The fascinating old ruins of Panama Viejo

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10 Ultimate Things To Do In Panama City, Panama

Panama City is the heart of Panama, a pulsing city in the midst of a tropical paradise with the Panama Canal Locks and Casco Viejo top Panama City attractions. There are numerous things to do in Panama City with its big city vibes, history, food, wildlife, and beaches making it a go-to destination.

Panama City has become an international commerce and financial hub thanks to the Panama Canal. Its international exposure is reflected in the city’s mix of cultures, food, and history. 

As a vital port city to the world, I could easily see the blend of Caribbean, South American, American and Central American influence throughout every facet of the city.

It provides travelers with the attraction of both an urban city and tropical wilderness all in the same visit.

One minute you are walking the grounds of old ruins and the next minute you are immersed in a thick forest with monkey’s, sloths, and coati!

Ruins of a cathedral tower of Panama Viejo or Old Old Town on a sunny day and one of the best things to do in Panama City, Panama.
Ruins of Panama Viejo or the Old Old Town

An added bonus for Americans traveling to Panama is that the U.S. dollar is the currency used throughout the country. 

I recommend spending 3-4 days in Panama City before heading out to tour other regions of this stunning country.

If you are looking to spend more time in the country, consider using this Panama 2 week itinerary to plan your trip in more depth.

Where Is Panama City, Panama Located?

Panama City is located in the country of Panama in Central America. Panama is bordered by Costa Rica to the north and Colombia (South America) to the south of it.

Panama is also uniquely bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east!

Panama City is the capital and the largest city in Panama making it the main destination to fly in and out when visiting the country. From here you will branch off to travel to other regions in Panama.

The main airport that you will fly into is the Panama City Tocumen International Airport (PTY).

To book your airfare to Panama City, go to Skyscanner and find the best flight deals available!

Where To Stay In Panama City, Panama

All of these hotels have an excellent location, great amenities such as rooftop pools, restaurants and a casino along the beautiful Panama Bay.

Hilton Panama, Panama City

Central Hotel Panama

InterContinental Miramar Panama City

View of Panama Bay from the Hilton Panama
View of Panama Bay from the Hilton Panama

Panama City Tours

If you are short on time or prefer taking a tour instead of sightseeing on your own, then consider taking one or more of these awesome Panama City Tours that will take you to the best sights to see in Panama City!

Panama City & Canal Half Day Tour – In this tour you will get to see up close the Panama Canal lock system, explore the colonial Casco Viejo (old town) and Amador Causeway!

Panama Canal, Colon Rainforest & Fort Lorenzo – In this Panama City tour, you get to visit the famous Panama Canal and learn about the lock system and how ships pass through, visit the Colon rainforest with numerous wildlife sightings such as sloths and monkeys! Then spend some time visiting Fort Lorenzo with incredible views of where the Caribbean Sea meets the Panal Canal.

Panama City Canal Railway & Gatun Locks – Take a one hour train ride that travels along the Isthmus of Panama from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. Then visit the Gatun locks to see up close ships passing through the Panama Canal!

San Blas Islands Day Trip – This tour will take you to the stunning white sand and turquoise waters of the San Blas Islands for the day. Swim, play and sunbathe on the prettiest beaches and get to see the island seen in the Netflix show Money Heist!

Caribbean Snorkel & Zip Line Tour – Taking off from Panama City, get ready for a day of adventure as you snorkel in the gorgeous Caribbean Sea and zip line in the jungle!

READ MORE: Best Places To Visit In Panama

Best Things To Do In Panama City, Panama

1. Panama Canal

There is no question that one of the best Panama City attractions is the Panama Canal and should be number one on your list when visiting.

The Panama Canal opened for use in 1914, creating a pathway for ships to pass from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

This was a big deal, as prior to the canal, ships had to sail down to the tip of South America and back up on the Pacific side.

Large cargo ship passing through the Miraflores Locks.
Large cargo ship passing through Miraflores Locks

From coast to coast, the Panama Canal is 50 miles in length. Even with the hefty price tag to pass through the Panama Canal (up to $1 million for the biggest cargo ships), the canal saves a tremendous amount of time and money.

Depending on the size of the ship and traffic, a ship can easily take 8-10 hours to pass from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

Due to the high demand to pass through the canal, ships book a year in advance to pass through this vital passageway!

Panama Canal Locks at Miraflores location.
Miraflores Locks

Panama Canal Locks

There are two places (3 locks in total) to view the Panama Canal locks in action as ships and boats of all sizes pass through, the Gatun Locks and the Miraflores Locks.

The majority of people will only visit the Miraflores Locks (closer to Panama City) but it is worth visiting both to get different viewing perspectives.

The Gatun Locks are also a little less crowded which is a plus.

Large cargo ship passing through the Gatun Locks at the Agua Clara Visitors Center.
A large cargo ship passing through the Gatun Locks

The Gatun Locks are located a few miles from the Caribbean Sea. The Agua Clara Visitors Center is where visitors can wait in anticipation for ships to pass through the Gatun Locks.

There is a theater with an interesting video displaying the history and building of the canal. There is also a café for a quick bite to eat.

Close view of cargo containers on a ship passing through the Gatun Locks.
Cargo containers on a ship at Gatun Locks

The Miraflores Visitor Center is home to the Miraflores Locks (Pacific Ocean side) that has a larger visitor center with a theater, museum, restaurant, café and viewing platforms.

Give yourself time to browse the museum and theater to take in the marvel of the Panama Canal’s engineering feat.

I recommend 2 hours to explore everything onsite and the passing of a ship.

Cargo ship containers on ship at the Miraflores Locks.
Cargo ship containers on a ship at the Miraflores Locks

Tip:  If you want to see the big cargo ships passing through the lock system, visit between 9am – 11am or 3pm – 5pm. The big ships can take up to 15 minutes to pass through the lock system.

If you come in between, you are likely to be bored as there isn’t much happening… The viewing platforms get packed so if you want a front row view, get a spot on the platforms early!

2. Panama Viejo

Most cities have an Old Town but Panama Viejo is Panama City’s “Old Old Town”.

Yep, you read that right! It is the original settlement of Panama City from the early 1500s and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, various ruins remain to wander and are impressive for its colorful history.

Ruins of old cathedral tower in Panama Viejo or Old Old Town.
Ruins of old cathedral tower in Panama Viejo or Old Old Town. Can you spot me?

Unfortunately, back in 1671, Captain Henry Morgan (yes, the rum guy!) destroyed the town by attacking and burning the neighborhood killing most residents.

Morgan was later prosecuted but got off saying he didn’t realize he had broken any laws. I don’t think that excuse would work today…   

Ruin walls at Panama Viejo in Panama City.
Ruin at Panama Viejo

The city never recovered and moved the city to what is now known as Casco Viejo (Old Town). The most prominent attraction still standing is the cathedral tower which is impressive to see.

To learn more about the Old Old Town’s history, spend some time in the museum (plus it’s nice to cool off in there).

Old ruins at Panama Viejo in Panama City.
Ruins at Panama Viejo

Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday from 8:30am to 4:30pm, closed on Mondays. Adult admission is $15.

Contrasting view of old ruins of Panama Viejo with modern high rises behind.
A contrasting view of old ruins of Panama Viejo with modern high rises behind.

Tip: I recommend spending 1.5 – 2 hours roaming the ruins and museum.

3. Metropolitan Park

Minutes from downtown Panama City is Metropolitan Park that is a tropical wildlife park. It’s hard to imagine walking in what feels like a jungle right in the heart of a bustling city!

I was surprised at how humid it was walking up to the top of the hill making it a little difficult to breathe but luckily there are spots along the way to sit and take in all the beauty.

View of Panama City from the top of Metropolitan Park.
View of Panama City from the top of Metropolitan Park

Starting out at the Visitor Center, follow the path for Monkey Trail that leads up to the lookout point and take the Cienegurita Trail back down (creates one big loop) for 3 miles.

The views of Panama City from the lookout point is breathtaking and definitely worth sweating it out to get to the top!

Keep your eyes out for sloth (curled up in the trees), monkeys, iguanas, coati, and several birds. Seeing so much wildlife in their natural habit made this one of my favorite things to do in Panama City!

Hiking a trail in Metropolitan Park, minutes from downtown Panama City.
Hiking through the jungle of Metropolitan Park
A coati running across the hiking path in Metropolitan Park.
One of many adorable coati running across the hiking trail!

Hours:  Open daily from 6:30am to 4:30pm and a $4 admission fee for adults.

Tip: It can get very hot and humid in the park so bring a lot of water to keep hydrated. I recommend spending 2 – 3 hours hiking up to the top and back.

4. Casco Viejo aka Panama City Old Town

Casco Viejo is the Old Town of Panama City, the new settlement after the destruction of Panama Viejo (Old Old Town) above.

The Panama City Old Town might be my favorite area with its charming buildings and cobblestoned streets brimming with history and culture.

I have never been to Cuba, but from photos, Casco Viejo has a Havana feel.

Palm tree lined street of Casco Viejo.
Palm tree lined street of Casco Viejo

Explore the various churches, plazas and wonderful restaurants and cafes that dot the cobblestoned streets. The colorful buildings provide for great photo opportunities especially the crumbling paint that gives it so much character.

Because Casco Viejo is a small neighborhood, it is easy to wander around on foot.

An old and weathered building with three ornate doors. The doors are blue against a faded pink building. Located in Casco Viejo.
Beautiful and weathered doors on a cobblestone street…
Old church ruins of Santo Domingo in Casco Viejo.
Old church ruins of Santo Domingo in Casco Viejo

Don’t miss out on walking along the waterfront promenade where locals sell embroidered artwork (molas) on anything from a wall hanging, clothes or purse.

Old and beautiful building in Casco Viejo part of Panama City.
So many lovely old buildings!

Tip: Looking for a bite to eat? Tacos La Neta had the most delicious tacos, with killer sauces to top it off. My favorite taco was the chorizo queso and I even went back a second time for them!

Great tacos at Tacos La Neta in Casco Viejo or Panama City's Old Town.
Tacos La Neta in Casco Viejo
Delicious tacos at Tacos La Neta in Casco Viejo.
Delicious tacos at Tacos La Neta

But if you are craving seafood, make a stop at Mercado de Mariscos. A busy fish market that has everything your appetite might want ranging from fresh ceviche, lobster, shrimp or even a whole fish. No meal at any spot is complete without an ice-cold Panamanian beer!

Note: The Panama City & Canal Half Day Tour will take you to visit the charming colonial streets of Casco Viejo!

5. Amador Causeway

Back in 1913, during the construction of the Panama Canal, the removal of the dirt needed a place to go. The dirt was then used to build a long peninsula jutting out into the Pacific Ocean with four small islands.

Each connected by a tiny strip of land. The islands are Naos Island, Culebra Island, Perico Island and Flamenco Island.

View of boats and Panama City skyline from the Amador Causeway.
View of boats and Panama City skyline from the Amador Causeway

It is great that they were able to create something that is one of the biggest attractions in Panama City and is an excellent place to walk, run, ride a bike or dine along the 2 km causeway.

There are several spots to rent a bike through Amador Bike Park. From various spots along the Causeway, take in the spectacular views of Panama City’s skyline that won’t disappoint.

The most recognizable attraction on the Amador Causeway is the brightly colored Biomuseo designed by Frank Gehry. Another one of Gehry’s famous designs is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

The Biomuseo museum centers around Panama’s history and abundant biodiversity, home to so many species of animals and plants.

Tip: A great spot to get some yummy Panamanian food and take a break, is to get a table at Mi Ranchito Restaurant. Any taxi or Uber driver will know the place!

6. Cinta Costera

The Cinta Costera is a beautifully long walkway along Panama City’s waterfront that is quite ideal for walkers, runners, and cyclists.

If you are staying along the waterfront in Panama City, head to the water and jump on the Cinta Costera path that will take you all the way to Casco Viejo. It is a great location to get in a workout as it is a flat, paved stretch for pedestrians.

Walkway through Cinta Costera along Panama City's waterfront.
Walkway through Cinta Costera along Panama City’s waterfront

Cinta Costera was originally built as a way to bypass the heavy traffic of Casco Viejo that plagued those traveling to Panama City. But there is a debate on whether it has succeeded in doing so.

Either way, one can take in stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and the Panama City skyline. Strolling along Cinta Costera is an excellent way to end the day and take in the sunset as it will likely be much cooler with a breeze at that time.

7. The Panama Sign

A fairly recent attraction to Panama City is the “Panama” sign that has probably been made famous by Instagram (I’m guilty of that too!). It is such a colorful and vibrant sign that its hard not to love it.

There are two locations in Panama City that you can find the larger than life Panama sign.

Large and colorful Panama sign along Cinta Costera that is a great photo opportunity.
Colorful Panama sign along Cinta Costera

The first sign can be found along the waterfront of Cinta Costera, a little south of the Balboa Statue (towards Casco Viejo) in a park that rounds out into the Pacific Ocean.

A large and colorful Panama sign on the marina waterfront on Flamenco Island on the Amador Causeway.
The Panama sign on the marina waterfront on Flamenco Island at the end of the Amador Causeway

The second Panama sign can be seen at the end of the Amador Causeway on Flamenco Island. The sign is located along the marina waterfront.

Depending on when you go, be prepared to wait for a photo with no one else in it! Believe me that can be a challenge that requires patience.

8. Gatun Lake

Close to the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal is the man-made Gatun Lake. It is a significant portion of the water pathway that ships take traveling between the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean.

The lake was formed in the making of the Gatun Dam across the Chagres River and became instrumental in the Panama Canal’s success.

Boat cruise on Gatun Lake.
Boat Cruise on Gatun Lake

At the time Gatun Lake was created in 1913, it was the world’s largest man-made lake! Gatun is also home to the Gatun Locks, one of the locks where visitors can watch ships passing through (See above under Panama Canal for more details).

Cruising along Gatun Lake.
Cruising along Gatun Lake

There is nothing like getting out on the water to explore the Panama Canal first hand. I took the Ocean to Ocean Panama Canal & Jungle Tour with Panama Day Trips.

The tour explored Gatun Lake and the surrounding lush jungle that is home to so many species of animals and birds. A treat was stopping along Monkey Islands that had plenty of playful capuchin, howler and tamarin monkeys!

A monkey that hopped on the boat during the jungle cruise.
How cute is this little guy?

I recommend touring the Panama Canal, as it is a great way to explore the lake, wildlife, the canal (Gatun Locks) and learn the importance of how the natural habitat and biodiversity is so vital to this region.

Tip:  If you are going on a tour expect to spend the majority of a day.

9. Fort San Lorenzo

Situated out on the point where the Caribbean Sea flows into the Chagres River, is Fort San Lorenzo built in the late 1500’s. The fort located a few miles from the city of Colon is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Although most visitors will only see the Panama Canal (which is a must!), the history and beautiful nature of Fort Lorenzo shouldn’t be missed. 

Old canons at San Lorenzo Fort where the Caribbean Sea flows into the Chagres River.
Old canons at San Lorenzo Fort where the Caribbean Sea flows into the Chagres River

The fort might be most notable for being destroyed by the pirate Captain Henry Morgan (who destroyed Panama Viejo) in 1670.

Yes, he was on quite a roll with his path of destruction! The fort has since been rebuilt perched up on the cliff above the entrance to the Chagres River.

Mouth of the Chagres River from San Lorenzo Fort.
The mouth of the Chagres River

Today, the fort, old cannons and abundance of flora and fauna create a wonderful backdrop for photos. Maybe it is the location along the sea or just being immersed in nature but I found it incredibly peaceful wandering the grounds. 

Beautiful ferns growing on the old walls of the San Lorenzo Fort.
Beautiful ferns growing on the old walls of the San Lorenzo Fort

Tip: Travel to Fort San Lorenzo is part of the Panama Canal, Colon Rainforest & Fort Lorenzo tour.

10. Panamanian Food

The food in Panama City was a real mix of different regions, ranging from American, Caribbean, and Latin America.

Although I enjoyed the food, overall it wasn’t my favorite among the countries I have visited. I think it is because I encountered more fried food than I prefer.

Some of the dishes that everyone should try when visiting is the ceviche, tacos, ropa vieja (shredded beef), carimanolas (deep fried stuffed yucca pastry), sancocho (stew) and various forms of yucca or plantains.

Sandwich at El Trapiche
Sandwich at El Trapiche

One of my favorite meals was a hot sandwich from El Trapiche in Panama City. It was so good that I went back another day! If you are looking for some local Panamanian food, then look no further.

One of the best things about traveling is trying different foods and getting out of one’s comfort zone when it comes to tasting new cuisines. 

When To Visit Panama City

After researching, I knew that I wanted to go between mid-December and April as that is the drier season and less rainfall. Of course, it is a tropical climate, so rain is likely a given on any trip but planning around the wettest time of the year was a priority to get in as many sunny days as possible.

I traveled in December/ January and encountered a handful of rainy days but not enough to ruin the trip.

Lush landscape of the San Lorenzo Fort.
The Lush landscape of the San Lorenzo Fort

The temperatures in Panama City are warm year-round averaging 86 F (30C) but somehow it seems hotter because of the humidity. The humidity can get pretty steamy and quite impossible for my hair to be managed… But that happens in any humid climate!

How to Get Around

For locations that are close by, I say walking is the best way to get around a city to explore. But for those attractions farther out, I found the easiest and cheapest way to get around Panama City was to use Uber (rideshare) cars. To get $2 off your first three rides, sign-up using my referral code: vanessas12146ue

With a lot of walking comes sore feet and there is nothing worse than aching feet at the end of the day. Wearing comfortable walking shoes completely changes that and this pair is the best for comfort!

A beautiful door in Panama City.
A beautiful door in Panama City

I had heard that local taxis were extremely expensive and not consistent with pricing. I tested both and found that Uber was much cheaper than a taxi and easier to travel from one location to another because it was plugged into the app.

It eliminated any issues with the language barrier and having to deal with negotiating which was a huge plus!The only negative with using Uber is that you need to have phone service or wifi to be able to schedule an Uber pickup.

Many hotels and restaurants have free wifi you can use to schedule a pickup but I had rented a Tep Wireless and found it helpful to have a pocket wifi with me at all times. The Tep device worked great in Panama City but did not work a lot in more remote areas of Panama.

Got Travel Insurance?

I had always heard that it was wise to get travel insurance before going on a vacation. But I always thought that would be extra money to spend and not needed as my medical coverage would be enough.

Well, I am here to tell you that I was wrong to ignore those recommendations! Granted for most trips, nothing goes wrong but it just takes one bad accident or hospital visit to change your perspective.

On this trip to Panama, I traveled with both of my parents. Although I recommended that we get travel insurance for him, he was adamant that his medical coverage would be enough. Long story short, he got severe pneumonia and was hospitalized just in time. He was there four days and it was the scariest few days as not many spoke English and we weren’t sure how bad it really was. In the end, he was treated and we were on our way again but we lost out on a lot.

Because we had to cancel excursions and activities, we were out of that money. For treatment, my dad had to pay out of pocket and he never got reimbursed by his health insurance! Since this trip, let’s just say I will always purchase World Nomads travel insurance for all those normal and random things that can go wrong. I have since used World Nomads and have been very happy with their service. It is worth the peace of mind knowing that myself and my loved ones will be covered!

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Panama City is a pulsing big city in the midst of Panama’s tropical paradise of beaches, Casco Viejo and home to the iconic Panama Canal! Follow this guide to find out the best things to do and make the most of your trip to Panama!

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14 Comments

    1. Panama City is full of so much fascinating history and it has beautiful beaches and jungles that are fun to explore. Hopefully, you get the chance to visit one day! 🙂

    1. Ah thank you so much! It is a fun city to explore especially as there is both the city and beautiful nature! 🙂

  1. Panama looks beautiful! A friend of mine did a trip through South and Central America, and her photos form Panama were some of my favorite.

    1. That is so awesome. Panama really is a beautiful country with so much to see and do! I think overall Panama is underrated as you don’t see a lot of visitors outside of Panama City. 🙂

  2. A friend of mine visited and had nothing but good things to say! I’d love to go explore Panama Viejo – looks like I gotta add Panama City to my must-visit list!

    1. That is so exciting that you have added Panama to your places to visit! It really is a wonderful country with so much variety of activities! 🙂

  3. Brilliant post! I just learned sooo much! I remember learning about the Panama canal in history classes at school, but I had no idea about the logistics of it, that each ship must move through the locks one at a time (although that totally makes sense now I consider it!) I also didn’t realize that it is so expensive for boats and ships to use the canal!

    Metropolitan Park looks amazing! That is my kind of view.

    But OMG, I am so glad to hear your dad was okay in the end. The end of your trip must have been so stressful.

    1. Thank you so much Josy! I was pleasantly surprised to learn about all the history and the marvel of the Panama Canal. I agree until you think about it, its hard to comprehend what goes into the ships passing through the canal. Yes, my dad ended being ok but omg, it was so stressful. I didn’t go into it but I was scared as my mom also got really sick with the flu and for a number of days I felt like a nurse. lol. Ever since then I will always get travel insurance as you never know what could happen. I hope you get the opportunity to visit Panama! 🙂

  4. I must confess I didn’t know anything about Panama City but it looks like a lovely place to visit. I think you created a nice selection of must do/see places!

    1. Thank you! Before going to Panama I had only heard of the Panama Canal, so no worries! There really is so much to do in Panama City and other regions are amazing too. I especially liked the islands both on the Pacific and Caribbean side for excellent snorkeling and diving! 🙂

  5. Such a fascinating post. I especially love the look of Casco Viejo – that really sounds like my kinda place! You’ve made me really want to visit Panama City 🙂

    1. Thank you so much! I was quite surprised at how much there is to do there. I hope you enjoy Panama City when you get the chance. And yes, Casco Viejo is so charming and a great spot for photos! 🙂

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