Panama City, a captivating convergence of the old and the new, offers a smorgasbord of thrilling activities, rich culture, and stunning landscapes. From the awe-inspiring Panama Canal to the vibrant nightlife, there’s something for everyone. Here’s your guide to experiencing the best of Panama City in 2023!
1. Explore Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo, Panama City’s historic district, is a UNESCO World Heritage site brimming with colorful Spanish colonial architecture, vibrant street art, and quaint cafes. A walk through its cobbled streets is like a journey back in time.
Discover Rich History
Casco Viejo is a treasure trove of history. Explore the Metropolitan Cathedral, an iconic landmark with stunning architecture. Dive deeper into the local culture at the Panama Canal Museum, offering insightful exhibits on the canal’s impactful history.
Indulge in Local Cuisine
The district is a food lover’s paradise. Sample local Panamanian dishes like Sancocho at popular restaurants, or unwind at the numerous rooftop bars, soaking in panoramic views of the city with a refreshing cocktail in hand.
Visit La Iglesia de San José
La Iglesia de San José houses the famed Golden Altar. Legend has it that the altar was painted black to protect it from pirates. Witness this stunning piece of artistry, and uncover the tales and lore surrounding it.
Attend a Mass
Experience the local religious culture by attending a mass at this historic church. The peaceful ambiance and spiritual aura make it a serene experience, even for those who simply wish to observe.
2. Cruise the Panama Canal
The Panama Canal, a marvel of engineering, connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. A cruise through this iconic waterway offers an unparalleled perspective on this globally significant route.
Experience the Locks Witness the fascinating operation of the canal’s locks, an innovative system that raises and lowers ships to allow them to pass through the varying water levels of the canal. It’s a mesmerizing sight that reflects human ingenuity at its best.
Learn about its Construction A visit to the Miraflores Visitor Center provides a deep dive into the construction and operations of the canal. Interactive exhibits, films, and models reveal the challenges, innovations, and international cooperation that brought the canal to life.
Adventure through Gatun Lake
Gatun Lake is a man-made marvel nestled within the canal. Surrounded by lush forests, it’s a haven for nature enthusiasts. Explore the serene waters and get up close to the rich biodiversity, including exotic birds and monkeys.
Engage in Water Activities
From kayaking to fishing, Gatun Lake offers a plethora of water-based activities. Revel in the beauty of nature while engaging in exciting pursuits, making it a perfect spot for both relaxation and adventure.
3. Discover Panama Viejo
Panama Viejo is the remains of the old Panama City and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ruins stand as silent witnesses to the city’s tumultuous past, offering a fascinating glimpse into the 16th-century way of life.
Explore the Archaeological Site
Wander through the remnants of ancient buildings, churches, and streets. The site is replete with informative signs, shedding light on the historical significance of the structures and the lifestyle of the inhabitants.
Capture Stunning Photographs
The sprawling ruins against the backdrop of the modern city skyline create a surreal contrast, offering ample opportunities for photography enthusiasts to capture the essence of ancient and contemporary Panama.
Climb the Cathedral Tower
The climb to the top of the ruined Cathedral Tower is a rewarding endeavor. The panoramic vistas of the city and the surrounding landscapes from the summit are absolutely breathtaking and worth the effort.
Learn about the Tower’s History
Explore the tower’s history, including its role in the city’s defense system and its resilience against pirate attacks and natural disasters. This exploration enriches the experience, blending visual delight with historical knowledge.
4. Relish Panamanian Cuisine
Panama City’s culinary scene is a vibrant mix of indigenous flavors, fresh seafood, and international influences. Diving into local cuisine is an essential part of experiencing Panama City’s diverse culture.
Sample Traditional Dishes
- Ceviche: A refreshing seafood dish typically made with fresh, raw fish cured in freshly squeezed key lime juice.
- Sancocho: A hearty, flavorful soup made with chicken, yam, corn, and various spices, typically enjoyed with rice.
Visit Local Markets and Restaurants
Immerse yourself in the bustling atmosphere of local markets, such as the Mercado de Mariscos, and savor fresh seafood. Explore eateries around the city to experience the rich diversity in flavors, from street food to upscale dining.
Participate in a Cooking Class
Engage in a cooking class and learn to prepare traditional Panamanian dishes. It’s not just a culinary experience but also a cultural exchange, allowing you to understand the significance of different ingredients and cooking techniques in Panamanian culture.
Savor Your Creations
The joy of cooking is complemented by the pleasure of savoring your culinary creations. Relish the flavors of your self-made dishes, ensuring that the taste of Panama stays with you, long after your journey concludes.
5. Experience the Nightlife
When the sun sets, Panama City transforms into a lively hub with an electrifying nightlife scene. From trendy bars to pulsating nightclubs, the city offers diverse nocturnal experiences to suit every preference.
Explore Calle Uruguay
Calle Uruguay, a famed nightlife district, is a constellation of nightclubs, bars, and restaurants. Whether you prefer sipping cocktails, dancing to the beats, or simply people-watching, this bustling strip has something for everyone.
Attend Live Music Events
Live music is integral to Panama City’s nightlife. Attend a performance and let the rhythms of salsa, merengue, and jazz imbue your evening with a vivacious energy, reflecting the city’s lively spirit.
Discover Hidden Speakeasies
Panama City is home to a myriad of secret bars and speakeasies, each with its unique theme and ambiance. Discovering these hidden gems is a thrilling adventure, offering intimate settings and bespoke cocktails.
Enjoy Exquisite Mixology
Experience the artistry of mixology in these clandestine establishments. The meticulously crafted cocktails are a symphony of flavors, making every sip a refined experience.
6. Connect with Indigenous Communities
Panama is home to seven indigenous groups, each with its unique culture, language, and traditions. Connecting with these communities is an enlightening experience, offering insights into their resilient and harmonious way of life.
Visit Embera Village
Embark on a journey to the Embera Village, where you can witness traditional dances, learn about indigenous customs, and even get a temporary traditional tattoo. The Embera people’s warm hospitality and rich cultural heritage make it a memorable visit.
Support Local Artisans
Purchasing handcrafted items directly from indigenous artisans is a wonderful way to support local communities. From vibrant textiles to intricate jewelry, each piece is a reflection of their traditions and craftsmanship.
Engage in Cultural Exchange
Engaging in conversations with community members allows for a mutual exchange of stories and learnings. It’s an opportunity to understand their perspectives, values, and the profound connection they share with nature.
Participate in Traditional Activities
Partaking in activities like traditional fishing or artisanal crafts provides a hands-on experience of the indigenous way of life. It fosters a deeper appreciation for their sustainable practices and creative skills.
7. Revel in the Carnaval de Las Tablas
The Carnaval de Las Tablas is one of the most vibrant and exhilarating events in Panama. This carnival is a symphony of colorful parades, traditional music, and dazzling dance performances that showcase the jubilant spirit and rich culture of Panama.
Experience the Festivities
The streets come alive with effervescent energy during the carnival. Each day is packed with parades featuring ornate floats, folkloric dance, and traditional music, creating a sensory feast that is not to be missed.
Embrace the Local Culture
Immerse yourself in the carnival’s traditions, from wearing the vibrant “polleras” to participating in the spirited “culecos” or street water fights. It’s a unique opportunity to experience Panamanian joy and communal celebration.
Attend the Grand Parade
The Grand Parade is the pinnacle of the carnival, where all the comparsas (carnival groups) showcase their elaborate costumes and synchronized dance moves. The contagious enthusiasm and artistic expression make it a visual and emotional spectacle.
Meet the Carnival Queens
Each comparsa is represented by a Carnival Queen, whose charisma and grace are pivotal to the group’s performance. Interacting with them offers insights into the significance and responsibilities of their roles in the festivities.
8. Hike in Metropolitan Natural Park
The Metropolitan Natural Park, an urban oasis in Panama City, offers a refreshing escape into nature. With its lush trails and abundant wildlife, it’s a serene retreat for nature lovers and hiking enthusiasts.
Explore Diverse Trails
The park has several well-marked trails suited for varying fitness levels. Traverse through the verdant landscapes, and you might spot sloths, birds, or agoutis amidst the tropical flora, making every hike an adventure.
Reach the Lookout Points
Hike up to the park’s lookout points and be rewarded with panoramic views of Panama City juxtaposed against the natural beauty of the surrounding forests and the distant canal, a sight that amplifies the park’s allure.
Engage in Bird Watching
The park is a bird watcher’s paradise, home to over 200 bird species. Early mornings are ideal for spotting colorful toucans, majestic hawks, and melodious antbirds, creating delightful encounters for both novice and experienced birdwatchers.
Learn About Avian Life
Equip yourself with a local bird guidebook or join a guided tour to enhance your bird-watching experience. Learning about the habits, calls, and habitats of different species adds a layer of appreciation to every sighting.
9. Shop at Albrook Mall
Albrook Mall, one of the largest malls in Latin America, is a shopper’s paradise. With its extensive array of stores, entertainment options, and dining venues, it’s a multifaceted destination catering to diverse preferences.
Indulge in Retail Therapy
- Fashion: Explore international and local fashion brands, ranging from high-end boutiques to affordable retailers.
- Electronics: Discover a wide range of gadgets and appliances meeting all your tech needs.
- Souvenirs: Find unique Panamanian crafts and memorabilia to take back home.
Experience Varied Entertainment
The mall is not just a shopping hub but also an entertainment center. Enjoy movies at the state-of-the-art cinemas, let loose at the bowling alley, or experience thrills at the indoor amusement park.
Savor Diverse Cuisines
From Japanese sushi to Italian pasta, Albrook Mall offers a gastronomic journey around the world. The variety of international cuisines available caters to a plethora of tastes, ensuring every palate is pleased.
Delight in Local Delicacies
Don’t miss the opportunity to savor local dishes and tropical fruits at the food court. It’s a convenient way to experience Panamanian flavors amidst a day of shopping and entertainment.
10. Unwind at the Amador Causeway
The Amador Causeway, a narrow land bridge, links Panama City to the Pacific islands of Naos, Perico, and Flamenco. With its breathtaking views, recreational spaces, and entertainment venues, it’s a popular spot for relaxation and leisure.
Experience Scenic Views
A stroll or a bike ride along the causeway unveils stunning views of the city skyline, the Bridge of the Americas, and the entrance to the Panama Canal. It’s a picturesque setting for casual outings, photography, and unwinding amidst nature.
Explore Diverse Attractions
The area is home to a variety of attractions, including the Biomuseo, designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, showcasing Panama’s rich biodiversity. The numerous restaurants and shops along the causeway offer ample opportunities for dining and shopping.
Visit the Marine Exhibition Center
The Marine Exhibition Center at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute is a hidden gem on the causeway. It offers a close look at the diverse marine life of the region, including colorful fish, seahorses, and starfish.
Learn About Marine Conservation
Educational displays and interactive exhibits at the center provide insights into marine ecosystems and conservation efforts. It’s a learning experience that enhances awareness about the importance of preserving marine biodiversity.
11. Experience Panamanian Folklore
Panamanian folklore is a colorful mosaic of traditions, dances, and music, reflecting the country’s multicultural heritage. Experiencing this folklore is a journey into the heart and soul of Panama’s diverse and vibrant culture.
Watch Traditional Dances
Attend performances showcasing traditional dances like Tamborito, rich in symbolism and performed in distinctive costumes. The rhythmic beats, graceful movements, and cultural narratives create a captivating spectacle.
Listen to Folk Music
Panamanian folk music, infused with African, Spanish, and indigenous influences, is a melodious expression of the country’s cultural tapestry. Experience the resonant tunes of mejoranas and cumbias and feel the essence of Panama’s musical soul.
Learn Folkloric Dance
Engage in folkloric dance lessons to experience the joy and spirit of Panamanian traditions. Learning the steps, rhythms, and meanings behind the dances is an enriching way to connect with the local culture.
Perform with Locals
Joining locals for a dance performance is a joyous celebration of shared learning and cultural exchange. It fosters a sense of community and mutual appreciation, enhancing the overall cultural experience.
12. Relax at the Pacific Beaches
The Pacific beaches near Panama City are pristine retreats for sun, sand, and surf lovers. With their golden sands and azure waters, these beaches are idyllic spots to unwind and experience the tropical beauty of Panama.
Sunbathe and Swim
Enjoy the soothing sun and the gentle waves at beaches like Playa Bonita. Whether you prefer sunbathing with a good book or frolicking in the waters, the Pacific beaches offer a relaxing respite from the city hustle.
Try Water Sports
For those seeking more action, the beaches offer various water sports like surfing, jet-skiing, and kayaking. The adrenaline rush combined with the scenic beauty makes it an exhilarating experience.
Explore Playa Coronado
Playa Coronado is a renowned beach community known for its beautiful landscapes and vibrant expat community. Explore the beachfront, enjoy the local amenities, and mingle with the diverse community, experiencing the coastal charm of Panama.
Indulge in Coastal Cuisine
The eateries in Playa Coronado serve delicious coastal cuisine, offering fresh seafood and tropical fruits. The culinary delights, complemented by the tranquil sea views, make dining in Playa Coronado a delightful experience.
13. Venture into the Soberanía National Park
Soberanía National Park, a lush tropical rainforest close to Panama City, is a biodiverse sanctuary for nature lovers and adventure seekers. It’s a vibrant ecosystem teeming with exotic wildlife, unique plant species, and thrilling hiking trails.
Hike Through Verdant Trails
The park’s extensive trail network takes you through dense forests, along riverbanks, and to panoramic viewpoints. Each hike is an opportunity to witness the rich biodiversity, including colorful birds, monkeys, and elusive jaguars.
Participate in Eco-Tours
Guided eco-tours provide in-depth insights into the park’s ecology and conservation efforts. It’s an enlightening experience, fostering a deeper connection and appreciation for the intricate and delicate balance of nature.
Canopy Tower Birdwatching
The Canopy Tower, situated in the heart of the park, offers an elevated perspective for birdwatching. From this vantage point, observe a myriad of bird species, including toucans, eagles, and tanagers, as they soar and perch in their natural habitat.
Learn from Expert Guides
Accompanied by knowledgeable guides, enhance your birdwatching experience with expert insights into the avian life of the park. Their expertise allows for a more nuanced understanding of bird behaviors, habitats, and conservation needs.
What is the best time of year to visit Panama City?
The best time to visit Panama City is during the dry season, which typically runs from mid-December to mid-April. During this period, the weather is pleasant, and there is less chance of rainfall, making it ideal for outdoor activities and sightseeing.
Is it safe to travel around Panama City?
Panama City is generally considered safe for tourists, especially in well-trafficked areas and tourist hotspots. However, like in any major city, it’s important to remain vigilant, be aware of your surroundings, and follow standard safety practices, such as not displaying valuables openly and using reputable transportation services.
Do I need to know Spanish to get around Panama City?
While Spanish is the official language of Panama, English is widely spoken in tourist areas, hotels, and restaurants in Panama City, and many Panamanians are bilingual. Knowing some basic Spanish phrases can enhance your experience, but it is not strictly necessary for navigating the city.
What currency is used in Panama City, and are credit cards widely accepted?
The official currency is the Panamanian Balboa (PAB), but the US Dollar (USD) is also legal tender and is used more frequently in daily transactions. Credit cards are widely accepted in hotels, restaurants, and shops, but it’s advisable to carry some cash, especially when visiting smaller establishments or remote areas.
How can I travel sustainably while visiting Panama City?
Traveling sustainably in Panama City involves being mindful of your environmental impact and making choices that support local communities. Opt for eco-friendly accommodations, use public transport or walk when possible, respect local customs and traditions, and prefer local products and services, contributing to the local economy.
Can I use ride-sharing apps like Uber in Panama City?
Yes, ride-sharing apps like Uber are available and widely used in Panama City. They offer a convenient, safe, and often cheaper alternative to traditional taxis. However, always ensure you have an internet connection to book rides and verify the details of the driver and car before starting your trip.
Panama City’s rich tapestry of experiences ensures that every moment spent here is laden with discovery, joy, and enlightenment. Each attraction, whether natural, cultural, or historical, unfolds a new layer of Panama’s multifaceted charm.
As you wander through the diverse landscapes and delve into the vibrant traditions, you collect not just memories but also a profound appreciation for the harmonious blend of heritage and modernity that is uniquely Panama City.