Chiang Mai, Thailand: A Travel Guide To One Of Thailand's Most Popular Cities
Updated: Sep 11
Chiang Mai is located in the northwest of Thailand. It’s one of the largest and most popular cities to visit in the country for good reasons. Founded in the 13th century, Chiang Mai has a rich history and is home to stunning temples and architecture. But what makes this city truly special is its unique culture, friendly locals, delicious cuisine, and relaxed atmosphere. In this article, we highlight the most important things to know before going, where to stay, where to eat and drink, and the best things to do in Chiang Mai as well as in its beautiful surrounding mountains.
Check out our video on Chiang Mai to see the best things to do through our camera!
Table Of Contents
Where To Stay In Chiang Mai
Where To Eat And Drink in Chiang Mai
Important Things To Know
Best time to travel to Chiang Mai
You can visit Chiang Mai year-round. However, the best time to go to Chiang Mai is between November and April. In this period the weather will not be as warm and humid as normal. July to October is the wettest season in Chiang Mai. Rainy season does not necessarily mean it rains all day; precipitation often comes as a quick, short blast of nature.
Cost and currency
Chiang Mai is an affordable travel destination. Food can vary from very cheap (1-3US$ for a dish at a street food stall) to moderately cheap (5-10US$ for a dish at a restaurant). In Thailand, they use the Thai Baht as a currency. Credit cards are not widely accepted, so make sure to carry cash at all times. Even accommodation providers might not accept card payments.
Safety in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is a fairly safe city. Just as in every other city, you have to watch out for scams and petty theft but as tourists these are the only things you need to watch out for.
How to get around in Chiang Mai
Most places around the old town are walking distance from each other and we highly recommend walking around as much as possible! For further distances, it's best to get a ride with Grab, a ride hailing App like Uber. Other ways to get around is by renting a scooter, car, or bicycle. You can find rental shops all around the city!
Where To Stay In Chiang Mai
For a first-time visitor, we recommend staying in or nearby the Old Town of Chiang Mai. You can recognize the old town as being a "square" on the map (the square is drawn by the water canals). These are some great places in the heart of the city:
Villa Sirilana Hotel: great location and lovely rooms.
Makkachiva: authentic Thai-style hotel in a perfect location
Where To Eat And Drink
Sukishake: delicious healthy breakfast options (açai bowls are amazing!)
Kat’s Kitchen: great Thai food at affordable prices (gets busy in the evening so you might need to wait for a table)
Coconut Shell Thai Food: another affordable, cozy place to eat with lots of great options
Khun Kae’s juice bar: another amazing & healthy breakfast place. Smoothie bowls are delicious!
Khao Soi Khun Yai: famous for its Khao Soi, only open for lunch and you need to likely wait to get a table
Khao Soy Mae Sai: another known place for Khao Soi (open for lunch)
Kao Soi Fueng Fah: Khao Soi place that is open for dinner as well
At Khualek Cafe & Restaurant: right at the river so come here for the great views! Also has decent food but a bit more pricey
Best Things To Do In Chiang Mai
If you're traveling to Chiang Mai and want to save time searching for directions to all of the places we mention in this article, then look no further than our custom map. Simply click on a point in the map below to get directions there for yourself!
Let's now jump into the 10 best things to do in Chiang Mai!
10. Eat the traditional dish “Khao Soi”
Some of Thailand’s most delicious food can be found in the north, and in Chiang Mai specifically, the staple dish is Khao Soi. This creamy yellow curry noodle soup comes with a choice of chicken or beef, and you can find it in nearly any restaurant in the city. But be aware it’s usually served as lunch, so many of the popular Khao Soi restaurants close around 2 or 3 PM. Luckily, we found dinner options being served at Coconut Shell restaurant and Kao Soi Fueng Fah.
9. Tour the Buddhist Temples of the old town
There are over 300 Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai and many of them are located inside the historic old town. The most iconic and beautiful ones are within walking distance from each other. These include the impressive Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chiang Man, Wat Phan Tao, and the ruins of Wat Chedi Luang. Most of the temples can be visited for free, though donations are always appreciated.
8. Visit an elephant sanctuary
Visiting an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai is on most travelers’ bucket lists, but finding one that is ethical can be tough. Unfortunately, Thailand has a history of animal abuse and captive elephants are sometimes forced to swim with tourists and carry them on their backs, which can be harmful to these gentle giants. In Chiang Mai, there are many sanctuaries that claim to be ethical, but in practice that is not always true. We visited Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary that is committed to the education and rehabilitation of elephants that have been abused by the tourism industry.
We observed the roaming elephants for a few hours and helped with the feeding. It was a relaxing and rewarding experience. You can book your own visit via their website, but be aware that spots fill up quickly! It's also possible to volunteer with them for a week, which provides an even more intimate experience.
7. Join a Thai cooking class
Besides indulging in the delicious Thai food, it’s also fun to learn how to cook the dishes. Chiang Mai is the most popular place in Thailand for cooking classes, with a wide variety to choose from. You’ll usually start your class by going to the market and learning about the Thai produce before making a few dishes at your individual cooking station and finally eating your creations. We joined a half-day cooking class with Grandma's Home Cooking School. We prepared 3 different dishes; a Thai soup, a curry, and Pad Thai. For each dish, there were different options to choose from for your proteins and flavors. As a bonus, we also got mango sticky rice for dessert!
6. Cruise down the Mae Ping River
The Mae Ping River is the main river running through Chiang Mai and offers a quick escape from the city. You can rent a kayak and cruise down yourself or join a 2 hour boat tour that takes you past beautiful scenery around Chiang Mai. Along the river, you can see traditional teak houses and a lot of rural greenery. The boat tour also makes a stop at a local farm, where you learn about the different plants and trees in the area as well as enjoy some tea and food.
5. Day tour to Doi Inthanon National Park
While the city of Chiang Mai itself is fascinating, the surrounding mountain scenery is spectacular. Home to Thailand’s highest mountain at 2,565 meters or 8,415 feet, Doi Inthanon National Park is about a 1.5 hour drive from the city. The park is filled with beautiful waterfalls such as Wachirathan, Sirithan and Mae Ya waterfall, numerous hiking trails, and viewpoints. There are also twin pagodas, named Napamatanee Don & Napaphon Bhumisiri, near the summit of Doi Inthanon surrounded by a gorgeous flower garden. You can easily spend a full day here with a day tour from Chiang Mai.
4. Shop at the local Talat Warorot
For an authentic Thai market experience, head to Talat Warorot in the old town. This historic market opened in the early 20th century and is a great place to buy clothes, souvenirs, and local food and spices. Opening its doors daily from 6 AM to 7 PM, this is the market where lots of locals shop.
3. Visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
The most famous attraction in Chiang Mai is undoubtedly the sacred Doi Suthep temple, about 15 kilometers or 9 miles outside of the city center. The temple is a beautiful example of northern Thai architecture and the pagoda supposedly contains relics of Buddha himself. If you visit around 6 pm, you can also listen to the monks chant. And as a bonus, the temple offers beautiful views of Chiang Mai and the surrounding area. It’s a great place to watch the sunset from. The cheapest and easiest way to get to Doi Suthep is via the many red songthaews.
2. Drive the Samoeng loop
Another fun day activity in Chiang Mai is to rent a scooter and drive the Samoeng loop. This 100km or 62 miles route is a pretty easy ride with spectacular views winding through the Mae Sa Valley and the Samoeng Forest. It takes about 4 to 5 hours to complete the loop depending on the number of stops you make along the way. We recommend visiting the Mae Sa waterfalls, one of the botanical gardens, a coffee shop with a view, and the Samoeng viewpoint. But of course, there are lots of other things to see and do along the way. Just make sure you have a little bit of scooter driving experience before going, especially for the parts when navigating through the city.
For a more challenging and rewarding route, consider driving the Mae Hong Son Loop. With vast mountain landscapes, cascading waterfalls, and authentic Thai villages, this is one of our favorite regions in the country. Starting and finishing in the fascinating city of Chiang Mai, this 600 kilometers or 372 mile loop takes at least 4 days to complete. We have a full video about the loop, which is sure going to convince you!
1. Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market
The largest and most important market in Chiang Mai is the Sunday Night Market in the heart of the old town. Starting from the Tha Pae Gate, the market runs along the entire length of the Ratchadamnoen Road from 5 PM until around 10.30 PM. Hundreds of stalls sell handmade goods, souvenirs, and a diverse range of food to both tourists and locals alike. The market is vibrant, colorful, and social, providing a great opportunity to sample the unique cuisine. But if you’re not around on Sunday, it’s also possible to visit the Saturday Night Market (located along Wua Lai Walking Street) or the Chang Puak Gate Market on any other day of the week.
Other Places To Visit in Chiang Mai
Swim in the Hang Dong Rock Quarry
Visit the Bua Thong Sticky Waterfalls
Get a Thai massage
Visit The San Kamphaeng Hot Springs
Go zip lining or whitewater rafting
Drink coffee at the Cat Cafe
Use These Websites To Save Money On Your Trip To Chiang Mai
Booking.com for places to stay
Skyscanner for cheap flights
GetYourGuide for local tours
Rentalcars.com for affordable car rentals
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Other Top Chiang Mai resources:
If you're looking for some other suggestions and tips on Chiang Mai, here are some great articles that will help you:
12 Awesome Things To Do In Chiang Mai, Thailand by Nomadasaurus
35 Of The Best Things To Do In Chiang Mai, Thailand by The Planet D
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