Whether you're into shopping, eating, or just walking around, you'll find fun and interesting things to do in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand's largest city.
Chiang Mai is one of the country's most popular cities for tourists—for good reason. It has a relaxed atmosphere, super-friendly residents, great food, an artsy shopping scene, and lots of other shopping. And if that's not enough, just outside the city are some of the region's most stunning mountains.
Chiang Mai's temples are one of the main reasons people visit the area. There are hundreds in and around the city, some dating back for centuries.
Within the Old City walls are about a dozen very popular temples, including Wat Chiang Man, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Phra Singh.
Just outside the city limits (and an easy commute on public transportation) is Wat Doi Suthep, set on the side of a mountain. Definitely worth a side trip!
For a serene, "different" temple experience, get a little outside of the Old City to Wat Umong, the Tunnel Temple. Tuk-tuk drivers will know how to get there.
Tip: Although the dress code isn't always enforced, these temples aren't just tourist attractions in Chiang Mai—they're still active places of worship! Dress conservatively, remove your shoes when entering, and avoid a common cultural faux pas: turning your back to Buddha statues for selfies.
Another very popular activity in Northern Thailand is hiking or trekking. Whether you just want to take a few hours to walk through hills and valleys or you're looking for an intense, multi-day jungle adventure that involves significant mileage, you'll find it in Chiang Mai. Options include staying in a village of indigenous "hill tribe" people, river rafting, and other side adventures.
Trekking trips are almost always done as part of a package tour. They can easily be arranged through any guest house, hotel, or travel agent. Many options are available, as this is the main reason why many people visit Chiang Mai.
If you're looking for something a little different, you'll need to hire your own guide and arrange a custom itinerary. Chiang Mai is within easy striking distance of Chiang Dao, a national park and the third tallest mountain in Thailand.
Tip: Trekking independently in the area isn't easily done. You'll miss out on the many cultural experiences of visiting villages, plus you'll need a local guide for safety.
Visit Doi Suthep
Doi Suthep, just nine miles or so from Chiang Mai, is a mountain that provides excellent views and photo opportunities of the city.
The temple on top, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, is especially important to the area and dates back to the 14th century. Visit at sunrise or sunset for magical views—and better photos. At night, the golden temple shines above the city.
Tip: The steep, mountainous road to the top has burned up its fair share of rental motorbikes. Check your rental agreement carefully before deciding to take a scooter there yourself.
Chiang Mai has some of the best shopping in Thailand, and even Bangkok residents who have some of the biggest shopping malls in the world nearby, routinely flock to Chiang Mai to stock up on handicrafts and funky art.
Just outside of the Old City, the Nimmanhaemin Road area has lots of small boutiques and cool shops. Chiang Mai's many markets sell just about everything from local food and produce to hand-woven textiles.
The Saturday and Sunday walking streets (held in two different places) are insanely popular with locals and tourists alike. Even if you aren't in the mood to buy, they're great for strolling, people watching, and sampling local treats. Arrive at the market early before it gets too busy if you want to do some serious shopping.
The permanent "night market" on Chang Klan Road outside of the Old City is very tourist-oriented. You'll have to bargain hard to avoid getting ripped off.
Tip: Many artisans settled in the area. Avoid the mass-produced imports and look for locally produced handicrafts as souvenirs.
Try Local Food
The flavors of Chiang Mai are distinctly different from those of Bangkok, Isaan, or the south of Thailand.
The culinary influences, which include neighboring Burma, combine to create fragrant curries, interesting soups, and rice dishes. Since this is Thailand, after all, expect lots of spice with whatever you're trying.
But eating in Chiang Mai isn't just about spicy food. The city is seemingly obsessed with cakes and pastries, and there are scores of bakeries and coffee shops for snacking. The street food scene is alive and well in Chiang Mai.
Khao soi is a regional—and delicious—egg noodle curry. The region also produces many varieties of spicy sausage (sai oua).
To the delight of some travelers, Chiang Mai has a high density of vegetarian restaurants and healthy juiceries available.
Unlike much of Southeast Asia, real coffee is a "thing" in Chiang Mai; numerous cafes offer locally grown beans.
Take a Cooking Course
If you enjoy cooking and want to learn how to make some of your favorite Thai dishes, head to one of Chiang Mai's many cooking schools.
You'll learn to prepare dishes from around the country as well as regional specialties. Cooking classes run half or full days and include pick-up and drop-off service from your hotel or guest house.
It is also possible to take a class in vegetarian cooking or tour an organic farm as part of your lesson. Chiang Mai is arguably the most popular place to do a cooking course in Thailand.
Get a Massage (or Learn How)
Sure, you can get a massage pretty well anywhere in Thailand, but the centers in Chiang Mai are among the best—and least expensive—in the country. Thai massage is a serious business.
For a unique experience, seek out a "blind massage" experience in Chiang Mai. It supports a good cause and maybe one of the most therapeutic and intense massages you've ever received!
Another unique experience—and a good cause—is to get a massage from one of the rehabilitated inmates from Chiang Mai's Women's Correctional Institute. The program provides real-life skills and a way to earn an income for released convicts.
Thailand is home to several educational retreats, holistic centers, and massage schools. If you enjoy receiving and giving massages, join a school to learn proper technique and become certified!