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If you Google “things to do in Panama City,” you'll get a ton of information. The only problem is, it's usually about the one in Florida. Frankly, that's rather surprising considering Panama's popularity as a retirement destination for North Americans. The rest of the world would be shocked – they only know of the Panama City that is in Panama.
Which brings me to an apology. Although we lived in Panama City for nearly three years, I've never actually shared the great things you can do in the city. I'm making up for it today with a list of our guests' favorite things to do in Panama City.
The one in Panama. 🙂
1. Panama Canal
Without exception, every one of our visitors has listed the Panama Canal as their one thing they absolutely had to see while they were in Panama. After flying all the way to Panama, we begin with a free overview from the Bridge of the Americas. Then we take our visitors to Miraflores Locks nearby. The interesting visitor center is worth the price of admission. This is where you can watch ships pass through the locks, enjoy an informative film about the Canal, and visit an interesting museum about the canal, the environment and its history. The visitor center also has a good restaurant and a gift shop that will be happy to sell you a souvenir of your visit.
For more DIY details, read our Definitive Guide to Visiting the Panama Canal. Years of guests have provided plenty of opportunities to visit and the post is well written from first-hand experience.
2. Panama Viejo
Most tourists don't venture to this part of Panama's capital, which is a shame because these ruins are enjoyable. This was the first Panama City, which began with only 100 settlers in the early 1500s. It prospered as a hub while Spanish conquistadors plundered the New World. Panama Viejo had grown to over 10,000 people by the time Captain Morgan sacked and burned it in 1671.
These days Panama Viejo is a UNESCO site. You can walk among the ruins, explore what's left of the church and climb the bell tower for the price of a ticket (about B/5.00). While you're there, don't miss the nearby museum as well. It has a variety of relics—many precolumbian—and a model of what the original city looked like in its heyday.
3. Casco Viejo
Those who survived Captain Morgan's attack abandoned the city and began a new settlement a few miles west. Their new settlement has survived to this day and is now known as Casco Viejo (Old Town) and has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.
Casco Antiguo, as it's also known, has been undergoing a complete renovation and when it is completed we imagine it will be as beautiful as the old part of Cartagena, Colombia. The last time we were there they were re-bricking all the streets, though, so if you're into old cities with character, go soon, before it's all dolled up.
Tip: Stay in the tourist area in the evenings. Although it's improving (and we've never experienced it), the adjacent area has a reputation of being a little rough after dark. No one wants to lose his wallet while on vacation.
4. Parque Natural Metropolitano
On the edge of Panama City is the only wildlife refuge in the city. It has four trails to explore and a small nature center. We recommend it as a great place to see a great variety of plants, animals, insects, and birds without leaving the city. Some of the animals we've seen there are sloths, mono titi monkeys, and basilisks (“Jesus lizards”). We like to hike to Cedar Hill Lookout Point for a great view of the Pacific, Amador Causeway, the Panama Canal entrance on the Pacific side, the Bridge of the Americas, Ancon Hill, and an incredible panoramic view of Panama City.
5. Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Amador Causeway
Amador (as we like to call it) is a series of four islands that were created from all the dirt the dredged while they built the Panama Canal. The one-lane road that connected each island in the chain has been replaced with a two-lane boulevard with an adjacent bicycle/jogging path. When it was part of the Canal Zone it was a recreational area for US military personnel and civilians, but off limits to Panamanians. (Except for Manuel Noriega. He built a private house on one of the islands, which was destroyed and looted during his ouster.)
Since Panama took over the Panama Canal Amador has become a major entertainment destination. Besides port facilities, marinas, shopping, nightlife, hotels and restaurants, you'll also find the huge Figali Convention Center and a Biodiversity Museum.
However, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) is our favorite destination on the Causeway.
STRI was a surprise to us. It is the only bureau of the Smithsonian based outside of the United States and is dedicated to understanding biological diversity. They describe their place as “an open-air museum focusing mainly on marine science and education, conservation and interpretation of marine coastal environments.” Well, we didn't know all that when we discovered it. We just knew that it is a fabulous nature center. Starting with the fact that it's the best place to see sloths close up. It has hands-on aquatic tanks, freshwater and marine aquaria, and a video room. It's a great observation point for viewing the ships entering the Canal, too. Yeah. Don't miss seeing this when you visit Panama.
6. Enjoy the culture
It's great to see the popular attractions and all, but to really get a feel for the city try to take some time to do nothing but relax. With all its restaurants, bars and sidewalk cafés, Casco is one of our favorite places for that, and our visitors enjoy it as well. We enjoy walking around and seeing the street life, from street musicians to vendors to playing children and occasional cats.
Tip: Molas are handicrafts that are created and sold by Guna Yala women. From artistic panels to clothing to kitchenware, they make a vivid and inexpensive souvenir of your Panama visit. You can find plenty of mola vendors in Casco Viejo. Some of the women are willing to negotiate a bit if you are buying a quantity to take home.