Founded in 1519 by a Spanish conquistador, Panama City was once one of the main departure points for expeditions that ultimately led to the conquest of the Inca Empire in Peru. And while it retains plenty of colonial architecture, the vibrant city is now unashamedly modern, with a skyline dominated by hundreds of high-rise buildings.
The city is a sophisticated center of international banking and trade, while at the same time being a colorful and sometimes chaotic mix of cultures, fueled by centuries of immigration and the ever-present sound of salsa. For tourists, there’s never a dull moment.
To get a sense of the city’s history, head to the old quarter, known as Casco Viejo. Built in 1673 and now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this historic district is home to Spanish colonial buildings, French townhouses and cobbled streets. Now lovingly restored, it has become the city’s hippest place to hang out, with plenty of bars and boutique hotels.
And then there’s the famous Panama Canal, which runs to the east of the city. Built between 1881 and 1914, first by the French and then by the United States, the artificial waterway stretches for 51 miles and connects the Pacific to the Atlantic. The Panama Canal Zone was an unincorporated territory of the United States from 1903 to 1979, before eventually being handed over completely to Panama in 1999.
Today, tourists flock to the canal for tours along the waterway, and to visit historic sites and locations related to its construction and operation. These include the Interoceanic Canal Museum and the Miraflores Lock Visitor Center, which has a museum and provides spectacular views of the canal.
But for the full hands-on experience, take a trip along the Panama Canal itself. Full- and partial-day transits of the canal can be arranged, and it’s quite an experience. When a six-story, 80,000-ton cargo freighter passes you by, you know you’ve just experienced something special.
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