Let’s talk about the best things to do in Chiang Mai, one of my favorite places in Thailand!
As a seasoned traveler, I’ve explored every nook and cranny of Chiang Mai, first in 2021 as a backpacker, and then even more when I returned in 2023 to live in Chiang Mai as a digital nomad.
I know firsthand how overwhelming it can be to plan an itinerary, especially to a place like Chiang Mai when there is so much to do and not enough time to do it all! I’m here to share the absolute best things to do in Chiang Mai.
Whether you’re seeking cultural immersion, outdoor adventures, or mouthwatering cuisine, let me help you make the most of your time in this enchanting destination. Let’s embark on an unforgettable Chiang Mai adventure together!
Best Things to Do in Chiang Mai
Get ready to dive into the heart of Northern Thailand as we explore the best things to do in Chiang Mai.
From ancient temples echoing stories of the past to bustling night markets offering a sensory feast, or tranquil mountain hikes revealing breathtaking vistas, there are so many things to do in Chiang Mai!
1. Discover the Charm of Chiang Mai’s Old City
Exploring the Old City of Chiang Mai is an absolute must for any traveler, and most first-time visitors to Chiang Mai decide to stay in the Old City.
Steeped in history, the Old City is a living museum, with its centuries-old temples, weathered city walls, and bustling local markets.
As you stroll through its labyrinth of fascinating alleyways, you’ll find a unique blend of the old and new, where ancient architecture meets trendy coffee shops and art galleries.
The Old City is not just a Chiang Mai attraction; it’s a cultural gem that showcases the city’s rich heritage and vibrant local life. Absorb the tranquil atmosphere, interact with the friendly locals, and let the Old City of Chiang Mai captivate your heart.
Some specific places in Chiang Mai’s Old City that you should visit include:
Wat Chedi Luang: Unveiling the ancient past of Chiang Mai, Wat Chedi Luang mesmerizes visitors with its majestic ruins. Witness the grandeur of this Lanna-style temple and marvel at the towering pagoda that once held the Emerald Buddha.
- Tha Phae Gate: Tha Pae Gate stands tall, marking the entrance to the Chiang Mai Old Town. This historical landmark is not only a gateway but also an emblem of the city’s rich heritage.
- Sunday Walking Street: The vibrant Sunday Walking Street transforms the old city into a bustling open-air market. Stroll along the illuminated streets, savor local delicacies, and discover unique handmade crafts from talented artisans. This is my favorite thing to do in Chiang Mai, and I highly encourage you to try to visit on a Sunday!
- Three Kings Monument: Immerse yourself in history at the Three Kings Monument, where life-sized statues of Chiang Mai’s revered rulers pay tribute to their contributions. It’s a perfect spot to learn about the city’s fascinating past.
2. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep: The Majestic Mountain Temple
Doi Suthep is one of Chiang Mai’s most iconic attractions and a must-visit when you’re in town. I thought I was too templed-out to be impressed by Doi Suthep, but that wasn’t the case – I’m so happy I went!
Situated 3,500 feet above sea level atop Doi Pui Mountain, this majestic destination offers stunning views of the city below.
As you ascend the hundreds of steps of the famous Naga staircase, anticipation builds, and once you arrive, prepare to be mesmerized by the glistening golden spire that pierces the sky. The temple complex radiates serenity and tranquility, creating a perfect escape from the bustling city below.
The best time to visit Doi Suthep is in the early morning, as you’ll have a chance to witness the sunrise casting its warm glow upon the temple, painting the surroundings with ethereal hues.
Immerse yourself in the spiritual atmosphere, observe monks going about their daily rituals, and soak in the panoramic views of the city below. Don’t forget to make a wish at the sacred pagoda and be part of a timeless tradition.
Whether you’re seeking a moment of introspection, cultural immersion, or simply a breathtaking view, Doi Suthep promises an unforgettable experience that will leave you in awe.
Getting There: The easiest way to get to Doi Suthep is to take a red truck (Songthaew) from the Chiang Mai Market – just tell the driver you’re headed to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
Alternatively, you can rent a scooter and make your own way there. Or better yet, take a guided tour!
Cost: Foreigners must pay 30 baht (less than $1 USD) to enter the temple complex.
What to Wear: Be mindful to dress modestly when visiting Doi Suthep – shoulders and legs must be covered.
3. Hike the Monk’s Trail to Jungle Temple
The Monk’s Trail is legendary – and it’s the easiest hike to do near Chiang Mai!
To get to the trail, input “Monk’s Trail (Wat Pha Lat Trail)” into Google Maps.
If you decide to hike the full 7.2km out-and-back trail, keep in mind that the second part of the trail, from Wat Pha Lat to Wat Pha That Doi Suthep is quite steep. And you’ll want to use a map to find the second section, off the main road.
The full trail takes about 2-3 hours one-way, but it’s only about an hour to do the first part.
Along the way, you’ll catch glimpses of vibrant foliage, hear the melodious sounds of nature, and breathe in the invigorating mountain air.
But it’s when you reach Wat Pha Lat that the magic truly unfolds. This ancient temple, nestled amidst the jungle, exudes an aura of serenity and tranquility. The intricately carved statues and moss-covered structures create an otherworldly atmosphere that will leave you mesmerized.
It’s best to go early or at sunset, as it can be quite hot during midday. Bring plenty of water (especially if you’re hiking the full trail to Doi Suthep!) and wear bug spray.
Don’t forget to bring something to cover your shoulders or legs, like a sarong, since the trail leads to temples where modest clothing is required.
For photographers, you’ll have no shortage of amazing pictures to take as you explore this off-the-beaten-path temple complex.
4. Visit an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary
Visiting an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai is a life-changing adventure that will leave a profound impact on your heart and soul.
Picture this: You’re standing in the presence of majestic creatures, their gentle eyes filled with wisdom and grace.
Volunteering at the renowned Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai was an absolute privilege. Not only did I have the opportunity to witness the incredible work being done to rehabilitate and care for these magnificent beings, but I also actively participated in a once-in-a-lifetime 3-elephant rescue operation.
The feeling of knowing that I was making a difference in their lives was immeasurable. But let me tell you something crucial – before visiting any animal sanctuary, it’s vital to do thorough research. Ensure that the sanctuary prioritizes the well-being and freedom of elephants, never allowing riding or any form of exploitation.
While bathing elephants may seem enticing, it’s essential to understand that true sanctuaries prioritize elephants’ natural behaviors and habitats over human entertainment. I can personally vouch for Elephant Nature Park!
And it’s not just elephants – they have all sorts of animals, from a herd of water buffalo roaming freely around the park to the thousands of dogs and cats available for adoption.
Whether you’re planning a day visit, overnight visit, or looking to volunteer for a longer duration, Elephant Nature Park offers it all.
5. Eat Everything at the Vibrant Night Markets
The night markets in Chiang Mai are an absolute must-do for food-loving travelers. Each neighborhood in Chiang Mai has its own night markets, but the most famous are the Night Bazaar and the Sunday Walking Streets.
Prepare to be captivated by the enchanting Night Bazaar, where a kaleidoscope of colors, scents, and flavors awaits. You can visit this market any night of the week.
The Chill Out food market is my favorite food court in the Night Bazaar.
And for my favorite night market in Chiang Mai – get ready to immerse yourself in the world-famous Sunday Night Market, a feast for the senses stretching through the city’s heart.
Wander through the labyrinth of stalls and discover a treasure trove of handicrafts, clothing, accessories, and more.
Tips for first-timers? Come with an empty stomach, wear comfortable shoes, and embrace the spirit of haggling to snag the best deals.
The night markets offer much more than just delectable eats. Indulge in a relaxing foot massage, marvel at traditional performances, or simply soak up the vibrant atmosphere as the hustle and bustle of vendors and visitors fills the air.
And let’s not forget about the food – oh, the glorious food, that makes the night market one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai! From sizzling street-side barbecues to mouthwatering khao soi, tantalizing mango sticky rice to refreshing fruit shakes, there’s something to satisfy every craving.
You can try roasted scorpion or stinky durian if you want to!
6. Climb to the Highest Point in Thailand at Doi Inthanon National Park
Explore the highest mountain in Thailand, standing tall at 2,565 meters above sea level, a 2-hour drive from town and one of the best day trips from Chiang Mai.
With its diverse ecosystem, cascading waterfalls, and vibrant flora and fauna, Doi Inthanon is a must-visit destination in Chiang Mai.
Picture yourself trekking through verdant trails, surrounded by the melodies of birdsong and the soothing sounds of rushing streams.
Be prepared to be captivated by the sight of the stunning twin pagodas that pay homage to the Thai royal family and offer panoramic views that will leave you breathless.
Tips for visiting: Pack comfortable shoes, insect repellent, and a sense of adventure. Don’t forget to bring a jacket, as the temperature can drop significantly at higher altitudes – this is one of the coldest places in Thailand.
Getting there is a breeze – whether you choose to join a guided tour or embark on your own, the journey will be filled with anticipation and excitement.
7. Climb Like Spiderman at Bua Tong Sticky Falls
Stick Falls is one of the absolute best things to do in Chiang Mai – great for families, too – and worth the effort to get there.
Why is it called Sticky Falls, you ask? Unlike regular waterfalls, the rocks of Sticky Falls are covered in a special mineral deposit that gives them a sticky texture, allowing you to walk, climb, and even defy gravity as you ascend the cascades. It’s like a real-life superhero experience!
As someone who is not great at climbing things, I really appreciated how easy it was to climb up the falls. Just be careful not to step on the mossy rocks!
Located just 1.5 hours outside of Chiang Mai, getting to Sticky Falls is a breeze. Whether you choose to join a guided tour or rent a motorbike for a thrilling ride through the lush countryside, the journey itself is an adventure worth taking.
It’s not just for thrill-seekers, but also great for families! Kids will have a blast climbing up and down the falls. The water isn’t too deep, so you can choose how wet to get, even staying dry from the ankles up.
Just keep in mind that during the high season, when the weather is perfect and tourists flock to Chiang Mai, Sticky Falls can get quite busy. So, plan accordingly and arrive early to make the most of this incredible Chiang Mai attraction.
There’s a temple next door with a very long staircase – it’s definitely worth stopping for pictures and a workout!
8. Celebrate Songthan Festival
Songkran is the traditional Thai New Year Celebration, marked by water fights, parades, and religious rituals. Yes, I’m talking about a city-wide water fight!
Chiang Mai is renowned for hosting one of the most epic Songkran celebrations in all of Thailand! There’s nowhere better to celebrate.
Imagine being drenched in refreshing water as friendly locals splash you with buckets and water guns. Everywhere you go is part of the water fight battleground, and you better come armed!
Celebrating Songkran in Chiang Mai is like stepping into a world where time slows down, and joy reigns supreme. The atmosphere is electric, with vibrant colors, delicious street food, and the sound of laughter permeating the air.
Here are some tips for celebrating Songthan in Chiang Mai: protect your valuables in waterproof bags, wear clothing that dries quickly, and embrace the Thai spirit of fun and camaraderie.
9. Kayak on the Ping River
Kayaking down the stunning Ping River, one of the best Chiang Mai attractions, with the incredible group at sunset is one of my favorite memories from my time in Chiang Mai. The golden hues of the setting sun painted the sky, creating a breathtaking backdrop as we navigated through the picturesque river. The sight of lush greenery and the soothing sounds of nature were simply mesmerizing.
And being helped in and out of the kayaks by the Monks of Wat Fah Ham temple, who only charge 50 baht per person to rent their kayaks, felt like the ultimate Thai experience!
If you want to go with a friendly group of Chiang Mai expats, you can join the Chiang Mai Kayaking Meetup Group, who go kayaking as a group every other Thursday in the late afternoon/early evening.
Then they grab dinner afterward – this is how I met some new friends when I was living in Chiang Mai!
10. Take a Food Tour
Let me tell you a secret: taking a food tour in Chiang Mai is hands down one of the best things you can do!
Now, I get it, trying unfamiliar foods can be a bit nerve-wracking. But fear not! The beauty of a food tour lies in going with a knowledgeable local who knows exactly where to find the most mouthwatering dishes and can explain the flavors and traditions behind each bite.
Trust me, this is my absolute favorite way to explore a city. I’ve done food tours all over the world!
Not only do you get to indulge in tantalizing flavors, but you also have the chance to meet other adventurous travelers who share your passion for culinary exploration. Food tours are usually the most social kind of tour you can do – nothing brings travelers together like food!
Picture yourself strolling through vibrant markets, uncovering hidden food gems, and immersing yourself in the rich tapestry of Chiang Mai’s culinary heritage.
11. Take a Thai Cooking Class
Taking a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai is an absolute must! Trust me when I say that the best tom yum soup I’ve ever had was the one I made during my cooking class in Chiang Mai.
Imagine immersing yourself in the vibrant world of Thai cuisine, guided by expert local chefs who will teach you the art of balancing flavors and creating mouthwatering dishes.
But it doesn’t stop there! Many cooking classes in Chiang Mai offer a fantastic bonus: a market tour or a visit to a local farm where the ingredients for your culinary masterpieces grow.
You get to handpick the freshest herbs, vegetables, and spices, ensuring an authentic and unforgettable experience. And here’s the cherry on top: these cooking classes can be modified for vegetarians too, so everyone can join in on the flavorful fun.
12. Learn to Meditate
Chiang Mai is the perfect place to learn how to meditate and deepen your practice. With its ancient temples, monasteries, and rich cultural heritage, it’s no wonder why so many travelers come here in search of peace and tranquility.
The city has something for everyone – from intensive one-on-one meditation retreats with experienced instructors to beginner classes that are perfect for those just getting started.
There’s also a variety of mindfulness and vipassana courses available, as well as movement classes like yoga and tai chi that can help you relax and reset.
My friend spent 3 days at a meditation retreat in the mountains surrounding Chiang Mai and loved it so much that she decided to stay on longer as a volunteer!
No matter what kind of experience you’re looking for, from the most intense meditation retreats to an engaging introduction to mindfulness, Chiang Mai offers a variety of options that will help you find your inner peace.
13. Get a Thai Massage
Nothing says relaxation and rejuvenation quite like a Thai massage. Not only can it relieve stress and tension, but the stretching techniques can also help increase flexibility and improve your posture.
It’s certainly the most interesting massage I’ve ever gotten, with the tiny but mighty massage therapist climbing on top of me to really get into the knots!
Sure, it might be painful at times, but you’ll feel incredibly relaxed afterward. Or at least that’s what my friend thinks. Personally, Thai massage is too intense for me, so I usually opt for much more relaxing foot massages.
There are a ton of massage parlors in Chiang Mai, each with its own unique style and technique. Some places specialize in traditional Thai massage while others offer specialties like herbal compress massages or foot reflexology. Prices vary depending on the type of massage you choose, but they typically start at around 250 baht for an hour-long Thai massage.
You can also support formerly incarcerated women by getting a massage at the very highly-rated Women’s Massage Center.
Whether you’re a first-time massage goer or an experienced expert, a Thai massage in Chiang Mai is something everyone should experience at least once.
14. Cool Off at the Pool
Chiang Mai, like all of Thailand, can get hot – so you definitely need to find a way to cool off after a full day of sightseeing.
If you’re coming to Chiang Mai, you should definitely consider staying at a hotel with a pool. Bonus points for a rooftop pool with views of the city, great for watching sunsets!
My favorite rooftop pool in Chiang Mai is Cross Chiang Mai Riverside (X2). The pool overlooks the beautiful Ping River, where you can kayak for free, and the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant is delicious.
The biggest pool in town is at the Empress Hotel, which has an Olympic-sized swimming pool. It’s a great spot to hang out with friends and lounge around for hours on end.
But if you’re looking for something more low-key, there are plenty of hip hostels and boutique hotels that have small pools perfect for cooling off.
15. So Many Cute Cafes
Chiang Mai has so many cute, Instagram-worthy cafes and coffee shops that you could spend days exploring them.
So many digital nomads in Chiang Mai use the cafes as their workspaces – most of them offer free wifi!
Akha Ama Cafe and Ristr8to Lab have the best coffee in Chiang Mai, hands down. If you want breakfast with your coffee, then Bella Goose is great (love their lavender latte, yum!). I like to work at Barisotel in Nimman – the coffee is good and it’s usually pretty quiet.
If you are feeling adventurous, one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai is to hop on your scooter and explore some of the most beautiful cafes I’ve ever seen, in the mountains. Baanfarang Bakery and Cafe is about a 35-minute drive from town and overlooks some beautiful rice paddies.
Further away, The First Valley Coffee Academy has epic mountain views and is worth the trip.
Stop at some of the coffee plantations, like Palore, on the way there to taste Chiang Mai-grown coffee!
16. Watch a Muay Thai Boxing Match
Muay Thai is a type of combat sport that originated in Thailand centuries ago, and Chiang Mai is the perfect place to experience it.
It is a form of martial art that utilizes the body’s natural weapons- hands, elbows, feet, and knees – as well as grappling techniques.
Today, Muay Thai is popular all over the world, with many people practicing it for fitness.
The Chiang Mai Boxing Stadium hosts fights almost every night of the week – catch a match if you can! The atmosphere is electric and watching the fighters is thrilling – make sure to take your camera with you as there are always great photo opportunities.
If you want to give Muay Thai a try for yourself, there are plenty of gyms in Chiang Mai that offer lessons and classes. The classes range from beginner to advanced – it’s a great workout!
17. Explore Ancient Temples
If you’re looking for a more cultural experience, Chiang Mai is filled with breathtaking temples.
The city is home to over 300 ancient Buddhist temples, many of which are still in use today.
Wat Pha That Doi Suthep is one of the most popular temples in the city and is located at the top of a mountain. It’s definitely worth the climb for the views alone!
The other most famous temple in Chiang Mai is Wat Chedi Luang – it stands 82 meters tall and dates back to the 14th century.
Exploring these ancient temples is a great way to learn about the history and culture of this amazing city, and deserves a spot on your list of things to do in Chiang Mai. Take your time walking around, admiring the architecture, and soaking up the atmosphere. Don’t forget to wear appropriate clothing – shoulders, and knees must be covered!
18. Enjoy the Music at Northgate Jazz Club
Chiang Mai is renowned for its vibrant music scene – if you’re looking to enjoy some live music, the Northgate Jazz Club is one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai.
It’s one of the city’s most popular venues and hosts a variety of jazz performances each week.
On Tuesdays, start your evening on the top floor with a small jazz band playing to an intimate crowd. Afterward, head downstairs to dance to a really high-energy band playing all sorts of covers. They are so popular that the audience spills out onto the street.
The club has an intimate atmosphere and the music is always excellent. Grab a beer and sit back to enjoy the show – you won’t be disappointed!
19. See a Movie at Maya Shopping Center
Chiang Mai is home to some great movie theaters and the Maya Shopping Center has an impressive line-up.
You can catch the latest Hollywood blockbusters in the VIP theater at a fraction of the price you would pay for them back home. Even the mid-range theater is nicer than most, and it only costs a few bucks for a ticket.
When you’re done watching the movie, you can explore the rest of Maya Shopping Center and grab a bite to eat. There are plenty of restaurants, cafes, and stores to check out. There’s a balcony with great views of Chiang Mai on the same level as the theater.
It’s the perfect way to spend an afternoon or evening in Chiang Mai! And it’s always air-conditioned!
Bonus. Scooter Adventure Through the Countryside
If you want to take in some of Chiang Mai’s stunning scenery, why not rent a scooter and go for a ride through the countryside?
You’ll be able to explore more rural areas and get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. There are some great routes that will take you past stunning rice paddies, local villages, and temples.
Be sure to stick to the back roads – you’ll get a better look at life outside the city walls. Always wear a helmet (full-face coverage is best) and drive slowly, especially on windy roads.
Don’t forget to take some photos along the way – you’ll want to remember this experience!
Best Time to Visit Chiang Mai
The best time to visit Chiang Mai is during the cool season, from November to February. The weather is milder and there’s less rainfall than in other parts of Thailand. You won’t get as hot and sticky while exploring Chiang Mai attractions as you would further south.
The downside of traveling in Thailand during this time is that there are more crowds and fewer deals on hotels.
Don’t write off the rainy season completely though. It’s still possible to get great deals on accommodations and flights. Plus, Chiang Mai is beautiful in the rain – just make sure you bring an umbrella or a waterproof jacket! And it usually only rains in short bursts.
The only time you definitely want to avoid in Chiang Mai is the burning season, from February to April. During this time the air quality is extremely poor and there are often wildfires in the surrounding countryside. It’s not a pleasant experience for anyone!
Getting Around Chiang Mai
Getting around between Chiang Mai attractions is easy and affordable.
There are plenty of options for transportation, including taxis, tuk-tuks, buses, songthaews (shared red trucks), Grab (the Southeast Asian version of Uber/Lyft), and motorbikes.
If you prefer to walk, stay in the Old City or Nimman where there are plenty of bars and restaurants to enjoy by foot!
Chiang Mai Attractions FAQs:
What is Chiang Mai best known for?
Chiang Mai is best known for its mountain views, beautiful temples, rich history, delicious food, and vibrant cultural heritage. As the historical capital of the old Lanna Kingdom, this enchanting city is adorned with stunning ancient temples like Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
What is the best month to visit Chiang Mai?
November to February is considered the best time to visit Chiang Mai, as the weather is cooler and more pleasant. This period is ideal for exploring the city’s temples, cultural events, and festivals, such as the famous Yi Peng Lantern Festival. If you prefer fewer crowds and don’t mind a little rain, visiting during the rainy season of July to October can offer more affordable accommodations.
Is Chiang Mai a walkable city?
Yes, Chiang Mai is a relatively walkable city, especially in the Old City area. The Old City is surrounded by ancient walls and moats and is home to many temples, markets, and local shops. The sidewalks are sometimes nonexistent or in need of repair. You can also get around easily via Grab taxi or Songthaew.
Is a week in Chiang Mai too long?
A week in Chiang Mai is the perfect amount of time to fully immerse yourself in the city’s unique offerings and explore the surrounding areas. With so much to see and do, you’ll have ample time to visit breathtaking temples, experience local markets, participate in cooking classes, indulge in Thai massage and spa treatments, and even take day trips to nearby attractions like Doi Suthep or the Elephant Nature Park.
Conclusion: Best Things to Do in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is a treasure trove of experiences waiting to be discovered.
High among the list of the best things to do in Chiang Mai is strolling through the vibrant Sunday walking streets or the weeknight Night Bazar. These bustling markets are a sensory delight where you can find everything from local handicrafts to mouth-watering street food.
Journeying to the serene Elephant Nature Park, you’ll have a chance to learn about and interact with these majestic creatures in a responsible, ethical way.
Lastly, no trip to Chiang Mai is complete without a visit to the ancient Doi Suthep temple, a true testament to the city’s rich history and spiritual heritage.
There is no shortage of things to do in Chiang Mai, and many travelers who visit wish they planned more time to explore!
Cat Roberts is a very hungry solo female traveler in her 30s, who left a 6-figure job in NYC to travel (and taste!) the world. Cat is determined to prove that there are ways to backpack the world on a budget without fully sacrificing the “grown-up” lifestyle you love.