Is winter your least favorite season too? While we always look forward to the festive period, the first few months of the year tend to really wear us out. But that’s not all bad. In fact, it makes this the most satisfactory period for a sunny break. Our magic formula combines sun and sea with a hint of adventure and a touch of culture. We found all this and more in Panama City, Panama. Probably not the most obvious destination for us Europeans but it fitted the bill perfectly. It’s a very cosmopolitan city, surrounded by rainforest and in respect of the traditions. So, let’s dive in and explore the best things to do in Panama City, Panama, and beyond. Oh, and if you play your cards right you might even join in on the colorful Panama carnival.
You’ll find a map at the end of this blog post, indicating all exciting things to do in Panama City as well as the beaches and hotels mentioned.
Tip: When googling Panama City you’ll often come across information its namesake, an oceanside city in Florida. That’s why it’s best to search for Panama City, Panama.
Best things to do in Panama City
– Watch the ships pass through the Panama canal
A must-see in Panama and at the same time the country’s economic heart is the canal that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. And what a piece of work it is! The ships that pass through it are gigantic. In the simulator at the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center, at one of 3 docks of the canal, you can try to manoeuvre a ship through the Panama canal yourself. If you visit in the morning, you can watch the vessels cross from south (Pacific) to north (Atlantic). In the afternoon, ships pass in the opposite direction.
– Old and new connected by the Cinta Costera
Panama City has two identities: a historical identity, which reminds of the colonial past, and a modern identity, which is reflected by the skyline. Both occupy a separate city district, creating an interesting juxtaposition of old and new. The Cinta Costera connects these two identities. It’s a long road partially built on an impressive bridge encircling the old center to continue along the bay up to the modern center.
Plenty of space is reserved for relaxation, with a beautifully designed promenade creating a wide waterfront park. Along the bike and pedestrian lanes you will find play areas and sports fields making this area a hotspot for Panamanians and tourists alike.
– Explore the Casco Viejo (or Casco Antiguo)
What better place to start your exploration of Panama City than in the historic district. It’s a collection of small streets aligned with the most magnificent pastel-toned colonial buildings. Together with Panama Viejo, it forms a UNESCO World Heritage site. Arriving in the afternoon will leave you plenty of time to explore the galeries, souvenir shops and colorful street art.
Exploring Casco Viejo truly is one of the essential things to do in Panama City: Visit the Panama Canal Museum, check out the San Jose church with its golden altar, smell the flowers at the bougainvillea-shaded Paseo General Esteban Huertas promenade which curves around the top of the old city walls, taste the artisanal local chocolate at Oro Moreno and catch a sunset from the Casa Casco rooftop bar. When night falls, the many restaurants and cafés make Casco – as locals call it – comes alive. We loved the convivial atmosphere at the Plaza Tomás Herrera terrace, where the iconic American Trade Hotel is located.
– Try the local cuisine
Indulge in a ceviche – raw fish marinated with lemon and flavoured with onion – and try the local version of the ropa vieja – literally meaning ‘old rags’. The kids thought that was hilarious and thanks to this funny twist they enjoyed it so much more. You can find this dish, consisting of shredded beef and veggies, in practically all Spanish speaking countries but with different local accents. We enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere on the Diablicos terrace in Casco Viejo, where our eldest daughter Alegra even got her own serenade.
Another must-try in Panama is the Geisha coffee. The small Bajareque Coffee House in Casco Viejo is where you’ll find the freshest coffee around since the owners serve their own product, straight from their Boquete farms.
– Buy a Panama hat
You can’t leave Panama without a wide-brimmed Panama hat… one that was probably made in Ecuador.
– Visit the mercado de mariscos (seafood market)
The seafood market is located next to Casco Viejo and we had been told that the surrounding restaurants offered the best ceviche. Upon arrival the market seemed a bit smaller than we’d anticipated but this was not our main impression: the lack of hygiene unfortunately was. It kinda put a brake on our appetite. Nevertheless, the kids got to examine all kinds of local fish and seafood.
– Hike at the Parque Natural Metropolitano
The Parque Metropolitano is a protected part of the rainforest and the green lung of Panama City, located just outside the city center. It covers an area of 573 acres (232 hectares). You can visit the park with or without a guide. Plenty of hiking trails criss-cross the Parque Metropolitan.
With our little girls in tow and under the tropical temperatures we decided to start off modestly by choosing the less challenging route: the Los Caobos trail. It’s just 1 mi (1.6 km) long yet it took us about 2 hours to complete because of all the wildlife that we spotted. We had hoped to see tucans too but, unfortunately, they didn’t show. Apparently, they’re mostly active in the early morning, around 6.30 a.m., when the park opens. But the gorgeous blue morphos saved the day.
– Have fun at the Amador Causeway
The Amador Causeway connects the mainland to 4 islands that are located closely to the southern entrance of the Panama canal: Naos, Culebra, Perico and Flamenco. Originally designed as the canal’s Pacific breakwater, it consists of rocks that were excavated to create the Panama canal. It was named after the first President of Panama, Manuel Amador Guerrero.
The 2.5 mi (4 km) long promenade that runs over the entire length is a popular weekend escape spot for joggers, bikers, skaters and families. Too bad that the redevelopment kept us from experiencing it, even the views were blocked. But that’s great news for you, since it’s now even more impressive. Highlights on these connected islands include the Punta Culebra Nature Center and the Biomuseo, a pictureque marina, several restaurants and ice-cream salons.
– Meet the residents at the Punta Culebra Nature Center (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute)
One of the best things to do in Panama City, Panama is found on the isle of Naos: At the Punta Calebra Nature Center, you learn all about the different tropical plant and animal species that thrive in Panama. The Center is funded by the Smithsonian and features touching pools with sea stars, sea urchins and sea cucumbers, walking trails allowing visitors to spot sloths and iguanas, an indoor aquarium and a shark and turtle pool.
– Learn more about Panama at the Biomuseo
This remarkable building is from the hand of renowned architect Frank Gehry. Its colorful design represents the isthmus known as Panama separating the oceans and uniting the drifting continents of North and South America millions of years ago. The brightly hued canopies refer to the tropical surroundings. The wonderful building is a celebration of the mission of the Biomuseo, which is to educate visitors about the evolution of biodiversity. The museum offers interactive displays and fascinating exhibitions, some of which take place in the botanical park amidst which it’s located.
– Take in the views from the Cerro Ancon
The Ancon is a hill near the center offering the most amazing views of colorful Panama City. We were still allowed to drive to the top but, nowadays, reaching the hill does involve a climb. You’ll need to park at one of the two entrances: Mi Pueblito Tourist Center or the Panama Canal Administration from where you can continue on foot to the highest point in Panama City. Ancon Hill is actually a dry tropical rainforest so, apart from the amazing views, you might even spot a sloth, toucan or deer.
– Panama Viejo
Actually, the original historic center is not Casco Viejo. The original Panama City, established by the Spanish, was Panamá Viejo or Panamá la Vieja. This settlement was founded in 1518 and served as a base for the conquistadores to conquer more land in the New World. That all ended when pirate Henry Morgan set foot in Panama in 1671 and destroyed Panamá Viejo. The survivors established the new center in what is now Casco Viejo.
The ruins of Panamá Viejo are so well preserved that this site, combined with Casco Viejo, forms a UNESCO World Heritage site. To this day, you can visit the ruins and even climb the bell tower.
– Dance the night away during a folkloric show
It’s one of the most touristic things to do in Panama City, we know. But we were so intrigued about the beautiful pollera dresses that we decided to indulge in a delicious traditional dinner and folkloric dance act. You could do so in a small restaurant, such as Diablicos in Casco Viejo, or in the larger Las Tinajas restaurant, like we did. What a performance! Don’t expect fine dining but just enjoy for the spectacle.
– Explore the Soberania National Park rainforest from Gamboa
The Gamboa Rainforest flanks the shore of the Panama canal and is a true paradise amidst nature. There are many ways to explore the grounds and all tours leave from the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, which is set amongst a spectacular landscape. This 340-acre (137-hectare) resort is located about 30 minutes away from the center of Panama City. Right at the crossing between the Chagres River and the Panama Canal, the resort offers panoramic views and provides a wide selection of activities to both guests and visitors. Gamboa, located within the Soberania National Park, is home to caimans, crocodiles, hundreds of bird species and iguanas.
Whether you’re looking for a an aerial tram experience, a visit to the the butterfly farm, a tour to the Emberá indigenous village, a wildlife boat tour, a visit to the butterfly garden or night tour, you’ll be amazed by the natural beauty. It was one of our favorite things to do near Panama City.
These are the tours we went on:
Lake Gatún boat tour to Monkey Island
The piers are located right across from the lunch location and the most beautiful butterflies will keep you company while you wait to board for the 1,5 wildlife tour to Monkey Island Panama. The small boat crosses the Chagres river to arrive at lake Gatún where several islands offer a home to local wildlife. The islands in this lake actually used to be mountain tops but for the sake of the canal this area had been flooded and created Lake Gatún.
Thanks to the call notes from our guide, we quickly spotted some capuchin monkeys. At the shore of another island we caught a glimpse of a crocodile sliding into the water.
Make sure to be there a bit early so you don’t have to sit in the back of the boat where the fumes are pretty annoying. We were immersed in nature but overwhelmed by fumes.
A cute little bus brought us to the starting point of the Aerial Tramway. This 1.5 activity, which would take us almost 2,000 ft (600 m) up the mountain, looked so promising! Together with a few other tourists and a great guide, the excitement increased as we gained altitude. It was picture perfect! We heard tucans and howler monkeys and enjoyed the overwhelming nature. We got out on top of the mountain. After a short stroll through the rainforest and a climb to the observation deck, we could indulge in the stunning views. What an amazing place! Twenty minutes passed too quickly and, much to our regret, it was time to board the aerial tramway, It was the end of a short but unforgettable first rainforest experience. We truly wish it would have lasted much longer.
– Join in on the Panama carnival fun
We had read great things about carnival in Panama City and so, we were really looking forward to this event. It turned out to be just as colorful as we’d anticipated. Check out our blog post dedicated to Panama carnival to find out more.
Best beaches near Panama City, Panama
Part of the fun at a tropical destination, is enjoying a day at the beach. What may surprise you, is that there’s actually a lack of beaches in the capital. While the Panama City beaches may be a bit disappointing, there are some splendid options nearby that are very much worth the detour. All of these suggestions makes for excellent day trips from Panama City.
– Coronado Beach
Coronado is the most popular beach town near Panama City, along the Pacific coast. Don’t expect the white sandy beaches that are typical for the Caribbean coast, though. The sandy beaches in Coronado look greyish because they consist of a mix of white and sparkling black sand.
Travel time: A 1-hour drive from Panama City.
– Contadora Island
Dreaming of white tropical beaches but not too short on time to head to the Caribbean coast? Then Isla Contadora, with its gorgeous white, powdery sand and turqoise waters, is the perfect alternative. It’s one of the Islas Las Perlas or Pearl Islands, located in the Pacific and easily accessible by ferry from Panama City. We dedicated an entire post on our day trip to Contadora Island.
Travel time: A 1.5-hour ferry boat ride from Panama City.
– Isla Grande
Now let’s head to the Caribbean coast. Right off the coast of Portobelo, in the Colon province, you’ll find enchanting Isla Grande. The island is home to several beautiful stretches of sand, that have everything you could wish for in a tropical beach. La Punta beach would be an excellent choice for just $4 a day (which includes the use of showers and chairs). Thanks to its shallow crystal-clear waters, it’s perfect for those first family snorkeling adventures.
Travel time: A 2-hour drive from Panama City to La Guaira where you can park before taking a short boat transfer to Isla Grande ($6 per person).
– Isla Mamey
Also in the province of Colón, close to Isla Grande, you’ll find the hidden gem Isla Mamey. It’s a hidden paradise with palm trees fringing the white sandy beach. Locals know it very well but somehow, it manages to stay under the tourist radar. The reefs that border the coastline are excellent for snorkeling, though the current might be strong at times.
Travel time: A 2-hour drive from Panama City to Puerto Lindo where you can park before taking a short boat transfer to Isla Mamey. There’s no concession stand on the island, so make sure to bring a picnic (alcohol is prohibited).
Best places to stay in Panama City
- We were lucky enough to oversee both the skyscrapers and the historic center from our suite at the Intercontinental Miramar hotel. Even though it’s not the most modern hotel, we can highly recommend a stay here if you’re traveling to Panama with kids because the pool is huge and yet you’ll find yourself in a central location.
- If we would have been traveling to Panama without kids, we’d probably have stayed in Casco Viejo. The tastefully decorated American Trade Hotel, the La Concordia Boutique Hotel and the Central Hotel Panama all look pretty amazing.
- Should you be looking to escape the crowds, then The Santa Maria, a Luxury Collection Hotel & Golf Resort and the Westin Playa Bonita Beach Resort are a great choice.
Map of the things to do in Panama City
For your convenience, we’ve indicated the best places to see and things to do in Panama City, Panama that are mentioned in this article on a map.
Is Panama City safe for tourists?
We found Panamanians to be very relaxed, incredible friendly and fond of kids. One would expect that English is widely spoken but it seems that a basic knowledge of Spanish comes in handy after all. The traffic is hectic. We took a taxi on some occasions, but mostly used the hotel’s car service and always felt comfortable with our driver Carlos. When driving around it quickly becomes clear that there’s still a lot of poverty in spite of the low unemployment rate of around 5% (according to local sources). Yet, we were never harassed nor did we ever feel unsafe during the day or the evening. Of course the obvious police presence, partly in response to the carnival, might have had something to do with that.
How to combine your visit to Panama City
– Trip to the San Blas Islands (Guna Yala)
Panama’s most spectacular islands – over 360 of them and some of them just large enough to fit a palm tree – are located in the San Blas or Guna Yala archipelago. The Panamanian Guna tribes see to it that the islands remain undeveloped. You won’t find any fancy resort on San Blas, just some modest beach huts and hammocks. It’s just you, the endless ocean, plenty of coconut water and a whole lot of starfish.
Travel time: You can either join an organized 4×4 tour on a jungle road trip from Panama City to the Guna Yala archipelago (4 hour-drive) and then hop on a water taxi. Alternatively, you can reach the San Blas Islands by taking a 1-hour flight on board of a small private plane to El Porvenir Island or a waterplane.
– Trip to Bocas del Toro
Another slice of paradise along the Caribbean coast is Bocas del Tor, a region comprising of a small piece of mainland and an archipelago of islands bordering Costa Rica. Isla Colón is the main island, home to Bocas Town and magical Estrella beach where starfish like to reside. Other highlights include Red Frog beach on Isla Bastimentos and the Cayos Zapatillas mangrove islands. There are plenty of watertaxis to take you from one island to the other.
Trave time: The shortest trip involves a flight from Panama City to Isla Colón International Airport (BOC) in Bocas Town. Ticket prices are usually around $135 (€120) per person. Alternatively, you drive around 10 hours to Almirante where you take the car on a 2-hour ferry trip to Colon Island. Or you leave the car in a parking lot and hop on the marine taxi which takes you to the island in 30 minutes. You’ll find detailed information here.
Where to stay in Bocas del Toro: La Loma Jungle Lodge on Isla Bastimentos.
We had an awesome time in colorful Panama-city! Its many attractions, and our awesome beach trip to Contadora Island, definitely convinced us to return and explore more of this amazing country. This might even be our starting point for future travels to other Central and even South-American countries.
Have you been lucky enough to explore Panama? Or is there another country in South or Central America that we should visit with kids? We can’t wait to hear from you. So, don’t be shy and start commenting!
Pinning this post would be much appreciated!
- This article contains affiliate links. For more information, visit the Disclaimer page.
- We visited Panama in our pre-blogging days, when our photography skills were not that impressive. Therefore we’ve complemented our personal photo collection with some photos of other photographers, who generously made them available for the purpose of this article.