My top tips for things to do in Panama:
A few months ago Rachel and I were chatting about our summer plans and when we realized we both had the same two weeks in August free Rachel was like, let’s visit Panama together!
Neither of us had been to Central America before so we were super excited to get to explore a new region, but also at a bit of a loss as to where we should actually go. In the end we opted for Panama, and I’m so glad we did because I can’t imagine a better introduction to Central America.
Basically we wanted to go somewhere with lots of beautiful nature, fun towns and cities, cute boutique hotels, and a good variety of things to do so we didn’t get bored over the two weeks. And Panama totally delivered.
Now, as we’re both full time travel bloggers, Rachel and I are both super into travel planning. You should have seen the spreadsheets and Google docs that went into planning this Panama trip. It was a little over the top, to say the least. I probably spent more time researching the best things to do in Panama and the best places to visit in Panama than I actually did, well, in Panama.
We drafted so many different Panama itinerary possibilities and it seemed like as soon as we had decided where to go in Panama we were discovering another cool place to go. But in the end we did manage to narrow down a two week Panama itinerary that I LOVED.
It’s just such an amazing country, and really made for the best experience in Central America.
So, if you want to fall in love with Panama too, here are my top choices to do in Panama:
Visit Panama City
I spent four days in Panama City and absolutely loved it, so you definitely shouldn’t skip it! In fact we had originally planned to stay in Panama City for three days but we loved it so much once we arrived that we extended our stay for an extra day.
I had expected Panama City to just be the necessary starting point for our trip, but actually the city ended up being a highlight of my entire time in Panama. It’s a beautiful and diverse city with so much going on, and I feel like I could have spent an entire week there exploring.
Here are some things to do in Panama City, Panama (and you can simply scroll down past the stars for things to do in Panama outside of Panama City)
★ The Panama Canal
Okay, you guys know I’m not usually one for museums and historic sites, but I was super excited to get to see the Panama Canal in real life! And while I had a sneaking suspicion the canal would be underwhelming in person, it actually was really cool and one of the highlights of my time in Panama City.
You might remember from your middle school history class, but the Panama Canal was an enormous project – in fact it was started several times before they actually figured out how to complete it. And it’s had a great impact on the country. The Panama Canal museum goes into all the history of the project, and then you can go outside and watch the canal in action.
★ Get lost in Casco Viejo
I really enjoyed Panama City and could have happily spent more than just four days there, and my favorite area was definitely Casco Viejo.
This area used to be really run down, but now Panama City is investing a lot in it and a lot of the old buildings have been refurbished and transformed into boutique hotels, stylish cafes and restaurants, and beautiful little shops.
I asked a local what he thought about Casco Viejo’s transformation and he said that while in a way it’s a bit sad to see the area change, the revitalization has thankfully had a really positive impact on locals and it’s great to have an area that has such tourist appeal as well.
Plus Casco Viejo is simply the best place for a photoshoot! I mean, you can’t expect two bloggers to go anywhere without taking an embarrassing number of photos for Instagram. What can I say?
★ Stay at a really unique boutique hotel in Panama City
I split my time between two gorgeous hotels in Panama City, and I really couldn’t say which I enjoyed more!
First I stayed at the American Trade Hotel, which was the perfect luxury hotel experience in the heart of Casco Viejo. The rooms were beautiful and the breakfast delicious, and I sort of felt like I was on a movie set. You can read more about my stay at the American Trade hotel here.
And then for my final two nights in Panama City I stayed at Las Clementinas, which has beautiful apartments. It was so fun getting to pretend like I was a local in Casco Viejo, and they had so many lovely touches like filling my fridge with breakfast treats. You can read more about my stay at Las Celementinas here.
★ Have lunch at El Trapiche
One of the best meals I had in Panama was at El Trapiche in the city center. I loved that it’s in a less touristy area of the city, but still super easy to get to (our taxi driver knew the name of the restaurant so we didn’t need to bother with directions).
This also felt like the most authentically Panamanian food in Panama City, and our waiter was really friendly and gave us some other recommendations for what to do in Panama City. Definitely stop by and try one of their sandwiches if you get the chance!
★ Have lunch at Super Gourmet in Casco Viejo
Super Gourmet is like an American style deli with a Panamanian twist. Another place well worth checking out for lunch! We both had sandwiches and ordered some cookies for takeaway, because who can resist a good old fashioned chocolate chip cookie? Definitely not me.
Granted this place was full of Americans when I visited, so you might not be getting the most “authentic” experience here. But hey, I don’t live in the US and really miss American food, so I really loved feeling like I was back home in Massachusetts for half an hour!
★ Sample the chocolate at Oro Moreno Tropical Chocolate Cafe
This is another lovely place to visit in Casco Viejo, where they make their own chocolate. They use local flavors and I seriously could have spent all afternoon sampling their amazing chocolates. You can also stay a while and get a coffee or hot chocolate to drink here.
This would also be a great place to pick up some gifts for people back home – as long as this is the end of your trip, as those chocolates will definitely be melting when you’re in San Blas.
★ Visit the golden altar at the Church of San Jose
If you visit you can read about the altar’s interesting history (which I won’t spoil here!), plus it’s right in Casco Viejo so there’s really no reason not to pop in to see it. You only really need five minutes to check out the altar, so pop in and get a quick taste of Panama’s history.
★ Have a drink at a rooftop bar in Casco Viejo
There are so many lovely rooftop bars to choose from in Casco Viejo, and they have the best views! I went to Barlovento which had a really nice vibrant yet laidback vibe. It’s definitely a backpacker hub so a great place to meet people – but don’t worry, the feel isn’t too young. I’m in my 30s and didn’t feel too old there (unlike some other Panama City bars haha).
★ Take a walking tour of Panama City
I’m not usually one for walking tours, but Rachel loves them so she signed us up for the PTY Life Panama Detour. And it totally won me over!
We spent five hours exploring Joey’s favorite areas, stopping at food trucks, using public transport, and having cocktails at a rooftop bar. It was a great intro not just to Panama City, but to Panama as a whole, and it was really interesting to get an American expat’s perspective on the city and country.
★ Have a drink at the top of the W Hotel
I know I said to have a drink at a rooftop bar in Casco Viejo, but as part of our walking tour we also stopped at the W Hotel’s rooftop bar, which is in the new part of the city, and it was really cool to see the contrast! There’s a pool up there and it’s just a great place to hang out away from the bustle of the city below.
It’s also a bit more of a sophisticated crowd, if that’s what you’re looking for. Feel free to wear your prettiest cocktail dress here!
★ Ride the subway
And this is another thing we did on the walking tour. Panama City’s subway is actually pretty easy to navigate, it’s clean, tickets are like 30 cents and I always find riding public transport is a great way to get a feel for a new city. Just maybe try to avoid rush hour, as it can get pretty crowded.
★ Visit the Santa Ana market
If you head towards the Avenida Central from Casco Viejo you’ll get to Santa Ana, and right next to the church you’ll see a little covered market. Here you can find local handicrafts at local prices – way better than the fancier tourist boutiques in town.
We tried on local sandals, hats, and jewelry and it was such a fun way to get to know the local culture here a bit better.
★ Buy a real Panama hat
You know the iconic Panama hat that President Roosevelt made famous at the opening of the Panama Canal? Well, it’s actually from Ecuador.
If you want a real Panama hat you’ll need to go to a local market (like the Santa Ana market mentioned above) and look for a straw hat with black stripes. I think they’re actually cuter, plus Panamanians will get excited to see you sporting a real Panama hat, so it’s a great way to make friends!
★ Get a sim card on Avenida Central
I know a lot of people prefer to disconnect while traveling, but if you’re not one of those people, it’s super easy to buy a sim card in Panama City. Though if you don’t want to bring along your passport to register the new sim card, just buy one from one of the many phone shops along Avenida Central.
They don’t register them here, and a Digicel sim card will cost you $1. Then I paid $5 for each week I wanted service for, which gave me unlimited data (!!). So for $11 I got a sim card with unlimited data that I could use for two weeks in Panama. I had pretty good service too – it was only on San Blas that I lost connection.
★ Stop by Cafe Coca Cola
Apparently this diner has been around so long that Coca Cola doesn’t mind that it’s borrowed their name.
★ Have lunch at Mahalo
This Hawaiian themed restaurant in Casco Viejo is super cute, plus the food was pretty good too! I had a hummus platter (I can’t get good hummus in Norway!) and Rachel had a curry. Definitely check out Mahalo if you’re in need of a meal. The greenery and tikka bar also make the perfect backdrop from and Instagram post, just saying.
★ Take an eco adventure through the Gamboa Rainforest
Did you know that Panama City is on the edge of a rainforest? You can take a day tour like this one through the rainforest to see some exciting wildlife, or this aerial tram tour through the rainforest. I didn’t actually have time to do this, but I really regret not seeing a bit of Panama’s rainforest, so it will be at the top of my list the next time I visit Panama.
★ Visit an Embera Village
I’m not really one for village tours as they tend to make me feel a little uncomfortable, but if you’re interested you can take a day trip out to a traditional Embera village, including a canoe ride up a river and a walk to a jungle waterfall. You can book a tour here.
Visit the San Blas Islands
Over my travels through some eighty countries around the world, I haven’t come across many places that look as picture-perfectly like paradise as the San Blas islands. In fact I think the only place that could maybe rival it was my boat trip island hopping through Indonesia, and then I was sort of really lucky my boat didn’t sink so… if you’re looking for a safer journey to paradise, San Blas is perfect!
I’ve also written a whole blog post about my three days sailing in San Blas, including everything you need to know when planning a trip to San Blas. I found the process of planning our trip there quite confusing as there was a lot of conflicting information online, so here I’ve tried to break it down for you, because actually getting to San Blas is really simple.
I definitely think that sailing on a private catamaran is the best way to see San Blas, so if you’re looking for something to splurge on for your trip to Panama, this is it. I mean, when else are you going to be able to sail through paradise on your own private catamaran? Unless that’s the sort of life you already lead, in which case I’m jealous tell me your secrets!
And on that note, if you only have time to visit one place in Panama, I’d choose San Blas. It’s just so unique and I’m already dreaming of returning one day. The beaches are some of the most beautiful in the world, and the culture is so relaxed and calming.
I also loved getting away from cell signal for a few days and totally unwinding without worrying about my emails and work obligations. Because I’m totally the type of person who would book a relaxing holiday at a resort and then spend my time lying on the beach checking my phone every twenty minutes. So bad! So if I really want to disconnect and truly relax, I need to get somewhere where I can’t even check my phone – and for me San Blas was that place.
Talk to locals
I was a little nervous about my lack of Spanish skills (or more like guilty – what American doesn’t speak any Spanish??), but everyone I met in Panama was so laidback and friendly that communication was never a problem. Most people spoke really good English, and it turns out Spanish is kind of just a better enunciated version of French/Latin – who knew? (Everyone knew.)
And the people in Panama really are so nice. They’re clearly proud of where they come from and were always eager to hear where else we had visited and what we thought about the country. Like, I’m getting a huge smile on my face just thinking back to the conversations I had with locals in Panama.
Take taxis without worrying about getting ripped off
Speaking of friendly Panamanians, never have I ever traveled anywhere with such nice taxi drivers! And long time readers here will know that I’m not a fan of taxi drivers. But all of our drivers here were so friendly and never argued over prices with us. It was so refreshing to be able to take taxis without stressing over finding one, or finding one that wouldn’t hugely overcharge me.
Fingers crossed I’m not jinxing my taxi ride to the airport later today…
Enjoy being safe
I mean, there are safe and unsafe areas in any country, but as a whole I never felt like I needed to worry while traveling through Panama. People were friendly and helpful and I felt really comfortable wherever I went.
Relax – Panama is so easy
In fact if I were to sum up my sixteen days in Panama in one word it would be “easy.” I don’t mean that in a boring way, but I cannot remember the last time I had such an effortless trip through a country I didn’t live in – much less where I didn’t even speak the local language.
Transport was a breeze, they use the US dollar here so I didn’t have to worry about currency conversions, all of our accommodation was amazing – like, I can’t think of any big stresses I had on this trip.
Explore Panama’s idyllic island escapes
I already mentioned San Blas, but Panama has so many other gorgeous island escapes. I also spent four days on Isla Palenque on the Gulf of Chiriqui and four days on Isla Bastimentos in Bocas del Toro, and would have loved to visit the Pearl Islands and more islands on the Gulf of Chiriqui.
Isla Palenque felt like my own secluded island in the middle of nowhere – I seriously felt like I was a character in a novel staying here! The vegetation was so unique, the water perfect, and I think my time on the island was the most relax I’ve been all year.
Plus how stunning is this bungalow? I loved how they combined traditional and modern here and it had all the luxuries I wanted while still feeling like an authentic island escape. And each bungalow is surrounded by trees so it felt like we were totally alone on the island – until we went to the pool and restaurant, which was like the social center of the island.
Look out for sloths!
Rachel and I thought we wouldn’t see a sloth here because we had opted against taking a tour to see them or visiting a sloth refuge, so imagine our surprise when one morning we passed a group of people at our resort in Bocas del Toro and realized they were all pointing at a sloth who had (very slowly) wandered into their yard.
I’ve seen so many YouTube videos of sloths (who hasn’t?) but there’s nothing like seeing one in real life – they are such funny creatures! It was like watching a cartoon or something, except this was real life.
Drink all the coffee
To be honest I don’t know much about coffee and generally will enjoy a cup of instant coffee just as much as some fancy brew, but it was still fun to hear Panamanians talk about their local coffee beans. We spent two days in Boquete, which apparently gets referred to as the Napa Valley of coffee.
I tried the famous Geisha coffee, which is really exclusive, and to be honest it tasted just like normal coffee to me, but other people told me it was some of the best coffee they’ve ever tasted. So if you have more refined taste than mine you’ll probably love it.
I also really loved how there are so many cafes in Boquete. I might not be into coffee, but I love the atmosphere of a coffee shop (and the pastries!), and Boquete has some truly lovely ones.
Stop by Boquete
Speaking of Boquete, there’s a lot more to this highland town than coffee! It feels totally different than Panama’s coastal areas, and offers lots of hikes, ziplining, and even hot springs. It’s also a big expat hub, which is great news for anyone craving an American-style turkey sandwich.
Boquete also was a favorite of old Hollywood stars, so you can feel like a total celeb hanging out here.
Go to Boquete Tree Trek
If you’re up for an adventure, definitely check out Boquete Tree Trek! Here you can go ziplining and walk along the Cloud Forest’s famous hanging bridges.
Have a meal at Boulder 54 in Boquete
I talk more about places to eat in Boquete in my Boquete travel guide here, but Boulder 54 deserved an extra mention because it was one of the best meals I had in Panama! The atmosphere was lovely, and each dish was beautifully crafted.
It’s a new restaurant so you can feel like you’re truly in the know by going, and while I was there they had live music. This is definitely the sort of place to get a little dressed up for, if you feel like it! It was also a great place for eavesdropping on the expat crowd here – it turns out there’s quite a lot of gossip in Boquete – who knew?
Travel Panama on any budget
While you can travel fairly cheaply through Panama on the backpacker trail, there are also lots of mid-range and family options, as well as some seriously gorgeous luxury hotels. And the same goes with transport – most places it seemed like you could take the local bus on the cheap, a tourist shuttle for a bit more, a private car for more, Air Panama domestic flights, or even charter a private plane to get you where you want to go.
Or another popular option here is to rent a car for a road trip!
Eat all the food
I’m new to Central American food so I can’t really say if it’s better in Panama than in other parts of the region, but seriously, so much yum. My favorite food was in Panama City, though I also didn’t mind dining on freshly caught lobster every night in San Blas.
I was also impressed by all the options most places.
Cover a diverse range of landscapes
When we originally started planning this trip we thought we’d spend about a week in Panama and then head into Costa Rica, until we realized how much there actually is to see in Panama. Remember how I said we had to redraft our Panama itinerary so many times? It was just so difficult to narrow down where to go in Panama when there is such a diverse range of options there.
From the deserted islands of San Blas to the skyscrapers of Panama City, the highlands of Boquete, and the backpacker party scene on Bocas del Toro, it feels like we visited about five different countries on this Panama trip. And that’s what makes Panama such a good introduction to Central America as well. It really feels like you’re getting a taste of all sorts of aspects of the region.
But if you don’t have much time, my personal favorite areas to explore where Panama City, San Blas, and the Pacific islands. San Blas would probably top the list because the beaches and water there is just unreal, though Panama City is a close second – I’d say it’s one of my favorite cities that I’ve visited in a long time!
Visit both the Caribbean and Pacific
Speaking of Panama’s diverse offerings, you can also hang out on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts while here!
Everyone warned me that the Pacific is a disappointment after the Caribbean, but I actually really loved my time on the Pacific. It was quieter with fewer tourists (and fewer hotels – so book in advance), the weather was a bit more stormy, but during the day we still had enough sun for me to get sunburnt, as usual. I actually found the thunderstorms at night really exciting, plus it meant that it wouldn’t get too hot.
But if it’s white sand beaches and turquoise water you’re looking for, then you really need to head to San Blas. I mean, everyone needs to visit San Blas once in their lifetime, if they can. It’s really like a true-life paradise! It’s hard to believe how close it is to the US. Like, I used to think you had to go way out into the Pacific Ocean to find water and beaches like that.
And definitely check out the Gulf of Chiriqui
Speaking of the Pacific, you can read more about my time on the Gulf of Chiriqui here, but for now I’ll just say that if you’re looking for an idyllic island escape, definitely come here. It felt like being on a deserted island, and was definitely the most unique experience I had in Panama.
Like, I think most people visiting Panama go to Panama City, San Blas, Bocas del Toro, and even Boquete, but I don’t know many people who ventured down to the Gulf of Chiriqui. And the culture there seems quite unique too. The islanders have their own history and traditions, and seem very proud of their little corner of the country. And for good reason! The Gulf of Chiriqui is seriously stunning.
In fact, if you’re looking for a quiet getaway – or even a honeymoon retreat! – you could consider heading straight to Isla Palenque. Sure, you’d miss out on a lot of Panama’s other offerings, but you could also skip the exhausting of traveling all over the country and simply bliss out on the beach. I would love to return with my boyfriend someday and just hang out on the beach all week.
See whales on the Gulf of Chiriqui
If you visit the Gulf of Chiriqui between July and October you’ll have the chance to spot the humpback whales that have come from both the north and south poles to give birth!
I had gone on whale watching tours in Africa and Norway before so I wasn’t sure if this would just feel like more of the same, but I swear, seeing whales in real life will never get old. They’re so enormous, it’s really crazy to get so close to them and watch them surfacing and then diving down to find food.
so I’m probably not going to quit blogging to become a wildlife photographer
Go snorkeling on the Pearl Islands
I really wish I had squeezed in a trip to the Pearl Islands – especially considering you can even go as a day tour from Panama City! This tour here will take you snorkeling on the Pearl Islands, and it really does look like such a dreamy escape.
I spoke with some expats in Panama City who go to the Pearl Islands at least once a year, and they said it’s an insider’s favorite in Panama. And transport there is really well organized so you don’t need to stress about making your way down there.
Have a grown up holiday on Bocas del Toro
You guys, Bocas del Toro is not just for backpackers! You can read about my relaxing holiday at Red Frog Beach Resort here. The resort is huge, with beautiful landscape (this is also where I saw the sloth!), plus they organize lots of day trips around Bocas so you’ll never be bored.
Though to be honest I mostly just wanted to be an old woman and lounge at the pool and the beach, haha. It was just so relaxing there. They take care of absolutely everything for you – they have several restaurants, a spa, and the activity organizers are really helpful with recommendations based on what sort of holiday you’re looking for.
Or party it up on Bocas del Toro
Of course, if you do what to party with the backpacker crowd, you will love Bocas del Toro. Try to come on a Friday for their famous island hopping party.
We met some backpackers in Panama City who had just spent a few weeks traveling around Panama on a budget and they said that the best partying was on Bocas del Toro. If I were looking to party, I’d probably make Bocas town my base, as it has a strong nightlife of its own and then you can organizing island hopping tours from there.
Explore a working chocolate farm in Bocas del Toro
If you like chocolate, you can check out how it’s harvested and made! A few people I spoke to said this chocolate farm tour was a highlight of their time in Panama.
I’ve done chocolate tours in other countries so I decided to skip it here, but based on my experience in other places I can say that seeing the whole process of how chocolate is made is so interesting – especially if you are as obsessed with chocolate as I am.
Enjoy a boutique accommodation paradise
While my hostel days are long gone, I’m not a huge fan of the big chain luxury hotels that look the same regardless of what country you’re in, so I was so excited to find so many beautiful boutique hotels in Panama! Each featured such beautiful and unique designs that I sort of want to say that each and every hotel I stayed at in Panama was my favorite.
The American Trade Hotel is perfect old school luxury and has an interesting history of its own. While Las Clementinas offers gorgeous apartments that will make you feel like a local – well, a local living in a super stylish apartment getting breakfast baskets delivered to your room each morning. Can this be my life forever?
3 Things NOT to do in Panama
But what should you skip out on in Panama?
I would highly recommend NOT visiting the San Blas Islands at the start of your Panama trip. You see, I visited them first, and they sort of ruined the rest of Panama’s islands for me, because nothing else can compare to San Blas. So try to save the best for last, if you can.
San Blas is such a special experience, but I feel like I couldn’t fully appreciate it because I was still so excited for the rest of my Panama trip. Whereas if I had saved it for last I would have realized that it was the best part of Panama.
I would also avoid booking accommodation in Bocas del Toro on Airbnb. I usually love Airbnb, but I had a bit of a nightmare experience trying to book this place, and I heard from other travelers that they had similar problems in Bocas del Toro (the rest of Panama is totally fine for Airbnb though!). It was just such an unnecessary stress in an otherwise totally stress free trip planning process.
And finally, don’t just visit Panama City and skip the rest of the country! Panama City is a great starting point, but if I had only visited the city I really don’t think I would have left with an accurate impression of Panama. The beaches are really where it’s at!
Or if you only have time for Panama City, promise that you’ll come back to explore Panama’s islands one day. I promise it’s worth it!
Though I feel like I should add that I’m also SO happy I made time for the city. When I first started planning my Panama trip I figured the best of Panama would be at the beach, but now I know that the country has amazing things to offer from beaches to cities to highlands to the rainforest – you really will fall in love with Panama if you give it a chance. That’s a promise!
Getting to Panama
As a US/Norwegian citizen, I could visit Panama for up to 180 days without a visa.
I flew KLM from Amsterdam direct to Tocumen International Airport and it was a really easy, straightforward flight. When you exit the airport there will be a lot of people trying to get to take their taxi. I ignored them and walked straight through the crowd and found a driver who wasn’t hassling me, but my friend Rachel took one of the first people and we both ended up paying the same (I think it was $20 to my hotel downtown).
And I really loved flying out of PTY. They’ve just redone it and there are lots of American chain restaurants – which was very exciting for me as an American living abroad, haha. I definitely had my fill of bagel sandwiches at their Dunkin Donuts!
Packing for Panama
Panama is super laidback, so you can really wear whatever you want here. I lived in dresses and shorts, as it was so hot here.
Oh and be sure to bring sunblock and a hat (or buy a hat in Panama City!), as the sun here is no joke. I got so burnt on San Blas, it was really bad.