On the surface, travelers often view Phnom Penh as a hectic and dirty city (which it can be!), but once you dive in, meet locals and learn more about the history, you will discover what may become your new favorite city. This one day in Phnom Penh itinerary will give you a chance to view the capital’s rapid growth while uncovering the history and beauty of the city that still remains.
Stevo and I have been living and loving life in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for three years. We like the city’s chaotic charm, friendly people, and relatively calm pace compared to other nearby capitals like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh. In fact, we believe that Phnom Penh is one of the most underrated cities in Southeast Asia! To help you discover this great destination we put together a list of top things to do in Phnom Penh in one day, enjoy!
24 hours in Phnom Penh: what to do in the morning
Start your day with a local breakfast of pork and rice served with a fried egg, side of pickled vegetables and a sweet and spicy sauce. Up the ante and get a Cambodian coffee with sweetened condensed milk to go with it. [If you are a coffee enthusiast check the best cafes in Phnom Penh here]. This is a truly local breakfast, and delicious too! Most of the hotels in Phnom Penh serve this dish, or you can find a local restaurant in just about any neighborhood. Just look out for smoke coming off a grill where the pork is being cooked. Eat as the locals do with a fork in one hand and a spoon in the other!
After breakfast, it’s time to head to a local market in Phnom Penh. The Central Market is one of the most iconic buildings in the city, it was built in the 1920s in the art déco style. Light streams through the rooftop cutouts, illuminating the hundreds of sellers inside selling anything from jewelry to clothing, souvenirs, to wigs and makeup. There is also a large section of the market where locals do their grocery shopping. You can find lots of ready-made dishes as well as fresh produce and meats there. Take your time wandering through the four corridors jutting out from the center of the building and see what you discover.
If you do decide to shop, have fun bargaining with the sellers. Haggling is a part of Cambodian culture, and foreigners are often given a higher first price than locals. The main rule of thumb is that both you and the seller are happy with whatever price you land on.
After a morning of market shopping and exploring, it’s time to dig into Cambodia’s tragic past with a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Though this is undoubtedly sad, we believe it is essential to learn more about Cambodia’s recent genocide which took place from 1975-1979, killing an estimated 1/3 of the population. During this period, the entire city of Phnom Penh was evacuated and people were forced into the countryside to work as farmers. Educated and elite people were killed first. I know you only have 1 day in Phnom Penh, but visiting the museum is one of the must do in the city and you can rent an audio guide to take you through the museum at your own pace or hire a local guide.
After your visit to the museum, it’s time for lunch. Head to Friends the Restaurant, run by Friends International, a social enterprise working to build the futures of marginalized youth through training in the service industry. You can sample a range of international and local Cambodian dishes there in a beautiful setting. Next door to Friends the Restaurant is the Friends ’N’ Stuff store which sells interesting jewelry, art and clothing. They also have a small nail salon attached, another skills training facility. It doesn’t matter if you are only one day in Phnom Penh, you can enjoy the city and leave a positive impact.
One day in Phnom Penh: afternoon itinerary
It’s time to relax and beat the heat. Next, walk to nearby U & Me Spa & Massage, or any other spa along the riverside. We recommend trying a traditional Cambodian massage, which is like a lighter, less painful version of Thai massage that will leave you feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.
After your massage, take a walk along the riverside towards the Royal Palace, the home of the Royal family in Cambodia dating back to 1866. The street in front of the palace is blocked off, and is a popular spot in the late afternoons for locals to gather. Children play in the street, riding bicycles and feeding the pigeons, and people of all walks of life gather there.
There are two sacred temples across the street from the palace along the riverside where locals go to pray when they are going through a difficult time. There is always a flurry of activity in this area with people buying flowers and lighting incense at the temples, and buying small birds to release. The riverside is a fantastic area for people watching or to interact with locals. You may even see group exercise classes taking place along the riverside, which you are welcome to join for just a few thousand Riel (less than $1USD).
Within walking distance of the Royal Palace is the National Museum and an outdoor cultural center, which is another popular place for locals to gather. There you can learn about and purchase a krama, Cambodia’s traditional checked scarf worn by farmers and people around the country, and potentially see a free local movie or watch a live theater performance.
What to do in Phnom Penh at night
After your riverside wander, head to the Foreign Correspondents Club for a sunset drink, with views overlooking the banks of the Tonle Sap river. The FCC was once the cornerstone of the area, where journalists, aid workers and travelers would meet to swap stories.
Depending on your preference, we have a couple of dinner recommendations. For high-quality Cambodian fare, Malis restaurant is the place to go. Their focus is on reviving traditional Cambodian dishes that have been lost over time and the setting is beautiful. After dinner, walk around the corner to Bassac Lane, an alleyway with tiny, quirky themed bars that is popular with expats.
A nice mid-range dinner option is Romdeng Restaurant, which serves adventurous dishes like beef with red ants and deep-fried tarantula, which is honestly pretty tasty! They also serve delicious traditional Cambodian dishes that don’t include bugs. Romdeng is also a Friends International training restaurant.
If you are looking for somewhere more affordable and local, Sovanna II BBQ is the place to go. Hundreds of locals gather here every evening to enjoy BBQ’d meat and cooked dishes with refreshing local beer. After dinner, walk one street over to Botanico Wine and Beer Garden to enjoy the tranquil setting and an excellent locally made craft beer selection. If you are lucky you might even catch a live music performance there.
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If you’re looking for some nightlife excitement, head to Blue Chili, the country’s first gay bar where all are welcome. They hold an incredible drag show several nights a week starting at 11 pm where the country’s most talented and enthusiastic performers put on one hell of a show.
For a truly Phnom Penh expat experience, order a late night pizza from Katy Peri’s Pizza tuk-tuk, which only delivers from 10:00 pm to 5:00 am. As I’m sure you can imagine, they do great business in this city. Our favorite is the Peri Peri chicken pizza, extra cheese, extra chicken plus garlic. But you do you.
Where to stay in Phnom Penh
If you only need a night of sleep or if you decided to stay in Phnom Penh longer, you must book a comfy accommodation. There are many hotels in Phnom Penh, from luxury to cheap rooms, and I’m sure you can find one that will fit your travel style and budget. To end your one day in Phnom Penh itinerary here are our suggestion of the best places to stay in Cambodia’s capital:
- Raffles Hotel Le Royal: luxury hotel in the heart of Phnom Penh city
- TeaHouse Asian Urban Hotel: a unique and boutique hotel in Phnom Penh
- SLA Boutique Hostel: a perfect match for travelers visiting Phnom Penh on a budget
Safety issues in Phnom Penh
We would be doing you a disservice if we didn’t mention the reality of safety in Phnom Penh and speak from our experience. Unfortunately, petty theft is common. When you are in a tuk-tuk or walking around, be sure to be aware of your surroundings at all times. Bag and phone snatching are fairly common, so keep your bag over your chest, and keep your camera or phone close to you at all times. We prefer to use Grab taxis at night as an additional safety precaution. Download the GrabTaxi app to your phone. It works similarly to Uber, and you can pay in cash at the end of your ride.
Phnom Penh is an often overlooked jewel in Southeast Asia that has a lot to offer the adventurous traveler, and this is a just a small 24-hour taste. With the recent influx of foreign investments in the city, especially from China, changes are happening quickly. Visit soon to experience the rugged charms of Phnom Penh, Cambodia!
Traveling to Siem Reap too? Read the ultimate guide to Angkor Wat here
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This is a guest post by Jen Joslin, who also shot the photos. She blogs at www.TwoCanTravel.com about travel and expat life in Cambodia and around Asia. Follow her and her comedian husband, Stevo Joslin on Facebook and Youtube.