Panama City

Panama City.

Shiny Skyscrapers, romantic old town alleys. Old meets New. Panama City: a city of contrasts.

Panama City Guide - Highlights & Tips

Admittedly, before the trip I didn’t have a very clear idea of what to expect in Panama City. One thing is for sure: the city is extremely rich in contrasts. Modern Panama with its shiny skyscrapers on one side and the historical part of the city on the other. Exclusive hotels, casinos & rooftop bars – right next to them aging fishing boats, old colorful buses and run-down neighborhoods. On top of that, the metropolis is surrounded by tropical rainforest – quite an extraordinary setting.

For your journey I can only recommend you to book the window seat in the plane. Shortly before landing you will get a very good overview of the city. It’s quite impressive to watch the Panama Canal from a bird’s eye view: all the ships patiently waiting to pass through the eye of the needle, the incredible skyline and generally a pretty busy city. As for the sound of the city, Panama is an absolute birding paradise. With over 900 different species, the bird life in Panama is extremely diverse.

In this guide I give you the most important sights, highlights & tips for a stay in the metropolis. Tips on how to get there, recommendations for restaurants and hotels can be found further down in the article.

Old meets new: fishermen on old wooden boats at the local fish market - behind them the shiny skyline of Panama City

Highlights & Tips for your stay in Panama City

Cinta Costera - A walk along the seaside promenade of Panama City

The Cinta Costera is a great place to start your trip and soak up the Panama City atmosphere. It is the waterfront promenade of the city. Tourists and locals alike can take a stroll, do a sweaty work out, or just relax in one of the green parks. Stroll along the promenade on your first day, enjoy the view of the Panama City skyline, take some first photos. This place is ideal to get the first impressions and arrive in the city. If you start in the city center and walk along the Cinta Costera, you will automatically end up in the old quarter Casco Viejo.

Casco Viejo - Discover the Old Town of Panama City

Casco Viejo is the historic part of Panama City. This place is a must see when visiting Panama City. During the day, the area is perfect to stroll through the romantic little streets and admire the impressive colonial buildings. In one of the many (outdoor) cafes you can wonderfully recharge your batteries. There is also a lot of street art to discover here and what is really extraordinary in some places is the incredible sound of so many different tropical bird voices. I was particularly struck by this at Plaza de Francia. Nice stops include Plaza de la Independencia, San Francisco Church, Bolivar Square and Plaza de Francia.

In the evening, I recommend you visit one of the rooftop bars, from which you can enjoy the view of the old town as well as the modern glittering skyline of Panama City.

A Must See when visting Panama: The famous Panama Canal (Miraflores Locks)

Of course, when visiting Panama, you can’t miss the famous Panama Canal. The canal connects the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean and is one of the most important and famous waterways in the world. The canal is by far the most important source of income for the country – the revenue makes Panama one of the richest countries in Latin America. From the visitor platform, you can admire this engineering masterpiece up close. Watching the gigantic ships slowly glide through the locks is impressive. The entrance fee also includes a visit to the museum, where you can learn many interesting facts about the history of the canal. An easy and cheap way to get there from the city is by public bus from Albrook Terminal. Alternatively, you can book a tour that includes several other highlights in Panama City, e.g. with Get your Guide.

Cerro Ancon (Ancon Hill) - Panama City views from above

Ancon Hill is a famous jogging and hiking trail and a great opportunity to get away from the busy city center. Since it is the highest point of Panama City, you can see the top of the hill by the flag from many different places in the city. You’ll reach the top after about 30 minutes and be rewarded with great views of the city. We were able to see the historical part Casco Viejo, modern Panama and also the Miraflores locks from the top. Maybe you’ll get lucky and even spot a sloth in the treetops along the way. I definitely recommend you to hike up in the early morning hours, when it is not too hot, and pack enough water.

Experience modern Panama in El Cangrejo & Obarrio

For a contrast to the old town district of Casco Viejo, head to the business and banking district of El Cangrejo. This popular and diverse neighborhood in Panama City is known for its wide range of hip bars, its coffee culture, international restaurants and vibrant nightlife. You’ll find much of this along and in the immediate vicinity of Via Argentina. The adjacent district of Obarrio is known for its impressive skyscrapers, large shopping malls, international hotels, casinos and rooftop bars and definitely worth a visit.

Visit the Jungle in the middle of the city: Metropolitan Natural Park

A glance at the map reveals: Panama City is practically surrounded by tropical rainforest. Jungle and wildlife as far as the eye can see. A popular destination is the Metropolitan Natural Park (Parque Natural Metropolitano), located in the heart of Panama City and just a few minutes drive from the city center. In this nature reserve you can expect to see different species of birds and monkeys, coatis, sloths, an incredible variety of plants and more. 

You can explore the trails on your own or join a guided tour to learn more about the flora and fauna of Panama. Of course, it always takes a little luck and a watchful eye to spot the animals. If you explore the park on your own, it can be worthwhile to talk to the rangers in the park. They will be happy to tell you in which treetop the next sloth is sitting.  

Don’t miss the viewpoint Mirador Cerro Cedro, which offers an impressive view over the city. The hiking trails are easy to walk, but the heat is not to be underestimated. Therefore, be sure to set off in the morning and pack enough water.

View from Cerro Ancon (Ancon Hill)

Trip to Paradise: Discover the San Blas Islands on Panama's Caribbean Coast

Have you ever heard of the San Blas Islands? The archipelago with about 365 islands can be reached from Panama City by car and a subsequent boat trip in about three hours. A lonely island paradise in the Caribbean Sea awaits you, where you will get a real Robinson Crusoe feeling. You will spend the night in simple bamboo huts, which are only a few steps away from the sea.

From Panama City you can make day trips as well as tours of several days with an overnight stay on one of the islands. The latter usually includes arrival and departure, excursions to other islands in the archipelago and snorkeling trips.

Arrival in Panama City and traveling around Panama

From many German airports you can travel to Panama with a stopover. From Frankfurt there are also direct flights to Panama City. Here you can reach Panama City – Tocumen International Airport within 12 hours. 

If you want to travel to the city by cab, use only registered ones and have them called by your hotel.

For further travel, for example to the green highlands of Panama, you can use the bus. In Panama City you can book tickets from the Albrook Terminal for trips to different parts of the country.

Where to eat in Panama City

The nicest area to go out in the evening is the historic Casco Viejo neighborhood. There is a good selection of restaurants and hip bars here. 

You can get delicious pizzas at the small Calicanto Trattoria, for example. From the rooftops here you have an amazing view of the old town and in some locations also of the modern skyline of the city: for example from LAZOTEA Restaurant & Rooftop.

Delicious bowls, avocado toasts, sandwiches & wraps are available at Mahalo Snack Shack and Mahalo Cocina y Jardin. Both cafes also have a super nice green outdoor area. The tropical garden of Mahalo Cocina y Jardin is like an oasis in the city. Here you can enjoy your coffee relaxing under huge palm leaves. In the evening, the two restaurants are also a great address to enjoy a delicious dinner in a relaxed atmosphere.

The El Cangrejo neighborhood described above with its large selection of international restaurants is also a very popular address for feasting and going out.

Where to stay in Panama City

The nicest area to stay is the historic Casco Viejo neighborhood. Here you have numerous restaurants, small cafes and cool (rooftop) bars within walking distance. 

Tip: If you make a round trip through Panama and plan two stays in Panama City for arrival and departure, I recommend a combination of the old town and modern Panama. Plan 2-3 nights in the beautiful Casco Viejo on your arrival and one night in modern Panama on your departure before your flight. Here I can recommend the TRYP by Windham Panama Centro. The hotel is centrally located in the popular business and banking district “El Cangrejo”, has a roof terrace and offers a large breakfast buffet.

Best Travel Season to visit Panama

The most popular time to travel to Panama is during the dry season from December to April. We escaped the German winter in February and enjoyed the pleasant climate in Panama very much. Nevertheless, it is worth taking a look at the calendar, because during this period there are also vacations and some public holidays in Panama, so it can be quite crowded in the tourist areas.

Safety in Panama

Overall, Panama is one of the safer countries in Central America. However, certain regions and neighborhoods in Panama City should be avoided. Extensive and current information and what you should pay attention to when traveling in Panama, you can get on the website of the Foreign Office. Be sure to inform yourself about the current situation before departure.

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