Pete and Dalene in Panama CIty

Our 12 Favourite Things to Do in Panama City, Panama

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Words by Dalene & Pete Heck / Photography by Dalene & Pete Heck

If there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that we have a deep love of Latin America. 15 years ago, when we started off on our crazy nomadic journey, it began with two one-way tickets south from Canada. We parked ourselves in Bolivia to learn Spanish and then backpacked around South America for nearly a year. Since then, we’ve travelled to Central America numerous times, and our love of the culture has only grown fonder as time passes. The pull back to Latin America is always present.

Pete and Dalene in Antigua, Guatemala 2013
Us in Antigua, Guatemala, in 2013!

Nowadays, travel has changed a bit for us; it’s no longer an endless nomadic journey. Now that we’re settled in Nova Scotia, travel has become much less frantic and more traditional vacation-like. This year, we booked ourselves two weeks off and set our sights south again (like many Canadians mid-winter). We graduated from backpacks to suitcases and planned to stay in much more comfortable accommodations than our backpacking days.

We took ourselves to Panama, one of two remaining Central American countries that we had yet to visit. We started with a few days in the capital city — normally, we gravitate away from the bustle, but all research told us it would be worth it. From there, we headed to El Valle de Anton, a volcanic mountainous region, and then would finally wind up our time on the beautiful white sand beaches of the San Blas Islands.

But first, Panama City, and it took us both by surprise, and we enthusiastically enjoyed our time there. For these first-time visitors, we were very impressed. It truly is a beautiful and engaging place, and we discovered that there were just so many things to do.

Pete and Dalene in Panama City 2024
Us in Panama City in 2024!

Our Favourite Things to Do in Panama City

Wander the Old Streets of Casco Viejo

Casco Antiguo, or Casco Viejo (the old town), is a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Site with brick-lined streets, colonial buildings, cute shops and vibrant plazas. It had all the charm we expected, and then some. We stayed right in the heart of Casco Viejo, which allowed us to wander the streets at all times of the day.

Cathedral in Independence Square
A cobblestone street in Casco Viejo, Panama City
Casco Viejo Panama City

Early in the morning, the streets would be empty, and we casually strolled the historic neighbourhood while sipping on coffee. In the afternoons, we found it too hot to wander too much outside, so we either planned museum visits or took advantage of our hotel’s rooftop pool, where we could get a skyline of both the old and new city. In the evenings, everything came to life. The restaurants and rooftop bars were buzzing, and the promenade along the shore was packed with families and couples watching the sun dip down to the west. If there was a place to be for sunset, this was it.

Popular Photo Spots:

  • Plaza Herrera – Here, you will find the iconic American Hotel.
  • Plaza Independencia – On this plaza is the Cathedral, Canal Museum and Central Hotel.
  • Plaza Simon de Bolivar – The Iglesia San Francisco de Asís is on this plaza and has one of the most iconic bell towers.
  • Plaza Francia – Above the plaza on the promenade is where everyone goes for sunset.
Door Casco Viejo
Independence Square Casco Viejo
Statue in Casco Viejo in Plaza Herrera

Watch Ships Pass Through the Panama Canal at the Miraflores Locks

Seeing the Panama Canal usually tops the list of things to do in Panama, and we were eager to see this architectural marvel. Also, by chance, our Trip Chaser card game was currently on a ship and was slated to pass through the Canal at roughly the same time! (It didn’t, but wouldn’t that have been cool if it did?)

We opted to take a tour of the Panama Canal instead of doing it ourselves to learn more about it, and we were so glad we did.

Panama Canal Miraflores

Our guide, Dennis, messaged the night before to insist that we leave earlier than the planned departure time to ensure that we could see a ship passing through the locks. And we weren’t missing that chance! So we arrived early at the Miraflores Locks Visitor Centre and we were mesmerized as a giant steel cargo ship somehow made its way through the narrow 33-metre-wide engineering feat. Our ticket included an incredible film explaining the canal’s history and the importance it holds for Panama today. The tour was certainly worth it, we gained insights into the canal’s significance and impact on Panama and global trade.

Panama Canal
Panama Canal Ship

Hike Up Ancon Hill

One of the most popular things to do in Panama City is hike up to the top of Ancon Hill for a panoramic view of the city. It’s popular with both locals and tourists alike, and is a good spot for wildlife watching.

Ancon Hill Path

It’s quite an easy hike to the top. In fact, you just follow the service road up the hill for about 1.5 km. Along the way, we really hoped to see a sloth in the trees, but we didn’t end up seeing much local wildlife. However, some pretty outstanding views of the old town and the Panama City skyline made it worth it. Also, atop Ancon Hill was a viewpoint of the Panama Canal. All in all, the hike takes just over an hour, not including a 30-minute walk to/from the old town.

View of Panama City from Ancon Hill
View of downtown Panama City
View of Casco Viejo
View of Casco Viejo
View of the Panama Canal
View of the Panama Canal

Panama Canal Museum

Even after visiting Miraflores, the Panama Canal Museum is also worth a stop, as it offers a more comprehensive exploration of this iconic feat of human achievement.

Museo de Canal Panama City

Inside the historic building, we read and learned more about the canal’s construction and its profound impact on Panama and the world. The exhibits meticulously detailed the history and the trials and triumphs, showcasing the ingenuity and sacrifice that shaped this monumental waterway. It’s a testament to Panama’s rich history and its enduring legacy as a global crossroads of trade and innovation.

Panama Canal Museum

Step Back in Time at Panama Viejo

Visiting Panama Viejo, a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Site, is a journey through history and heritage. Panama Viejo translates to Old Panama and we caught an early morning Uber from our hotel in Casco Viejo to the entrance. After we purchased our admission, a shuttle took us to the standing ruins of what was once the first European settlement on the Pacific coast. This Spanish Colonial settlement dates back to the early 1500s when Pedro Arias Dávila and other notable inhabitants made it their home. This was the “original” Panama City.

Panama Viejo Bell Tower

One of the most iconic ruins remaining is the cathedral and bell tower. It’s been restored so we could climb to the top and get a glimpse of the surrounding ruins and a juxtaposition of old and new Panama. We jumped from shadow to shadow to escape the heat as we explored. We covered just a small part of the grounds before getting too hot and heading into the small (air-conditioned) museum to learn more about the history and transformation of Panama City.

Pete in Panama Viejo
Panama Viejo Museum

Watch the Sunset and Enjoy a Cocktail from a Rooftop Bar

If there was one thing to do in Panama City we absolutely couldn’t miss, it was taking in the golden hours of sunset while enjoying a cocktail on a rooftop bar. We were shocked at how much stiff competition there is in the city, with every spot angling to be the hippest, coolest, best view, best cocktails, best DJ, and so on. And so we “rooftop hopped” to a new spot every evening to find our favourite!

Dalene enjoying a cocktail on a rooftop patio in Panama City

No matter where we went, we always planned to arrive a bit early to get a good seat. Trip-hop music usually played as we sipped on unique fusion cocktails made with local ingredients. Our favourite spot? We found it on our last night and settled into a quiet corner with super comfy chairs on a small quaint terrace overlooking the Atlantic. We soaked in the orange, pink, and golden sky and the panoramic views of the Panama City skyline to toast how much we love the lives we’ve made for ourselves.

Our recommended spots:

  • Casa Casco
  • Vista Corona Panamá
  • Selina Casco Viejo
  • Tántalo Rooftop Bar
  • Mazatlan Rooftop (our favourite)
Sunset from the Rooftop Patio at Casa Casco
Enjoying a cocktail at Mazatlan Rooftop Patio

Walk or Bike the Cinta Costera

Cinta Costera is a 7 km coastal beltway that provides runners, walkers, and cyclists with an exercise haven. It begins in the heart of the city in the Paitilla neighbourhood, passes by the Mercado De Marisco (Fish market) on Avenida Balboa, and ends in El Chorrillo near Casco Viejo. We recommend starting on the Casco Viejo side if you can so you can reward yourself with a beer and ceviche at the fish market near the end.

Park Along Cinta Costera

Along the way, there is plenty to do. Especially nice is the number of “platos turísticos,” which are lookouts that are perfect spots for a break and a photo. On the way back, we also took a break at the Seafood Market before continuing along the coast to the Mirador Pacifico. The promenade ends at the Playita de la Cinta Costera, it’s up to you if you want to turn around and do the 7 km again in reverse (we didn’t, haha)!

Hot Tip! You can rent bikes at either end of the Cinta Costera and in Casco Viejo.

Panama City Cinta Costera
Cinta Costera

Cruise the Amador Causeway

Our tour of the Panama Canal included a quick guided tour of the rest of Panama City. We saw a few of the most popular neighbourhoods and cruised along the Amador Causeway. This 6 km scenic road was built between 1904 and 1914 using the extracted rock from the canal. It splits the Pacific Ocean from Panama Bay, leading into the Canal.

Amador Causeway in Panama City

Now, the Amador Causeway is a popular spot for both locals and tourists for a walk, run, or ride on a bike or electric scooter. Along the way, there are many spots to sit and take in the views of the city and enjoy the breeze off the water. Along the causeway are a number of restaurants, cafes, and bars should you get hungry or thirsty. And although we didn’t see it, we have read that the Biomuseo is worth some time. The famous architect Frank Gehry, the same mastermind behind the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, designed this multi-colour building. Inside, you’ll learn all about the biodiversity of Panama and how important it is to the country and the world.

Don’t Forget! Before you leave the Amador Causeway, be sure to snap a selfie in front of the iconic Panama sign.

Pete and Dalene in Panama CIty

Sip a Cup of the Most Expensive Coffee in the World

Panama City’s coffee game is on point. Plenty of small and hip cafes in Casco Antiguo serve up some quality brews, and it’s here where we learned that Panama has some of the most expensive coffee in the world. Not to be confused with the “Geisha” from Japan, Geisha coffee is made from expensive and rare beans only grown in a handful of places around the world, including Panama.

Sisu Coffee Panama City Casco Viejo

We had to try it, so we went to Sisu Coffee Studio to try their pour-over Geisha coffee. We were expecting it to be a strong and bold cup of coffee, but it’s actually quite the opposite. The appearance is quite light and golden, and the taste is floral and delicate. At $10 USD for a cup, we enjoyed it, but both agreed that we’re not sure we need to try it ever again. We’re quite happy with our standard morning cappuccino.

Where to Find Gesha Coffee in Panama City:

  • Sisu Coffee Studio (Casco Viejo)
  • Cafe Unido (Casco Viejo)
  • Siete Granos (El Cangrejo)
Gesha Coffee in Panama City from Sisu Coffee Studio

Eat Ceviche at Mercado de Mariscos (Seafood Market)

We love wandering food markets, especially in Latin America, and always make an effort to do so. Everything is so lively and colourful, and if you can handle the smell of fresh fish and fish guts (which Dalene hates!), then it’s a fun place to be. I (Pete) knew I’d be on my own for this one, but that didn’t stop me, so I grabbed my camera and my appetite and headed out to find the freshest Ceviche in Panama City at the Mercado de Mariscos.

Mercado de Mariscos Panama City
Baby Lobsters at Seafood Market
Lobsters at Panama City Seafood Market

I first perused all the market stalls to see all the sorts of fish for sale. There was everything including snapper, lobsters, crayfish, tuna, you name it, it was here. I couldn’t wait to sit down and sample some of it! There are a few restaurants inside the market (I didn’t try these), but the secret is to head to the stalls outside on the south side, where each stall owner will try to woo you to eat their “best” ceviche. I settled with a joint called Ceviche Loco. They have a full menu of various seafood, but I opted for their house special. It came chock full of delicious fresh seafood, including shrimp, octopus, white fish, and I’m sure some other ones I’m missing that had been soaked in tangy lime juice. They brought me some soda crackers to act as the needed vessel to shove it in my face hole. It was so simple, and I was in heaven.

Ceviche from Panama Seafood Market
Outdoor Restaurants Panama Seafood Market

Chill by a Rooftop Pool

If there’s one thing for certain, it gets HOT during the afternoon hours in Panama City. So finding a hotel with a rooftop pool was a priority when we booked our stay. And staying at the Central Hotel, they had one of the best that overlooked the old town with panoramic views of the water and the city.

Rooftop Pool Panama City

We had not vacationed for a few years, so it was so rewarding to just lie and do nothing. We brought our books and headphones to listen to music and found a couple of chairs to just chill. When it got too hot, we plunged into the pool. It was a lot of pool, suntan, read, repeat.

Pete Chilling on the Rooftop

Visit Museo de la Mola (Mola Museum)

After our 4 day adventure to the San Blas Islands, we had a bit of an understanding of the history and culture of the Guna tribe (who are Indigenous to the islands). We decided to learn more about the Guna people, so we visited the Museo de la Mola. The entrance to the Mola Museum is complimentary (donations accepted), and it showcases the exquisite traditional textiles the Guna people wear, called molas. They are made with intricate designs and vibrant colors, and each mola tells a spiritual story.

Mola Museum in Panama City Casco Viejo

It was a small museum (we were there less than an hour), but well set up and strongly held our attention all the way through.

Mola Museum Panama
Mola from the Mola Museum

Where to Stay in Panama City

We stayed in two boutique hotels in Panama City. The first was the Central Hotel located on Independence Square. The rooms were spacious and comfortable and we had a gorgeous view of the square outside of our window. The rooftop pool, albeit too busy for our liking, was a nice reprieve from the afternoon heat.

Central Hotel Check Rates and Availability: Expedia | Booking.com

Central Hotel Panama City
Central Hotel Casco Viejo – photo via Central Hotel

The second hotel we stayed at was the adults-only Amarla Boutique Hotel. The service was incredible, but based on the price we paid per night, we were a bit disappointed. The rooms were comfortable, and the local art throughout was exceptional, but the automatic scent spray in our room was overwhelming (we had to disable it as it was giving Dalene a headache). The rooftop pool had no shade, so we couldn’t enjoy it. The best part of the hotel is the restaurant. The food is high quality and the breakfast that is included was amazing. The customer service throughout our stay was also on point.

Amarla Boutique Hotel Check Rates and Availability: Expedia | Booking.com

Other Hotels to Consider

  • American Trade Hotel – Located in the heart of the Casco Viejo and on Plaza Herrera, it’s a beautiful colonial building and very highly rated.
  • Tántalo Hotel – A popular budget option for travellers; it’s in a great location and has a nice rooftop bar.

Where to Eat in Panama City

There are PLENTY of quality restaurants in Panama City, catering to all kinds of appetites.

Pancakes in Panama

Here are some restaurants in Panama City that we recommend:

  • Super Gourmet Restaurant – Perfect spot to grab a morning smoothie and healthy bite to eat; the owner and workers are all so lovely and cheerful.
  • Mahalo Cocina y Jardin – We went here a couple of times for lunch. It has a beautiful and peaceful garden in the back with plenty to choose from on the menu, including fresh juices.
  • La Pulperia – A trendy and hip restaurant with plenty of menu options (including seafood) but the cocktails are their specialty. Tough to get a table in so we had to sit at the bar.
  • La Rana Dorada Casco – A brewpub in the heart of Casco Viejo, it has decent food and really good craft beer.
  • Lula Casco – A cute and popular little Mediterranean joint near Plaza Francia. We shared a hummus plate and some other mezzas.
La Pulperia Casco Viejo

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