Why is Panama City worth visiting?

If you wonder whether Panama City is worth visiting, I will get this straight to you. Yes, Panama’s capital is surely worth visiting. 

Panama might be known for lots of things related to the financial sector. You will notice this immediately because the city is home to some of the biggest banks in the world. 

But Panama City is more than just an important financial hub in Central America. 

Panama City also has an interesting colonial past and is home to one of the most well-known canals in the world, the Panama Canal. 

Moreover, Panama City is an excellent base for any activity around Panama. If for some reason you decide to base yourself in Panama City, I want to let you know there are plenty of things you can do without leaving the capital.

If you like modern-looking cities, then Panama City is so worth a visit because it ticks all the boxes.

Panama City reminded me of Hong Kong since both places have a similar layout. Both locations have modern architecture with tall, glass-made buildings. Also, both cities have a coastline which makes Panama City even more attractive.

Therefore, I wrote this blog post hoping that those who want to know if Panama City is worth a visit will find their answer here. I also hope to help you create your itinerary by writing down what I did during my stay in Panama City.

Top activities you can do in Panama City

You might think that staying in Panama City will limit the things you can do. In fact, you can do quite a lot from Panama City as there are plenty of things to keep you busy while in the city.

When I visited Panama, I did not have much time. As I only stayed for 2 weeks and did not want to waste most of my time on buses, I decided to base myself in Panama City and do things from there.

How many days do you need to visit Panama City?

These are the main activities you can do in Panama City. You can easily allocate anywhere between 3 to 4 days to do everything. You can always add more days if you want to go slower. 

Activities to do in Panama City:

Cinta Costera

  • Walk along the ” Cinta Costera” translated into English as the Coastal Beltway and enjoy some of the most iconic views of Panama City and its bay. According to Google, the beltway is 7km long and it is perfect for discovering this part of the city. Locals use it to exercise, walk, bike and run. 

There are playgrounds, public toilets, water fountains and food vendors. Make sure you don’t miss the raccoons, they are always around begging for food. 

El Casco Viejo
  • Visit el Casco Viejo aka the old quarter of the city. If you’ve been to Europe, you will notice right away that El Casco Viejo looks like a Spanish town. 

As I already said, el casco viejo is all about promoting colonial architecture and Spanish heritage. The area is full of tourists and has pretty much everything you need to feel like one. There are plenty of restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops. Perhaps a bit too many for my taste. 

Nevertheless, the whole area is beautiful. You can clearly see that most buildings have been recently renovated to match their former glory times. While others are in the process of being renovated. 

Perhaps the most iconic places in the Old Quarter are France Square, Simon Bolivar Square, Independence Square and the Metropolitan Cathedral. You will discover many more beautiful streets and buildings as you walk around. 

Since El Casco Viejo is quite touristy expect everything to be more expensive (including the accommodation) than most places in Panama City. 

If you are on a budget, you will be better off if you stay somewhere along the Cinta Costera and walk to El Casco Viejo or take an Uber. 

Saying this though, when I walked to El Casco Viejo I had to go through a really rundown street to get to El Casco Viejo. It was daytime and still felt uncomfortable because it had such a favela vibe. 

Perhaps my Google Maps did not show me the best way to get to El Casco Viejo. Yet, if you don’t feel comfortable being in dodgy places somewhere you don’t know, perhaps it’s better if you get an Uber there.

Now that I know I would avoid the Chinese Town that’s near Casco Viejo. That area looked so rundown and the people there did not inspire much trust. Luckily, nobody tried to rob me, but that wasn’t a place I would go to a second time. 

Visiting El Casco Viejo can take you anywhere between a half day to a full day. It really depends on how much time you spend there. Anyhow, it is one of the hotspots in Panama City full of history and beautiful architecture and should not be missed under any circumstances. 

El Panama Viejo

  • Visit El Panama Viejo aka the old Panama City which is located on the opposite side of the city from El Casco Viejo. 

Most hostels and hotels are quite far from the old Panama so you might need to get an Uber. An Uber ride can cost you around 10$ both ways depending on where you stay in Panama City.

A small trick you can use to get an Uber back from the old Panama City is to ask the lady at the entrance to give you access to their wifi. That’s how I called my Uber from there back to the city.

Old Panama is a UNESCO archaeological site and although most buildings have been destroyed to the ground, some like the tower and a few churches are still in quite good shape. 

You have to consider that these ruins have been around for the past 500 years and faced fire and destruction caused by multiple wars and conquering campaigns initiated by Europeans. 

If you are into archelogy this is something you should not miss if you visit Panama City. The museum that’s inside the archaeological park gives a good introduction to Panamanian history covering aspects from before and after the Spanish conquista (conquering campaign in Panama).  

Visiting El Panama Viejo should take anywhere between 1.5 h up to 2 hours ( I have not included the travelling time). 

There are bathrooms, a book shop, a souvenir shop and a coffee shop if you want to stop for a snack. You can pay by card everywhere, including for the entrance ticket.

The area did not seem too touristy so I did not venture out once I finished visiting the site. The Old Panama is near a junction and seems to be away from all the major city attractions. I would say there isn’t anything you can do in the area once you’ve finished the site visit. 

Panama Canal

  • Visit the Panama Canal: You can visit the canal as part of an organised tour or do it by yourself. I chose to do it by myself this time around. 

The difference in cost between visiting the canal by yourself or doing it with an organised tour should not be significant if the tour includes the admission tickets too. If they don’t you are better off going there by yourself.

Also, you might want a boat tour of the canal. You can only do that with an organised tour.

If you only want to see the boats coming through you need to go to the Miraflores Visitor’s Centre. You can get there by bus or by taxi/Uber.  

I chose to get there by Uber because it was more convenient. A round trip from the city centre cost me $19. You must also add the admission tickets which at the time of writing this blog post were $25. 

There are 2 main activities and you can choose to do both (watch the documentary and the boats coming through the canal) or you can skip the movie (some people do it) and go straight to see the boats. 

In my opinion, I would not miss the movie. It was actually quite a good documentary that explained how the Panama Canal was built, the sacrifices that were made and the impact it had on Panama’s development. The movie lasts 45 minutes and you get to see it in 3D.

You must know that there are time slots the movie runs and the same happens with the boats. You are usually told when the next boat arrives or when the next screening is. There is also information about this on their website

Then depending on when the boats arrive you can go outside and wait for it so you can see the whole process. It can take up to 1h or even more if several boats are coming through one after another. I got lucky to witness 2 boats coming through, one was quite small, but the other one was huge, so stayed around for about 2h.

A tip that I can give here is that you can use the wifi at the centre to call your Uber. I was afraid that being in the middle of nowhere I would not be able to call an Uber, but the signal is good and you won’t have problems if you don’t have data on your phone.

There is food at the centre, although it is a bit pricey, so you might want to bring your own snacks if you are on a tight budget. There is also drinking water and access to toilets everywhere.

If you are in Panama City, visiting the Panama Canal is a must. Is one of the things the country is famous for and is definitely impressive to witness the final result of many years of work that has been done in the area to build the canal.

Multiplaza Panama
  • If you are into shopping head to Multiplaza Panama. 

It’s a big shopping centre where you will find everything you need. It’s easy to access on foot, but you can also get there by Uber or other means of transportation. Multiplaza Panama is one of the many shopping centres Panama City has.  

I was quite impressed to find out that the city has so many shops. I had to restock while in Panama and was impressed with the diversity of brands I found in the city. I found everything I would normally buy in Europe. 

So now you know. Panama City is not only a tourist destination but is also a good place if you need to restock travel essentials. This is yet another reason to say that Panama City is a place worth visiting. 

Full-day activities you can do from Panama City

You don’t need to leave Panama City to visit mesmerising islands or go hiking in the tropical jungle and get to know Native American tribes. Some of these tourist attractions are only a few hours away from Panama City. 

That’s why Panama City is so worth visiting because you have everything at your doorstep. 

I liked living in Panama City and going around for the day to San Blas Islands and Chagres National Park. The most practical way I found to visit both places was through organised tours. 

Organised tours are really good options for someone who travels by himself long term. I find organised tours to be an excellent way to meet new people, have meaningful conversations and have some fun. 

As a long-term traveller, I also enjoy organised tours because someone else takes care of everything and you just relax and stop planning for a few hours. 

Organised tours are also a viable option if you don’t have time to leave Panama City and go somewhere else or simply don’t want to. It is good to know that there are still plenty of activities you can enjoy while staying in Panama City.

If you have a look at Google Maps, you will notice that Panama City is quite a green place. There are a few national parks nearby and you can always opt to do a day trip to any of these. 

I chose to book a day trip to Chagres National Park where the Embera tribe lives. The Embera tribe is one of the 7 Native American tribes that still live in Panama.

The Chagres National Park and the Embera Tribe

The trip starts around 8 am and finishes by 3 pm. The tour guide drives you to the Chagres River from where you take the boat to hike some of the Chagres National Park. 

The boat ride and the hike are something to look forward to as you get to experience some of the Panamanian jungle and wildlife.

The hike was average in my opinion. Not too difficult, but not extremely easy either. The downside is that you need to literally cross a river to get to the waterfall. If you don’t mind getting wet, the experience should be pleasant. I did enjoy the part where I had to cross the river and get my feet wet.

You will only walk for 20 minutes (each way), so 40 minutes in total. When you get to the waterfall, you can swim or just relax by the water. The water is not deep at all so even if you don’t swim you can enjoy the waterfall.

After, you will get back to the boat hiking the same way you came. Get ready to get your feet wet again as you will need to cross the same river to get to the boat. So my advice is to wear clothes and shoes you don’t mind getting wet.

The boat will now take you to visit the Embera tribe. This is where you will have lunch, learn about the tribe’s culture and get to see where they live.

If you visit Panama during the low season, it will probably rain. But the temperature will be high, around 30 degrees Celsius. Yet, the humidity will make it feel like it’s higher than this. So get ready to get rained on if it’s one of those days. Luckily, when I went it only rained when we got to the village.

As it always happens the rain did not last long.

I liked this activity because it combines nature with cultural activities. This was the reason why I chose to do this one.

San Blas Islands

While in Panama, I discovered the country is blessed to have so many islands around. 

Some of the most popular islands on the Caribbean coast are the San Blas Islands which luckily you can visit from Panama City. 

You can opt for a several-day tour to the islands, yet as I am on a budget I chose to do the 1-day activity during which I visited 3 islands (Big Dog Island, Small Dog Island, Devil Island) and an interesting place called The Pool. The pool was by far the highlight of the day as it’s a place with shallow water in the middle of the sea.  

The Blas Islands are perfect for snorkelling, swimming and sunbathing. In fact, most organised tours offer snorkelling equipment which is handy if you don’t have your own. 

It takes around 3h (one way) to get to the islands from Panama City. 

That’s because the last leg of the journey you do with the car is through a jungle road which isn’t in the best shape, so if you get car sick, you should have some pills on you because the ride is bumpy.

This territory belongs to the Guna people, another Native American tribe Panama has. Crossing through their territory to get to the port also involves passport checks. If you have more passports like I do bring the one you used to enter Panama because they want to see the stamps.

Once you arrive at the port, you will be taken (by boat) to the islands included in your tour. 

As I said before, you can choose to stay on the islands for various days or you can do a day trip like I did. Note that you will need cash if you stay on the islands and the accommodation options are quite basic. Some people I met complained that in the evening the wind and the waves were too strong so they could not rest well.

If you visit the islands during the rainy season expect sudden rain, which usually does not last long. The day I went to the islands rained once and not more than 20 minutes. After that, it was sunny all day long.

The sun is strong all year round, so bring plenty of sun protection. In fact, we were told by the locals that it’s better to visit the islands during the low season because in summer it’s so hot that some tourists don’t handle it very well.

The islands look heavenly. One of my favourite activities was snorkeling as you can see plenty of fish. If you can, bring water shoes since in some areas the corals are so close to the water surface that you can get hurt.

Overall, I enjoyed this activity at San Blas Islands. The only downside is that you have to start very early usually get picked up around 5 am and return to Panama City around 7 pm. But it is so worth it if you are a snorkelling fan because the sea floor is full of different species of fish and beautiful corals.   

How can you book the trips? 

There are a few travel providers you can book your trips with, yet I always purchase from the ones I know best. For the first activity, I used Hellotickets and for the second one, I used Viator. In my opinion, both tours were worth the money. This time around, I enjoyed more the islands because I got to do snorkelling for the first time. 

Snorkelling is something I really recommend people do at least once because it’s a fun way to explore the sea and you don’t need expensive equipment. Plus, you don’t need to be an experienced swimmer either.  

What else is useful to know about Panama City?

While I lived in Panama City, I noticed things I would like to share with everyone else, hoping that this information will help you get a better picture of how this city is in reality. 

The things I noticed have to do with public transport, safety, weather, finances and infrastructure. 

Travel from Costa Rica to Panama City by bus

In the north, Panama neighbours Costa Rica. The route is popular among tourists and locals alike who cross the frontier daily. 

There are 2 ways to travel between Panama and Costa Rica: by plane or by bus. This time, I chose to take the bus to see how the trip was. 

The journey is quite long, almost 17 hours, although the bus arrived in Panama 1h30 earlier.

The bus company that operates on this route is called Tica Bus, and despite some of the negative feedback I read online, I have to say that my journey went smoothly. 

The bus left Costa Rica around midnight and had several stops on the way. The bus was almost empty meaning that I enjoyed plenty of legroom and could sleep quite comfortably.

The departure point in Costa Rica is called Tica Bus. Yes, exactly, that’s how you look it up on Google Maps. 

If you are not familiar with Costa Rica, let me tell you that the city has several bus terminals depending on where you want to travel. So you need to make sure you find the right terminal.

You can buy the bus ticket online which will cost you around $50 (one way). Yet, on the night you travel, make sure you have some cash on you because you need to pay a $8 tax before exiting Costa Rica. 

At this point, you should also make sure you have a ticket showing when you leave Panama, as the Tica bus staff will ask for it, and the immigration officer will check it. 

Travel from Panama City bus terminal to Panama City centre

I was surprised to find out that Panama has a good metro system. This is what I used to travel from the bus terminal to the city centre. 

You will need to buy a rechargeable metro ticket (it costs $2) which you can top up every time you need. 

For my first journey, I was told to add $1 to the card. Make sure you have cash on you as the ticket machines do not seem to work with cards. They don’t give back any change either so you will need to have the exact amount on you.

The metro is very clean, has AC and runs smoothly. I took it during rush hour, but there was still enough space for everyone in the carriage.

After my experience with the metro in Panama City, I can only recommend it if the place you stay is near a metro station. 

Is Panama City a walkable city?

Before travelling to Panama City, I did not know how much of a walkable city this place was. Yet, Panama City is pretty much walkable. 

You can walk along the Cinta Costera for a few kilometres. This route takes through the old town, the financial district and continues to the city centre. 

On the way, you will find free public wifi, water fountains, public toilets and some pretty views along the way. 

The city also has a good network of pedestrian bridges so you won’t need to deal with the heavy traffic. 

The city also benefits from an extensive network of pavements so you can get pretty much everywhere on foot. 

All in all, I got everywhere I wanted to on foot and must say I was pleased with how walkable Panama City was. 

What is the weather like in Panama City in August?

August is not a bad month to visit Panama if you don’t mind some rain throughout the day. 

The good news is that when it rains it usually does not last long, so you can quickly resume your activities. 

*Note that there might be times when tropical storms can bring more rain which can last for a few days. I experienced a tropical storm while in Panama City during which it rained non-stop for 2 full days. 

**Also note that according to locals, Panama City sees rain almost all year round. The driest part of the year is in January, February and March only. So if you want to skip the rain altogether, make sure you plan your trip to the city around this time of the year.

The bad news is that the humidity is much higher than in Costa Rica, so on a day with 30 degrees Celsius, your body might feel like it’s almost 40 degrees Celsius. 

The secret to fighting the humidity is to keep hydrated, stay in the shade (as much as you can), use sun protection and wear the right clothing because the sun is strong. It cools down after the rain, so actually the best time to be outside is after it rains.  

Is August a good month to visit Panama City?

I travelled to Panama City in August and found the city quite deserted. 

There were only a handful of backpackers travelling with me on the bus from Costa Rica, and almost all of them got off in Boquete. 

Similar to La Fortuna (in Costa Rica), the northern area of Panama is quite popular among backpackers.

Yet, the hostels in Panama City are almost empty in August. At least, this has been my experience in the city. I booked beds in female dorms and had the entire room for myself for days. And even when someone was booking they would not stay long. The most people I shared the room with were 2 and that was for one night only.

This can be a good thing if, like me, you wanted some peace to do some work but didn’t want to pay for a private room. 

If you are looking for some fun and meeting new people, perhaps August is not the best month to visit Panama City.

Is Panama City expensive to travel to?

It depends on which city you compare Panama City to, but, yes, generally speaking, I found Panama City slightly pricier and sometimes the same as Costa Rican major cities and for sure more expensive than Colombian cities (at least twice the price). 

Yet, this is understandable because remember that the country’s currency is the US dollar. Panama also has its currency called “balboa” which is valued the same as the US dollar. 

If the currency you have your money in is weaker than the US dollar, then you will feel the cost of everything a bit worse than someone who uses stronger currencies like euros or pounds.   

Is it expensive to withdraw money in Panama City?

If you have an international card like I have, I would advise against withdrawing money in Panama City. You can get by using your card in the city pretty easily as it is widely accepted. 

Withdrawing money in Panama is expensive because similar to Costa Rica, Panamanian banks charge foreign cards a $6 fee every time you take out money. 

Yet, using an international card in supermarkets, shops and restaurants doesn’t cost you anything (if you use multicurrency cards like Monzo and Revolut which don’t have transaction fees). So try to limit taking out money as much as possible when in Panama City and pay by card for all your purchases.

Is Panama City safe for solo female travellers?

During the daytime, I found Panama City as safe as any other city. 

I used the metro and walked around the city all by myself several times. I also used Uber a few times and ate by myself in several places. 

As a foreigner though, you will get stared at and sometimes people even say hi to you (mostly men do this, to be honest). Catcalling is also quite common perhaps a bit more than in Costa Rica. 

I have not gone out at night so don’t know how safe it is for women to do so in Panama City. 

But a local Panamanian woman who stayed in my hostel room told me she had quite a bad experience walking by herself around 7 pm. She said a man followed her and another one stopped the car to talk to her. So based on her experience, I would not encourage female single travellers to venture out during the night in Panama City. 

To sum up, I think Panama City is worth visiting if you like modern architecture and are interested in Central America. Panama City can be expensive, but if you have a well-thought itinerary, you can make the best of your time in the city without going bankrupt.  

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