Things to do in Chiang Mai
Although Chiang Mai is one of the largest cities in Thailand, it has more of a village atmosphere. Take advantage of the booming cafe culture, spectacular street food scene, and artisanal arts and crafts with all the top things to do in Chiang Mai.
The Sunday Night Market is a top thing to do in Chiang Mai and a must-see on your trip! This huge walking street comes to life on a Sunday evening (from 4 PM – 12 AM) when it’s filled with stands, shouting street vendors, golden lamps, and the sound of hill tribe music in the air.
Follow the crowds and get caught up in the atmosphere as you shop for art, ceramics, and clothes. There’s also plenty of entertainment, from street performers to glass blowers.
The best thing, though, is the street food! Hidden food courts lead off from the main street, where you can grab a bowl of sticky mango rice, zesty pad thai, or sweet sugarcane juice. Go on an empty stomach to fill up on all the delicious local delicacies. For example, Khao Soi, a traditional Northern Thai dish of warm broth and crunchy noodles.
How to get there
Start at Tha Phae gate and work your way up the main market street, named Ratchadamnoen Road. The market spreads out onto the smaller side streets too, and on Sunday, you’ll find several neighboring temples are open if you want a break from the crowds.
Tip: Not here on a Sunday? You can check out Chiang Mai Night Bazaar every night from 5 PM on Chang Klang Road.
2. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of the most stunning temples in the area, sitting atop Doi Suthep mountain. Legend has it that a white elephant, carrying a bone believed to be from Buddha, suddenly died on top of the mountain. This was taken as a spiritual sign, leading local people to build a sacred temple in the same spot.
Climb the 306 steps to the top, and discover the steps bordered by snake-like statues and beautiful tiles, known as a Naga staircase in Buddhist culture.
Once you reach the summit, you’ll be rewarded with a spectacular vision of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Not only is it one of Thailand’s most beautiful temples, but it also sits on top of one of the country’s highest mountains. The famous golden pagoda sits at the center of the complex, surrounded by statues, murals, and trees full of flowers.
Visiting Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
The temple is open every day from 6 AM-8 PM. The price is 50 THB (1.45 USD), and the ticket office is at the top of the stairs. In total, you’ll need about 1 hour at the temple.
Visit in the morning at sunrise, when you’ll find it’s quieter and there’s a fresh mountain breeze. Alternatively, visit during golden hour in the evening, when the temple is bathed in an orange glow.
Be mindful that this is one of the most sacred sites in Thailand. Because of this, you’ll need to cover your knees and shoulders and remove your shoes.
How to get there: To reach the temple, take a shared red taxi (songthaew), or if you want to get your steps in, challenge yourself to the 3-hour hike through the jungle! For the most convenience, join an organized tour that includes return transportation and a guide.
The Elephant Nature Park is the only place to experience elephants in the country (or another sanctuary recommended by the park’s staff). This vast nature reserve is an ethical and responsible sanctuary with minimal interaction that does fantastic work for the animals.
It’s the perfect way to see these majestic creatures interacting with each other — happily and healthy as they would in the wild. The reserve also does a lot of work raising awareness of the mistreatment of elephants in Thailand.
Within the reserve, discover 114 elephants, 670 dogs, and 2000 cats, as well as cows, buffalo, rabbits, and more. It’s truly a haven for wildlife, with elephants and buffalo walking amongst each other. We even saw the owner working on site, as the elephants played with her and protected her; remarkable!
You can visit for the day, overnight, or even volunteer for seven days! On a day trip, you will walk through the park with a guide. The elephants are walking around, and you might even have to step aside as they don’t stop for you. You will spend time learning about their daily routine, watching them bathe and cover their skin in mud (as sunscreen). You’ll also get a delicious vegetarian lunch included in the price.
Make sure to book ahead, as this experience sells out quickly, particularly at peak times.
4. Old City Walls
One of the most notable things about Chiang Mai is its rich and fascinating history; it’s believed to date back all the way to 1294 A.D! In the days when kings and monks lived side by side, walls, gates, and moats were built to protect the city. This is why there are so many temples (40+!) within the walls. It’s still possible to see the original clay walls just outside the Old Town.
Head for the Chang Phuak gate (meaning white elephant), where you’ll find a fantastic daily night market. Another spot to visit is the Tha Phae Gate, which is the most famous entrance to the Old Town and the main gate because of its central location. These days, festivals and parades are held here, and it is also the starting point of the Sunday Night Market.
5. Old Town
The Old Town is the beating heart of Chiang Mai, home to charming streets where you can step back in time. Although it’s the city center, it can feel surprisingly quiet here, with its tucked-away alleys, sacred temples, and hidden coffee shops. It’s the perfect place to take a relaxed walk, dip into cute cafes, or cycle among the top sights.
By morning, check out one of the beautiful temples, like Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Chiang Man, or Wat Phra Singh. You can follow this by grabbing a coffee made from locally grown beans in one of the many cute spots in town. Some of the best-hidden coffee shops are:
- My Secret Cafe In Town
- Nowhere coffee brewers
- Pegasus Café & Roastery
- Artisan Cafe
- Roast8ry Lab
- Diciotto SlowBar Coffee
- Carrot coffee cnx
In the evening, head to the old town for live music at places like North Gate Jazz Co-op or hunt for colorful street art murals.
6. Nimman Neighborhood
Nimman is one of the most contemporary areas in Chiang Mai, just a stone’s throw from the Old Town. Named after the main street (Nimmanhaemin Road), it’s the trendiest neighborhood in the city, with hipster-vibe restaurants, cute bookstores, and buzzing bars at every turn.
This is the next place to go shopping after you’ve explored the night markets, with plenty of unique stores selling clothes and art by local designers.
This area is also home to some of the best food spots in the city, attracting digital nomads who come for the cozy co-working spaces and fantastic independent coffee shops.
Our favorite spots in Nimman:
- Tim Baan Yaii – homemade ice cream
- Healthy Junk
- Pizza My Heart
- Anchan Vegetarian Restaurant
Head to the market with your guide to learn about the local cuisine and pick out fresh ingredients for the day. Once back at the organic farm, you’ll cook delicious Thai dishes from scratch in the open-air kitchen; learn how to make your favorites like Pad Thai, green curry, fresh spring rolls, and sticky rice.
Morning or evening classes are available every day for 1000 THB (28.91 USD) per person. This price includes all food plus drinks and the recipe book.
If you are a fan of panoramic mountain views, thundering waterfalls, and magical sunrises, then Doi Inthanon National Park needs to be on your list of things to do in Chiang Mai!
This incredible national park is only an hour and a half from the city and is home to the highest mountain in Thailand. The beautiful temple complex sits on the peak, marking the end of the Himalayas.
Spend the night at Doi Inthanon
Come for a night or two to trek high altitudes through jungles and remote villages, swim in waterfall pools, and look out for local wildlife. This is fantastic accommodation we stayed at.
Kew Mae Pan Trail
The Kew Mae Pan nature trail is great for a day trip. The two-hour hike (a Hmong Tribe guide will accompany you) leads you through the lush jungle and flat grassland with guaranteed views. Don’t miss a glimpse of the temple from Kew Mae Pan Viewpoint!
This trail is particularly special in the winter mornings when carpets of cloud swirl in the valleys below the mountain ridges.
Royal Twin Pagodas
If you’re staying the night, get up early to catch the sunrise at the stunning pagodas that sit just below the summit. The royal temples are surrounded by beautiful gardens filled with picturesque ponds and bridges. Watching the sunrise over the landscape below from these peaceful terraces is an experience you will never forget.
Doi Inthanon is about 1.5 hours by motorbike or 3 hours by songthaew from Chiang Mai. You can also rent a car at one of the local car rentals. It is possible to drive almost all the way to the pagodas and park 50 meters below before taking the stairs or the escalator to the top. The Kew Mae Pan Trail begins a few 100 meters from this point.
We recommend staying in the village close to the park entrance, which has an impressive waterfall backdrop. There are a few local restaurants, and a lovely coffee shop named 22 Aquarius Glamping Cafe. We stayed at Father’s Garden, which has cozy tent-style rooms and cabins overlooking the countryside.
Opening Times and Entrance Fees:
- National Park: 300 THB + 20THB motorbike (+30 THB car) – opening hours 5:30 AM-6:30 PM daily.
- Kew Mae Pan Trail: 200 THB to hire a guide (mandatory) – opening hours 6 AM-4 PM November-May.
- Twin pagodas: 100 THB
9. Pha Chor Canyon
Pha Chor canyon in Mae Wang National Park is a striking geological feature that is a great stop-off on your way to Doi Inthanon. Sometimes referred to as the ‘mini Grand Canyon’ of Thailand, discover its stunning rock formations in a short but spectacular 15-minute hike.
The beautiful golden cliffs of 30-meter-high pillars were created by thousands of years of erosion where the river Ping once flowed. Hike through the forest until you reach the canyon, and don’t forget your camera! If you’ve been to the canyon in Pai, this is something a little different and perhaps even more spectacular.
Opening Times & Entry Fee: 100 THB (2.89 USD) + 20THB (0.58 USD) for a motorcycle. Open 8:30 AM – 4:40 PM.
10. Wachirathan Waterfall
Another impressive sight on the way up to Doi Inthanon is the Wachirathan Waterfall, an 80m high fall near Chiang Mai. Admire the falls with their beautiful backdrop of greenery, and look out for double rainbows! When the light hits the water right, beautiful colors appear in the spray.
Unfortunately, you are not permitted to swim, as the water is very powerful. However, a lot of mist drifts off the falls, so prepare to get refreshingly wet. There are a few walking trails nearby, so you can wander around and see the falls from different perspectives.
There is a free parking spot with some shops to buy snacks. Plus, there’s no entry fee!
11. Wat Chedi Luang
This stunning temple complex lies in the middle of the Old Town and is an iconic landmark of Chiang Mai. Come and explore the huge variety of buildings and their unique and impressive architecture. You’ll find gorgeous stone statues of elephants, a beautiful example of a Naga staircase, and an ancient reclining Buddha.
The central pagoda, with its rusty red outer walls, is the largest temple in Chiang Mai. It was once the tallest structure for miles around and was used as a viewpoint to guard the entire city.
Opening Times & Entry Fee: 40 THB (1.16 USD). Open from 8 AM – 5 PM.
Wat Phra Singh
Alternatively, you can also visit Wat Phra Singh, another gorgeous temple home to one of Thailand’s most sacred Buddha images, the Phra Singh (Lion Buddha). This sacred place is beautiful after dark when the buildings are illuminated from below in a golden light. Open 8 AM – 5 PM.
Rent a motorbike and explore the stunning natural scenery, cool off on a tubing adventure down the river, or wander through the rice paddies. Although small, you can easily spend a weekend here, experiencing local life outside the city.
Pai is about 4 hours from Chiang Mai and is accessible by shared van, bus, or taxi.
13. Coffee Culture
In the last few decades, coffee plantations have sprung up all over Northern Thailand, bringing a flourishing cafe culture to Chiang Mai. The coffee plantations were initially set up as part of a community development project by the royal family, who wanted to support local hill tribes to move away from opium growing.
The cool mountains in the North have the perfect climate for coffee, and there are now many local farmers who produce fantastic high-quality beans, turning Chiang Mai into the coffee capital of Thailand.
Best Cafes & Restaurants in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is made for foodies with a vibrant and ever-changing food scene. While some of the best night markets in the country are here, the city is also home to some fantastic (and affordable!) fine dining experiences. Add that to the atmospheric cafe culture and lively bar scene, and you could spend a lifetime exploring Chiang Mai’s hidden gems.
- By Hand Pizza
- Hummus Chiang Mai (Lebanese)
- My Secret Cafe In Town
- Its Good Kitchen (Thai)
- Goodsouls Kitchen (vegetarian)
There are also some great places to catch live music in the city, and many aren’t just touristy spots– you’ll see a lot of locals around, too, especially at the weekend. We recommend:
- Airniversary Camp & Cafe
- Nophaburi Bar
- Hard Cocktail bar
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
There is a range of accommodation options for every budget in Chiang Mai, with many backpacker hostels, mid-range guesthouses, and luxury apartments. The Old Town is the best place to stay for first-time visitors, as this is where most of the hostels are located.
It’s also within walking distance of the top sights and temples. Plus, the Sunday night market is right on your doorstep! A more modern alternative is the Nimman area, which has loads of bars, restaurants, and coffee shops.
By Train or Bus
You can fly to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, but for a more sustainable, slow travel option, take an overnight bus (10 hours) or the popular overnight train (11-15 hours).
An easy way to get to Chiang Mai is by hiring a car. The roads in Thailand are becoming more and more developed, and it’s getting easier to drive by car between destinations. This can give you more freedom on your Thailand itinerary.
It is really easy to walk or cycle around the center, and we’d recommend doing so to get a feel for the city! For longer journeys, hail a Songthaew or rent a motorbike. A Songthaew is the typical red truck you’ll see everywhere. You can either share these with other passengers, much like a bus or rent one privately as a taxi for a higher fee. Don’t pay more than 100 THB (2.89 USD) for a shared Songthaew within the city.
Renting a motorbike
Scooter/motorbike rental starts at around 150-400 THB (4.30 -11.60 USD) per day, depending on the model you choose. There are loads of rental companies in Chaing Mai, but please be aware that you’ll always need to leave your passport or put down a deposit of 3,000 THB (87 USD).
Grab is another great option (it’s similar to Uber in that you order from an app, but you still need to pay in cash at the end). For women, you can also use the Grab (lady) option to be driven by women.
Renting a motorbike or a car is a better alternative if you want more freedom to explore, especially for day or weekend trips out into the mountains.
How Much Does Chiang Mai Cost?
Like the rest of Thailand, you can live cheaply in Chiang Mai if you want to! It is a much more affordable city than Bangkok, and coupled with an abundance of street food, a walkable center, and affordable accommodation, you can easily stick to your budget here.
Best Time to Visit Chiang Mai
November-January is the best time to visit Northern Thailand; the rainy season has finished, it is cooler, and there are gorgeous flower blooms in the fields. Avoid January-March, known as the ‘burning season’, when there is a lot of pollution in the air from fires burned on neighboring farmland.
Come here in October-November time for the Loy Krathong and Yi Peng Festivals when locals float small lanterns down the river, thousands of lanterns are released into the sky, and musical parades fill the streets. An unforgettable experience!