Nestled into the mountains of northern Thailand, the laid-back city of Chiang Mai has charm to spare. One of the most visited destinations in the country, this city is known for breathtaking landscapes, colorful art and handicrafts, and historic landmarks that befit the ancient capital of the Lanna kingdom.
Chiang Mai offers travelers the chance to experience a wonderfully slowed-down pace of life, get up close and personal with local culture, and head out on off-the-beaten-path adventures. With so much to offer, the relaxing destination can seem overwhelming for first-time visitors.
Here are the best things to do in Chiang Mai.
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Buy something beautiful at Chiang Mai’s markets
Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar sprawls across two blocks and provides the city’s main forum for shopping. The countless stalls sell everything imaginable, including Thai silk, silver, antiques, art, clothes, and shoes. The Night Bazaar is open from 6–10pm daily.
On Saturday evenings, Wualai Walking Street springs to life just outside the old city walls. The market is a good place to sample tasty snacks, as well as buy unique handicrafts and other locally made products.
A popular tourist attraction in the city, Sunday Walking Street Market starts at Tha Pae Gate and meanders for nearly one full kilometer (0.6 miles). At its many stalls and shops, you’ll find handmade gifts aplenty. You can also look forward to live music from local bands and performers.
Local tip: Thais respect a good haggler, but it helps to keep the negotiations relaxed and friendly. Don’t begin negotiations unless you are genuinely wanting to buy an item.
Participants preparing Thai food during a cooking class in Chiang Mai © Anna Ewa Bieniek / Shutterstock
Taste Chiang Mai food
At all hours of the day and night, you can satisfy your hunger pains by tucking into the local cuisine in Chiang Mai. The city is filled with street vendors selling scrumptious appetizers and snacks as well as one-plate dishes. You can’t visit Chiang Mai without trying khao soi, a popular yellow curry and coconut milk soup made with crunchy noodles, soft noodles, and chicken or pork, then garnished with shallots, mustard greens, and lime juice.
Other traditional local dishes to try include sai oua, a tasty pork sausage made with chilies, garlic, herbs, and spices. For a light snack, try nam prik ong, a flavorful tomato chili dip unique to the region and traditionally served with a platter of fresh vegetables.
Local tip: For a sit-down meal, head to SP Chicken. This tiny cafe is best known for its succulent grilled poultry and also has a menu of classic Thai soups and salads.
Wat Chedi Luang is among the many magical temples of Chiang Mai © RUKSUTAKARN studio / Shutterstock
Visit Chiang Mai’s temples
Each of Chiang Mai’s 200 or so Buddhist temples is an architectural wonder in its own right. A sacred site outside the city first built in the early 19th century, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is approached via a long staircase with seven-headed serpent statues. Once you reach the top, the views dazzle.
Visitors to Wat Chedi Luang, in the historic city center of Chiang Mai, marvel at its elephant statues and massive pagoda. Wat Sri Suphan is built in a traditional Lanna style. Its resplendent decorations give it the nickname “Silver Temple” – no surprise, as it was first built as the main temple for a silversmith colony, and small silver studios are even today scattered around the temple grounds. After you’ve said a prayer in the sanctuary, you can stop in to see the smiths in action, and even buy silver works to take home.
Local tip: Shoes aren’t worn inside temple buildings (or people’s homes), both as a sign of respect and for sanitary reasons. Thais can kick off their shoes in one fluid step and many lace-up shoes are modified so they’re basically slip-ons.
Get artsy at Baan Kang Wat
At the base of Doi Suthep, Baan Kang Wat offers a fabulous escape from the city that’s not to be missed. The vibrant artist village is home to several tastefully decorated independent businesses operated by local makers who produce wooden handicrafts, home decor, and other pieces with Thai flair. Many of the artisans in town host classes or workshops in their studios and encourage visitors to join in.
The charming village blends traditional Thai architecture with contemporary accents like white stucco walls and ribbon windows. If you’re hungry, stop (and linger) at a tiny café or delicious homemade ice cream shop. Truly one of Chiang Mai’s gems, Baan Kang Wat is the perfect place to relax and take in local creativity.
Drink in the city’s coffee culture
A fresh cup of piping hot coffee is easy to find in Chiang Mai. Arabica coffee farms abound in the region, resulting in traditional coffee shops, slow bars, and specialty coffee roasters on almost every corner. The cafe scene in the city has both style and a fair dose of healthy competition – which makes (coffee) bar hopping all the more fun.
Chiang Mai’s legendary Akha Ama Coffee opened in 2010 and has since become a city stalwart. The popular cafe also functions as a social enterprise, giving farmers a fair living wage and ensuring that profits get invested back in the village where the coffee beans are grown.
Local tip: Other top coffee choices include Graph, famous for its nitrobrews, and Ristr8to an Aussie-inspired cafe where drinks come with a caffeine rating and are topped with eye-catching latte art.
Beautiful view of Mae Ya waterfall, the largest waterfalls in Doi Inthanon National Park © Boy_Anupong / Getty
Head into the countryside
Thanks to easy access to nearby mountains and waterfalls, you won’t find it hard to access the wonders of the countryside that surrounds Chiang Mai. Plentiful day trips showcase the incredible views and lush landscapes outside of the city, while letting you spend the night in town.
We recommend taking in the Pa Pong Piang rice terraces, nestled near tranquil Karen villages hidden in the mountains of Doi Inthanon National Park, around a two-hour drive from town. Local guides for hire can take you around the picturesque paddies and villages by bicycle.
Planning tip: Chiang Mai’s annual smoky season, caused by crop burning and exhaust fumes, has become increasingly long and hazardous. The season generally lasts from March to April although it can continue until mid-May. Ideally don’t travel in the northeast during this time of the year.
Experience Chiang Mai by night
Nightlife in Chiang Mai is as diverse as the city. There are plenty of bars and pubs at which to grab a drink to end your day, not to mention a plethora of live-music venues and dance clubs for continuing the fun.
One of the most popular live music bars in Chiang Mai, North Gate Jazz Co-op showcases a regular lineup of jazz artists in a cozy atmosphere. It is always busy here, so don’t be surprised if you see the crowds from inside spilling out into the street.