What To Do On A Short Visit To Panama City (Panamá)

Wondering what to see in Panama City besides the Panama Canal?

Many times over the years friends have asked me what I recommend for their short layover, day or weekend visit to Panama City, Panama. Since I lived there for two years and visited again last year I think it is time I shared it for everyone. I already have a ton of blogs about my time living, working and exploring this awesome country but I´ve never made one for those asking to know what to do when they transit through Panamá City. Other Panama blogs here.

Obviously there are a ton of things to recommend but I will keep this to my top picks with some history.

The number one thing that comes to mind when someone visits Panama is most likely the Panama Canal. This engineering feat that took many years with many countries attempting to build it and lots of lost lives to complete it, IS most definitely a Must Visit when you are in town but it isn´t the only thing!


Personally the Atlantic passage (Gatun Locks) I like more but the Miraflores Locks (esclusas) near Panamá City, where most visitors go, are sure to please. Oddly, I have not been to the newer NeoPanamax version (largest ship size) expansion of the canal even though I lived there when it was being finished and could have even toured it before it was filled with water (epic fail because I wore a skirt that day…which was obviously not allowed at the construction site) so I can not speak much about the new Cocoli Locks. I can only imagine the Cocoli Locks to be just as incredible though I´d assume you won´t be as close to the container ships passing through…which is what I enjoy the most about the Gatun locks on the Atlantic side. At the Gatun locks you can even drive past the esclusas (gates) at sea level! If you head over to Gatun I´d suggest including a visit to either the San Lorenzo Fort or the charming town of Portobelo. Where most visitors go and the easiest to reach is the Miraflores Locks! Plan at least a half day there. Watching the boats pass takes some time and is quite interesting to watch (have a drink while you wait on the top floor) and do not miss the museum at Miraflores as it is very informative; explaining a lot of the process. You might pair this visit with the Cocoli locks too.

There are also several tours that you can do either on boat passing through the locks or a package that does Miraflores and Cocoli together. If you go on your own just take a taxi, they are cheap enough and quick. There is a bus stop nearby on the main road if that is your desired mode of transit but they are not frequent and leave from Albrook station so you will have to get to Albrook first (which you can do by bus, metro or taxi).

Did you know:

  • The Panama Canal was completed in 1914 by the USA but work had started back in 1881 with as many as 40 thousand workers?
  • The French held the original contract to construct but unfortunately due to tropical diseases unknown at the time to be spread via mosquitos many workers died of malaria and yellow fever.
  • The locks, or an elevated way of passage between the two bodies of water, were needed instead of a sea level way of passage like the Suez Canal (completed in 1869).
  • In the middle of construction the Canal work was hugely over budget and there was the idea of switching locations to Nicaragua (USA originally had plans to do it here) or even Mexico where a canal may be possible. So much work was already completed by the French to advance the project that it was more worth while to continuing the canal´s construction in Panama but sell the French construction company to the USA.
  • The USA couldn´t enter until 1904 because Colombia controlled this territory. Eventually the USA sent military and basically forced Colombia to give Panama it´s independence which allow the USA to enter and complete the Canal Project.
  • The USA ran operations of the Canal until 1999 when all administration of the Canal was handed over to the Panamanians.
  • At least 25,600 workers died to construct the canal. About 75,000 workers were needed over the many years of construction.

Besides the Panama Canal I always suggest a visit to Casco Antiguo (Casco as locals say) and the Mercado de Mariscos.


In Casco you find a lots of ruins, old churches and fun plazas. The best is to seek out a bar/restaurant with a roof and check out the views. Try Tantalo, Selena or Capital Bistro among others. Besides a rooftop, simply wandering the old town here you will for sure stumble on wonderful architecture, plazas, hidden treasures and even cool bars. Know that if you go during the day remember that shade is much cooler, choose the side of the street wisely. I´d recommend walking the walls a bit near Plaza de Francia (a plaza dedicated to the French who helped build the canal and a memorial to all those who lost their lives doing so, mainly from illness) and I personally love the atmosphere of the outdoor dining in Plaza de Simon Bolivar.

Night or day it is nice to admire the seashell façade of the Cathedral in la Plaza de Independencia but my favorite is the Iglesia de la Merced off Avenida Central. My favorite plaza is la de Santa Ana with it´s huge trees and a more local vibe just a bit away from it all. Another spot to hit is a walk down Avenida Central (From Plaza Santa Ana) during the daytime all the way to the end of it which really shows the true vibes of a good chunk of Panama´s habitants, especially on weekends!

Whatever time you visit Casco or el Mercado it will be great and they are very near each other!


Lunch at the Mercado might be best and then dinner and nightlife in Casco or in reality vice versa or multiple times.

My favorite ceviche is pulpo (octopus) which won´t cost more than $5 even if you add a beer (Panamá or Balboa). There are many stalls selling ceviche with a wide variety of ceviche options. They are served in a small styrofoam cup which is a sizeable amount and comes with crackers. I believe it is one of the simplest yet tastiest ceviche out there! Another great plan here is to enter the actual fish market, select a fish, and then head upstairs to have it prepared for you.

Side note:  Besides the beer, una Balboa is what the currency is called locally…as it used to be Balboas…but in reality US dollars are the local currency. In fact, the coins are still in rotation so if heading back to the US double check your dimes and quarters. There are Martinelli´s too which are in reference to the dollar coin (these are no longer being produced, but may be in circulation still). Martinelli was a past president who put these coins out and the term just stuck. Balboa is the liberator of Panama and there are many references to him everywhere in Panama. The huge statue in the middle of Avenida Balboa along the waterfront/Cinta Costera is of him.

When at el Mercado be sure to walk along the Cinta Costera a bit. In the evening especially this area becomes very lively and is packed with people walking and exercising, not to mention many vendors. You can get a raspao here, basically the local snowcone, with ice shavings made in front of you.

This Cinta had three phases and if you take it the whole way it leads you to the Causeway…but it is not a short jaunt!


If you were to follow the Cinta all the way to the end you would be a short way from the start of the causeway…again not a short jaunt!

Amador Causeway, or Causeway as most call it, is a roadway that links several small islands which go along the canal entrance.

Causeway is best either at sunrise or sunset as the view is wonderful. You can watch ships waiting to be ushered into the canal, a nice marina, some restaurants, the ferry to Isla de Taboga (nice day trip) and plenty of room to walk or cycle (rentals available).

This spot I choose for the views more than anything and I often am undecided between this and a visit up Cerro Ancon where the big flag of Panama waves mightily.

Here you also find Museum of Biodiversity (Biomuseo), a fun place to learn about the regions natural history, culture and biodiversity inside. The museum is a colorful building designed by the famous architect Frank Gehry who was inspired by fauna y flora Panameño and the indigenous people…and probably also his wife who is Panamanian! Seeing the building itself is quite the show.

Side note: In Casco you may see some of the Guna (they make the colorful Molas you´ll see) or Emberá indigenous people selling their lovely crafts. Guna´s are from the Caribbean coast and it´s islands while the Embera´s are from regions of the Darien and further South into Colombia as well. Some tribes can be visited but know some Emberá are deep within the jungle gap of the Darien (the part of the rainforest so thick you can not pass through…well…read more) that they are near impossible to reach or special permits may be needed.


Between Causeway and Casco is Cerro Ancon.

The hill with a huge Panamanian flag waving is an old military housing (US primarily) or canal living zone where you can see some really nice old homes and some of Panama´s administrative buildings. There is a road you can walk up that goes to the top which is best to do early morning or evening when the temperatures are decent. Some people run or bike up for exercise. It is a nice, hot, walk through a mini jungle. Sometimes you can see sloths or toucans on your way up. As you go up you will have views of the Ciudad de Panamá and then have the reward at the top of reaching the huge Panama flag with even more views. Catch a taxi or Uber to Mi Pueblito and walk up the stairs and up the hill.


On the opposite side of town is Panamá Viejo.

This is where Panamá City (center) used to be located…aka the original city center of Panama. Today they are the ruins. It is a UNESCO site and there is some history with Captain Morgan here which is the main reason Panamá moved the city center.
More info


The building that jumps out at you the most in Panama is El Tornillo, aka the screw. It is a greenish blue color and all twisted and pointy. Well this building is unique for sure, so unique though that it can´t be used… OR so they say…that the floors are actually slanted and unsafe so it is just a cool building to look at in Panama. When I lived there I was fascinated by it. You can get close to it if in the Obarrio area or on Calle 50.



Now if you have more time I´d totally suggest visiting Gamboa to get a taste of the rainforest. There are roads to walk in the jungle a bit, a cool resort (Gamboa Rainforest Reserve) and a tower to walk up. I once did a tour out there to see some monkeys from a boat so that is also a possibility.


Personally I find these temples very welcoming and calming. This is the only one in Central America and it definitely fits the bill. It is all outdoors, shaped like an egg and with quite the view. Only downside is you need to drive or take a taxi to get here. It is also not a number one spot to visit but it is a cool hidden one for sure so if that is your thing and you have time make your way over!


If you have a weekend and feel brave I totally recommend a day or even over night trip to one of the many San Blas Islands. A day trip means getting a ride at 5 am but it is soo worth it. These islands are a gem! Be sure to have lobster while there too!

Usually one hires a driver and they leave at like 4 or 5 am then hand you off to a boat to take you to an island for the day or longer. Keep in mind you will be crossing in a small boat in the ocean, it can be bumpy and very wet….bring plastic bags for your stuff and some waterproof gear if you don´t want to be soaked…on a sunny day though…it isn´t bad being soaked. I guess there is an option to fly out from Albrook via helicopter but otherwise…just go on the adventure!


A much closer island that is cute and has nice beaches is Isla Taboga. You can get a boat over from Causeway. Best is to go with others and even better would be knowing someone with a boat there but otherwise it is still a great option for swimming and lounging. There are two ferry options from Causeway (check here), one is a bit cheaper but also slower.


Too hot and/or wanting to hike without going too far head to El Valle (as locals call it).

A bit cooler and about an hour away is a small mountain town which is very relaxing and great place to visit. It is wonderful for hiking or running without sweating like a pool. Many likely head to La India Dormida as a hike but there are tons of others. They even have an ultra marathon here (you might need to sign up locally at Running Balboa or follow @PanamaTrailRunning on Instagram.

Other hiking options


Panama´s currency is $USD

Spanish is local language (many do speak English)

Population is almost 2 million in la Ciudad de Panamá. Yes, there are far more buildings than all those people! Whole country is almost 4.5 million (2022).


Airport is $20 to $25…anything over $30…find another taxi!!! Taxis will try to charge more…around town they may ask for up to $10 – never pay more but know it was way less! Taxis in town are usually less than $3 to just about anywhere. Buses cost $0.25 cents unless it says Costanera Norte or Sur (these cost $1.25). Be aware, there are some old school buses called diablo rojos that are also $0.25 but will be very packed and very local but is quite the fun crazier ride if you are interested (you will have to know where you are headed as they tend to go out of the city). Uber is an option here and generally cheaper plus you can pay in cash if preferred or download InDrive to suggest a price for your taxi instead (a bid) and see if a driver accepts (pay online). Wifi is available at the airport if you need to connect and order a ride. Taxi costs from Tocumen.

TIP: If you don´t mind walking a bit in the heat you can also walk out the airport doors (of old terminal), heading to your right and walk out to the main road, flagging taxis here is cheaper, or across the roundabout the buses passes.

Long distance buses to other cities in the country or ¨el interior¨ leave from the main bus terminal at Albrook Mall. Take a bus, metro or taxi there first then buy a ticket and hop on!

Copa Airlines Stopover Option

Before buying your ticket to any of COPA´s destinations, plan how many days you want to stay in Panama at no additional airfare. Your Panama Stopover can be from 24 hours to 7 days, with one stop on your way to your final destination or on your way back home. More info


Running: Parque Omar (hills and a loop), Cinta Costera (long run central), Parque Metropolitano (trail), Also, Sunday´s when the main roads are closed for exercise (Avenida Balboa, Via Israel and out to Panamá Viejo). If looking for a race know that nearly every weekend there is a race…at least a 5k. Blog on Running Panama´s Marathon in September and the local Race Calendar.

Biking: Rali Store for all bike needs, rentals are easiest on weekends when a main thoroughfare of roads close down on Sunday for exercise. This is a great time to get to know the city plus Rali rents bikes for free on the Cinta (first come basis). Other times to cycle if you can are early am 5 am to 9 am when the Cinta Costera 3 has a lane closed down every day for cyclists (which most extend to the end of Causeway). If you have a car and can go early from Albrook the best ride in town is the route past the Canal and to Gamboa. Blog on the cycling race/ride Ocean to Ocean.

Swimming: Most hotels and buildings have pools but otherwise the Parque Omar Pool, Albrook Pool or Clayton Pool may be your best option for public swimming. Don´t jump in the ocean from the city, it is swampy and not clean.

Triathlon: Panamá offers many races throughout the year. The most popular would be the ones in Portobelo (created by the Ironman founders….read more – called Tri Xtremo Portobelo in April) and Pedasi (October) and most years there is the Ironman 70.3 Panamá (January) which sells out fast given the many triathletes in Panama.

Food and Beverage

Typical restaurants to try:

Nikos (fast food) – El Trapiche – Diabolicos

Breweries and such:

Rana Dorada – Brew Stop – Animal Brew

Side note on Nightlife:

Hard Rock Hotel rooftop club, Casco, Calle Uruguay, Amador Causeway for concerts and some clubs too

Where to Stay

No hotels to recommend specifically but great areas to stay are in Casco, near Calle 50 in Obarrio or El Congrejo off Via Argentina area, San Francisco between Via Israel and Parque Omar.

Everything is close in la Ciudad de Panamá but I think overall Paitilla is a great central spot. My favorite hotel I´ve stayed at is definitely The American Trade Hotel in Casco for it´s location, beauty and service. Mind you I hardly ever stayed in hotels while in Panama but this one I had held an event there and also stayed. I would also say to avoid Costa Del Este unless travel is for work and the office is there because that is farther away from everything.

Important Dates

If visiting in November know that this is when Panama celebrates it’s Independence days. They have 3 days all in the same month! There is independence from Spain, Colombia and then Flag Day. There are parades and many traditional dances, clothes and foods can easily be found.

Carnival (aka Mardi Gras) is a big deal in Panama, every city celebrates but the best location to go for it is in the interior in Las Tablas. Be aware that Panama takes it´s carnival seriously and you should expect to get wet (from culecos). I believe they say this is when the most beer is drank and put´s this tiny country in a top ranking for beer consumption annually. Get a Panama beer anywhere, it is cheap, especially for this holiday. I got one for 25 cents once! Besides beer and getting wet, expect tons of dancing, loud music, wild people and among the madness parades daily where the Carnival Queen will make an appearance! Most people leave Panama City for this 4 day celebration (pre Ash Wednesday, dates change by year) so anticipate major traffic if you join the festivities in the Interior (what local call anywhere outside la Ciudad…generally across the bridge)! It is a lot of partying but also a lot of tradition. The dresses women wear are called polleras.

Other neighborhoods worth a wander: Via Argentina (El Congrejo neighborhood), Costa Del Este

More blogs about Panamá

One thought on “What To Do On A Short Visit To Panama City (Panamá)

  1. Teresa desimone says:

    So exception to have seen canal before filled with water like in the Bible

    Would go mini jungle biomuseum bldg branding

    An please take me to pristine virgin darien

    Someone’s ultimate luxury building To be able not to use the screw

    I’ll remember not to go if I have to sweat like a pool. Ppteresa


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