The best places to visit in Chiang Mai
Vast forests, stunning mountain scenery, hillside tribes and some of Thailand’s best temples. The north of Thailand, and particularly Chiang Mai, is full of culture and colour. After many visits to Thailand, Chiang Mai remains our number one favourite place in the whole country, and this article will explain why…
In this guide, we share some of the best places to visit in Chiang Mai, both in the old town centre and in the wider area. From countryside treks and adventure, to the old town’s best neighbourhoods and markets, we hope this guide will inspire you with some excellent Chiang Mai attractions. Be sure to post a comment below if you have any questions about any of the places we’ve listed. 😊
Attend a Lantern festival
You’ve probably seen photos of Chiang Mai with hundreds of lanterns lighting up its skies, setting the scene for a completely unique experience. Chiang Mai is world famous for these unique annual celebrations. Tourists and locals gather for special occasions, make a wish, light their lantern and send it high up into the sky.
Lantern festivals take place in Chiang Mai for big events throughout the year. These range from New Year’s Eve, to the November Yi Peng Festival (the biggest lantern event). There’s also a number of smaller lantern celebrations. We visited for New Year and were in awe of the hundreds of lanterns lighting up the sky. It’s a new year’s eve you won’t forget!
Visit Wat Chedi Luang
If you only visit one temple in Chiang Mai’s four-walled centre, it has to be Wat Chedi Luang. Located in the very centre of the city, Chedi Luang is one of the best places to visit in Chiang Mai for impressive temple grounds and rich history. The 14th century temple complex is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, featuring protected temple buildings from throughout the ages.
The grand stone ruin, also known as a ‘stupa’, is the key temple to visit here. You’ll find monks praying and going about their daily duties, ornate golden furnishings and a collection of Buddha statues and ornaments.
Explore Doi Inthanon National Park
Doi Inthanon National Park is one of the most popular national parks in Thailand. This mountainous area is rich in jungle terrain. It also boasts the highest point in Thailand, sitting at 2565 meters above sea level. It’s located around a 1 hr-30-minute drive from Chiang Mai. Inside the vast 482 km² park, you’ll find impressive waterfalls, including the towering Wachirathan falls, hiking trails, wildlife, local Hmong Tribe villages, plantations and mountain views. It’s worth visiting simply for its breath-taking nature scenery.
Another top thing to see in Doi Inthanon are the Royal Twin Pagodas, which were built in honour of the late king and queen of Thailand. They have a unique design that overlooks the valley, and some beautifully manicured gardens. The best way to explore Doi Inthanon National Park is by renting a car and doing a self-drive adventure. Alternatively, join one of the many tours that depart from Chiang Mai each day.
Jungle trekking in Chiang Mai’s Mountains
In an area known for its breath-taking countryside and lush forests, an adventure into the outdoors should be top of your Chiang Mai itinerary. A full day, 2, or 3-day trek takes you deep into the Chiang Mai mountains in rich jungle terrain. You’ll be surrounded by rice fields and will get to see the local villagers and tribesmen that make a living from agriculture.
Trekking can be challenging but rewarding. You’ll see the way the locals live and will capture some great pictures of the jungle; including waterfalls, animal wildlife and fierce river rapids. Many tours also offer the option to stay in a local village overnight. During our overnight trek we sang songs and ate Thai food by the fire. Many different tour operators’ offer a jungle trek. Therefore, we recommend looking at reviews and choosing a company that has an itinerary that you like the look of.
Explore the beautiful Rajapruek Royal Park
One place we visited in Chiang Mai that really surprised us was Royal Park Rajapruek. This huge botanical garden has countless art exhibits, water features, tropical plants, and at its centre, a grand temple. The park is a 20-minute drive from central Chiang Mai and is best visited in a combined trip to the nearby Wat Phra That Doi Kham, a giant Buddha statues that sits on a mountain-side.
Rajapruek Royal Park is an enchanting place to visit on a morning whilst it’s not too hot. You can spend a couple of hours walking around the beautiful gardens, taking pictures of the tropical flowers and trees and enjoying the peaceful grounds of the temple. If you want a relaxing Chiang Mai attraction away from the hustle and bustle, we highly recommend paying Rajapruek a visit. Although man-made, it’s one of the most beautiful places you’ll see in Chiang Mai.
Visit an ethical Elephant sanctuary
Out of all the destinations in Thailand, the north, and particularly Chiang Mai, is known as a great place to see Asian Elephants. These magnificent creatures have lived in Thailand for centuries and their image is everywhere to be seen. Tourists flock to see these huge animals. However, that has caused some issues. Traditionally, a lot of elephants in Thailand haven’t been treat well. There has, and still is, a huge market for elephant rides, shows and other in-humane treatments of the animals.
In recent years, Elephant sanctuaries are starting to open up, providing a more humane way to meet Thailand’s elephants, many of whom have been rescued from the tourism industry. Even though these sanctuaries now exist, it’s still worth doing research on places to visit. They’re not all as friendly to the animals as they’d have you believe.
If you’d like to see the elephants on your visit to Chiang Mai (and you definitely should!), we recommend a stop by Elephant Nature Park or Elephant Freedom Village. These elephant homes are currently the only sanctuaries listed on the Responsible Travel’s Elephant Sanctuary list.
Go for a swim at Hang Dong Quarry and water park
One of the more unique places to visit in Chiang Mai is Hang Dong Quarry, also known as the ‘Grand Canyon’. This former quarry is around a 45-minute drive from Chiang Mai city and is a popular place for locals to hang out on weekends. The caverns and pits of the quarry are filled with fresh water and have been converted into a natural water park. Its tall red-rock cliffs make it the perfect spot for some cliff jumping!
At Chiang Mai’s ‘Grand Canyon’, you’ll find a fun floating water park of inflatable obstacles and slides, plenty of cliff jumping spots and some nice chill-out areas for a bit of sunbathing. There’s also an on-site restaurant. Hang Dong Quarry is a relaxing break from all your Chiang Mai sightseeing.
Explore the temples of Chiang Mai old town
We’ve mentioned some of Chiang Mai’s most amazing temples to visit. However, there are many more you’ll cross paths with during your visit. There are over 100 in Chiang Mai and they’re seemingly everywhere! Many of the most beautiful temples are located within the four walls of Chiang Mai old town. Therefore, we suggest walking around for a morning or afternoon and exploring as many of them as possible. We recommend checking out the following Chiang Mai temple attractions:
Wat Phra Singh Woramahawihan – A complex with multiple temples and pagodas, including a grand golden pagoda that’s surrounded by colourful lanterns. The temples here are of very unique styles, completely different to each other.
Wat Lok Moli – The black and white gothic appearance of Wat Lok Moli is unlike any of Chiang Mai’s other temples. It also boasts a stone temple and some neatly decorated garden areas.
Wat Sri Suphan – Located just outside of town to the south, Wat Sri Suphan is a small but detailed temple that appears almost like a black and white photo. Its shades of grey and white stone create a temple design that immediately stands out. The interior of the temple is also very beautiful.
Slide down the jungle ziplines at Flight of the Gibbon adventure park
If you want to see the jungle from above and capture breath-taking views whilst swinging through the trees, Flight of the Gibbon is highly recommended. Although there are a few zipline adventure attractions in Chiang Mai, Flight of the Gibbon is the biggest and best. It also has a good safety record. It has lots of ziplines with different levels of difficulty and heights and is a fun thing to do at any age, whether you’re travelling with kids or with other adults. The activity also includes abseiling, sky bridges, forest trails and one of the longest ziplines in Asia.
The village location of Mae Kampong is beautiful in itself. Think ‘Go Ape’ in the UK but with much taller trees and plenty of jungle wildlife.
Hike Monk’s trail to Wat Pha Lat temple
Monk’s Trail is one of the best places to visit in Chiang Mai for those that fancy a mini hike to a beautiful temple. It’s only a short walk from the centre of town. The winding nature trail takes around 40-minutes to complete, providing some nice forest scenery along the way. It’s a quick and easy hike that suits all levels of fitness.
As the top of the trail climb, you’ll encounter a bridge that crosses a valley into a serene, mountain-side temple location. Wat Pha Lat is exactly what you imagine a Chiang Mai temple to be like. Nestled deep within the mountain side with a panoramic view of town, this peaceful temple grounds has a gentle flowing river, beautiful gardens and quiet temple buildings with ornate decorations. Buddhist monks can be seen wandering the grounds and praying by the temple alter.
Visit Doi Suthep temple for sunrise or sunset
A short drive up the hill from Wat Pha Lat sits the mountaintop temple know as Doi Suthep. Known for its long staircase entrance with dragons on either side, it’s a grand golden temple with views from the top of a mountain. It has a number of smaller temple buildings, viewpoints, water features and statues. However, the core of the temple is where the true beauty lies. The centre of Doi Suthep is a bright golden array of pagodas, Buddha statues and decorations. It’s really something special!
Doi Suthep is one of the most popular temples in Chiang Mai for both locals and tourists. Therefore, it’s almost always busy. We recommend arriving early on a morning for sunrise, where it’ll be just you and the praying monks. It’s also one of the best places to visit in Chiang Mai for sunset.
Stop by the trendy bars, shops and cafes of Nimman neighbourhood.
Nimman is one of the best places to visit in Chiang Mai for those that want to see the trendiest neighbourhood in town and its many cafes, bars, restaurants and boutique hotels. It’s located in the west of Chiang Mai, just outside the walls of the old town. The area is the most popular place to stay for digital nomads. It boasts a great coffee culture scene, independent art and fashion shops and plenty of modern city amenities. It even has a huge shopping mall – something which wouldn’t have existed in Chiang Mai a decade ago.
Nimman is a great place to visit or stay for those that want to sample some modern home comforts and quirky food and drinks. ‘One Nimman’ is a complex at the centre of the neighbourhood that’s well worth visiting on an evening. It’s a vibrant meeting spot for locals and tourists, with countless shops, bars and restaurants.
Three Kings Monument
Whilst walking around Chiang Mai old town, stop by Three Kings Monument for a quick look at one of the city’s historic sites. The bronze statue symbolises the alliance between the three kings of Thailand. Consequently, it has a lot of significance in Thai culture. Many locals use it as a shrine and pay homage to the former kings.
In addition to the history of this Chiang Mai attraction, the square itself is a popular gathering point and you’ll sometimes find live events, music, celebrations and parades.
See a traditional hillside tribe village
The north of Thailand is famous for its indigenous tribes, many of whom continue their ‘living with the land’ lifestyle. Chiang Mai and the surrounding area is a great chance to meet a number of locals, in particular the Karen tribe and Hmong tribe.
The Karen Tribe folk are immediately recognisable by their ‘long neck’ of bangles and unique tribal dress. They live in the forests of the north and many villages have been adapted to welcome tourists. We recommend visiting Ban Lorcha village. It’s a traditional Karen Tribe Akha Village in which the tribe manage tourist visits themselves and aren’t exploited by the tourism industry.
If you’d prefer to meet the Hmong Tribe to discover their way of life, the villages in Doi Inthanon National Park are some of the most accessible places to visit. Guided tours take you around Hmong villages, coffee plantations, rice fields and more. They show you how the tribe has modernised, whilst still retaining their tradition.
Explore Chiang Mai Night Market
You can’t visit Chiang Mai without sampling the foodie and fashion delights of its famous night market! The city boasts one of the best evening markets in the whole of Thailand. Unlike other markets in tourists’ areas of the south, market stalls here are affordable, authentic and a great place to shop. We personally found some excellent clothing and accessories in Chiang Mai’s Night Market!
It comprises of multiple indoor bazaars and a collection of outdoor street stalls. Depending on the evening, it can sometimes take up multiple streets in the east of Chiang Mai. We recommend stopping by to grab some street food for dinner, sample some of the many desserts and haggle for some clothing and souvenirs. We all love a good Thai market!
Stop by Tha Phae Walking Street on Sunday evening
Another market area, but without any indoor bazaars, Tha Phae Walking Street is just along from the night market. Every Sunday evening, this major Chiang Mai attraction comes alive with countless street stalls, selling everything from foodie delights, to electronics, clothing, accessories, umbrellas and handmade decorations. The sheer amount of people and stalls on this thin walking street is somewhat overwhelming. However, the atmosphere is thrilling and it provides a very unique night out.
We recommend visiting Tha Phae Walking Street for dinner. You can sample countless street food delights and it’s extremely affordable. Alternatively, go for a wonder along the street and grab a seat in one of the adjacent bars. You can then enjoy your drink and watch as the street fills up with hundreds of people. Note: this market only takes place on a Sunday, so make sure you don’t miss it!
Take a cooking class
Many people may be put off by cooking their own food on holiday and want to relax. It’s actually a great way to learn about the local culture, whilst picking up an arsenal of new tips and recipes for the kitchen back home.
There’s no shortage of cooking schools and classes in Chiang Mai. Therefore, we recommend choosing a class based on your location in the city and your budget. See a full list of Chiang Mai cooking classes here.
Most schools offer a similar itinerary and choice of dishes to choose from. They range from morning sessions to evening and full day experiences. The dishes may vary slightly but most teach you how to cook traditional dishes such as Pad Thai, coconut red/green curries, mango sticky rice and soups. Personally, we opted for Siam Rice Thai Cookery. They have a good range of dishes to cook and have classes throughout the day.
Relax in a traditional spa
As soon as you step foot in Chiang Mai, you’ll notice the tranquil vibes and relatively quiet streets compared to other large Thai cities. What better way to enjoy this relaxing environment than a traditional Thai spa? It’s one of the best places to visit Chiang Mai after a morning of busy sightseeing.
They’re available to suit all budgets, from basic massage parlours on the street to luxurious full body treatments in garden sanctuaries. We recommend Fah Lanna Spa for their charming and central garden location. If you fancy something different whilst supporting a good cause, check out the Women’s Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners, a spa setup that was set up as a rehabilitation centre. They have great reviews!
Go river kayaking or bamboo rafting
As you can probably tell by now, there’s no shortage of adventurous things to do in Chiang Mai. It’s quite the explorer’s paradise! In addition to challenging hikes and local villages, the jungles in the surrounding area have a number of rivers, creeks, rapids and waterfalls. They naturally attract the adrenaline chasing travellers or those just looking for a cool experience in the jungle. Take your pick from rapid rafting, or tamer kayaking and bamboo raft experiences.
The water activities can be booked by themselves, or they’re included as part of a trekking/adventure tour. If there’s a few activities you want to try, we recommend joining a tour as it can be cheaper and easier to get between the attractions. Check out Siam River Adventures.
Stroll around Nong Buak Haad Public Park
Last but not least is Nong Haad Public Park, a small park in the south-west of Chiang Mai’s old town. The recently renovated park has several walking trails, a small lake, sports courts, an outdoor gym and an array of fountains. It may not be an amazing attraction in itself. However, it’s a beautiful place to relax away from the city.
Fancy a morning or evening walk? Maybe you want to enjoy a street food meal in a nice environment? Nong Buak Haad is the place to go.
Thanks for reading our guide on the best places to visit in Chiang Mai. We hope we inspired you to explore everything that the city has to offer, and you have plenty of Chiang Mai attractions for your coming trip. Whilst the city centre is awesome, we highly encourage you to leave the old town and explore the countryside. The rice fields, national park, mountain temples and forest treks are the places that’ll really leave you in awe of Northern Thailand.
Do you have your own suggestions on some great Chiang Mai attractions? Maybe you have a question about one of the recommendations on our list? Be sure to post a comment below. 😊
By RickyAuthor bio:
An adventurer at heart that loves anything outdoors. Beaches, mountains and amazing scenery is everything I love about travel! I also enjoy home comforts and need a nice place to relax and re-charge after every trip.