One of the most cosmopolitan capitals in Central America, Panama City is both vibrant metropolis and gateway to tropical escapes. Many worlds coexist here. Welcoming all, Panama is a regional hub of trade and immigration. The resulting cultural cocktail mix leads to a diverse melange of lifestyles and customs.
Unflinchingly urban, the capital combines traffic jams, wayward taxis and casinos stacked between chic clubs and construction sites. A center of international banking and trade, it has a skyline of shimmering glass and steel towers. In contrast, the peninsula of Casco Viejo has become a hip neighborhood where cobblestones link boutique hotels with rooftop bars and crumbled ruins with pirate lore.
Escape is never far away. Day-trip to sandy beaches (Pacific or Caribbean), admire the canal, or explore lush rainforests of howler monkeys, toucans and sloths.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Panama City.
Celebrating Panama as the land bridge that has permitted astonishing biodiversity in the region, this world-class museum is a visual feast. Exhibits tell the story of Panama's rich biodiversity through engaging, oversized visuals, examining human presence throughout time, how the Atlantic and Pacific evolved differently, and the interconnectedness of all species. A more abstract than literal approach creates a fresh view. World-renowned architect Frank Gehry, who created the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (Spain), designed this landmark museum of crumpled multicolor forms.
Founded on August 15, 1519, by Spanish conquistador Pedro Arias de Ávila, the city of Panamá was the first European settlement along the Pacific. For 150 years it flourished as Spain exported Peruvian gold and silver to Europe via Panamá. In 1671, Captain Henry Morgan sacked the city and it was relocated to the present-day Casco Viejo. Today much of Panamá Viejo lies buried under a poor residential neighborhood, though the ruins are a must-see.
At the tip of the southern point of Casco Viejo, this beautiful plaza pays homage to the French role in the construction of the canal. Its large stone tablets and statues are dedicated to the memory of the 22,000 workers who died trying to create the canal.
This Casco Viejo church protects the famous Altar de Oro (Golden Altar), the sole relic salvaged after privateer Henry Morgan sacked Panamá Viejo.
This impressive museum is housed in a beautifully restored building that once served as the headquarters for the original French canal company. The Panama Canal Museum (as it’s more commonly known) presents excellent exhibits on the famous waterway, framed in their historical and political context. Signs are in Spanish, but English-speaking guides and audio guides (US$5) are available.
Built in 1907, the interior of this ornate Casco Viejo theater has been completely restored. It boasts red and gold decorations, a once-magnificent ceiling mural by Roberto Lewis (one of Panama’s finest painters) and an impressive crystal chandelier. Performances are still held here. For information visit the office at the side of the building.
This wonderful privately owned museum features the best collection of Panamanian art anywhere, an excellent collection of works on paper by Latin American artists, and the occasional temporary exhibition by a foreign or national artist.
Built between 1619 and 1626, this cathedral is the best-preserved building of the Panamá Viejo ruins. In traditional fashion, it was designed so that its two side chapels gave the cathedral a cross-like shape when viewed from the heavens. The bell tower at the back of the church may have served double duty as a watchtower for the Casas Reales. The main facade, which faced the Plaza Mayor, is gone; only the walls remain.
Built in 1617, this Panamà Viejo landmark may be the oldest standing bridge in the Americas.