The first thing we noticed about Panama City both from flying in on a beautifully clear night and as we drove into town from the airport was the size of the skyline. The buildings of Panama City are huge, they go on forever and they can be seen from quite a ways away, including several of the canal locks. This is a good thing because they may be the only reliable landmarks for navigation in the signless world that comprises the Panama City road system.
Here's another view from Casco back at the modern part of the city. We have two major notes to pass on to other travelers when it comes to driving in PC. First, the Northern and Southern toll routes have completely separate card systems; you'll need on...
Casco Viejo (or just Casco) is where most visitors seem to end up. Panama City is in fact very old as cities in the Americas go. The original colony is known as Panama Viejo now. It is really just ruins with a couple of towers remaining. The "new" Panama City was built further north along the coast line and that area is now called Casco Viejo. It reminded us a bit of old San Juan (Puerto Rico) but it is definitely a bit rough around the edges still.
It seems like if you wanted to invest in Panama City this would be the place to do it because it is clearly a happening place in terms of restaurants, boutique hotels and the sort of slow refurbishment you get in historic areas. The cathedral here faces the plaza at the center of Casco.
The church of San Francisco is impressive as well and there are a lot of waterfront restaurants nearby. This is most likely where you will end up parking if you drive to Casco as there is limited parking in the narrow one-way streets. If you're already in nearby Panama City, taxis are plentiful and cheap and probably the easiest way to get in.
At the very tip of the peninsula Casco is situated on is Plaza de Francia celebrating the original site of the French embassy (notice the rooster on the monument). This is the most scenic view in Casco and there is often a craft market along one side as well. From here you can see most of the city as well as the shipping traffic at the Pacific side of the canal.
To avoid putting a road through the Casco, Panama City built a bypass a short ways out in the ocean. This is called the Cinta Costera and driving south-bound on it is quite possibly the most impressive view of Panama City. This is looking the other direction at the line of container ships waiting to enter the Panama Canal.
Just north of Casco is the Amador causeway which connects a series of islands heading out into the Pacific Ocean. This makes for another nice viewpoint. The building here with the crazy roof is the Museum of Biodiversity. This is supposed to be a fabulous museum but on our visit it had literally just opened and many of the exhibits were not complete. They were charging full price for admission anyway so we'll visit when it's finished.
If you're in Panama you're almost certainly going to visit the canal at some point. There are many places to do this, one of the easiest (once you find it) is the Miraflores visitor center which is close to Panama City and located at the Miraflores locks (closest to the Pacific). There is an overlook, a short movie, museums on wildlife in the area, the building of the canal and a snack bar. Here Alaric is providing scale for the crickets and grasshoppers exhibit (yeah, those are real size).
The overlook is the highlight of Miraflores as you can watch ships make their way through the locks. There are two windows of activity for this, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, make sure you time your visit to coincide with one of them.
If you don't want to pay to go to Miraflores you can also watch the canal from a variety of locations between the Bridge of the Americas and the Centenario Bridge for free. Here a cruise ship approaches the Pedro Miguel locks (middle locks but on the Pacific side). Obviously people's interest will vary but we found the whole canal to be rather fascinating, particularly the lock sequences and the Culebra Cut