Spending one day in Panama City might come as a bit of a surprise. Panama City is the most developed city in Central America. And in a region famous for beaches & jungles, the modern skyline and cosmopolitanism of the Panamanian capital often seem out of place.
Ignore its contemporary appearance for now. Embarking on a Panama City itinerary uncovers iconic historic sites. They tell harrowing stories of its sometimes tumultuous past. And with even just 24 hours in Panama City, you won’t need to stretch your imagination much to create some epic stories of your own.
Unsure of where to begin? Plan your trip with this complete 1-day Panama City trip itinerary, including where to go & where to stay!
Where to go in Panama City in 24 hours: A complete 1-day itinerary
Despite sprawling over the coastline, Panama City isn’t as large as it may first seem. For travellers launching their first Panama travel plan, the capital is the perfect starting point.
Most of the top points of interest in Panama City are located within a relatively small radius. You’ll be able to scoot between them without much fuss.
To maximize your first 24 hours in Panama City, I’d recommend travelling by taxi. The public transportation system in Panama City, unsurprisingly, isn’t at the same standard as in big European or Asian cities. It’s often crowded and less convenient than using taxis to get around.
Like most of our one-day city itineraries, this Panama City itinerary hits as many of the main attractions as possible. Take it all in stride. If you feel you’re moving around too much, adjust as needed. Tailor the experience to your own personal travel preferences.
See the remains of Panama Viejo
The perfect place to start your day is Panama Viejo (also called Panama La Vieja). This site holds a lot of history. It’s where Panama City was originally founded. Today, Panama Viejo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Panama Viejo is home to what remains of the first European settlement on the Pacific Ocean. This city bloomed in the early 17th century. It thrived with homes, trading posts, and places of worship dotting the landscape.
It was, however, attacked on January 28, 1671, by a group led by a man known as Captain Morgan. (Yes, that same dude who’s got a best-selling rum bearing his name!) Panama Viejo was lit on fire. Many buildings burnt down, and many people lost their lives in the raid.
Today, the remains of Panama Viejo are one of Panama City’s must-see attractions. The ruins tell fascinating stories of what might have been. This site is well-structured and labeled with large placards. They’re placed strategically to show you where to walk.
The highlight of Panama Viejo is the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. The ancient church still stands mostly intact. There’s also a museum here with relics and important artifacts of the city on display.
It’s best to make Panama Viejo the first stop on your itinerary in the morning. There’s little shelter here when the midday sun kicks in.
Take a walk in Casco Viejo
About a thirty-minute ride from Panama Viejo is Casco Viejo. Also called Casco Antiguo or San Felipe, the area is the historic old town where the survivors of Captain Morgan’s attack settled.
Today, Casco Viejo is recognized as Panama City’s cultural and historical capital. Like Panama Viejo, Casco Viejo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s plenty to see in this part of town as you stroll around.
Casco Viejo is the most photogenic part of Panama City. The area is full of colonial homes and stately buildings. Many are adorned with pastel façades and flowers draped over wrought-iron balconies. Walk around the cobblestone streets, tucking into bars, hip boutiques, and hotels in Casco Viejo.
This part of town also boasts excellent ocean views. Las Bobedas is among the best spots to enjoy the views in Casco Antiguo. You can also pick up tour souvenirs from local artisans here.
There’s also an abundance of restaurants and coffee shops in Casco Viejo. Stop for breakfast at any of the city’s coffeehouses. Dodó and Bajareque Coffee House are great choices.
Round out your visit to Casco Viejo by visiting one of Panama’s most impressive buildings, the Metropolitan Cathedral.
Watch ships roll through the Panama Canal
Leave the concrete jungle and early settlements behind. Soon, you’ll immerse yourself in lush vegetation along the way to the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal. This world-famous canal is the man-made wonder that put Panama City on the map. It’s easiest to view the Panama Canal at the Miraflores Locks. They’re about 20 minutes away by car (barring heavy traffic) from Casco Viejo.
Although it might not seem it at first glance, visiting the Panama Canal is an unforgettable experience. The canal is an engineering marvel on its own. And with the tropical scenery around it, it makes for the perfect escape from Panama City’s urban life.
For an entry fee of $15, you’ll get access to the museum and multiple observation decks. You’ll also enter a theatre to watch a short video on the canal’s history. Visit around 11 am to 2 pm to watch the ships putter along as the locks shift wondrously.
Chow down on a traditional Panamanian lunch in El Cangrejo
By this time, you’ll have probably built up quite an appetite. How about grabbing a quick Panamanian lunch to taste all the goodies that Panama has to offer?
If you want to eat like a local, head back into the city towards the central neighbourhood of El Cangrejo. It’s a relatively small business & residential area with restaurants, cafés, and small parks.
El Cangrejo is home to El Trapiche, one of the most popular restaurants in the city. The most common dish here includes rice, soup, and a coffee with fried chicken, stewed beef, or caramelized pork, all for under $10.
El Trapiche is also a few blocks away from the statue of Albert Einstein’s head sculpted by Carlos Arboleda. You can check out this beautiful work of art and take a few pictures while in the area.
Not sure what else to eat? Here are a few snacks you should try while in Panama City:
- Empanadas: Empanadas are a delicious and satisfying snack that’s a must-have in Panama. You can get it at restaurants, coffee shops, or normal food stalls. There are several different varieties of empanadas to choose from. Some are baked with doughy shells, lightly-fried with flaky shells, or deep fried with greasy shells. The most popular traditional stuffings include beef and chicken. You’ll certainly enjoy this tasty little devil!
- Patacones: Also known as tostones, patacones are twice-fried plantains. They’re layered with meat and other toppings. Patacones are often served as a side dish. They’re especially delicious when served sizzling from the fryer.
Shop at exclusive stores in Punta Pacifica
With the sun beating down on the city, escape the heat by adding some glorious air-conditioned shopping to your itinerary. One of the best places to shop in Panama City is the ultramodern district of Punta Pacifica.
In the Punta Pacifica area, you’ll find the Multiplaza Mall. The popular mall features some of the world’s top brands, from Cartier to Zara to Hugo Boss. It’s just 20 minutes by taxi from El Cangrejo.
Just around the corner from Multiplaza Mall is Super Mini Diablo Rosso. This concept store doubles as an art gallery. On offer here is interesting artwork, homeware items as well as unique fashion items. Be sure to bring along cash to buy some interesting souvenirs from your trip.
Cycle on the Amador Causeway
After your shopping spree, it’s time to unwind. And there’s no better place in Panama City to do it than the Amador Islands. The islands are just 25 minutes by car from Punta Pacifica.
The Amador Causeway is by far the most relaxing spot in the city. It offers breathtaking vistas over the sea and the city’s skyline. Gear up for the trip by renting a bike to cycle around or just sit with a cup of ice cream and enjoy the view.
Visit the Biomuseo
Located in Amador is the most renowned museum in Panama City: the Biomuseo. The museum was designed by the famous Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. Gehry’s extraordinary work turns heads all around the world.
The Biomuseo is made up of eight galleries. They focus on the origins of the Panamanian isthmus and its impact on the planet’s biodiversity.
When you’re done in the museum, take a walk outside in the Garden of Biodiversity. Enjoy the peace and the sound of the birds singing. Biomuseo’s relaxing effect makes it perfect as your penultimate stop.
Spend the night in Casco Viejo
After exploring Panama City in one day, creating new impressions, spending a happy hour back in Casco Viejo is the best way to chillax. The nightlife in Casco Viejo is always lively and bubbling. There’s a multitude of bars here to try local beers and high-quality Panamanian rum.
Casco Viejo is also a wonderful place to enjoy local and international foods like traditional Spanish tapas or even Japanese. Watching the whole spectacle of Casco Viejo coming alive from a rooftop is the perfect way to end your one day in Panama City.
One quick word of warning: Be sure to stay aware of your surroundings in Casco Viejo at night. Although the historic area has cleaned up its act in recent years, not all its neighbours can say the same. Neighbouring districts like El Chorrillo, Santa Ana, and San Miguel are still notorious for their safety concerns.
Where to stay with 24 hours in Panama City
Like most Central American cities, choosing where to stay in Panama City can present a bit of a challenge. Although safer than most other urban centres in the region, Panama City’s still got its share of seedy areas that you’d do well to stay away from.
Although Casco Viejo is the most charming area in the city, it isn’t always the best place for travellers. The surrounding neighbourhoods can be rough around the edges. (That said, most tourists won’t experience any problems in Casco Viejo. Don’t rule it out completely.)
Instead, I’d recommend staying near the financial district in Obarrio or El Cangrejo. They’re super central, safe, and feature a ton of restaurants that are among the city’s best. Here are a few places to check out:
- Eurostars Panama City is a stylish contemporary hotel that’s chock-loaded with great amenities. It boasts an ultra-central location. You’ll enjoy extras like a Turkish bath, sauna, and a 27th-floor outdoor pool. It out-delivers what you’d expect at its budget-friendly price point.
- Hyatt Place Panama City Downtown is my own top pick for the area. This mid-range hotel is centrally located. It offers extras like an outdoor pool & breakfast buffet for guests. Try to get a room with skyline views for the ultimate Panama City accommodations experience.
- Global Hotel Panama offers spacious & contemporary rooms. What intrigues most guests at this 4-star hotel, however, is the outdoor pool. Here, you can cool off from the sweltering sun to incredible views over the capital.
- W Panama is a tremendous 5-star luxury hotel that’s among the best in the city. Like others in the chain, rooms at the W are über-stylish and push the envelope on comfort. Splurge on one of the massive Fabulous King Rooms to see the city at its finest from your own private balcony.