36 Best Sights in Panama City, Panama

Plaza Herrera

This large plaza a block off Avenida Central is surrounded by some lovely old buildings, several of which have been renovated or are in the process of renovation. The largest building on the square is home to the stylish American Trade Hotel, which has a lobby bar, restaurant, and jazz club, as well as outdoor dining and imbibing on the square some evenings. At the center of the plaza is a statue of local hero General Tomás Herrera, looking rather regal on horseback. Herrera fought in South America's wars for independence from Spain and later led Panama's first attempt to gain independence from Colombia, in 1840. Half a block west of it stands the last remaining chunk of the ancient wall that once enclosed Casco Viejo, called the Baluarte de la Mano de Tigre (Tiger's Hand Bulwark), beyond which the neighborhood grows somewhat sketchy. A company called Fortaleza Tours, which operates out of the American Trade Hotel, offers walking tours through the poorer blocks where gangs once ruled the streets; the fact that former gang members lead the tours lends even more authenticity to the experience.

Plaza Mayor

Panamá Viejo

Vía Cincuentenaria curves to the left in front of what was once the city's Plaza Mayor (Main Plaza), a simple cobbled square backed by a stone tower that is the only part of Panamá Viejo that has undergone any significant renovation. Show your admission ticket for the Visitor Center at the entrance here, or buy a separate ticket to enter the plaza alone. Climb the metal staircase inside the Torre de la Catedral (Cathedral Tower)—the former bell tower of Panama's original cathedral—for a view of the surrounding ruins. The structure just south of the tower was once the city hall; walls to the north and east are all that remain of homes, a church, and a convent. The extensive ruins are shaded by tropical trees, which attract plenty of birds, so the nature and scenery are as much of an attraction as the ancient walls.

Av. Cincuentenario, Panama City, Panama
Sight Details
Rate Includes: $10, Tues.--Sun. 8:30--4:30

Salón Bolívar

The hall in which Simón Bolívar's 1926 meeting of independence took place, next to the Iglesia de San Francisco, holds a small museum.

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Santo Domingo

A catastrophic fire ruined this 17th-century church and Dominican monastery centuries ago. What's left at the entrance is the Arco Chato, or flat arch, a relatively precarious structure that served as proof that the country was not subject to earthquakes, tipping the scales in favor of Panama over Nicaragua for the construction of the transoceanic canal. The arch finally collapsed in 2003, without the help of an earthquake, but the city fathers considered it such an important landmark that they had it rebuilt.

Av. A at Calle 3, Panama

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Spread over a ridge on the north side of Cerro Ancón and lined by trees, the home office of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), known as the Earl S. Tupper Center, has offices, meeting halls, a large library, a bookstore, and a café. A branch of the Washington, D.C.–based Smithsonian Institution, the STRI has half a dozen research stations in Panama, the most famous of which is on Barro Colorado Island. The institute also coordinates scientific studies in various other tropical countries. All reservations for tours to Barro Colorado Island are done online, but you can visit the Tupper Center to browse the library and shop at the bookstore, which has an excellent selection of natural history titles, as well as souvenirs.

Teatro Nacional

Casco Viejo

The interior of this theater is truly posh, with ceiling murals, gold balconies, and glittering chandeliers—a little bit of Europe in the heart of old Panama City. After serving as a convent and, later, an army barracks, the building was remodeled by Italian architect Genaro Ruggieri in 1908. Paintings inside by Panamanian artist Roberto Lewis depict Panama's history via Greek mythology. Check the local papers, or call to find out if the national symphony orchestra, or another group, is playing while you're in town, as attending a concert is the best way to experience the building.