48 Hours in Phnom Penh

From history buffs and foodies to shopaholics and partygoers, there’s something for everyone in Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh.

The city has been transformed in recent years with an explosion of developments & improved infrastructure but still retains pockets of its historical and cultural charm. Phnom Penh is also increasingly easy to reach on international and regional flights, while it's the perfect launching pad to explore the country,

Here’s how to spend 48 hours exploring the vibrant city at the heart of the Kingdom of Cambodia

Day 1: Morning

The early bird catches the worm, and the capital springs to life at dawn. Join the fitness conscious crowds that head to the riverside's esplanade (with a marked running track), Hun Sen Park, or Olympic Stadium and start the day with an exercise class, complete with pumping music.

The range of people is fascinating and many start their day early with joggers, cyclists, martial arts classes and more.

Markets form an integral part of daily life in Cambodia and are at their most vibrant in the early morning, when locals compete to snap up the freshest foods. For an authentic market experience, visit Phsar Kandal and watch fish flapping in pans, dodge slabs of beef hanging from hooks and gaze in awe at the rainbow selection of fruit and vegetables.

A less frantic alternative is Central Market (Phsar Thmei), which caters more to the tourist crowd. Beneath the iconic Art Deco dome, which dates back to 1937, stalls sell everything from souvenirs, household goods, clothes and food, to flowers, shoes, bags and everything in between.

Having worked up an appetite, head to the historic French quarter – home to a stunning collection of colonial architecture that includes the grand Post Office. Khéma La Poste is located in a restored former French villa and serves a selection of fine French food, while a cross-section of restaurants has also taken up residency in the photogenic buildings.

Day 1: Afternoon

The riverside area is home to many of the national museums and tourist attractions. Delve into Cambodia’s past at the National Museum, home to relics that date back to the pre-Angkorian period. The neighbouring Royal Palace still serves as the King’s official residence. However, parts of the sprawling grounds are open to the public. Manicured gardens contain a variety of ornate temples and structures.

The adjacent Silver Pagoda also welcomes guests – although photos of its decadent interior are not allowed. Inside sits five tonnes of silver spread across 5,000 tiles, an Italian marble staircase and life-sized gold Buddha draped in 2,086 diamonds.

The Wat Ounalom Pagoda is also a short walk away and is considered the centre of Cambodian Buddhism, with the stupa housed the alleged eyebrow hair of Buddha himself.

To sample Khmer fine dining, Malis is a must-visit although the dining options in the city are fantastic. Set up by revered master chef Luu Meng, the restaurant gives traditional dishes a contemporary twist. Crowned Asia’s top chef, Meng has been championing Khmer cuisine internationally, winning him prestige at home.

Other new additions to the city's gourmet dining such as the FiveFive Rooftop Restaurant & Bar at the Hyatt, which opened in 2021, and has fantastic sunset views looking over the Royal Palace and the confluence of several rivers.

For a nightcap, head to Street 308 and Bassac Lane, with an entertaining maze of back streets and alleys that in recent years has transformed into a hub of lively boutique bars and eateries.

Day 2: Morning

Take a sobering step back in time to the brutal Khmer Rouge regime at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Under the Pol Pot-led regime that ruled from 1975 to 1979, the former school served as a political prisoners’ camp known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). Only an estimated seven prisoners survived. The rest were tortured and killed there, or sent to their deaths at nearby Choeung Ek killing fields.

You can follow this up and explore the revered temple and the capital’s namesake, Wat Phnom, which sits atop a 27-metre-high hill. According to legend, the first pagoda on this site was built in 1373 to house four statues of Buddha discovered by Lady Penh in the Mekong River. The temple is surrounded by a small but well-manicured park.

For lunch, head to Friends Future Factory. It was operated by the non-governmental organisation Friends International, which provides vocational training for underprivileged young people.

There are restaurants on-site, run by students putting their newly learned skills to the test under the supervision of skilled mentors, but the new space also has art areas, cafes and the Friends 'n Stuff shop selling goods made by the NGO. These include souvenirs and premium crafts often creatively made from recycled goods.

Day 2: Afternoon

Spend the last afternoon in Phnom Penh on a high and hire a charter helicopter to soar the skies above the city. After viewing the capital from the ground, get an alternative perspective and enjoy stunning bird’s eye views of the city sprawling below from the comfort of a helicopter.

There are several organised helicopter tours from Yugo that offer passengers aerial views. Alternatively, helicopters can be chartered for private hire to hover above iconic landmarks of passengers’ choice.

In keeping with the views from above, head to Rosewood Hotel which occupies the top 14 floors of Vattanac Capital Tower and provides pristine city views, excellent service and meals. Enjoy stylish sundowners from its Sora Skybar on the 37th floor before heading to one of the many delightful dining options the hotel is home to.

You can even venture out and head off to Siem Reap or the tropical with chartered flights.