I’d passed through Panama City seven times (on various Copa flights) before actually stopping to explore the city, which is a total shame!
I finally made it to Panama City properly in February 2016, on the last leg of a three-week-long Spanish-studying extravaganza through Panama. I found the city easy to navigate, friendly, and beautiful (that waterfront though!) and I can’t wait to head back for further exploration sometime in the near future.
Panama City is one of those rare gems that is fun to visit, but also seems awesome to live in! I found tasty, plentiful vegetarian food (not to be taken for granted in Latin America), easy transportation systems, and more than enough outdoorsy activities to keep my schedule jam-packed for a whole week.
Are you ready to get your adventure started? This is the info you’ll need to know…
HOW TO ARRIVE TO Panama City (And Get Away)
the bus between Boquete and Panama City
Panama City (Tocumen Airport) is the hub for Copa Airlines, making it pretty easy to find a cheap international flight. I usually try both Skyscanner and Kayak to compare prices (especially if I have flexible dates) before choosing the best flight.
From the international airport into the city, you can take a taxi (around $30 for a private taxi, around $11 for a shared taxi) or a bus (detailed bus instructions by clicking here)
International buses from Costa Rica and Colombia to Panama City run frequently, as well as other destinations (and vice versa). The main bus terminal, Albrook, is well-connected domestically as well, serving the jumping off points to popular destinations like Bocas Del Toro and Boquete quite regularly.
If you’re thinking of sailing to or from Panama to Colombia, be sure to read up on the realities of the journey, like Leah shares here.
WHAT TO PACK FOR Panama City
hot and steamy, and so happy I packed sweat-wicking tanks
The city tends to be quite hot (save for the cool breeze along the seaside), and humid. I was most comfortable in shorts and loose tank tops, and didn’t feel as uncomfortable baring my legs or shoulders as I usually do in Latin America. I spent a lot of time outdoors – either immersed in urban exploration by walking, or hiking the trails of Parque Metropolitano and the Smithsonian – so breezy and comfortable clothes were a must. Though hot and heavy outside, for museums and malls, I was definitely thankful to have brought a sweater along, as they PUMP the air conditioning at full blast.
Panama City is a very modern city. Anything you forget at home, you can find at one of the many easy-to-reach malls. My mall favorites were the confusingly similarly named Metromall, Multiplaza, and Multicentro, in addition to Albrook which is conveniently connected to the main bus station and holds the designation of being the biggest mall in Latin America.
I stocked up on Lush products, and found many American and other international brands in the malls. The prices for international and American goods at the mall are similar (maybe a bit higher) to what I’d find in the US, and definitely cheaper than most of the rest of Latin America.
HOW TO GET AROUND Panama City
walking along the Amador Causeway
Panama City can be quite hot and stuffy (or rainy) especially in the afternoon. In the mornings, I would walk to most destinations. In the afternoon, I would opt for a taxi (around $10 to most destinations). Because I had limited time to explore the city due to 4 hours of awesome Spanish classes each day, the convenience and speed of a taxi were best for my trip constraints.
For a cheaper alternative, you can try your hand at public transport. For more information on the bus and metro systems, click here
WHERE TO STAY IN Panama City
super cute spot in Casco Viejo
I would highly recommend a homestay, especially if you are looking to improve your Spanish skills or are interested in Panamanian culture. My Panama City homestay was arranged along with my language study through Habla Ya Panama.
Unsure which of the many neighborhoods to stay in? The Panama City Neighborhood Breakdown was MADE for you!
Casa Mona Lisa – Dorm Bed w/ Breakfast Included, $15 per night
Hostal Entre 2 Aguas – Private Room with Private Bathroom w/ Breakfast Included, $36 per night
Clarion Victoria – Standard Room, $63 per night
Hilton Panama City Downtown – King Bed with a City View, $140 per night
WHAT TO DO IN Panama City
Oooh and ahhh over Gehry’s creation
While the Biomuseo is steeply priced ($22) and not even complete, it’s still a must-see, even if you stay outside. The brightly colored and fancifully shaped museum is an icon along the waterfront, and houses numerous exhibits paying homage to Panama’s biodiversity.
Take a hike
Parque Metropolitano was a highlight of my trip to Panama City, and to Panama in general. Spoiler alert: I saw a sloth! Super safe and with protected hiking trails, it is an awesome choice, especially for any outdoors-loving solo female traveler who worry about safety when hiking alone.
Shop til you drop
The malls in Panama City are world-renowned, at least in Latin America. If you’re continuing your journey throughout the region, this is one of the best places to stock up.
Wander the historic district
Casco Viejo is full of prime photo opps. I was worried because I’d read online that it could be a dangerous area, but I didn’t get that vibe at all and totally enjoyed my experience. It’s full of tourists and patrolling police, in addition to its famed colonial style architecture and waterfront location.
Walk on the wild side
The Smithsonian houses a bunch of animal exhibits (including starfish) in addition to the wild ones freely wandering (sloths!). It’s much less expensive than the Biomuseo, and just as interesting. You can see both in the same outing, as they are a 5 minute taxi or 15 minute walk along the picturesque Amador Causeway.
See the canal
No trip to Panama City is complete without a stop by the infamous canal. Going in the morning or the afternoon is best for ship-sighting, as supposedly the canal is boat-free from 10-2. Having a drink at the terrace of the crazy overpriced buffet restaurant on the 2nd floor is a cheap way to score the best and most peaceful view of the canal without the crowds. More tips on visiting the canal by clicking here.
I came to Panama City to study Spanish with Habla Ya (after studying in Bocas del Toro and Boquete), and gained the biggest improvement on my skills. Panama City is an ideal place to learn and to practice, as people were extremely patient with my fumbling and bumbling, and spoke quite clearly and relatively slowly compared to the rest of Latin America.
WHERE TO EAT IN Panama City
the pricey but palatable Thai dish at Veggie Moon
Most of the time in Panama City, I ate at home with my homestay family. When I did venture out, I tried Veggie Moon in Casco Viejo (tasty but small portions and quite overpriced), and 507 Cafe near the Habla Ya Panama City campus (delicious veggie burger but very overpriced water).
For more vegetarian restaurants in Panama City, check out this guide by Happy Cow
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