Monday, May 27, 2024

Panama City Panama Bucket List: Cool Experiences & Places

Are you headed to the country of Panama and looking for the best bucket list things to do in Panama City? You have come to the right place! I’m sharing some of my favorite experiences in and around the city. 

Panama City, Panama. The name typically brings on thoughts of those colossal cargo ships gliding through the iconic Panama Canal, a testament to human ingenuity. Sure, watching them navigate the canal is undoubtedly a bucket list experience, but trust me, this city has a whole lot more in store to wow you—from savoring fresh ceviche at busy markets to getting lost in the streets of Casco Viejo.

Panama City Bucket List Pinterest

Activities & Attractions Not to Miss in Panama City, Panama

1. Watch the Ships Pass Through the Panama Canal 

Can you imagine giant ships gracefully moving through a narrow passage? This is not in a sci-fi movie, but the real deal at the Panama Canal, especially at the Miraflores Locks (one of its three locks.) On my recent Five-Hour City Tour & Panama Canal Adventure with Conozca Panama Primero Tours, I got a front-row view of this engineering marvel and its history.

Panama Canal Miraflores

The idea of linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through a canal began in the 16th century to avoid the dangerous trip around South America. After failed attempts by the French in the late 1800s, the United States took on the challenge in the early 20th century. The canal’s completion revolutionized global trade as we know it.

Today, the Panama Canal sees around 25 ships daily, taking 8-10 hours for a full crossing. Each lock adjusts water levels, lifting or lowering ships to the next “step.” 

Panama Canal

2. Eat Ceviche at the Mercado de Mariscos

Mercado de Marisco at the Cinta Costera Causeway is a large, open-air fish market with a wide variety of fresh seafood, including fish, shrimp, lobster, and octopus. There are also several restaurants on-site where you can buy cooked seafood dishes.

Anthony Bourdain himself devoured the ceviche there, and let’s be real, the man knew good eats. The best part is that a styrofoam cup of ceviche will cost under five bucks. 

TIP: There’s plenty of restaurants to choose from, but I went to the busiest one at the time, El Bote Pty—and it was delish!

Mercado de Mariscos Fried Fish

3. Try Geisha Coffee at Cafe Unido (the World’s Most Expensive Coffee)

Coffee connoisseurs, prepare to have your minds blown. Cafe Unido serves up the world’s most expensive coffee – the legendary Geisha. Each pound of these coffee beans reaches up to a jaw-dropping $600 due its rareness, meticulous production, and unique floral-citrus flavor. At $12 a cup at Cafe Unido, it’s a splurge, but worth every sip for the bucket list experience.

4. Plaza De La Independencia (Independence Square)

Step into the heart of Panama City at Plaza de la Independencia, a town square steeped in history and buzzing with life. Imagine a postcard come alive – grand colonial buildings, like the iconic Metropolitan Cathedral, frame the scene. This wasn’t just a pretty square, though; it witnessed a pivotal moment in 1903 when Panama declared its independence from Colombia.

Independence Square Panama

5. Visit Plaza De Francia

Originally a military parade ground, Plaza de Francia (French Plaza) now honors the French role in attempting to build the canal, showcasing their efforts and sacrifices through commemorative plaques and statues. You can also see a statue of France’s national symbol standing tall atop a majestic obelisk, the Gallic rooster.

6. Get Lost in the Old City of Casco Viejo

Lose yourself in the living museum that is Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where every corner whispers a story. Built in 1673 after the original Panama City was sacked by pirates, it’s a living testament to resilience.

Casco Viejo Panama City

Because of its small size this historic gem is a pedestrian’s paradise, with plenty of sights to see as you walk, like the iconic white twin towers of the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Santa Maria or the hundreds of hanging hats along La Calle De Los Sombreros (Hat Street).

7. See the Wildlife at Punta Culebra Nature Center

Escape the city bustle and head over to Panama’s incredible biodiversity at the Punta Culebra Nature Center. Walk through a dry forest along two short trails filled with free-roaming monkeys, sloths, and vibrant birds. Then, head indoors to the “Fabulous Frogs of Panama” exhibit, where a chorus of croaks from its resident amphibians will greet you. This was my favorite part of the nature center!

You can also dive into the fascinating world of marine life at the touch tank, where you can gently stroke sea stars and curious turtles.

8. Walk through the BioMuseo

You can’t miss this colorful architectural marvel. Designed by Frank Gehry, the BioMuseo houses interactive exhibits that’ll have you buzzing about biodiversity and the wonders of the Panamanian isthmus. Think giant sloths, vibrant coral reefs, and even a peek into the construction of the Panama Canal – all brought to life with a dash of artistic flair.


9. Sip on Rum at Pedro Mandinga

Experience a piece of Panamanian culture with a visit to the legendary Pedro Mandinga rum bar in Casco Viejo. Sip on handcrafted rums and cocktails made with local ingredients, soak up the coy atmosphere, and listen to the rhythm of Panamanian music. It’s a fun spot to hit up before dinner, and I highly recommend their Mandinga Mule!

10. See the Iglesia San Felipe Nativity Scene

Iglesia San Felipe is a pretty church in Panama’s Casco Viejo, but the real draw is a large miniature Nativity scene covering almost one side of one of the church’s rooms, meticulously crafted to depict biblical villages and buildings in stunning detail.

Iglesia San Felipe Nativity Scene

TIP: It’s kind of hidden at the back of the church and through the large wooden door. Then go down a few stairs and you will enter a door on the left.

11. Take an Instagram-worthy Photo Down La Calle de los Sombreros

As you wander the charming streets of Casco Viejo, don’t forget to look up. Be prepared to be dazzled by one of the most Instagrammable of all the Panama City attractions, La Calle de los Sombreros, or “The Street of Hats”. You know I had spent quite some time there!

This spectacle unfolds along Calle 1a Oeste, where hundreds of Panamanian hats of all shapes, sizes, and colors dance overhead. 

12. Visit the Museo de la Mola

Get a glimpse of Panama’s indigenous art at the Museo de la Mola, where creativity knows no bounds. The museum, offering free admission, showcases the intricate craft of the Guna people, particularly their vibrant textile art known as “molas.” It’s a small museum, but packed in culture.

13. Walk the Paseo de las Bóvedas (Bougainvillea Walkway)

Take a walk through Paseo de las Bóvedas, where a tunnel of bougainvillea is the main star of the show, but that’s not all. This historical stroll treats you to a view of the Pacific Ocean and the Panama skyline. Above, colorful bougainvillea flowers make the scene pretty dang Instagram-worthy. Walk along the path, and you’ll pass ancient walls that have witnessed pirate tales and colonial battles. It’s like a history book, but with a view!

Plus, there’s little souvenir shops along the way. I bought myself the cutest bracelet for $10.00.

Paseo de Las Bovedas

14. Eat Some Local Food

Panama’s culinary scene reflects its rich history, blending indigenous, Afro-Caribbean, and Spanish influences into a mouthwatering mix. Indulge in fresh-caught seafood like ceviche, marinated in citrus and spices, or savor hearty stews like sancocho, brimming with chicken, beef, and vegetables. For something heartier, dive into carimañolas, fried yucca balls filled with savory meat or cheese.

TIP: Some of the best spots I recommend for some local grub include the Mercado de Mariscos fish market, El Trapiche (get the Fiesta Panamena that has nine different specialties!), and Fonda Lo Que Hay.

15. Take a Tour to the Embera Village

Deep within Panama’s lush interior, the Embera people – known for their deep connection to the rainforest and vibrant cultural traditions – have thrived for centuries. And what better way to see or experience this firsthand than with a tour to their village led by knowledgeable guides?

There’s dozens of tours that go there, but I took the Viator’s Tour at the Chagres Rainforest and Embera Indigenous Village and it was great! Here’s a brief summary of my tour:

It started with a canoe through the Chagres River that led us to a rainforest hike. We hiked about ten minutes before reaching a waterfall where you have the option of taking a dip. 

Then it was back to the canoe for a short ride to the village. We were greeted by the Embera people with traditional music and dance.  While visiting we ate a tilapia feast, learned their traditional dances, and wandered through the village, discovering their artistry in basket weaving, wood carving, and beadwork.

16. Hike up Ancon Hill to get the Perfect View

Panama City has plenty of places promising pretty views (take it from me, they do not disappoint!), and one such gem is Ancon Hill (Cerro Ancon). The trail, suitable for all ages and abilities, winds through lush rainforest, filled with exotic wildlife like toucans and playful monkeys.

As you ascend the 199-meter (653 foot) hill, the cityscape gradually unfolds, culminating in a panoramic display at the summit. There are three viewing platforms along the way, each with a beautiful sight: the lively cityscape of Panama City, the deep blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean, and the iconic Panama Canal, an engineering masterpiece.

17. See the Bridge Of The Americas

Standing tall over the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, the Bridge of the Americas is more than just a concrete structure; it’s a symbol of progress and collaboration. Completed in 1962 by the United States, it replaced the ferry system as the primary land link between North and South America, significantly boosting traffic flow. Today, the bridge stands as a proud landmark, its four lanes carrying thousands of vehicles daily, while its graceful suspension design remains a marvel of engineering.

Fun Fact: Originally named the Thatcher Ferry Bridge after the ferry it replaced, the Panamanian government soon rechristened it “Bridge of the Americas,” reflecting its wider significance.

Bridge Of The Americas

18. Stroll the Amador Causeway

Craving a mix of fresh air, stunning views, and lively energy? The Amador Causeway is an opportunity to bicycle alongside locals, zip around on a scooter, or just chill at a waterfront eatery with tasty Panamanian dishes. History buffs can even explore the remnants of Fort Amador, a former military base once guarding the canal’s entrance.

Amador Causeway

19. See the Tile Mural of the Panama Canal at Mayda bar

Step into the Sofitel Legend Panama hotel and check out a masterpiece: the hand painted tile mural of the Panama Canal adorning the walls of their Mayda bar.

As you sip your cocktail (which are really good, if I may add), let your gaze travel across the meticulously hand-painted tiles, depicting the canal’s construction journey from dream to reality.

20. Go to Monkey Island

Ready for a one-of-a-kind Panamanian escapade? Head to Isla Gatun, a.k.a. Monkey Island, in the vast Gatun Lake. On a tour you will cruise toward the island and watch out for playful white-faced capuchin monkeys having a swinging good time in the trees – guaranteed to tickle your funny bone. These curious buddies, along with howler monkeys adding their iconic calls, call the island home, giving you a peek into Panama’s wild side. It’s a monkey business you wouldn’t want to miss!

While you can’t set foot on the island itself, a boat tour provides a close-up encounter, allowing you to observe their natural behavior and snap adorable photos.

PS: Some companies allow you to feed the monkeys, but this is not recommended. I took the Panama Canal Boat Safari & Jungle Walk w/ Local Brunch tour, and can not speak highly enough about it. It was with an eco-tour company whose focus is on preserving the wildlife and land. Plus our guide was super knowledgeable!

PPS: This was my favorite tour in Panama!

21. Step Inside Cathedral of Santa Maria

In the heart of Panama City’s charming Casco Viejo, there’s a grand dame that steals the show: the Cathedral of Santa Maria (Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Santa María la Antigua).

Completed in 1796, this historic beauty has graced the city for ages, watching its journey through its fiery beginnings to the country’s independence. The cathedral flaunts a stone faced charm under the sun, its two white bell towers standing tall like proud twins on each side.

Cathedral of Santa Maria RF

22. Get a Photo in Front of the Panama sign

Strike a pose and become part of the postcard! Panama City has two vibrant “Panama” signs, each offering a fun backdrop for your picture-perfect memory.

At the Amador Causeway, snap a photo with the colorful sign standing proudly against the Pacific Ocean, capturing both urban energy and natural beauty in one frame. If you prefer a more classic city vibe, head to the Cinta Costera, where it perfectly captures the bustling cityscape from behind.

Panama sign

23. Hike at Parque Metropolitano (Metropolitan Natural Park)

Panama City’s very own green oasis, Parque Metropolitano (Metropolitan Natural Park), filled with diverse wildlife like colorful birds, playful monkeys, and even sloths hanging lazily from the trees.

Choose from seven different trails, each offering a unique challenge and reward. For breathtaking panoramas, as an example, conquer the Mono Titi Walk trail, reaching the Mirador Cedro lookout point for stunning city and canal views.

24. Catch the Sunset at Panaviera Sky Bar

I can honestly say that this is the best spot in the city to catch the sunset — Panaviera Sky Bar. Perched atop the Ocean Sun Casino at the JW Marriott on the 66th floor, it’s the highest rooftop bar in all of Central America. Sip on expertly crafted cocktails while the sun dips below the horizon, painting the sky in fiery hues of orange, pink, and purple.

Panaviera Sky Bar View

TIPS for Visiting

  • Arrive at least 45 Minutes before sunset for a good spot. We found the place half full when we arrived at 5:45 PM for a 6:30pm sunset, and it didn’t take long for it to be full.
  • Set the Uber to take you to JW Marriott, but you don’t need to go inside of the hotel. To the left of the front doors of the JW you will enter the Ocean Casino. Follow the signs to the elevators and take it to the 66th floor where the bar is located.
  • FYI: the drinks are actually reasonably priced, but it’s not a place I’d stay for food or much longer than the actual sunset.

25. Buy a Panama Hat

Buying a Panama hat in Panama City is a quintessential souvenir and a chance to own a piece of the country’s cultural heritage. While not actually made in Panama (they originated in Ecuador), these hats have become synonymous with the country thanks to their association with the Panama Canal construction in the early 20th century. 

Here are some of the best places to buy a genuine Panama hat in Panama City:

  • Victor’s Panama Hats: This iconic store in Casco Viejo has been selling authentic Panama hats for over 100 years. They offer a wide variety of styles and qualities, with prices starting around $20.
Panama Hat

26. Take a Cooking Class

For me, one of the best things about visiting a new country is immersing yourself in the unique flavors of the food. And I love to do that by taking a cooking class. The Panamanian Cooking Class Experience not only takes you on a market tour, but then teaches you how to cook four different traditional dishes. Of course, you get to eat what you make!

27. Learn to Salsa Dance

Step into the dance scene and learn the sensual footwork of salsa, a cultural cornerstone of Panama.

For a truly immersive experience, join a group salsa class in the heart of Casco Viejo, where the atmosphere pulsates with the energy of salsa. The infectious rhythm will have you swaying and stepping in no time, guided by experienced instructors who share their passion for this beloved dance.

28. See San Lorenzo Fort

Step back in time and into the heart of Panamanian history at San Lorenzo Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site guarding the entrance to the Chagres River for over 400 years. Perched on a hilltop overlooking the Caribbean Sea, this formidable fortress withstood numerous pirate attacks and played a crucial role in protecting Spanish trade routes during the colonial era. 

San Lorenzo Fort

Explore the well-preserved structures, including the main courtyard, barracks, and gunpowder rooms, each offering a glimpse into the fort’s life and function.

NOTE: you can make your way there on your own or the Ocean to Ocean Panama Canal and Panama Jungle Tour will take you there, plus the Panama Canal!

San Lorenzo Fort

29. Visit the Sloth Sanctuary

Ever feel like life’s moving a little too fast? Wish you could hit the “paws” button and just hang around all day? Then a visit to Panama’s Sloth Sanctuary in Gamboa is just what you need. This isn’t just a zoo exhibit though; it’s a rescue and rehabilitation center dedicated to helping injured, orphaned, and confiscated sloths.

As you stroll through the sanctuary, you’ll encounter these fuzzy ambassadors lounging in their leafy enclosures, munching on leaves, and engaging in their signature slow-motion adventures.

Sloth Sanctuary

30. Go to the Agua Clara Visitor Center

Dive into the inspiring feat of Panamanian engineering at the Agua Clara Visitor Center, the Atlantic gateway to the iconic Panama Canal. Unlike the bustling atmosphere at Miraflores on the Pacific side, Agua Clara sits nestled amidst lush rainforest overlooking the expansive Gatun Lake.

Opened in 2016, the center offers exhibits and displays specifically dedicated to these groundbreaking new locks, allowing you to delve deeper into the engineering marvels hidden beneath the surface.

31. Spend the Day at San Blas Islands

Trade cityscapes for island bliss on a day trip to the San Blas Islands. Escape to a paradise of 365 turquoise-kissed islands, fringed by coconut palms and lapped by crystal-clear waters. Immerse yourself into the vibrant Guna Yala culture, where colorful mola textiles tell ancient stories and friendly smiles welcome you.

Dive into vibrant coral reefs teeming with colorful fish, or snorkel alongside gentle giants like manta rays. Savor fresh seafood feasts served up with the warmth of Guna Yala culture. In the San Blas Islands, every day is an escape to paradise, a postcard come to life.

Blas Islands

32. Go to the mountains of El Valle

Escape the heat and dive into the refreshing green haven of El Valle de Antón. Towering mountains embrace this charming town nestled within an extinct volcanic crater, offering an invigorating change of pace.

Breathe in crisp mountain air and hike verdant trails, rewarded with panoramic views of the crater floor and lush rainforest. Discover hidden waterfalls like Chorro El Macho, its cascades refreshing your spirit. After a day of exploring, soothe your muscles and melt away stress at Los Pozos Termales, natural hot springs bubbling from the earth’s core.

Whew, that was just a taste of the incredible things you can do in Panama City, Panama. As you tick off the items on your bucket list – from the maritime marvel of Miraflores to the historic sanctuaries like Cathedral Santa Maria – you’ll discover a destination that seamlessly blends tradition with modernity.

Whether you’re sipping rum at Pedro Mandinga, immersing yourself in the artistic tapestry of Hat Street, or catching the sunset at the Panaviera Sky Bar, the city has more treasure than a pirate’s booty! Set sail, explore, and discover why Panama City is more than just a bucket list destination – it’s your own personal Panama Canal, connecting you to something truly unforgettable.

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