36 Best Sights in Panama City, Panama

Esclusas de Miraflores

Fodor's choice

The four-story visitor center next to these double locks provides a front-row view of massive ships passing through the lock chambers. It also houses an excellent museum about the canal's history, engineering, daily operations, and environmental demands. Because most of the canal lies at 85 feet above sea level, each ship that passes through has to be raised to that level with three locks as they enter it, and brought back to sea level with three locks on the other end. Miraflores has two levels of locks, which move vessels between Pacific sea level and Miraflores Lake, a man-made stretch of water between Miraflores Locks and the Pedro Miguel Locks. Due to the proximity to Panama City, these locks have long been the preferred place to visit the canal, but the visitor center has made it even more popular.

There are observation decks on the ground and fourth floors of the massive cement building, from which you can watch vessels move through the locks, as a bilingual narrator explains the process and provides information about each ship, including the toll they paid to use the canal. The museum contains an excellent combination of historic relics, photographs, videos, models, and even a simulator of a ship passing through the locks. There is also a gift shop and a snack bar (the second-floor restaurant was closed for renovations as of press time). While the canal is busier at night, the largest ships pass during the day. You can call at 9 am the day before your visit to ask what time the largest ships are due through the locks.

Plaza Bolívar

Casco Viejo Fodor's choice

A small plaza surrounded by 19th-century architecture, this is one of Casco Viejo's most pleasant spots, especially at night, when people gather at its various cafés for drinks and dinner, and street musicians perform for tips. It's centered around a monument to the Venezuelan general Simón Bolívar, the "Liberator of Latin America," with decorative friezes marking events of his life and an Andean condor perched above him. In 1926 Bolívar organized a meeting of independence with leaders from all over Latin America in the Franciscan monastery in front of the plaza, which, in the end, he was unable to attend. The original San Francisco Church was destroyed by fire in the 18th century and restored twice in the 20th century. At this writing, the church was closed for yet another round of renovations, and was to reopen to the public in 2016 (open hours had not yet been announced). The former monastery is now occupied by a Catholic school. Across the plaza from it, on the corner of Avenida B and Calle 4, is the smaller church, Iglesia de San Felipe de Neri, which was recently restored and is open daily. The Hotel Colombia, across the street from it, was one of the country's best when it opened its doors in 1937, but it fell into neglect during the late 20th century until it was renovated in the 1990s and converted to luxury apartments.

Plaza de Francia

Casco Viejo Fodor's choice

Designed by Leonardo de Villanueva, this attractive plaza on the southeastern corner of the Casco Viejo peninsula is dedicated to the French effort to build the canal, and the thousands who perished in the process. An obelisk towers over the monument at the end of the plaza, where a dozen marble plaques recount the arduous task. Busts of Ferdinand de Lesseps and his lieutenants gaze across the plaza at the French Embassy—the large baby-blue building to the north of it. Next to them is a bust of Dr. Carlos Finlay, a Cuban physician who later discovered that yellow fever, which killed thousands during the French effort, originated from a mosquito bite—information that prompted the American campaign to eradicate mosquitoes from the area before they began digging. The plaza itself is a pleasant spot shaded by poinciana trees, which carry bright-orange blossoms from May to July. At the front of the plaza is a statue of Pablo Arosemena, one of Panama's founding fathers and one of its first presidents. The plaza covers part of a small peninsula that served as a bastion for the walled city's defense during its early years. The former dungeons of Las Bóvedas line the plaza's eastern edge, and next door stands a large white building that was once the city's main courthouse but now houses the Instituto Nacional de Cultura (National Culture Institute).

Recommended Fodor's Video

Area Bancária

Narrow streets shaded by leafy tropical trees make the city's financial district a pleasant area to explore, though the trees are being cut to make room for more skyscrapers. Together with El Cangrejo, which lies across Vía España from it, the Area Bancária holds a critical mass of hotels and restaurants. You'll find two of the city's highest concentrations of bars and restaurants in El Cangrejo and the area around Calle 48 (Calle Uruguay), between Calle 50 (Nicanor de Obarrio) and Avenida Balboa.

Between Vía España and Calle 50, Panama City, Panama

Baha'i House of Worship

Perched atop a forested hill 11 km (7 miles) north of the city is Baha'i House of Worship, one of the world's seven Baha'i temples (an eighth is under construction in Santiago de Chile). The Baha'i believe that all the world's religions are separate manifestations of a single religious process, which culminated with the appearance of their founder, Bahà'u'llàh, who preached about a new global society. Most Baha'i temples are in Asia. Panama's temple is simple but also quite lovely, with a white dome surrounded by tropical foliage (it resembles a giant egg). It was designed by the British architect Peter Tillotson. It is open to everyone for prayer, meditation, and subdued exploring. Men should wear long pants, and women long pants or long skirts.



The heart of the former Canal Zone is quite a switch from the rest of Panama City, with its wide tree-shaded lawns and stately old buildings. It sometimes feels like a bit of a ghost town, especially after you spend time on the busy streets of Panama City proper, but it's a peaceful area with lots of greenery. You may spot toucans, or agoutis (large jungle rodents) on the slopes of Ancon Hill, or near the Panama Canal Administration Building. The Friday's restaurant next to the Country Inn & Suites Panama Canal has a front-row view of the canal and Bridge of the Americas.

Av. Arnulfo Arias and Av. Amador, Panama City, Panama

Cementerio Francés

The pastoral Cementerio Francés sits on the left side of the road just before Summit and serves as a testament to the human toll once taken by grand construction projects. Hundreds of crosses line a hill in this pretty cemetery and mark the resting place of a fraction of the 20,000 workers who died during France's brief attempt to construct a canal across the isthmus.

Centro de Exhibiciones Marinas Punta Culebra

Though it doesn't compare to the aquariums of other major cities, the Centro de Exhibiciones Marinas is worth a stop. It was created by the scientists and educators at the STRI and is located on a lovely, undeveloped point with examples of several ecosystems: beach, mangrove forest, rocky coast, and tropical forest. A series of signs leads visitors on a self-guided tour. There are several small tanks with fish and sea turtles, as well as pools with sea stars, sea cucumbers, and other marine creatures that kids can handle. The spyglasses are great for watching ships on the adjacent canal. Be sure to visit the lookout on the end of the rocky point.

Centro de Visitantes

Start your visit to Panamá Viejo at the Centro de Visitantes—a large building on the right as you enter Panamá Viejo on Vía Cincuentenaria. From ATLAPA, that street heads inland for 2 km (1 mile) through a residential neighborhood before arriving at the ruins, which are on the coast. Once you see the ocean again, look for the two-story visitor center on your right. It holds a large museum that chronicles the site's evolution from an indigenous village to one of the wealthiest cities in the Western Hemisphere. Works on display include indigenous pottery made centuries before the arrival of the Spanish, relics of the colonial era, and a model of what the city looked like shortly before Morgan's attack. Keep that model in mind as you explore the site, since you need a good dose of imagination to evoke the city that was once home to between 7,000 and 10,000 people from the rubble that remains of it.

Cerro Ancón Summit

The rain forest that covers most of Cerro Ancón is a remarkably vibrant natural oasis in the midst of the city. The best area to see wildlife is on the road to the Cerro Ancón Summit, which is topped by radio towers and a giant Panamanian flag. The road ascends the hill's western slope from the luxuriant residential neighborhood of Quarry Heights, above Balboa. There is also a trail into the forest behind the offices of ANCON, Panama's biggest environmental group. If the gate at the end of Quarry Heights is locked, it should take 20-30 minutes to hike to the summit. It is best done early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when you are likely to see animals such as the abundant agoutis (large rodents), keel-billed toucan, and Geoffrey's tamarind—Panama's smallest simian. If you have a taxi drop you off at the trailhead (ask the driver to take you to the "Oficinas de ANCON" in Quarry Heights), you can hike down the other side of the hill to Mi Pueblito, where you should be able to flag a cab.

Edificio de la Administración del Canal

Well worth a stop is this impressive structure set atop a ridge with a dramatic view of Balboa and the canal—a site chosen by the canal's chief engineer, George W. Goethals. The building, designed by New York architect Austin W. Lord, was inaugurated in 1914, one month before the SS Ancon became the first ship to navigate the canal. Since it holds the offices of the people in charge of running the canal, most of the building is off-limits to tourists, but you can enter its lovely rotunda and admire the historic murals of the canal's construction. The murals were painted by William B. Van Ingen, who also created murals for the U.S. Library of Congress and the Philadelphia Mint. They're quite dramatic, and capture the monumental nature of the canal's construction in a style that is part Norman Rockwell, part Frederic Edwin Church. The rotunda also houses busts of the three canal visionaries: Spain's King Carlos V, who first pondered the possibility in the 16th century; the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, who led the first attempt to dig it; and President Theodore Roosevelt, who launched the successful construction effort. The doors at the back of the rotunda are locked, but if you walk around the building you'll be treated to a view of the neat lawns and tree-lined boulevards of Balboa.

Gran Clement

Exploring Casco Viejo's narrow streets can be a hot and exhausting affair, which makes the gourmet ice-cream shop of Gran Clement an almost obligatory stop. Located in the ground floor of a restored mansion one block west of the Policía de Turismo station, the shop serves a wide assortment of ice creams including ginger, coconut, passion fruit, and mango. Gran Clement is also open at night, and until 9:30 pm on weekends.

Av. Central and Calle 3, Panama
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Mon.–Thurs. 11:30–8, Fri. and Sat. 11:30–9:30, Sun. noon–8

Iglesia de La Merced

Casco Viejo

One of the oldest structures in the Casco Viejo, La Merced's timeworn, baroque facade was actually removed from a church of the same name in Panamá Viejo and reconstructed here, stone by stone, in 1680. Flanked by white bell towers and tiny chapels, it's a charming sight, especially in late-afternoon light. The interior was destroyed by fires and rebuilt in the early 20th century, when some bad decisions were made, such as covering massive cement pillars with bathroom tiles.

Calle 9 and Av. Central, Panama City, Panama
No phone
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Weekdays 6:30 am–noon and 2–7, Sat. 4–7 pm, Sun. 6:30–11 am

Iglesia de San José

Casco Viejo

This church is an exact replica of the temple of the same name in Panamá Viejo. It is the sanctuary of the country's famous golden altar, the most valuable object to survive pirate Henry Morgan's razing of the old city. According to legend, a wily priest painted the altar with mud to discourage its theft. Not only did Morgan refrain from pilfering it, but the priest even managed to extract a donation from the pirate. The ornate baroque altar is made of carved mahogany covered with gold leaf. It is the only real attraction of the small church, though it does have several other wooden altars and a couple of lovely stained-glass windows.

Av. A at Calle 8, Panama City, Panama
No phone
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Free, Mon.–Sat. 9–noon and 2–5, Sun. 8–11:30 am

Isla Flamenco

The Amador Causeway ends at Isla Flamenco, which has two shopping centers and an assortment of restaurants. The Flamenco Marina is a popular mooring spot for yachts and fishing boats; it's the disembarkation point for cruise-ship passengers, most of whom board tour buses. Several restaurants and bars overlook the marina, which also has a great view of the city's skyline, making it a popular destination night and day.

Isla Perico

The second island on the causeway, Isla Perico, holds a long strip mall, called Brisas de Amador, that has an array of restaurants and bars, most of which have terraces that face the canal's Pacific entrance, so you can watch the ships passing.

La Catedral

Built between 1688 and 1796, Panama City's stately cathedral is one of Casco Viejo's most impressive structures. The interior is vast, but rather bleak, but for the marble altar, made in 1884, beautiful stained glass, and a few religious paintings. The stone facade, flanked by painted bell towers, is quite lovely, with its many niches filled with small statues. The bell towers are decorated with mother-of-pearl from the Pearl Islands, and the bells in the left tower were salvaged from the city's first cathedral, in Panamá Viejo.

La Cinta Costera

La Cinta Costera
Alfredo Maiquez / Shutterstock

The busy waterfront boulevard Avenida Balboa and the linear park running alongside it are lined with palm trees and graced with great views of the Bay of Panama and Casco Viejo. The sidewalk that runs along the bay and the park wedged between the avenue lanes is a popular strolling and jogging route. To the west of the Miramar towers and the Yacht Club is a small park with a monument to Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, who, after trudging through the rain forests of the Darién in 1501, became the first European to set eyes on the Pacific Ocean. That gleaming white Monumento a Balboa is topped by a steel sculpture of the conquistador gazing out at the Pacific. The statue was a gift to the Panamanian people from Spain's King Alfonso XIII in 1924. Walking is best to the east of the Monumento, since it passes some rough neighborhoods to the west—although the newer area near the fish market and entrance to Casco Viejo has become popular for walking, relaxing, and outdoor exercising (there's an open-air workout area). Unfortunately, a stroll along the waterfront may be punctuated by wiffs of Panama City's raw sewage, which pours into the bay from a series of pipes just off the Cinta Costera, and is especially noxious at low tide. The government is building the city's long-overdue sewage system, but it will take years to complete.

Las Bóvedas

The arched chambers in the wall on the eastern side of Plaza Francia, which originally formed part of the city's battlements, served various purposes during the colonial era, from storage chambers to dungeons. Dating from the late 1600s, when the city was relocated to what is now Casco Viejo, the Bóvedas were abandoned for centuries. In the 1980s the Panama Tourist Board initiated the renovation of the cells, two of which are used by the Instituto Nacional de Cultura for ocassional art exhibits. Three cells hold a French restaurant called Las Bóvedas, which hosts live music on some evenings and also has tables on the plaza where you can enjoy drinks in the afternoon or evening.

Museo Afroantillano

Santa Ana

Three blocks northeast of Plaza Cinco de Mayo, in the midst of a rough neighborhood, stands a simple wooden museum dedicated to the tens of thousands of West Indian workers who supplied the bulk of the labor for the canal's construction. The West Indians, mostly Barbadians and Jamaicans, did the toughest, most dangerous jobs, but were paid in silver, while the Americans were paid in gold. A disproportionate number of them died during canal construction; the survivors and their descendents have made important contributions to Panamanian culture. The museum has period furniture and historic photos. You'll want to take a taxi here; consider asking the taxi to wait for you while you visit the museum.

Av. Justo Arosemena and Calle 24 Este, Panama City, Panama
Sights Details
Rate Includes: $5, Tues.–Sat. 9--4

Museo Antropológico Reina Torres de Araúz

Altos de Curundú

After decades of being on display in a former railway station, the government's collection of pre-Columbian artifacts is now housed in a larger facility with more than 50,000 square feet of exhibit space, not far from the Parque Natural Metropolitano visitor center. The museum is named for Panama's pioneering anthropologist, Reina Torres de Araúz, who first opened this and a half-dozen other museums in the country. The facility has a rather impressive collection of more than 15,000 pieces of jewelry, ceramics, stone, and other prehispanic artifacts.

5th of May Square, Panama City, Panama
Sights Details
Rate Includes: $5, Tues.--Sun. 9--4

Museo de la Biodiversidad

The triangle of land where the Causeway begins is the site of the eye-catching Museo de la Biodiversidad. Also called the "BioMuseo," the museum was designed by the American architect Frank O. Gehry, famous for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the pavilion at Chicago's Millennium Park. Gehry's colorful, jutting architecture is a big part of the attraction; inside you'll find exhibits on the remarkable biodiversity of Panama's forests and oceans, as well as the isthmus's role as a biological bridge between North and South America. Large-screen videos and life-size animal sculptures make dramatic visual statements, and plans call for a small inside aquarium to display marine life. The admission price is a bit steep considering the modest size of the museum, but it's still a noteworthy attraction, and the grounds offer lovely views of the canal entrance and the city skyline.

Museo del Canal Interoceánico

Casco Viejo

Once the only museum dedicated to the Panama Canal, the Museo del Canal Interoceánico has been put to shame by the visitors' center at Miraflores Locks. The museum is packed with artifacts, paintings, photographs, and videos about the Panama Canal, with most information posted in English and Spanish, although you may want to spend $5 for a recorded tour in English. Though the building was constructed in 1875 to be the Gran Hotel, it soon became the offices of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique, the French company that made the first attempt to dig a canal in Panama. After that effort went bust, the building became government property, and before being converted to a museum in the 1990s it was the central post office.

Panama City, Panama
Sights Details
Rate Includes: $8, Tues.–Sun. 9–5

Palacio de las Garzas

Casco Viejo

The neoclassical lines of the stunning, white presidential palace stand out against the Casco Viejo's skyline. Originally built in the 17th century by an official of the Spanish crown, the palace was a customs house for a while, and passed through various mutations before being renovated to its current shape in 1922, under the administration of Belisario Porras. President Porras also started the tradition of keeping pet herons, or egrets, in the fountain of the building's front courtyard, which led to its popular name: "Palace of the Herons." Because the building houses the president's offices and is surrounded by ministries, security is tight in the area, though nothing compared to the White House. During the day the guards may let you peek into the palace's Moorish foyer at its avian inhabitants, but to get inside you'll need to reserve a free tour by email ([email protected]) at least two weeks ahead of time. Tours are given Tuesday through Thursday.

Palacio Municipal

Casco Viejo

The city council now meets on the second floor of this neoclasisical white building, but it was originally built, in 1910, as the seat of the country's legislature (which grew too large for it and moved to its current home on Plaza Cinco de Mayo). It replaced a colonial palace that had stood at the same spot for nearly three centuries. On the ground floor is the tiny Museo de la Historia de Panamá, which traces the country's history from the explorations of Christopher Columbus to the present day. The history museum is a disappointment, but it's worth stepping inside to have a look at the building's interior.

Av. Central y Calle 7, Panama City, Panama
Sights Details
Rate Includes: $5, Weekdays 9–4

Parque Municipal Summit

About 13 miles northwest of Balboa, this large garden and zoo is surrounded by rain forest. Started in 1923 as a U.S. government project to reproduce tropical plants with economic potential, it evolved into a botanical garden and a zoo in the 1960s. The gardens and surrounding forest hold thousands of species, but the focus is on about 150 species of ornamental, fruit, and hardwood trees from around the world that were once raised here. These range from coffee and cinnamon to the more unusual candle tree and cannonball tree. The zoo is home to 40 native animal species, most of them in cages that are depressingly small, though a few have decent quarters. Stars include jaguars, ocelots, all six of the country's monkey species, several macaw species, and the harpy eagle, Panama's national bird. A neat thing about Summit is that most of the animals exhibited in the zoo are also found in the surrounding forest, so you may spot parrots, toucans, and agoutis on the grounds.

Parque Natural Metropolitano

Altos de Curundú

A mere 20-minute drive from downtown, this 655-acre expanse of protected wilderness is a remarkably convenient place to experience the flora and fauna of Panama's tropical rain forest. It's home to 227 bird species ranging from migrant Baltimore orioles to keel-billed toucans. Five well-marked trails, covering a total of about 4.8 km (3 miles), range from a climb to the park's highest point to a fairly flat loop. On any given morning of hiking you may spot such spectacular birds as a gray-headed chachalaca, a collared aracari, or a mealy parrot. The park is also home to 45 mammal species, so keep an eye out for dark brown agoutis (large jungle rodents). Keep your ears perked for tamarins, tiny monkeys that sound like birds.

There's a visitor center near the southern end of the park, next to El Roble and Los Caobas trails, where the nonprofit organization that administers the park collects the admission fee and sells cold drinks, snacks, and nature books. This is the best place to begin your exploration of the park, since you can purchase a map that shows the trails. Call two days ahead to reserve an English-speaking guide ($25).

Across the street from the visitor center is a shorter loop called Sendero Los Momótides. The Mono Titi and La Cieneguita trails head into the forest from the road about 1 km (½ mile) north of the visitor center and connect to each other to form a loop through the park's most precipitous terrain. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) has a construction crane in the middle of the forest near the Mono Titi trail that is used to study life in the forest canopy, which is where the greatest diversity of flora and fauna is found. El Roble connects with La Cieneguita, so you can hike the northern loop and then continue through the forest to the visitor center; the total distance of that hike is 3½ km (2¼ miles).

Be sure to bring water, insect repellent, and binoculars, and be careful where you put your feet and hands, since the park does have poisonous snakes, biting insects, and spiny plants.

Paseo Esteban Huertas

Casco Viejo

This promenade built atop the old city's outer wall is named for one of Panama's independence leaders. It stretches around the eastern edge of the point at Casco Viejo's southern tip. From the Paseo you can admire views of the Bay of Panama, the Amador Causeway, the Bridge of the Americas, the tenements of El Chorrillo, and ships awaiting passage through the canal. As it passes behind the Instituto Nacional de Cultura, the Paseo is shaded by a bougainvillea canopy where Kuna women sell handicrafts and couples cuddle on the benches. Bougainvillea arches frame the modern skyline across the bay, creating a nice photo op: the new city viewed from the old city.

Plaza Francia, Panama City, Panama
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Free

Plaza Catedral

Casco Viejo

The old city's main square is also known as Plaza Mayor, or Plaza de la Independencia, since the country's independence from both Spain and Colombia were celebrated here. Busts of Panama's founding fathers are scattered around the plaza, at the center of which is a large gazebo. The plaza is surrounded by historic buildings such as the Palacio Municipal, the Museo del Canal Interoceánico, and the Hotel Central, which once held the city's best accommodations and is slowly being renovated. Plaza Catedral is shaded by some large tabebuia trees, which are ablaze with pink blossoms in January and February. The plaza is the site of ocassional craft fairs, weekend concerts, and other events.

Av. Central between Calles 5 and 7, Panama City, Panama

Plaza Cinco de Mayo

Santa Ana

A tiny expanse on the north end of the Avenida Central pedestrian mall, this plaza has several notable landmarks nearby. To the northeast of the plaza stands a large brown building that was once a train station and later housed the country's anthropological museum, until it was moved to a new space near Parque Metropolitano. Just behind it on Avenida 4 Sur is a small handicraft market called the Mercado de Buhonería that few people visit, so you can score some good deals there. On the other side of Avenida Central, behind a large monument, is the Palacio Legislativo (Legislative Palace), Panama's Congress, which opens to the public for some legislative sessions, but is hardly worth the visit. The areas to the north and east of the Plaza should be avoided. Plan to arrive at and leave Plaza Cinco de Mayo in a taxi or bus.