A Weekend Guide to Chiang Mai
Nestled in the northern region of Thailand is the magical, historic city of Chiang Mai. Known for being Thailand's culture capital, Chiang Mai offers a wide variety of experiences, activities, cuisines, and sights. In one day, you can feed and care for rescued elephants, get a 60-minute Thai massage for less than the cost of lunch in New York, see the entire city from a temple on a mountain, and wrap up the day with dinner at a street vendor at the Night Bazaar. There is something that sparkles in the vibe of Chiang Mai, and this city guide will help you uncover that!
If you're traveling to Thailand, I highly recommend spending time in Chiang Mai during your trip. I was thrilled to visit this cultural hub for 4 days, but found that I could have easily spent 4 weeks and still felt like I wanted to see more! If you're planning your trip or looking for some inspiration, use this weekend guide to plan where to eat, sleep, and play on any budget in Chiang Mai!
GOOD TO KNOW INFORMATION BEFORE TRAVELING TO CHIANG MAI:
Currency: Thai Baht
Language: Thai, but English is widely spoken
Getting Around: Uber (extremely affordable from Western perspective), TukTuks (so fun and can be negotiable), Taxis, and Songthaews (the red bus shared taxis). You can also rent a motorbike to easily get around.
DO NOT--UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES--PURCHASE A BUDDHA OR IVORY SOUVENIR. Buying Buddha souvenirs in Thailand is considered extremely offensive. There will be plenty of vendors trying to sell these trinkets knowing that Western tourists want to have a little Buddha statue to go home with. Don't be that asshole. Also be cautious of the material that your souvenirs are made with and never buy products made from ivory. Ivory poaching is a serious problem in Asia and Africa and we need to spread the word so that more travelers gain awareness that purchasing these things is wrong and unethical.
Don't forget to pack: BUG SPRAY, some type of garment to cover your shoulders and knees in the wats (temples), comfortable walking shoes, and sunscreen.
Chiang Mai is perfect for: Solo travelers, couples, families, groups, foodies, and adventure travelers
If you're like me, you're probably thinking to yourself, "I loveeee Thai food! Can't wait to try the authentic dishes when I visit!" While this still held true during my visit (and the food absolutely exceeded my expectations), I was in no way prepared for the flavor and spice factor that was about to hit me when I tried food in Chiang Mai.
If you know anything about the history of the city, you'll know that Chiang Mai actually used to be its own kingdom and thus have its own cuisine and culture. That cuisine, from Western standards, is EXTREMELY spicy. I'm talking SERIOUS spice. Just be cautious of that when you go to a restaurant and think that just because you get extra jalapeños in your burrito at Chipotle that you can handle the spice in Northern Thai food.
That being said, the food in Chiang Mai did not disappoint. You really can't go wrong with anything you eat here. It's also pretty affordable to eat well here. For example, a high-end, luxury dinner in Chiang Mai can cost about the same as a regular mid-range restaurant in NYC.
Chang Puak Gate, Chang Puak Gate -- So many delicious vendors all in one area. Make sure to try Khano Ko Moo from Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak (the Chiang Mai cowgirl who serves up a delicious, slow roasted pig leg), Mango Sticky Rice (my personal favorite thing from Thailand), Tom Sab, Khanom Bua Loi, Sticky Rice, and Nam Tok Moo
The Hideout, 95/10 Sithiwongse Road -- Cafe, Vegetarian/Vegan options
Lemongrass, Loi Kroh Road 200 meters pass Royal Lanna Hotel towards the river -- Asian, Thai, Vegetarian options
Tikky Cafe, 2/2 Arak Soi 3, Sriphum -- Asian, Thai, Vegetarian/Vegan, Gluten Free options
The Night Bazaar, Chang Klan Road -- Bustling market where you can find some good, cheap eats and lots of shopping (don't be afraid to haggle with prices)
South Gate Market, Chiang Mai Gate -- Another market with delicious food to try like Sai Ua (sausage), Curry Noodles, Pad Thai, Khanom Krok, Hor Mok, and Grilled Eggs. You'll find one side of the market has more finger foods and easy bites, where the other side has larger bowls and plates that you can sit and enjoy.
It's Good Kitchen, 175/6 Ratchadamnoen Road, PhraSingh Subdistrict -- Asian, Thai, Vegetarian options
AUM Vegetarian Restaurant, 1/4 Suriyawong Alley, small alley opposite Chiang Mai Gate Hotel (20 M. from main alley) -- Vegetarian/Vegan, Gluten Free options
Khao Soi Khun Yai, Sri Poom Road, Just After Sri Poom 8 Alley -- Asian, Thai options
Reform Kafe, 1/4 Sripoom Rd. Lane 7 -- Asian, Thai, Healthy options
Rosy-Cheeks, 52/2 Village No.8 Soi 4, Soi Wat Umong -- Thai, Fusion, Healthy options
Cat House Restaurant, 8/5 Chaiyapoom, Soi 1 -- Cafe, Fusion, Vegetarian options
Pho Anh, 48 Charoenprathet Road, Muaeng -- Asian, Vietnamese, Vegetarian options
SP Chicken, 9/1 Sam Larn Soi 1, Phra Singh, Muang -- Asian, Thai options
Snooze Chiang Mai, 11/1 Chang-Moi Kao Rd -- Cafe, Healthy, Vegetarian options
Also try: Warorot Market (great place to immerse yourself like a local), Weekend Market at Soi Wua Lai (go on Saturday) and Soi Ratchadamnoen (go on Sunday), Siri Wattana & Thanin Markets (another very local experience), Kad Suan Kaew, Maya Shopping Mall, Pun Pun Vegetarian Restaurant
Woo Cafe & Art Gallery, 80 Charoen Rat Road, Wat Ket Subdistrict -- SUCH a cute coffee shop and cafe (might be one of my favorites I've ever seen). Even if you don't eat here, I highly recommend at least walking through to check out the space. It's adorable and incredibly tempting to go home with everything from their shop!
Sababa Israeli Restaurant, 183/1 Chang Klang Road -- Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Healthy options
Ginger & Kafe, 199 The House, Munmueang Road, Siphum Subdistrict -- International, Thai, Vegetarian options
Eat Is Life, Nimmanahaeminda Road, Soi 12, Kantary Hills Terrace -- Japanese, Mediterranean, Thai options
Anchan Vegetarian Restaurant, Nimmanahaeminda Road, soi Hillside 2 condo, Opposite Soi 13 -- Asian, Thai, International options
SS1254372 Cafe, 22/1 Nimmanhemin Road, Soi 17, Suthep -- Cafe, Vegetarian, Vegan options
My Secret Café in Town, 175/12 Rachadamnoen Road, Phra Sing subdistrict -- Cafe, Thai, International options
Angel's Secrets, 27 Moon Mueang Road Soi 5 -- Cafe, Asian, Thai options
Dash Restaurant and Bar, 38/2 Moon Maung Road, Soi 2 -- Asian, Thai, International options
Ugo Restaurant, 47 Moon Muang Road (Next door Thapae Boxing Stadium -- Italian, Thai options
Paak Dang, 46/1 Wang Sing Kham Road -- Seafood and Barbeque options
La Fourchette, 162/2 Phra Pokklao Road, Phrasing Subdistrict -- Swiss, French, European options
Norden Restaurant, 11 Thasala Subdistrict -- European, Swedish, Scandinavian
Fern Forest Cafe, 54/1 Singharat Road, Sriphum, Mueang -- Cafe, Asian, Thai
DaDa Kafe, 20/1 Ratmakka Road, Phra Singh -- Cafe, Asian, Thai
Also try: Kalapela, Amrita Garden, The Vorra Bistro, Tanita Coffee House, Nakara Jardin Bistro, Rustic & Blue, Flight 52, El Patio, Free Bird Cafe, Beast Burger, Why Not?, and The Flying Pig
David's Kitchen, 113 Bumrungrad Road, Wat Kate Subdistrict
Le Grand Lanna, 5 1/4 Moo 1, Chiang Mai, Sankampaeng Road, The Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai -- You can also see authentic Thai dances performed here every week! Highly recommend!
Farang Ses, 5 1/4 Moo 1, Chiang Mai, Sankampaeng Road, The Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai
The Service 1921 Restaurant & Bar, 123- 123/1 Charoen Prathet Road Changklan Muang Chang Wat
L'elephant, 7 Sirimangkalajarn Soi 11, Suthep, Muang Chiang Mai
Also try: Le Coq d'Or Restaurant, Pakorn's Kitchen, Terraces, B Samcook Home 16, Fujian, Little Pork, Deba Osaka Style, Palette Restaurant, Akaligo (great breakfast buffet!), or Piccola Roma Palace
Finding fabulous accommodations in Chiang Mai is not a difficult task; however, narrowing down your choice of where you'll want to stay is. In this city, you'll find a wide range of options such as luxury escapes, wellness retreats, and budget friendly hostels. Each one has its own unique charm and personality. Browse some of my favorite choices at every budget below!
The historic luxury escape
The Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai, $$$$, 5 1/4 Moo 1, Chiang Mai - Sankampaeng Road | Tha Sala, Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand
If you've ever wanted to know what it feels like to travel back in time and become royalty of the Lanna Kingdom, check into the Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai. This luxury escape will give you the chance to visually experience what the city of Chiang Mai looked like once upon a time. For more information and pictures, read about my stay at Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai right here!
The trendy boutique oasis
137 Pillars House Chiang Mai, $$$$, 2 Soi 1, Na Wat Gate Road | Wat Gate, Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand
137 Pillars House Chiang Mai has grasped one of the coveted positions on T&L's Top 100 Hotels in the World multiple years in a row and it's easy to see why. This gorgeous hotel seamlessly integrates the old and new worlds of Chiang Mai and offers visitors a cozy oasis to rest their heads just outside the city gates. For more information and pictures, read about my stay at 137 Pillars House right here!
The Mid-range hideaway
Tamarind Village, $$, 50/1 Rajdamnoen Road | Si Phum, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
This quiet boutique hotel is nestled right in the heart of the old city. Great option to choose if you want to be right in the middle of the action!
The Budget Friendly artsy Hotel
Hotel des Artists Ping Silhouette, $$, 181 Chareonraj Rd. | T.Wat Ket , A.Muang, Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand
Not only is this hotel highly Instagrammable, it's also conveniently located in one of the trendy neighborhoods of Chiang Mai. Walking to and from the city center will be no problem staying here.
Also try: The Chiang Mai Riverside ($$), Art Mai Gallery Nimman Hotel Chiang Mai By Compass Hospitality ($$), or BED Phrasingh ($)
10 Things to Do in Chiang Mai:
1. visit the elephant nature park.
If seeing or interacting with elephants is on your to-do list for Thailand, look no further than the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Elephant Nature Park is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center in Northern Thailand where you can visit or volunteer. This place is the best option for tourists, travelers, and locals to ethically and safely interact with these beautiful creatures in a protected environment. Make sure to read the disclaimer I wrote below when choosing animal excursions in Thailand!
Visiting the Elephant Nature Park was literally one of the best days of my life. I got to live my dreams of cuddling with and taking care of elephants for a day! This organization does so much to rescue and protect these animals from the horrible conditions of animal exploitation in tourism throughout the region. They also do a great job educating the public about the harms of supporting companies who do not practice ethical behaviors.
In my opinion, there is no other company that compares to Elephant Nature Park. We did the "Care for Elephants" Single Day Excursion and it was worth every single penny. I can't wait to go back to Chiang Mai and do it again!
IMPORTANT: Do Your Research Before Booking Any Tour Or Excursion! Since the tourism industry is a huge source of revenue, some companies and tour groups have resorted to selling or promoting services that are unethical, abusive, or exploitative in order to make a quick buck from unknowing tourists. Some examples of these services and excursions include the tiger parks, elephant trekking and elephant riding.
Long story short, there are companies that exploit and/or abuse animals in order to make money from naïve tourists who want to ride an elephant in Thailand or pet a tiger at a "sanctuary." You NEED to do your research before blindly signing up for these activities in order to avoid supporting companies who are putting these animals through this abuse and exploitation.
2. walk, shop, eat, and drink through the nimmanhaemin neighborhood.
Everyone loves a good trendy neighborhood that's full of fun little shops, quirky cafes and boutiques. In Chiang Mai, the Nimmanhaemin area is it. Take some time to stroll around this area and hop in any of the local spots that look appealing. There are so many small side streets and areas to explore that you could easily spend a whole day wandering around.
3. try the local cuisine and sign up for a cooking class.
You can't leave Chiang Mai without tasting some of the local Northern Thai cuisine. Make sure to add Khao Soi, Som Tum, and Mango Sticky Rice to your list! If you're feeling really adventurous, sign up for a Thai cooking class to get an authentic taste and learn how to make your own dishes at home. There are plenty of great options on TripAdvisor or through your hotel's concierge.
4. spend time at the local cafes.
Chiang Mai is very much a "cafe city," meaning there are tonssss of hip and trendy cafes to stop in and hang out. There are too many good ones to name, but I really love the recommendations from this post via Paper Planes and this post via A Blonde and Her Passport.
5. browse the local boutiques and galleries.
Besides the Nimmanhaemin neighborhood, there are plenty of other pockets around the city that have great little boutiques and places to shop. We actually stumbled upon some great stores and galleries just outside of the city walls. One of our favorites was a gallery/store named John Gallery along Tha Phae Road, which is owned by the artist John Monoon. His shop is full of beautiful pieces that he has hand drawn that often combine inspirational quotes drawn with landscapes, animals, and other things of his creation. We were so in love with his work we brought one home to New York with us!
6. get a thai massage.
You cannot leave Thailand without getting a Thai massage! You can find plenty of places throughout the city to stop in for a treatment as shops are basically as abundant as Starbucks in the states. Most places are extremely affordable too (usually costing under $5 USD per hour for some treatments), so it's hard to pass that up! If you want to opt for a little more luxury, my personal favorites were at the spas of 137 Pillars House and Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai.
7. shop and walk through the local markets.
You can't leave Chiang Mai without visiting one of the local markets. The most popular amongst tourists is the Night Market (aka Night Bazaar) along Chang Khlan Road. You can find tons of little chachkies and souvenirs here, as well as local street food from different vendors. If you're interested in a more authentic feel, then head to the Saturday market along Wua Lai Road and the Sunday market along Tha Pae Gate. This is where most of the locals and expats usually head for handcrafted goods, unique pieces of art, or street food.
IMPORTANT: As previously mentioned, do not under any circumstances purchase anything with the Buddha or anything that is made of ivory!
8. see the temples (especially wat PHRA THAT doi suthep).
The temples (aka wats) are a sacred place for Buddhist cultures, so you must treat visiting them with the utmost respect. These temples are a beautiful example of the Thailand's culture and history that shouldn't be missed. My personal favorite was Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which is just a little bit outside of the city center (we took an Uber there). My recommendation is to go very early in the morning to beat the crowds and see the spectacular view of Chiang Mai from above. You'll have to climb some 300+ steps to get to the top, but it's surely worth it!
Be Prepared: Women always need to have something covering their shoulders and legs above the knees before entering the wats. I brought a long, lightweight scarf that I was basically able to make into a body wrap any time we visited a wat. You also need to take your shoes off before entering the temple, so having comfortable walking shoes that are easy to slip on and off are good to pack. Just follow the rules set outside the temple and you'll be fine!
9. take a day trip or Go on an adventure excursion.
Chiang Mai has so much to offer, but if you find yourself wanting to explore a little further, consider a day trip to one of these places: Chiang Rai, Chiang Dao, Pai, Doi Pui, or Doi Inthanon. If the adrenaline junkie inside of you is screaming to come out, look into an adventure excursion like ziplining through the jungle, kayaking through the Ping River, or hiking the mountains.
10. visit during one of the festive months.
If you have the flexibility of choosing when to visit Thailand, try to plan your trip around some of the country's more festive events like Songkran (Thai New Years) or Loi Krathong (the famous festival of lights in the fall with the glowing lanterns). We weren't able to visit at this time, but definitely hope to go back to experience it!
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN TO CHIANG MAI? WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE THINGS TO EAT, PLACES TO STAY, OR THINGS TO DO? COMMENT BELOW WITH MORE RECOMMENDATIONS!
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