Often the author of surprise for first-timers, Panama City dazzles visitors to the capital with her glittering skyscape, state-of-the-art architecture, trendy restaurants, and luxurious new hotels. However impressive Panama’s capital may be, it’s just the urban introduction to the wonderfully diverse array of adventures available to travelers in Panama. While business travelers rejoice over expanded luxury offerings, the leisure traveler can experience all the best things this city has to offer in a single day, two at most.
Before setting off on an exploration of the pristine wilderness environments and vibrant cultures that make Panama such an incredible travel destination, follow our recommended itinerary to take in a few musts in the capital. This day-tour of Panama City draws from my own first visit to the capital, while providing a couple of additional options so you can customize according to your personal travel needs.
An Undisputed Must-See: The Panama Canal
Even steadfast proponents of off-the-beaten-path travel admit that no trip to Panama is complete without a visit to the famous Panama Canal. A rite of passage for Panama City travelers, watching a massive supertanker transit the locks at Miraflores is truly a thing to behold.
My eyes were riveted to the S.S. Pearlmar as the gargantuan vessel inched forward, guided by expert personnel and those cute electric trams, to pass through a channel impossibly narrow by comparison. I found myself toggling between the camera viewfinder and the naked eye, trying to fathom the feats of engineering that make movement of goods and supplies between oceans, a colossal undertaking, possible on a daily basis. Those not partial to mentally appreciating a mechanical wonder may want to breeze through the canal on their way to other adventures in the city — the sight of a ship advancing slowly through the locks is by itself a bit anticlimactic, but the inner workings are a trip to try and wrap your head around.
The Miraflores Locks Visitor Center presents some cool opportunities as well – I escaped the heat and humidity into the museum to examine model ships behind panes of glass, then took in a brief film from the front row of the air-conditioned theater. The movie overlaid a soul-stirring soundtrack with incredible footage and some helpful CGI depictions – I walked out feeling as patriotic as a native Panamanian (there may or may not have been a tear in my eye).
If you’re hungry, the Miraflores Restaurant is a fine choice for lunch with a splendid view of the canal, but depending on where you wander next, you may wish to save your appetite to try one of the trendy new restaurants in Casco or hit up the food vendors along the Causeway. However, if you’re following this recommended itinerary, be forewarned that you won’t find dining options at our next stop: Panama Viejo.
Get Away for Awhile in Panama Viejo
Continue your journey through historic Panama City with a 20-minute ride that takes you outside the cosmopolitan capital to reach Panama Viejo. A great place to visit during your post-lunch lull – removed from Panama City’s more happening districts, the ruins of the original Panama City provide a quiet place to stage an afternoon of sepia-toned dreaming. Bright yellow flycatchers and oropendolas flit from the lush surroundings to roost among the rafters of a cathedral towering in 16th-century stone. You can explore this historic playground with narration from your knowledgeable guide, or simply wander to the ambient sounds of nature.
Wind Down in Casco Viejo
Ask your driver to drop you in Casco Viejo and set off on foot down the cobblestone streets of this charming historic district. I generally favor a pied exploration as the best way to get to know a place, and my preferences suited Casco Viejo perfectly.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site seeps romance through its beautifully-preserved facades and narrow streets suggestive of the Old World across the sea. It’s a place to stroll, a place to stay if you’re spending the night in Panama City, and a place to dine – Casco Viejo boasts an array of restaurants to accommodate every taste, whether you’re keen to try authentic Panamanian cuisine or seeking to savor a unique dining experience. Manolo Caracol is a favorite, the recently-opened Tantalo is already garnering rave reviews, and I enjoyed my leisurely lunch at the stylish, low-key Casablanca. In addition to feasting your eyes on the colonial architecture and tasting inspired local cuisine, you can score handicrafts from colorful vendor stalls lining the palatial plaza and manned by friendly indigenous people. Relish this opportunity to mingle with a local population more eclectic than any other part of Panama City.
Other Recommendations: Pick & Choose
Worthwhile to do, but don’t sweat it if you run out of time. There’s no shortage of natural escapes in Panama, so the ones you’ll find within the capital are non-essential.
- Ancon Hill – great for running, hiking, wildlife-spotting, and making a jungly getaway in the heart of the city. If you’re not into engineering, you’ll find Ancon Hill a fine alternative to the Panama Canal tour — take in the sight of the famous canal from your birds-eye view atop this 654-foot hill, with a gorgeous panorama of the capital and coastline to boot.
- The Amador Causeway – a scenic spot to stroll or ride a bike alongside the ocean, with food stalls to taste some of Panama’s refreshing beverage concoctions and cool treats. A great pick for those traveling with children, or for avid runners or walkers who wish to start the day on this stunning oceanside boardwalk.
- Tour the Canal by boat – “ooh” and “ahh” over the sight of massive supertankers and Panama wildlife alike via our recommended boat tour of the Panama Canal. Led by Briant Dominici, a native Panamanian biologist, this tour provides a privileged view of the canal’s operations while inviting you for a guided foray on land via a short nature walk included in the tour.
Expertly arranged by the island team at The Resort at Isla Palenque and executed by Efren, the trusty attaché of “Your Man in Panama” Rene Guardiola, my day in Panama City went off without a hitch. I experienced everything I wanted to, and nothing I didn’t, carried in comfort from one cultural treasure to the next by an erudite and unfailingly amiable guide. I departed the capital with the sense that “I know this place,” while leaving a few stones unturned for my next visit to this enthralling city.