As one of central America’s most developed cities, Panama City is a popular travel hub with plenty of great things to do for all types of travellers. Whether in town in business, in transit to another destination in the Americas, on a cruise or enjoying some classic sightseeing, it’s well-worth spending at least a day exploring the bustling metropolis which seamlessly blends old with new. The result is the type of place where you can spend a morning exploring the centuries-old historic centre, spot monkeys in the afternoon, and spend the evening watching the sunset from the rooftop of a glitzy skyscraper, cocktail in hand.
For those who find themselves short on time, here are some of the best things to do in Panama City, Panama in just one day.
(Have more than one day in Panama City? There are plenty of great day trip options including watching ships go through the locks at the Panama Canal, relaxing on sun-soaked beaches in San Blas, learning about Panama’s indigenous tribes at Embera Quera and spotting monkeys and crocodiles at Gamboa Rainforest Resort.)
Panama La Vieja
Start the day where it all began: Panama La Vieja. Despite its location outside the city centre, it’s actually where Panama City was originally founded and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dating back to the early 1500s, the site is comprised of beautiful ruins including a towering cathedral and bell tower.
Casco Viejo (also known as Casco Antiguo) is the historic heart of Panama City—and one might say is the most photogenic part as well. Dating back to the 1600s, the old quarter is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, full of stately buildings and colonial homes with pastel facades where flowers drip off the wrought-iron balconies.
Visitors enjoy wandering along the cobblestone streets and tucking into the hip boutiques, bars and hotels, along with cafes like Bajareque Coffee House which serves the famous Geisha coffee. At $9 per cup, it’s considered one of the world’s best—and most expensive—brews.
For fantastic views, head to the waterfront and wander along Las Bobedas (“the vaults”). It’s a great spot to pick up souvenirs from local artisans, and enjoy panoramic views of the old town framed by the dazzling skyscrapers of the financial district.
As one of the city’s largest boardwalks, there is no shortage of things to do and see along the Amador Causeway which hosts restaurants, luxe yacht clubs, pathways for cycling and jogging and the BioMuseo. There are also plenty of lookout points, granting fabulous views of the bay, Casco Viejo and huge tanker ships waiting to sail through the iconic Panama Canal.
A kaleidoscope of colours attracts visitors to the BioMuseo, which was designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry who’s famous for his futuristic works. Opened in 2013, the vibrant, angular roof is a stark contrast to the calm blue waters that surround it, making quite the statement along the Amador Causeway.
Inside, visitors will find nearly a dozen exhibitions covering topics like biodiversity, the human evolution, and how Panama was created via a “living bridge.” While inside, be sure to look both up and around to fully appreciate the architectural wonder.
Mercado de Mariscos
Want a glimpse of what life is like for the locals? Then head to Mercado de Mariscos, which is a fish market located along the waterfront between Casco Antiguo and the financial district. Early birds can watch fishermen haul their catch out of the boats, which is then prepared at many of the adjoining food stalls. Have a kitchen of your own? Then be sure to pick up a gallon of fresh ceviche, which you can get for only $20.
Stay at: The luxe InterContinental Miramar Panama has a prime location right on the bay and offers one of the best skyline views in all of Panama City. It’s particularly fabulous in the evening, when guests can grab a cocktail and enjoy the bright city lights from the outdoor pool or terrace.
For those who find themselves in Panama City on business, the Holiday Inn Express Panama Distrito Financiero is a good option. It’s in the heart of the financial district, and the perfect place to get a good night’s sleep: there are dehumidifiers in every room, and oxygen is pumped through the ventilation system to keep guests energized.
Those who have a long layover in Panama City or a very early flight will want to book a room at the sleek Crowne Plaza Panama Airport. The property has a gorgeous outdoor pool area, well-equipped fitness centre and restaurant, and is so close to the airport you could almost walk to the terminal.
Getting there: Copa Airlines is Panama’s national airline, and offers direct flights to dozens of destinations throughout North America and South America. It’s also a Star Alliance member.
Segundo Muelle– It’s easy to forget you’re in Panama City and not Lima when dining at Segundo Muelle. The restaurant serves up some of the best ceviche you’ll find north of Peru—which isn’t surprising, since the chain originated in that country. Diners can sip on the likes of Pisco Sours, while enjoying a great view of the surrounding bay.
Diablicos- This spot in the heart of Casco Antiguo serves up traditional Panamanian dishes including “temptation plantains” which are caramelized with sugar and are just as delicious as they sound. Time your visit for Thursday, Friday or Saturday night when entertainers from all regions of Panama perform live music and polleras dances, against a backdrop of traditional masks.
Tantalo Restaurant– This artfully designed spot in the old town is at the base of a boutique hotel, so it serves up tantalizing dishes all day long. The Tantalo Mac’n Cheese is a crowd-pleaser for the late night crowd, who come to sip on a lively mix of cocktails like watermelon mojitos or strawberry and basil infused gin and tonics. Don’t miss their rooftop bar, which has one of the city’s best panoramic views of historic Casco Viejo spread out below.
When to go: The best time to visit Panama City is December through April, to avoid the rainy season which also brings high humidity.
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Globe Guide explored Panama City as a guest of InterContinental Hotels Group, which has numerous properties in Panama City. As always, hosts have no editorial influence on articles.