20x what to do in Panama City: tips & highlights

Tip #1: Explore the historic centre of Casco Viejo

I’ll start with the least original to-do, because you’ll find this activity in every list. But it really can’t and shouldn’t be missed during your visit to Panama City!

Casco Viejo is the hippest, safest and most beautiful part of the city. Most of the buildings have been neatly renovated and everything looks a bit fancier here, making it a very nice neighbourhood to walk around.

It is hard to imagine that years ago this was a shadowy neighbourhood!

Set aside at least one full day to explore Casco Viejo.

Accommodation Tip

Despite being a bit more expensive here than in the rest of Panama City, it is nice to spend the night in Casco Viejo. It is a nice place to get acquainted with Panama. This flat sits in the ideal location in Casco Viejo.

Do you prefer sitting in a modern skyscraper? Then we can recommend this flat, which is a 15-minute walk from Casco Viejo.

Tip #2: Zip-lining on a skyscraper

Do you like heights? Then you’re going to have fun at Poin Panama.

You zip line, overlooking the beautiful skyline from the 37th floor! It’s up to you whether you want to zip line during daylight, sunset or just at night when the city lights are on.

Afterwards, get a cocktail at the rooftop bar located next to the zip line. We can highly recommended this bar too!

👉 Book your city zip line tickets here!

You want even more adrenaline? You can also swing here from the roof, stand on a glass plate and step into a virtual world.

👉 Book the complete Poin experience here.

Poin Panama is located near the Casco Viejo district.

Tip #3: Ride along in a Diablo Rojo

You know those old, yellow American school buses. In Panama City, these get a makeover and it’s very creative. No two buses look alike; they are works of art in their own right. They look nice from the outside, but some effort has also been made on the inside!

This was once the normal public transport in Panama City, but the government has been trying to get the outdated buses off the road for years. These disco buses, because they often involve a lot of lights and music, now only run certain routes.

So grab your chance while they are still around, this is a piece of Panamanian culture! Get on, take a seat and get off a little later. A ride costs 50 cents per person, and you pay this to the driver when you get off.

The buses are officially called ‘Diablos Rojos’, or Red Devils. Handy to know if you don’t see the buses, ask a local, and he will be happy to point you to a stop.

Enjoy the ride!

Tip #4: Eat local at a fonda

Panama City is full of good restaurants. But it’s nice to alternate these with fondas. A fonda is a small roadside restaurant where locals eat cheaply. In most cases, you can sit either outside or inside.

Don’t expect a big menu, usually there are only a few dishes to choose from. A full meal often costs no more than $5.

It’s helpful if you can speak a word of Spanish, but if you can’t, you can probably point out what you want to eat.

Eating at a fonda can be a good way to save some money and get a taste of real, local food. Although I am a difficult eater, all the meals here have really tasted good to me.

By the way, you can find these fondas not only in Panama City, but all over Panama.


Tip #5: Stroll along the Cinta Costera

The Cinta Costera is a nice place to walk around sunset. I expected it to be very touristy, but we barely even saw other tourists there!

Cinta Costera is a long path for pedestrians and cyclists overlooking the skyline. You will find playgrounds and stalls where you can eat cheap street food. It also borders the fish market where you can eat fresh fish in one of the many restaurants.

If you look on Google Maps, you will see that the Cinta Costera also goes all the way around Casco Viejo. This is not the most pleasant stretch for walking. I recommend you start here at the Panama letters and then head towards the skyscrapers. Or rent a bike.

Chances are you’ll also see the occasional raccoon looking for food.

P.S. That aerial photo of the plaza is not a drone photo, but a photo from the flat where we stayed the first few nights. If you stand in that square you have a view of the posh part of town, Punta Paitilla (third photo). That’s where we stayed the last nights in this hotel. It was very nice to see two sides of the city!

Tip #4: Visit the Panama Canal

Whoever says Panama, says Panama Canal. Everyone knows it. So of course, it is almost impossible to leave Panama without having seen at least part of it.

And you can do that in several ways:

👉 Get on a ship and sail through the Canal on a 6-hour cruise.

👉 Go to the visitor centre and watch ships go through the ‘locks’.

👉 Combine the canal with a visit to Monkey Island and the indigenous tribe Embera.

We did the third option and it was really perfect. I found it especially cool to see how much nature can be found around the Canal, which I never expected.

If you want to learn more about the canal itself, be sure to visit the visitor centre.

Tip #5: Visit Panama Viejo

Fancy a slice of history? Then head to Panama Viejo. Not to be confused with Casco Viejo, which is on the other side of town.

In Panama Viejo, you’ll find ruins dating back to 1519, the first European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas. It is a fairly large site of ruins, where you will discover more about its history. Should you not feel like walking, there is also a little train!

The highlight is the tower you can enter, with a nice 360° view at the top. Afterwards, you can cool off in the museum, which is included in the price.

Bring plenty of water and sun protection, because without the large buildings providing shade, it can get very hot here. Tickets can be bought on site and cost $15 for adults and $5 for children.

Tip #6 Go shopping at Albrook Mall

In a shopping mood? You can do so at Panama City’s largest mall, Albrook Mall. The mall is about 7 soccer fields in size, and you will find more than 700 shops, including many ‘discount shops’ and large food courts.

TIP: as a tourist, you get discounts in many shops. You can pick up the discount card at one of the counters. Download the discount chart here.

Also handy: you can drop your luggage – yes, even your big backpack – for free, so you can shop without all that weight. They call this a ‘Paquetera’. Take a look at the picture, then you will recognize these points when you are in the mall.

Albrook is more than a mall, by the way. You’ll also find the ‘Transportation Hub’ here; almost all buses depart or arrive in Albrook. If you travel on from Panama City to other places, chances are you will do so from Albrook. It also has a small airport from which you fly to the archipelago of Bocas del Toro in an hour. Too early at the airport? Dive into the mall for a while!

By the way, you shouldn’t be here for the more luxurious brands, better visit Multiplaza. But the bargain hunter will be very happy with Albrook Mall.

Tip #7: Walk through the rainforest

Panama has insane amounts of wild life and although you might not expect it, you can find it even in the big city. In fact, Panama City is the only city in the world to have a patch of rainforest!

For this, head to the Metropolitan Natural Park, or the lesser-known Cerro Ancón. Try to be there as soon as the park opens, you’ll have the best chance of spotting wild life then!

Both places also offer great views of the skyline.

Tip #8: Drink cocktails at a rooftop bar

Skyscrapers and rooftop bars, I love the combination. In Panama City, you have an infinite number of them! At rooftop bars in Casco Viejo, you often have a view of both the old and new parts of the city.

Admittedly, the trip does get a bit expensive if you visit a lot of rooftop bars. That $2.50 beer goes to the $5 mark in many places, and cocktails can easily cost $15. But, then again, the views are phenomenal.

If you like a nice, high view of the skyscrapers, you should go to Panaviera. This is not only the highest rooftop bar in Panama City, but in all of Central America. We (unfortunately) ended up skipping it, so we will definitely have to go back sometime 😉

Tip #9: Visit the El Chorillo district with a local guide

If there is one neighbourhood in Panama City you should not go to on your own, it is El Chorillo. Although the government is renovating the neighbourhood, it is not recommended to go here unaccompanied because it would be unsafe.

The guide Victor does like to take you to this neighbourhood. He will show you the local life, and you can even enjoy a game of rummy with the locals. We’ve only heard positive stories!

👉 Book the El Chorillo tour here!

Tip #10: Spend the night in a skyscraper

Do you love skyscrapers? Then you have lots of choice in Panama City. The photos you see here, I took in this hotel. It was really blissful to sleep and wake up with this view. Also unusual to see the difference between low and high tide.

Best of all? The room service was also not expensive at all, allowing me to watch the sun set from my bed with a beer in my hand. What a luxury.

But even in this skyscraper, where we slept at the beginning of the trip, the view was really phenomenal. Here, on the contrary, the sunrise was very beautiful.

Whereas hotel rooms like this are unaffordable in other cities like New York City, they are still affordable in Panama City. As a city girl, I enjoyed these views every minute, and it was definitely one of my highlights.

We had access to this lovely pool in the picture, through the flat where we stayed.

Tip: #11 Get used to the heat by a pool

Panama City is pretty hot and especially if you come from a cold country like I do. And while I am normally not a pool person, it was nice to acclimatize by the pool.

Just an afternoon chilling by the pool, ideally with a Balboa (local beer) to go with it 😉 Does that sound good to you too? Then make sure you have accommodation with a pool.

Tip #12: Take Panamanian cooking lessons

You love cooking and want to learn to make the best ceviche and Carimanõlas? Then take a cooking class where you will learn to make eight recipes. You will also make two drinks, the Panamanian version of Iced Tea – Chicha de Saril, and mojitos.

👉 Book the cooking class here

Tip #13: Get something to eat at the CocaCola Café

Did you know that the CocaCola café is the oldest café in Panama City? It opened its doors in 1875 and is the only café in the world to carry the Coca Cola name.

The café is full of history that you can admire inside and you can also eat there at very decent prices.

Tip #14: Hire a Slingshot

‘A three-wheeled motorbike’ is how the Polaris Slingshot is described. You can rent these extraordinary cars for a few hours.

Get in and tear around the roads of Panama City with a great view of the skyline!

👉 Rent a Slingshot

Tip #15: Experience the nightlife in Panama City

You want to go out in Panama City?That’s best done in Casco Viejo, especially on Saturday nights. Some popular venues include Selina (on the rooftop terrace) and Buena Vaina Social Club. Do you like techno? Then Techno y Dopimina is your place-to-be!

All parties in Panama City are normally listed on the website MiEventos.com, so keep an eye on it. You can also often buy tickets there at a discount if you enter before a certain hour.

Tip #16: Fly over the city in a helicopter

Go crazy and fly a helicopter over Panama City or ocean to ocean!

What must be especially special to see from the air is the contrast of the huge skyscraper city with the immense rainforest behind it.

Make sure you are with three people, as the price is always the same. And actually, this price is very good when compared to helicopter flights in other cities.

👉 Book the helicopter flight here

Tip #17: Stroll along Paseo las Bovedas

Make sure not to skip the little path ‘Paseo de las Bovedas’ when strolling through Casco Viejo.

This walkway has a cosy atmosphere thanks to the colourful flowers, street art and stalls selling art and souvenirs. You’ll also have great views of the skyline!

At the end, or the beginning, you also have Plaza de Francia, a very pretty square where you are drawn into the history of the Panama Canal.

Tip #18: Buy local art

In Panama City, you will see many Gunas selling art. This indigenous tribe has an autonomous region in Panama, including the famous San Blas (or Guna Yala) islands. In the city, they sell many ‘molas’. These are the colourful, unique designs and patterns that symbolise the Guna culture.

The indigenous Embera tribe also sells its unique artefacts, all of which are handmade. Visiting the Embera can be done via a day excursion.

Support the local people and be sure to buy a piece of art when you see something beautiful!

Tip #19: Feed the cats of Casco Viejo

Cat lover? Buy a bag of cat food and feed the countless street cats! Often there are already feeding trays on the streets, probably put up by the CascoCatCommunity organisation.

Feel like donating? CascoCatCommunity could really use your support!

Tip #20: Take a (day) excursion from Panama City

That’s it, the activities I wanted to give you to do in Panama City itself.

But did you know that this city is also the ideal base for day trips? I dedicated a whole article to that, too. Don’t skip those, because Panama City has a super beautiful area where you can do a lot!

👉 Go to day trips in Panama City