The capital of Panama City in Panama is a fascinating city of old and new. The city is surrounded with lush green mountains surrounding an urban jungle. When you explore the city amid the historic colonial areas, Unesco sites, public and outdoor areas, you will find authentic and fascinating places where all the locals hang out, eat and shop. If you are planning on visiting Panama, make sure that you do spend some time in the capital city, there is plenty to see and worth more than a few days, especially if you plan on visiting some of the wonderful attractions just outside of the city’s metropolitan area. Here are the top 15 things to do visiting Panama City and hope you get to do these when you visit the capital.
Here’s what to see and do in Panama City
1. Panama City’s Casco Antiguo or Casco Viejo
The historic central district or Casco Viejo is also called Casco Antiguo. It is a historic area filled with a wonderful mixture of old and crumbling colonial styled architecture mixed in with modern deco elements and many other latin influences. The historic zone contains remodeled private estates and public buildings that have been converted into luxury hotels, restaurants and beautiful galleries worth exploring. While visiting Casco Antiguo, make sure you visit many of the stunning churches, public monuments and squares with lovely vistas of the downtown skyline, the Malecon area and even a peek of the Panama Canal entry from the Pacific Ocean. Since the historic district is compact, it is relatively easy to walk around the district and explore the three main corridors and side streets covering the small peninsula. Along the way, you can stop to view the landscape and water vistas if you are anywhere along the perimeter areas of the historic area. Make sure that you check out some of the cool craft galleries, outdoor souvenir markets and fun clothing shops of traditional and modern clothing stores and design shops in this trendy area of Panama city. Casco Antigua is the place to be for visiting some of the trendy, rum bars, rooftop bars with views to die for and an active nightlife scene if you want to extend dinner late into the night. Also, the cuisine in this area is fantastic with a variety of indoor/outdoor restaurants serving traditional, fusion Latin style to international food from around the world.
For more information and a map of the historic district, check out the Casco Viejo website here.
2. Panama city, Mercado de Mariscos – seafood market
Along the waterfront and fisherman’s wharf area is the seafood market including many small restaurants facing the bay with nice views of the downtown area and Casco Viejo. For seafood lovers, the Mercado de Mariscos is definitely is the place to visit to check out the amazing array of fresh seafood caught locally and sold at the market. The market itself is a lively area and you can actually take the central stairs to an upper level to check out the action below and walking along the aisles will give you completely sensory overload to seeing everything seafood focused. Fortunately this is a very clean and well maintained market so it is a wonderful place to visit and take some good photographs of the market, vendors and of course the seafood and don’t forget to sample some of the great seafood with the cafes next door.
3. Restaurants at the Mercado de Mariscos
If you’re looking for the freshest seafood available in the city, then head out to the Mercado de Mariscos along the bay front fronting the ocean and next to Casco Antigua in Panama City. Located adjacent to the seafood market the cafes next door are open most of the day and late into the night the cafes (mostly outdoor and some indoor eateries) with nice views of the bay and wharf area. You will definitely be inundated with people approaching you with menus and trying to coax you for a meal, so take your time in picking your perfect meal. Most of these restaurants serve the same dishes prepared in a variety of ways from fried, sautéed, baked and raw (think many types of Ceviche bars). The area is lively with loud popular music, some dancing and performers, each place is different so take your time wandering around the area before you sit down to enjoy a fantastic meal.
Tip – Night time here is quite lively with music, dance and some performances and the area is lit up nicely along with easy walks along the waterfront area and into the historic district. Cabs are plentiful and cheap or you can also opt for Uber rides which is available throughout the city.
4. The Malecon (bay front area) of Panama City
The Malecon or bay front of Panama City is a lively area that connects the old town of Casco Antigua, the fisherman’s wharf and seafood market and onto the new downtown business district. Stretching for miles, this waterfront promenade has beautiful views of the entire bay from the new downtown business district all the way into the historic district. It is a scenic area local cafes, street food vendors, playgrounds and green belts and is the perfect place for a stroll or spot to enjoy sunset overlooking the Pacific Ocean. If you’re looking for open space and nice views with scenic vistas to photograph, then the Malecon is the right spot see everything from old to new in one quick sweep along the waterfront area.
5. The downtown business district of Panama city
The business district is typically where the financial center is but you can also find many of the modern hotel brands based here with all the typical amenities you will be accustomed to. The main things to do downtown include:
Roof top views of the city and waterfront area – for cool vibes with bars or trendy restaurants with amazing views of the city skyline and bay, you can check out popular places like Bits on the 62nd Floor of the Hard Rock Café or Gatto Blanco at Hotel Casa Nurati. For some cool places to hang out with nice views around the city, check out this link here for more details.
Visit the Iglesia del Carmen – a striking catholic church with beautiful details, art and architecture worth a visit in the central district
Design District – if your a design buff than the design district is where you can check out the popular international design brands, art galleries and local designers for fresh design inspiration
Casinos – There are a few downtown casinos located mostly in Hotels including the Hilton, Continental Hotel and Casino, Trump hotel and the Sortis Hotel
6. Bio Museo at Panama City
The southern part of the city is relatively new with the opening of the Frank Gerhy designed Bio Museo and the string of connected islands in the Almador parkway. Fronting both the Pacific ocean and the Panama Canal, the Bio Museo straddles a strategic spot to explain Panama’s rise from the ocean floor and development from early tropical animals and biology which mixes elements from North and South America. The museum covers the geology, geography, early peoples, wildlife and fauna that developed from this area combining Caribbean, North and South American influences. For more information about the museum, check out their website here for more details and entrance.
7. Panama City’s Amador Causeway district and islands
Just past the Bio Museum is the Amador district – a peninsula and islands that jut out into Panama Bay with spectacular views of the downtown area and the Casco Antigua on one side and the entrance to the Panama Canal on the other side. This is a popular weekend area for bicycling, strolling or having a nice long meal along many of the restaurants that along the islands lining the main drive down to the last island called Isla Flamenco.
Tip – There lots of eateries to choose from in the Amador area and you can easily call a cab or an Uber to get there and back to the downtown area
8. Visit to the Panama Canal
One of the highlights to visiting Panama City is a visit to the Panama Canal and the famous locks of Miraflores. The place to visit is the Visitors center at Miraflores locks which is just a 20 minute ride from the city. The center features a variety of interactive displays, exhibits and a short film about building the Panama Canal. There is an outdoor terrace area where you can view the ships going through the locks with informative signage maps.
Tip – you can visit the center directly on your own taking a cab or Uber, or you can sign up for a city tour which typically covers a visit to the canal
9. Panama City views at Ancon Hill
Right in the city and up in the hill district is Ancon Hill – a fantastic wildlife area and trails with wonderful views of the downtown district, Casco Viejo and the Panama Canal on the other side. The paved path goes to a jungle area filled with wildlife to include exotic birds, monkeys and sloths. If your looking to get away from the urban grind of the city, Ancon Hill is a perfect getaway to enjoy some lush greenery and spot of wildlife in the center of the city.
Tip – try to get here earlier in the morning to avoid the heat and leave before the afternoon traffic crush starting around 4pm which is terrible around the city.
10. Exciting nightlife in Panama city
Panama City is busy doing the day time and a fun place to also explore at night time with a variety of bars, cafes and entertainment venues that keep the city buzzing all night. Many of the trendy bars, restaurants and new rooftop venues are located in Casco Viejo also called Casco Antigua, offering a variety of fun and cool hangout spots with amazing views of the downtown skyline. For a list of the cool places to check out the nightlife in the city, visit this website for more details and information.
11. Shopping Panama City’s largest shopping mall in Central America
Panama City hosts the largest shopping mall in Central America called the Albrook Mall encompassing over 700 shops, an extensive food court and even a Merry Go Round and arcade center. The mall is connected to the metro system which is accessible to the downtown business district or you can easily catch a cab or Uber to this huge mall. You will find the typical designer stores and brands but also pan regional designers and brand merchandise.
Tip – The Albrook Mall is also next to the main bus terminal hub along with a variety of hotels nearby for easy access to the mall or transportation around the country
12. Fine dining in Panama city
Panama City has a diversity of cuisine that covers latin, Caribbean, African and native Indian spices and food. Eating out for a fine dining experience in the city is a wonderful experience to try out the different cuisine or modern fusion tastes that combine all these various influences. You can check out some of the fine dining experience at this website here for dining options for many of the restaurants in the Casco Viejo area of the city.
13. Visiting Panema Viejo – the ruins of the original city
Panama Viejo are the ruins of the original city of Panama, the area contains a cluster of ruined buildings and partial facades that harken to the city’s ancient past. This area is designated as a Unesco World Heritage site and worth a visit if you are interested in historic treasures – you may want to visit this area with a guide due to limited signage in English and a lack of information about any of the historic monuments that you will see in this district. For more information on the Unesco ruins at Panema Viejo, check out their main website here for details.
14. Authentic shopping and eating where the locals go
On the fringe edge of Casco Viejo or the historic district of Panama City is where you will find the real authentic shopping and eating areas for most local Panamanians along Avenida Central to Via Espania. You will find a variety of outdoor markets and food stalls, cheap shopping/eating and entertainment venues primarily in this mostly promenade walking area. Beyond the gentrified parts of the Casco Antigua outside the tourist areas, look for the large walking promenade at Avenida Central filled with cheap department stores, local shops, cheap food venues and bargain hawkers stalls selling inexpensive new to used merchandise for very cheap prices, and you can also bargain. Amid old and deteriorating grand buildings and beautiful facades, this historic area is where you will see the real Panama City. It is a wonderful place to take in all the local flavors of what Panamanians do, shop and take away foods from the many vendors on the promenade.
Tip – take the metro system to Cinco De Mayo stop and head up the street on Avenida Ancon to the Avenida Central promenade – the main shopping areas and eating areas are along this walking only area. You can easily catch a cab or Uber to get to this area.
15. Try the new Panama City Metro System
Panama City has a new Metro system – although it is only one line at the moment, the metro line goes through a nice part of the downtown area all the way to largest shopping mall in Central America. The popular metro line is already well used for just going through a few parts of the city with eventual expansion to more districts and the new airport that is being built. If you stay at a hotel in the downtown business district it might be a fun way to explore the city on public transportation and visit some of the attractions above via the Panama City Metro.
Tip – you have to get a metro card $2 and then fill it up in dollars – each metro ride costs approximately $.35.
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