If you only have 24 hours in Panama City, it’s difficult to see everything this place has to offer. This vibrant city offers a great balance of history, culture and fun. But, if you’re short on time or only here on a quick stopover, we have a plan for you.
This timeframe was inspired by one of my friends, Maria, who likes to do one-day stopovers in countries on the way to her final destination. She had even less than 24 hours in Panama City before taking her connecting flight to Argentina. (Check out our blog posts from there.) Travel tip: This is a great way to sneak in more of the world on limited vacation time.
We happened to be in Panama City during Carnaval in February. While the celebration is no where close to the magnitude of what goes on in Rio de Janeiro, there was a festive parade that featured people dressed in traditional Panamanian attire. Water is part of the celebration as well, which reminded us of our experience in Laos. Large trucks filled with water were driven around the city while long hoses sprayed water at everyone. Side note: The city apparently didn’t budget well for the water demand. During the celebration, many neighborhoods in Panama City were without water because all of it was being used for the festival. Probably should have thought that one through more…
Even if you’re not here during one of the country’s festivals, there is plenty to see and do. Here are our recommendations for how to spend 24 hours in Panama City:
A visit to Panama City is not complete without a trip to the Panama Canal and the Miraflores Visitors Center.
As an American and a history nerd, I had to go. I’ve heard people say “it’s just a canal” or “it’s not worth the effort to get there”. First, although the canal is the focal point, the visitor’s center provides a lot of historical background about the canal. If you go at certain times during the day, you can see the canal in action as ships move through this amazing technological marvel. Second, although it’s not in downtown Panama City, it’s only a cab ride away. Do check with your hotel or hostel about the cost before you go though, so you don’t get ripped off by the taxi driver.
For those who are a little hazy on the history of the Panama Canal, consider this your refresher course. Before the Panama Canal was built (which was between 1904 and 1914), ships needing to go from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean had to go south all the way around the southern tip of South America. The United States signed a treaty with Panama allowing them to build the canal and control an area of five miles on either side of the canal. The involvement of the US in the Panama Canal created a lot of tension in the decades after it was built. Today, the Panama Canal is still in full operation and is run by the Panamanian government. An expansion project began in 2007 to allow larger ships to pass through the canal. It’s still not finished.
It takes about 10 hours for a ship to travel through the Panama Canal and the journey includes going through three separate locks.
If you don’t mind getting some exercise, head to the Amador Causeway. It’s about $5 taxi ride from the city center. The two-mile long causeway connects the main area to four islands.
Within this stretch of road, you will find museums, shops and restaurants. We decided to walk, but you can easily rent a bike and explore this stretch of land. Grab lunch along the way and enjoy the view of Panama City.
Note: Areas of the causeway are under construction (as of January 2016), so the view is obstructed. Once the construction is complete, there will be a lot more to see.
I highly recommend visiting and staying in Casco Viejo. The old town is a very special neighborhood with a lot of history. It is a historic area of the city that was established in the 17th century.
Unfortunately, around the 1950s the area fell into disrepair and became part of the city that was avoided by most visitors. It became a UNESCO Heritage Site in the 90s and since then, the city has worked really hard to revitalize this unique area. Many areas are still under restoration, but the neighborhood is worth exploring before sunset. Walk along the beautiful Esteban Huertas Promenade and check out historical spots such as La Inglesia San Felipe Neri, Plaza Francia and Casa Gongora.
At night, there are various bar and restaurants that provide a fun nightlife atmosphere. Tip: If you want a fantastic view of the Panama City skyline, grab a drink at the Capital Bistro Panama. When you sit at the bar, you get a picture perfect view of Panama City at night.
Check out Panama Viejo, not to be confused with Casco Viejo. This is the former capital city where you can walk among the ruins of the old town. You can walk to the top of the old cathedral ruins.
While this site is free, there really isn’t much shade or vendors selling snacks. We took our time walking around, but if you’re in a rush, it can be quickly explored in an hour.
Panama’s international airport is the largest airport in central America. Many flights connect through Panama City. If yours does, consider spending 24 hours in Panama City on the way.