A view of a cityscape at night time. There is text on the image that reads, "Best things to do in Panama".

15 Best Things To Do In Panama According To Locals

There is far more to Panama than the Panama Canal!

An aerial view of a big city near the water in Panama. There are tall and crowded buildings.
(Photo courtesy of tourismpanama.com)

From its beautiful beaches to its stunning national parks to the bustling capital Panama City, Panama is a haven for nature lovers, adventure seekers, and city sightseers alike!

A side view of a city in Panama. There are large buildings and a color changing sky.
(Photo courtesy of selloffvacations.com)

To help shed some light on this amazing country, here are the 15 best things to do in Panama according to locals.

1. Watch the Ships on the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is one of the true marvels of human engineering, and its construction changed the maritime world forever. Opened in 1914, the Panama Canal stretches 51 miles and serves as the only connection between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

An aerial view of the Panama Canal.
(Photo courtesy of freightwaves.com)

The Panama Canal is one of the best things to do in Panama whether you are a fan of engineering like me or just want to marvel at the sheer scale of it. The best place to view ships is at one of the three lanes of locks on the canal which allow around 15,000 vessels a year to go through.

If you really want to see the Panama Canal in all its glory, I recommend you do what I did, and take a helicopter tour for a bird’s eye view. Tours are available online and in Panama City, and are well worth the Balboa! (For those who don’t know, the Panamanian Balboa is the official currency of Panama but US Dollars are also accepted everywhere.)

2. Visit Panama City

Located on the Pacific Coast, Panama City is a vibrant, bustling capital city with loads to explore! What I love most about Panama City is that every district has its own vibe. From the sleek, towering skyscrapers of Punta Pacifica to the colonial-era charm of Casco Viejo (see below), there is an amazing blend of the old and the new.

A beautiful photo of Panama City. There are large buildings and a street and walkway surrounded by palm trees and on the edge of the water.
(Photo courtesy of Expedia)

Whatever you are looking for, whether that’s world-class dining, shopping, nightlife, or colorful street markets, Panama City has you covered. My personal favorite is the Cinta Costera, a beautiful waterfront promenade, which is an ideal spot for a leisurely walk while soaking in panoramic views of the cityscape.

Panama City has a huge array of different restaurants to cater to every taste. Panama food is hugely diverse but some of the highlights you have to try are ceviche, a fresh seafood dish marinated in citrus juices, sancocho, a hearty chicken and root vegetable stew, and patacones, twice-fried green plantains. If you are missing home comforts, there are also a number of American chain restaurants available too. It really is a foodie heaven!

3. Discover Panama’s History in Panama Viejo

If you are looking to explore a bit of history, Panama Viejo is the remains of the old Panama City and offers visitors a glimpse into the country’s early Spanish colonial past. Established in 1519, it was once a bustling city before being sacked by pirates in 1671 but is now one of the top tourist attractions in Panama.

A historic ruins site in Panama Viejo.
(Photo courtesy of efecomunica.efe.com)

The ruins of Panama Viejo still have their old-world charm and tell tales of a city that was an essential hub for the Spanish Empire in Latin America. Panama Viejo offers some of the best photography opportunities in Panama City with ancient streets, crumbling churches and convents, and a truly unique vibe.

4. Wander the Narrow Streets of Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo, also known as Casco Antiguo or San Felipe, is the historic district of Panama City. Having undergone extensive restoration, the neighborhood boasts a beautiful blend of Spanish colonial, neoclassical, and Art Deco architectures. Casco Viejo is also home to some of the boutique hotels, nightclubs, and restaurants in the city so it is a great place to stay during your Panama trip.

An aerial view of Casco Viejo, with its narrow streets and close buildings.There is water in the background and many red roofs.
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

I spent a whole day just wandering its narrow, cobbled streets, and marveling at the ornate churches, plazas, and vibrant houses where the locals live. If eating fresh seafood is at the top of your Panama checklist, Casco Viejo is the best place to do it with amazing local food available everywhere. The charm of Casco Viejo is in its details, so take your time to absorb its unique atmosphere and try to catch a local event or festival.

5. Head to the Beach

Panama boasts stunning white sand beaches along both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts (the Atlantic Ocean is infamously rough), making the country a must-visit for beach bums everywhere. I was lucky enough to explore many of them on my trip, but two standouts that I highly recommend are Starfish Beach and Red Frog Beach.

Starfish Beach

Starfish Beach is one of Panama’s hidden gems, renowned for its tranquil azure waters and a sandy seabed dotted with the countless starfish that give the beach its name. The beach is located on the picturesque Bocas del Toro archipelago (see below) and has a wild, untouched feeling due to the tangle of palm trees that grow out of the gold sand. I took a 30-minute bus from Bocas Town and then there was a 15-minute walk, but if you aren’t in the mood for walking, there is a small boat to Starfish Beach too.

A side view of Starfish Beach in Panama. There is very clear shallow water that meets the beachline and palm trees to the left.
(Photo courtesy of Expedia)

Red Frog Beach

Another Bocas del Toro gem, Red Frog Beach is a pristine slice of paradise that is famous for its native small red frogs which can be spotted hopping amidst the leafy undergrowth. But it’s not just the amphibians that make this place special; the dense tropical foliage surrounding the beach also provides a habitat for lazy sloths, casually hanging from tree branches.

An aerial view of Red Frog Beach. There is deep blue water beyond the beachline and a lot of greenery surrounding a building.
(Photo courtesy of Red Frog Beach)

The beach itself is stunning with turquoise waters, and powdery white sand providing the perfect location for a day of relaxation. The locals here are super friendly and well up for a game of beach volleyball (but be warned, they are very good!)

6. Go Birdwatching at Soberania National Park

Nestled just a short drive from Panama City, Soberania National Park is a birdwatcher’s paradise with more than 525 species of birds. There are two main hiking trails, The Pipeline Road and the el Charco, which meander through the tropical rainforest.

A tucan sitting on a tree branch looking forward.
(Photo courtesy of edventure-travel.com)

As well as the birds, you can also catch a glimpse of monkeys in the trees and, if you are lucky, Soberania National Park is also home to sloths, anteaters, and coati. There are guided hiking tours available or you can just walk the park at your leisure.

7. Explore the Historic Sites of Darien National Park

Darien National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a visit is definitely one of the most interesting things to do in Panama. It serves as a bridge between North and South America and has a diverse range of habitats including mangroves, sandy beaches, swamps, and tropical rainforest.

A swampy area in Darien National Park.
(Photo courtesy of cntraveler.com)

Apart from its natural wonders, the park also has enormous historic significance, as it contains petroglyphs and relics from the communities that once thrived here. The two most popular areas to visit are Santa Cruz de Cana and Pirre Station, both of which have a number of hiking trails, with views of monkeys, sloths, and even jaguars.

8. Visit the San Blas Islands

Sprinkled along the northeastern coast of Panama, the San Blas Islands are a breathtaking archipelago of over 365 islands and cays. Owned and managed by the indigenous community of the Guna people, the San Blas Islands have remained largely untouched by modern developments, making them a paradise of white sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, and turquoise waters.

Three cabins and several palm trees on the beach in the San Blas Islands.
(Photo courtesy of sanblasfrontera.com)

There are a number of boat tours available to the San Blas Islands, and it is well, well worth a day trip from the capital! The snorkeling in the Caribbean Sea is incredible, and getting the opportunity to interact with the Guna communities in the local San Blas seafood restaurants was a real highlight of my Panama trip.

9. Get off the Beaten Path in Santa Fe and San Francisco

Santa Fe and San Francisco offer a more rural and authentic Panamanian experience. These towns are nestled way up in the mountains and are known for their natural beauty, clear rivers, and traditional Panamanian culture.

A waterfall in Santa Fe, Panama surrounded by trees and greenery.
(Photo courtesy of everydaytravelguides.com)

The two towns are located about a five-mile drive from Panama City, but if you want to spend a little longer hiking to the hidden waterfalls, and horseback riding through the rainforests, each small town has some cheap but friendly hotels to stay in.

10. See the Marine Life at Coiba National Park

Coiba National Park on Coiba Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a true ecological gem located in the Gulf of Chiriquí. You will need to book a boat tour to get there, but once you do, the beautiful scenery will make it well worth the effort.

An aerial view of Coiba National Park.The land is dense with trees and the water a deep blue.
(Photo courtesy of discovercoibapanama.com)

The Coiba National Park has a vast array of terrestrial wildlife like crocodiles, snakes, and a huge number of bird species, which can’t be found anywhere else, and Coiba island serves as a refuge for coral reefs, sharks, rays, and a plethora of fish species. Without a doubt, though, the biggest draw is the whale sharks that frequent the waters around Coiba, which make the island a true scuba diving bucket list destination.

11. Visit the Idyllic Islands of Bocas del Toro

If you have the time, make sure to spend some time in Bocas del Toro, an archipelago off the Caribbean coast. The islands here are honestly as picturesque as postcards, with turquoise waters meeting white sandy shores that are among the most beautiful in the Caribbean.

A view of a few buildings on the water with boats in front in the Islands of Bocas del Toro.
(Photo courtesy of tourismpanama.com)

Bocas del Toro is also a great place to do some water sports with kayaking, paddleboarding, and scuba diving all available. The coral reefs that surround Bocas are some of the best you will ever snorkel, and on Bocas Town, the main island, there are several laid-back bars and seafood restaurants, making it a great spot to relax after a day in the water.

Getting to Bocas del Toro is straightforward; most travelers opt for a short flight from Panama City or a bus-ferry combo from the mainland. Once there, the main island offers a variety of accommodations, from budget hostels to upscale resorts, with a recommended stay of 3-5 days to fully explore the islands.

12. Tour El Valle de Anton

Nestled within the vast crater of an extinct volcano, El Valle de Anton is a picturesque mountain town known for its cooler climate and lush surroundings. Boasting a variety of hiking trails and walking tours, visitors can wander through cloud forests, discover cascading waterfalls, and even spot the elusive golden frog (sadly they were hiding on my trip!)

A view of a path through El Valle de Anton while the sun is setting.
(Photo courtesy of tourismpanama.com)

I particularly loved the local artisan markets and thermal springs in El Valle de Anton, which offered a nice change of pace from the hustle and bustle of Panama City. I even managed to pick up some beans from the local coffee plantations which were out of this world.

13. Visit the Pearl Islands

The Pearl Islands, situated in the Gulf of Panama, comprise over 200 islands and islets. The archipelago is renowned for its luxurious resorts, turquoise waters, and a rich history of pirates and pearls.

An aerial view of Pearl Islands. There is a lot of trees surrounding several buildings and blue water to the left.
(Photo courtesy of eleta.org)

Each of the Pearl Islands has its own distinct beauty, so I recommend island hopping or taking day trips to experience as much as you can. The islands have incredible snorkeling in coral-rich waters and some of the best seafood I have ever eaten! For those keen on history and culture, some islands still retain indigenous communities, offering insights into their traditions and ways of life.

14. Go Surfing in Santa Catalina

Santa Catalina, on Panama’s Pacific Ocean coast, is a paradise for surfers. Known for its powerful waves and consistent breaks, it attracts surfers from around the world. Whether you’re a beginner (like me) or an expert, there are surfing spots on Santa Catalina suitable for all skill levels, and a number of surf schools to help you learn.

A far view of Santa Catalina, Panama. The island is dense with trees and you see waves on the blue water.
(Photo courtesy of panamasurfingholidays.com)

If surfing isn’t your thing, the town’s laid-back vibe, combined with its beautiful beaches, makes it a perfect destination to relax and soak up the sun with a beer or cocktail.

15. Go Souvenir Shopping at Santa Ana Market

Santa Ana Marketis a must-visit for souvenir hunters on a trip to Panama. This bustling local market is brimming with local crafts, colorful textiles, and unique trinkets but the real showstopper here is the iconic Panama hat.

A picture of a variety of vegetables that can be bought in the Santa Ana Market in Panama.
(Photo courtesy of arcoproperties.com)

Not only can you buy one as a keepsake, but the market is also the best place to watch the skilled artisans make them. It’s a fascinating glimpse into a longstanding tradition and provides an opportunity to purchase authentic goods directly from local craftsmen and women (it’s also a great place to practice your haggling skills!)

Final Thoughts on the Best Things to Do in Panama

So there you have it, our comprehensive guide to the best things to see and do when you visit Panama! For those underwater adventurers, look here for more on scuba diving in Panama.

Four people swimming in Panama. There are several palm tress in the background and they are close to the shore.
(Photo courtesy of lonelyplanet.com)

This tiny country may just be just 37 miles at its narrowest between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic, but there truly is something for everyone! In just one trip to this paradise in Central America, you can experience golden beaches, turquoise waters, mountains, rainforests, luxurious restaurants and hotels, and a whole lot more!

An aerial view of Panama. The water is split by beach land. There is a lot of trees, buildings, and sand.
(Photo courtesy of worldatlas.com)

Honestly, if it isn’t already, you need to a trip to Panama to your bucket list because it really is like no other place on Earth. When you are planning your trip, remember that the rainy season is May-November when temperatures may only dip a little, but you can expect a downpour every afternoon.

Until next time, Gracias Panama!

“How boring would the world be if everywhere and everyone were the same. Safe travels and good adventures.” Scuba Jay

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