20 Things To Do In Panama City

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The building of the Panama Canal, begun by the French in the early 1880s and completed by the USA just as the First World War started, transformed this part of Central America. The city is comfortably the largest in Panama, its population of 2 million being half of the country’s population. Panama’s ties to the USA remain strong; its currency, the Balboa, is tied in a ratio of 1:1 with the US Dollar which is commonly used everywhere. Indeed, your change is likely to be in US Dollars as well. There’s no real need to change into local currency then if you have dollars.

Panama itself is a country of jungles and rivers, many unnavigable. It is therefore ripe for exploration for tourists who want to experience the natural environment. There is a whole range of activities to enjoy on day trips out of the capital. They include many in the interior as well as plenty on both the Pacific and the Caribbean. Panama City still has an “old town” but from a distance, the skyline is skyscrapers. You might think you are approaching a USA city and once there, you will encounter many international brand names, hotels, fashion shopping and more. The selection of things to do in Panama City below will give you a broad view of its many attractions, both within the city itself and available on day trips.

Panama City

Top Tours

20 Things To Do In Panama City

1- Visit the Miraflores Locks and the Panama Canal Museum

The Panama Canal is an engineering masterpiece, a waterway of 50 miles (80 kilometres).

Its importance in linking the Pacific to ultimately the Atlantic cannot be underestimated from a commercial standpoint.

The French began it at great cost, financial and loss of human life, often malaria.

The result was that the project was abandoned for almost a decade and a half.

The USA took over the project with the canal opening as the First World War started after a decade of work.

Its museum tells the story of the reasons for its importance and the effort involved in completing the canal.

2- Explore Casco Viejo (Old Quarter)

Panama City: Half Day City and Panama Canal Tour
Visiting the Catholic Gothic Church is one of the things to do in Panama City.

Casca Viejo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, important because of its colonial-era buildings, churches and plazas.

Its attack by Henry Morgan and his pirates in 1671 was devastating with the rebuilding of the settlement whose origins dated back to the previous century began soon afterwards.

The highlights of this quarter apart from its plazas are the Metropolitan Cathedral, El Palacio de las Garzas, the National Theatre and the Panama Canal Museum.

There are a number of ways to enjoy this district in guided tours including on foot, cycling or in a vintage car.

Recommended tours:

3- Cruise the Panama Canal

Panama: Guided Northbound Panama Canal Cruise with Box Lunch
Cruising the Panama Canal is one of the things to do in Panama City.

Even though the Panama Canal is a busy commercial waterway, there is scope for visitors to cruise on the canal to experience what merchant seamen do on a regular basis.

Your guide on a cruise will tell you all about the origins of the canal and the problems encountered during its construction.

You can expect a lovely lunch on one of the options while others combine the canal with other activities.

One really interesting alternative is to head to monkey island to the sloth sanctuary.

This slow-moving mammal is ideal for photographers because it never gets out of first gear.

Recommended tours:

4- Cruise Gatun Lake

Gatun Lake is entirely artificial but you would not know it unless you were told.

The tour begins on a boat watching out for marine life.

In contrast, after lunch, you will glide through the jungle treetops while seeing a whole range of colourful birds.

The observation tower you will head to has unique panoramas on offer, the Chagres River, the Embera community and the Soberania National Park.

There is so much to see from sloths to butterflies, caimans to monkeys.

There is nothing artificial about this day out.

5- Visit Biomuseo

Panama Bio Museum
Exploring the Bio Museum is one of the cool things to do in Panama City with kids.

The architect Frank Gehry designed this impressive museum which is one of the stops on the hop on hop off bus that runs around Panama City.

You have the flexibility to get off and on as you wish with the following bus around an hour behind yours.

Biomuseo tells the story of Panama’s natural history.

Gehry’s ideas were formulated over two decades ago with the museum on the Amador Causeway opening in 2014.

There are eight galleries with permanent and temporary displays as well as an external botanical garden.

Initially five galleries opened and included information on geology, the movement of species and the impact of humans.

In 2019, three further galleries opened, including two aquariums with emphasis on how the Caribbean and Pacific developed differently.

6- Eat Fresh Seafood at Mercado de Mariscos

Fish And Squid For Sale At A Seafood Fishmonger's Open-Air Market Stall
Wandering around Mercado de Mariscos is one of the interesting things to do in Panama city this weekend.

Visiting the Seafood Market is a must-do if you enjoy fresh seafood.

The market is also a stop on the hop-on hop -ff bus route with several restaurants within the market where everyone goes for their fresh fish, hotels, restaurants and the public.

It opens at 6am although restaurants don’t open until 11am and close at 5pm.

You should wander around to see the range of species on the stalls.

If you are looking for recommendations of what to eat, how about ceviche with patacones (fried plantain), a fish stew or simple frito pescado (fried fish)?

While you may prefer a late dinner each day, think about making an exception to dine on fish in mid-afternoon just for a change.

You won’t regret it!

7- Hike Or Drive Up Ancon Hill

Ancon Hill is the highest point in the area at 199 metres (653 feet).

Henry Morgan sent scouts up there to get an idea of defences before his 1671 attack.

It is now a reserve and if you wish to hike to the top, you should do it in around half an hour.

You can drive most of the way if you wish but only during daytime.

It represents jungle within an urban area so you can expect to see wildlife which includes sloths, deer, armadillos and tamarins.

Birds and lovely orchids are other reasons to head upwards.

8- See The Ruins Of Panama Viejo

Henry Morgan’s attack on Panama in 1671 was devastating.

The first settlement here dated back to 1519, the first permanent one by Europeans.

It soon became an important trading city for the Spanish and hence was attractive to pirates from the beginning of the 17th century.

It was a city of 10,000 when Morgan attacked.

Its rebuild was a short distance to the west.

Morgan, initially arrested was released when he did not know that peace had been agreed between Spain and England in the Treaty of Madrid.

The main reason for Panama Viejo’s inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage list is that it is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in this part of the world.

9- Explore The Tropical Forest In Metropolitan Natural Park

You don’t have to leave the city or hike up a hill to see wildlife within the city limits.

This is because since 1988 there has been a “wild” park on a 573-acre site, the Metropolitan Natural Park.

Even in the midst of the city a huge range of birds and mammals, reptiles and amphibians are happy to make their home.

Add to that the interesting flora and tall trees and you have a great place to enjoy in your leisure time.

There are guided tours which explain everything about the flora and fauna while there are some set trails that you can follow independently.

10- Stroll Along Cinta Costera Waterfront Promenade

Panama's Third Stage Of Cinta Costera In The Twilight
Strolling along Cinta Costera is one of the free things to do in Panama City.

This promenade running along Panama Bay is a great place for a leisurely stroll.

Public transport, taxis and the hop on hop off bus can all take you to this 7-kilometre (4.3 mile) walkway.

You can enjoy the gardens as you walk while there are restaurants along the way and several good vantage points for photographs.

They include Mirador del Pacifico which is close to the Seafood Market.

“Platos Turisticos” offers chairs and binoculars if you decide to stop.

Expect to come across cyclists and joggers but there is plenty of room for all.

11- Admire The City’s Historic Churches And Cathedrals

Panama City, Central America Cathedral On Plaza Mayor
The Cathedral in Plaza Mayor is one of the sites to see in Panama City.

The influence of the Spanish in Panama City is never more evident than in its cathedrals and churches.

Not surprisingly, it is the Catholic religion that predominates with several of the religious sites being National Historic Monuments.

The Church of Saint Francis of Assisi dates back to the 17th Century although fires caused significant damage in the 18th.

The current church was completely renovated a century ago.

The Metropolitan Cathedral of Panama was begun after Henry Morgan’s sacking of the city yet its consecration was not until a century later in 1796.

Iglesia la Merced (Church of Merced) in the Old Town is the one whose façade is the original from 1680.

There are more but these three top the list.

12- Learn About Panama’s History At Museo de la Historia de Panamá

This museum is on the ground floor of Panama City’s Municipal Palace.

It opened in 1977, the initiative of Reina Torres de Aruaz, a local anthropologist.

It covers the period from 1500 through to 1821, the Colonial Period, 1821 to 1903, described as the Colombian Period, and finally 1903 to the current day, the Republican Period.

You will learn more about independence from Spain, the building of the Canal Railway and the Political Constitution from 1972.

The documentation on view is most impressive.

13- Get An Adrenalin Rush On The Poin Swing or Zipline

Do you want to see the city from the skies, well at least from above? You can do that on either a swing or a zipline with absolute safety the top priority.

An elevator takes you up to a platform several storeys up where you can learn about the experience you are about to have.

There is an excellent safety record for either activity with no accidents ever recorded.

You will be able to take photos as you look down over the city and the chance to enjoy a cocktail after your trip into the skies.

14- Learn More About Panamanian Cuisine

Panama Evening Food Tour
Tasting local food like Panamanian Sancocho is one of the things to do in Panama City.

One of the real pleasures of travelling is to learn about the local cuisine, and of course, sample it.

One excellent way to experience local favourites, both food and drink, is to book an evening food tour.

The American Trade Hotel’s Café Tiempo on Avenue Central near the cathedral provides an opportunity.

You will head to a micro-brewery and the Seafood Market in this trip.

Seafood is a local favourite with this market having a huge range of fresh seafood throughout the day.

Another favourite is the local rum you will get at a rooftop bar as the sun sets and the city lights up.

15- Go Hiking and Birdwatching In Soberania National Park

Soberania National Park Rainforest Hike
Hiking and birdwatching in Soberania National Park is one of the things to do near Panama City for nature lovers.

The Soberania National Park is 45 minutes out of the city.

Its rain forest and the Gatun Lake’s tributaries are both important to the efficient functioning of the Panama Canal.

The trip takes you past the former Canal Zone, Pedro Miguel Locks, the Centenario Bridge and the French Cemetery which honours the canal workers who died during the early construction efforts in the 1880s before the French abandoned the project.

A guided hike in Soberania National Park offers the chance to see plenty of birds as well as monkeys, butterflies, frogs and much more.

There are several trails and the one you will take varies with the season.

16- Go On A Cruise To Taboga Island

Panama: All Inclusive Taboga Island Catamaran Cruise
A cruise to Isla Taboga is one of the popular things to do in Panama city, Panama.

This all-inclusive day tour on a catamaran to Taboga Island includes the chance to swim, explore the village and relax on a beach.

Lunch and an open bar are among the day’s features.

If you like dancing, go ahead or simply enjoy a cold beer.

Lunch will be chicken, vegetables, rice, vegetable and potato salad, as well as pasta.

Local rum is excellent with other choices vodka, Seco Herrerano, beer and cocktails.

If the wind allows it, you will cruise under sail at times.

The crew will ensure that you will get everything you want, when you want it.

17- Visit San Blas Islands

After a 2.5-hour interesting drive, you can go out on a Panga boat initially to Guasirdub Island which is exclusively for clients’ use.

After breakfast, relax, take a kayak for a short trip, snorkel looking out for colourful fish or try a paddleboard.

Next is Hierba island where a lunch of fresh fish awaits, served with salads and rice.

You may swim again, or just sunbathe before visiting a local village to see local life.

After returning to the mainland, it is back to Panama City.

18- Learn About Culture At The Embera Village

The Embera tribe lives in the rainforest within the Chagres National Park, under an hour from the city.

The only way to visit them is by boat with a local guide inviting you to board a “piragua” for a 20-minute ride to the Mono waterfall in dry season; probably not accessible in the wet season, May to November.

On arrival in the Embera village, you will soon realise that life is the same as it has been for generations with no sign of modern technology.

The visit includes traditional dancing, local cuisine, colourful art.

You can even get some body painting for yourself for a small fee.

19- Go Shopping In The Massive Albrook Mall

Albrook Mall in Panama City has a huge range of shops, many international brands among them.

Souvenir shopping within the city is easy within the mall because there are over 700 shops.

There are also plenty of places to eat and drink.

If you wish, you can arrange collection from your hotel and return there at the end of the day.

If you do this, you are certain to have efficient transport back to your hotel that is a good idea if you have done plenty of shopping.

20- Go Surfing At The Beaches Near Panama City

Venas Azules and Portobelo National Park can be combined in a day trip out of Panama City.

The beaches here are vast and beautiful with rainforest behind them.

You can explore if you wish or simply improve your suntan.

Portobelo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site while Venas Azules is a place where you are certain to see starfish and plenty of species of colourful fish.

Playa Blanca within Portobelo National Park is never busy so enjoy the beach and a picnic lunch as part of a lovely day.

Surfers will find lovely clear waters and tempting waves to enjoy throughout the day.

Recommended tour: From Panama City: Day Trip to the Caribbean Beaches

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Steve Smith is a widely travelled man who has lived on the South West Coast of Turkey since 2008. He hails from North East England where he lived most of his life but has been to every continent of the world, with a particular love for Southern Africa and its wildlife. He lists Argentina, India, and Vietnam as other favourite places that he enjoyed greatly while sport is also a passion, cricket and golf as a participant, rugby union and soccer as a spectator.