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Traversing the treasures of Panama City doesn’t have to cost too much – there are a whole array of awesome activities awaiting you, with something to suit every budget. From free rainforest walks to half-price happy hours at some of the hippest bars in the old town, here is our ‘cheap and free things to do’ guide to making the most of Panama City on a limited budget (and we’ll even tell you where you can get unlimited free popcorn…).
Free and cheap things to do in Panama City
Most of Panama City itself is quite walkable, especially Casco Viejo and Cinta Costera. However, if you are staying in accommodation further out of the city or don’t fancy walking in the hot sun, your best bet is an Uber taxi as prices are very low and the cars frequent in number. We never had to wait more than a few minutes for an Uber cab and the Uber app helps get around the language barrier if your Spanish isn’t too sweet.
We also used the underground Metro several times to go to Albrook Mall – we found it easy to use but the lines don’t always run near to the main tourist attractions. You need to buy a Metro card and top it up before riding it (0.35c a trip). Metro Buses are 0.25c a trip.
Another option is the famous Diablo Rojo (Red Devil) buses of Panama but these are unregulated, privately run and the local Government are currently trying to do away with them. Unless you speak fluent Spanish and know exactly where you want to go, we wouldn’t advise using one of the Diablo Rojos (although they are very cool to look at).
Fantastic food isn’t hard to find here although prices can vary greatly. If you are looking for cheap eats and budget bites in Panama City, our list of inexpensive restaurants and dining places include:
El Trapiche – authentic, affordable (yes!) and packed with locals, this is a dinner winner with several branches scattered across the city. Most dishes cost around $5 to $10 and we’d recommend the sancocho chicken soup (amazing), their mixed meat combinacion hojaldre (sandwich) and their Fiesta Panameña platter for a delicious mix of local specialities.
Niko’s Cafe – a chain cafeteria style affair where you pick which food items you want to eat (like a savoury pick and mix) and can have a huge hearty breakfast for around $5. They also have an onsite bakery selling cheap as takeaway coffee and savouries.
Mi Ranchito – located on Amador Causeway with panoramic views of the ocean and an onsite swimming pool (just in case you want to take a dip after food – anything is possible in Panama). We visited here many times for their set breakfast menu which includes a coffee, juice, cooked breakfast (veg, meat or fish with eggs) and a bowl of fresh fruit, all for around $6 – $7.
Mercado de Mariscos / Fish Market – Just across the road from Casco Viejo, this fresh fish and seafood market has a long line of kiosks and stalls selling super cheap ceviche (a local speciality of raw fish ‘cooked’ cold in lemon juice) for $2, alongside $1 ice-cold Panama beers.
The Plaza Paitilla Inn – we stayed at this hotel during our first trip to Panama City and their lunchtime offering was a 3 course set menu with a soft drink for only $7.99 – definitely one of the lowest price lunches to be had in the city and suitably placed at the edge of Cinta Costera – surely a perfectly priced post-walk reward….
Plus, if you are on a teeny, tiny budget, you can also get free popcorn at the Novey and Do It Centres stores (just don’t tell them we sent you…)
Free and cheap walks in Panama City
From the altitude of Alcon Hill to the monkeys of Metropolitan National Park, read our dedicated guide to the top 5 walks in Panama City, that are either free or only cost a few dollars.
There is also a free walking tour available in the city – check out civitatis.com to book a place on their 2 and a half hour Casco Viejo walking tour with an English speaking guide (tipping at the end is expected).
Panama Deal and Discount sites
You can save a fistful of dollars by either booking your tours and accommodation way in advance online (e.g. our city centre hotel Plaza Paitilla Inn, overlooking the ocean was only £34 / $42 USD per night when we booked it online several months before: the walk-up rate when we checked in was more than double).
Alternatively, keep checking the daily discount deal websites for new offers whilst in Panama City. Oferta Simple is the most popular deals website in Panama and also has an English language version. We used this several times during our stay, enjoying a range of discounts from a half price breakfast at Casco Viejo favourite Tantolos, through to discounted ferry fares to Taboga Island and Contradora Islands (San Blas reduced price excursions also sometimes feature).
Happy Hours in Panama City
Cold beers are always good in 35 degree heat but half-price beers are even better (and if they include stunning rooftop or sunset sea views, that has to be a bonus).
There are lots of rooftop bars to choose from but one of the most popular is Tantalo in Casco Viejo, where beers and cocktails are half price daily during the week from 3pm to 6pm. The bar has wonderful views of the city skyline – make sure you arrive early to get a seat overlooking the sea to enjoy the sunset and watch the birds (including vultures!) circle in the sky.
Whilst the view may not be as good, La Rana Dorada is a renowned Panama City brewery bar with two branches, one of which is located in the heart of Casco Viejo. They offer tasting samples and a wide range of their own beers, which can be a nice change from the ubiquity of Balboa or Panama Beer.
An honourable mention also goes to the Balboa Yacht Club near Amador Causeway that has magnificent views of the marina (and is handily right next door to where many cruises and island day trips disembark). The offers here vary but we were lucky enough to attend their Independence Party on a July 4 and indulged in $1 schooner beers all afternoon – cheers!
Free attractions in Panama City
‘Priceless’ places to visit whilst exploring Panama City include:
The Metropolitan Cathedral – The focal point of Casco Viejo, the twin cathedral towers are easy to spot from across Independence Square – with a bandstand, benches and shady trees, both the square and the Cathedral (Catedral Basílica Metropolitana Santa María La Antigüa) are a nice spot to escape from the searing sun.
Mercado de Mariscos / Fish Market – as mentioned in our cheap eats in Panama section, even if the thought of eating seafood makes you …erm…’sea-sick’, this lively port area is still worth a visit, if only to watch the fishing boats come ashore and peruse the cheeky pelicans pinch seafood from the stall holders – the cheap ice-cold drinks are also a bonus.
MAC Panama / Museum of Contemporary Art – showcasing works and art from Latin American and Panamanian artists, this is free admission and hosts an array of temporary exhibitions.
Museo de la Mola (MUMO) – recently opened in the old quarter at the end of 2019, this free museum depicts almost 200 molas (textile panels made of various materials) all made by Guna women indigenous to Panama.
The cheapest food shopping is at the member’s only Pricesmart (similar to Costco in the United States) so unless you are staying with family members or are very friendly with your Airbnb hosts, your best bet for cheap groceries (non-fresh) is to visit the new(ish) chain of Justo Y Bueno that are dotted all across the city. Originating from nearby Colombia, Justo Y Bueno stores have rapidly expanded in number and are very cheap (although some of the brands they sell might be slightly different to the usual supermarkets – plus I’ve never seen the cheap ‘Belgian’ lager they sell actually on sale in Belgium…)
The megamalls in Panama City are also a good way to escape the heat and cool off using the (free) air conditioning – both Multiplaza and Albrook malls are highly-rated retail meccas to visit and easily accessible via the Metro.
Cheap as Cinema
When it rains in Panama City, it literally pours. If your visit coincides with rainy season or you get caught in a midweek downpour, you may want to check out ‘half price Wednesdays’ at the cinemas in Panama City. This includes the VIP section at Cinemark Cinemas (we visited the one at Multiplaza several times) where you can lie back on a reclining chair bed and order beers, hotdogs and popcorn to your heart’s content.
Finally, not so much a money saving tip, but a free ‘must do’ whilst visiting Panama City (albeit slightly ‘cheesy’) – no trip to Panama City is complete without posing for a photograph with the large and colourful Panama City signs. There is one on the Cinta Costera and another on Amador Causeway – plus several regions of Panama also have their own versions of the signs as well as the outlying islands like Tobago Island – you can read more about visiting Tobago Island here >
Cheap Panama City accommodation
If you are looking for a budget stay in a lively part of town then the new Selina Hostel in Casco Viejo is a great option. They have both private rooms and dorms available to book and hostel facilities include communal common rooms, a rooftop pool, taco street food stall and several bars.
If you are looking for a cheap hotel then we recommend Plaza Paitilla Inn which has affordable and spacious rooms (you can pay a bit extra for sea views), an outdoor swimming pool and on-site bar and restaurant. It is located on the seafront with easy access to the Cinta Costera walk and just a short walking distance to nearby malls and restaurants.
Other Panama City blog posts
- Casco Viejo in Panama City – top things to do
- Taboga Island guide, Panama City
- Panama City Pride Parade 2019
- Ancon Hill and Mi Pueblito in Panama City
- Panama City’s Rainforest Walks and Activities
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