Places to Visit & Things to Do in Panama City for 3 Days
By David Bolaños on Dec 01, 2021
As the only country in the world where the sun rises from the Pacific Ocean and sets on the Atlantic Ocean, Panama, Central America, is worth visiting for all the good reasons. Even though the typical Central American humidity and heat can get overwhelming at times, the good things that this country has to offer will make your Panama vacation worth it.
Some of the things that attract tourists to this exotic location include strolls on tropical beaches, hikes in the Panamanian Mountains, the dense jungles, and the extraordinary Panama City itself. In this guide, we will focus on all the fun and amazing things to do in Panama City. Here’s what we’ll cover.
In this guide, we'll take a look at:
What Makes Panama City Worth Visiting?
Where to Stay in Panama City?
Day 1 - Nature, Engineering, and History
Day 2 - Museums and Monuments
Day 3 - Ruins and Neighborhoods
Where to Eat and Drink in Panama City?
What Makes Panama City Worth Visiting?
Panama City is the largest city in Panama with 1.5 million residents. It is home to five of the ten tallest buildings in Latin America. Moreover, it is the world’s only capital to have a rain forest within the city boundaries.
Panama City has a rich history. It was founded 500 years ago by Spanish conquistador Pedro Arias in 1519. The city was sacked and burned by pirate Henry Morgan in 1671 to rob the gold and silver inside it. The ruins of Cusco Viejo, the old part of Panama City, were declared a world heritage site by UNESCO and are a famous tourist attraction today.
Panama City boasts the remarkable Natural Metropolitan Park that is home to over 200 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles.
Panama City is home to the famous Panama Canal, which is one of the world’s most famous engineering marvels. The canal was completed in the same year when the First World War started. It took a whole decade to complete, and 75,700 workers were employed in the project.
The best place to stay in Panama City is the old town, Casco Viejo. Selina Panama City, Panama hostel is an all-in-one accommodation right in the heart of the old town. Surrounded by the traditional whitewashed buildings and picture-perfect family-owned bakeries serving local delicacies, this hotel is the perfect location to immerse in the vibes of historic Panama City.
The location is not the only good thing about this hotel. The place is fully furnished and equipped with a rooftop terrace with an outdoor pool, spacious co-work, movie room, yoga space, library, and two Latin American restaurants. Not forgetting the signature taco bar, of course.
Selina Casco Viejo is not just a location to stay; it also offers the following activities to complete your experience with the city:
Watch the famous Panama Canal in action.
Praise the architecture of the old city on a morning walk and enjoy one of the local coffee shops.
Sign up for workshops like the Ceviche Workshop, where you can join fellow foodies in a ceviche-making evening headed by the chef.
Visit the Metropolitan Natural Park to see local and exotic animals.
Enjoy salt-rimmed margaritas and spicy tacos all night long on Selina’s Salsa Thursdays.
If you want to experience Panama City to its fullest, it will take you at least three days. Also, since the city has a moist environment, don’t forget to pack an umbrella and a raincoat when you travel to Panama City to avoid getting wet while you are moving around.
Day 1 – Nature, Engineering, and History
Breathe Fresh Air at Gamboa
Just 35 kilometers from Panama City, Gamboa is a small town surrounded by the Panamanian rainforest. This is the junction point of the forest and the Charges River.
Situated on the Pacific side of the city, this destination will take you away from the chaos, traffic, and pollution of the city and right into the heart of nature. Experiencing nature first hand in the rainforest of Gamboa is one of the top natural Panama City, Panama attractions.
Things that you should keep in mind going here include:
Go in the morning to get the best out of your visit.
This destination is the best for bird watching.
The aerial tram is a good way to have a detailed tour of the area.
Witness the Engineering Marvel of Panama Canal
One of the unskippable things to do in Panama City, Panama, is visiting the legendary Panama Canal. Some people might tell you it is not attractive, but you need to see it to believe it. The linkage between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans has made the world a better place for cargo ships upon which our lives depend. The Miraflores Locks are the most visited spot on the canal and home to the Panama Canal Museum, which shows how the canal was built and how it operates.
Some useful tips for visiting the Canal include:
Miraflores Locks can sometimes be a bit congested. If you want to observe the ships in peace and quiet, consider going to Gatun and Pedro Miguel Locks. But remember, the museum at Miraflores is a must-see.
You can even pay the Panama Canal Authority to cross the canal on your own boat if you want a complete experience of the process.
Explore the Old City at Casco Viejo
Also called Casco Antiguo, Casco Viejo is the historical and cultural district of Panama City and a designated UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997. The gentle sea breeze mixed with the historical views of the old city creates an environment that can only be experienced and not described in words.
Walking down the narrow alleyways of the old town, you will find historical buildings, some being restored, some in immaculate condition, and some completely ruined and abandoned. Those who want to enjoy local foods or collect souvenirs can find restaurants, cafes, pubs, and craft shops in this part of the city.
Things that you should keep in mind in Casco Viejo include:
This is not a specific destination and rather a place to explore.
Visiting this part of the city will include a lot of walking, so you need to wear comfortable footwear here.
You can go to this place at any time in the day, and every hour has a different feel.
Capilla San Jose – A Religious Site
This small church is an exact replica of the church that was in Panama Viejo (Old Panama) that was ransacked by pirate Henry Morgan. Legend has it that when Henry came to the church, the priest in charge of the Church didn’t only save the Golden Altar by caking it in the mud but also made him give a donation. Morgan is quoted to have said to the priest making the donation: “I don’t know why, but I think you are more of a pirate than I am.”
Day 2 – Museums and Monuments
Biomuseo – Speciality Museum
The Biodiversity museum Biomuseo is one of the latest attractions in Panama City. The building itself is a masterpiece of contemporary architecture. Inside, you will find yourself surrounded by fascinating samples of life from the most biodiverse places on the planet. You can find everything from a diorama rainforest to numerous local animal species in the museum.
Things to consider while visiting this site include:
The museum is closed on Tuesdays.
The admission ticket might feel a bit too expensive, but the experience is worth it.
Plaza de Francia – Pay Homage to Panama Canal
Before the construction of the Panama Canal by the US, the French made an unsuccessful attempt to connect the oceans. The reason for the failure of this project was mainly yellow fever. This monument at the southern end of Casco Viejo is a tribute to all the people who lost their lives trying to make travel shorter for ships.
The square has a memorial obelisk in the center with smaller monuments surrounding it. The most noticeable things here are the ten panels detailing the history of the construction of the Panama Canal. There is also a scenic path above the panels called ‘Paseo de las Bovedas’ where you can sit and watch the ships waiting to pass the canal.
Some of the things that you need to consider while visiting this site include:
Keep some money handy if you want to buy souvenirs. There are numerous craft stands in Paseo de Las Bovedas. Bargaining can get you better rates.
Plan your visit in the evening as sunset at the site is spectacular.
Do visit the restored dungeons on the side of the plaza. They have upscale shops in them but they still show the architecture of the time when they were used as prison cells.
Literally meaning ‘Old Panama,’ these are the ruins of the original Panama City that was built in 1519 and destroyed by the pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. Old Panama was the first European settlement on the Pacific end of the Americas. This location, designated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2003, has a museum displaying the artifacts of the lost city.
While visiting the ruins, keep the following in mind:
The visit may include a lot of walking, so wear comfortable shoes.
Start your tour at the museum to get an understanding of the area and then explore the ruins.
There is a hall of handicrafts near the museum where you can find local souvenirs at better prices than Casco Viejo.
Do have a look at the city from the cathedral tower.
Cinta Costera is another prominent attraction. It is a waterfront boulevard and one of the longest and most famous streets in the entire country. In addition to the main street, there is a sea-facing park with a footwalk and cycling track where you can stroll in the morning or evening.
Things to keep in mind include:
Wear comfortable shoes, bring some drinking water, and wear sunscreen if you want to walk the entire length of the street.
This is probably the most family-friendly place in the whole city.
Where to Eat and Drink in Panama City?
For starters, Panama is expensive compared to the rest of Central America, so eating out can get pricey.
Located in Cinta Costera Seafood Market, Mercado de Mariscos is an affordable place to have a good meal in Panama City. The ground floor has economic micro eateries where you can buy traditional marinated raw fish and beer for as low as $1.
If you want something a bit upscale, the first floor has a nice fine dining restaurant.
If you want to end the tour with a nice beer, La Rana Dorada is a good option. They have two outlets, one in Casco Viejo and the other in the new town.
Panama City FAQs
Is Panama a safe country?
Panama is generally a safe country. There are no threats of terrorism or other large-scale harmful activities. However, you need to be careful on the streets at night time. Pocket picking and mugging are a part of the street life of Panama.
Is Panama City safe for tourists?
Panama City is generally considered to be safe. However, you need to be careful about your belongings. Pickpocketing from tourists does happen, and some areas of the city are prone to mugging at night.
Does Panama City have good beaches?
Yes, there are many beaches near Panama City, the closest of which is Nueva Gorgona. One hour away from the city, Nueva Gorgona is a good place to see the waves from under the umbrella. It is also very popular for surfing.
Is Panama expensive to live in?
Panama is not as cheap as many tourists might expect. Other than the local neighborhoods where the natives live, the cities are moderately priced. Monthly expenditure in the country ranges from $1,000 to $4,000, depending on the city you are living in.
What is Panama best known for?
Panama is best known as a transit country and home to the famous Panama Canal, an 82-kilometer waterway linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Tourist attractions include activities like birding, whitewater rafting, and snorkeling.
What is Panama’s famous food?
Panama has become a cosmopolitan country, and you can find any kind of food there. If you want to go for the local delicacies, the traditional chicken stew, known as sancocho de gallina, is something you need to try.
What money does Panama use?
Officially, the currency of Panama is the Panamanian Balboa. The exchange rate of the balboa is always tied to the USD, i.e., 1 USD equals 1 Balboa. However, they do not print their own currency, and the dollar is used as the legal tender.
Is Panama Beach safe?
Panama beach has a crime rate of 77 per 1000, which is quite high. However, the location is fairly safe during the day. Avoid going there after sunset.
Is Panama open for tourists?
As of 18th August 2021, Panama is open to tourists from any country. However, you need to present a negative test result for COVID-19 upon entry, besides following local safety guidelines.