo and the local fish market.
#6 Take a boat trip to the San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands massively contributed to putting Panama on most travellers’ radars.
One minute you’re looking at pictures of these idyllic islands, and the next you’re booking flights to Panama. It’s hard to resist their turquoise waters and white-sand beaches lined with swaying palm trees.
The San Blas Islands actually sit within an Indigenous territory governed by the Guna Indigenous group. The archipelago consists of 365 islands, of which only 50 are inhabited by the Guna people.
Want more information on the San Blas Islands, check out our San Blas guide.
How to visit the San Blas Islands
For some people, a day trip to some of the San Blas Islands is enough to satisfy their paradise island cravings.
If that’s you, then you can join this day tour from Panama City that takes you to four of the San Blas Islands. You’ll get the opportunity to swim, snorkel, kayak, relax and enjoy some delicious food that’s all included for $159.
Other people can’t get enough, and want to fully immerse themselves in boat and island life.
There are plenty of multi-day tours available from Panama City, varying in length and the level of luxury. With most of them, you’ll also get to stay on the islands.
It’s likely to be an unforgettable trip, like no other!
The 4-day island hopping adventure through the San Blas islands for $539 is likely to be the highlight of your trip!
#7 Spend a day or two on the Pearl Island beaches
You’re spoiled for islands when it comes to Panama City. You have the world-famous San Blas Islands in the Caribbean and the Pearl Islands in the Pacific.
Due to their location, the Pearl Islands used to be restricted to just the rich and famous. Nowadays, access to the archipelago of over 200 islands and islets has been made easier.
What is there to do on the Pearl Islands?
Think of a paradise island in your head. That’s exactly what the Pearl Islands are like.
Miles of deserted white beaches, crystal-clear waves lapping at the shores and an abundance of marine life. They’ve definitely become a lot more touristy over the past few years, but they are still beautiful.
The biggest of the Pearl Islands is Isla Del Ray, but Contadora Island is the most popular with a number of resorts, hotels and an airport. If you’re looking for a more rustic island, then Isla Saboga is a good choice.
Aside from sunbathing, swimming and relaxing, like on most tropical islands, you can go snorkelling, scuba diving and even whale watching.
Whilst day tours are a popular way to escape the busyness of Panama City, we’d recommend spending a few days on the Pearl Islands. Treat yourself to a beach retreat!
How to get to the Pearl Islands
The easiest way, albeit the more expensive and less environmentally-friendly, is to take a flight. It only takes 15 minutes from Panama City to Contadora Island.
Most people opt for the ferries that connect the archipelago with the mainland. These take around 1.5 hours and cost between $80-100 round trip.
#8 Spend the day on Taboga Island
As you approach Taboga Island, you can’t help but be mesmerised by the brightly-painted houses and shops that peek out from the jungle around them.
Taboga Island is the easiest island getaway from Panama City. The ferry from Amador Causeway takes only 30 minutes and costs $24 return.
What can you do on Taboga Island?
Also known as the Island of Flowers, it’s a great place to go hiking. Cerro Vigia or Cerro de la Cruz are two of the highest points on the island, offering incredible views over the ocean and the rolling green hills.
The town on Taboga Island is also wonderful to wander around. The town boasts a collation of Spanish architecture decorated in lots of different colours. It is also home to the second oldest church in the Western hemisphere, San Pedro Church.
Once you’re done exploring the island, you can happily spend the rest of the day relaxing on the beach, soaking up the sun.
Join a boat tour to Taboga Island
If you want to make your day to Taboga Island as fun as possible, we’d recommend joining this All Inclusive Catamaran for $94.
Instead of taking the ferry, you can enjoy the day on a luxurious catamaran with an open bar, lunch and snacks. You’ll also still have plenty of time to enjoy Taboga as well as the catamaran.
Want to add a splash of luxury? Book an all inclusive catamaran tour to Taboga Island for $94.
#9 Hike the trails at Soberania National Park
Soberania National Park is the closest national park to Panama City, only a 30-minute drive away.
It’s the ideal place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, and immerse yourself in history and nature.
Trails in Soberania National Park
The Camino de Cruce trail was actually built in 1527 to link Old Panama City to the port of Venta de Cruces. You can still walk on the same stones that travellers walked on hundreds of years ago.
That’s not the only trail available at Soberania National Park. There are plenty more, including an 8-mile trail past wonderful viewpoints and waterfalls.
The national park is spread across 55,000 acres of land with the Chagres River running through the middle of it. Soberania is flourishing with wildlife and nature, particularly birds.
The air around you will be constantly filled with birdsong.
Visiting Soberania National Park is a great way to spend one of your days in Panama City.
#10 Spot some animals at Metropolitan Natural Park
It’s extremely important to have green spaces in a city and Panama City has excelled at this.
Right in the middle of the city, you will find Metropolitan Natural Park. It’s not just any park, it covers 573 acres.
Not to mention that the park has 284 different types of trees. These trees then provide homes for 254 species of birds, 45 species of mammals, 36 species of reptiles and 14 species of amphibians. If you’re really lucky, you can spot sloths and Geoffroy’s Tamarins here!
There are five trails that you can embark on.
#11 Find the monkeys on Monkey Island
Located on Gatun Lake, Monkey Island gets its name from, well you’ve probably already guessed, it’s resident monkeys.
Gatun Lake is part of the Panama Canal, so it’s also an opportunity to tick this off your list.
You can find several species of monkeys here, including the Mantled Howler Monkey, White-Faced Capuchin Monkey, Geoffroy’s Tamarin Monkey and the Lemurine Owl Monkey.
You’ll probably hear them before you see them, as the Mantled Howler Monkey’s cry can be heard from up to 5km away!
Monkey Island is only big enough for the monkeys. You can’t actually step foot on land. Instead, you’ll be taken around the island searching for monkeys that occasionally decide to join your boat too.
How to visit Monkey Island
The only way to visit Monkey Island is by boat. The boats leave from Gamboa Marina, about 40 minutes from Panama City.
The boats then travel along the Chagres River for another 30 minutes. During this time, keep your eye out for wildlife along the shores and the caimans in the murky water below.
Most people visit Monkey Island with a tour. This way your transportation to Gamboa Marina and the boat are organised for you. We recommend this 4-hour tour with a knowledgeable guide for $70.
Alternatively, some people have had success arriving at Gamboa Marina by themselves, and then being offered a cheaper boat ride by locals there. The price you pay will be completely dependent on what the local decides to charge you and your haggling skills.
Enjoy a stress-free tour to Monkey Island with all transportation organised for you for $70.
#12 Enjoy incredible views of Panama City from a rooftop bar
Panama City has a pretty impressive skyline. The contrast between the old colonial buildings beside the towering skyscrapers is striking.
There is so much to take in. You may as well grab a seat and enjoy a drink whilst you do. The best place to do this is a rooftop bar, and luckily Panama City is full of them.
There’s a rooftop bar to suit everyone, whether you’re looking for relaxed or super exclusive.
Which rooftop bars to visit?
If you want somewhere that won’t break the bank, then Selina Rooftop is a good spot. This hostel chain has a great rooftop bar that will be full of young people ready for a good time.
Salvaje is a relatively new rooftop bar that offers a more upscale atmosphere. The view is amazing, the food is delicious and the cocktails do their job!
At CasaCasco you can spend your night working your way up the floors. The lower floors are home to a number of restaurants, the fourth floor is where you’ll find the club and finally at the top, the spectacular rooftop bar. We’ll warn you, it’s not cheap there.
#13 Get active on the Amador Causeway
The Amador Causeway is a 6km long road that extends out into the Pacific Ocean, connecting the city with four islands called the Causeway Islands.
Whilst there’s nothing too exciting on the islands themselves, the Causeway is a nice place to get some exercise in.
Running the entire length is a bicycle path, ideal for cycling and jogging. The view on either side of you is spectacular, with the palm trees on both sides making it even better. It’s one of the best places to view Panama City’s skyline from.
Fun fact: Amador Causeway was built using the rocks that were excavated during the construction of the Panama Canal.
#14 Visit the Church of San Jose
A quick stop on your exploration of Casco Viejo should be to visit the Church of San Jose.
From the outside it might look like a lot of other churches that you’ve seen, but the magic lies inside.
The Church of San Jose is famous for its Golden Altar. Its altar is overwhelmingly impressive, made from carved wood and covered with gold flakes.
#15 Exercise, cycle or hang out at Cinta Costera
If the honking cars and crazy motorbikes are too much for you, then head to Cinta Costera, also known as the Coastal Beltway.
Completed in 2009 and costing a whopping $189 million, Cinta Costera is 64 acres of reclaimed land.
The land is now a massive public space that provides incredible views of the sea and city.
It’s a place where both locals and tourists come to exercise, hang out and relax, making it ideal for observing daily life in Panama City.
There is plenty of green space and bike lanes to get your sweat on.
Rounding it up
Now you’ve picked the best things to do in Panama City, it’s time to start ticking off that bucket list. Not sure how to plan your trip? Our Panama City guide is here to help! You’ll find out how long to stay in Panama City, where to eat, how to get around and more. Happy planning!
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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.