Panama City, the place that links North and South America, is an incredible tropical destination filled with world-class food, incredible Pacific and Caribbean beaches, and of course, the only waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
On top of all of that, Panama City is the world’s only metropolis that contains a rainforest within its city limits! Panama City is one of the most international places in all of Latin America, and the diversity is on full display – between languages you hear on the streets and cuisines from all over the world.
Our Panama vlog covers the highlights in Panama City and also our absolutely EPIC hike to Cerro Los Picachos
Best Things to Do in Panama City
Panama City is an incredible place with so much to do. The city itself feels like Miami, except plopped into a tropical rainforest climate. Well, I guess Miami already feels that way! Jokes aside, this Central American gem deserves a visit, and here are some of the best ways to spend your time.
1. Wander Around Casco Antiguo
Casco Antiguo is the “old town” area in Panama City. Filled with beautiful streets, stunning architecture, top-tier restaurants, and thrilling rooftop bars, this is where most tourists spend the majority of their time.
There is definitely no shortage of restaurants and cafes here – in fact, most of the places in the “where to eat” section are in Casco Antiguo.
But in addition to the great food and nightlife, there are plenty of other beautiful things to see. You can go for a walk along a pedestrian walkway overlooking the Pacific Ocean, visit the Plaza de Francia, admire the many murals and quaint alleyways, and marvel at the incredible churches, including the city’s cathedral.
2. Explore Panama City’s Natural Surroundings
Several Uber drivers and locals that we talked to in Panama City have a very salty opinion of Costa Rica because they say that their northern neighbor has nothing that Panama doesn’t have, other than good marketing by its tourist industry.
They say that so much emphasis has been put on marketing the city and canal as major tourist destinations that people don’t realize that the natural sites surrounding Panama City are breathtaking. From the rainforest park that is literally within the city limits, to the Valle de Anton just an hour north to the awesome beauty that extends even further north, Panama is every bit as beautiful and naturally breathtaking as Costa Rica.
We opted to take a day-long tour with Travelling Souls Panama to go for a sunrise hike at the Cerro Los Picachos and it was literally one of the best experiences of my life. This breathtaking mountain is about two and a half hours north of Panama City and hiking it was one of the most rewarding challenges of my life.
While the hike isn’t super intense and is very short, it is very steep and very scary to someone like me, who is pretty afraid of heights.
Whether you head to Cerro Los Picachos or not, I definitely recommend visiting some of the stunning nature that this country has to offer, and I even more strongly recommend doing it with Josias at Travelling Souls Panama.
3. Try Panamanian Geisha Coffee
If you’ve read my previous posts, like my Abu Dhabi Travel Guide, for example, you know that I am a coffee fiend. I’ve worked in the coffee industry for several years and definitely consider myself to be a coffee snob.
When we decided to head to Panama, one experience stood out to me as a “must-do” – trying Panamanian Geisha coffee. Geisha coffee is a specially-cultivated type of coffee that requires very specific growing environments, including extremely high altitudes.
While a handful of countries produce Geisha coffee, including Ethiopia where it originated, Panama has become the consensus expert in Geisha coffee cultivation.
Currently, Panamanian Geisha coffee holds the record for being the most expensive coffee on the planet, with a pound of beans costing over $1,000. Needless to say, trying Geisha coffee in Panama was a must for me.
While I definitely don’t see the $1,000 hype, it was definitely a good cup of coffee with very unique flavors. In Casco Antiguo, you can head to Casa Sucre Café where you can get a cup of this liquid gold for $10. The café is also very cute and homey, and you can’t go wrong with anything on their menu.
4. Take a Trip to the San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands are easily the favorite beach getaway for the locals of Panama City. Located a couple of hours away by a combination of bus or car and ferry, the San Blas Islands are some of Panama’s most accessible Caribbean gems. The water is beautiful and crystal clear, the amenities and activities are an awesome blend of relaxation and adventure, and the retreat away from the fast pace of the city is serene.
Once you’re there you’ll find countless activities, including renting four-wheelers, snorkeling, diving, and more. While you can drive there yourself, another option to consider is taking an organized day or several-day tour, which will handle the transportation, lodging, and activities for you while also offering a knowledgeable guide.
5. Go for an Urban Hike at Cerro Ancon
Cerro Ancon is a Hill that sits in between the new city and the old city and provides some stunning views of both sides. This is a common place to go for an urban hike, and we definitely recommend going for sunrise.
If you go in the early morning there is a good chance to see all kinds of wildlife, including toucans, monkeys, and sloths! There are three different lookouts that you can access. The first two are totally legal, and if the access gate on the road is closed it is completely legal to go through the hole in the fence to the right of the road.
The third lookout, which is higher up the hill and sits at the base of the flagpole, is technically off-limits and considered trespassing, but people go up there all the time anyway. Regardless, Cerro Ancon should absolutely be something you check out next time you’re in Panama City.
From the entrance of the hike, it takes about 30-45 minutes to get to the top of the hill. The park opens very early in the morning and going for a sunrise hike is totally acceptable and definitely worth it! You can either Uber, taxi, or drive directly to the entrance, or you can opt to take the metro to 5 de Mayo station and walk about a mile and a half to the entrance.
6. Check out the Panama Canal
It’s hard to put together a Panama City travel guide and leave out the Panama Canal, which is one of the greatest spectacles of human engineering on the planet. While the idea of digging a trench through a skinny country to connect to big oceans might not sound like a major project or accomplishment, once you see it you’ll feel otherwise.
The engineering that went into the canal was incredible, and once you add the fact that it was built over a century ago, it becomes even more impressive.
One fact that very few people realize is that the construction of the Panama Canal cost more American lives than most wars that the United States has ever fought in, mostly as a result of diseases like malaria, dysentery, and yellow fever.
One tip to save money and skip the lines is to head to the restaurant by the Miraflores locks instead of going to the official viewing platform. While the platform normally has long lines and charges very high prices, the restaurant offers great views of the canal and the ships passing through it, and all it costs you is a beer or a coffee.
The Best Places to Eat in Panama City
As I said before, Panama City is one of the most international cities in all of Latin America, and you can find top-tier food of every major global cuisine. From Chinese, Japanese, and Indian to Mexican, Italian, American, and French, you can find just about anything you’re looking for.
These are some of the places we chose to visit and really loved. Unfortunately, some of the top places in the city that we planned on visiting were still temporarily closed because of the pandemic, but these ones were open and earned our stamp of approval!
Great Coffee Shops in Panama City, Panama
1. Café Unido
Caffe Per Due is more than just a café, actually. It’s a full-blown Italian restaurant run by real Italians in the heart of Casco Antiguo. While they do have good, authentic Italian coffee, the other highlight here is the pizza. We got a Margherita pizza and a Calabrese Pizza, and both were wonderful.
The restaurant is very small, but it’s a great place to get work done for an afternoon while snacking on some great pizza and sipping a fantastic cappuccino.
2. Casa Sucre
Casa Sucre is adorable, and the barista who was working during our visit was an extremely kind man. I had an ice-dripped coffee which was very well done, and I followed it up by trying their Geisha pour-over. Both were awesome, and the vibe in the café is really calm and relaxing.
It’s another awesome place to sit for an afternoon and get work done, or even soak up some cool air while planning your next stop in the city. Like Caffe Per Due, it’s also a small business, which we all need to support in these hard times!
Best Breweries and Bars in Panama City, Panama
1. Casa Bruja
Like La Rana Dorada, Casa Bruja is a great craft brewery in the heart of Panama City. Its brewhouse is in Costa del Este, which is a bit out of the way from Casco Antiguo, but definitely worth the bus or Uber if you’re into some good beers.
Their goal is to create a new beer every month to keep you on your toes, as they believe that predictability is boring. They’ve stuck to it pretty well, too – in their 8 years of operations, they’ve come up with 60 different beers. Not all of them are on tap at any given time, but you can definitely expect some high-quality brews.
On public transportation, you can take either the S487 or the E664 from Cinco de Mayo Station to Costa Azul Station.
2. The Blue Moon TapHouse
Run by Blue Moon itself, this restaurant and bar serves top-notch food and a wide variety of craft beers. The facility itself is beautiful in the newly renovated Casa Velasquez, and its location in the heart of Casco Antiguo makes it incredibly easy to visit.
If you’re a fan of Blue Moon, you’ll be excited to hear that the Blue Moon TapHouse also serves other, less popular varieties of Blue Moon that are very hard to find in stores. If you’re looking for a place for dinner or even just to grab a drink, look no further.
3. La Rana Dorada
I always love checking out the national beers wherever I go, but I also have a hard time saying no to quality breweries. La Rana Dorada is one of those! They make high-quality brews, with 7 or 8 different varieties on the menu at any given time.
The best part about this place, which has several locations throughout the city, is that they run a happy hour from 12 to 6 every day with 50% off of all beers. This is definitely a solid deal, especially considering the prices are awesome to begin with.
I went to two separate locations, and one of the bartenders even offered me a free 2 oz. sample of every beer on tap after he told me the flight wasn’t included in the happy hour. Their Pale Ale is great, but my favorite was actually their Saison, which was a seasonal rotation they had on tap.
Best Restaurants in Panama City, Panama
1. Fonda Lo Que Hay
This trendy place is located right in the heart of Casco Antiguo, and it’s totally worth checking out for dinner. It’s a nice smart casual spot with a diverse menu, and everything is very good. We got their house burger and their fried fish with plantains and both dishes were awesome.
The prices were surprisingly low for the quality of the place, too, and we only paid about $30 total after tip for our whole meal. Definitely worth a visit.
2. El Trapiche
This place is much more dialed back and serves awesome Panamanian food. It is a local chain and has several locations throughout the city. The breakfast is great and widely recommended, and a handful of Uber drivers each recommended stopping by for their chicken and rice. Traditional, local, and delicious, El Trapiche is a place you should definitely hit on your trip to Panama City.
3. Coca Cola Cafe
Coca Cola Café feels like a hole in the wall while you’re there, and you may be surprised to find out that it is one of the oldest, most famous restaurants in the whole city. It is not visually impressive and looks pretty average on the inside, but the food is delicious and super cheap.
We stopped here for lunch and got fried fish and a beef tenderloin sandwich. Super basic, very tasty, and too cheap to be true. Check it out.
How to Get to Panama City
Panama City is a major hub airport, and if you read my guide on finding cheap flights, you know that is supposed to be a good thing. Tocumen International Airport (PTY), which is Panama City’s main airport, is actually called the Hub of the Americas because of the enormous volume of flights that it runs.
Yet, there are rarely cheap flights to and from the United States.
For example, we saw plenty of flights from the United States to South American countries for around $350 round trip, while the cheapest flight on our dates to Panama City was closer to $500 round trip. The even funnier part is that the expensive flight going to Panama City is the same first leg as the flight to South America.
So, if you pay the cheap price to fly all the way to Brazil, you’re on the same flight as the person that paid hundreds more to go half the distance. Weird.
Anyway, to get to Panama City you simply need to fly into Tocumen International Airport. You don’t really have another option, as the closest alternative would be flying into San Jose in Costa Rica which is about 12 hours north of Panama City, or David, which is a city about 8 hours north. Also, Colombia isn’t an option if you’re looking to drive, as there is literally not a single road connecting Panama to its southern neighbor.
To get from the airport into the city, you have two main options: take a taxi or Uber, or take a bus and then connect via the metro.
How to Get Around Panama City
METRO | BUS | UBER | SCOOTER
Panama City is wonderfully connected via public transportation. There is only one metro line, but it takes you right through the spine of the city. It is also one of the cleanest, best metro systems we’ve been on in our lives – comparable to Shanghai, China!
There is also an expansive network of metro busses that take you just about everywhere you can imagine within the city and its nearby neighborhoods. To use the metro and the busses you need to buy a metro card, which can be bought for $2 and refilled from a bilingual machine in any metro station.
Each trip on the bus or metro costs $.35, which is extremely affordable! Keep in mind you can’t travel on public transportation without a metro card, as they do not accept cash.
If you don’t like using public transportation or need to get somewhere that isn’t conveniently reached by bus or subway, your best bet is Uber. Uber works wonderfully in Panama City, and the prices are pretty affordable; you can go just about anywhere for $2-5. Like always, as long as you make sure you’re getting in the right car, Uber is perfectly safe, too!
Also, there are shareable electronic scooters here, which are especially handy for getting around Casco Antiguo.
Is Panama City Safe to Visit?
Panama City is extremely safe, especially by Latin American standards. Like any place, there are areas that you shouldn’t visit, and flashing your wealth and shiny watches around isn’t ever a wise choice. All in all, if you use some common sense, it is unlikely that anything will happen to you – even at night.
If you’re going to walk at night, try to stay among a group of people. While Casco Antiguo is a very safe area and is famed for its nightlife, the area right outside of Casco Antiguo is not quite as safe – in fact, one lady on a bus told me not to pull my phone out of my pocket there, even during the day.
While I think that was an exaggeration and I never once felt targeted or threatened, a local always knows better than a tourist, so I’d be weary there just in case. With that being said, if you keep your wits about you, it’s unlikely anything will ever happen. For reference, the average parts of Panama City felt safer than the average parts of most big U.S. cities.
Is Panama City Worth Visiting?
The only negative thing I have to say about Panama City is that the weather is brutal. Other than that, this city truly is an incredible destination to visit. From outstanding restaurants, to a charming Old City, to spectacular nature and an urban rainforest, Panama City, Panama is loaded with things to do.
Many see Panama City as a gateway to other places. Many travelers pass through Panama City, Panama on their way to the Chiriqui region, Bocas del Toro, or to South America, and surprisingly few actually stick around to see all that this tropical capital city has to offer.
After all of our travels through Latin America, we can honestly say that Panama City, Panama is unique and worth a visit. To me, it is very similar to San Jose, Costa Rica but with a lot more to do. There is more to Panama City than just the Panama Canal, and I highly recommend checking it out if you have the opportunity.
Our Final Panama City Tips
That’s all we have for you about Panama City! Hopefully, this guide helps you with planning and epic Panama City getaway.
If you have any questions about visiting Panama or going on the Ola Hiking adventure, drop a comment below!