This summer, I had the opportunity to explore the best of Panama from coast to coast, and I was impressed!
Though sometimes overlooked as a Central America destination, there truly is something for everyone in Panama, whether you come for world-famous shopping, the pristine islands of San Blas or for a stroll through the historic Casco Viejo district.
This Panama City travel guide is filled with travel tips to help you plan an incredible trip!
What to Expect in Panama City
Language: Like most of Latin America, Spanish is the primary language in Panama City, but because of its legacy as a vital international trade connection, you will also find that there is a multicultural expat population that speaks English too.
Currency: Unusual for a sovereign state, Panama actually has two official currencies, with the US Dollar sharing official status with Panamanian Balboa, pegged at a one-to-one rate, and dollars used for paper money, and Panama mainly produces its own coins.
Credit Cards and Banks: In Panama City itself, a good majority of retailers will accept credit cards, particularly tourist businesses, while ATMs are common around the city.
Climate: Temperatures in Panama City are quite stable throughout the year, with hot days that often rise to thirty three degrees Celsius, and rarely dropping below eighteen degrees. The dry season is fairly short, running from December to April, with the remainder of the year experiences a fair amount of rain.
Getting Around Panama City
The transportation situation in the city has improved significantly over recent years, with a new metro subway system which opened in 2014, and some of the old buses being replaced by new city buses. The first line of the metro runs north to south under the city, and is relatively cheap and affordable, with fares at around 35 cents.
Buses in the city are divided into the local routes with lots of stops that offer fares of 25 cents, or the main corridor buses that run a quicker service along the main north to south and east to west corridor, with fares a little higher at $1.25.
Taxis are also plentiful and affordable in the city, with fares set by the government that depend on the distance that you will be covering, with even the longest journeys around the city only costing around five dollars.
What to Do in Panama City
Whether you’re a self-proclaimed foodie or beach bum, there’s something here for everyone!
Panama Canal – The canal is the main reason for the city being what it is today, and to see the ships go by in the canal is an impressive sight. You can reach the area by bus or by taxi, and there is also a visitor’s center at the Miraflores Locks with a great viewing platform and a museum showing off the history of the canal too.
Casco Viejo – The historic area of the city has seen a lot of development over recent years, but you can still see some historic traditional buildings, while there are also plenty of bars and restaurants here. Many of the city’s museums are located in this district, while the theaters here host some of the best operas and musical shows in the region.
Panama Viejo – Panama City has not always been set in its current location, and back in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the city was a target for pirates, and after the attack of Henry Morgan, the city elders eventually decided to leave behind the old city and move to the more secure site which you can see in Casco Viejo today.
Bio Museo – This colorful building is facing the Pacific Ocean near the end of the canal, and is designed to be a museum of biodiversity. There are eight exhibitions located within the museum itself, and the bold design is actually one that was designed by famed architect Frank Gehry.
Stand Up Paddleboarding On The Chagres River – The Chagres is the largest of the rivers of Panama, and is a broad river that flows relatively slowly, meaning that the sport of stand up paddleboarding is a great way to see the scenery of the banks of the river.
Take A Day Trip To The Gamboa Rainforest – A trip to Gamboa offers some fascinating insights into Panama and its history, as the town of Gamboa is a faded colonial gem that has houses and public buildings in various states of repair, while the rainforest is home to a massive range of birds and wildlife, with some lovely walking trails.
Monkey Island Boat Tour – This is an island on Gatun Lake which has a huge range of monkeys present, and this trip offers a view of a range of different species including capuchins, howler monkeys and even the sloths and toucans that also live on the island.
Embera Indian Village Tour – The Embera are an indigenous tribe that live in the Panama rainforest, and this day trip from Panama City will offer a fascinating perspective on the country as it was before colonization, and you can enjoy musical performances and an introduction to the culture and traditions of the tribe. Overnight stays in the rainforest are also available.
Where to Eat in Panama City
Panama City has plenty of places to make your mouth water!
Puerta de Tierra – This great steak house is located in the old town area, and while you can sit inside, the lovely patio is a great place to enjoy your food and to see the people of the city go by. You will also regularly find some good live bands performing here too.
Nacion Sushi – So close to the ocean, it is no surprise that seafood is popular in Panama City, and this sushi restaurant is a stylish option in the Costa del Este district, and is nicely decorated while the food is well prepared and offers some tasty vegetarian options as well as the sashimi.
Barrio Pizza – Located on the Avenida Central at the heart of the city, this pizza restaurant prepares their pizzas in the traditional way, with a good selection of toppings and the option to choose your own topping too. The restaurant is lively and displays some bold artwork giving the location a vibrant atmosphere.
Donde Jose – One of the few restaurants in the city that has a waiting list, Donde Jose’s cuisine delivers Panamanian classics with a modern culinary twist, and every day a fixed menu of five main items and two desserts are prepared in two sittings, and each dish is lovingly decorated which makes it almost a shame to touch the food with your fork!
– Panama’s Rooftop Bars –
With a tropical climate and a growing range of tower buildings in the city, Panama has seen a great growth in rooftop bars, and if you are looking to relax and socialize, then an open air bar with a view is definitely a great way to do it.
-Tantalo is a nice option in the historic Casco Viejo district, with Latin nights held on Wednesdays and a busy atmosphere on the weekends.
-The 1400 bar is a new addition with an urban theme that has become a popular place to party, while the Inedito Rooftop has the business district to one side and the ocean to the other.
-Another bar with ocean views is La Jirafa de Maria del Alma, which offers a great range of cocktails, and also has a Mexican restaurant if you have a taste for nachos or something more substantial with your drinks.