Things to do in Panama City + Panama Canal

Panama City is the capital of Panama, which is located in Central America between Colombia and Costa Rica.  Things to do in Panama City;

  • Promenade Walk – Avenida Balboa
  • Tallest Building in Panama
  • Panama Viejo
  • Casco Viejo
  • Bio Museum
  • Panama Canal
  • Panama City to San Jose Bus

Hotels in Panama City are on the expensive side therefore good luck finding a deal!  It’s also a spread out city so you should consider the Hop on Hop off bus tour.

Promenade Walk – Avenida Balboa

Things to do in Panama City - Amador Causeway

When most people think of Panama, they think of the Panama Canal or infamous banks and money laundering.  In my opinion, Panama City should be famous too.  I found Panama City itself more impressive than the canal with it’s huge skyscrapers and promenade around the bay.  As a matter of fact, I went for an unforgettable run on at the pedestrianized promenade.  Additionally, the promenade offers stunning views of the city.  Finally, the currency of Panama is the US Dollar and shopping is tax free.  As a result, it’s also a top shopping destination.


Tallest Building in Panama

The Panama City skyline is impressive and full of skyscrapers but which is the tallest?  The tallest building in Panama is in fact the Trump International Hotel and Tower.  You can stay in the hotel for incredible panoramic views.

Panama Viejo

Things to do in Panama CIty - Panama Viejo

Panama Viejo are the remains of the old city.  This area, as well as Casco Viejo is a UNESCO site.  The history of this location dates back around 500 years to when the Europeans first arrived.  An interesting fact is that this was the first European settlement on the Pacific Ocean.

Casco Viejo

Things to do in Panama City - Casco Viejo

Another interesting part of the city to visit is Casco Viejo.  The original Panama City which was founded in 1519 before being destroyed by fire in 1671.  In 1672, Casco Viejo was built by the Spanish, and the massive city you see today has grown around it.  Casco Viejo is mainly pedestrianized.  For this reason it’s perfect for a stroll.  Additionally, there are lots of restaurants, cafes and bars to chill out in.  As it’s old and full of colonial buildings, Casco Viejo makes for some great travel photography.  Finally it’s part of the UNESCO site of Panama City along with Panama Viejo.

Bio Museum

Things to do in Panama City - Bio Museum

The colorful Bio Museum is a beautiful sight in itself.  It’s actually the Panama natural history museum.  Visit the Bio Museum website for more information.


Panama Canal

Things to do in Panama - Panama Canal

The famous Panama Canal is one of the top things to do in Panama.  Don’t expect to be able to take amazing pictures or see something really beautiful.  You have to truly understand what is happening here to fully appreciate it.  Before the canal was opened in 1914, these ships had to sail all the way down to Cape Horn on the tip of South America to get from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific (or vice versa).  The French started the project in 1881 but stopped due to a high mortality rate (Malaria and Yellow Fever) as well as funding problems.  In 1904, the Americans took over and it was completed 10 years later but many people died constructing the canal.  Today, you can visit the Panama Canal on an organised tour.

Panama Canal – Gatun Locks

Things to do in Panama - Panama Canal - Gatun Locks

The Gatun locks lift the ships up to the Gatun Lake.  From here they continue on a 48 mile, 6-8 hour sailing to the other side of the canal  where the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks let them down (or vice versa).  When I visited there were 2 active locks and a 3rd, bigger lock, was being constructed.  This has now been completed and the modern super size vessels can now fit through the canal.  The Panama Canal is a modern wonder of the world.

How to get from Panama City to San Jose

Bus from Panama to Costa Rica

Overnight bus from Panama City to San Jose, Expreso, 15 hours, $40

The bus station in Panama City is joined onto the modern shopping mall and a movie theater, Albrook Mall.  I took an overnight bus leaving at 11pm, so in between checking out of the hotel and taking the overnight bus I decided to watch a couple of movies (in English) and get a haircut.  I also got a chance to check out the tax free products and they do have fair prices.

There are 2 main bus companies serving San Jose, Costa Rica from Panama City.  Both Tica Bus and Expreso Panama have good reputations.  They stop at each side of the border and help you with border formalities.  Upon entering Panama, my yellow fever certificate was never checked, but strangely on exiting Panama, they needed to see it before issuing an exit stamp, so have it ready.

San José to Granada

2019-01-18T20:44:30+00:00December 7th, 2016|Central America, Panama|20 Comments


  1. GG February 16, 2017 at 5:00 am - Reply

    Panama Bay has such a gorgeous view around it. You have perfectly captured this part of the city – it’s the stuff of postcards! I love how you travel since it gives you the opportunity to see so many places that are simply divided by borders! It’s definitely cheaper than flying!

  2. Tinse February 16, 2017 at 6:44 am - Reply

    Thanks and you are right besides the recent panama papers, all I really knew about the region was the canal. Great to know there is so much more to the city and the Casco Viejo area seems really interesting especially since it is only for pedestrians.In terms of trade the canal is quite iconic and one of the marvels of human building. Great to see it expand more to accommodate more ships.

  3. Raymond Carroll February 16, 2017 at 11:13 am - Reply

    Great post, James, and interesting facts! Panama City looks more affluent than I had imagined – that’s an impressive skyline, and the promenade around the bay looks like a cool place to go for a stroll, especially at night with the cityscape all lit up. Thanks for sharing! Good liuck and safe travels!

  4. Swati & Sam February 16, 2017 at 1:59 pm - Reply

    Panama definitely has an impressive skyline. Tax free … i think perfect place for a shopaholic like me 😀 I have heard abt Panama on news only as it is a tax heaven and Panama papers were recently leaked 🙂

  5. Gemma February 16, 2017 at 8:43 pm - Reply

    This is interesting because I haven’t heard that much about Panama before. It definitely has an impressive skyline and I love the reflection in your photography! Sounds like you had a great trip!

  6. Jane February 16, 2017 at 10:55 pm - Reply

    I was supposed to head to Panama last year, but sadly my trip was cancelled due to Zika scares. You are right that the first things that come to mind when discussing Panama is the canal and the banks. The canal is a pretty famous landmark so it is unfortunate that you say not to expect getting amazing photographs. The city itself looks pretty impressive and full of life. I am glad to hear that you enjoyed many a buffet meal and then went for a run!

  7. Jackie Taylor February 17, 2017 at 4:06 am - Reply

    Panama seems to be quite the destination! I’ve heard many great things, and I was pleased to learn more through your post. I would love to visit there one day, thanks so much for sharing this.

  8. Ling February 17, 2017 at 5:47 am - Reply

    It’s interesting to see Panama City with such an impressive skyline, which I’m sure would look amazing at night. But it’s also great to see some of the original parts of Casco Viejo are preserved so you’re still able to see some of the history of the city. Still would want to see the Panama Canal since it is a modern wonder of the world.

  9. Christie February 18, 2017 at 3:05 am - Reply

    Wow super interesting! I would never think to take an overnight bus but what a good idea… Especially if you are able to sleep. I’ve only taken overnight trains and those were not the comfiest but it does help kill travel time so that part of it is good. It’s nice to see some less cliche info aside from the canal. Very cool!

  10. Linda Bibb March 2, 2017 at 2:33 am - Reply

    As a former Panama resident, I’m super curious how you managed to get to Panama City from Colombia overland, because there aren’t any roads through the Darien Gap. I know people have done it though, and I’d love to hear your story.

    • James Smith March 2, 2017 at 10:21 am - Reply

      I took a cruise from Cartagena to Colon, so it was over sea. I did consider passing over the Darien Gap but the cruise option was too tempting.

  11. Emma April 30, 2017 at 2:27 am - Reply

    This sounds bad, but I’ve never been to Central or South America! I’ve heard so many amazing things, and Panama City and the Panama Canal will definitely be on my list for when I do go! Thanks for sharing and great photos!

  12. Natasha April 30, 2017 at 5:12 am - Reply

    This looks like a great trip. We planned to visit Panama on a layover to Peru and we looked at visiting the canal. Like you say though it isn’t something of spectacular beauty so we began looking into other ideas. This post really helped us and we have taken a lot from it

  13. Mel April 30, 2017 at 7:29 am - Reply

    Hi James! I loved Panama when I visited in 2005, but we didn’t spend very much time in Panama City. Looks like I missed out on some things. Keeping this in mind for the next time I get there — I love Central America.

  14. Nicole Anderson April 30, 2017 at 8:15 am - Reply

    Panama looks so interesting and is a place I would like to see. Having traveled both North and South America, I have never been to Central America (yet). My husband has been through the canal on a cruise ship and visited Panama City and enjoyed it. I hope to get there soon and was surprised at how inexpensive the bus you traveled on was.

  15. Gemma April 30, 2017 at 6:14 pm - Reply

    I didn’t really know too much about the Panama canal honestly, so I think I would prefer to explore the city. The view from the promenade is incredible! Great tips about the tax free shopping haha

  16. Julianne April 30, 2017 at 10:37 pm - Reply

    One of my friends visited Panama City two years back and raved about it! It’s been steadily moving up my list — especially since I didn’t have enough time to make it over when I was in Costa Rica. That’s great to know that their currency is the US dollar — that certainly makes things easier!

  17. Kristine May 1, 2017 at 9:29 am - Reply

    Thanks for sharing this post on Panama City- and the canal! I was in Panama in January/February and spent 2 days exploring the capital. I agree, the canal is not exactly picturesque but the history and the way the locks function is indeed very interesting!

  18. Rashmi May 1, 2017 at 4:18 pm - Reply

    We have heard a lot about the Panama City and the canals especially but wasn’t aware of the story behind it. Casco Viejo looks like a colorful pretty location and you have captured them beautifully. Interesting to know that the shopping is tax-free we would love to grab some great deals when in the wonderful city.

  19. Abhinav Singh May 1, 2017 at 6:15 pm - Reply

    Central America is so offbeat. Not many people write about it. I want to go and spend many months here. Panama City to San Jose sounds great at 15 hours. I have done such journeys. The $40 price tag is also attractive.

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