Panama's capital is a cosmopolitan cityscape with a skyline dominated by gleaming skyscrapers and streets full of culture, incredible food and enticing attractions.

Explore on foot and take a stroll along the bay while the Pacific breeze keeps you cool, before exploring Panama City's different neighborhoods and finding its colonial history etched on every street.

Tourist crime here is low and most are of the low-key, opportunistic type you'll encounter in any major city. Keep your wits about you, avoid the more rough-and-tumble parts of town and you'll be just fine. 

From planning your trip to local etiquette, here’s what you need to know before traveling to Panama City.

1. Where you stay depends on your budget and needs

Every neighborhood has its advantages and disadvantages. With cobblestone streets and Spanish colonial architecture, the historic quarter of Casco Viejo is the most memorable and romantic part of the city.

It has lots of high-end restaurants, luxury lofts and swanky rooftop bars, but a dearth of budget-friendly places to eat and its public transport links aren’t the best.

The Calidonia district in the southern part of the city occupies a grid of streets from Plaza 5 de Mayo to Calle 42 Este. Avenida Central bustles with market stalls, and the roads to the south are dotted with budget-friendly hotels.

The district is also near plenty of Metro trains and buses. You can pick up cheap street food during the day when kitchens open for local hospital staff and civil servants. After dark, however, Calidonia becomes shady and downbeat with limited dining options.

To the east of Calidonia, the so-called banking district is a patchwork of several districts or corregimientos, including modern and emerging neighborhoods that host the lion’s share of high-end lodgings and Airbnb rentals.

There are a few hostels and not nearly enough economical hotels. Many decent restaurants are dispersed throughout the banking district but are not always within walking distance.

If you’re in town to party, the Marbella and Bella Vista neighborhoods have great access to the bars and clubs on Calle Uruguay. El Cangrejo is an entertainment zone with a casino, good Metro train links on Vía España and a parade of restaurants on Vía Argentina. 

Dancers in traditional costume at the carnival in the streets of Panama City
Carnival is a vibrant, fun time in Panama City but unfortunately, prices are at their peak © Rainer Lesniewski / Shutterstock

2. Time your visit for budget-friendly deals and great weather

The high season coincides with the dry season – mid-December to early April – when prices are generally higher. The major festivals of Christmas, New Year, Carnival and Semana Santa see a price increase in the capital, but not as much as the beaches, where most city-dwellers spend the holidays.

Mid-April to early December is the cheapest time to visit Panama City, as long as you don’t mind getting soaked by the rain.

Most deluges last only an hour or two in the afternoon, but the season gets wetter as it goes on. In the depths of it, the skies can be overcast for days, but the rains are usually intermittent and the cloud cover can bring relief from the relentless Panamanian sun.

3. You're better off with a Metro card than a car

Although a car is good for day trips out of town, don’t plan on driving much in the city. The one-way road system is baffling, city thoroughfares are often congested, and diversions are par for the course.

Instead, use Panama City’s public transport system, which includes a fleet of air-conditioned buses and Central America’s first-ever Metro train. Buy a three-in-one “RapiPass” upon arrival and gain access to Metro trains and buses, and the departure gates at Albrook bus station. 

4. Always keep a stash of low-denomination bills

You'll need to show your ID and sign a register if you pay for anything with a higher bill than US$20. Counterfeit money is an issue in the country, so all $50 and $100 bills will be scrutinized in Panama.

5. Don’t smoke in public

Legislation introduced in 2008 banned smoking in public places. People who smoke in non-designated areas are subject to fines of $25–100.

Two people wearing brightly colored clothing walk down a street smiling
Pack a few outfits you're proud of for socializing and evenings out © Jeremy Poland / Getty Images

6. Dress for comfort but look sharp

Panamanians like to dress up and look their best. The ostentatious displays of fashion on display in Obarrio include stiletto heels that somehow survive the assault course of the city’s pavements.

When socializing, casual attire is fine, but avoid wearing shorts and sandals to nice restaurants or social functions.

7. Tip hotel cleaning staff

If you stay in a hotel, leave a tip for the person who cleans your room – US$2–3 a day is fine. A 10% tip is often added in good restaurants, but not always – check the bill before paying.

In low-key local eateries, you may leave some loose change for the server. Unless they help with luggage, taxi drivers don’t expect a tip.

8. Don’t use drugs

Although Panama City is steeped in narco dollars, Panamanian society frowns on drug use, and the law does not tolerate it. If the police find you in possession of even small quantities of marijuana, you could spend several years in a Panamanian prison.

9. Don’t expect people to speak English

Panama City Spanish is Caribbean Spanish – extremely fast and heavily laden with jerga (slang). If Spanish is not your first language, you may struggle to catch it.

Don’t expect to find many English speakers during your day-to-day transactions. English is widely spoken in the business community, but not much outside of it, and mastering a few basic Spanish phrases will help you get around.

10. It's safe to drink tap water

The tap water in Panama City is perfectly safe to drink. Save on plastic waste by refilling water bottles at a faucet. If you prefer purified water, you can refill at the 20-liter garrafones in most hotel lobbies.

A woman takes a photo of the city skyline viewed from within dense foliage
Remember that the city is on the edge of the jungle and it can take time to acclimatize © DavorLovincic / iStockphoto / Getty Images

11. Prepare for environmental hazards

Panama City is an urban hothouse scratched out of the jungle. The elements are fierce – humidity is often 100%. You should take a day or two to relax and acclimate to the heat if you come from a cold-weather country.

Always apply sunscreen before going outside and keep an adequate water supply handy. Wear light clothes and a hat to keep the sun off your face. Bring a sturdy umbrella if you visit during the wet season.

Panama City suffers from flash floods during heavy downpours. If you get caught in a storm, you could end up wading through deep puddles. Traffic is generally heavy, and many parts of the city are not pedestrian-friendly. People living with asthma may find their symptoms are aggravated by fumes.

Sadly, the Bay of Panama is a dump for industrial effluence and untreated sewage, so the oceanfront malecón sometimes reeks.

12. Be aware of common scams

Scammers operate in all big cities and some target tourists. Be wary of strangers who tell unfortunate and earnest stories that end with them asking for money. If it seems suspicious, it probably is. Watch out for fake tour guides who ask for payment in advance and then stand you up.

Old-school taxi scams that involve going around the houses to increase the fare can happen anywhere in the world, but in Panama City, it’s common for taxis to simply overcharge. There are no meters in the cabs.

Fares are supposed to be based on zones, but in practice, they rarely are. If you look foreign, taxi drivers will bump up the fare. It's best to negotiate and agree on the price beforehand.

Two women wearing colorful tradition garb and head scarves pose for the camera in Panama City
Panama City is a relatively safe place for women to visit solo © Chrispictures / Shutterstock

13. Solo women travelers may receive unwanted attention

Panama City is typically safe for solo women travelers, but it's best to avoid walking alone at night in Casco Viejo, Santa Ana or Calidonia. Women may receive attention from chatty men on Metro trains or buses. If a man won’t leave you alone, ask a nearby older woman to assist.

14. Steer clear of sketchy neighborhoods

Thirty years ago, Casco Viejo was dicey. Today, things have somewhat improved, but there are still pockets of the old neighborhood where you should exercise caution.

If you’re staying in Casco Viejo, the 20-minute walk from the nearest Metro train station, 5 de Mayo, is risky at night. Use a taxi or an Uber instead. To the west of Casco Viejo, the neighboring El Chorrillo district is very dangerous and neglected. You should avoid this neighborhood entirely.

The district of Santa Ana, north of Casco Viejo, is bisected by the pedestrianized peatonal, a lively shopping street that is safe to walk during the day; stay alert in the crowds. The side roads east of the peatonal are sketchy, and you shouldn’t wander around them.

At its north end, the peatonal connects with Plaza 5 de Mayo, the National Assembly, a Metro station, a bus terminal and a grimy confluence of roads and flyovers. The area is lively into the evening, but stay alert and use a vehicle after 11pm.

North of 5 de Mayo, Avenida Central strikes into Calidonia district with street vendors and hustle. It's fine to explore in the day, but don’t flaunt expensive equipment or jewelry. Calidonia is spooky and seedy after dark. Avoid run-down or poorly lit streets.

15. Keep your documents handy

Everyone is legally required to carry a photo ID at all times in public in Panama. Tourists should carry their passport or a photocopy of their passport with the photo page and immigration entry stamp.

16. LGBTIQ+ travelers are welcome

Attitudes in rural Panama are somewhat conservative but less so in Panama City. LGBTIQ+ travelers are unlikely to encounter prejudice, and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is prohibited by Panamanian law. There’s a lively gay scene in Casco Viejo and El Cangrejo.

This article was first published August 2022 and updated March 2024

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