Temples, Massages, Tours, Markets and Food. Without a doubt, these are the five best things to do in Chiang Mai, Thailand. A trip to Chiang Mai wouldn’t be complete without these essential experiences, plain and simple.
However, when planning what to see in Chiang Mai – choosing which temples to visit, where to get a massage, how many tours to take, what markets to go to and where to get the best food to eat – it can start to feel a bit overwhelming.
Temples are one of the top Chiang Mai attractions; there are at least 30 temples within the Chiang Mai Old Town and many more outside the city walls. Massage parlors – with a range of services – are found on every street. Chiang Mai tours are offered at every hotel, restaurant and tourist agency. There are day markets, night markets, wet markets, dry markets and a handful of other markets around the city. And, delicious food options are endless.
Top Things To Do in Chiang Mai Old City
To help fellow travelers create their ultimate Chiang Mai To-Do List, we are divulging our top tips on the best places to visit in Chiang Mai! We are sharing everything you need to know – from activities to where to eat to the best place to stay!
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#1 Contemplate the Ancient Temples
Temples rank as the top things to see in Chiang Mai! The temples are fascinating…and there seems to be one around every corner. Some of the city’s temples feature elaborate designs and lavish decorations, while others crumble quietly in a state of disrepair. We never hesitate to wander onto temple complexes, always curious about the history and eager to discover a hidden gem.
Most visitors will naturally seek out the most popular temples in the Old Town – Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chiang Man and Wat Chedi Luang – which shouldn’t be missed. And the famous Chiang Mai mountain temple, Doi Suthep, is definitely worth seeing on a quick trip outside the city center. But travelers who only see these four temples miss out on some of the best sights in the city!
While visiting temples is one of the top Chiang Mai activities, it is possible to get ‘templed out.’ For guidance on the Chiang Mai Must-See Temples and other advice about visiting the ancient religious complexes, read our complete guide to the Best Chiang Mai Temples.
Keep in mind, appropriate attire is required to enter temples; shoulders and knees must be covered. Some temples offer robes (for free or for a small fee), but I always bring a wrap with me that can be used to cover myself if my clothes don’t meet the requirements.
While the iconic temples serve as Chiang Mai sights for visitors, they are also functioning religious centers. Many of the temples have on-site monk living quarters…and some of the temples encourage conversations between monks and tourists. The talks have come to be known as Monk Chat.
The informal sessions provide a win-win opportunity: Monks get to practice their English skills, while foreigners can ask questions about Buddhism and Thailand. The conversations can be quite insightful – and we highly recommend it as one of the best Chiang Mai, Thailand things to do!
Top Tip: As you walk around the Chiang Mai Old City from temple to temple, keep your eyes peeled for street art. Artists have decorated many of the sois (alleys) with beautiful work!
#2 Experience a Thai Massage in Thailand
I think getting a traditional Thai massage needs to be on every Chiang Mai to-do list! Thai massages are not the kind of massages most foreigners are used to…and it can feel a bit more like an appointment with a chiropractor than a relaxing massage. But, personally, I love them.
For first timers, the experience can be a little intimidating – if not outright strange. Kris is not keen on the experience; I, on the other hand, could get a Thai massage every single day…which is exactly what I did on our most recent trip to the city.
There are a range of massage shops throughout the city – from cheap massage parlors with no air con to luxury spas that pamper their guests. A few massage places have been established to aid the community, hiring ex-women prisoners and employing visually impaired individuals.
Regardless of the place, traditional Thai massages are always on the list of services, but they are rarely the only choice. Oil massages, foot massages and facial treatments are commonly offered, too. One-hour Thai massages can cost less than 200 baht ($6 USD), but specialty treatments at upscale spas can exceed 2,000 baht ($60 USD).
Top Tip: Massages are perfect for when you need a break from Chiang Mai sightseeing, but where do you go in Chiang Mai for the best experience? We cover all the details – from what to expect to the best places to go in Chiang Mai for a massage – in our Chiang Mai Massage blog post!
#3 Venture Beyond the City Limits
Chiang Mai tours that venture outside of the city center allow visitors a glimpse at the countryside, which is vastly different from life in the city. Day trips from Chiang Mai take visitors into the mountains, through the forests, across zip lines, to hill tribe villages and to historic sights. Chiang Mai travel guides lead guests on half-day tours, full-day trips and multi-night adventures. The options are nearly limitless.
Choosing which tour – or tours – to take can be quite the conundrum. On our first trip to the city, we learned about the different tours by perusing the stacks of brochures at a tourist agency. We had to trust that they would deliver what was promised based on nothing more than their literature.
Of all the tours offered, we were most interested in Chiang Mai nature. We opted for a tour that advertised various outdoor activities, including waterfalls, trekking, rural villages, elephants and bamboo rafting. In hindsight, we wouldn’t take the same tour again or recommend it for other travelers. Find out why – and which trekking tour we would have taken instead – in our Chiang Mai Trekking Trip blog post.
Top Tip: Today, wading through the multitude of options is much easier…it can all be done online. Sites like Viator and Get Your Guide are perfect for navigating the many tours. Furthermore, guests can glean invaluable information about what to expect from fellow travelers’ reviews.
#4 Explore the Buzzing Markets
Perusing the markets is a must-do in Chiang Mai! The atmosphere is always invigorating – and some of the products are truly intriguing. There are several markets in Chiang Mai; some of the most popular markets in Chiang Mai are 100% geared toward tourists (which are still entertaining), but there are other markets where locals still do their shopping, too.
Best Markets in Chiang Mai
The Saturday Night Market – also called the Wualai Walking Street Market – is the best night market in Chiang Mai. It’s located just outside the Old Town on the south side of the city. Very similar – but slightly more congested – is the Sunday Night Market. Featuring nearly identical vendors from the Saturday market, the Sunday Market Walking Street takes place inside the city walls from the eastern Phae Gate and extends to the center of the Old Town along the length of Ratchadamnoen Road.
For both Chiang Mai night markets, the streets start closing around 4:00pm. Booths are set up featuring tables piled high with handmade crafts, cliché t-shirts, silk scarves (which may not even be made in Thailand) and kitschy souvenirs. Street performers sing and entertain for loose change. Food stalls squeeze into side streets and in between vendors, serving up amazing snacks created with few ingredients.
The crowd moves in a cattle-like cadence, bottle necking around unique and popular stalls. Everyone comes to a complete halt when the national anthem is played and, once it is over, the pace picks back up just like a merry-go-round.
Not in Chiang Mai for a Saturday or Sunday? Head to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar! Located east of the Chiang Mai Old City on Chang Khlan Road, the Night Bazaar is open every day from about 7:00pm until past midnight.
Best Local Market
The best local market – where locals go for everything – is the Warorot Market in Chinatown. The massive market complex sits northeast of the Old City near the Ping River. Vendor stalls seem to be busting at the seams, overflowing with merchandise. Clothing, luggage, produce, jewelry, gadgets, incense, flowers and spices are just a few things that we saw for sale.
The meat section, which always makes me squeamish (but I just can’t look away) is mind-boggling. While some prepared meats are available, most of it is raw (and just sitting on the table) or still alive. The entire place is stifling hot and serves a solid punch of sensory overload…and we love it!
San Pa Khoi Market, located east of the river, offers an even more intense local market experience. We have yet to visit, but it’s on our list for our next trip!
Top Tip: It’s easy to get wrapped up in the shuffling, buying and eating at Chiang Mai markets. However, we recommend finding a place where you can step back and simply observe the vendors. We once sat behind a booth selling personalized leather bracelets and were absolutely enthralled by the work of the vendors. The entire process – from attracting prospective customers to adhering stenciled letters – took about two minutes and was completed with such efficiency it baffled us.
#5 Feast on Local Thai Food
Part of the joy of Chiang Mai is the copious amounts of delicious Thai food at ridiculously low prices. Most Chiang Mai restaurants offer local dishes for about 100 baht ($3 USD). Eating from a street vendor often costs no more than 40 baht (just a little over $1 USD) – and the food is fabulous, fresh and filling.
Many local dishes include a glorious combination of rice, chicken or pork, usually an egg and sometimes a made-from-scratch sauce that is sure to satisfy. The ingredients that make each dish unique – and take it from simple to fabulous – are the fresh spices, variety of mushrooms, pineapples, raisins, morning glory, or garden tomatoes. Noodles – whether in a soup or dry – are also prevalent in Thailand. Spicy Khao Soi – a signature Northern Thailand noodle dish – is a must-try while in the city!
Chiang Mai Restaurants: What and Where To Eat in Chiang Mai
Using recommendations from fellow travelers and our hotel staff, we indulged in an array of Thai food – and a few Western meals, too!
We first tried Khao Soi in Chiang Rai – and immediately feel in love. Even though the spice level is about three notches too high for me, I can’t resist it! The signature dish is a spicy concoction of noodles, meat and herbs that swim in a curry-like coconut milk broth. The iconic dish is topped with crispy noodles – and lime, cabbage, shallots and spices are added to each individual’s taste.
Where To Eat It: Khao Soi Khun Yai serves the best Khao Soi in the city – and each bowl costs less than $2 USD! It’s an easy to miss vendor on the north side of the city with limited hours (10am to 2pm, closed Sundays) and always has a crowd. Tip: Order the sweet (but spice battling) Lotus Root Juice to go with your meal. MAP | REVIEWS
PORK LEG RICE
Stewed pork leg might not sound appetizing, but don’t let the name get in the way of a good meal. Tender, slow-cooked pork is a Thailand specialty. The melt-in-your-mouth meat is served over rice with sauce – and is best with an egg on the side.
Where To Eat It: Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak – better known as the Cowboy Hat Lady Stall at the Chang Phuek Night Market just outside the Chiang Mai Old City North Gate. The stall opens around 5:00pm and a plate of Pork Rice costs just 50 baht, but be sure to order an egg (another 10 baht) to complete the meal! MAP | REVIEWS
Laab (or Larb) comes from Thailand’s northern province, Isaan, that borders Laos. The dish is dubbed a ‘salad,’ but it’s a salad of meat, rather than vegetables. Usually made with minced pork, the salad is loaded with spices – like cumin, chilis, cloves, pepper and star anise – and topped with fresh herbs and crispy onions. It is best served with sticky rice (also called glutinous rice).
Classic Thai dishes – like Pad Thai, Papaya Salad, Chicken Fried Rice, Fried Yellow Noodles and an array of Curries – are standard menu items at hundreds of restaurants in Chiang Mai Old City.
Where To Eat It:
Aroy Dee: We ate at Aroy Dee – great food, staff and location – several times (which is unusual for us, especially considering all the fantastic places to eat in Chiang Mai!). Order the Thai Omelette over steamed rice (ah-mazing!) or Green Fried Noodles. MAP | REVIEWS
Kanjana: Everything we ate at Kanjana was fantastic – from Spring Rolls, to Khao Soi to Cashew Chicken. It is a little more expensive, though, and typically crowded – so there is often a wait for food and service. MAP | REVIEWS
Lucky Too: Conveniently located across the street from our hotel, we were ecstatic that such a gem was so close by. Try the Chicken Fried Rice, which is made with a dark rice, rather than typical white. MAP | REVIEWS
Teng Nueng: Inconspicuous and extremely inexpensive, at Teng Nueng, they serve a delicious Fried Rice with sausage…and good ice cream, too! MAP | REVIEWS
CAFES AND BREAKFAST
Breakfast was included with our stay at the Chada Mantra (more about cool places to stay in Chiang Mai in a minute!) and served by the Cooking Love 3 Restaurant (MAP) on the ground floor. The restaurant welcomes visitors not staying at the hotel for an all-you-can-eat, made-to-order breakfast for about 120 baht.
For an iced drink, sweet treat or full breakfast, Vigie Sist Cafe (MAP) is an excellent choice. Try the Soda Mint Frappe; it’s incredibly refreshing!
INTERNATIONAL FOOD IN CHIANG MAI
Because of the influx of expats living in Chiang Mai, there is a wide variety of International and Western food available in the city.
Map of Restaurants in Chiang Mai
Use this link to Google Maps for an online version of our Chiang Mai Restaurants Map.
Top Tip: Thai food – especially Northern Thai food – tends to be spicy. Travelers who are sensitive to spiciness (like me!) can request for food to be “Not Spicy.” However, the request is sometimes impossible – as in, the spice is already in the broth or sauce, like with Khao Soi.
What To Do in Chiang Mai: Tips & More
Now that we have covered Chiang Mai highlights, we have a few more tips for your trip!
Chiang Mai on a Budget
Thailand is a well-known budget destination, but trip costs can add up quickly! To keep your budget in check, we recommend sticking to the free things to do in Chiang Mai (like visiting temples and markets). Inexpensive activities, like bargain massages, will likely fit into even the tightest of budgets. However, day trips from Chiang Mai may need to be limited – or completed DIY style, using public transport instead of a Chiang Mai tour guide. Sticking to Thai food, rather than consuming Western eats, will also help keep costs low.
Chiang Mai Nightlife
Chiang Mai Old Town doesn’t have an exuberant nightlife. There are a handful of fun clubs at the corner of Ratvithi and Ratchapakhinai – Zoe in Yellow is, by far, the most popular spot. Establishments are required to close by midnight, after which the party often moves in front of the closest 7-11 or outside the Old City, where places stay open well into the early morning hours.
The Ladyboy Cabaret Shows are one of the more entertaining things to do in Chiang Mai at night, though we have yet to go ourselves. The shows feature lip syncing, dancing and guest interaction.
A fun local, low-key, place for cheap beers and chill vibes is Churn (MAP), one of the pop-up bars and food stalls along Prapokkloa.
Chiang Mai Museums
We didn’t visit any of the museums in the city – we were too enthralled by what was happening on the streets! However, visiting museums in the afternoon would be a good escape from the heat (especially if your hotel doesn’t have a pool!). Some of the most popular museums in Chiang Mai are the 3D Art Museum, the World Insects and Natural Wonders Museum, the Lanna Folklife Museum and the National Museum.
Chiang Mai Temperature
The temperature in Chiang Mai is always high; top temps are usually in the high 80s to low 90s Fahrenheit. From March until May, it is the hottest, while January is the coolest. The rainy season is from May through October, with August usually getting the most rain. Many people say the best time to go to Chiang Mai is during the dry season, from late October through April.
Chiang Mai Map
The Chiang Mai Old Town is essentially a square grid, which makes getting around fairly easy. However, it’s always a good idea to have a Chiang Mai tourist map to help locate sights. We recommend buying a Chiang Mai attractions map in advance of your trip – like this one on Amazon!
Other Things You Will Need
Insect Repellent: The mosquitoes in Chiang Mai are fierce! There are sprays and lotions available in Chiang Mai, but if you are a magnet for mosquitoes (like I am!), then be sure to bring your own with deet. Buy it now!
Sunscreen: The sun is intense in Chiang Mai, so it’s important to wear sunscreen (especially on your face) even when just walking around. Most sunscreen tends to feel heavy, but Neutrogena has high SPF, while still feeling light and clean. Buy it now!
Hat and/or Umbrella: Use a wide-brimmed travel hat to shade your face – shop for your style here. A travel umbrella is also useful to provide shade…and crucial when it rains (as it will certainly do if you are visiting during rainy season!).
Camera: While is it increasing popular to use phones to capture the sights when traveling, we recommend upgrading to an actual camera for better photos. We use a Canon Rebel with an 18-135mm lens – and carry a pocket-sized Canon Powershot as a backup.
Insurance: Don’t forget travel insurance! Travel insurance can be useful for a wide range of inconveniences, injuries and illnesses. While we hope to never have to use it, we think travel insurance is absolutely essential! Check rates and coverage at World Nomads.
Getting Around Chiang Mai
If you are wondering how to get around Chiang Mai Old City, it’s simple: Walk. However, if you are leaving the city center – or trying to get from one end to the other in the heat of the day, you can catch a ride.
There are public buses, but we have never used one. The most popular mode of transport in the city is the Songthaew. The pick-up truck has two rows of benches in the bed of the truck; riders hail the truck, tell the driver the destination and hop in the back. Rides start at 30 baht per person (and make other stops along the way for other passengers).
Our preferred method of getting around the city is via GRAB taxis. Just like Uber, GRAB taxis are requested via a mobile app. What we like best about GRAB is that we can clearly define where it is we want to go, the fare is displayed prior to booking and we can track our driver for pick up and en-route. The fares are extremely affordable, with most rides costing less than a couple of dollars.
How To Get To Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai can be reached by plane, train, bus or car. We have only traveled to the city via plane (we are JetSetting Fools, after all!). Airfare within Thailand (and all of Southeast Asia) is usually quite low – and considering convenience and safety, we think flying is the best choice for long-distance transport. Travelers can search for the best routes and cheapest flights on SkyScanner.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
We think the best place to stay in Chiang Mai is the Old Town. Both times we visited the city, we found places to stay in Chiang Mai City Center – and, honestly, can’t imagine staying elsewhere.
On our first visit, we stayed at the Anoma Bed and Breakfast, a budget hotel on the south side of the Old Town. The staff was absolutely wonderful, the rooms were clean and air conditioned and the hotel served a very simple breakfast. Check availability and rates at Anoma!
Boutique Hotel Chiang Mai
On a return trip, we wanted to stay at one of the Chiang Mai hotels with a pool, which is what led us to Chada Mantra. Although slightly more expensive – but still less than $50 USD per night – it was totally worth it! Situated in the northeast corner of the Old Town – which is the best location to stay in Chiang Mai, in our opinion – we loved everything about the hotel.
Our room – the top floor, corner room – was spacious, clean and bright with stellar air conditioning. The room had two balconies that overlooked the street – which was bustling during the day, but quiet at night. Breakfast was a treat with hot, made-to-order options and a variety of continental breakfast choices, too. Most of all, we loved having a pool! Dipping into the cool water was the perfect way to spend the humid afternoons. Check availability and rates at Chada Mantra for your trip!
There are many, many, many Chiang Mai hotels to choose from! Start your search for the best hotels in Chiang Mai on Booking.com – like we do!
We want to know: What would you add to our list of the best things to do in Chiang Mai, Thailand? Give us your best tips and advice in the comments below!
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