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Panama is delightfully easy to visit. It’s a great destination on it’s own, but flights onward to other places in Latin or South America often have long layovers in Panama City. If you have a long layover in Panama City, here’s how to leave the airport and explore a little of this fabulous capital in Central America!
Panama City Layover Guide: What to See and Do in 8 Hours
My plan is for an 8 hour layover in Panama City because it seems to be a common length based on schedules I’ve seen. It includes three stops to showcase the variety the city is known for (nature, history, and of course the canal!). Each stop is brief and you could easily spend twice as long at each one, making it easy to modify your plans if you have longer than the average stopover. If your layover is shorter, choose two of the three stops and save something for a future trip.
Ugh, what about those “medium” length layovers?
If you have a 5 hour Panama City layover, stay closer to the airport instead of heading all the way into the city. Take a 15-minute taxi to the ruins of Panama Viejo, which you can tour in two hours. You’ll need the rest of your time for airport security and passport control.
If you have less than 5 hours, I don’t recommend leaving the airport.
At a Glance: How to Spend Your Long Layover in Panama City
During your one day Panama City Layover, you’ll visit:
- Parque Metropolitano for a rainforest walk and wildlife watching
- Casco Viejo for Old Town architecture and a beautiful part of Panama City
- Mercado del Mariscos for a quick ceviche lunch
- Panama Canal and a view of the Miraflores locks
Logistics (1 hour)
Spend your first hour and a half on actually getting to the city. It takes about 30 minutes to get through immigrations and customs at Tocumen International Airport (PTY) plus another 30 minutes on the toll road to the city. Don’t worry about changing money — the US dollar is king — but plan ahead and come with cash.
Uber is both easier and cheaper than taxis. There’s no language barrier and you won’t need cash for trip fares since it’s charged directly to your credit card.
Need to store your luggage at the airport? There are lockers available on the lower level for $5-10 depending on how much space you need.
Parque Metropolitano (1 hour)
Panama City is massive and modern, but before all that it was a tropical forest. You can still get a glimpse of that in Parque Metropolitano, one of the best things to do in Panama City. It’s open early, so it’s perfect for layovers at weird hours.
Pro Tip: Make sure you have your Uber drop you off at the Centro de Visitantes (Visitor’s Center).
The park has two main hiking loops: a lower loop and an upper loop. For a short visit, do only the lower loop and ideally tack on the small detour to the bunkers since sometimes sloths can be seen in that area. This will take you roughly an hour, depending on how many wildlife sightings you have along the way (don’t walk too fast and keep your eyes peeled).
The upper loop is more strenuous but will double–or triple!–your chances of seeing monkeys, agouti, coati, deer, and smaller critters like leaf-cutter ants. However, you’ll need 2+ hours total to combine both trails.
Casco Viejo and Lunch (2 hours)
The colonial center of town, Casco Viejo (or Casco Antiguo, Panama) is picturesque and worth a visit. In fact, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
The charm is less about checking off a list of sights and more about wandering and see what you come across. Peek your head into churches, stroll down cobblestone streets, and visit the squares and plazas for people-watching. For a more structured experience, you can download the LiveWalk self-guided audio tour of Casco Antiguo for more context.
From Casco Viejo, walk along the waterfront Cinta Costera to the Seafood Market (Mercado de Mariscos) for lunch. For about $4, you’ll get a cup of super fresh ceviche for lunch. I recommend corvina, a local white fish, but you’ll also find shrimp, octopus, and other varieties. Assuming you did the full walking tour, you’ll need to eat quickly. Luckily, these are fast-casual restaurants.
Miraflores Visitor Center at the Panama Canal (2 hours)
I didn’t want to visit the Panama Canal, but c’mon, it’s definitely one of the more popular things to do in Panama City. And, much to my surprise, it ended up being interesting…so much so, I went twice. But be aware: it’s a solid 20-minute taxi ride to get there, which eats into your viewing time.
If you’re running short on time, you can visit the Panama Canal Museum right in Casco Antigua instead of making the detour to the canal itself. It’s obviously not the same experience, but it’s a good alternative to learn about how the canal impacted history, culture, and commerce.
The highlight of the Miraflores Visitor Center is an outdoor seating area with bleachers where you can watch the gargantuan cargo ships pass through the Miraflores Locks. Ships do not come through all day every day — check the transit schedule in advance and time your visit accordingly. For example, today the ships are only allowed through 8:45am or after 1:05pm…the hours inbetween will be totally dead.
If there aren’t any transits during your available time, skip the Miraflores Locks entirely. It’s not worth the long taxi outside town if you won’t see any ships. You may or may not have time to also watch the IMAX movie on-site (about 45 minutes) — this just depends on how long you spend watching ships pass through the locks. It takes at least half an hour per ship and there may be waiting time depending on traffic patterns.
Return to Tocumen Airport (allow 2 hours)
The ride back to the airport could take anywhere from 30-60 minutes, depending on whether or not rush hour has started. I recommend having cash on-hand for a taxi…there can be long waits to get an Uber here and you don’t want to waste time.
That leaves you with 60-90 minutes at the airport to return through security and catch your flight. Yes, I know that may sound short but remember: since you’re on a Panama City layover, you’re already checked in, have a boarding pass, and your bags are checked through. You won’t need to return to the check-in counter and can instead proceed straight to security.
If you’re a nervous traveler and that’s cutting it too close to comfort for you, you can adjust your plans by either skipping a stop on this itinerary or making one shorter. No big deal…you can always come back for more things to do in Panama City!
Be Prepared: 8 Totally Random (but Totally Useful!) Tips for Panama City (opens in new window)
When time is short, knowing what to expect is ultra-important so you don’t get thrown off your game!
Just like that, one day in Panama City is over (but look at all you saw and did!).
Looking for a Guided Panama Layover Tour?
I get it…sometimes you don’t want to worry about arranging taxis or watching the clock.
This 4-Hour Panama Layover Tour tour includes visits to the Canal and Casco Viejo, but does not have time for a stop at Parque Metropolitano. Keep in mind that this is four hours of driving and touring total, so it’s definitely a whistle stop visit but better than sitting at the airport!
Is Your Panama Layover Overnight?
If you have an evening layover in Panama City: Neither the canal nor the park will make sense if your time is after dark. Instead, visit Casco Viejo for sightseeing and a cocktail (there are lots of rooptop bars that would be great at sunset) and then grab a taxi or Uber to the Amador Causeway. You’ll see the city skyline all lit up at night. This is a lovely place for a stroll if you’re cramped after a long flight and there are less touristy restaurants than within Casco Viejo.
If your layover is overnight and you need a hotel: I recommend staying downtown. Casco Viejo can get too loud and staying by the airport is particularly boring/isolated. I personally like the Hilton since it’s on the water with great views and a nice pool. For half the price, you can stay at the Novotel, which is also a fine choice without any of the extras.
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