Panama City is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with an elegant combination of modernity and history. It is one of the most modern and developed cities in Central America.
The city is mostly known for the Panama Canal, which unites the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean. It is an engineering marvel that shaped the history and the economy of the world. Panama City is one of the most important capitals of the world and a city that should be on your bucket list.
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The city is surrounded by skyscrapers and is a big hub of trade and shipping activities.
Although it also has a big testimony of its past under the influence of the Spanish, French and USA. All of this makes it an interesting and mesmerizing city.
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The capital is also the perfect place to start your trip to Panama – a country with tropical forests, paradisiac islands, volcanoes, and beaches to die for.
Where is Panama City?
Panama city is the capital and the largest city of Panama with a population of 880,691. The city is located by the Pacific Ocean. The northern part of the city is outlined by tropical rainforests. Due to its strategic location and being at the entrance of the Panama Canal the city has a big economic and trade importance to the world. The country of Panama is located on the isthmus linking Central and South America which means it belongs to two continents.
A Perfect Day in Panama City
Panama City has plenty to offer, from the ruins of Panama Viejo, the old town of Casco Antiguo to the exciting modern part with plenty of skyscrapers, shopping, and famous nightlife. However, the Panama Canal should be on top of the list. After all, it is the largest and the most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken.
We gathered the best things to do, to plan a perfect day in Panama City.
Best Breakfast in Panama City
The Panamanians take their breakfast seriously, they eat a proper meal right at the beginning of the morning. A breakfast in Panama includes a deep-fried tortilla with eggs, empanadas stuffed with meat and freshly made coffee. Be aware that coffee in Panama is aromatic and intense – after all, this is a major coffee producer in the world.
If you fancy a lighter breakfast you have tropical fruit that is amazing in Panama. The pineapples, mangos and, watermelons are juicy and sweet – simply to die for.
The best place to eat breakfast is in the frood joints called Fondas, you will find them easily spread throughout Panama city.
Panama Canal – Miraflores locks
The Panama Canal is one of those iconic places in the world that you can’t miss. The canal unites the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean making it easier, quicker and safer for ships to cross the continent. Before the canal ships had to contour Cape Horn in South America taking 5 months to go around the continent, but with the canal, it only takes 12 hours.
This engineering marvel wasn’t easy to build. Its construction was first attempted by the French in 1881, which didn’t succeed due to the high mortality rates of the workers. It was later constructed by the USA in 1914. The canal has 82 km length, 3 locks up and 3 locks down, and an artificial lake, Gatun lake.
The Miraflores locks are located very close to the city in the Balboa Port. These locks have a visitor center that allows visitors to observe the transiting of ships from the Pacific Ocean to the Panama Canal or vice versa. The ships are lifted 16,5 mt into the canal. In the morning ships transit from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean and in the afternoon ships from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
The visitor center also has a museum that explains the history of the construction of Panama Canal, how the Canal works, and its importance in world trading You can even see a movie about the history of Panama and the Canal. The tickets cost 15 B for adults and 10 B for kids. There are several buses from Albrook train station to Miraflores locks.
Lunch in Panama City
Panama cuisine isn’t one of the best in the world, it is very bland and it uses way too much deep-fried dishes. Some staple dishes in Panama include fried fish, fried chicken, fried plantains, Casados (rice and beans), Ropa Vieja (shredded beef with spices), Arroz de Pollo (rice with chicken).
However, there’s one Panama dish we really liked, ceviche. It was freshly made and very nicely seasoned. Although the origins of ceviche are claimed to be in Peru, Central America offers very good ceviche. The best place to eat ceviche or any other fish is the Seafood market (Mercado dos Mariscos). Besides selling fresh fish and seafood, the market has plenty of restaurants with seafood dishes and ceviche.
So it is the ideal place to eat in Panama City, an unforgettable experience and in addition, it is quite cheap.
Mercado dos Mariscos is near the bus station 5 de Mayo and near Casco Viejo.
Archaeological Site of Panama Viejo
The Archaeological Site of Panama Viejo and Historic District of Panama is the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas and it is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In 1519 the Spanish made a settlement in there, but later on, in 1671, the town was abandoned due to a devastating pirate attack. The town was relocated to another part of Panama City, and the old settlement was abandoned and never rebuilt.
The old settlement site still maintains its original layout with ruins of the town’s old buildings. You will find the remains of the Cathedrals, convents, public buildings and the houses of the Spanish occupies. Besides the ruins, the site also has a museum that explains the history of the first settlement and the history of Panama.
It is well worth visiting the Archaeological site as it will give you a perspective of how things were and learn about Panama’s history. The tickets cost 15 B (adults) and 2 B (children), and you can reach the site by bus from Seafood Market, Allbrook station and 5 de Mayo Square.
Casco Viejo is Panama City’s old quarter that was built near the old Panama Viejo in 1673 after the Spanish abandoned their first settlement. The old quarter has a Spanish vibe with a notorious Spanish Colonial Architecture. Yet, it also suffered the influence of other cultures like French, Caribbean, American, which remained in the Country several years.
Casco Viejo is one of Panama’s most charming places. One that makes you feel like you are in another era. There are several spots you shouldn’t miss like El Arco Chato, Plaza Bolivar, Plaza de la Independencia, Iglesia de San José, and its Golden Altar.
You will notice that the old quarter is being rehabilitated, this process started when it was designated World Heritage Site in 1997. This part of Panama city was neglected in the past and occupied by the poorest people. You will still spot abandoned buildings and poverty in some areas.
Nowadays it is the second most visited place in Panama City and is a charismatic quarter, with historical buildings, hotels, and good restaurants spread all over Casco Viejo.
Dinner in Panama City
One of the best places to eat in Panama is Casco Viejo, it is packed with a variety of cute restaurants serving traditional or international food. You will always remember eating Casados in the balcony of a charming restaurant in Casco Viejo while enjoying the view of the old quarter and the skyscrapers of Panama City.
Be aware that in Casco Viejo, things are more expensive than the rest of the city, like in all touristy places. If you want something cheaper or street food there are several street sellers with hot dogs and hamburgers and arepas spread all over the city.
Best Place to Watch the Sunset
Before the day ends you must explore the Cinta Costera, a beautiful waterfront boulevard. The boulevard extends from the Punta Paitilla until the football stadium Maracana with 8 km. Part of the boulevard consists of a 2.5-kilometer-long marine viaduct that encircles Casco Viejo. So you can imagine the amazing views, on one side you have the Panama bay and in the other Casco Viejo also catching the modern side of the city. It is without a doubt the best place to watch the sunset
The boulevard is also a good place to run, ride a bicycle or do other outdoor activities. It also has plenty of spots for kids to play. It is a fun place with a good atmosphere where locals and tourists just relax.
Nightlife in Panama City
Panama has a well-known nightlife, and the Panamanians are fun, joyful people that like to party. The best nightlife in Panama City is in Casco Viejo – with clubs and bars for all the tastes. You also will find some cool clubs with rooftops offering fantastic views.
When is the Best Time to Visit Panama City
Weather in Panama City
Any time of the year is a good time to visit Panama City, as Panama is a tropical county, it is hot all year round. Temperatures remain constant throughout the year, averaging around 27 °C. But from May to December it is the wet season so it can rain more frequently.
You Must Try in Panama City
Eating Ceviche in Mercado de Mariscos is a definite must, it is delicious and cheap. For 1 or 2$ you can have a cup of ceviche of different seafood or fish, like shrimp, hake, lobster seasoned with lemon, chili peppers chopped onion and cilantro.
You Can’t-Miss in Panama City
Carnival in Panama is a big thing, they simply love it. The party is spread all over the city with music, street food and there is a big parade with people using costumes and dancing. If you are traveling between February and March you should try and go to Carnival. The exact day of Carnaval varies each year, it takes place over the four to five days leading up to Ash Wednesday.
Fun Facts about Panama City, Panama
- Panama city is often known as the Miami of Latin America, due to the weather and skyscrapers.
- Panama City is the only capital in the world that has a tropical Jungle within its limits. The northern part of the city, it is outlined by tropical rainforests that are vital for the functioning of the Panama Canal, as they provide the canal with water. It is a good example of how an engineering project helped preserve nature.
- The first people that tried to construct the Panama Canal where the French in 1881 but didn’t succeed due to the costs and thousands of people that died during the construction.
- In 1903 the USA restarted the construction of the Panama Canal creating a Panama Canal Zone, an area extending 8 km on each side of the canal that belonged to the USA until 1979.
- Panama city has a big discrepancy between poor and rich with a very high Gini Index, indicating a big difference in wealth distribution.
Where to Stay: Panama City Hotels
Panama City has a big range of hotels but you need to choose wisely the location you stay in. In Casco Viejo and the Finance quarter, prices are higher in comparison with the rest of Panama City. But there are areas in Panama City that we don’t advise you to stay.
When we choose a hotel we try to be within walking distance to the historic center, making our schedule more flexible. During our visit to Panama City, we stayed in a simple and homely hotel called Hotel Valencia that was close to the city center. The hotel has everything you need, plus it has a small terrace where you can eat breakfast. The owners were very nice and helpful, they even kept our bags while we traveled to San Blas. Hotel Valencia is a good option for anyone that wants a cheap and nice hotel.
Budget hotels & hostels
For Mid-range hotels you have Tryp by Wyndham Panama Centro, Hotel El Panama by Faranda Grand and Hilton Garden Inn Panama City Downtown. They are well-localized, comfortable and a good value for money making your stay in Panama City very pleasant.
For a more luxurious hotel with breathtaking views, you have Central Hotel Panama located in the Casco Viejo. The experience of being in the Casco Viejo is well worth it and you will feel like a king with an external pool and spa and a breakfast to die for.
Day Trips from Panama City and Top Tours
Panama City is the ideal destination to serve as a base to visit other cities in Panama. There are a few places that you can’t miss and are perfect for doing day trips from Panama City.
On top of our list is the San Blas Islands, one of the most beautiful paradisiac islands in the world, a perfect place to relax and enjoy life. Ideally, you should stay there for more than one day.
For hiking and explore nature you have the Chagres National Park, which has a luscious tropical and is just one hour from Panama City.
Another option for a day trip is making a tour in the Panama Canal Railway. The railway runs from Panama City to Colon, besides being a piece of history it is very panoramic.
A Few Top Tours To Check Out:
Recommended Travel Resources
- Travel Insurance: World Nomads.
- Transport: AirfareWatchDog and Skyscanner (Best Sites to Research Flight Prices)
- Accommodation: Hotels.com and Orbitz
- Airbnb, Sign up here for a $40 credit.
- Top Panama City Hotel Reviews: TripAdvisor
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