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5 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Panama

Panama’s small geographic area packs in a diverse range of landscapes, interesting towns and cities, and a myriad of vacation possibilities. Beautiful beaches and islands can be found along both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, and the mountainous interior is home to coffee plantations, small towns, waterfalls, wildlife, and some wonderful hiking trails.

In Panama City, you’ll find a modern metropolis with shopping, dining, and an assortment of attractions and things to do, including the country’s most famous site, the Panama Canal. Most first-time visitors head to Casco Viejo, the Old Town, to soak up the atmosphere and see a little of the city’s history. But for most visitors, Panama City is just a starting point before they head out on adventures to other parts of the country.

For ideas to help plan your trip, see our list of things to do in Panama.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. See Ships Transiting through the Panama Canal

Panama Canal
Panama Canal

Panama’s most famous attraction is by far the Panama Canal, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Watching a massive ship, piled high with colorful containers, gliding quietly into the locks reveals the true enormity of this great feat of engineering. Taking a boat tour through the canal gives you even more perspective.

If you want to simply see the Panama Canal, the best place to do this is at the Miraflores Locks, about 25 minutes from downtown Panama City. You can see the canal from the five-story visitor center, complete with a small museum, a restaurant, and an IMAX theater in a separate building.

2. Surf, Dive & Soak up the Beaches of Bocas Del Toro

Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Bocas del Toro is Panama’s main beach destination on the Caribbean. This collection of low-lying tropical islands, not far from the border with Costa Rica, is known for its outstanding soft-sand beaches lapped by crystal-clear, azure-colored waters.

The atmosphere here is beyond relaxed, with many young travelers coming to the area and, in some cases, staying for months or years. Things to do in Bocas del Toro include surfing, swimming, diving, or just lazing on the beach. Activities are generally cheap.

Although you can find luxury resorts with infinity pools, this is a budget-friendly destination, frequented by mainly singles or couples. The main town, also called Bocas del Toro or simply Bocas Town, is located on Isla Colon. The town itself is not known for beaches, but you can find lovely stretches of sand on other parts of the island or by taking a boat to nearby islands. Some of the most popular are Bluff Beach, Starfish Beach, and Red Frog Beach.

Beach on Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro
Beach on Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Bocas del Toro has an airport on Isla Colon, which is how many travelers get to the islands. If you are exploring Panama by car or public transport, most people come here after a stop in Boquete. From Boquete, you can drive about 3.5 hours over the mountains to the town of Almirante, and from here, take a 25-minute boat ride to the town of Bocas del Toro.

Boat trip pricing is set by the government, and all boats charge the same amount. Parking in Almirante is safe and not expensive. Don’t worry about finding the parking lots, touts will flag you down and direct you to their preferred lot, thereby earning themselves a small commission. This is a good investment if you are not familiar with the town.

3. Watch the Sun Go Down on the Sunset Coast

Punta Duarte on the Sunset Coast
Punta Duarte on the Sunset Coast | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

One of the very few places in Panama where you can watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, the Sunset Coast is an undiscovered area with small towns, wide open beaches, and a small number of lodges and inns where you can get away from the tourist scene.

This is rural Panama, home to rolling hills, small villages, family farms, and huge beaches lined by palms and forest. Foreign tourists are not plentiful the way they are in other areas of the country, and many of the visitors are Panamanian. The road down to the Sunset Coast from the Pan-American Highway is twisty and has a few potholes to dodge, but every mile takes you further off the beaten track.

Beaches along the Sunset Coast
Beaches along the Sunset Coast | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

This area is also popular with surfers. The wide-open beaches take the brunt of the Pacific Ocean rollers, and it’s rare that you’ll need to share a wave. If you want a beach all to yourself, this is the place to come.

4. Hiking & Nature in Boquete

Waterfalls near Boquete
Waterfalls near Boquete | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The mountain town of Boquete has a wonderful climate, where you can escape the sometimes oppressive heat of the coast and lower areas. The town is relaxed and safe, catering to expats and people escaping the winters in northern climates, and local Panamanians looking for a weekend getaway.

Some of the appeal here is the variety of good restaurants, as well as a mix of quality hotels and luxury inns. It’s also one of Panama’s most important coffee-growing areas, and known as a hot spot for nature and wildlife, particularly hiking and birdwatching.

Having a vehicle here is quite handy for touring the surrounding mountains and reaching trailheads and nearby sites, but you can also arrange tours with transportation to the coffee plantations.

Hummingbird at Finca Lerida Lodge
Hummingbird at Finca Lerida Lodge | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

One of the best short drives in Panama leaves from the outskirts of Boquete. This scenic loop of about 15 miles passes the main hiking trails, a beautiful river, an abandoned castle, and waterfalls. The road also provides amazing views down the valley and up the slopes of Volcan Baru.

Along the loop is Finca Lerida Lodge, with an outstanding restaurant. It’s also one of the best places to visit to see birds in the area. This makes a nice lunch stop, where you can watch the non-stop hummingbird action.

Parque Nacional Volcan Baru near Boquete
Parque Nacional Volcan Baru near Boquete | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Serious hikers can arrange to hike up Baru volcano, leaving in the wee hours of the morning with a guide to be at the summit for sunrise. You can also tackle hikes like the popular Quetzal Trail (Sendero Los Quetzales), leaving from nearby Volcan Baru National Park, or one of several waterfall hikes off the loop road.

If you want to experience a little nature here without leaving Boquete, plan a stay at the quaint Boquete Garden Inn and enjoy breakfast outside while you watch the colorful birds dining at the feeders.

5. Wander the Narrow Streets of Casco Viejo in Panama City

Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

History surrounds you as you stroll through the narrow streets of Casco Viejo, also known as the Old Town. See colorful buildings, historic ruins, and great views out over the bay towards the gleaming towers of modern Panama City. This area is compact, and all the sights are within an easy stroll of one another.

In the evening, the buildings and ruins are creatively lit up, and restaurants set up tables and chairs on the sidewalks. Casco Viejo is ideal for a romantic getaway, with boutique hotels located in restored buildings dating from the 18th or 19th century.

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