Chiang Mai was the former capital of the old Lanna kingdom which covered a large area of what is now north Thailand. And while that separate kingdom no longer exists, the Lanna heritage lives on in Chiang Mai. The Lanna influence which helps make Chiang Mai such a fascinating destination to visit can be seen in the food, language and traditions of the local people.
Chiang Mai is a city with a proud heritage. A city of ancient temples renowned for its handicrafts, colourful traditions and distinctive culture. While Chiang Mai is known for its history, this is also a modern and forward-thinking university city with a thriving music and art scene. Away from the city, travel into rural Chiang Mai province and experience the beauty of the mountains, waterfalls and rice fields. Shown here in no particular order, are our editor’s suggestions for 25 of the best things to see and do in Chiang Mai.
1) Drive your own tuk-tuk
For a unique and unforgettable adventure, learn how to drive your own tuk-tuk and explore rural areas of Chiang Mai province that most visitors miss out on. From one day trips to multi-day excursions, The Tuk Tuk Club offer fun-filled trips for all the family. If you like the idea of a tuk-tuk adventure, but would prefer to let somebody else do the driving for you, that option is available too.
Read more about The Tuk Tuk Club
2) Take a samlor ride
Before the advent of the tuk-tuk, it was the three-wheel samlor which was more common on the streets of Thailand. Sadly, this elegant form of transportation is harder to find these days, but they can still be seen on the Chiang Mai roads. Samlors remain a popular form of transport for Thai aunties returning from local markets with their shopping.
You can hire samlors for journeys at different points around Chiang Mai, most notably near Waworot Market (Kad Luang). However, for the best introduction to the samlors and the people who ride them, take an organised tour.
3) Explore the Old City
Wherever you are staying in Chiang Mai, explore the Old City area by bicycle or on foot. When Chiang Mai was founded in 1296, the heart of the city was protected by brick walls and a moat. The tree-lined moat forms a neat square around the historic quarter and partial reconstructions of the old city walls and gates add ambience to this area.
Dotted with a mix of ancient temples, modern coffee shops and local eateries, the Old Town area is one of the most popular and convenient locations to stay in Chiang Mai. The Three Kings Monument (Sam Kasat) is at the centre of the Old City and a good landmark to get your bearings. There are dozens of temples in this historic district with each having their own style and charm. Amongst the most important and photogenic are Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Pan Thao, and Wat Chiang Man.
4) Visit the Walking Street Markets
Don’t miss the chance to meander through the weekend walking street markets. The atmosphere at the Saturday and Sunday Walking Street Markets is relaxed with a seemingly endless selection of street food to choose from. If you’re looking for unique gifts, this is the place to shop with a wonderful array of stalls selling exquisite handmade products at low prices.
The main event takes place on Sunday evening in the middle of the Old City. The Sunday market stretches from Thapae Gate all the way along Ratchadamnoen Road (and some of the spur roads) to Wat Phra Singh. A smaller, but equally charming Walking Street Market sets up on Saturday along Wualai Road (just outside the Old City) opposite Chiang Mai Gate. Located in the same area as the Saturday Walking Street Market, the silver temple of Wat Srisuphan is well worth a visit.
At both of the Walking Street Markets, roads are closed off to motorised traffic from around 4pm with the markets continuing until around 11pm.
Stand for the national anthem
At 6pm the national anthem is played over loudspeakers and the market temporarily comes to a halt.
5) Go shopping with the locals
In addition to the Walking Street Markets, there are plenty of other markets to visit in Chiang Mai. The Night Bazaar sets up every evening along Changklan Road and although this market is geared towards tourists, it can still be fun especially if you head to the indoor areas.
To see where the locals shop head to Waworot Market, known locally as Kad Luang. Even if you’re not much of a shopper, Kad Luang and the surrounding Chinatown district is an interesting area to visit with its colourful stalls and flower market.
Jing Jai Farmers’ Market (aka JJ Market) and Ba Pao Flea Market are both an enjoyable option at weekends with a variety of food products, handicrafts, and a relaxed ambience. Kad Na Mor (aka the University Night Market) opposite Chiang Mai University attracts students and a younger crowd, but there are bargains for all the family and it’s a good venue in the evening for cheap eats. One Nimman and the nearby Think Park are two more areas where food and drink is as important as the shopping.
6) Take a cruise on the Ping River
A boat ride along the Ping River is a pleasant way to spend a few hours. Boats depart at regular intervals from Wat Chai Mongkhon for a leisurely cruise along the Ping River out into the Chiang Mai countryside. Enjoy a stop for refreshments at a riverside farmer’s garden before the return journey back into town. A river cruise can also be combined with a visit to the historic ruins of Wiang Khum Kham.
7) Pay your respects at Doi Suthep
Local people say you haven’t visited Chiang Mai until you’ve visited Doi Suthep. The name Doi Suthep refers to the mountain to the west of Chiang Mai city, but is also a reference to the picturesque temple located on top of the temple.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of the holiest temples in north Thailand and is always a pleasure to visit. Trips to Doi Suthep can be arranged via any tour office in town or you can take a rod daeng (red truck shared taxi) from the bottom of the mountain to the temple. If you’re feeling energetic and are reasonably fit, you can actually walk to the top of Doi Suthep along the so-called monks’ trail (see below).
8) Go hiking in the mountains
The monks’ trail to Doi Suthep is one of a number of excellent hiking routes in Chiang Mai province. The trail starts near the back entrance to Chiang Mai University. The first half of the hike is gentle, going along a scenic forest walkway until you reach Wat Palad. This is the ideal place to rest for a while and enjoy the surroundings. You can either stop the hike here and return or press on to the top of Doi Suthep.
The second half of the hike is more arduous, but if you’re in at least an average range of fitness should be ok. Take your time, keep hydrated and go for it. And don’t worry about getting back down. It’s easy to take a red truck taxi back down the mountain into town.
There are numerous hiking and trekking rails in Chiang Mai with excellent options in Chiang Dao and Doi Inthanon National Park. Chiang Mai province is home to a number of hill-tribe communities and responsible tour operators like Green Trails can arrange trekking trips which provide the chance to experience hill-tribe culture.
9) Celebrate a local festival
Chiang Mai is one of the best locations in Thailand to witness the various festivals that take place throughout the year. In addition to the nationwide festivals, there are some wonderful local events like the Bo Sang Umbrella and Sankhampaeng Handicrafts Festival in January, and the Chiang Mai Flower Festival in February.
There are few locations in Thailand that celebrate Songkran as enthusiastically as Chiang Mai does. The northern Thai city is without doubt one of the best locations in Thailand to enjoy the watery sanuk that welcomes in the traditional Thai New Year in April.
In November, the Loy Krathong Festival is combined with the Yee Peng Lantern Festival. Yee Peng is a northern Thai tradition which sees lanterns and candles being lit and khom loy (sky lanterns) released into the sky.
10) Visit an ethical elephant centre
If you are looking to visit an elephant sanctuary anywhere in Thailand, please do your research first. Unfortunately, not all facilities that use the word sanctuary fully live up to that description. However, there are some excellent elephant facilities in Chiang Mai which have the welfare of the animals and their handlers at heart while also providing positive experiences for visitors. Find out more in the links below:
- How to choose an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand
- Burm & Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary
- Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary
- Mahouts Elephant Foundation
Opened in 2022, the Bush Camp in Chiang Mai offers accommodation in luxury, safari-style tents. The Bush Camp has been built by local artisans to support sustainability and the local community. And as part of that, visitors are able to join a hands-off elephant experience at the on-site Elephant Park.
11) Savour local dishes
One of the many joys of visiting Chiang Mai is sampling the local food. Probably the most famous dish in this part of Thailand is khao soi, but there are many other regional favourites to try in Chiang Mai including:
- Gaeng hinlay (aromatic stewed pork belly)
- Gaeng khanun (jackfruit curry)
- Khanom jeen nam ngiao (spicy noodle soup)
- Sai oua (spicy grilled sausage)
The weekend Walking Street Markets are an excellent introduction to the delights of northern Thai food. There are also locations all around the city where you can enjoy local dishes. For no-nonsense al-fresco dining, the street food at Chiang Mai Gate (Pratu Chiang Mai) and the area opposite North Gate (Pratu Chang Phueak) are ideal. In the trendy Nimmanhaemin area, Khao Soi Nimman is recommended as is nearby Tong Tem Toh.
12) Sample Michelin-rated food
Street food in Chiang Mai is great value, but you can also eat at Michelin-rated restaurants for a fraction of the price you’d pay at similar quality venues in the West.
Conveniently located in the Old City, visit The House By Ginger or the homely setting of Baan Landai. Near the Night Bazaar Kiti Panit serves fabulous food in a historic renovated mansion on Thapae Road.
13) Admire the views at a rooftop bar
While Chiang Mai can’t compete with Bangkok in terms of the number of rooftop bars, there are a few which provide lovely views of the city and mountains.
Close to Thapae Gate, the rooftop bar at Thapae Grill provides 360 degree views in a relaxed environment. A similar laid-back vibe can be found at Level 9 near Icon Plaza. For something more upmarket, hit up the rooftop bar at Meliá Hotel near the Night Bazaar or Rise Rooftop Bar at Akyra Hotel in Nimmanhaemin. Also worth visiting for sundowners in the Nimman area is Myst on top of Maya shopping mall and Xanadu at Furama Rooftop.
14) Listen to live music
The creativity of Chiang Mai pulses through the city’s music scene. There are enough talented local musicians to keep audiences entertained, but the attraction of Chiang Mai also draws Thai musicians from Bangkok and beyond. And with some talented expats added into the mix, there is always something new and interesting to listen to in Chiang Mai.
In the Old City, the excellent North Gate Jazz Co-op is always a popular spot with crowds often spilling out onto the street. In 2022 North Gate also opened a sister venue, Mahoree, near the Three Kings Monument.
Boy Blues Bar in the Night Bazaar is another venue worth seeking out. Named after the charismatic Thai owner and talented musician, Boy, the long-running venue is something of a Chiang Mai institution. On Nimmanhaemin Road, Warm Up Cafe caters to a young Thai crowd while White House near the Ping River is more popular with middle-aged Thais. Also on the Ping River, the live music at Riverside draws a mix of locals, expats and tourists.
15) Visit Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden
Located in the Mae Rim district of Chiang Mai province, the Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden is a picturesque setting for a trip out of the city. The easiest way to explore the grounds is by car, but a hop-on hop-off trolley bus service is also in operation to take visitors around the expansive garden area. For a birds-eye view of the gardens, take the canopy walkway through the treetops.
16) Stand on top of the highest mountain in Thailand
At 2,565 metres (8,415 feet) above sea level, Doi Inthanon is the highest mountain in Thailand. Located in the eponymous National Park, Doi Inthanon is an excellent day trip from Chiang Mai city.
During the cool season months, (December-February) early morning temperatures at the summit of the mountain can drop low enough for frost to form. Highlights of a visit here are the twin royal pagodas, walking trails, and Royal Project initiatives where you can sample and buy organic local products.
17) Support community-based tourism
A trip to any of Thailand’s community-based tourism initiatives is a great way to support responsible tourism. In Chiang Mai, there are a couple of notable communities that make for a rewarding visit.
The award-winning community at Baan Rai Kong Khing has been recognised for its innovative approach to health and wellness. Across the other side of Chiang Mai, the scenic mountain village of Baan Mae Kampong is another fine example of community-based tourism in action.
18) Treat yourself to a traditional Thai massage
There are ample opportunities in Chiang Mai to treat yourself to a traditional Thai massage. From the simple massage venues that set up at the Walking Street Markets through to luxurious spas like Fah Lanna and Oasis, indulging in a healthy massage is the perfect way to ease any stress and revitalise body and soul.
In north Thailand there are a couple of variations to the traditional Thai massage treatment. One of these is the yam khang fire massage. This medicinal treatment was once practised throughout northern Thailand. Sadly, this form of alternative medicine is difficult to track down these days, but the art of yam khang is being revived at Baan Rai Kong Khing.
Tok sen is another form of traditional massage with northern Thai roots. A small wooden ‘hammer’ is used to gently tap away on the meridian lines. The physical tapping motions and the sound vibrations created combine to ease muscle tension and clear energy blockages in the body. Tok sen is a specialist treatment which isn’t offered everywhere. A couple of places to try it out are Fah Lanna Spa and the traditional Thai massage shop at the back of Wat Srisuphan (the Silver Temple).
19) Chill out in Chiang Dao
If you head out of the city in any direction, you don’t have to travel too far until you can enjoy the natural beauty of rural Chiang Mai. If you have at least a few days to spare on your itinerary or are travelling on to Chiang Rai, make the 90-minute journey to Chiang Dao and spend some time here soaking up the serenity.
Unwind in the village of Chiang Dao and enjoy the gorgeous mountain scenery. Hike the trails to the top of Doi Luang Chiang Dao or climb the steps at Wat Tham Pha Phlong for wonderful views. Hire a guide and explore Chiang Dao cave or simply relax at Chiang Dao’s waterfalls and hot springs.
20) Go rafting
The mountain scenery of Chiang Mai province provides a gorgeous backdrop for adventure seekers. Whitewater rafting is possible on a number of stretches of water including the Mae Taeng River to the north of Chiang Mai city.
If you’d like the idea of rafting, but would prefer a quieter version, opt instead for a gentle bamboo raft ride on the Wang River in Mae Wang district. Trips can be arranged via tour offices in the city and the bamboo rafting is also an option if you join a one-day adventure with The Tuk Tuk Club.
21) Coffee culture
Chiang Mai has developed a coffee culture, thanks in part to locally grown beans. Wherever you choose to stay in the city of Chiang Mai you’ll never be too far away from a coffee shop. In the Old City, Republic Coffee sets up inside a converted camper van in the temple grounds at Wat Si Koet. A short walk away on Ratchadamnoen Road, Akha Ahma is also championing local coffee producers. Away from the Old City, the Nimmanhaemin area is a haven for coffee connoisseurs with countless coffee shops including the award-winning Ristr8to Original.
While the city abounds with coffee shops, many of the most picturesque cafes are situated outside of town in the Chiang Mai countryside. Travel out to The Giant Chiang Mai near Mae Kampong, Chom Cafe in Hang Dong or Jungle De Cafe in Mae Rim to name just three.
22) Play golf
Chiang Mai is an excellent destination for golfers, with some stunning courses. Around 45 minutes from the city, Chiang Mai Highlands is a 27-hole championship course with magnificent mountain views on every hole. To the east of the city, Alpine Golf Resort is another enjoyable course to play. Find out more from Coco Golf and Thailand Golf.
23) Meet King Kong at Huay Tueng Thao Lake
The reservoir at Huay Tueng Thao has long been a favourite destination for city dwellers to visit. With its mountain backdrop and ease of access from Chiang Mai, this has always been a lovely location to unwind. Friends and families come here to relax under the bamboo salas and enjoy the food and drinks from the on-site vendors. In more recent years, Huay Tueng Thao has become famous for its giant straw sculptures including the King Kong family. Whether you’re posing with giant gorillas, walking through the rice paddies or chilling by the lakeside, Huay Tueng Thao is always a pleasure to visit.
24) Climb the sticky waterfalls
Better known to tourists as the ‘Sticky Waterfalls‘, Nam Tok Bua Tong is an unusual attraction located an hour’s drive north-east of Chiang Mai city. As the nickname suggests, the rocks here have sticky qualities. The minerals in the natural spring water form a limestone coating enabling visitors to walk up the waterfalls without losing grip.
25) See the rice fields
Located in north Thailand, Chiang Mai is the former capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom. The name ‘Lanna’ translates as the ‘land of a million rice fields’ and flying into Chiang Mai during the green season it’s easy to see why. Travel out into the Chiang Mai countryside and see up close the beauty of the rice paddies.
One of the most picturesque settings in Chiang Mai province can be found at Pa Pong Piang. It isn’t the easiest to get to, but that makes it all the more special when you do arrive.
Narrowing the selection down to just 25 was a difficult task. No doubt we may have missed off some people’s favourites, but we also hope we’ve given you plenty of ideas if you’re planning a trip to Chiang Mai.