With its reputation for being both one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Central America and the gateway to a tropical escape, you might say Panama City is a bit of an oxymoron. However, we’d prefer to define this juxtaposition of casinos with construction sites and traffic jams with club jams more as a case of opposites attracting. The result is a fun, diverse and vibrant cocktail of anything goes. And – with white sandy beaches, lush rainforests and eclectic eateries – anything really does go!
What’s the best time to visit Panama City?
The driest months are from December to mid-April, which explains why this is the busiest time for tourists. If, however, you’d prefer to go at a quieter moment and are not bothered by a bit of rain, the rest of the year might suit you better! Summertime can get humid, so it’s not the best time if you don’t cope all that well with that kind of weather conditions, but again, you’ll probably find things cost less during this off-peak time, so it depends on what your priorities are!
A few facts about Panama City
There’s a lot to love about this city, the capital of the trailblazing Panama which was not only the first country in the world to sell Coca-Cola outside of the U.S but was also the first Latin American country to adopt the U.S dollar!
Only in Ciudad de Panamá can you see the sunrise over the Pacific and set over the Atlantic – from the same spot – and swimming in both the same day is one of those bucket list kind of things that will carry you through many a dinner party! The canal, which was built between 1904-1914 by over 75,000 workers, is considered one of the seven wonders of the world and generates one-third of Panama’s entire economy today. Witnessing the canal in all its glory is, unsurprisingly, one of the most popular things to do here.
Home to the second-largest rainforest in the entire Western Hemisphere, it’s also the only capital in the world to boast one within its city walls. Oh, and by all means, do buy yourself a Panama hat while you’re here, but be aware that it was actually first made in Ecuador. (Sorry.)
One day in Panama City Itinerary
One of the best things about a one day itinerary for Panama City is that most of the main attractions are pretty close together. This means that, although there’s plenty to keep you busy, it shouldn’t be too cumbersome or time-consuming to get around – especially if you stick to taxis because the public transport here isn’t as efficient as you might be used to!
Start at Panama Viejo
Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Panama Viejo holds a lot of history since it’s the original founding spot of the city. Home to what remains of the first European settlement on the Pacific Ocean, it was originally founded in 1519 but thrived in the early 17th century, until Captain Morgan (yes, the guy who has his face and name plastered on that best-selling rum) led a group that brutally attacked it.
The well-structured ruins – clearly labelled to guide visitors through strategically – tell a fascinating story of what might have been and are a must-see highlight, particularly the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción – an ancient church which is mostly intact and home to important artefacts and relics. Definitely one for history lovers!
We recommend booking an early morning tour, before the midday sun and high temperatures hit, as there isn’t much shelter!
See the world-famous canal
About 25 minutes from Panama Viejo lies the Miraflores Locks – the best spot to see the Panama Canal. Try and get here before 11.00 am as no boats pass through between then and 2.00 pm.
Take the 20-minute ride to Casco Viejo
You’ll probably be a bit hungry by now, so stop off for a spot of brunch here. You’ll be spoilt for choice with an abundance of trendy restaurants and cafés. After a sensible meal? You won’t go wrong with Nomada Eatery, serving a traditional breakfast menu filled with omelettes, croissants and pancakes. If, however, you’re easily tempted, you might want to take a stroll past Benissimo – an enchanting building that emanates the tantalizing smells of warm waffles, homemade gelato and fresh coffee.
Once you’re fully satiated, it’s time to see this historic old town (also referred to as Casco Antiguo or San Felipe) where the survivors of Captain Morgan’s attack settled and is recognized today as city’s cultural and historical capital. The best way to get an authentic vibe of the place is simply by walking around, especially if you’re hoping to document your day on Instagram.
With pastel-adorned colonial homes, flowers cascading over balconies and cobbled streets, this remains one of the most photogenic parts of the city. You can either go by yourself or join one of many walking tours to view the stunning architecture and ocean views of this remarkable place.
Hike through the rainforest
Just 10 minutes from Casco Viejo is Parque Metropolitano – the inner-city rainforest we told you about earlier! Filled with monkeys, sloths and exotic birds, you’re guaranteed a picture-perfect walk through tropical flowers and a panoramic view over the city.
A mere six-minute ride lies between you and your next meal, available in the upscale neighbourhood of El Cangrejo. El Trapiche – home to authentic Panamanian cuisine – remains one of the most popular.
Indulge in a spot of retail therapy
As the heat of the day comes into full swing, you could find yourself in many a worse place than the air-conditioned luxury of the Multiplaza Mall in Punta Pacifica. Filled with all the designer brands you know and love, it’s just 20 minutes from El Cangrejo.
Relax on the Amador Islands
You definitely deserve a bit of a chill by now, and you need to look no further than the Amador Causeway for this – a stretch of four islands connected by rubble from the canal construction.
Just 25 minutes from the hustle and bustle of Punta Pacifica lies breathtaking views over the sea and the city’s skyline, and you can either cycle around on a rented bike or sit down with ice cream while you soak up your surroundings.
For the Insta keenos among you, you’ll probably want to find the brightly-coloured Panama sign along the Causeway and ask a passer-by to snap you standing next to it! If you’ve still got some energy left, you can also spend some time in the BioMuseo – designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry.
Head back to Casco Viejo for dinner and drinks
If you enjoyed your breakfast/brunch here, you’re going to love what’s on offer for dinner. CasaCasco – an all-in-one night out offering excellent bar food, delicious cocktails, rooftop seating and live music – is the perfect way to end your day here in Ciudad de Panamá!
Where to stay in Panama City
Calle 50 and Aquilino de la Guardia, Bella Vista, Panama City
If you really want to treat yourself to a pleasant stay, pick W Panama, a modern and luxurious five-star hotel inspired by the local culture. It has an outdoor pool, four bars, a sun terrace and two restaurants, so you are guaranteed to have a great time. Plus, you will be staying in a beautiful skyscraper with a fantastic view.
Plaza Paitilla Inn
Via Italia Punta Paitilla Calle Wiston Churchil, Panama City
Offering panoramic views of Panama Bay, this top-rated hotel also offers a lounge bar, outdoor pool, sun terrace, a gym and an on-site restaurant specializing in international dishes. Popular for its location, it’s just a six minutes’ drive from a shopping centre and 6.2 miles from Panama’s Old Town, and the hotel offers not one but two tour desks to help guests arrange outings.
Best Western El Dorado Panama Hotel
Avenue Miguel A. Brostella; Boulevard Dorado, Panama City
Should you require a more budget-friendly stay, Best Western El Dorado Hotel is pretty much ideal for that. Not only are the rooms good-looking and comfortable, but the place has an outdoor pool, too. On top of that, you will get free breakfast, and free coffee, tea and cookies every day in the lobby. Nice!
Eden’s Garden Hostel
Calle 75 San Francisco, Panama City
Another option popular for its location, Eden’s Garden Hostel offers air-conditioned rooms (both single and family), individual terraces, a shared kitchen and lounge, a garden and free WiFi throughout. Guests will enjoy an American breakfast and ample coffee, thanks to the coffee machine in every room.
Day trips from Panama City
San Lorenzo Fort
Just two hours from the city lies aN 18th-century historic site – home to many a battle between pirates and Spanish settlers. This might make you feel like you’ve just stepped onto a Pirates of the Caribbean set! After your tour, you can spend some time birdwatching or kayaking.
Chagres National Park
Head here for a spot of natural beauty and indigenous culture – explored by hikes and boat rides – just one hour from the capital. Float through the rainforest towards secret pools and crystal clear waterfalls and speak to the people of Embera Village, who will share their history and incredible botanical knowledge with you. You may even enjoy watching them weave baskets out of leaves and getting your body painted with their local natural dyes.
El Valle de Anton
A quaint town nestled within a volcanic crater offers gorgeous villas, colourful markets, hot springs and sensational views. You’ll also want to check out the beautiful waterfall called El Macho.
Once one of Captain Morgan’s favourite haunts, Taboga Island remains one of the most popular day trips from Ciudad de Panamá, reachable by ferry from the Amador Causeway. Expect white sandy beaches, breathtaking hikes, picture-perfect cycling routes, snorkelling and an abundance of mouthwatering seafood in this idyllic slice of paradise.
Monkeys Discovery Eco-Tour
Get up close and personal with all kinds of monkeys in their natural habitats. Your expert guide will navigate you through the Panama Canal, Summit Botanical Garden and Gatun Lake, and also take you to discover the beauty contained in the Soberania National Park. A true journey through the ecological gems of the area awaits!
Extra tips for visiting Panama City
Admittedly not only true here, but some travellers have encountered this in the Casco Viejo area: be wary of strangers offering guide services (and just exercise extra caution in general!).
When it comes to eating out, don’t expect anything to be done in a hurry! The people of Panama take their food seriously and like to savour their dining experience.
Don’t worry about changing money – the U.S dollar is accepted everywhere!
Negotiate taxi fares before departure as most come without a meter and the driver may try to take advantage. In these situations, don’t be afraid to pass and move on to another. Better yet, just use Uber!