Panama Should Be Next on Your Travel Bucket List..
We just returned from a short 3 day trip to Panama and fell in love with this colorful country! We were wonderfully surprised by how much this compact country has to offer – with some of the world’s most bio diverse landscapes you can explore rain forests, relax on remote island paradises and have a skyscraper topped urban metropolis – all within a day’s drive.
For the adventurous, visitors to Panama can sport fish, scuba dive and mountain bike. Meanwhile, strong Spanish influences make for some incredible architecture and cuisine. It’s no wonder that so many Americans choose to retire in Panama!
There is an incredible amount of natural wildlife, flavorful cuisine and stunning architecture so no matter what you’re looking to do, I think all travelers would really enjoy visiting Panama.
Keep reading below for our Panama itinerary and lots of suggestions for things to do in Panama City!
Flying into Panama City
We flew into Panama City from New York on a 5 hour direct flight. Copa Airlines, Panama’s national airline carrier, offers direct routes from a number of US cities making Panama quite accessible. Copa is also part of Star Alliance for any United frequent fliers. You can check current flight routes and fares here.
We got in quite late, hopped into a car and headed directly from Tocumen International Airport to our hotel in Casco Viejo.
Panama Itinerary Ideas
|Vacation Itinerary||Panamanian Cities||Best For:|
|3 days||Panama City||Culture Lovers|
|1 week||Add: Boquete (Panama Highlands)||Outdoor, Nature & Coffee Lovers|
|2 weeks||Add: Bocas del Toro (Panama Archipelago)||Beach Lovers|
We spent 3 days in Panama, basing ourselves in Panama City’s Casco Viejo. We did a day trip to the San Blas Islands and if we had had more time, we would love to have explored more of Panama’s beautiful islands and rainforest, which we heard so much about!Read more: Panama Should Be Next on Your Bucket List – Here’s Why
Day 1: Exploring Panama City and Casco Viejo
We based ourselves in quaint Casco Viejo, the historic district of Panama City. The Old Town boasts beautiful Spanish-style plazas and colonial era buildings. Many of the buildings have double height front doors and gorgeous street facing balconies. Once magnificent, the quarter became run down and disreputable but today is quickly being revitalized. It reminded us of a blend between New Orleans and Cuba!
Overnight: American Trade Hotel
We loved staying at the American Trade Hotel, in the center of Casco Viejo. Located in a restored landmark building on Plaza Herrera and part of the Small Luxury Hotels Collection, this charming boutique had gorgeous mid-century modern rooms and lots of Central American flair. We had a balcony overlooking the square and a quiet rear-facing garden. Everything about the hotel – from the on-site coffee shop, restaurant, late night eats, quirky library and pool – were amazing.Check rates: Hotels.com | Booking.com Read reviews: My full review here | TripAdvisor reviews
Things to Do in Casco Viejo:
Old City Walking Tour
We took a tour of Casco Viejo and learned that the settlement was built in 1673 on the southwestern tip of Panama City after local residents destroyed the first Panama City. Quick-thinking locals burned their original city to thwart pirate Henry Morgan, who had come to Panama looking for gold. Upon discovering the smoldering ruins, ingenious Panamanians asked Captain Morgan for a donation to help them rebuild. The would be robber became the benefactor.
Over the years, Casco Viejo slowly fell into disrepair and many residents moved out, leaving only the poor and (without means) behind. Today, Casco Viejo is undergoing a renaissance of sorts – the kind where once-grand crumbling buildings are being restored, but rebuilt into hotels and restaurants for tourists as opposed to new housing for the area’s longtime struggling residents. Every third building was freshly restored, side by side empty structural calicanto shells.
The old neighborhood is quite compact and best explored on foot. For an in-depth understanding of the town’s history and notable monuments, hire a guide or join a group tour.
For lunch, we ate at The Dining Room inside the American Trade Hotel. The airy, tiled restaurant is gorgeous and serves classic meat and seafood dishes. We loved how fresh everything was!
For dinner, we had some of the best cocktails at Ocho Y Medio, a really beautiful brasserie hidden on a side street not far from our hotel. Inside there’s a fabulous bar and garden courtyard. It’s a little pricey (think American prices) but everything we had, from the octopus petacones to the beef steak to the garden dessert was incredile.
Day 2: The Panama Canal and Biodiversity Museum
We spent the morning having a leisurely breakfast at our hotel before heading out to explore some of Panama City’s cultural offerings.
Overnight: American Trade Hotel
Best Museums in Panama City:
Panama Canal Museum
For American travelers visiting Panama, we highly recommend checking out the Miraflores locks at the Panama Canal Museum! Ask the hotel concierge to book, they perfectly timed our visit to coincide with a cruise ship passing through the Panama Canal locks and we were able to see the canal locks in action.
The Panama Canal museum also provides an excellent explanation of the history and development of the canal route via a short film and 3 floors of exhibits. The museum is a popular one, so be prepared for crowds. Tickets can be purchased here.
Afterwards, we visited the Frank Gehry designed Biodiversity Museum. 3 million years ago, North and South America were separated by the Ocean and the earth’s shifting tectonic plates slowly formed a thin bridge of land, connecting two land masses which had been separated for over 70 million years.
The resulting mingling of species from North and South America and Panama’s location in the middle created one of the most biodiverse places in the world. Did you know the isthmus of Panama has 40x more species of trees than North America?
Whether you are a family traveling with kids to Panama or millennials like ourselves, I think you’d enjoy a visit to Panama City’s biodiversity museum. For architecture fans, the Biomuseo was designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry and represents his only work in Latin America and the tropics! Tickets cost $18 for adults and can be purchased here.
For lunch, we headed back to Casco Viejo to explore more of the charming side streets and took advantage of the happy hour specials and delicious sandwiches at Tantalo.
For dinner, after a little siesta at the hotel pool we headed to the spot Casacasco. This energetic restaurant was recently restored, having previously been a hostel, and is located right opposite the American Trade Hotel. Each night from our balcony we saw how popular the rooftop restaurant was and decided we had to try it! Inside, each floor is swankily decorated. We chose to sit outside on the rooftop for a fun view of Plaza Herrera below!
Day 3: Day Trip to San Blas Islands
We decided at the spur of the moment to visit Panama’s San Blas Islands. From Panama City, it is a bit of a trek, but the islands are so pristine and beautiful that water lovers will definitely want to carve out a visit!
Overnight: American Trade Hotel
Day Trip to San Blas
Hire a driver from Panama City to transport you or better yet, book a tour. It’s about a 2 hour drive from Casco Viejo to read the checkpoint area and you’ll need a passport. The San Blas Islands are sort of a self-governed state by the indigenous Kuta Indians and we found out once we arrived that you need to hire a local Indian driver and guide or they won’t let you through.
And that’s our quick Panama itinerary for 3 days! With more time, we would have loved to explore the Panamanian rainforest Boquete and the Bocas del Toro archipelago. We’ll have to save that for a future visit!
We were hosted by the American Trade Hotel on our visit to Panama.