How to Spend One Day in Panama City On Your Panama City Layover

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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)

things to do in panama city layover
Sloth at Parque Metropolitano

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).

parque metropolitano hiking route map in panama city
Map of the two main loops at Parque Metropolitano

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)

casco viejo / things to do in panama city layover
Starting from top left and heading clockwise: ruined buildings currently under renovation, typical houses, interior of La Merced church, exterior of San Francisco Church — all in Casco Viejo, Panama City

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)

panama canal / things to do in panama city layover
Overlooking the Panama Canal

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.

Sample daily transit schedule

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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More Info to Plan Your Trip

65 thoughts on “How to Spend One Day in Panama City On Your Panama City Layover”

  1. Thanks for this advice! A few months from now we’re heading back to Panama City for just a single day, so this all comes in handy. When we last visited two years ago we did many of the things you’ve suggested but never got around to Parque Metropolitano, so thanks for planting that firmly on our to-do list for our May stopover.

    Also, so great to hear that Uber has reached Panama! We’ll definitely be using that.

    1. @John, My other favorite experience was cocktails on the 53rd floor (open air) of the Trump Towers – great views at sunset and after dark! Enjoy 🙂

  2. I love the idea of this although I definitely think I would want at least 8 hours. Our last long layover was in Dallas on st Patrick’s and our pals drove by to pick us up and go celebrate in style before our flight home!

    1. @Anne, I was supposed to have 6 hours, but some flight issues turned into a few days, all of which were enjoyable! Your Dallas trip sounds like a great way to take advantage of your layover.

  3. I love posts like this where you take what could be a boring layover into an adventure. Great tips and places to visit.I agree, it may not be that exciting to look at, but you have to do the canal just to say you did it!

  4. Do you plan you itinerary in advance for layovers? I am always afraid I will miss my flight so I stick to the airport. I would like to get past this fear.

    1. @Susan, I book “normal” layovers whenever possible but on a lot of international flights, you can save hundreds by booking a 6-10 hour layover. I try to make the most of it and plan in advance, but with wiggle room just in case.

  5. Good tips and choices for a short Panama exploration. I was there years ago and remember it being an interesting city with a neat skyline. I’d like to go back sometime to visit again.

    1. @Vicki, You’re right – the skyline is amazing, both day and night…and it probably has changed in the years past since there is so much construction.

  6. Hi Becky!

    Thanks for all the tips, very helpful. I am so excited but I want to know if you were traveling alone during this layover? I will be heading to Panama in less than two months and I have about a 22 hr layover which I think is ideal! BUT it’s just me, myself and I. How safe is it? Would you recommend Uber ride over airport cab (besides budget reasons)? Any quick safety tip would help.

    Look forward to hearing from you, thanks in advance.

    1. @Teresa, I ended up spending ~4 days in Panama (1 as a layover en route to Guatemala, 3 days as a stopover on the way home). I was solo the entire time and though it was very safe. Uber/airport cab are essentially the same since it’s a flat fare, but in town I liked Uber better because there’s no negotiating over price!

      1. Ah, this is great. Thank you! That makes me feel so much better and now I’m even more excited 🙂

      2. How much is the average taxi or uber fare to/from the airport to the park, the Canal or to Casco viejo? (a better question might be ‘how much should one budget for in taxis and/or uber cars to see all those sights?’ – i realize your answer will only be current to the last time you were there, but I’m looking for a ball park idea.

        Thanks for the helpful tips!

      3. @Michelle, It’s about $30 from the airport to any city sights (e.g. park or Casco Viejo) or about $45 from airport to Canal. Please do not plan on hailing an Uber when you leave the canal…it’s a long ways outside of town and you will almost certainly be dependent on the taxis sitting in the parking lot who know you are trapped and don’t want to negotiate!

  7. Hello, Thank you so much for your information, I will be doing a 8 hours layover on Panama in November, the question I have is, if you paid any exit/entry fee to leave the airport and visit the city.

    Thanks again.

  8. OMG! I’m so glad I found your blog!!
    I’ll be flying from Peru to Canada next tuesday and I have an 8-hour layover in Panama City.
    I was planing on just heading to the mall near the airport but this places sound really nice!
    Hopefully I’ll have enough time to visit all three (fingers crossed).

  9. Great post! I’ll be passing through on a layover as well. How much did your transportation cost? I don’t speak Spanish and was planning to hire a taxi for the day. What is a fair deal? Would not speaking Spanish be a problem? A google search of this private driving/tour service costs $145 and I was hoping to spend less than $100 for the day (entrance fees, food, transportation). Is this too optimistic or should I go with the tour?

    1. @Deb, The taxi from the airport alone is $30 each way, so I think that spending less than $100/day including your driver for all day long is going to be a stretch. It’s definitely possible to stay in that budget if you take a bus everywhere but that will eat into your available time. Totally up to you on which is more important.

      As for speaking Spanish, it seemed to be about 50/50. If the first person you ask doesn’t speak English, try the next.

  10. Great Info! Is there a type of Shuttle that goes from the Airport to the Canal???
    I have a long layover also .. but just covers 6 hrs (daytime). I really just want to see the Canal and maybe a museum & lunch … then back to the airport.

    1. @Hope, There aren’t any shuttles, but you can hire a taxi to wait for you at the canal. You can watch the ships coming through, visit the on-site exhibit/museum, and then eat right upstairs at their restaurant. Very easy! You’d probably have 1-3 hours for the sightseeing, depending on how long it takes to get through immigrations & customs at the airport and traffic.

  11. Hello!! I have a layover of 10 hours. I have been reading all sorts of things about having to pay for an exit tax of $60. Did you have to pay this? When checking in again, did you just go straight to security? Thanks in advance!

  12. I will be on a layover in Panama city. 2 days before christmas and will be leaving early morning christmas eve. What can i do during this time of the year. Arriving 1:30 pm. And leaving at 8:am next morning.

    1. @Rena, I’d recommend spending the afternoon in Casco Viejo (old town) and then heading into the downtown area in the evening to see the skyline lit up after dark + enjoy a great dinner.

  13. I was panicking a bit until I ran across your blog. Great info! I have a 12hr layover at PTY. I plan on checking into a hotel to shower and maybe snooze for a few hours. I really wanted to tour a bit but unsure since I land there at 12:42am and leave 12:12pm next day. Do you have any suggestions on what I will have time for?

    Thanks in Advance!

    1. @Janelle, The overnight hours make things a bit tough, but you could run over to the Canal to watch the boats go through (the museum will be closed) or head to Parque Metropolitano to look for sloths and other animals. You’d need to leave by ~9:30am to get back to the airport in time.

  14. This is wonderful. Thank you. We will be flying through Panama City with the kids and on a 7 hour layover. Of all that you recommended here, is one site best for a family visit? The kids are 9 and 7, by the way. Thanks!

    1. @Adam, I like Parque Metropolitano because it’ll give them a chance to run around a little and burn off energy between flights. Otherwise, maybe try Casco Viejo? There are some cool ruins + great little bakeries/ice cream shops for a treat.

  15. Hi Becky, I have an 11hr layover, but I get there @ 8pm & leave at 730am. Do you have any recommendations of anything to do at night there??

    1. @Mel, Honestly I’d just book an airport hotel. You won’t check-in until 9pm by the time you go through passport control and get your bags and you’ll need to leave again around 6am.

      That said, if you’re a night owl…
      Have a taxi detour on the Amador Causeway on your way to the city to see the city skyline all lit up. Stop at the Trump Tower for an incredible view from their skyscraper bar with a drink. Then head into Calle Uruguay for bars/clubs or into Casco Viejo for more laidback bars, like Relic or Tantalo Rooftop.

  16. Hi! I have a long lay over coming up which allows me to see many of your listed sites but leaves early the next morning. Do you suggest any hotel closer to the airport to make the commute bit easier so early in the morning?

    1. @Kate, Personally I prefer to stay near restaurants/attractions and just go to bed a little earlier to add in the travel time next day but that’s personal preference!

    1. @Leo, The canal is 45 minutes to 1 hour taxi ride away. It is very far from the airport.

      With 2.5 hours, I recommend just staying at the airport.

  17. I get into Panama City at 7:45 pm and fly out at 7 in the morning. Is it safe, and does anyone have any recommendations about doing anything at night time for a few hours?

    1. @Dallas, As I mentioned to Mel in the comments above:

      Hire a taxi at the airport for the drive to your city-center hotel and have them detour on Amador Causeway to see the city skyline all lit up. Stop at the Trump Tower for an incredible view from their skyscraper bar with a drink. Then head into Calle Uruguay for bars/clubs or into Casco Viejo for more laidback bars, like Relic or Tantalo Rooftop.

  18. Curious to know what you found for hotel prices there since you were there 3 days. Did you find something close enough to the airport to maybe go to Casco Viejo for a bite and then a snooze and shower at the hotel?
    Thanks so much!

    1. @Syd nix, I stayed downtown — since I had a few days, I wanted to be close to everything instead of staying near the airport. My Doubletree hotel was about $60/night.

  19. Hey just an FYI- I tried to get out of the airport to go see the ruins quickly during my 4.5 hr layover and they wouldn’t allow me to leave the airport because they said there was not enough time. Such a disappointment.

  20. Hi Becky
    We have just 6 hours layover, we are a family of 2 adults and 2 kids. We thought we would do the Canal, but we feel we may not have enough time.
    Question: How much time you spend to come out of immigration?
    How much time need to leave for checkin in again including security?
    Last time, we were in cancun, although we were in transit, suddenly our baggages appeared and we had to check them in again on the way. Is that a possibility ?

    Thank you in advance for your input.

    1. @Nil, I think 6 hours is too short for the canal. You will need to spend up to 1 hour going through immigration when you arrive. The lines can be long. Then, it is a 1 hour taxi to the canal and 1 hour back. You need to arrive at the Panama airport 2 hours before your next flight, to go through passport control again and airport security.

      You’d only have an hour or so at the canal itself…a lot of hassle in my opinion. Choose somewhere closer to the airport.

    1. @Sonwuka, Honestly I’d be tempted to just grab an airport hotel to grab some rest because it sounds like your next flight will be overnight.

      BUT if you are ambitious and want to get into the city…Grab a taxi from the airport and have them detour on the Amador Causeway to see the city skyline all lit up at night. Have a late dinner in Casco Viejo and if you still have time, stop at the Trump Tower for an incredible view from their skyscraper bar with a drink before going back for your flight.

  21. Just wanted to show some blog love as this is a super helpful post – especially all your answers to peoples questions!

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience and advice!

  22. My original plan was to stay in Casco Viejo and then grab the bus to Boquete the net day, see the landscape along the way but I was talked out of it (long and freezing bus) so now I arrive at 230 pm and have to be back at the airport at 530 am. I am caught between heading down to Casco staying there but then stressing to be back at the airport early or staying at the airport hotels which are really expensive. What do you suggest?

    Perhaps go to Casco before leaving Panama spend a day or 2?

    1. @Ysa, I’m not sure it matters — I’d definitely head into the city (the airport isn’t too interesting) and spend the afternoon/evening exploring. But it probably doesn’t matter if you take a taxi back to your airport hotel late at night or if you wait for early the next morning. Traffic should be light either way since it’s an off-peak time.

      Casco Viejo isn’t a huge area, so the afternoon/evening is likely long enough.

      1. Thanks. The issue was whether to stay in the city or near the airport since the flight is so early. Also since airport hotels are so costly wasn’t sure it was worth another $70 US to head down for a few hours.

  23. My layover is 4.5 hours in Panama City. I understand I need to allow for traffic, customs etc but do you think this is enough time to do Panama Viejo without rushing for time? I will be going in mid-January. Thank you!

    1. @Melanie, I imagine you’d have about an hour on-site, which is about half as much time as you need. I’d honestly just save the cab fare & admission fee and find a nice meal at the airport.

  24. I am thinking of booking a flight to Costa Rica with my best friend in March. On our way back we have a 21 hour in Panama. Is the $30 taxi fee per person and that’s $30 each way correct? Will we have an issue getting in and out of customs? I’ve never been out of the USA.

    1. @Courtney, The taxi cost is per vehicle, so you can share and split the cost (but yes, it’s a one-way). Getting through passport control should be easy and straightforward!

  25. Thanks for sharing these suggestions! I’m very excited to follow this itinerary! We have an 11 hr layover in Panama this fall. We are not checking bags, though. We’ll have carryons. Do you happen to know if the airport would have luggage lockers?

  26. Becky,
    Thank you for this informative and interesting blog post and thorough answers to traveller questions. I will be travelling to Cali, Colombia for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year holidays and will have a long layover in Panama each way. The money I save on flight by taking the long layover option will pay for all of my expenses in Panama so its like getting a free bonus. I never expected to visit Panama, but now am very excited about it! Thanks for de-mystefying the logistics.

    1. @Michael, Enjoy your visit. Make sure you have whatever you need to enter Panama (negative covid tests?) on your layover. Current restrictions keep changing, so keep an eye on things.

  27. I totally agree, stay closer to the airport instead of heading all the way into the city, during a short layover. Have you tried the adventure travel app for for cheap flights? It adds stopover(s) on to your journey and saves you money

  28. hi, we are a family of 5, 3 kids 15,7,3, we will have a 7 hour layover in panama from 2pm to 9pm, what would you suggest to do in that time, i wanted to see the canal but i may not have enough time and travel with kids it’s already stressful no need any extra. please help with suggestions?

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