While Panama City is SO much more than just a canal, I knew I couldn’t visit the city without a stop to the famous landmark.
Instead of splashing out for an organized tour (Viator offers one), I decided to visit the Panama Canal on my own time and my own dime… saving money and seeing just what I wanted to see.
From almost anywhere in the city center, a taxi to visit the Panama Canal’s Miraflores Visitor Center (the nearest visitor center to central Panama City) will be around $10 and take around 20 minutes depending on traffic.
While the museum is open from 9AM to 5PM (the ticket office closes at 4:30PM, though), I’d recommend going in the morning or in the late afternoon. From 10AM-2PM, supposedly there’s no ships crossing the canal, so you’ll want to avoid that block of time.
I arrived shortly after 2PM, and had enough time to check out the multi-level museum and watch the little introduction movie (available in Spanish or in English) before the first boat passed through.
The museum has 4 levels, including The History Hall (detailing the background and innovations of the Canal), The Hall of Water (highlighting the importance of the Canal Watershed, including environmental conservation and examples of biodiversity), The Canal in Action (explaining how the Canal actually works), and The Canal in the World (examining the importance of the Canal for international trade). The exhibits include traditional style explanations, in addition to detailed 3D models of ships and the canal itself, a video simulator, and historic artifacts.
After checking out the museum and watching the video, you’ve got several options for watching the boats pass by. There’s a ground level observation area, and an observation area on the second floor, and a sort of cafeteria on the top level with open sides, all of which become quite crowded. You should show up early and plan on waiting a while in order to get a prime spot.
You can have a tasty ice cream while you wait in the bleachers on the second floor
the view from the top floor cafeteria
Another option for viewing is to have a meal at the overpriced $50+ buffet-only restaurant on one of the top floors – there’s an awesome outdoor patio with the best view in the whole visitor center.
As a vegetarian, I couldn’t imagine that $50 would be a good value for me (plus, I wasn’t hungry). I asked the waitress if I could just sit on the outdoor patio and have a drink (but pass on the buffet) and she happily allowed it. I snagged a prime seat right next to the balcony rail, and had the best view I could ever imagine for watching the boats pass by. While the drinks were decently pricey ($12 for a cocktail), they were delicious and definitely preferred to splurging on a buffet I didn’t need. And the view? Totally worth it!
Pin It for Later
Necessary Details: Visit the Panama Canal On Your Own
Hours of Admission:
9AM-5PM (ticket office closed after 4:30PM)
Tuesday through Sunday, CLOSED MONDAY
The only organized tour I might splurge for if I have the chance to do it again? The Partial Transit Tour ($144.99), which gives the opportunity to ride a boat down the Panama Canal. I had friends do it who raved about it!