The energetic metropolis of Panama City is a sparkling sight to behold! Soaring skyscrapers illuminate the night sky like a beacon calling travelers to experience a vibrant culture ready for the future.
Instead of building over its past, the capital city of Panama holds on to its historic roots. Founded on the Pacific coast by the Spanish in 1519, the early settlements of Panamá Viejo (Old Panama) and Casco Viejo (Old Town) act as an important time capsule to understand the city's evolution.
Visitors can see the layers of progression firsthand in stone ruins, colonial architecture, modern high rises, and of course, the engineering marvel of the Panama Canal.
Brad and I spent two weeks in Panama City breathing salty air, walking busy streets, and tasting flavorful cuisine. Below I've organized a list of our favorite attractions and restaurants to help jumpstart your itinerary.
Panamá Viejo Museum
Like any great story, it's best to start at the beginning. Learn about Panama City's indigenous population and Spanish heritage with a visit to the Panamá Viejo Museum. Hop onto the tram past the ticket office and enjoy a ride to the main entrance.
More than 350 exquisite artifacts, most of which were discovered in situ, showcase the cultural changes in the region. Intricate dioramas and bilingual placards shed light on 1,500 years of history!
Afterward, climb to the top of the cathedral for a stunning perspective of the ruins. Instead of pirate ships on the horizon, you'll see cargo ships heading towards the Panama Canal. Touch the masonry as you weave between the crumbling walls and archways of convents and houses.
TIP: Tickets cost $10 USD per person. The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, 8:30 AM-5:30 PM.
The inhabitants of Panamá Viejo abandoned their home following the devastating pirate attack by Henry Morgan in 1671. The new and improved Casco Viejo was built on a fortified peninsula isolated by the sea to ward off any future raids.
At first glance, the gorgeous neighborhood looks straight out of a New Orleans fairytale. Luscious pink bougainvilleas drape down from wrought-iron balconies of pastel-hued Spanish colonial façades. Narrow cobblestone streets full of boutiques, elegant hotels, and trendy restaurants entice customers with charming displays and bountiful menus.
Head towards Plaza Mayor (Independence Square) and peek inside La Catedral Metropolitana to see brilliant mosaics. The Renaissance style design with symmetrical white towers glistens in the sunlight.
Shells of former buildings patiently wait to be renovated as the city continues its preservation work. Scaffolding is common, but adds to the magnetic and imperfect beauty. Spend the day sipping coffee, wandering the galleries, and admiring the scenery.
Souvenirs aren't hard to find along Plaza de Francia, especially molas (needlework blouse panels) handcrafted by the local Guna people. The colorful fabrics typically feature animals, geometric designs, and floral motifs. Panama hats, artwork, and license plates are popular items. Beat the sweltering heat with a refreshing raspado (shaved ice with flavored syrup and condensed milk)!
Trendy rooftop bars hit a rhythm once the air cools and night descends. Put on your party dress or collared shirt and dance the night away at Selina Hotel. We enjoyed fruity cocktails, Mexican food, and salsa music with friends from our four-day San Blas Islands excursion. It was a splendid way to celebrate the final night of our 13-month backpacking trip through Mexico and Central America!
Mercado de Mariscos
Adjacent to Casco Viejo along the waterfront is the bustling fish market. Arrive late morning to see the fresh catch of the day. Shrimp, lobster, squid, marlin, snapper, tuna, shellfish, and more fill the stalls awaiting customers.
Brush off the wet fish scales and head outside to see stranded boats during low tide. The juxtaposition of weathered vessels against the pristine skyline is a fantastic view!
A visit to the fish market isn't complete without a delicious meal! Rows of al fresco restaurants will vie for your attention by proudly showing off their menus. Take your time deciding and check prices to avoid a tourist trap.
Based on Google reviews and our gut instincts, we decided to try Cevichera La Bendición and Restaurante El Marinero. The ceviches at Cevichera La Bendición had generous portions and unique flavors. My favorite was the pescado (fish) ceviche with tangy lime juice and onions. Our winner for creamy shrimp cocktail was at Restaurante El Marinero. Eating at the fish market is a fun feast for the senses!
The star attraction of Panama City is undoubtedly the Panama Canal. Constructed between 1904-1914, with the assistance of the United States, the man-made waterway stretches 82 km (51 mi) and provides a vital maritime trade route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Over 40,000 laborers were needed to build the canal. The job site was dangerous and the jungle environment was unrelenting. In addition to the strenuous work, laborers had to face the possibility of malaria, yellow fever, and dysentery. The project required an astounding amount of human perseverance!
A trip to the Miraflores Locks is DIY friendly. Take an Uber from your hotel or a public bus at the Albrook Bus Terminal. The best times to see ships pass through the locks are 9:00 AM and 2:00 PM. We arrived in the morning and visited the observation deck first before watching the interesting IMAX documentary.
You'll hear a detailed explanation in English and Spanish about what is happening every time a vessel passes through. Captains relinquish control to special pilots due to the complexity of the operation and tight navigation. Electric locomotives, known as mules, help center and guide massive ships via cables.
The hydraulic locks provide passage through the Continental Divide by raising and lowering vessels over a series of steps with a total elevation change of 26 m (85 ft). Without the artificial creation of Gatun Lake, the locks wouldn't have an adequate supply of water to function.
Brad and I witnessed a catamaran, yacht, and two cargo ships pass through the Miraflores Locks. About 40 vessels a day make the journey which can last between 8-10 hours. Transiting the Panama Canal isn't cheap and depends on a vessel's size, type, and volume of cargo. The hefty tolls can reach up to half a million dollars for a one-way passage!
TIP: The visitor center is undergoing renovations and the exhibition halls are closed as of February 2023. Expect crowds since only one viewing platform is available. Tickets cost $17 USD per person. The Miraflores Visitor Center is open every day, 8:00 AM-5:00 PM.
Panaviera Sky Bar & Ocean Casino
Looking for a jaw-dropping sunset with panoramic views? Grab a drink at the highest rooftop bar in Central America! The Panaviera Sky Bar is set on the 66th floor of the Ocean Casino in the same property as the JW Marriott Panama Hotel.
Toast your trip with a creative cocktail or delicious appetizer before heading downstairs to the casino. We enjoyed playing low-stakes roulette and watching people place their bets at the poker tables.
Pipeline Road Trail
Trade skyscrapers for exotic trees and spend a few hours along the Pipeline Road Trail. Access is free and potential encounters include Capuchin monkeys, javelinas, agoutis, lizards, Howler monkeys, sloths, and coatis. The out-and-back gravel trail is 18 km (11 mi) long.
Arrive at dawn if you desire to go birdwatching. Over 300 species have been spotted in this patch of rainforest! Brad and I found a Speckled Mourner, Golden-collared Manakin, Black Vulture, and several other colorful birds during our late start.
TIP: Pack plenty of snacks, water, sunscreen, and insect repellent for your hike. The trail is open every day, from dawn until dusk.
Take a leisurely walk or bike ride along the Cinta Costera (Coastal Beltway) for a bit of exercise. The pristine 7 km (4 mi) long public recreation area includes designated paths, gardens, athletic areas, lookouts, and benches.
Feel the breeze of Panama Bay as you explore the outskirts of Punta Paitilla, Casco Viejo, and El Chorrillo. Locals and street vendors come out at night to enjoy the pleasant weather. Stay hydrated with a freshly squeezed orange juice or tasty raspado. Munch on buttery popcorn or a grilled hotdog if you need a snack.
Panama City is a food paradise with international cuisine, diverse seafood, and national favorites. Besides the must-try ceviche and raspados, I recommend the following mouthwatering spots to keep your belly happy.
• Lunch - Excite your palate with a dance of flavors at Nomada Eatery. The huge chicken tzatziki burrito with creamy plantains, béchamel sauce, and veggies was so good we came back for another one! The chicken Caesar salad and tuna tacos were also a hit. Order the filling falafel with vibrant tabouleh at Suvlas for an affordable vegan meal.
• Dinner - The tropical decor, crisp gin cocktails, and unique appetizers at Mahalo Cocina y Jardin are the perfect combination for a date night. The flaky empanadas with guacamole, portobello gyozas with chipotle sauce, and BBQ chicken bao buns were fun to share.
• Splurge - A memorable way to sample and understand Panamanian cuisine is with the 10-course tasting menu at Maito Restaurante. The sea bass sashimi with tigers milk, corn gnocchi with black beans, furikake grouper soup with pumpkin, fermented pipa coconut, and deconstructed strawberry shortcake were out of this world! I was beyond impressed with the complexity and balance of each dish.
A highlight of the night was a personal brewing of Geisha coffee; the most expensive in the world and grown in the Panama highlands. Our barista used the pour over method to meticulously measure the ideal ratio of grounds and hot water. Hints of pineapple, rose, and orange filled our ceramic cups. The silky smoothness was unlike anything I've had in a cup of joe.
• Cocktails - Spice up your afternoon or evening with a craft cocktail at the Pedro Mandinga Rum Bar. The chill vibe, extensive rum selection, and daily happy hour are a foolproof mix! Go bold with a rum flight if you're having trouble deciding or indulge in our winning cocktail, El Canal Buck.
• Dessert - I'm not ashamed to admit I put my hand in The Cookie Jaar three times! Throw control out the window and indulge in a warm gooey cookie with delectable ice cream. The red velvet, chocolate chip, and macadamia nut cookies were super soft and packed with big morsels. Your sweet tooth will thank you!
Some of the friendliest people in Central America live in Panama City. We had so many warm interactions and didn't feel intimidated to practice our Spanish. Brad and I even hitchhiked for the first time! Tiffany and Yoselin offered us a lift back to the city as we were walking in the harsh sun to a bus stop after our Pipeline Road Trail hike. Their kindness touched our hearts.
The upbeat pulse of Panama City is contagious and you'll feel the radiating energy at every turn. Whatever type of travel you prefer, the authentic atmosphere delivers a relaxing escape. Backpackers, couples, and cruise passengers will fall in love with the fusion of old and new in this captivating city!