The Best Things to Do in Panama City

It’s small compared to other capitals, but Panama City’s historical role as a port and part of a canal that brought together people, commodities, and customs from every corner of the planet endows it with a cosmopolitan air. Come visit a tiny giant.

To see the Panama Canal in person is to dive deeply into that nation’s history. Coming from the capital, the closest entry point is the Miraflores Visitor Center. Dedicate enough time to check out exhibitions that reveal why the waterway was built here and how the route shaped Panama’s international profile. Head outside to see how the canal works. The structure has several levels, and the third level is always crowded with visitors seeking photo ops. (There’s a restaurant on level four.) If you have time, the Agua Clara observation center on the canal’s Caribbean side offers views of newer, wider locks that opened in 2016.
Cinta Costera, Panamá, Panama
The Cinta Costera is a seaside walk that follows the shores of Panama Bay and features recreational areas and green spaces, sports facilities, and bike paths. A very popular spot, especially on weekends, the promenade brings together all of Panama: a mash-up of athletes, canoodling couples, and families out for a stroll, slurping on ice cream or cucurucho de raspados (sweet, syrupy shaved ice). You’ll also enjoy a view of the city skyline, from the modern districts and their look-at-me skyscrapers to the old colonial quarter. There’s another great vantage point at the Mirador del Pacífico, a 15-acre landfill breakwater that’s become one of the city’s most visited attractions. Other standout “la Cinta” sites include the food stalls at the Mercado del Marisco and Sabores del Chorrillo, as well as the Maracaná soccer stadium.
Ancon Hill, Panama City, Panama
Cerro Ancón, or Ancón Hill, is a patriotic symbol for all Panamanians. While the Stars and Stripes waved atop the hill throughout the period of United States control of the canal, now the proud promontory displays Panama’s colors. There’s just one footpath that leads to the top. In addition to its historical significance, it’s worth scaling the peak to visit the surrounding jungle and catch a glimpse of the area’s wildlife, all of which makes the park an oasis amid big-city bustle. Cerro Ancón’s second-generation, restored forest is home to more than 260 plant and 70 animal species. Once you hit the summit, every vantage point offers views of the Casco Viejo, the modern metropolis, the harbor, and densely populated downtown districts.
Calz. de Amador 136, Panamá, Panama
The Biomuseo, or Museo de la Biodiversidad, is one of Panama City’s contemporary gems and the first Latin American project by Frank Gehry. As befits the architect’s unusual and innovative eye, the museum is itself an abstract sculpture, daring and colorful, that seeks to reflect Panama’s natural riches by means of angled planes that form the roof and simulate a jungle canopy. The permanent exhibition, Panama: The Bridge of Life, recounts how the Isthmus of Panama came to be, as well as its gargantuan impact on the earth’s climate and environment, by dividing the oceans and linking the Americas. Outside the structure, a lovely park serves as a living extension of museum architecture and exhibits.
Plaza de la Independencia, Calle 5a Este, Panamá, Panama
The structure in the Casco Viejo that houses this museum has a fascinating history. When it was built back in 1874, its facade—which features mansard roofs and gaslights—was an architectural novelty for Panama. Count Ferdinand de Lesseps acquired it in 1881 to headquarter the Universal Inter-Oceanic Canal Company; it then fell into U.S. hands as part of that nation’s canal-building concession. A museum since 1997, it features 11 exhibition galleries and presents a rich learning experience on conserving, researching, and giving voice to Panama’s history, such as the Torrijos-Carter Treaties (which returned the canal to Panamanian hands) and the Panamanian flag that was damaged on January 9, 1964, during an event known as Martyrs’ Day, one of the bloodiest episodes in the struggle for control of the canal.
Corregimiento de Cristobal,IA 5, Panama City 7338, Panama
The town of Gamboa lies at the center of a rain forest on the banks of the Panama Canal, where Lake Gatún and the River Chagres meet about 20 miles from the capital. Gamboa’s Summit Park is home to Panama’s national bird, the harpy eagle, as well as to Soberanía National Park and the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center, where visitors can walk the Camino del Oleoducto (Pipeline Road), a famous bird-watching path where up to 300 avian species can be spotted on a single day. Another tip might be sailing the Chagres in piraguas (local pirogues or handmade dugout canoes) that plumb dense jungles and give visitors the chance to interact with the Emberá Quera indigenous community. This historic community lives off fishing, farming, artisanal craft-making, and tourism. Native-led tours showcase various local customs such as dances as well as vegetable-dye body-painting techniques and their meanings (known as jagua), in addition to the people’s relationship with nature. Navigating the rain forest with a traditional Emberá botanist is a singular experience.
A visit to the incredible 365-island archipelago (also called the San Blas Islands) within the communal lands of the Guna Yala indigenous nation provides some extraordinary seaside experiences. The islands making up the outer archipelago are unspoiled and feature gorgeous white-sand beaches, turquoise seas, and a one-of-a-kind encounter with Guna culture. Visitors lodge in natural-material huts (cane walls and interwoven palm-frond roofs) or—if you’re in the mood—sleep under the stars in palm-strung hammocks. Local women sport colorful dress made in the style known as mola, a traditional Gula artisanal weaving technique. A highway was built several years back that lets you travel from Panama City to Puerto de Cartí in as few as two hours.
Calle Baha'i
Panama’s principal Baha’i temple exudes peace and serenity 770 feet above sea level. The religion’s houses of worship are prayer and meditation spaces open to all, regardless of individual belief, social group, or ethnicity. The faithful follow the teachings of the prophet Baha’u’lláh, who preached—among other tenets—human unity, the individual pursuit of truth, harmony between religion and science, as well as equality between men and women. Panama’s temple, opened in 1972 at the summit of Cerro Sonsonate, is one of just eight like it in the world; Baha’i sacred scripture considers Panama a “crossroads.” Since its opening, the stately white dome crowning the temple, drawing the eye toward heaven, has become one of the urban landscape’s most striking architectural elements.
Calle Isaac Hanono Missri, Panamá, Vía Israel, Panamá, Panama
In Panama you really can buy cheap and cheerful, even when it comes to exclusive boutiques and high-end labels, because of low import duties. In truth it seems as if there were a new mall opening every day, like so many mushrooms after a rain. Albrook Mall is the widest-ranging, and out-of-towners love it. Multiplaza Pacific is swankier, with prices to match, though there are perennially great sales, too. Finally there’s Metromall, the saving grace of shopaholics who have only a few hours between planes (it’s near the airport, and there is a free shuttle service there and back).
Calz. de Amador, Panamá, Panama
The causeway known as Calzada de Amador was constructed a century ago from nearly 3.5 million cubic feet of excavated material from the Panama Canal. It was built as a breakwater for ships awaiting entry as well as to connect Naos, Culebra, Perico, and Flamenco islands—and their U.S.-built fortifications defending the canal—to the mainland. Amador has been recently restored and is one of the best places to enjoy the sunset with an ocean view. One particularly nice approach is going out to Isla Flamenco and hitting one of its restaurant terraces overlooking the surf. There’s also a small shopping center there for duty-free purchases. Of course, if you’re looking for some open-air sun and fun, rent a bike at one of the stalls on shore, near the Figali Convention Center.
Av Central, Panamá, Panama
Avenida Central was the city’s great commercial core in the first half of the 20th century; though its heyday has ended, the swarm of humanity packing into its various shops, bars, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses attest to ongoing vibrancy. The classic stretch extends from Plaza Santa Ana to Plaza 5 de Mayo, where art deco and streamlined moderne landmarks are still on view. El Banco Nacional, the former Kodak building, and “La Pollera”—thus nicknamed for the resemblance its balconies bear to the traditional full skirts of the Los Santos region—figure among them. These avenue blocks are pedestrian-only; peddlers and street vendors selling every imaginable snack and trinket abound.
Boca del Drago, Panamá
At Isla Colón’s northwest extreme, Bocas del Drago is one of Panama’s most picturesque spots, an idyllic place for relaxing, soaking up sun or just marveling amid powdery white sand and lush jungle greenery. And what other beach affords “swimming with starfish”? Enhance your adventure at great local Caribbean restaurants featuring wiggle-fresh delicacies at delightfully low prices. When the tiny beach at Boca del Drago gets tight, Playa Estrella is a nearby alternative.
Bocas del Toro Province, Panama
Always a crowd, but how could it be otherwise? Shore panoramas frame breathtaking nature, turquoise seas and sugary, white sand. Mighty close to the perfect beach, dreamy and hot, with great sightseeing opportunities. Keep eyes peeled for jumbo starfish and other marvelous creatures, now a main beach attraction. The shopping’s good, too, especially for artisanal handicrafts and dishware.
Av Balboa s/n, Panamá, Panama
Panama’s extensive, sinuous coastline provides some of the world’s most delicious seafood. Options are infinite, especially at the capital city’s Mercado de Mariscos. The offering is downhome, traditional and absolutely scrumptious. Pick up something to cook later or just plop down at one of several in-market restaurants for instant gratification. Savoring your ceviche and an ice-cold brew as the market roils around you is pure Panama.
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