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11 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Panama City, Panama

Written by Lana Law
May 14, 2019

Panama City offers all the comforts and glamour of a modern city, but has also done an excellent job of preserving its historical areas and attractions. Many of the city's top tourist attractions are located in Casco Viejo, the UNESCO World Heritage designated Old Town, where narrow streets lined with old architecture provide a glimpse into the past, while offering amenities like restaurants, hotels, and shops. Casco Viejo should not be confused with the original city at Panama Viejo, which is today just a few remaining ruins, but also well worth a visit.

Other important highlights can be found just outside of Panama City, including one of Panama's most famous sites, the Panama Canal. Also beyond the city limits but within easy reach are some lovely natural areas, perfect for spotting wildlife or hitting the hiking trails. Plan your visit with our list of things to do in Panama City, Panama.

1. Panama Canal

Panama Canal

A visit to Panama City is not complete without seeing the famous Panama Canal. Depending on your level of interest and the amount of time you have available, you can either take a boat tour through the canal, or see the locks from a viewing platform on shore.

If you are only interested in seeing the locks, head to the Miraflores Visitor Center, where you'll find a museum, multiple viewing platforms over the Miraflores Locks, and a restaurant offering the same outstanding view. Also on the grounds is an IMAX theater (separate admission fee). Be sure to arrive between 9 and 11am or 3 and 5pm, when the ships tend to transit the locks.

This is about 25 minutes by car from downtown Panama City. A short drive farther on are the Pedro Miguel Locks. There are no tourist facilities here, but you can get a free glimpse of the canal.

One of the most popular things to do in Panama City and best ways to experience the canal is an Ocean to Ocean Panama Canal and Jungle Tour. This is an eight- or nine-hour tour of the canal, which includes a boat trip, a stop at the Gatun Lock Visitor Center, a chance to explore Gatun Lake and Monkey Island and see some wildlife, and a stop at Fort San Lorenzo.

If you are staying in Panama City and want to watch the ships coming and going from the canal, the Radisson Hotel Panama Canal is a lovely hotel at the mouth of the canal. You can book a room with a balcony overlooking the entrance to the Panama Canal and watch the ships coming and going. The hotel also has a beautiful pool and is set in a quiet neighborhood, offering a pleasant retreat from the city.

2. Casco Viejo (Old Town)

Plaza Bolivar in Casco Viejo | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The most enchanting area of Panama City is Casco Viejo, the Old Town. It was founded in 1671 after the original city, about seven kilometers up the coast, was ransacked by the marauding Captain Morgan. While the Old Town is actually a mix of old ruins and not-quite-as-old architecture, you can still find some impressive buildings here that date to the late 17th century.

Casco Viejo was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, and since then the area has evolved from a former urban slum to the city's central showpiece. Today, visitors come here to wander the streets, shop, and capture some great pictures of this historical oasis.

Casco Viejo is relatively compact, surrounded by water on three sides, and the main sights are easily explored on foot. Some of the must-see attractions include the majestic Iglesia y Convento de la Compania de Jesus, the Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo with its unique arch, and the Paseo de las Bovedas. The latter is one of the best places for views of the modern city and a nice area to shop for souvenirs.

At night, this area of Panama City is hopping. People come here in the evening for dining and nightlife. Lessep's Bistro Cafe is an always dependable French Restaurant in the Old City, open for lunch or dinner.

3. Panama Viejo

Ruins in Panama Viejo

Panama Viejo is the original site where the city was founded in 1519. Located about a 15- to 20-minute drive out of the city towards Tocumen International Airport, this historical sight is worth the effort to visit. The 14 remaining ruins are spread out over an area about 1.5 kilometers long.

The best historical structures are the churches, including the Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion, dating from 1619; the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco; and the Iglesia de San Jose, noted for its vaulted side chapels. Other interesting things to see include the Puente del Rey, a bridge from 1617, reputed to be the oldest in the Americas, and Casa Alarcon, dating from the 1640s and considered one of the best preserved private residences.

The Museo de Sitio Panama Viejo is a perfect place to start your visit, where you can view a scale model of the ruins to gain perspective on what was once on the site.

4. Plaza de la Independencia & Catedral Metropolitana, Casco Viejo

Catedral Metropolitana | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Literally in the center of the main attractions, Plaza de la Independencia is a great place to start your exploration of Casco Viejo. Also called Plaza Mayor or Plaza de la Catedral, the park celebrates Panama declaring independence from Colombia in November, 1903. On one side of the plaza is the imposing Catedral Metropolitana, dating from 1688. It is the home of the Archdiocese of Panama.

In the center of the plaza, you'll find benches beneath large trees and a lovely, white octagonal shelter, where people come to sit and visit. It's also handy for sudden downpours. The plaza is an ideal place to get dropped off or picked up by taxi or Uber, since the streets are wide, unlike the other areas of the Old City.

Along one edge of the park is the luxury Central Hotel Panama. Staying here puts you in the heart of the action, but also offers a splendid retreat at the end of a long day of sightseeing.

5. Iglesia y Convento de la Compania de Jesus, Casco Viejo

Iglesia y Convento de la Compania de Jesus | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Dating from 1741, all that remains of this convent and church are towering walls and arches. Nonetheless, it is a central landmark and one of the most impressive and most photographed sites in the Old Town. The site is a quiet escape from the city, and the walls and nooks provide some shade from Panama's intense sun and heat. At night, floodlights illuminate the structure, creating a dramatic setting.

Look closely at the walls to see an assortment of sea shells found in the surrounding waters. The Iglesia y Convento de la Compania de Jesus is just to the southwest of the Plaza de la Indepencia.

6. Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo, Casco Viejo

Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo is another of the few actual ruins in Casco Viejo, although seemingly more intact than Iglesia y Convento de la Compania de Jesus. This well-preserved site also consists of walls and arches, including one unique flat arch, which was reportedly installed to help with acoustics.

Located on the same property, adjoining the ruins, is the Museo de Arte Religiouso Colonial, displaying a collection of artwork dating from the 16th century. In the evening, the restaurant across the street sets up tables and chairs in front of the ruins, and the area becomes a perfect spot to stop and soak up the scenery.

7. Paseo de las Bovedas & Plaza de Francia, Casco Viejo

Paseo de las Bovedas | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

For souvenir shopping, Paseo de las Bovedas or Estaban Huertas, popularly known as Lovers Lane, is a good place to start. Located at the southern end of Casco Viejo, this walkway along the old seawall is lined with numerous tables of vendors selling interesting items, ranging from license plates right through to indigenous artwork and crafts.

Covered with bougainvillea and set along the oceanfront, this area is a nice escape from the sun and heat of the inner streets. It's also a great place to snap a photo of the glimmering glass towers of downtown Panama City farther down the shore.

If you keep walking past the vendors, you will eventually end up at Plaza de Francia, a small park and monument celebrating the historical relationship between Panama and France.

8. Panama Canal Museum, Casco Viejo

Panama Canal Museum | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Housed in a wonderfully restored building dating from 1874, which was once Panama City's main post office, is the Panama Canal Museum. It's located on Plaza de la Independencia in Casco Viejo.

Fascinating displays showcase the development of the canal over the years, beginning with the attempts made by France, which were later abandoned, and continuing through to the construction by the United States and the eventual return of the canal to the Panamanian Government.

9. Biomuseo (Museum of Bio Diversity at Panama)

The colorful Biomuseo on Panama City's skyline

When you look out at the ocean from the Old City, or perhaps from your high-rise hotel room, you may notice a colorful building off in the distance towards the entrance to the canal. This is the Biomuseo. Designed by the famous architect Frank Gehry, this unusually shaped building is set on the Amador Causeway and is surrounded by walking and biking trails.

Inside, eight galleries showcase the natural and cultural history of Panama. Free guides are on hand and are more than happy to show you around and answer any questions you might have.

Official Site: https://www.biomuseopanama.org/en

10. Panama Rainforest Discovery Center

Howler monkey at the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center

Less than an hour from Panama City, the Rainforest Discovery Center is a great family outing or fun destination for anyone who wants to experience nature without embarking on a long hike.

One of the main things to do here is a climb up the 100-foot observation tower, where you can experience the various levels of the jungle canopy. The tower is reached via a 1.1-kilometer hiking trail, which also winds down to Lake Calamito and offers plenty of opportunity to spot the abundant wildlife. Sloths, monkeys, coatis, toucans, and a variety of other birds are some of the usual suspects seen here. Another highlight is watching the hummingbirds come and go at the feeders.

There are limited facilities here, so be sure to pack a lunch or snacks.

11. Parque Nacional Soberania

Gatun Lake in Parque Nacional Soberania

If you want to do some more serious hiking and see wildlife without venturing too far from the city, Parque Nacional Soberania is the place to go. Although it's hard to believe when you are in the heart of the city, there is a rainforest teeming with birds and animals less than 30 minutes away. One of the most popular parks in the country, it offers several hiking trails, including one that leads to a waterfall.

The park is home to over 500 species of birds, and Pipeline Road is one of the birdwatching hot spots in the country. In addition to birds, abundant mammals, lizards, amphibians, and reptiles are all lurking in the greenery. You may want to consider hiring a guide, who is more likely to know where to look for critters.

Where to Stay in Panama City for Sightseeing

  • Luxury Hotels: One of the top luxury hotels in downtown Panama City is Le Meridian. Rooms take advantage of the hotel's waterfront location with amazing views out over the Pacific Ocean. A trendy pool is on the 6th floor, and the Saril restaurant serves up innovative cuisine.

    The Intercontinental Miramar Panama is another good choice, in a modern high-rise, just down the street from Le Meridian and also located on the waterfront. The large rooms are ideal for people who want a little more space. Walking trails along the waterfront are just outside the front door.

    For those looking for a smaller boutique hotel in Casco Viejo, Las Clementinas is a quaint and luxurious colonial property with a shady courtyard. Ideally situated in the center of the Old Town, the hotel has only three studios and six apartments. It's also pet friendly.
  • Mid-Range Hotels: A good selection of mid-range hotels can be found in the downtown area. One of the top picks is the Hotel Ramada Plaza Panama Punta Pacifica by Wyndham, located a short distance from the massive Multiplaza Pacific Mall.

    The Hyatt Place Panama City is a smaller property, which still offers the amenities of larger hotels, including a large rooftop pool, rooms with great views, and a complimentary breakfast. It is within walking distance of trendy Uruguay Street.

    Less pricey is the Holiday Inn Express Panama City Distrito Financiero, which offers quality rooms, a small rooftop pool, and an expansive breakfast buffet included in the room rate. The Iglesia Del Carmen subway is a short walk away, as is the Soho shopping mall.
  • Budget Hotels: Budget travelers will be pleased to find a good assortment of cheap hotels in good locations in Panama City. A top choice, located right next to the metro station on Via Espana, is the Occidental Panama City. This modern and sleek hotel has rooms that are perfect for anyone on a tight budget. Cheap restaurants and a grocery store can be found a short stroll away.

    The uniquely named Best Western Plus Panama Zen Hotel will provide some peace and tranquility for your wallet. The hotel has rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows and the best rooftop pool in the budget category. The hotel is located right by the metro station on Via Espana, and a variety of shops and restaurants are within walking distance.

    The Hilton Garden Inn is well located near the Financial District and has very comfortable rooms, the same quality as you'd find in North America, for a fraction of the cost. The hotel has a very small rooftop pool and a restaurant serving local and international cuisine.

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