In the 500 years since the city was founded, Panama’s eponymous capital has never been much of a tourist draw - until now that is.
More than just a manmade canal and tax haven, Panama City is a burgeoning centre of culture and wealth, and a travel destination enjoying a boom in tourism as it sheds its dangerous reputation (you can now take guided tours run by former gang members). Locals like to call their city the “Heart of the Universe” and through its famous canal, with links to the Caribbean, Europe and beyond, a vibrant, diverse urban culture is flourishing here.
The old town of Casco Viejo, jutting out of the Bay of Panama, makes up Panama City’s historic quarter. Its cobbled streets are resplendent with Spanish colonial architecture and French-style townhouses. This district, with its grand cathedrals and plazas, is designated a Unesco World Heritage Site and is the ideal jumping-off point for a first-time visitor.
Things to see and do
Among its many boasts, Panama City is the only capital in the world with a rainforest within its city limits. No visit is complete without an excursion into the tropical wilderness. Thankfully the city’s iconic canal leads the way there, acting as a gateway to the rainforest and the wildlife contained within. You’re only ever a few hours by boat from a world of monkeys, exotic birds and reptiles. There are also whale and dolphin-watching day trips available from the port.
For everything from walking tour recommendations to the city’s best beaches, our guide to things to do in Panama City will help build the perfect travel itinerary.
Put down the Panama hat, there are better souvenirs to be found along the streets here, and the hats hail from Ecuador anyway. For the real Panamanian shopping experience, check out our guide. Among its many recommendations is the small handicraft market at Plaza Cinco de Mayo, which can be found by following Avenida Central, itself a six-block extravaganza of cheap shopping. Vibrant mola tapestries, produced by the indigenous Kuna people, are an authentic souvenir and widely available. Another essential keepsake is a pocket sized tagua nut carving, an indigenous art form whereby the Ivory nut palm (which grows in the Panama rainforest) is sculpted into colourful animal forms.
Generally speaking, a night out in Panama City is a stylish, sophisticated affair. Don your best threads, don’t head out until late and be ready to pay to play. Hip areas in the capital include the famous Calle Uruguay in Bella Vista, the downtown precincts and the Causeway. More bars and clubs are opening in the Casco Viejo district all the time. Danilo’s Jazz Club is one of the classiest.
The live music venue is the brainchild of Grammy-winning Panamanian jazz pianist and composer Danilo Perez and seats just 50. It hosts a mix of international artists and local talent, and also serves as a central component of the Panama Jazz Festival that takes place in the city every January. For more late night recommendations in Panama City, check out our nightlife guide.
Eating and Drinking
Blessed by a new breed of chefs and restaurateurs from across North America, Europe and East Asia, Panama City’s culinary scene is more diverse than ever.
When it comes to traditional Panamanian-style cuisine, locally caught seafood dominates. We recommend a visit to Mercado de Mariscos for the catch of the day. This seafood market, at the foot of the historic Casco Viejo district, consists of a bustling strip of stall traders and no-frills restaurants, where the freshest catch is served up in the traditional Panamanian-style: fried or as ceviche. For more upmarket gastronomic establishments in the Casco Viejo neighbourhood, see our Panama City restaurant guide.