Panama City? It's only got that canal, right? Well, no, actually. The Panamanian capital has way more to offer than that: world-class museums, wildlife spotting in tropical forests, paddleboarding in the Pacific.
With soft-sand beaches, a buzzing craft beer scene, and bounteous – burp! – belly-filling food trucks, it's got way more to offer than its massive manmade river. Though watching huge ships breathe in and squeeze through the canal is well worth a peek during any trip.
So whether you’re a first-time visitor or coming back for more, these are the 14 best things to do in Panama City.
1. Rooftop bar-hop around Casco Viejo
You could while away the hours simply gawping at Panama City's most historic neighborhood, Casco Viejo. Dripping with galleries and boutiques, this palm-lined quarter has legions of recently-restored colonial mansions and is crowned by the fabled golden altar inside Iglesia de San José. Better still, pair your sightseeing in the capital's most atmospheric district with some expertly-mixed drinks at a rooftop bar.
At long-time favorite Tantalo, well-crafted cocktails pair with panoramic city views and sets from top DJs. Selina’s rooftop comes with a tropical vibe, pool and party atmosphere, while sophisticated CasaCasco serves sushi with its show-stopping vistas.
2. Marvel at the sheer size and complexity of the Panama Canal
Engineering enthusiasts aside, you might think that the Panama Canal won’t be that interesting. But a visit to the city isn’t complete without a sighting of the world-famous waterway, and there are various ways to do it.
Get within touching distance on a partial canal transit or combine ship-spotting with wildlife-watching on Gatun Lake on Ancon Expeditions’ Panama Canal Rainforest Boat Adventure. On dry land, the viewing platforms at the Miraflores Visitor Center are the best places to see the mechanics in motion. Try to time a visit around when a mega-ship passes through the locks.
3. Taste a new spin on Panamanian food
There's no shortage of international restaurants or hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving comida típica (traditional food). But it's at Lo Que Hay – literally meaning "what there is" – where chef José Carles showcases his contemporary take on Panama's traditional dishes. The chalkboard menu puts the spotlight on seasonal produce, but some dishes are so popular they’re always on offer – including the toasted yuca with tuna carpaccio and onion ceviche and the flavor-bomb lettuce wraps. Mojitos are stuffed with mint plucked from the courtyard garden. Book ahead.
4. Sip a cup of Geisha, the champagne of coffee
For coffee lovers, Geisha is the stuff of legends. Originating in Ethiopia, the beans made their way to Panama and today are cultivated on the lofty volcanic slopes of the Chiriquí Highlands and Volcán Barú near Boquete. Its complex flavors and distinct aroma make it one of the world’s finest – and most expensive – cups of joe. Sample it in Casco at the industrial-chic, vegan-friendly Sisu Coffee Studio, which serves varieties from the owner’s estates. Prices for a cup of Geisha range between USD$10 to $15.
5. Cycle the Amador Causeway
This skinny sliver of land jutting into the bay was created from earth leftover from the construction of the Panama Canal. Originally a breakwater and a land bridge to the diminutive islands of Perico, Naos and Flamenco, the Amador Causeway is a recreation hub and favorite of both residents and tourists.
Best explored on two wheels – try Bicicletas Moses – head to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's family-friendly Centro Natural Punta Culebra. The marine museum is filled with educational displays and exhibits detailing the lives of the three-toed sloth or the strawberry poison dart frog. Later, indulge in some hearty Panamanian fare under a palapa at Mi Ranchito.
6. Discover Panama’s incredible biodiversity at the BioMuseo
Designed by starchitect Frank Gehry, the BioMuseo, with its multicolored origami-like canopies, is quite a spectacle – inside and out. The world-class museum, located on the Amador Causeway, showcases how the skinny isthmus of Panama changed the planet. The museum’s eight galleries explore the country’s fascinating geology, natural history and diverse cultures through a host of interactive displays. And don’t miss the beautiful biodiversity gardens with a zone on native plant species.
7. Enjoy Guna Yala art at the Museo de la Mola
This small – just five rooms – but perfectly curated (and free) museum in Casco Viejo celebrates the mola, colorful appliquéd textiles handcrafted by Indigenous Guna women from the San Blas Archipelago. With around 200 molas on display, you’ll learn how they’re made and how the designs evolved from geometric patterns to symbols of the natural world and pop culture icons.
8. Go on a paddleboarding adventure in Panama Bay
StandUp Panama offers SUP lessons for all levels, including people with disabilities, from its base on the Amador Causeway. More experienced paddlers can join the two-hour tour to the Peñón de San José, stopping to take in the stunning city views – if you’re lucky, you may spot dolphins en route.
9. Hike the trails of the Parque Natural Metropolitano
The Parque Natural Metropolitano is a sprawling wild space in the heart of the city and a haven for a host of mammals, reptiles, birds and outsized butterflies. The air is filled with chirps and squawks as you explore its five easy-to-follow trails, sloth-spotting and toucan-tracking. The forest opens at the park's high point to reveal stellar views across the city.
10. Stroll the Cinta Costera
You'll share the Cinta Costera – a land reclamation project turned waterfront walkway – with joggers, cyclists and in-line skaters weaving around smooching couples and stroller-pushing parents. Cool off with a fruity raspado (shaved ice), and stop to watch a game of beach volleyball or skateboarders trying out tricks. And don’t forget to slather on the sunscreen; shade is in short supply.
11. Enjoy a fishy feast at the Mercado de Mariscos
A Panama City institution – Mercado de Mariscos is a required stop. Get there early, and you’ll spot pelicans divebombing the boats as fishermen unload their catch. Inside, there’s an amazing array of seafood for sale – head to the upper level for a bird’s-eye view of the action. There are plenty of restaurants competing for your dollars, but a more budget-friendly option is to grab a cup of ceviche and an icy beer from one of the outdoor stands.
12. Indulge in tasty treats from San Francisco food trucks
Panama City’s San Francisco neighborhood is the home base of many of the city’s top food trucks. Urbano67 is the city’s first food truck park serving up everything from well-stuffed tacos and crispy empanadas to juicy burgers and huge burritos. Wash it all down with a craft beer or cocktail – perhaps after riding the mechanical bull – and look out for live music events, artisan markets, and stand-up comedy nights.
13. Trek to the top of Cerro Ancón, the city’s highest point
With an enormous Panama flag – said to be larger than a basketball court – fluttering at its summit, Cerro Ancón rises 200m (650ft) above the city skyline. The paved trail winds up through its rainforest-clad slopes, dripping with vines and scattered with tropical blooms – start early and keep a lookout for the sloths, monkeys, and birds that call it home. Your reward for reaching the top is the views over gleaming glass-and-steel towers and Casco Viejo’s tiled rooftops.
14. Sample Panama’s booming craft beer scene
Head to Casa Bruja Brewing Co.’s taproom to sample Chivoperro – Panama's first bottled IPA. And if you’re looking for more, try one of the 50 or so beers that have garnered 40 international medals. Saturdays mean brewery tours, and its smokehouse turned food truck dishes out smoked brisket and honey-fried chicken, fit for an alfresco feast in the industrial garden. In Casco Viejo, La Rana Dorada offers up its own line of award-winning brews, with a generous happy hour that runs from noon through 6pm.