While Panama typically isn’t the first country that comes to mind when people plan vacations to Latin America, it’s a country that’s got a great deal of variety and has something to satisfy the needs of any kind of traveler.
The Caribbean islands of Bocas del Toro offer stunning beaches and some of the best surfing in the world. The mountains of the Chiriqui province offer incredible hiking and endless breathtaking vistas. Panama City, the nation’s capital, is full of vibrant nightlife, history, and wonderful hidden gems around every corner. If you plan on making a trip through Latin America, making a stop in Panama City, Panama is definitely well worth it.
The skyline of Panama City is incredibly impressive and features some of the tallest buildings in Central America. Unfortunately, many of these buildings are entirely vacant because few Panamanians can afford to pay the high rents and wealthy retirees tend to move to the cooler mountain regions, such as Boquete. While many have accosted the Panamanian government for allowing such large-scale building projects to take place despite a lack of real demand, the skyline still makes for some impressive views and excellent photographs. Still, that’s a pretty small silver lining.
Despite the relatively small economy of Panama City, the area still has plenty to offer in terms of nightlife, history, and cultural experiences. The city blends the new and the old; a five-minute walk might take you from a row of centuries-old buildings to gleaming modern architecture housing fun nightclubs. And, yes, the city is dangerous in parts. However, if you stick to the areas frequented by tourists and keep your head about you, you should have a safe and fun time in the capital city. Here are some of the best things to do in Panama City:
1. Panama Canal
If you end up in Panama City, you’re pretty much obligated to see the Panama Canal. It’s the defining landmark of the city and the point of trade that the city was built around. It’s probably not worth spending an entire day on, but head over to the Miraflores Visitor Center and you get all sorts of information about the canal and the many stages of its development. From there, you can either go to see the locks from an elevated view or take a boat tour through the canal itself.
If you end up near the Panama Canal, you’ll be standing in what used to be a United States territory. The Panama Canal Zone was technically under the jurisdiction of the United States from 1903 to 1979, a nifty little trick that allowed the United States to undertake a massive construction project on Panamanian soil and share little of the profits with the locals. The Canal Zone was only fully turned over to the Panamanian government as recently as 1999.
2. Casco Viejo (Old Town)
Another must-see area in Panama City is Casco Viejo, or Old Town. This part of the city was founded in 1671 after the original city, which was located a little further up the coast, was blown to bits with barrels of gunpowder by Captain Morgan. That kind of makes you wonder about the barrel under the captain’s boot in Captain Morgan spiced rum logo, doesn’t it? Anyway, Casco Viejo was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003, and it’s filled to the brim with late-17th-century buildings, beautiful churches, and ruins that you can walk right through.
The area of Casco Viejo is fairly small and you can probably see all of the sights in about two hours if you’re hurrying. You should start your journey in Plaza Mayor where you can find a map with all of the locations of the different landmarks. From there, stroll around, buy a handmade souvenir or two, and enjoy the history. If you get tired and need a little pick-me-up, head over to Lessep’s Bistro Cafe for a cup of coffee.
3. Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus
Within Casco Viejo, there are certain landmarks that you should absolutely make sure to get to, and the Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus is definitely one of those landmarks. Dating back to 1741, the only remains of this old convent are the crumbling walls, but it’s still a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and find a nice place in the shade. Plus, you can walk around and admire the craftsmanship of the old walls, many of which were made with seashells from the surrounding coastline.
If you’re traveling with a significant other, visiting the Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus at nighttime is definitely a good way to get some romance going. At night, they flood the walls with light, creating a dramatic and surreal setting to walk through.
4. Paseo de las Bovedas
Located on the southern end of Casco Viejo is Paseo de las Bovedas, a long walkway along the ocean that is flanked by a row of vendors selling handmade goods and souvenirs of all kinds. You can buy a mask, a license plate, a doll, traditional Panamanian foods, and pretty much anything else you can imagine.
Paseo de las Bovedas is also one of the best places in the city to see the skyline from afar. You can look out over the bridges, the dramatic natural coastline, and the skyscrapers and snap some incredible photos.
5. Panama Viejo
Remember that whole thing about Captain Morgan blowing up the old Panama City with barrels of gunpowder? Well, fortunately, he didn’t destroy all of it. If you take a drive about 20 minutes out of Panama City toward Tocumen International Airport, you can see Panama Viejo, the historic remains of that ransacked city that was founded way back in 1519. There are over 14 different ruins throughout the area and you could easily spend hours walking through them.
A good place to start your tour is at the Museo de Sitio Panama Viejo. There you can see a model of what Panama Viejo used to look like before it was destroyed, which will give you interesting insight for the rest of your tour of the area. Also make sure that you stop by the Puente del Rey, a bridge built in 1617 that some claim is the oldest bridge in the Americas.
Honestly, Panama City doesn’t have much in the way of museums compared to other major cities. However, the Biomuseo is an absolute gem located right by the Panama Canal. The building itself is stunning to look at, as it was designed by Frank Gehry and it sort of looks like a pile of Lego blocks. Inside the Biomuseo, you’ll find eight galleries dedicated to the natural history and biodiversity of Panama. If you plan on heading out to the more natural regions of Panama, this is a great place to get some information about the wildlife before you go.
The Biomuseo is located on the Amador Causeway and the area surrounding the museum is filled with paved paths and hiking trails. Feel free to pack a picnic and eat on the lawn after you’ve finished making your way through the Biomuseo’s exhibits.