Having visited Panama City twice, including a stay of a full week, I can maybe help you decide whether (and for how long) to visit Panama City.
I’ve lingered in Panama City probably longer than I otherwise would have, given that I was on a long-term trip and awaiting passage by boat to Colombia. But this also gave me the chance to give it a more complete look.
Is Panama City worth visiting? In a nutshell, yes, but I didn’t think it was the most exciting place in Panama. While there are some interesting things to do, I ultimately saw it more as a stopover on the way to the coast and interior of Panama.
That’s not saying anything about what the city might be like to live, just about where as a tourist (with limited days to spend in Panama) you’d probably want to focus most of your trip.
To be honest, I had perhaps expected Panama City to be a bit more colorful and buzzing, when much of it is quite orderly and business-like. There also ultimately aren’t that many attractions to see. But there were still aspects I found interesting and that’d be a shame to miss out on.
Let me try to paint a picture so you can make up your own mind.
Cons of Panama City
My first impression of Panama City was just how well-organized and developed it is.
Compared to other Central American capitals, it feels a lot more inviting from the outset, having an appealing and somewhat Miami-like seafront boulevard and green hills surrounding the main center.
As I got to know it a bit more, I also realized it’s a city largely preoccupied with trade and finance and that it can strike you as highly Americanized. The downtown area is defined by its many high-rises, apartment buildings and office towers, so it doesn’t quite have a ‘cozy’ feel that some other Latin American cities may have.
I often felt Panama City was lacking a certain atmosphere or soul in a way that is difficult to pinpoint. I thought it even had an empty feeling at times… what I didn’t realize is that this is often literally the case.
In fact, many of the skyscrapers and high-rise apartments stand partially empty, having been constructed during building booms driven by — as any local will duly inform you — various tax- and money-laundering schemes. Such facades change the city’s character in some subtle ways.
While the central parts are quite business-district-like, you can still find some culture and heritage in Panama City. This is mostly concentrated in a small historic cobblestoned district of Casco Viejo. It’s home to many finely restored colonial buildings, many of which are converted into boutique hotels or trendy restaurants.
This UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Site is a lovely area to explore for a while, though I also found it not as lively or lived-in as Cartagena in Colombia or Granada in Nicaragua. It feels quite separate from the rest of the city, even being literally hemmed in from the sea by a coastal beltway road constructed over the water.
I think if Panama City is your first exposure to Central America, Casco Viejo will feel much more exciting because many elements will be new and different. But I couldn’t help but compare it to other places in the region that ended up being clearer favorites of mine.
Pros of Panama City
All that said, one thing that makes Panama City much more inviting is its safety levels compared to most other capitals in Central America. You immediately feel that it’s a much safer place.
Having a random wander down some areas in Guatemala City, Managua, or Belize City can be a pretty bad idea, but in Panama City, you get the sense that you’re in a well-organized, clean, and mostly safe city. (Some exceptions include outer neighbourhoods where tourists don’t easily end up.) You can easily argue that this makes Panama City an ideal low-stress introduction to Central America.
And with a population of just under half a million, Panama City is also a manageable size. It’s easy to get around and never feels overwhelming. It’s also highly developed with many shopping malls, plazas, and office centers.
Prices in Panama City are also not quite as high as they are in neighbouring Costa Rica. While I wouldn’t say that Panama is cheap (not compared to Nicaragua or Guatemala) it’s a little more budget-friendly than its very expensive neighbor.
And finally, I think Panama City makes for an excellent springboard into the nearby areas and the country.
Getting the most out of Panama City
So, what should you see and do when you’re in Panama City?
The Panama Canal is definitely worth seeing, which was a marvel of engineering when it was first built. Be sure to pick a time when ships are passing through as this will make it a lot more interesting (check the transit schedule in advance).
Within the city there are a number of worthwhile sights besides Casco Viejo. I liked hiking to the top of Ancon Hill for a great vista of the city. I liked getting seafood at the Mercado De Marisco Cinta Constera as well. On the weekends, it’s jam-packed with Panamanians gorging on fresh catch from the adjacent harbor.
There aren’t that many museums, but one not to miss is the Biomuseo. The building is designed by Frank Gehry, and the museum focuses on the geology and biodiversity of Panama.
These highlights you can cover in about a day.
However, I got more excited about what lies beyond the capital.
If you decide to make Panama City your base, I highly recommend taking excursions outside of the city.
This is really my number one tip! When I stayed in Panama City during my long-term travels in Latin America, I found it a comfortable, clean, and well-developed place to be based, but it’s the side- and day trips from Panama City that I liked the most.
Using Panama City as a starting point, you should definitely consider travelling to the San Blas Islands to the north. They are simply gorgeous!
You can have a true castaway feeling at San Blas. You can check out a few of my impressions based my 3-day tour of the islands, but it’s also possible to do it as a day trip from Panama City if you’re short on time.
Besides San Blas, there are some great day trips closer to Panama City. I would advise booking a Gamboa Rainforest tour or going to the Sloth Sanctuary on Monkey Island. These tours are great fun. The latter is inside Soberania National Park, which is just a 40-minute drive outside the city. It’s pretty amazing how easily you can get to proper wilderness within such a short distance from the capital.
And while I didn’t have time to do it myself, I heard taking a catamaran cruise to Taboga Island is great as well. This island is just a 30-minute boat ride to the south of Panama City. You can get there by public ferry as well, though by catamaran cruise you’ll be doing it in style.
To get below the surface level of a city, I normally suggest doing things like walking tours or food tours. I didn’t think that was the best type of activity in Panama City, but maybe that’s just me.
But what I really liked was being able to swing around in a jungle in the afternoon but still be sipping cocktails in Casco Viejo by night. Being so close to nature but still in a city is an aspect that has obvious appeal.
How many days in Panama City?
If you’re on a shorter (1 or 2 week) holiday with limited days to spend, I suggest just 1 day in Panama City.
This lets you can recover from your flight, assuming you flew in here, and have some time to see Casco Viejo and the Panama Canal. Then, move on to see some of the highlights of Panama, such as Boquete or Bocas del Toro.
However, if you have time to spare or you’re on a longer trip, then 3 days in Panama City lets you check out a few more things and add a day trip or two.
This is ultimately just my advice based on how I experienced Panama City. I confess it only partially clicked for me, which is always highly subjective. I met a traveller who was based in Panama City for three months and rated it her favorite in all of Central America, so to each their own!
Don’t miss my other article on the best places to visit in Panama, where you can find more inspiration for planning your travel route in Panama.
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