When I first decided to visit Panama City, I assumed it would be fairly cheap. After all, Panama is a country in Central America, a subregion known for its relatively low cost of living. Sadly for me, this was not the case!
Luckily, there are plenty of cheap things to do in Panama City, Panama – making it a doable destination even for those on a budget. Panama uses the US dollar as its official currency, making it easy to determine just how expensive an activity is. And the best thing? Many of the coolest attractions in Panama City don’t cost a dime!
Read more: (opens in new tab)
- Where to Stay in Panama City
- Backpacking Panama – Budget Travel Guide
- Panama City to Boquete Transport Guide
Best Budget-Friendly Things to Do in Panama City, Panama
1. Visit the Panama Canal
Yep, you read that right. The number one attraction in Panama City is doable on a budget! While it is definitely easier to get a tour of the canal, you don’t need to. To keep costs down, instead, grab an Uber (the safest option) or hop on a public bus.
The buses leave from Albrook station and you will need a rechargeable transport card to board them. These cost around $2USD each and can be purchased from the machines inside the station. Once you have your transport card, you’ll need to look for a bus heading to Gamboa or Paraiso. Ask the driver to drop you outside the Miraflores Locks.
When you arrive at the Miraflores Locks using your desired transport, enter the visitor centre and pay the entrance fee. This isn’t that cheap at around $18USD per adult but when you consider the starting price for a tour is around $65USD not including the entrance fee, it isn’t too bad!
The main attraction at the Miraflores Visitor Centre is the observation platform, where you can see the boats pass through the canal. This comes with a live commentary which explains a little about the history of the canal as well as a bit about the boat passing through at that time.
Tickets also include access to the exhibition centre and the Panama Canal movie at the in-house IMAX theatre. A true marvel of engineering, I recommend visiting here even if you think it might not be your kind of thing. It is the country’s most famous attraction and helped me understand so much about the geopolitical and economic situation of the country.
Top tip! If you’re going to visit the Panama Canal independently, make sure to head there after 2 pm to see the action. The boats can only run in one direction and for the first half of the day, they are heading away from Panama City.
2. Explore Casco Viejo
Panama City’s most Instagrammable neighbourhood is the historic centre. Also known as Casco Antiguo, there is plenty to spend money on in this part of the city if you want to. However, the real joy comes from seeing the colonial architecture and the Metropolitan Cathedral – both completely free activities.
I definitely recommend taking a free walking tour in this part of town. It is a great introduction to Panama City which will not only help you get your bearings but also give some context to the country’s history. Remember, despite the name, free walking tours are not free and you will be expected to tip for your tour.
When you’re exploring Casco Viejo, make sure you don’t wander too far out. The safe areas are marked by red/orange streets, keeping tourists within a few blocks. Casco Viejo buts up against El Chorrillo, a dangerous neighbourhood which tourists should avoid at all costs.
3. Spot Wildlife
You wouldn’t think that there would be many wildlife-spotting opportunities in the middle of a capital city. However, you would be wrong!
Ancón Hill is a popular place to walk in Panama City, with an easy-to-follow trail and breathtaking views from the very top. It is also a great place to spot some of the Panamanian animals which call this city home.
During our hike up to the top of Ancón Hill, we were lucky enough to spot monkeys, toucans, sloths and even agoutis! For reference, the latter is a type of rodent which looks much like a very large guinea pig.
4. Check out the Street Art
Graffiti can reveal a lot about a place. Often conveying political messages as well as general social attitudes, street art holds the key to urban expression. Panama City is no different. Graffiti exists all over the city, detailing the long-standing (and often conflicted) relationship with the US, as well as the current political struggles and reflections of social inequality. Exploring the street art scene is a must-do free activity in Panama City.
5. View the Skyline from a Rooftop Bar
There are countless rooftop bars and restaurants across Panama City. Some of them are pretty budget-friendly, whereas others are super high-end. While you can usually access some of the most swanky of these joints by buying a drink in the on-site bar, this could be a very expensive drink!
My favourite place to take in the city skyline is Tacos La Neta, above the Selina hostel in Casco Viejo. The restaurant looks directly over modern Panama, showcasing incredible views. Visit during the evening for a glitzy spectacle.
6. Bike or Walk the Amador Causeway
The Amador Causeway is one of the best free things to do in Panama City. This narrow stretch of road was constructed to connect three of the islands just off Panama City (Flamenco, Perico and Laos) to the mainland. The whole thing was constructed using rock extracted during the building of the Panama Canal.
A symbol of modern Panama, the route is popular with cyclists and runners as well as tourists. While some rent a bike and take in the views from the cycle lane, a more cost-effective way of experiencing the causeway is on foot.
While there isn’t much to do en route without blowing a load of cash, (the restaurants here are very expensive), it does offer some beautiful views back to the mainland.
7. Snap a Photo With the Panama Sign
Did you even go to Panama City if you didn’t get papped at the most famous sign in the city? Located at the end of the Amador Causeway, close to where the boats depart for Taboga Island, lies the Panama sign.
Good to know! In Panama, many of the locals refer to Panama City as simply Panama. You’ll see this on transport tickets and the front of buses when you are heading back to the capital.
8. Take a Day Trip to Taboga Island
Panama has beaches on both its Pacific and Caribbean side. This makes it a big beach destination and sun-worshippers flock here from all over!
While a day trip to Taboga Island isn’t necessarily cheap, when considered as an alternative to visiting Bocas del Toro, it is a good value-for-money option. In my opinion, Bocas del Toro is a better destination, however, for those strapped for time, a trip to Taboga Island shouldn’t be missed.
Avoid the expensive tours and instead book your ferry tickets online. The Taboga Express Fast Ferry tickets cost around $24USD for a round-trip, much cheaper than the $40USD to get to Bocas del Toro from Panama City (one-way).
Also read: Top day trips from Panama City, Panama.
9. Walk the Cinta Costera
The Cinta Costera is a buzzing recreational area that runs along Panama Bay. Also known as the Coastal Beltway, this 7km area spans gardens, sports fields and, of course, restaurants! The nicest part of the Cinta Costera to walk is the section that goes from Casco Viejo to El Chorrillo.
This section juts out over the ocean, offering beautiful views back to the city. It is easy to walk but there is also the option to hire a bicycle in the city and do the route on two wheels. I’d recommend heading back before you reach El Chorrillo because, as I mentioned before, it is a bit of a dodgy neighbourhood.
10. Discover Panama Viejo
Also known as ‘Old Panama’ and ‘Panama La Vieja’, this is the remaining section of the old capital. Sitting in direct contrast with its cosmopolitan surroundings, in 1997 it was christened a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Some sources online tout this as a free thing to do in Panama City but unfortunately, this is no longer the case. There is an entrance fee for Panama Viejo but luckily it is very cheap. Adults will pay approx. $6USD for an entry ticket which includes the museum and viewing tower access.
If you are looking to learn about the history of Panama City, it is a great attraction which will tell you all about the capital’s history as a trade centre and how this made it a target for pirates.
11. Chill in the City’s Green Spaces
The postcards might portray Panama City as nothing but glitz and glamour but there are still plenty of green spaces once you get away from the high rises. Parque Omar is a wonderful spot nestled in the San Francisco neighbourhood of Panama City. Enjoy a book here or indulge in a snack from one of the street food stalls.
Parque Natural Metropolitano sits north of downtown and spans a whopping 265 hectares. Much like Ancón Hill, this is a great place to spot wildlife. There are two walking trails around the park and the views back to the city are some of the best.
12. Try Ceviche at the Fish Market (Mercado de Mariscos)
The fish market sits within walking distance of Casco Viejo and offers some of the best traditional Panamanian food that you can find! Boasting freshly caught snappers and mouthwatering ceviche, this is a great place to eat with the locals.
Although the food here is to die for, the best thing about the market is undoubtedly the prices! You can pick up a small cup of ceviche with crackers for just a couple of dollars. Local beer also comes in at the same kind of price – I recommend the Balboa!
13. Educate Yourself at Museo De La Mola
If you’re somebody who likes to learn about the history and culture behind the place that you’re visiting, don’t miss the Museo de la Mola. Undoubtedly one of the best free things to do in the city, this museum provides a fascinating insight into indigenous Guna culture.
If you’re visiting the San Blas islands where the Guna people live, you should definitely visit this museum beforehand. A visit lasts around an hour and the displays are in both English and Spanish (not a given in Panama)!
With its exciting fusion of new versus old, Panama City is a capital full of character. And, while the city is more expensive than many others in South America, it is still eminently visitable on a budget. Shoestring travellers will be happy to hear that there are plenty of cheap things to do in Panama City, from walks with incredible vistas to learning about the city’s rich history.
What free and cheap things to do in Panama City would you add to this list?