Things To Do And See In Panama City Inspired By A Local
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How best to immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of Panama City? What are the top attractions and things to do in this rich international haven of banking, tourism and maritime commerce, and how best can you experience them?
Panama City has lot to offer the eager international visitor. Not only is it home to a wonder of the modern world but its value as a top holiday destination extends into the realms of shopping, nightlife, history and cultural enlightenment. All of this can be set against the city's stunning geographical backdrop: lengthy coastal stretches of white sand beach to the south and tropical jungle around the outskirts.
As a handy compass for both new and regular visitors alike local tourism expert Jaime Figueroa Navarro provides a short guide to his favourite sights and attractions. You'll find them below, but first, a wonderful video introduction to Panama:
Jamie's Top Things To Do In Panama City:
I'll start with what is arguably the jewel in the crown, the famous Panama Canal. The centrality of the canal to the country's economy and culture cannot be understated, only second to tourism in revenue, not only does it see over 300 million tons of shipping per year but it is also consistently rated as the top tourist attraction. Thousands of visitors gather each year to see the hulking gravity-powered locks in action as they pass vast supertankers hand-in-hand from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific. There are three locks in total, the most famous of which, Miraflores, lies just outside Panama City. A good way to reach this portion of the canal is to jump on the City Sightseeing Panama bus tour and disembark at stop 6 on the west-bound canal route. Commentary on the buses can provide some historical background, from disastrous construction attempts by the French in the 19th century to eventual completion in 1914 following a U.S. acquisition.
For shopping visitors should prioritize the Multiplaza, a sprawling chain of American style malls that feature top brand retail names as well as restaurants, spas, casinos, clubs, bars and hotels. The country has two official currencies, the Panamanian Balboa and the US Dollar. Both currencies will be accepted as legal tender. You can reach the Multiplaza complex by disembarking at stop 5 on the City Sightseeing Panama la Vieja route. Another great shopping outlet to bear in mind is the city centre Multicentro Mall, which includes its own casino and cinema. Dwarfing Westfield Stratford, Albrook Mall is the largest in Latin America.
Some of the capital's best walks lie a short distance west of the city centre. The 654-foot Ancon Hill is a popular spot for sightseers as it provides awe inspiring bird's-eye views of the low lying urban sprawl. Panama, as you may be aware, is home to the most bird species in the world. If you choose to take a hike up to the summit you can also savour the natural surroundings, with their abundant tropical vegetation and exotic fauna. Along the trail it is possible to spot sloths, little tamarin monkeys and deer- amazing for a place so close to an urban centre!
For an authentic old-time experience take a stroll around the historic colonial district of Casco Viejo. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was founded in 1673 after a preceding incarnation of Panama City was completely destroyed during a sacking by the pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. Renovations are returning the Old City to its former splendour, making the classical buildings and plazas an unmissable attraction. With this venue in mind, the Italian media describes Panama City as a tropical combination of Manhattan and Venice.
You should also visit the Old Town's numerous museums. It is here that you'll find the Panama Canal Museum, the Panama History Museum and Museum of Colonial Religious Art. The Canal Museum is a must even if you have no particular interest in the physical construction itself, as the wonder's turbulent history is an incredible story in it's own right.
By taking a bus to the Amador Causeway you can visit a slightly more modern museum, the Frank Gehry 'Biomuseo'. This is a newly opened institution whose exhibits chronicle the natural history of the Isthmus of Panama. Learn about ancient geography and investigate samples of the region's vibrant biodiversity and how Panama's rising from the oceans united the landmasses of North and South America.
Further down the Amador Causeway you'll reach the Causeway Islands, of which there is four (Naos, Perico, Culebra and Flamenco). Once part of a U.S. military complex the islands are now a thriving leisure and relaxation spot. Pacific cruise ships consider the islands a main stop-off point, and for good reason. Visitors can amble along the beautiful marinas, sample culinary delights in the restaurants, and even do some fishing, biking or roller blading. If you do happen to arrive in Panama City via cruise ship, then the open-top buses that visit Flamenco Island are an ideal way to reach the rest of the capital.
As a final suggestion in this short introduction, I would strongly recommend a trip to the ruins of Panama Viejo. This historical site is all that remains of the first settlement calling itself Panama City. Founded in 1519 it is not only the first permanent European urban centre on the Pacific Coast, but one of the first on the entire American continent. Panama Viejo lies north-east of the city's sightseeing open top buses and its cathedral, perhaps foretelling Panama´s mushrooming growth, was the highest skyscraper in the Americas for over two centuries. Panama City now hosts twelve of the twenty tallest skyscrapers in Latin America!
Jaime Figueroa Navarro is a native of Panama, a seasoned executive, trade and tourism visionary who specialises in the Latin America and Caribbean regions. Jaime is also a member of the World Federation of Journalists and Tourism Writers. Why not follow Jaime on Facebook?