Founded by the Spanish in 1519, Panama City is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas. It also happens to be a great place for kids! I lived here for over three years and found it one of our most family-friendly postings to date.
With a population of little more than one million Panama City is easy to navigate, safe to explore and has a lot to offer families. Yet this small Central American capital is often overlooked as a tourist destination itself, functioning primarily as a stepping stone between continents or as a spring-board to Panama’s Pacific beaches and Caribbean archipelagos. In recent years, however, the government has invested heavily in the tourism sector to meet the growing demand from oversees visitors. As a result new hotels, restaurants, museums, tours and activities are popping up all over the capital.
The following are just a few of my favourite things to do in Panama City with kids.
Panama City With Kids
1. Visit Panama’s star attraction: The Panama Canal
Whether you’re travelling with or without kids, the Panama Canal should be at the top of your list of things to see in Panama City. Nobody should pass through the nation’s capital without getting up and close to this remarkable landmark of ambition, persistence and engineering. One of the best places to see it and to learn about its history is at the Miraflores Visitors Centre. Kids will enjoy waving to passengers on cruise ships and navigating their own tanker through the locks (on a simulator!).
2. Wander the streets of Casco Viejo
The UNESCO protected Casco Viejo is the atmospheric old quarter and a wonderful place to spend half a day. Also known as Casco Antiguo or San Felipe, the neighborhood was founded in 1673 after the English pirate, Henry Morgan sacked Panama Viejo (the original Panama City on the other side of the bay). Teeming with restaurants, cafes, boutique shops and art galleries, it’s my favourite district in Panama City and easy to cover on foot. (A more in-depth guide to Casco Viejo is in the pipeline!)
3. Run around the ruins of Panama Viejo
Not to be confused with Casco Viejo, Panama Viejo is the the site where the original Panama City once stood, and was founded in 1519 by Pedro Arias Davila. Today, only remnants of walls remain but it’s worth a quick peek if you have time, particularly if you have little kids who need unleashing.
4. Go unda da sea at Punta Culebra Nature Centre
Positioned on Isla Naos (the first island that the causeway reaches) is this small, Smithsonian-funded, open-air museum. Its aim is to educate visitors on marine science and conservation. The centre covers 1.5 hectares and is a great place to bring little kids. Exhibits include a turtle pool and a ‘touching pool’ where, with the assistance of a Smithsonian representative, kids can stroke starfish and other sea creatures. There are also a couple of small aquariums and a Discovery Room – a new addition which takes visitors on an ‘Underwater Journey with All the Senses’. See: The Punta Culebra Nature Centre
5. Explore Panama’s biodiversity at The Biomuseo
Designed by the renowned architect, Frank Gehry, the Biomuseo explores the science behind Panama’s abundance of wildlife, namely it’s position as a land-bridge between two continents and two oceans. It’s permanent collection, ‘The Bridge of Life’ is spread over eight galleries, including the kids’ favourite, The Panamarama – a projection space with 10 screens that line ceilings, walls and floor. Here the viewer is pounded with images and sounds of Panama’s various ecosystems. Watch out for the humpback whale gliding under your feet!
6. Take a jungle trek in the Metropolitan Park
The Metropolitan Park (Parque Natural Metropolitano) is the only protected area of tropical forest in Central America that is located within the city boundaries. It forms part of the ‘biological corridor’ that stretches across the isthmus to the Caribbean, allowing animals to move freely across the country. If you are an early riser (or jet-lagged!) this is a wonderful place to begin your day. Nature trails run throughout the park and there is a small lake full of turtles that is always fun to visit with kids.
7. Climb Ancon Hill
Set directly behind Casco Viejo and the Amador Causeway, Ancon Hill is a little hill that offers spectacular views of the city from its peak. The walk to the top takes around 40 minutes. While the gradient isn’t too challenging, there is a rather long and steep flight of steps at the very end. Besides offering a decent walk, it is also a good place to get your bearings if you’ve just arrived in the city. The views from the top take in the canal, Casco Viejo, the skyscrapers of the financial district, the Bridge of Americas and The Amador Causeway. It is also another great place for wildlife encounters, particularly at dawn. Look out for coatimundis, sloths, monkeys, armadillos, agouti and of course many colourful birds.
8. Shop for souvenirs at the artisan market
At the base of Ancon Hill, on the Amador side is the Balboa Artisan Market (Mercado de Artesanias Balboa) a little craft market that is a good place to stock up on souvenirs (it’s slightly cheaper than the artisan markets in Casco Viejo). Embroidered molas, Embera baskets, colourful hammocks and beaded jewellery are just a few of the items you can find here.
9. Be wowed by whales
If you’re visiting Panama City during the humpback whale season (July to October) a number of operators offer whale-watching tours from the marinas in and around the city. Needless to say, it’s an incredible experience for children and worth factoring in an extra day for.
10. Let off steam in Omar Park
Located in the San Francisco district, Parque Omar has a number of playgrounds to suit different age groups and is one of the most popular playgrounds in Panama City for kids.
11. Bike the coastal road (without cars)
Every Sunday from 6am to 12pm the Cinta Costera (the road that hugs Panama City’s coastline) becomes a car-free zone, allowing cyclists and joggers to bike/run safely. Cyclo carts, rollerblades and bikes can be hired from pop-up stalls opposite the Hilton Hotel. Rali provides free bikes, including helmets and kids’ bikes. (Photo ID is required)
12. Get creative in MAC
The Contemporary Art Museum (MAC) is a small art gallery that occasionally holds very good workshops for families. In the one pictured above my children discovered the vibrant work and techniques of local artist Oswaldo de Leon Kantule. You can find out more about their latest exhibitions and workshops on their website here.
13. Experiment at Explora
More for local interest perhaps than tourist interest, the Explora Science Centre is a little science museum that provides a lot of hands-on fun, particularly during the height of the rainy season when outdoor play can get limited. There are the standard themes – electricity, sound, gravity – as well as exhibits dedicated to local culture such as the history and engineering behind the Panama Canal.
14. Walk along the beach
Veracruz Beach may not be Panama’s most pristine beach (like many places around the world plastic pollution is a problem) but it’s within the city’s boundaries – roughly 20 mins by car from Casco Viejo – and a lovely spot to take a long beach walk or to base yourself at when visiting Panama City. The Westin Playa Bonita is a popular hotel with families.
Easy Day-Trips from Panama City
There are many places that are easy to reach within a day from Panama City.
Gamboa (approx 1h15m from Casco Viejo)
Caribbean Coast (approx 1.5 hours)
Panama With Kids: The Complete Guide
To see all the blog posts in the Panama With Kids series, see our destination guide here.
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