Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand and considered the cultural capital of the country. It was the second stop of our two weeks in Thailand, after Bangkok. We stayed for 4 days and absolutely loved it.
Wondering what to do in Chiang Mai? In this article I’m sharing our exact Chiang Mai itinerary, with the best things to do in Chiang Mai in 4 days.
Located in the north, amongst the highest mountains in the country and lush countryside, the old city of Chiang Mai was the former capital of the Lanna Kingdom. Today, its rich cultural life earned it the title of UNESCO Creative City.
A world apart from hectic Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a relaxed and laid-back city, and the perfect gateway to northern Thailand.
Explore Chiang Mai old city
Start your visit to Chiang Mai strolling through the old city.
Chiang Mai ancient city is surrounded by defensive walls and a moat. Inside you’ll find a chilled but vibrant city, where beautiful Buddhist temples coexist with 5-star hotels and spas, backpacking hostels, colorful street markets, delicious restaurants and cool cafes.
Have a massage by ex-prisoners
This was one of the most interesting and relaxing experiences we had in Chiang Mai.
There are several massage centers in Chiang Mai run by former female prisoners, where they can learn a new profession and get reintegrated in the job market.
We enjoyed a couple’s massage at Lila Thai Massage and highly recommend it.
Enjoy the nightlife
In our first night in Chiang Mai, we had dinner at the UN Irish Pub. I really enjoyed the food here (the green curry was delicious!), and the friendly and international atmosphere.
Afterwards we decided to explore the nightlife. Right in the middle of the old city you can find a small but lively backpacker party scene. The biggest and most popular place here is Zoe In Yellow, a bar and dance club that caters especially to the young crowd.
The area has several other smaller bars, our favorite being Roots Rock Reggae, a reggae bar with live-music and a chilled atmosphere.
We spent our second day in Chiang Mai at Elephant Nature Park learning about the Asian elephants and interacting with them in an ethical way. This was one of the highlights of our two weeks in Thailand.
I did a lot of research before traveling to Thailand, and Elephant Nature Park is definitely the best option for interacting with Elephants in a conscious and harmless way. It is the most expensive of all the elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai, but many of these other places call themselves sanctuaries while still allowing visitors to ride the elephants and keeping other abusive practices.
Elephant Nature Park is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center 60 km from Chiang Mai. Most of the beautiful giants at Elephant Nature Park suffer from severe injuries due to years of abuse at the hands of humans in circus, trekking, shows, etc. All the money visitors pay goes directly to help rescue, feed and treat the elephants.
During our day at Elephant Nature Park we had the opportunity to feed the elephants and observe them from very close. Unfortunately, we didn’t bath them, since the river was too high on that day, but we could watch them bathing themselves in the river.
Make sure to book your visit in advance. You can check the available dates and book directly on their website.
- Read more about our day at Elephant Nature Park here
Discover Chiang Mai’s many temples
No list of what to do in Chiang Mai is complete without a tour through its many wats. Chiang Mai has more Buddhist temples than any other Thai province: over 300 in and around the city.
Within the city walls, there’s a wat around almost every corner. The most impressive Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai old town and that you certainly can’t miss are:
Wat Phra Singh
Wat Phra Singh is Chiang Mai’s most important temple. Its main attraction is the famous Phra Sing, a Buddha image venerated by pilgrims and local worshippers.
Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chedi Luang is my personal favorite of all the temples in Chiang Mai. It’s ruined Lanna-style chedi and all the area around it are particularly beautiful and atmospheric.
More than 600 years old, the temple was probably the biggest structure in ancient Chiang Mai, and housed the famous Emerald Buddha (now at Wat Phra Kaew, in Bangkok) until 1475.
Wat Phan Tao
Right next to Wat Chedi Luang, you’ll find Wat Phan Tao. Built of dark teak wood, as a monument to the teak trade, Wat Phan Tao is the most distinctive temple in Chiang Mai old city.
Experience the weekend walking streets
The contagious Saturday and Sunday walking streets are mandatory things to do in Chiang Mai during the weekend.
The Saturday walking street happens outside the city walls, while the Sunday edition takes places in the old city. Both are huge open-air night markets offering souvenir shopping, street performances, food markets, and basically all sorts of bargains.
Plan to get there early in the evening, when the fun is at its height. We arrived after 10 pm for the Sunday night market in the old city, and while we could still do some shopping and even get a street massage, many of the vendors were already closing. So arrive earlier, if you can.
Climb up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
On our last day in Chiang Mai we decided to visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
Located inside Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, the wat was built on a mountain overlooking the city and is one of northern Thailand’s most sacred temples.
To get to the temple you need to climb up 306 steps or take a funicular. I highly recommend taking the steps and enjoying the impressive sounds of the forest on your way up.
Explore outside the city walls
Start from Tha Pae Gate, the main entrance to Chiang Mai’s old city and one of the few sectors of the city wall that remains intact. Tha Pae Gate is also Chiang Mai’s main public square, hosting many public events and festivals throughout the year.
From there explore Tha Pae Road, the city’s main artery, connecting the old city to the riverside district. Here you’ll find Chiang Mai’s traditional commercial district, bursting with hotels, restaurants, cafes, bazars and shophouses.
Enjoy the elegant riverside district
On our last night in Chiang Mai we enjoyed dinner at Riverside Bar & Restaurant, one of the most popular restaurants in the riverside district. We had dinner on the terrace overlooking the Mae Ping River. The food and the view were good, although not extraordinary, but what makes this place so special is its atmosphere: a chill-out riverside vibe meets a classic rock cafe with live music.
After dinner we headed next door to Good View for a drink. Good View is an elegant restaurant and bar, with a dance floor and live-music every night.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai:
This was without any doubt the best hotel we stayed in Thailand. Rich Lanna House is a small boutique hotel close to the north gate of the city. The hotel is a classic Lanna house, decorated in a Lanna-Colonial style, but with all the modern amenities. We stayed in a huge deluxe room, and I can tell you we didn’t want to leave, ever. Rich Lanna House offers also a beautiful swimming pool area, a great breakfast buffet, and a cozy coffee house right next door.
- Read my complete review of Rich Lanna House here
If you’re visiting for the first-time, this article on what to do in Chiang Mai will give you a great overview of the city, while assuring you an amazing time in Thailand’s cultural capital.
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Have you been to Chiang Mai? What would you add to this list of what to do in Chiang Mai? Share in the comments section below.
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