We were only in Panama City for a short period of time as we wanted to make our way to Colombia. To make the most of it we tried to fit in as many things to do as possible, which led to trying to see as much as possible! And whilst we could never hope to fit everything in, we did manage to hit most of the ‘highlights’ that Panama City has to offer. Let us just say there is much more to Panama City than first meets the eye, and here is a rundown of what you might be able to accomplish in one very full day!
Start the day off early by heading to where the city was first founded in 1519 by the Spanish. Of course you won’t be heading here to look at stylish buildings but rather the ruins of a city that was sacked in 1671.
You will be able to walk many streets around Panama Viejo and see many ruins, including the impressive Casas Reales once separated from the city by a moat.
Entrance to the Panama Viejo site costs US$12 and please remember that the site is closed on Mondays. On Tuesday to Sunday you can access Panama Viejo from 8:30 in the morning until 4:30pm, so make sure you get an early start to ensure you make it through the rest of our planned ‘day’!
More information on the site can be found here.
After having a couple of hours at Panama Viejo, it is time to move on to where the city was rebuilt after Panama Viejo was sacked – Casco Viejo. This historic quarter only spans 4 blocks, but with its view over the pacific it certainly is an up-and-coming area. It is this view, which places you on the southwestern tip of Panama, that gives this place it’s hip feel and allows you to see ships coming and going that are heading for the grand Panama Canal.
But of course there is much more to see in this small neighbourhood, with a lot of it relating to gastronomy. There are many great restaurants and bars here, alongside hip cafe’s serving expensive (but good) coffee. One such place is called Café Unido within The American Trade Hotel, serving up different blends to thirsty customers. Wherever you end up going in this quaint little neighbourhood, make sure you walk around and take it all in. Whether you’re looking for a Panamanian style hat (I was tempted) or just want to sample the great rum that the country produces, you can find it all in Casco Viejo.
If you haven’t had too much rum in Casco Viejo, the next stop on your list should be to hike up and get a great view of the city. Ancon Hill provides this experience, with the green hill jutting up from what seems to be almost the middle of the city, with the Panama flag waving in the breeze on top.
Starting at the base of the hill, it should take around 1.5-2 hours return trip to make it to the top of the small hill. But the effort you put in will be rewarded with a stunning view of areas including Casco Viejo, and the pacific ocean. The great thing about the hike is that it winds up through some beautiful houses, turning into rainforest along the way. The rainforest then provides you with a shaded walk alongside opportunities to see many species of animals including birds, sloths, and monkeys!
Happy with the exercise you’ve received and want to do some more? Then head on over to the Amador Causeway and walk or rent a bike to experience this great land bridge that connects Panama City to four islands that jut out off the coast. Created using rock excavated for the Panama Canal, this ‘bridge’ is now a great spot for a 4km walk or bike to see the expensive houses and nice coastal views.
You obviously do not need to do the whole causeway if you are not inclined, and you also have the option to just drive out if you want, but we really recommend doing the full track and renting some bikes to make it a bit easier! If you like you will also find many restaurants (and even decent nightlife) on the causeway, giving you an opportunity to have a meal or even just bring a picnic to enjoy the view.
Panama Canal (Miraflores Locks)
Now that it is probably the afternoon, the best thing to do now is to head to the Panama Canal. The Miraflores Locks provide the best opportunity to see the ships passing by, and if you don’t have a car we would highly recommend taking an Uber out to this location. You can of course take public transportation and it is relatively easy (see post here on how to do it using the Metro and red buses of Panama City), though with time limits on our day we took an Uber which ended up being not too much more!
Now the reason we say to head to the Locks in the afternoon is because that is your best opportunity to see big boats coming through them, which is what you really come for anyway right! Now after you pay your $15US admission (seriously expensive but worth it), you can head in and get a good seat to view the boats.
We would also recommend going through the museum they have which explains all about how the canal was built, and the handover of the canal from USA to Panama actually owning and running it.
Metropolitan Natural Park
Still haven’t had enough in your day yet? Well if you want to squeeze one more hike in, head down from the Miraflores Locks to the Metropolitan Nature Park, which is a great little park right in the middle of town. The great thing about this place is that not many tourists seem to know about it, so we were able to do a nice 1-hour hike up to a viewpoint in natural forest and rainforest surroundings without many people around!
We got amazing views whilst in the park, and also saw many animals (including more sloths!) which really made this stop one of the highlights of the day. The entrance is a tiny $2US which goes towards their conservation fund, and if you like you can also visit a butterfly house in the park for a small fee. Head here to check out the trails available, and other information including opening hours.
Once you are done you can either walk a short distance to the bus stop (in front of the University), or take a fairly cheap Uber or taxi back into the city which is quite nearby.
Plan Your Evening
We think that at this point in the day you will be sufficiently exhausted and immersed in Panama City, though of course there is always more if you like. If you really want to keep on going, there are many options available to have a great night! Some recommendations from us would include:
There are many shopping malls in Panama City that are surprisingly good (maybe we were just used to other Central American countries without good shops)! Some good examples to check out include the Albrook Mall, Metromall Panama, Multicentro, and the Multiplaza Pacific Mall.
The majority of these also have cinemas located inside, which can make for a great cheap movie if you don’t feel like heading out.
There are literally hundreds of options for restaurants in Panama City, and we are not going to pretend to know all of the best spots. We would however recommend going back to Casco Viejo where there are some great restaurants for all budgets. If you are looking for a cheap backpacker option you can’t go too wrong heading to the fish market (there are many, but look for the stands in front of the Mercado de Mariscos), where you can get a cheap ceviche!
Panama City comes to life at night, and in addition to the earlier suggestion of the nightlife on the Amador Causeway, we can recommend a few places to you to wet your whistle. These include:
- Brew Stop: This place provides a number of beers both in bottles and on tap. Of course they mostly do craft beer (and a lot from America), but they also have some great Panama brews available. These guys also do food so it is a great option to start the night!
- Relic: Looking like a cave, this bar is located underneath the Luna Castle Hotel in Casco Viejo. It can get quite busy here, but make sure you at least visit during happy hour when the drinks are quite reasonable.
From Relic you can continue your night as the Casco Viejo area provides many options until the wee hours of the morning.
So there it is, a guide to a very full and busy day in Panama City. If you are able to get through everything on this list in one day, we applaud you. However, it is also great to just pick and choose what you like as they all provide different experiences that can easily be spread out over a few days (or even a week if you want!).
We hope you enjoy your time in Panama City, it surprised us and we really enjoyed the city whilst we were there.