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Just the highlights: 9 things you must do in Panama City

  • September 14, 2017
  • By Christina
  • 20 Comments
Just the highlights: 9 things you must do in Panama City

Panama City is big. It’s vibrant, loud and chaotic and if you don’t stay on high alert at all times, the city could easily swallow you up. What makes this energetic metropolis interesting is it’s chronic diversity. Not only is it a melting pot for international cuisine akin to the likes of Los Angeles, it’s also varied in terrain. One minute you’re stranded on a median in the middle of rush hour trying to navigate a massive city with no street signs as cranky drivers zoom by hollering and honking. The next you’re exploring a lush jungle thriving with wildlife, utterly tranquil, yet only a few minutes from the city. I was in Panama City enrolled in a Spanish immersion program with Habla Ya for two weeks, and took advantage of my time by exploring the city’s best sights. Here’s a look at my personal highlights of the 9 things you must do in Panama City.

1. Stroll Cinta Costera at sunset

Things to do in Panama City-stroll Cinta Costera at sunset when lovers sit on a ledge and take in the grand scene in front of them.

Best things to do in Panama City include strolling Cinta Costera to take in the magnificent view of the cityscape contrasting the old town

To start, take in the glistening cityscape from every possible angle surrounding the city. Cinta Costera is a long pedestrian stretch of nearly 3 acres along the Pacific coast of Panama Bay. Vendors scatter trinkets on the ground and the scent of barbecued chicken wafts through the air from small food carts. In the evening, couples canoodle on the rock wall to watch the sun cast its last light over the city.

A picturesque layout of glistening skyscrapers get covered in a blanket of gold and pink and within minutes the city lights emerge for their nightly act.

Begin at Mercado de Mariscos and stroll along the pedestrian path toward the city center. This is a central point for fully gauging the obvious contrasts of Panama City. Facing the water, look to the right across the marina and fill your eyes with the colonial architecture of the old town. Then turn your gaze to the left and enter the modern era of the epicenter of international business. Old and new engage in a battle for your attention as the calm waters between play referee. Sit back and watch it all unfold, because this is a view completely unique to Panama City.

Panama City sign at Cinta Costera at night

Things to do in Panama City-a cat sits on a ledge with the evening cityscape behind her.

2. Get lost in Casco Viejo (Antiguo)

After the original location of Panama City (Panama Viejo) was burned to the ground following the invasion of English pirates led by Henry Morgan, the Spanish colonists set their sights on a strategic location to safeguard the city from potential attacks. They moved their city to what is now Casco Viejo (Antiguo), a charming old town filled with restaurants, markets and colonial architecture as far as the eye can see. Come nightfall, it turns into a party hub for locals and tourists alike and I can tell you from experience, you will want to be a part of that scene at least once.

There are sights to see within Casco Viejo itself, but my recommendation is to walk and get lost admiring the streets which are bursting with character. Neighborhoods close to the cathedral have had a facelift, painted and renovated to freshen up the city. Wander a little off the beaten path and you’ll see that the old town is not as manicured as you might think. Houses that have weathered years of rain and neglect show their tired age. Nevertheless, Casco Viejo provides something necessary when visiting Panama City, respite from the chaos of the hustle and bustle across the bay.

Many travelers choose to stay here but it’s more pricey in this area. I recommend staying elsewhere and just visiting the area. After all, it is only a $4 uber ride away.

Colonial architecture in Casco Viejo.

Casco Viejo is a great town for exploring and getting lost while taking in the colonial architecture all around you.

Not a picture perfect postcard of Casco Viejo, but an honest picture of what the old town looks like when you push past the lure of the renovated center.

A glimpse of what the old town looks like only after you push past the lure of the renovated center.

Two delicious ice cream pops from an ice cream shop in Casco Viejo.

There is so much to view in Casco Viejo, ice cream is a necessary accompaniment to your stroll. Just be sure to eat it before it melts so you don’t end up being that girl who has ice cream dripping down to her elbow. Yes, that was me.

3. Cross the Panama Canal off your bucket list

Top things to do in Panama City- See the Panama Canal!

The Miraflores locks at the Panama Canal.

Well, there’s not much to say about the Canal except that if you go to Panama City and don’t go to the Panama Canal… shame on you! I’m not suggesting that this is a super thrilling outing, but it is an absolute must see because where else can you view such an accomplishment of human engineering.

*Know before you go*

  • There are 5 locks you can visit, but the closest one to Panama City are the Miraflores locks.
  • There are only boats transiting the canal in the morning and again in the afternoon. So if you sleep in and plan on visiting mid-day… you will literally see nothing except an empty canal. Go from 8-10(ish) in the morning, or from 4-6 in the afternoon.
  • Tickets cost $15, which includes entrance to the museum and a short film. I highly recommend both because you get to learn about the history of the canal. You’ll learn about the inception of the canal funded by France, to the U.S. reviving the forgotten and grandiose project, to the Panamanians reclaiming their most treasured accomplishment. Without learning about it, you are literally just watching boats move very slowly through a small channel. The museum and film help bring to life what an immense accomplishment the canal is.

4. See the city’s roots at Panama Viejo

Best things to do in Panama City include visiting the city's historic ruins at Panama Viejo.

Remember when I mentioned that Casco Viejo is where the city moved after the original city was burned to the ground? Well, the ruins from the destroyed city exist in Panama Viejo, where you can visit and see the layout of its original roots. Visiting Panama Viejo deepens your perspective of this diverse and overwhelmingly modern city to see that it’s also got layers of history. To fully comprehend that, you must see Panama Viejo!

At Panama Viejo there's a museum recounting the history of Panama City with an exhibition of Spanish colonial art.

At Panama Viejo there’s a museum recounting the history of Panama City with an exhibition of Spanish colonial art.

The first of Panama Cities towering sky scrapers must have been the cathedral.

The first of Panama City’s skyscrapers is actually at Panama Viejo, which was once the city’s cathedral!

5. Learn to salsa – no excuses allowed!

A shot of me learning to salsa in Panama City.

It doesn’t matter where you go in Latin America, but when you find yourself there you must follow the music and when you arrive to the source, salsa dance. When visiting Cuba last April I regretted not learning how to salsa and made it a deliberate goal to learn to salsa in Panama. If you know how to dance, great, if you’re a beginner like me, then take a salsa lesson! There are salsa clubs scattered throughout the city and they’re a great way to immerse yourself within the culture. If you’ve got two left feet, don’t be intimidated because someone will always be stumbling worse than you are… unless if you’re the absolute worse dancer ever. If that’s the case, congrats! You are my hero and I applaud you for your bravery!

Every Thursday night Paradise Banquet Hall has salsa lessons from 7-10 p.m. and in attendance are mostly locals with a few confused tourists (guilty)! The entry fee is $5 and they segregate into groups of beginner, intermediate and advanced dancers. Regardless of your skill level, I promise you will have a blast!

6. Brush up on your Spanish

Pictured is the board we learn on everyday filled with Spanish words and a story.

Spanish is obviously the official language of Panamá, so don’t go to Panama City expecting to hear English, because you will be sorely mistaken. Knowing pleasantries in Spanish will get you to and fro, but I recommend taking it a step further and enrolling in Spanish lessons. I am currently enrolled in a full Spanish immersion experience with Habla Ya Spanish Schools who offer a variety of classes including private and group lessons, and even crash courses for survival skills. They also have daily activities where you get to put into place everything you learn in class.

The school has a campus in El Carmen, Panama City, and I’m thrilled to only report great things about my experience there. The staff treats you like family, and you make wonderful new friends from the school. Overall it’s a challenging, inspiring and unique way to deepen your bond with the city.

7.  Bask in panoramic views at the Amador Causeway

A view of the marina and the cityscape in the distance from the Amador Causeway.

The islands of the Amador Causeway are beautiful and filled with many boats.

Best things to do in Panama City include walking the Amador Causeway!

Oh, if I could write an epic love poem about the views at the Amador Causeway *sigh*. Quite simply: they’re breathtaking. This is another spot where you can sit and savor the views of the cityscape from a distance. Only here, there’s a bunch of boats situated perfectly for sitting and watching time pass you by. But there’s more to do at the Causeway than just take in the epic views.

Get dropped off at the very end of the causeway and walk the entire island back to the Biomuseo which sits at the beginning of the Causeway.  It takes about an hour to walk, unless you take a million photos like me then it will take about 2-3 hours. It’s really easy to take your time because there’s a lot to see. There’s a duty-free mall, the infamous PANAMA sign, panoramic views of the ocean and much more. What I loved most was that both times I visited there was hardly anyone there. It was incredibly hot so every 10 minutes or so I would sit on a bench and just bask in the glorious views all around.

One could easily spend an entire day at the Causeway. Conversely, you could start by going to the Biomuseo and walking all the way to Punta Culebra to get your fix of the local wildlife.

The rocks on the shores of the Amador Causeway are the perfect spot to sit and take a rest from walking in the heat.

8. See the local wildlife at Punta Culebra

Sloths, turtles, and starfish are some of the local wildlife you can see at the Marine Exhibition Center of Punta Culebra. This outdoor visiting center is operated by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and is small enough to see the entire thing in about 2 hours. While I hoped to cry with glee from a sloth sighting, the little fellas were too high up in the trees to really see too well. That said, I still really enjoyed Punta Culebra and think it’s especially great for those traveling with little ones.

Admission is a recommended donation of $7. Do not forget bug spray! I applied and still got accosted, so be sure to bring a strong mosquito repellent.

You can't go to Panama without exploring the local wildlife, which is exactly what you'll find at the Smithsonian run conservatory of Punta Culebra.

9. Get swanky at the rooftop bars

One of the most attractive qualities of Panama City for me was the appeal of the twinkling cityscapes from towering rooftop bars. It’s entirely mind-blowing to me to view such a chaotic scene from so high up, yet feel completely at peace. So, my  schoolmate, Julia, and I made our way to the 66th floor of the Ocean Club Casino’s rooftop pool bar, Panaviera.

On weekends there are cover fees of between $15-$20 that you’re required to pay up front, but you are given a ticket in that amount to be used toward your drinks.

After Panaviera, we took an Uber to the Hard Rock Café to entice in another sparkling view of the city below from the 62nd floor. The views at both bars were spectacular, but I was ready to hightail out of the tourist zones and see some quality nightlife. One guess where we ended up? A cave bar called Relic in Casco Viejo. Which means… nightlife in Casco Viejo is an unofficial entry on this list because it was epic. Good music, cheap drinks, and a crowd of mostly locals dancing and singing along to Marc Anthony’s “Vivir Mi Vida.” Is there a better way to round out two exciting weeks in Panama City? No lo creo.

The view from the Panaviera pool bar at the Trump Tower Casino in Panama City is absolutely breathtaking at night.

Have you ever been to Panama City? Drop a line with your favorite sight in the comments below!

*No BS* Thanks to Habla Ya for providing me with accommodation, activities and Spanish lessons. All opinions are my own!

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By Christina, September 14, 2017
20 Comments
  • Nancy Anderson
    September 15, 2017

    Great article and very informative!

  • Maris Somerville
    September 26, 2017

    Fabulous blog, Christina. Hugely entertaining. I felt as though I were there. Travel writing doesn’t get any better!

  • Renata Green
    December 16, 2017

    I haven’t thought that Panama City was so varied – the skyscrapers on the one hand and then the old town with all these beautiful colonial buildings. And of course the famous Panama channel looks impressive. Obviously a destination worth the visit.

  • Julien Mordret
    December 17, 2017

    So cool to read about what Panama City has become. I traveled there 10 years ago, and at that time the Cinta Costera did not even exist! It was just the Avenida Balboa along the seashore. I have seen most of the sites you mention here, I totally loved the Casco Viejo. The ruins of Panama Vieja were interesting to see too, but the mosquitoes were crazy. Next time I definitely should try one of those rooftop bars!

    • Christina Lyon
      December 20, 2017

      Wow, that’s so interesting that so much has changed since you last visited! I chatted with locals who said that the Amador Causeway was completely renovated within the last year, too. Ahh, those pesty mosquitoes always get me too! Yes, I highly recommend the rooftop bars, a bit pricey, but worth the view of the city! 🙂

  • Lara Dunning
    December 17, 2017

    I would so love to see the Panama Canal! Eating ice cream in any warm weather destination is a must, and since I’m a history lover Panama Viejo would be a must see! I haven’t been but would love to go!

    • Christina Lyon
      December 20, 2017

      The canal was so interesting to see in person! I’m a sucker for ice cream, especially in the heat! Panama Viejo was definitely interesting for those that love history! Panama City is a very broad and varied place which makes it fun to visit. 🙂

  • Damien McGuigan
    December 18, 2017

    Your photos and description of Casco Viejo remind me so much of Trinidad in Cuba! I had a similar experience just walking around and exploring the streets.

    • Christina Lyon
      December 20, 2017

      Hi Damien! I felt the exact same thing when I visited Casco Viejo! It reminded me so much of Trinidad. Though, admittedly, I enjoyed Trinidad more because the cars didn’t clutter the streets in town as much as they did in Casco Viejo.

      Both radiate that old school vibe that’s so charming and lovely to see though! Thanks for your comment. 🙂
      Christina

  • Russell's World
    December 18, 2017

    LOVE the photos. They really come alive and make me want to explore Panama. Thanks for all the advise too!

  • ALICE FORD
    December 19, 2017

    Great in depth guide on Panama City. I especially loved the tid bits about Pirates and history. It seems like a truly culture rich place to visit.

    • Christina Lyon
      December 20, 2017

      Hi Alice,

      I’m so glad you found my guide helpful! It’s a very culturally rich place to visit and I definitely enjoyed learning about the history!
      Thank you for your comment. 🙂

      Christina

  • Dany
    December 20, 2017

    I can see already how beautiful Panama City is from your photos! We’d definitely like to explore the old part of the city, Panama Viejo, it really captures the essence of Panama City!

    • Christina Lyon
      December 20, 2017

      Hi Dany,

      Thank you so much for your kind compliment! Panama Viejo was very interesting to see the architectural remnants of the first city. Casco Viejo held that colonial charm that sweeps you off your feet to a place in the past.

      Thank you for reading and for your comment!

      Christina

  • Sandy N Vyjay
    December 21, 2017

    What a melange of experiences that Panama City has to offer. My favourite things to do here would be strolling along and taking in a beautiful sunset at Cinta Costera, understanding the history of the city at Panama Viejo, and visiting the historic Panama Canal.

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About Me
Hi there!
I'm Christina, a So Cal native who's always on the move! I like to chase sunsets preferably accompanied by tacos or Thai food. Follow along if you enjoy cultural immersion, meaningful travel and a dose of awkward moments. ;)
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