Free or Cheap Activities in Panama City

Central America’s most cosmopolitan capital, Panama City has something for everyone, from world-class museums to trendy rooftop bars, a fascinating history to phenomenal views, with forests filled with wildlife and sublime beaches right next door.

While you can get more for your money elsewhere in the area, there are still free (and almost free) things to see and do that will make your stay unforgettable – without breaking the bank.

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Once a no-go area, Casco Viejo has become the city’s trendiest neighborhood, with pretty squares and restored pastel-colored mansions filled with museums, restaurants and bars © E_Rojas / Getty Images

Walk the cobblestone streets of Casco Viejo

They say the best things in life are free, and that goes for exploring the colonial Casco Viejo, the crown jewel of Panama City. Once a no-go zone, this Unesco World Heritage site has become the city’s hippest neighborhood, with pretty squares and restored pastel-colored mansions packed with museums, restaurants and bars — no map available. ‘is required.

Slip into the shade of the region’s ornate, incense-scented churches. The Iglesia de San José is famous for its shimmering golden altar, while the Metropolitan Cathedral that dominates the Plaza de la Independencia attracts visitors for its beautiful stained glass windows. And for aperitifs with a view, head to happy hour at Tántalo’s rooftop bar.

Hike Ancon Hill for stunning views of the city

Cerro Ancon dominates the skyline, with its huge Panamanian flag fluttering in the breeze, so join joggers and cyclists and hike to the top of the city’s highest point to soak up the 360-degree views. The road is paved and the incline is steep but gradual and should take around 30-40 minutes.

As you climb through the rainforest, you’ll catch tantalizing glimpses of the cityscape while watching for sleepy sloths and talkative toucans high in the canopy – the earlier you set off, the better. At the top, sheltered vantage points offer views of the sparkling skyscrapers and tiled roofs of Casco Viejo.

Vendor arranges his display of fish at the Mercardo del Mariscos in the Casco Viejo district of Panama City
Stop by Mercado de Mariscos on your stroll along Cinta Costera – for under $5 you can treat yourself to a cup of tangy ceviche and an ice-cold beer from one of the outdoor stalls © John Coletti/Getty Images

Walk along the Cinta Costera

Apply sunscreen, put on your panama and set off along the Cinta Costera. This popular waterfront promenade runs parallel to Avenida Balboa (which closes for the ciclovia Sunday morning), linking the glass and steel towers of Punta Paitilla to the cobblestone streets of Casco Viejo.

There’s plenty of green space, so pick a bench and indulge in people-watching, from roller-skating girls to raspado (crushed ice), skateboarders polish their energetic beach volleyball tricks. And don’t miss the city number one photo stop, the Panama sign in the colors of the rainbow.

Stop at Mercado de Mariscos to see soaring pelicans for a complimentary seafood lunch while fishing boats unload. For less than $5, you can treat yourself to a cup of tangy ceviche and a cold beer at one of the outdoor stands.

Take a day at the beach

Panama City is only steps away from beautiful beaches. Pack a picnic and, for the price of a ferry or bus ticket, you’ll soon have your feet in the sand under a swaying palm tree.

Volcanic Taboga Island – the historic Island of Flowers – is just a 30-minute ferry ride ($24 USD round trip) from the Amador Causeway. Playa Restinga is one of the most popular beaches, with a thin strip of sand connecting it to tiny Isla El Morro. To visit during the week to avoid the rush of urban escapees.

Playa Gorgona may not be the prettiest beach on the Pacific coast, but it can be reached by bus in just under two hours. At the Albrook bus station, hop on a bus (about $4) to San Carlos, then get off at the Gorgona exit and the beach is within walking distance.

People ride bikes on the Amador causeway with boats in the background
Panama City’s Amador Causeway is walkable – the sea breeze cools things down – but best explored by bike © Bruce Yuanyue Bi / Getty Images

Walk – or bike – around the Amador Causeway

Created from rocks unearthed during the construction of the Panama Canal, the causeway was designed as a Pacific breakwater and a link to the three small islands of Naos, Perico and Flamenco. Today, this seafront promenade has been reinvented, with cycle paths, paddleboarding and wood-fired pizzerias.

At 6 km (3.7 miles) it’s possible to walk – the sea breeze cools things down – but it’s best explored by bike; Bicicletas Moses makes rentals starting at $2.80 per hour. The striking architecture and colorful angles of the Frank Gehry-designed BioMuseo are a must-see, and don’t forget to stop and take in the view.

See the famous Panama Canal for the price of a taxi

If you don’t want to spend the money on a canal transit or a trip to the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center, there are places where you can take a look at this legendary waterway – dubbed one of the “seven wonders of the modern world” – for less.

From the Amador Causeway, you can watch ships enter the canal and sail under the Bridge of the Americas. Or, for a sense of its scale and a bird’s eye view of freighters, supertankers and canal cruise ships, take an Uber to the west end of the bridge and look down.

A Kuna, aka Guna, woman selling molas at an outdoor market in Panama City.
The Museo de la Mola de Casco Viejo celebrates Panama’s vibrant textile art, seen here at an outdoor market in Panama City © Ivan_Sabo / Shutterstock

Something for art lovers

If you are looking for a free artistic solution, go to Mola Museum (MUMO) in Casco Viejo. This five-room museum celebrates the mola – vibrant textile art, handcrafted by indigenous Guna women from the San Blas Archipelago. With nearly 200 examples on display, you will be able to discover the evolution of the mola, its manufacture and the meaning of the geometric patterns.

In Ancón, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (aka MAC Panama) is a showcase of Panamanian and Latin American art, with a roster of temporary exhibitions. Admission is free but donations are always welcome; check the calendar for free and affordable parties.

Nearby, the tiny Museo Afro-Antilleano, which pays homage to the thousands of West Indians who made up the majority of the canal’s foreign workforce, is worth $1 admission.

Experience Panama City Park Life

There is no shortage of green spaces to escape the urban hubbub. Right in the heart of the metropolis, the vast Parque Recreativo Omar is home to a jogging track, outdoor gyms, children’s play areas and a fruit and vegetable market. Don’t miss the free outdoor concerts and art exhibitions in the summer.

The sprawling Parque Natural Metropolitano has a price tag of $5, but for that you have five well-marked trails through the wild jungle, where the tropical foliage teems with wildlife, including monkeys and sloths. And there are spectacular views of the city from the watchtower.

Swing to the rhythms of jazz

You don’t have to be a jazz fan to enjoy the annual event Panama Jazz Festival. One of the biggest music events in the country, it attracts a growing number of music fans from around the world for its equally international lineup, as well as legendary locals like Rubén Blades.

Ticketed events are spread across theaters over a week in mid-January, but outdoor concerts are free. The spectacular – and free – finale takes place in the Plaza de la Independencia, in the heart of Casco Viejo.

Window shop until you stumble across a mega mall

If you need to get away from the heat or shelter from a heavy downpour, you can always dive into one of the city’s many mega malls.

At Multiplaza Mall, next to designer boutiques, there are around 50 restaurants, cafes and outdoor lounges for all budgets. If you’re traveling with kids, the more budget-friendly Albrook Mall has plenty to keep them entertained, including a carousel and fun workshops. And Wednesdays mean half-price tickets at mall cinemas.

Christy J. Olson