Panama City is a city of easy cosmopolitan living, a delightful combination of the historic and the modern, the international and the latino. Gazing at the Manhattan-like skyline, visitors typically comment that they had no idea that there was such a modern, beautiful capital city in Central America.
Newsweek Magazine on Panama City:"To escape to sunnier shores- there's no hotter destination than Panama City. Best known for being home to the architectural feat called The Panama Canal, this lively Latin American city is just a stone's throw from some of Central America's richest rain forests..."
Panama City has always been an international crossroads- its people are accustomed to visitors and are some of the most friendly and helpful in the world.
There are actually "three" Panama Cities: the modern skyscraper city, the Colonial-era Casco Viejo and the ruins of the original 16th century Panama City- Panama Viejo.
You can tour Panama City including the Panama Canal two ways- with a tour operator or by getting a day pass on the hop-on-hop-off Panama Trolley or City Sightseeing Bus Tours, which will take you to all the major sights inexpensively and on your own schedule.
The "first" Panama City is Panama Viejo, the site of the original 16th century Panama City (Old Panama).
Panama Viejo is today a picturesque set of ruins. Founded in 1517, Panama Viejo is the first city built on the Pacific Coast of the Americas. Built as the city to receive all the riches the Spanish plundered from the Incan Empire of Peru, the loot was then transported by mule across the isthmus to the Atlantic coast for shipping to Spain.
In 1671, Panama Viejo was destroyed and burnt down by the English pirate Henry Morgan. There's a museum on site with exhibits on the history and daily life including artifacts archaeologists are finding in ongoing excavations. Most of the exhibits and signage are in Spanish, so unless you speak Spanish, this is a trip best taken with a tour operator.
The "second" Panama City, the Casco Viejo sector
The "second" Panama City, the Casco Viejo sector of the city dates from the 17th century Spanish era. The sector is undergoing a dramatic restoration-you'll find beautifully restored buildings next to ramshackle ones. Historical buildings dot the area including 17th century churches, convents and handsome 18th and 19th century buildings reflecting Panama City's long history as the crossroads of the Americas and the world.
Adding to the sector's beauty, there are ocean and Panama City panoramic views everywhere. A tour operator can take you on a historical walking tour or you can find the same walking tour in a Lonely Planet Panama Guide. In addition to history, Casco Viejo has fine restaurants, cafes, fine upscale hotels, cheaper hostels, great souvenir shopping and a lively nightlife.
The "third" Panama City is the modern one- the "Business Hub of the Americas"
Set on beautiful bay, the modern Panama City has a booming business district, a first-world infrastructure, a non-stop nightlife, great restaurant variety, attractive residential neighborhoods and the only rainforest in the world within city limits in the Metropolitan Park.
Panama City is also the safest city in Central America for both tourists and businessmen.
In recent years, Panama City is replacing Miami as the meeting destination of the Americas because companies can't predictably get visas for their employees to attend meetings in the US. A new business meeting and convention destination was needed in the Americas. Panama City fit the bill with it's modern infrastructure, central location, beautiful bay setting and direct flights to over 85 destinations in the region.
How To Get There
Taxis are one good option for getting around Panama City to any of the locations mentioned here. Make sure to only take yellow, numbered taxis. If you dont want to deal with taxis there is also the Hop On/Hop Off City Sightseeing Bus and Panama Trolley services. For a single fee these vehicles stop at every major spot in the city: Casco Viejo, Panama Viejo, Amador Causeway, Miraflores Locks and Visitor Center, Multiplaza Mall and much more.
What To Do
Take a City Tour
The best introduction to Panama City is to take a city tour with a tour operator. City tours usually include the "three Panama Cities" and a visit to Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal where you will see ships passing through the locks of Panama Canal. Miraflores Locks has a visitor's center with interpretive exhibits and a restaurant with stunning Canal-side views. Another way to see the city is to go on one of the hop-on-hop off bus tours. For under $25 you can spend the whole day visiting the top sites on your own schedule. Go with Panama Trolley or City Sightseeing.
History buffs enjoy Panama as the crossroads of the Spanish empire, the target of history's most famous pirates and the site of one of man's greatest accomplishments, The Panama Canal. You can hire a tour guide or use the Lonely Planet guide with a description of Panama Viejo and walking tours of Casco Viejo.
Panama City's main historical sites are Panama Viejo (the original Panama City) and colonial Casco Viejo (Old City) sector and the Panama Canal.
Panama Viejo was the gateway city for the Spanish conquest of Latin America and once a thriving city of 10,000. Today's extensive ruins are the result of battles with the English pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. There's a museum on site, but go with someone who speaks Spanish, because the exhibits are mostly in Spanish.
Casco Viejo is the Spanish colonial city established in 1671 and until the 20th century was Panama City. You can hire a tour guide or use the Lonely Planet and Frommer"s guides to get around. Perched on a piece of land that juts out into Panama Bay, the numerous historical sites reflect Panama's unique history, intertwined with Spain, France and the United States.
Highlights: the 17th century churches including the Church of the Golden Altar, the ruins of 17th century convents and residences, original seaside dungeons, a French monument to the 22,000 who died building the Panama Canal and the Panama Canal Museum in an elegant building that once housed the headquarters of the French company that failed to build the Panama Canal in the late 19th century.
The Panama Canal is a unique experience which can't be reproduced anywhere else in the world. See 5,000,000-ton vessels rise and drop more than 50 feet as they make their way over Panama from one ocean to another, and learn about the history and future of this marvel of modern engineering.
With its spectacular views of Panama City's skyline, the Bridge of the Americas, and of the Panama Canal, the Amador Causeway is a great place to walk, bike and dine. The one mile causeway was created by the Americans by connecting four small islands with rocks excavated from the Panama Canal and served as a breakwater to the Pacific Coast entrance to the Panama Canal.
Today, these small islands, swept by pleasant sea breezes host fine restaurants, scenic bicycle and walking paths (bicycles for rent at $2 a hour!), a Smithsonian Institute of Tropical Research aquarium, a cruise port and a yacht marina.
Few peoples rival the fun loving nature of Panamanians! Partying is a national pastime and reflected in a wide selection of nightclubs, discos and casinos; something for everybody. The action all takes place in three sectors of the city: the business district including Uruguay St. and Bella Vista, Casco Viejo and the Amador Causeway. See our Panama City Nightlife page for more information.
Souvenir and Native Handicrafts Shopping
Although a small country, Panamanian native handicrafts rival Mexico's in their beauty and creativity. Don't leave Panama without an authentic souvenir made by one of Panama's seven living Indian tribes. Panama's most famous handicraft are "molas," intricate reverse appliqué embroidery made by the women of the Kuna Indian tribe.
Other items include the hand-woven baskets of the Embera Indians of the Darien jungle, similar to baskets woven by Navajo Indians and tagua nut sculptures- tiny figures skillfully carved from a tagua nut.
Where to find them: You can find a large selection of traditional souvenirs at a Gran Morrison variety store near your hotel. Another popular place is the big Balboa Artisans Market, in the former American Canal Zone to which you can take a taxi. Las Tinajas restaurant with folkloric dance shows 3 nights a week, also has a artisans shop.
For a special jewelry gift: Visit the popular Reprosa jewelry store in the Business District. Reprosa has jewelry collections that include authentic reproductions of Pre-Columbian Indian art, reproductions of Spanish colonial jewerly and collections inspired by Panama's flor and fauna. There is a gift for every budget. Phone: (507) 269-0457.
Shopping Malls, Electronics and Duty Free Shopping
For Latin Americans, Panama City rivals Miami in its popularity as a shoppers paradise. Panama City has 4 principal shopping centers:
Multicentro near the business district, Albrook Mall at the Albrook Bus Terminal with many discount stores and great bargains and similar bargains at Los Pueblos Shopping Center, near the international airport. The fourth shopping center is the upscale Multiplaza in beautiful Bella Vista. The Via Estronga area in the business district is good for electronics, appliances and computers. Americans appreciate the fabulous duty free shopping at Tocumen International Airport and in the Colon Free Zone.
As an international crossroads, Panama City has a surprising variety of cuisines at affordable prices. The local seafood is excellent- make sure and try the seabass (corvina). Restaurants are located in the business district, Casco Viejo and the Amador Causeway. Check out some of the finest on our Restaurants page .
Try Your Luck-Casinos
There are casinos in the Veneto, Marriott, Sheraton, Continental and El Panama hotels.
Take a Day Trip
From your Panama City hotel you can take some amazing day trips. We especially recommend the Monkey Island and the Embera Indian Village Tours. You can also make a day trip to the beaches which are just 1.5 hours away.
A prominent hill in Panama City overlooking the mouth of the Canal and the city. A stairway on the bottom of the hill leads up to a road to the top. If you don't mind getting a bit hot and sweaty, a half hour hike in a rainforest with birds and animals along the way, leads to a stunning double view at the summit: on one side, the entire city of Panama old and new and on the other side, a bird's eye view of the Canal and all its workings.
At the foot of Ancon Hill are three miniature villages built to represent Panama's three cultures: the Spanish, the West Indian and the native Indian and some refreshment stands
Panama Canal Railway Trans-Isthmus Ride
The historic Panama Canal Railway was inaugurated by an American company in 1851 as a route for the 49ers (gold seekers on their way to California) who wanted to get across the continent without taking the treacherous route across the American Plains.
Today, you can take the same ocean to ocean train ride on the scenic 50 mile stretch from the Pacific to the Atlantic ocean. The ride includes tracks along the Panama Canal and rainforest scenery. It is important to go with a tour operator who will set up a day of activities in Colon before you return on the train in the afternoon.
For more information check out our popular article on The Top Ten Things to Do and See in Panama City.