Phnom Penh, the bustling capital city of Cambodia, is a city rich in history, culture, and tradition. For those pondering things to do in Phnom Penh, exploring the Royal Palace, a complex of stunning buildings that serve as the royal residence of the king, and visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school turned into a prison during the Khmer Rouge regime, are top activities.
The city’s vibrant riverside area offers a plethora of dining, shopping, and entertainment options, with stunning views of the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. Nearby, the Central Market, housed in a distinctive Art Deco building, provides a shopping paradise with vendors selling everything from clothing and jewelry to electronics and souvenirs.
Beyond its urban attractions, Phnom Penh is also known for its culinary scene, with numerous restaurants and street food stalls offering a taste of traditional Khmer cuisine. For those seeking the best places to visit in Cambodia, Phnom Penh’s blend of historical significance, cultural richness, and gastronomic delights makes it a captivating destination.
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Attractions & Things to Do in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
1. Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, with its classic Khmer roofs and ornate gilding, is the royal residence of the king of Cambodia. Within the same complex, the Silver Pagoda stands out with its impressive floor made up of 5,000 silver tiles. The site contains many treasures, including a solid gold Buddha encrusted with 9,584 diamonds.
Travel Tip: Remember to dress respectfully (knees and shoulders should be covered) when visiting this sacred site.
2. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Once a high school, Tuol Sleng was converted into a detention center known as S-21 during the Khmer Rouge regime. Today, it serves as a museum and a reminder of Cambodia’s tragic past. The site is a sobering place to learn about the history of the genocide.
Travel Tip: This experience is intense and emotional; visitors should be prepared for the graphic nature of the exhibits.
3. Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (The Killing Fields)
Just outside Phnom Penh, the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center is one of the many sites known as the Killing Fields, where mass executions took place. A large stupa filled with skulls has been erected as a memorial to the victims.
Travel Tip: Hiring a guide or taking an audio tour will provide a more in-depth understanding of the events that took place here.
4. National Museum of Cambodia
The National Museum of Cambodia houses one of the world’s largest collections of Khmer art, including sculptural, ceramics, bronzes, and ethnographic objects. Its traditional design and beautiful courtyard garden offer a peaceful escape from the city.
Travel Tip: Visit in the morning when it’s cooler and less crowded, making for a more leisurely experience.
5. Wat Phnom
Wat Phnom is a Buddhist temple located on a hill, which is the tallest religious structure in the city. It is the central point of Phnom Penh and offers a lovely park setting where locals and tourists alike gather.
Travel Tip: Feeding the monkeys that inhabit the area may seem tempting, but it’s best to admire them from a distance for your safety and their health.
6. Central Market (Phsar Thmei)
Central Market is a large market constructed in 1937 in the shape of a dome with four arms branching out into vast hallways with countless stalls of goods. Here, you can find anything from clothes to electronics, to jewelry, and local food.
Travel Tip: Be prepared to bargain if you want to get the best prices, and keep an eye on your belongings as markets can get crowded.
7. Independence Monument
The Independence Monument in Phnom Penh is an iconic landmark in the city. It commemorates the end of French colonial rule and stands as a symbol of Cambodia’s freedom.
Travel Tip: The monument is beautifully lit up at night, so consider an evening stroll in the area for the best photo opportunities.
8. Riverside Promenade
The Riverside Promenade is perfect for a relaxing walk along the Tonle Sap river, especially during the early morning or late afternoon. This area is filled with street vendors, local restaurants, and bars.
Travel Tip: Enjoy the local atmosphere by grabbing a snack from a street vendor and watching the boats pass by on the river.
9. Sisowath Quay
Sisowath Quay is a bustling, vibrant waterfront area perfect for leisurely strolls and people-watching. The promenade is lined with cafes, shops, and colonial-era buildings, offering a picturesque view of the Tonle Sap River merging with the Mekong.
Travel Tip: The quay comes to life in the early evening when the locals come out for their evening exercise and socializing, making it an excellent time for visitors to soak in the local culture.
10. Russian Market (Phsar Toul Tom Poung)
The Russian Market is a popular shopping destination for locals and tourists alike. It’s known for its vibrant atmosphere and is an excellent place for souvenir hunting, with stalls selling everything from handcrafted silks to carved statues.
Travel Tip: Visit early to avoid the heat and the crowds, and remember to bargain politely to secure the best deals.
11. The Art Deco Central Market (Phsar Thmei)
The Art Deco Central Market, distinct from the Russian Market, is a historically significant landmark featuring a striking yellow dome and four vast wings filled with countless stalls. It’s a good spot to find clothes, gold and silver jewelry, and electronic goods.
Travel Tip: The market is an architectural marvel in itself, so even if you’re not shopping, it’s worth a visit for the building and a glimpse into local life.
12. Cambodian Living Arts Performance
To experience Cambodia’s vibrant culture, attend a performance by the Cambodian Living Arts, where traditional music, dance, and costumes are on full display.
Travel Tip: It’s best to book tickets in advance, as performances can sell out, especially during the high tourist season.
13. The Royal Railway Station
The Royal Railway Station, though not as busy as it once was, remains a charming piece of Phnom Penh’s history. Its classic French colonial architecture has been preserved, and it stands as a silent witness to the city’s past.
Travel Tip: Although train services are limited, check the schedule for a possible short trip or simply visit the station for a step back in time.
14. Street 240
Street 240 is known for its boutique shops, artisanal cafes, and NGO-run craft centers selling unique Cambodian-made products. It’s a quieter street ideal for a relaxing day out and a bit of shopping away from the more hectic markets.
Travel Tip: Look out for shops that support local craftspeople and social enterprises, so your purchases can help make a positive impact.
15. Wat Ounalom
Wat Ounalom is perhaps the most important wat of Phnom Penh, and houses the Patriarch of the Mahanikaya order of Cambodian Buddhism. The wat is home to a notable collection of Buddhist literature and artifacts.
Travel Tip: As a place of worship, it’s essential to dress conservatively, covering knees and shoulders, and to behave respectfully throughout your visit.
FAQ About Things to Do in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
What are the must-visit historical sites in Phnom Penh?
The Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum are significant historical sites that offer insights into the royal history and the sobering past of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.
Can I visit the Killing Fields from Phnom Penh?
Yes, the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, also known as the Killing Fields, is a short drive from Phnom Penh and is an essential site for understanding Cambodia’s history.
Is there a vibrant art scene in Phnom Penh?
Absolutely! Phnom Penh has a growing art scene with numerous galleries, such as the META House, showcasing both contemporary and traditional Cambodian art.
What river cruises are available in Phnom Penh?
You can enjoy a variety of river cruises along the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, ranging from short sunset cruises to longer dinner cruises offering traditional Khmer cuisine and entertainment.
Where can I find the best local markets in Phnom Penh?
Phnom Penh is known for its lively markets, with the Central Market and Russian Market being the most popular for tourists seeking souvenirs, textiles, and local delicacies.
Are there any cooking classes for Khmer cuisine?
Yes, there are several cooking classes available in Phnom Penh where you can learn to prepare traditional Khmer dishes under the guidance of local chefs.
What are the top public parks in Phnom Penh?
The most visited public parks include the riverfront park along Sisowath Quay and the peaceful Wat Botum Park. These are great spots for a leisurely walk or to observe local life.
Does Phnom Penh have a nightlife scene?
Yes, Phnom Penh offers a vibrant nightlife with various bars, nightclubs, and live music venues, particularly around the Riverside area and Street 308.