Getting Oriented

Panama City sprawls for 20 km (12 miles) along the Bahía de Panamá (Bay of Panama), on the Pacific Coast, and deep into the sultry hinterland. Most of its attractions and accommodations are within a few miles of one another in the city's southwest corner, near the Panama Canal's Pacific entrance. Panama snakes west to east, so the canal cuts across running north from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The eastern edge of the canal's entrance includes the Calzada de Amador (the breakwater connecting several islands to the mainland) and the neighborhoods of Balboa, Albrook, and Cerro Ancón, a forested hill topped by a big Panamanian flag that is a landmark visible from much of the city. The city is largely divided into neighborhoods old and new, upscale and lower class, with some overlap. Neighborhoods just to the east of Cerro Ancón, beyond busy Avenida de los Mártires, include the slums of Chorrillo and Santa Ana, both of which are best avoided (although they can be visited on tours) and San Felipe, which includes the historic and stylish Casco Viejo. Newer neighborhoods like El Cangrejo, Obarrio, Paitilla, and San Francisco are home to the majority of large hotels, offices, and restaurants.

Avenida Balboa, one of the city's main east–west routes, runs along the Bay of Panama between the Casco Viejo and modern Paitilla Point. It runs through an attractive waterfront promenade called the Cinta Costera. The neighborhood along its western half is sketchy, but the park-like Cinta Costera itself is a pleasant place to stroll. Avenida Balboa ends at Punta Paitilla, with its Multicentro shopping mall, skyscrapers, and private hospitals. There it branches into the Corredor Sur, an expressway to the international airport, and the inland Vía Israel, which eventually turns into Avenida Cincuentenario and leads to the ruins of Panamá Viejo.

The main eastbound street to the north of Avenida Balboa is Avenida Justo Arosemena, which runs east from Plaza Cinco de Mayo and flows into Calle 50 (Cincuenta, also called Calle Nicanor de Obarrio). The main westbound route is Vía España, a busy boulevard lined with banks and shopping centers that curves south to become Avenida Central, which in turn becomes a pedestrian mall at Plaza Cinco de Mayo, after which it curves eastward to become the main avenue in the Casco Viejo.

Casco Viejo. Panama City's oldest inhabited neighborhood has an eclectic mix of colonial architecture and historic attractions like the towering cathedral, Teatro Nacional (National Theater), as well as peaceful squares, museums, galleries, trendy restaurants and clubs, and boutique hotels.

Cerro Ancon, Balboa, and the Calzada de Amador. Activities in these neighborhoods, located along the Pacific entry to the Panama Canal, include wandering the lush rain forest of Ancon, visiting cultural sites in the historic Panama Canal zone around Balboa, and enjoying ocean-side biking and dining in the Calzada de Amador.

Parque Natural Metropolitano, Miraflores, and Summit.Just outside of the city center, both Parque Natural Metropolitano and Parque Municipal Summit offer easy-access wilderness getaways, while the nearby Miraflores visitor center is the spot to view the locks of the Panama Canal.

Downtown Panama City. For simplicity, we lump several of the newer, upscale neighborhoods into "downtown" as a sort of mega-neighborhood, but locals often refer specifically to each area by name (El Cangrejo, Obarrio, Area Bancaria, Paitilla). The wide variety of dining, shopping, and hotels makes this section of the capital a preferred area for international visitors.

Panamá Viejo. The ruins of Panamá Viejo offer a fascinating glimpse into the life of Panama City's first settlers.

Playa Bonita. Also known as Playa Kobbe, this beach destination is backed by two large resorts that offer the only all-inclusive beach stays in the city.

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