This is a guest post by Danika.
Nestled in the heart of the Northern Thailand mountains, Chiang Mai, Thailand is a must-see destination. From beautiful temples, delicious food, vibrant markets, and inspiring natural beauty, Chiang Mai has it all.
I have been fortunate enough to call Chiang Mai, Thailand home for just over 1 year. While there, I taught English in a school and spent my weekends and holidays seeing as much of the country as possible. I may be slightly biased, but I believe it’s the best city in Thailand!
In this post, I will highlight 11 incredible things to do in Chiang Mai. Plus, I will share my favorite hidden gems along the way:
1. Explore the Temples
Topping the list of things to do in Chiang Mai is, of course, exploring temples! Chiang Mai has the highest concentration of temples in Thailand, with over 300 temples (Wats). These temples are scattered throughout the city and its outskirts. During my time in Chiang Mai, I had the opportunity to visit many temples. There’s a wide variety of temples here from well-known touristy ones to off-the-beaten-path unique temples. Here are some of my favorites:
Wat Chedi Luang
Located in the heart of the Chiang Mai Old Town you will find Wat Chedi Luang. This temple is very popular with tourists but with good reason! This temple transports you back to Ancient Chiang Mai. Built in the 14th century, this towering temple is beautiful with its unique architecture.
While you are exploring the grounds of Wat Chedi Luang, you may even stumble upon a Monk Chat! These Monk chats are a great way to talk with a Monk and ask them questions.
Wat Sri Suphan (The Silver Temple)
Just south of the Old City, you will find Wat Sri Suphan, also known as The Silver Temple. This is one of the most unique temples in Chiang Mai because of its shimmering ornate silver walls surrounding a golden Buddha.
When visiting Wat Sri Suphan, everyone is required to pay an entrance fee, however once inside the grounds, only men are allowed inside The Silver Temple. It’s a bit frustrating as a female traveler, but we must respect the culture.
However, this is one of my favorite temples in Chiang Mai to visit because of its impressive craftsmanship and unique coloring.
Wat Lok Moli
Another unique temple just across the street from the North Gate of Old Town is Wat Lok Moli. This temple is a stark difference from the others. Its unique exterior coloring invites tourists inside to see more. It’s a bit off the usual tourist path, so you shouldn’t run into too many crowds here.
Inside the temple grounds, you will find old ruins from the Lanna Kingdom of Chiang Mai as well as unique architecture. Also, this temple really comes to life during Loy Krathong, also known as the Lantern Festival!
P.S. – When visiting temples in Thailand, it’s essential to respect the local customs by wearing appropriate temple attire. This means dressing modestly and covering up your knees and shoulders. It gets hot in Thailand, so I recommend packing a lightweight scarf or sarong to help.
2. Hike Doi Suthep
Dominating the Chiang Mai skyline is Doi Suthep. “Doi” translates to “mountain” in Thai. At the top of Doi Suthep sits Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. This Buddhist temple perched at the top of the mountain is one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai!
Although this is one of the most popular things to do in Chiang Mai, at the top, you feel transported into another world. Here, you will find panoramic views of Chiang Mai as well as the surrounding mountains. It’s a great place to get a perspective of the city! You’ll want to budget a half-day for this adventure.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is about a 45-minute drive from the city. There are two ways to get there, drive yourself on a motorbike, or rent a songthaew for the day. The songthaew should cost you less than 200 baht for the round trip per person.
Pro Tip: Visit for sunrise! After having lived in Chiang Mai for over a year, and visiting Doi Suthep a handful of times, my favorite trip was definitely during sunrise! We were the only tourists at the top and had the whole temple to ourselves. Not to mention, a sunrise at the top of the mountain overlooking the city lights is hard to beat.
3. Go Café Hopping
While living here, one of my favorite things to do in Chiang Mai was to go to café hop! There are literally hundreds of café’s in Chiang Mai to explore. Each of them has their unique style and delicious coffee that leaves you wanting more.
Although I am more of a tea drinker myself, I made it a goal to visit a new cafe shop every week while I was in Chiang Mai. So, here is my carefully crafted list of my favorite Cafes in Chiang Mai.
Akha Ama Coffee
This place is seriously good. Located inside the old city walls, Akha Ama Coffee is known for its locally sourced coffee from the hill tribes. This coffee shop has my favorite Thai Tea in the city – and I tried A LOT of Thai Tea while I lived here.
It’s also a lovely spot to relax and do some work or take Instagram-worthy photos. On the front steps of the store, you will probably find many Thais taking photos while they are sipping their delicious coffee. Additionally, the inside is filled with a few tables that are perfect to get some work done.
Birds Nest Cafe
A unique outdoor cafe with a hippie vibe, Birds Nest Cafe is a lovely spot to relax. Here, they have a selection of food and drink that is the perfect place to bring a book.
These guys have mastered the coffee art scene. Ristr8to is a very popular and well-known coffee shop. It does get very crowded, however, it’s worth the wait to experience.
Just north of the Old City walls, you will find Early Owls. This coffee shop is so cute as it’s in a large urban green space. Here, you can order your coffee, grab a table and chair, and set up your picnic outside overlooking the beautiful scenery.
4. Visit Elephant Nature Park
Northern Thailand is home to many elephant sanctuaries. At these elephant sanctuaries, you can learn more about the Asian Elephant as well as take photos with them. As a visitor, it is important to do your part and choose an ethical sanctuary.
At an ethical elephant sanctuary, they allow the elephants to live as naturally as possible. This includes no riding or bathing of the elephants. Instead, visitors get to feed the elephants, take walks with the elephants, and observe them!
Elephant Nature Park is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center that protects elephants and provides a healthy life for them. This is by far the most popular elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai!
What makes Elephant Nature Park the best in Chiang Mai is that it’s home to over 100 elephants that are allowed to live free from abuse. These elephants have been rescued from neglect and abuse from other tourism centers throughout Thailand. At Elephant Nature Park, the elephants get to live their life freely and naturally in a herd.
To book a visit to Elephant Nature Park you will need to book online in advance. This elephant sanctuary is very popular and often sells out far in advance! They have a wide variety of experiences to choose from, from half-day encounters to overnight adventures. I recommend the overnight experience, as it gives you even more time to observe the elephants and be in nature!
Interacting with elephants is a bucket-list item for most travelers in Thailand and the Elephant Nature Park is the perfect place to experience these beautiful creatures.
5. Partake in Cooking Class
Thailand is world-renowned for its incredible food and Northern Thailand is famous for its delicious food.
While in Chiang Mai, I was a bit hesitant to try a cooking class, until my friend invited me to experience it with her. I will be the first to say that I loved it!
Cooking classes are an amazing way to learn about where the ingredients come from and how much effort is put into each dish.
I highly recommend the Smile Organic Farm Cooking School. This cooking class is very popular, with good reason! Here, they will pick you up in Chiang Mai and transport you to their organic farm, about 45 minutes driving outside of the city. While there, you will shop for local ingredients, tour their farm, and partake in the cooking class.
There are many dishes Thailand is famous for, but in northern Thailand, it’s all about Khao Soi. Khao Soi is a famous Northern Thailand dish that consists of a coconut curry soup, egg noodles, fried noodles, your choice of meat, and a few garnishes. I love this dish so much that I usually ate it once or twice a week! If you are able to make Khao Soi, I highly recommend it.
After a cooking class, you will walk away with a newfound appreciation for Thailand’s delicious cuisine!
6. Explore The Night Markets
Night markets are a quintessential part of any traveler’s Thailand experience, and Chiang Mai is full of them. These markets are the perfect place to shop for souvenirs and eat street food – usually the cheapest place to find these items.
Sunday Night Market
If you are lucky enough to be in Chiang Mai on a Sunday night, without a doubt you must experience the Sunday Night Market! This market is arguably the best thing to do in Chiang Mai.
The Sunday Night Market is the largest night market in Chiang Mai covering 1km and many side streets. It practically shuts down the Old Town area! This is the best place to shop for souvenirs and food, as every vendor is at this market!
Pro-Tip: Wander off the beaten path in this market. You will usually find cheaper food and clothes outside of the main road!
Saturday Night Market
Every Saturday night, the Saturday Night Market takes place near the South Gate of the Old City. While this market isn’t quite as big as the Sunday Night Market, it offers similar items and food choices.
Chiang Mai Night Bazaar
Monday through Friday you’ll want to visit the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar for a wide selection of street food and shopping. This one is located about a 15 walk from the famous Tha Pae Gate on the East side of the Old Town.
This market takes place every night, however, it’s considerably better on the weekdays, as many of the vendors leave on the weekends for the other markets.
7. Visit During a Festival
Chiang Mai knows how to host a festival, as it is famously one of the best places to be in Thailand during one of these exciting times of year! Here is a list of my favorite (and most popular) festivals in Chiang Mai.
Loy Krathong and Yi Peng
This bucket-list lantern festival is straight out of a Disney movie. The famous floating lantern festival, Yi Peng, tends to attract many tourists wanting to see those beautiful lights in the sky. I was SO excited for this festival!
Also during this week is the Loy Krathong holiday. Loy Krathong is a water lantern festival. These two festivals light up the city each November.
Both of these festivals happen simultaneously and celebrate the end of the rainy season by bringing in love, light, and new beginnings. It’s an opportunity to apologize for something you have done wrong and send your problems away.
It’s truly a magical time to be in Chiang Mai and I consider this to be one of my favorite events of the year!
Songkran is FUN! This 3-day water festival every April celebrates the traditional Thai New Year. Each day, everyone takes to the streets to have an epic water fight, all day long.
If you don’t want to get soaking wet, this might not be the best time to visit Chiang Mai. However, if you’re down to have some fun, this is the best time to visit!
Although everywhere in Thailand celebrates Songkran, Chiang Mai is known to be one of the best places to celebrate!
Chiang Mai Flower Festival
The first weekend of February is the Chiang Mai Flower Festival. The flower festival takes place in Buak Hard Public Park, on the southwest side of the Old Town. The flower festival transforms the area into a beautiful garden oasis with colorful Christmas lights, parade floats covered in flowers, and lots of street food.
8. Head Out On a Hike
Chiang Mai is nestled in the heart of some of the biggest mountains in Thailand. This means there is an abundance of hiking trails in the area. My favorite one happens to also be the one closest to the city, Wat Pha Lat Hike, also known as the Monk’s Trail. I love this hike so much, it’s a must-do on your Chiang Mai itinerary.
The Monk’s Trail trailhead is located near the Chiang Mai Zoo, only about a 10-15 minute drive from the city center. This 3 km hike round-trip is the perfect way to spend the afternoon in nature.
The trail is well-maintained and weaves through a variety of interesting trees and plants. However, the best part has to be when you reach Wat Pha Lat Temple. At the top of the hike, you will reach Wat Pha Lat Temple and its beautiful grounds.
This area is one of my favorites in Chiang Mai because of its peaceful atmosphere and incredible views of the city. Not to mention the architecture here really makes me feel like I am in the Jungle Book movie! Additionally, you don’t have to be in temple attire to explore the grounds!
This hike is a hidden gem in the city and should definitely be on your list of things to do in Chiang Mai for your next visit.
9. Relax at Baan Kang Wat Artists Village
A hidden gem of Chiang Mai has to be Baan Kang Wat Artists Village. About 20-25 minutes south of Chiang Mai, this craft village is the perfect place to buy hand-made one-of-a-kind souvenirs or to take an art class!
Additionally, nearby you will find Wat Umong, an underground temple. This temple is one of the most unique places in Chiang Mai. While exploring Wat Umong you will traverse through a series of tunnels and you may even spot a few bats along the way!
10. Shop in Trendy Nimman
Chiang Mai blends old traditional Thai life with new modern city life. Nimman is the hip and trendy spot in Chiang Mai, making it a central hub for digital nomads!
This trendy spot is home to Maya Mall, one of the popular malls in Chiang Mai. Here, you can shop at high fashion stores, catch a movie, or eat at its delicious (and cheap) food court!
Also in this area, you will find lots of nice cafes and restaurants. Actually, it’s the home of Ristr8to Coffee, as mentioned before!
Additionally, if you are vegetarian or vegan, this is the spot for you! Nimman has a variety of food from the nicest fine dining in town to trendy start-up spots.
It’s also a great place for nightlife if you’re into that.
11. Take a Walking Tour
Chiang Mai is rich in history. Walking around, you will immediately notice the old city walls, ancient ruins, and other memorabilia from its past. Without a doubt, walking tours are my favorite way to see a city when I first arrive to help me get a lay of the land and get inspired for new activities.
Many of the walking tours can be booked at your accommodations upon arrival, however, if you want to book in advance you can also do it online.
I recommend the History and Cultural Heritage Free Walking Tour with Pailin. This tour, along with many others begins at the Three Kings Monument, located in the heart of the Old Town. Then, the tour takes you to some notable temples, Tha Pae Gate, local markets, and Chinatown. These are all must-visit sites during your Chiang Mai trip, so you might as well visit them on a walking tour to understand the history!
A walking tour in Chiang Mai will give you the context behind all the ancient ruins, explain its unique culture, and allow you to ask questions. With a city as beautiful and historic as Chiang Mai, it’s a must-do during your visit.
What Not To Do in Chiang Mai
To be a responsible traveler, it is imperative to support ethical practices. Specifically in Chiang Mai, I strongly discourage two activities: riding elephants and visiting Tiger Kingdom. Tiger Kingdom is an attraction north of Chiang Mai where tigers are drugged, not fed properly, and kept in tiny cages. I strongly urge you to NOT visit these types of places during your visit. We can make a difference by not supporting animal tourism and instead visiting ethical sanctuaries.
Chiang Mai is an incredible city. It’s filled with rich culture, beautiful temples, tasty food, and modern living. After spending over 1 year in this city, I can confidently say that this is my favorite city in Thailand.
About the author: Danika is an adventurous solo female traveler who quit her corporate job at Disney in 2020 to pursue meaningful travel experiences. She shares budget travel itineraries, chats about working abroad, and encourages travelers to experience the world on her blog Destination Danika.