Central America’s most cosmopolitan capital, Panama City, has world-class museums, trendy rooftop bars and a fascinating history, along with wildlife-filled forests and sublime beaches right on the doorstep.
While you may get more bang for your buck elsewhere in the region, there are still free (and almost free) things to see and do that will make your stay unforgettable – without breaking the bank.
1. Wander the cobbled streets of Casco Viejo
They say the best things in life are free, and that goes for exploring colonial Casco Viejo, the jewel in Panama City's crown. Once a no-go zone, this Unesco World Heritage site has morphed into the city’s hippest ‘hood, with pretty plazas and restored pastel-colored mansions filled with museums, restaurants and bars – no map required.
Planning tip: Slip into the shade of the area's ornate, incense-scented churches. The Iglesia de San José is famed for its glittering golden altar, while the Metropolitan Cathedral that dominates Plaza de la Independencia draws visitors for its stunning stained-glass windows. And for sundowners with a view, head to happy hour at Tántalo’s rooftop bar.
2. Hike Ancon Hill for stellar city views
Cerro Ancon dominates the skyline, with its enormous Panama flag fluttering in the breeze, so join the joggers and cyclists and hike to the top of the city’s highest point to soak up the 360-degree views. As you climb through the rainforest, you’ll get tantalizing glimpses of the cityscape while you look out for snoozing sloths and chattering toucans high in the canopy. At the summit, sheltered viewpoints take in sparkling skyscrapers and Casco Viejo’s tiled rooftops.
Planning tip: Go earlier in the day for better chances of spotting wildlife. The road is paved, and the incline is steep but gradual and should take around 30 to 40 minutes.
3. Stroll along the Cinta Costera
Slap on the sunscreen, put on your Panama hat and set off along the Cinta Costera. This popular waterfront walkway runs parallel to Avenida Balboa (which closes for the ciclovía on Sunday mornings), linking the glass-and-steel towers of Punta Paitilla to the cobbled streets of Casco Viejo.
There’s green space aplenty, so pick a bench and indulge in some people-watching, from the rollerbladers to raspado (shaved ice) vendors, the skateboarders polishing their tricks to some energetic beach volleyball. And don’t miss the city’s numero uno photo stop, the rainbow-colored Panama sign.
Planning tip: Stop at the Mercado de Mariscos to see pelicans hovering for a free seafood lunch as the fishing boats unload. For less than $5, you can treat yourself to a cup of tangy ceviche and an ice-cold beer from one of the outdoor stands.
4. Have a budget day at the beach
Panama City is just a pebble’s throw from some stunning beaches. Pack a picnic, and for the price of a ferry or bus ticket, you’ll soon have your feet in the sand under a swaying palm.
Volcanic Taboga Island – the historic Island of Flowers – is just a 30-minute ferry hop (US$24 return) from the Amador Causeway. Playa Restinga is one of the most popular beaches, with a skinny spit of sand connecting it to tiny Isla El Morro. Visit during the week to avoid the crush of urban escapees.
Playa Gorgona may not be the Pacific coast’s prettiest beach, but it can be reached by bus in just under two hours. At the Albrook Bus Terminal, hop on a bus (around $4) to San Carlos, then get off at the Gorgona exit, and the beach is within walking distance.
5. Walk or cycle around the Amador Causeway
Created from rocks unearthed during the Panama Canal’s construction, the causeway was designed as a Pacific breakwater and a link to the three small islands of Naos, Perico and Flamenco. Now, this seafront promenade has been reinvented with cycle paths, paddleboarding and wood-fired pizza joints.
At 6km (3.7 miles), it’s walkable – the sea breeze cools things down – but best explored by bike; Bicicletas Moses does rentals from $2.80 an hour. The statement architecture and colorful angles of the Frank Gehry–designed BioMuseo are impossible to miss, and don’t forget to stop and take in the views.
6. See the famous Panama Canal for the price of a cab
If you don’t want to splash the cash on a canal transit or a trip to the Miraflores Locks Visitor Centre, there are places where you can get a look at this legendary waterway – dubbed one of the “seven wonders of the modern world” – for less.
Planning tip: From the Amador Causeway, you can watch ships enter the canal and sail beneath the Bridge of the Americas. Or, for a sense of its sheer scale and a bird’s-eye view of the freighters, supertankers and cruise ships on the canal, get an Uber to the western end of the bridge and look down.
7. Admire vibrant local artworks
If you’re looking for a free art fix, head to the Museo de la Mola (MUMO) in Casco Viejo. This five-room museum celebrates the mola – vibrant textile art handcrafted by indigenous Guna women from the San Blas Archipelago. With almost 200 examples on display, you can discover the evolution of the mola, how it’s made, and the meaning behind the geometric designs.
In Ancón, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (aka MAC Panama) is a showcase for Panamanian and Latin American art, with a roster of temporary exhibitions. Admission is free, but donations are always welcome; check the calendar for free and wallet-friendly evening events.
Planning tip: Part with $1 for admission to the nearby diminutive Museo Afro-Antilleano, which pays tribute to the thousands of West Indians who made up the majority of the canal’s foreign labor force.
8. Check out Panama City’s park life
There’s no shortage of green spaces where you can escape the urban hubbub. Smack in the middle of the metropolis, the expansive Parque Recreativo Omar is home to a jogging trail, outdoor gyms, children’s play areas and a fruit-and-vegetable market. Look out for free open-air concerts and art exhibitions in the summertime.
The sprawling Parque Natural Metropolitano comes with a price tag of $5, but for that, you get five well-marked trails through wild jungle, where tropical foliage teems with wildlife, including monkeys and sloths. And there are showstopping city views from the mirador.
9. Sway to the rhythms of jazz
You don’t have to be a jazz aficionado to enjoy the annual Panama Jazz Festival. One of the country’s biggest musical events, it draws increasing numbers of music fans from around the globe for its equally international lineup, along with legendary locals like Rubén Blades.
Ticketed events are spread across theaters over a week in mid-January, but there’s no charge for open-air concerts. The spectacular – and free – finale takes place in the Plaza de la Independencia, in the heart of Casco Viejo.
10. Cool down at a mega mall
If you need to take a time-out from the heat or shelter from a heavy downpour, you can always dip into one of the city’s many mega malls.
At the Multiplaza Mall, alongside the designer stores, there are around 50 restaurants, cafes and outdoor lounges to suit all budgets. If you’re traveling with kids, the more wallet-friendly Albrook Mall has plenty to entertain them, including a carousel and fun workshops.
Planning tip: Wednesdays mean half-price tickets at the malls’ movie theaters.