Unleash your inner explorer in Panama, a land where the Pacific Ocean kisses the Caribbean Sea.
From trendy surf havens to tranquil mountain retreats and picturesque archipelagos, Panama captivates with its diverse beauty.
Having explored this captivating country, I’m here to share my top picks for your unforgettable Panamanian adventure.
Must-visit places in Panama:
- In Panama City: Casco Viejo, Cinta Costera, Iglesia del Carmen, Panama Canal, Avenida Balboa, Albrook Mall, and Amador Causeway.
- Best for natural wonders: Ancon Hill, San Blas Islands, Boquete, Bocas del Toro Islands, Pearl Islands, Santa Catalina, El Valle de Anton, and Gulf of Chiriqui.
- If you prefer cultural experiences: Capilla San Jose, Panama La Vieja, Miraflores Locks, Portobelo, and Azuero Peninsula.
- For beach lovers: Red Frog Beach, Playa Venao, and Coiba Marine Park.
Best Places to Visit in Panama City
Casco Viejo (Old Town)
Casco Viejo, east of Panama City, is the first European settlement on the Pacific coast, established in 1519. Once a vital trade hub, it fell victim to a pirate raid in the 1600s, leaving behind ruins.
Despite the destruction, structures like the square tower of the Cathedral de Panama Viejo and La Merced church endured. Recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites, Casco Viejo’s rich history and architectural remnants make it a must-visit, transporting you to Panama’s captivating past.
Iglesia del Carmen (Church of Carmen)
Panama City’s architecture seamlessly blends old and new, highlighted by the Gothic masterpiece, Iglesia del Carmen. Despite its medieval appearance, the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmen was constructed in the 1900s, standing as Panama’s sole Gothic church.
Its facade boasts towering spires and intricate arches, complemented by stained glass windows. A truly captivating piece of Panama’s architectural tapestry.
Cinta Costera (Coastal Beltway)
Have you explored a coastal walkway surrounded by palm trees and skyscrapers? Cinta Costera is that picturesque place, perfect for strolls, relaxation, and picnics. Rise early to enjoy the green space before the Panamanian sun is too hot, or return during the golden hour for a magical experience.
Meaning “coastal beltway,” it has bustling walking and bike paths for those who can handle the heat. Rent a bike or hop on a rickshaw with a guide pointing out key monuments. Don’t forget to grab some refreshing shaved ice (raspado) to cool down at any point!
Plaza de Francia (French Plaza)
Also known as the French Plaza, it honors the 22,000 workers who built the Panama Canal. The plaza is home to the elegant National Institute of Culture, featured in the 2008 James Bond film “Quantum of Solace.” Formerly the Supreme Court, it now hosts cultural events in a small theater.
Capilla San Jose (Church of St. Joseph)
In 1671, Captain Morgan plundered Panama City, but one church miraculously survived. Today, that church stands in Capilla San Jose, boasting stunning altarpieces and the colossal Golden Altar (Altar de Oro).
A masterpiece of colonial art, it shimmers with gold leaf and intricate carvings. Capilla San Jose offers a glimpse into history and faith, waiting to be explored.
For shopaholics, Albrook Mall is a must-visit, holding the title of Central America’s largest shopping haven. Ranked 14th globally, it’s a tourist attraction in itself, surprising many given its competition with mega malls in Dubai and Asia.
Located near the airport and just minutes from the Miraflores Locks, Casco Antiguo, and the Causeway, it offers convenience like no other.
Just 20 minutes from the city, this incredible 6-kilometre stretch is home to Panama’s top attractions. Enjoy breathtaking views and soak up the sun with paddleboarding or pool bars.
Dive into shopping adventures or hop on the aquabus for a unique water view of Panama. It’s your go-to spot for a mix of leisure, shopping, and water-bound excitement.
Your favorite view of Panama City awaits atop Ancon Hill. A paved road from the base to the summit, reachable in 30 minutes on foot, makes the journey accessible.
Opening at 5:30 am, early risers witness a breathtaking sunrise casting warm hues across the city and reflecting off the water. Regardless of the time of the visit, the view captures the entire city, Miraflores Locks, and the iconic Bridge of the Americas.
Panama Canal Museum
Ever wonder about the Panama Canal’s intriguing past? Uncover it at the museum. Nestled in Panama City’s historic post office, it unravels the canal’s early days, from France’s attempts to the U.S. takeover.
Experience the political twists leading to Panama reclaiming control. Afterwards, step into the charming streets of Casco Viejo for a perfect blend of history and exploration. It’s a must-visit for canal enthusiasts.
Avenida Balboa (Balboa Avenue)
As Panama City’s downtown, Avenue Balboa boasts a skyline hugging the waterfront, creating an ultra-modern afternoon haven. You can check out a 3-kilometre paved walkway here that extends all the way to Casco Viejo. Visitors can also indulge in luxury by stopping at five-star hotels for cocktails and rooftop views of the bay.
Panama La Vieja
Panama Viejo, also known as Panamá la Vieja, was the first permanent European settlement on the Pacific Ocean and is now in ruins. You can still see the Old Panama Cathedral and other historical landmarks, though. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular tourist attraction.
The Panama City area boasts several locks, including Miraflores, Pedro Miguel, Gatun, and Cocoli. Among them, the Miraflores Locks, which are closest to the city, are specially set up for visitors.
Here, you can dive into the state-of-the-art 4-story Visitors Center, featuring captivating exhibitions, video and 3D film presentations, and interactive displays. Uncover the rich history of the Panama Canal while witnessing ships passing through the locks from the two viewing terraces.
Top Places To Visit in Panama
The Panama Canal is a remarkable engineering feat and a must-see. It’s a famous waterway that spans the country, showcasing complexity and enormity that might be hard to grasp.
For a closer look, head to the Miraflores Locks, just 30 minutes from Panama City. Watch towering cargo ships pass through alongside other travelers. Then tour the visitor center to dive into the canal’s history and understand its beginnings and fascinating story.
San Blas Islands
Along Panama’s Caribbean coast, the San Blas archipelago spans from San Blas Bay to the Colombian border. Having called the San Blas archipelago home for centuries, the Kuna Indians have successfully preserved their rich traditions, language, and customs, offering visitors a unique glimpse into their fascinating history.
Nestled by the Caldera River amid mountains, Boquete is a scenic village. Start a 7-hour journey to Baru volcano’s summit for breathtaking ocean views. Explore parks, coffee plantations, and an abandoned palace. Guided jungle tours showcase exotic birds like Quetzal, waterfalls, and mountain canyons with pure water pools. Don’t miss this Panamanian treasure!
Uncover the historic charm of Portobelo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with well-preserved forts and colonial architecture. Once a bustling Spanish port, it is now a calm Caribbean fishing village. Despite destruction by English privateers, colonial fortresses dot the village, narrating tales of mules carrying gold and treasures to Panama City. History lives on amid village homes.
Bocas del Toro Islands
Dive into the Caribbean vibes of Bocas del Toro, a tropical archipelago offering a laid-back atmosphere and vibrant marine life. This Panama archipelago offers 9 big islands and thousands of islets. Famous for palm forests, white-sand beaches, and clear waters, it’s a tourist haven. Ideal for scuba diving, fishing, and snorkeling, the coral reefs are home to diverse marine life.
Just 40 miles from Panama City, this archipelago boasts many islands. Known for pearl mining since 1513, it once hosted military bases in WWII. A hotspot for famous figures, it offers several beautiful beaches, charming accommodations, and top-notch snorkeling spots!
Nestled in Veraguas, this village is a surfing haven. Playa Santa Catalina and Playa Estero boast powerful 10-meter waves. With tides fluctuating by 8 metres, the black volcanic sand beaches provide a mesmerizing sunset view. Explore nearby bay beaches or opt for a sailing adventure on a rented boat or yacht.
Azuero Peninsula (Peninsula de Azuero)
Immerse yourself in a rich blend of culture, history, and captivating architecture. Divided into East and West regions, this hidden gem offers vibrant festivities in the East, including the annual carnival, and fantastic surfing experiences in Pedasí. Meanwhile, the West is renowned for its picturesque beaches and focus on agriculture.
El Valle de Anton
Nestled in a volcano’s crater, this nature reserve boasts a unique mountain forest ecosystem. Tourist routes lead to enchanting spots like the Chorro de Las Mozas and the Chorro El Macho waterfalls. Explore lush orchid-filled forests, home to Panama’s national flower and the amusing Rana Dorada frog. Don’t miss the geothermal wonders—boiling springs and healing mud pools.
Gulf of Chiriqui
Established in 1994, this Pacific Coast gem boasts 25 volcanic islands covered in lush forests. Jump into the crystal-clear waters surrounding these green islands and discover the second-largest coral reef in the eastern Pacific! Snorkelers can explore a colorful underwater world teeming with amazing sea creatures and stunning coral formations.
These Are the Best Beaches in Panama
Discover the allure of Panama’s finest beaches, where golden sands meet turquoise waters. A few examples are:
Red Frog Beach
Located on Bastimentos Island in Bocas del Toro, Red Frog Beach offers a unique blend of natural beauty and vibrant marine life. The beach derives its name from the red poison dart frogs that inhabit the area, adding an extra touch of exotic charm.
Positioned on the Azuero Peninsula, Playa Venao is a surfer’s haven with consistent waves and a laid-back atmosphere. Aside from surfing, the beach provides a picturesque setting for beachcombing, sunbathing, and enjoying the coastal scenery.
Coiba Marine Park
Coiba Marine Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, showcases rich biodiversity. Once a prison, its limited access preserved its natural beauty. Dive into Bahia Damas Reef for its manta rays and sharks, or enjoy whale watching and rainforest hikes.
Also, Coiba’s pristine beaches and rolling waves draw in surfers, making it a top surfing destination.
Yes, Panama offers various budget-friendly options for accommodation, dining, and transportation, making it an affordable destination for travellers.
The most visited attraction in Panama is the Panama Canal, which draws millions of visitors each year to marvel at its engineering brilliance.
The choice between Panama and Costa Rica depends on personal preferences. Costa Rica is known for its biodiversity and eco-tourism, while Panama offers a unique blend of history, culture, and diverse landscapes.