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20 BEST Things to Do in Chiang Mai on Your First Trip

20 BEST Things to Do in Chiang Mai on Your First Trip

Planning your first trip to Chiang Mai? Don’t skip these unmissable things to do! From temple hopping to trying local delicacies, this list is your ticket to the ultimate Northern Thailand adventure.

Chiang Mai is the gateway to Thailand’s cultural north; as the former heart of the Lanna Kingdom, the city is packed to the brim with temples and is rich in heritage and ancient history. History isn’t the only thing that calls travelers to Chiang Mai though– it has epic natural surroundings, and you can find mountains, waterfalls, and national parks all located within close proximity to the city.

From epic day trips to eating Khao Soi in Michelin Guide restaurants to trekking to the ‘roof of Thailand’– you’ll find no shortage of things to do in Chiang Mai. 

After living in Chiang Mai for a few months, I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know it. With this in mind, I’ve rounded up the best things to do on your first visit.

Tourist visiting temple in chiang mai
Olly gaspar

By Olly Gaspar, full-time traveler & adventure photographer for 6 years with 700+ published travel guides. I visit every place I write about & share real tips from what I learn.

1. Try a Thai Cooking Class

I’m yet to meet a fellow traveler who doesn’t rave about the food in Thailand; if I can guarantee one thing about your trip, it’s that you’ll miss the food once it’s over. An authentic Thai cooking class is the perfect resolution to this– imagine being able to whip up a tasty Pad Thai at home next time you’re craving one! 

Most cooking classes in Chiang Mai start with a trip to the local market or farm to source the ingredients for the meal. I found this to be an interesting insight into Thai culture, as the process of cooking using only local and in-season ingredients is very different from what I’m used to at home.

I chose to do this class and it was great - you get to pick 5 dishes to learn from their menu. You’ll also be taught local techniques and gain a deeper understanding of the flavors that are synonymous with Thai cuisine. 

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2. Visit the Sticky Waterfall of Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is surrounded by some pretty impressive nature, and Bua Tong Waterfall (or the ‘Sticky Waterfall’ as it’s nicknamed)  is a prime example of this.

The multi-tiered waterfall garners its nickname because its limestone rocks are covered in thick mineral deposits, which prevents them from becoming slippery when wet. This means you can scale each tier of the waterfall and climb all the way to the top, without the risk of falling.  

The waterfall is located in Lanna National Park, which is about 60 km north of the city, and it makes for a great day trip from Chiang Mai. If you’re comfortable renting and driving a motorbike, I highly recommend driving yourself– you can make a full day out of it and stop at the Chet Si Natural Springs, as well as the nearby Mork Fa waterfall.

Climbing down the sticky waterfall of chiang mai
Climbing down the Sticky Waterfall of Chiang Mai
Girl at the sticky waterfall of chiang mai

3. Doi Inthanon National Park Day Trip

Described as the ‘Roof of Thailand’, Doi Inthanon is the country's highest mountain, sitting at an elevation of 2,565 meters at its highest point. If you’re into hiking, you don’t want to skip Doi Inthanon while you’re in Chiang Mai; it’s one of Thailand's best hiking spots and there are awesome waterfalls here too including Wachirathan Falls and Mae Klang.

There are a LOT of attractions in this national park; waterfalls, hill tribe villages, the royal project, and the twin pagodas are just a few examples. It’s one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai, and to get the most out of the experience it’s really worth joining a guided tour.

This small group tour is the trip I went on and it covers all of the main attractions within the park. It's a great way of experiencing what is (in my opinion!) one of the highlights of Chiang Mai. 

Travel tip: As it’s the highest point in Thailand, Doi Inthanon is a very popular attraction with both foreign and local tourists. To avoid the crowds, visit on a weekday and make sure to avoid national holidays. 

Traveler at doi inthanon, thailand

4. Hike the Monks Trail Near Chiang Mai

One of my favorite things to do in Chiang Mai when trying to escape the bustle of the city is the Monks Trail Hike. Originally the route was used by Buddhist monks to travel between Wat Pha Lat temple and the city, but as the trail is now popular with tourists they tend to use other routes instead. 

This serene hiking route is one of the best ways to spend a morning; it’s a pretty gentle hike that weaves through the jungle and offers plenty of scenic stopping points, including a fantastic view over Chiang Mai. 

If you’re in the mood for a more challenging hike, you can tie the Monks Trail in with a visit to Doi Suthep Temple, which is located about an hour and a half further up the mountains.

Chiang mai monks trail
Buddhist robe tree wrapping on the Monks Trail in Chiang Mai.

5. Explore the Temples of Chiang Mai's Old Town

If there’s one thing Chiang Mai is famous for– it’s temples. The ancient city is the province in Thailand that contains the most temples, with a whopping 300 ancient temples spread across the city. One of the best things to do in Chiang Mai is spend a day exploring them (plus all the other unique points of interest within the walls).

The best area to do a DIY temple tour around is the Old Town. There are over a dozen temples located in this walled area, and it’s a quaint place to walk around with its narrow lantern-lined streets. You can pick and choose which temples you visit, but I recommend you don’t miss Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Chiang Man, Wat Phra Singh, or Wat Phan Tao.

Temple in chiang mai, thailand
Old town chiang mai infographic map, thailand
Map from my guide to the best things to do in the Old Town!

6. Eat Khao Soi in a Michelin Guide Restaurant 

Whilst you’re in Northern Thailand you’ve got to try Khao Soi– this warming, comforting dish combines crispy noodles with a creamy, coconut milk curry broth. It’s a perfect combination of creamy, spicy, and tangy flavors, and it’s one of the region's most iconic dishes. 

After consuming a large quantity of the dish, I can tell you that some of the best Khao Soi you’ll find in the city is at Khao Soy Maesai. This place looks like nothing more than an unassuming street food shack… but it’s actually a Michelin guide restaurant. 

The simple menu consists of just nine dishes, and the service experience is about as laid back as it gets– expect to be seated wherever there’s room, on a small plastic table that you’ll share with other diners. All of this just adds to the experience and lets the food speak for itself.

Travel tip: Khao Soi Maesai shuts at 4 pm every day, so make sure to head there for lunch rather than your evening meal, and the restaurant isn’t open on Sundays.

Eating khao soi in thailand

7. Explore Chiang Mai's Famous Night Markets

As well as its temples, elephants, and jungles, Chiang Mai is also well known for its market culture, and night markets are one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai in the evening. There are around 15 different markets held on a regular basis in the city, many of which take place every night. 

The biggest and most famous of Chiang Mai's markets is the Sunday Night Market. This takes place every week within the walls of the old city and features hundreds of stalls, selling everything from scorpions on sticks to handmade clothing. This is the busiest night market in Chiang Mai and the crowds can be a little overwhelming, so my advice is to head there earlier in the evening. 

If you aren’t going to be in Chiang Mai over a weekend, there are plenty of other night markets which take place during the week. The Night Bazaar on Chang Klan Road takes place every night and is a great way to spend an evening in Chiang Mai. The nearby Ploen Ruedee night market is a great spot for street food as well.

Night market in chiang mai tha phae

8. Try Muay Thai

If you want to give Thailand’s national sport a go, Chiang Mai is a great place to do it. Muay Thai (or ‘the art of eight limbs’ as it’s called, due to its use of eight points of contact) is one of the best martial arts in the world, and a beginner class is a great way to learn a new skill and improve your fitness or take it to the next level and have a fight in Thailand like I did!

Beginner classes are available at: 

  • Chiang Mai Muay Thai Gym 
  • The Bear Fight Club 
  • Lan Po Muay Thai Gym 
  • Dang Muay Thai 

If you don’t fancy taking a Muay Thai lesson, then definitely still go and watch the sport at one of the stadiums, like Thapae Stadium Old Town or Loi Kroh, both near Tha Phae Gate.

Olly gaspar muay thai gym

9. Visit Wat Phra Doi Suthep

Wat Phra Doi Suthep is a 14th-century temple surrounded by jungle, perched on top of a mountain that overlooks the city of Chiang Mai. It’s recognizable for its 79 ft tall chedi which is gold plated from top to bottom, and gleams as the sun shines on it. 

The temple is shrouded in legend and mystery and is an important pilgrimage site for many followers of Buddhism. You might be tempted to skip this one and stick to the temples in the Old Town since there are so many Buddhist temples to see in Chiang Mai, but I think this one is really worth seeing. 

Doi Suthep is located in Doi Suthep National Park, and you can spend a whole afternoon working your way through the other attractions here, like Huay Kaew Waterfall, the Hmong Village, and the Sanku Ruins. You can also tag it onto the Monks Trail, as mentioned above.

Buddhist statue in the jungle near doi suthep, thailand

10. Elephant Nature Park 

Many travelers have one item on their bucket list whilst visiting northern Thailand: interacting with elephants. Elephant tourism is a huge deal in Thailand and you won’t struggle to find elephant experiences, but finding ethical elephant experiences can be tricky. 

Elephant riding has been well publicized as being a cruel and unethical practice in recent years, and as a result, there are much fewer elephant riding experiences in Thailand today.

Instead, you’ll find an abundance of ‘sanctuaries’. Sadly, many of these aren’t sanctuaries at all; they’re former riding camps that have rebranded themselves. Instead of riding, they now offer tourists experiences like bathing and walking the elephants… both of which aren’t ethical ways to interact with the animals. 

Elephant Nature Park is a real ethical sanctuary that prioritizes the health and happiness of its elephants. It’s without a doubt the best elephant sanctuary in Northern Thailand, and it’s definitely the place to go if you’re searching for a truly ethical elephant experience.

Girl with an elephant in thailand

11. Cafe Hop in Nimman

Nimman (Nimmanhaemin) is an area packed with quirky independent coffee shops, coworking spaces, eateries, and bars. The neighborhood has amassed quite the reputation as a digital nomad hotspot over recent years, and it’s a great place to set yourself up if you’re getting some work done while you’re in Chiang Mai. 

If you aren’t a digital nomad or influencer, it’s still very worth visiting to grab a coffee or a bite to eat. It’s one of those areas that you can rock up to with no set plan of where to end up, but be sure that you’ll find some great places.

Haylea brown at a cafe in chiang mai, thailand

12. Ride the Mae Hong Son Loop

This motorbike loop begins and ends in Chiang Mai and encompasses some of the best scenery you’ll find in northern Thailand. The 650 km route is made up of 1,864 curves as it weaves and winds through the mountains, passing through little towns and villages along the way. 

The loop can be completed in as little as four days; anything above that allows you to stay longer at each stop and visit some more off-the-beaten-track spots. 

The most simple version of the route makes overnight stops at: 

  • Mae Sariang - a small riverside town surrounded by rice fields 
  • Mae Hong Son - the capital of Thailand's most northwestern province 
  • Pai - a charismatic backpacker town 

If you’ve got the time for it, I really recommend making some additional stops at: 

  • Ban Rak Thai - a beautiful backcountry town, close to the Myanmar border
  • Khun Yuam - scenic rural village high in the mountains 

A word of advice: The Mae Hong Son Loop is not the place to learn how to ride a motorbike. The mountain roads have lots of turns and unpredictable traffic. You should only drive the loop if you already have some experience riding a bike in Asia.

Sunset in the mountains near chiang mai, thailand
Mae hong son province

13. Get a Thai Massage With a Twist at Chiang Mai Women's Correctional Institute

This Thai massage parlor was set up to help female prisoners develop vocational skills–  the inmates receive 300 hours of training and gain a qualification as a masseuse, which they can use once they’ve left the prison. 

Re-entering society with a tangible skill provides opportunities for the women, and prevents them from relying on crime to earn an income. Vocational projects like this aren’t common in the Thai prison system, so this scheme is pretty progressive.

I opted for the hour-long Thai massage here and it was fantastic. Prices are a bit lower than the massage parlors you’ll find in the old town so you can save a bit of money as well as supporting a fantastic social enterprise. 

They don’t take bookings here and it does get pretty busy, so aim to arrive before 11 am if you don’t want to queue.

14. Explore the Temples of Chiang Rai on a Day Trip

If your Chiang Mai itinerary doesn’t allow for a stop in Chiang Rai, why not visit on a day trip from Chiang Mai instead? The temples in Chiang Rai are absolutely mind-blowing, and a day trip is the perfect way to delve deeper into the culture of northern Thailand.

The distance between the two cities is 180 km and can be traveled within a few hours, making Chiang Rai a great day trip. This day trip breaks the journey up with a stop at the Mae Kachan Hot Springs, before arriving in Chiang Rai and includes guided tours of the three main sites. 

You’ll visit the iconic White Temple (Wat Rong Khun), the intricate and ornate Blue Temple (Wat Rong Suea Ten), and the Black House (Baan Dam Museum), a spooky and eclectic curation of artist Thawan Duchanee’s work.

Wat rong khun temple in chiang rai
Wat rong khun - the famous white temple in chiang rai

15. Learn About the Lanna Kingdom at the National Museum of Chiang Mai

The city of Chiang Mai has a fascinating ancient history, and the National Museum is a great place to learn about it. The museum focuses on the history of the Lanna Kingdom, a once very powerful region of Southeast Asia. The region was located across what is now Laos, Myanmar, Northern Thailand, and parts of China, and Chiang Mai was the capital of the region!

I recommend visiting the museum on your first day in Chiang Mai– walking through the streets of the old town is a much more evocative experience once you’ve got an understanding of the area's history. 

Three kings monument in chiang mai, thailand
Three Kings Monument

16. Explore Warorot Market, Chaing Mai's China Town

For a genuine local experience, head to Warorot Market, known as Chiang Mai's Chinatown. Located near the Ping River, this market is brimming with life and you can pick up almost anything there– from fresh produce and delicious street food to textiles and handicrafts.

Warorot Market, also known as Kad Luang, is particularly famed for its variety of local snacks, such as sai oua (Northern Thai sausage), kaeb moo (crispy pork rinds), and nam prik noom (green chili dip). There are also many great streets to explore and photograph.

I recommend getting there in the late afternoon or evening to watch the streets come to life. The below photo is from when I visited during the Chinese New Year.

Warorot china town chiang mai
Chinese new year celebrations in chiang mai, thailand

17. Try Northern Thai Coffee

Northern Thailand's mountains, like those around Doi Inthanon, are prime Arabica coffee-growing areas.

This has fueled Chiang Mai's vibrant café culture and offers a unique chance to try coffee right where it's produced. Visit local hill tribes, such as the Mae Klang Luang village near Doi Inthanon, to see traditional coffee cultivation and preparation.

For a taste of the region at home, buy locally produced coffee directly from these communities. There are also many cafes in Chiang Mai selling locally sourced beans, just ask!

Thai coffee brewing
Traditional coffee brewing in Mae Klang Village, Doi Inthanon
Traditional thai coffee bags

18. Visit Tha Phae Gate

Tha Phae Gate, a historic landmark in Chiang Mai, marks the entrance to the Old City and serves as a testament to the area's rich history. Originally part of the city's ancient walls, it has become a cultural hub, especially in the evenings when locals and tourists seem to gather in the hundreds.

The area around Tha Phae Gate is also a bit of a cultural hub and known for hosting various events, from cultural festivals to small community gaming competition. It's also where the Sunday markets begins.

A unique and somewhat weird tradition at Tha Phae Gate is photographing the large number of pigeons that congregate here. I always see tourists come to pose at the entrance with thousands of pigeons flying around. While it's not my idea of a good time, it might be yours, hey, I'm not judging!

Tourists at the tha phae gate in chiang mai

19. Go On a Street Food Walking Tour

Joining a Chiang Mai Street Food Tour is the easiest way to dive into Chiang Mai's local cuisine. Honestly, there are so many stalls throughout the Old Town and beyond that it's hard to know where to start!

I recommend this tour visiting two night markets with a guide who knows where to find the best dishes.

The tour includes a leaflet highlighting the top foods to try, ensuring you sample the most flavorful Thai specialties. It's a small group tour, so you'll have plenty of chances to ask questions and learn about what you're eating!

Night market street food tour, chiang mai

20. Whitewater Rafting - Most Epic Thing to do in Chiang Mai

If all that great food & temple hopping has got you keen for some adventure, then I can highly recommend the whitewater rafting trip down the Mae Taeng River.

This trip takes you through a 6-mile (10-km) course beginning with a calm stretch through a lush jungle, featuring a class III rapid to get your paddling skills going. As you progress, the river turns into a series of class III and IV rapids, which is some of the best whitewater Thailand has to offer!

Chiang mai whitewater rafting adventure

Where to Stay in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is the capital of the Northern Thailand tourist trail and a huge Digital Nomad hub. This is the reason why I'm always drawn back to this city. As you might expect, there are some excellent accommodation picks in and around the city, from unique boutique hotels and luxury chains to vibrant backpacker hostels. Below are three of the top places to stay for various budgets.

Por thapae gate chiang mai

1. POR Thapae Gate Luxury

With over 700 reviews this is the ultimate luxury hotel located 200m from Tha Pae Gate. The hotel provides an outdoor swimming pool, free bike rental, and an exceptional breakfast.

Outdoor swimming pool at rimping village, chiang mai

2. Rimping Village Mid-Range

Just a 10-minute walk from the Night Bazaar this hotel offers a large outdoor swimming pool, an on-site restaurant, and spectacular outdoor seating areas. Away from the crowds, this is a perfect place to unwind and relax.

Green sleep hostel, chiang mai

3. Green Sleep Hostel Budget

Situated in the heart of Chang Mai this hostel boasts a fully equipped kitchen, co-working space, communal area, and comfortable beds. A top pick for backpackers wanting a cheap and comfortable stay.

Where to Eat in Chiang Mai

This isn't a food blog but I've spent a long enough time in Chiang Mai to know that one of the best things to do is EAT! Chiang Mai offers a vibrant food scene that caters to all tastes, from traditional Thai eateries to cozy cafes.

Below are my personal favorites:

Cafes:

  • Inner Cafe - A favorite for great coffee and delicious brunch options, located in the Nimman area.
  • My Secret Cafe in Town - This not-so-secret trendy spot with good coffee and a resident cat is located in the Old City.
  • Akha Ama - A popular cafe with an iconic industrial interior, close to Wat Phra Singh, known for their brewed coffee.
  • Cafe Rosemary - Offers the best brunch in Chiang Mai, particularly famous for their French Toast (but try their poached eggs) situated in Nimman.
  • Roast8try - An artisanal coffee haven in the Nimman that is upbeat and a bit hipster– great coffee though.
Akha ama cafe in chiang mai
Akha ama cafe

Restaurants:

  • Aroon Rai - A must-visit for authentic Northern Thai dishes, my favorite restaurant in Chiang Mai, located near Tha Phae Gate.
  • Kiat Ocha - Situated in the heart of the city, this restaurant is renowned for its Thai-style Hainan Chicken & Rice since 1957.
  • Ginger Farm Kitchen - Offers a farm-to-table dining experience with organic ingredients, located in the Nimman area.
  • Huen Muan Jai - Known for its Northern Thai cuisine, this rustic setting can be found in the Chang Phueak area.
  • Tong Tem Toh - Specializes in Northern Thai cuisine with dishes like Khao Soi, located in the Nimman area, offering a traditional ambiance.
Olly gaspar at a restaurant in chaing mai
A cheesy grin knowing I'm about to eat at my favorite restaurant in Thailand: Aroon Rai

Chiang Mai Travel FAQs

How Can I Get to Chiang Mai?

Chiang Mai is well connected to the rest of Thailand and you can travel by train, bus, or plane. Direct flights operate from Bangkok, Phuket, Krabi, and Surat Thani. 

If you want to save money, the sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is a fantastic option. Long-distance bus journeys are another great way to get to Chiang Mai from Bangkok.

What is the Best Time of Year to Visit Chiang Mai?

November to December is the ideal time of year in Chiang Mai– temperatures are warm, dry, and sunny.

The months of February to April Man can start to get hot and humid in Chiang Mai. In addition to this, the burning season takes place during this time and pollution and smog are at an all-time high.

While not a popular option, I recommend the Rainy Season (June - October) as a great time of year to visit Chiang Mai if you want to avoid the crowds and see the greenery. While the rain is pretty intense, it doesn’t last all day and it’s still possible to explore in between downpours. 

Is Chiang Mai a Good Place to Stay Longer Term?

Chiang Mai is one of the best places in Thailand for digital nomads and expats. It’s got everything you need to stay here while working remotely– great co-working spaces, coffee shops, gyms, and a large community of other digital nomads to connect with. I've made several trips to Chiang Mai and always tend to stay for at least a month!

What Festivals Should I Visit Chiang Mai for? 

Songkran (Thai New Year) takes place on the 13th of April every year, and Chiang Mai is one of the best places in the country to get involved in this huge water celebration. 

Lunar New Year is a big event in Chiang Mai as the area has a large Chinese-Thai population. Expect dragon dances, pageants, and parades. 

Loi Krathong commemorates the sins of the past year being sent away. Glowing paper lanterns are released into the sky and lit banana leaf baskets are washed down the river.

Girl photographing religious attractions in chiang mai

I hope this list of the best things to do in Chiang Mai helps you make the most of your time in this spectacular city. Below you'll find some more useful travel guides to help inspire your trip to Thailand!

Hidden beach, railay beach

Plan Your Thailand Accommodation

Still in the planning stages of your trip? Perhaps you're booking on the fly. The below accommodation guides will help you plan where to stay in Thailand.

Thanks for Reading

I'm Olly Gaspar, adventure travel journalist & photographer. Traveling non-stop since 2018, I've published over 700 travel guides on We Seek Travel. These draw on my personal experience to share unique itineraries, accommodation tips, & fun adventure guides covering hikes, viewpoints, beaches, waterfalls, & tours. Read my Publishing Ethics Statement.

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