Last updated on February 25, 2020
Chiang Mai, Thailand is an endlessly livable city. I loved the year I spent living as an expat and enjoying the culture, food, and history of this northern Thai beauty. I spent a fair bit of my time glued to my computer—I work remotely while traveling, freelance consulting since 2008 doing what is now called being a “digital nomad. But with a year, I explored plenty. There were secret spots I returned to time and again. Some of the spots mentioned here are in all the guidebooks—they’re there for a reason! But other spots are hidden gems known to locals and the expat community (and now you!)
This page shares all of my favorite places, photos, tips, and recommendations when you’re planning the best things to do in Chiang Mai. If you’re thinking of living in Chiang Mai for a few months, or a few years, I also have a wildly popular cost of living breakdown for Thailand, as well as other popular expat spots. I also have a Thailand Travel Guide, which shares everything you should know before you visit.
For this Chiang Mai city guide, it’s far from comprehensive, but rather a guide of hidden gems and things I loved doing while living there. You’ll find: a selection of my favorite vegetarian eats in Chiang Mai; the sights, temples, and markets you shouldn’t miss; the best places to stay; and popular (and ethical) day-trips around Chiang Mai.
5 Secret Places I Love
1. Wat Umong
While there are no shortage of excellent temples to visit in Chiang Mai, Wat Umong is a bit outside the moat, and thus far from the huge crowds you find at most of the city’s most well known temples. Mark this hidden gem on your map, and then head out of town. What makes Wat Umong worth visiting, considering you’ll pass dozens of other temples en route? It’s the unique forest setting for this 14th-century temple, and the tunnels across the property where you’ll find locals praying in front of Buddha altars tucked into alcoves and small caves.
Make an afternoon of it by visiting the Baan Kang Wat Artist Village as well—you can dine here, shop handmade products from indie Thai artists, or even take a workshop. Both of these locations are quite secret, but they are delightful and off-the-beaten path. They are tucked into the base of Doi Suthep mountain and are easily visited together.
2. Huay Tung Tao Lake
If you’re looking for secret spots the locals visit that you don’t know about, then this rates up there as a favorite among Thai families and the Chiang Mai expat community alike. It’s a picturesque setting, with mountains ringing the lake, and it’s one of the coolest spots you’ll find in March/April, before the monsoon season breaks the sweltering heat.
Why visit this hidden gem? Bring along friends or other travelers and plan to relax on a bungalow right over the water.
I am a long-time vegetarian. This section is exclusive in that regard, but several of the places mentioned have delicious meat-eater options as well. And one of the things to love about Thailand is their inclusive attitude about meat substitutes. Several Southeast Asian dishes incorporate tofu and meat into the same dish. Thailand does some mean veggie food, so if you venture into these vegetarian restaurants, you might just change your mind about vegetarian cuisine. In the photos, this is meat substitute that usually takes the form of seitan or textured mushroom. For celiacs — seitan is wheat gluten, and it’s in most of the vegetarian dishes. On the upside for vegetarians, seitan is more meat-like in texture (not flavor) than the Western dishes you find featuring textured tofu! It weirded me out at first to eat meat-like foods — I never liked the taste of meat so I don’t usually order the flavored substitutes — but the Thai dishes are flavorful and delicious.
Most restaurants both large and small easily understand your request for vegetarian food when you say it in Thai. This is a good article teaching how to ask for vegetarian food in Thai.
Taiwanese Veggie: Inside the moat. On Phra Pokklao, almost to Chiang Mai Gate, next to a large yellow Kodak sign.
Only serves lunch (10am-2p) and visit by noon or all of the good dishes are gone! Every single day offers up an array of about eight different dishes, soup is available every day, as is a wide selection of textured fake meats.
Ming Qwan: Inside the moat. North side of Ratchadamnoen, a block up from Wat Prah Sing. Map here.
Small and cozy, this place regularly has local Thais filling the tables as well. Laid out much like the Taiwanese Veggie restaurant, with a similar selection, but her soup is far superior. Ask for a dumpling and noodle soup with dark broth — ranks top three favorite meals in Chiang Mai. The dishes are pre-made for the day, and thus served room temperature (except for the soup), which some people hate, I do not.
Organic Veggie Restaurant: Outside the moat, off of Nimmanhaemin Soi 13, about three stalls back from the Burmese place. Map here.
My niece Ana called this place “hole in the wall” because that is sort of what is looks like, it’s a small shop but they had delicious food of the veg and non-veg variety, and with a tasty mixed rice (as opposed to the plain white rice you see everywhere). Next door is a khao soi stand too, and it is great for the meat eaters! It has all your standard Thai dishes and is ideal for lunch (though we did early dinners there too!).
Chiang Mai Gate: Inside the moat. The South Gate of the city, right on the inside moat road are scattered stalls.
This is a hotspot for local street food eats — that means cheap. Vegetarian eats run about 25 baht here – under 40 baht for a meaty dish. There’s a good hodgepodge of locals and tourists here and it’s a great place to sample a bit of everything Chiang Mai has to offer. Start with a smoothie, grab a meal, top it off with mango sticky rice – all within a few street-food stalls of each other!
Salad Concept and Khun Churn: Outside the moat. Nimmanhaemin Soi 13 & Soi 15 respectively.
The two best Western veggie spots in town and very close to each other; Khun Churn is a 100 baht vegetarian buffet with fresh salads, Thai dishes, and Chiang Mai’s signature dish, khao soi. Salad concept on the other hand is has a huge array of salad toppings, lettuces, and dressings for the ultimate salad if you’re craving a completely fresh and meat-optional meal!
Pun Pun: Outside the moat and inside Wat Suan Dok off of the West side of the moat. Map here.
Pun Pun expanded and now has two locations, the one inside the Wat is very healthy versions of the major Thai dishes, while the one near Kad Suan Kaw mall is more fusion food and has a decidedly more Western (and pricier menu).
5 Best Temples to Visit
Plan on dedicating at least a day to exploring the temples around Chiang Mai. This region of Thailand has the densest concentration of wats in the entire country — there’s a lot to see. Rent a bike from any of the local vendors in the backpacker area of town (Northwest corner inside the moat). Then explore Chiang Mai by winding your bike through the narrow lanes and back alleys and into all the nooks and crannies holding temples, statues, buddhas, dragons, and more. There are a lot of Wats. Pick a few, wake up early, and visit before it gets too hot and crowded. My four favorites, listed here, are all must-visits and have unique aspects that make them distinct among the city’s many options.
Chedi Luang: Inside the moat. Corner of Phra Pokklao & Ratchamanka.
Another popular wat (and for good reason) it’s pretty and quiet and likely nearby any of the popular guesthouses and eating spots you pick in town!
Wat Phra Singh: Inside the moat. Ratchadamnoen & Singharat.
The crowning glory of downtown Chiang Mai and one of the most popular wats in town. Although tourists crowd the lanes around the temple during the day, wake up early and you will likely be the only traveler on the streets watching the monks file out of the temple for dawn alms. (There is a cute coffee shop just across the street to the left, Shong Cafe, very sweet owner!)
Wat Suan Dok: Outside the moat. Suthep Road, just before Nimmanhaemin.
Definitely located on any tourist map in town, explore the pretty white structures and temples before enjoying lunch at Pun Pun, an organic café at the far back of the temple complex.
Doi Suthep: Outside the moat. Must take transportation. Songthaews leave from the CM Zoo on Huay Kaew.
High on the nearest hillside, Wat Doi Suthep has a brilliant gold shining Chedi and expansive views of the sprawling city of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Great for sunrise photographers or anyone in search of early-morning solitude then the Doi Suthep temple is ideal.
On a general note, before jumping into the major sections, since so much of my life revolves around internet—and yours might too!—Black Canyon Coffee has long had the fastest internet speeds in all of Chiang Mai. In recent years, however, there are many other great coffee shops, and even coworking spaces. You can absolutely plan on finding reliable internet in Chiang Mai.
5 Best Places to Stay
Various members of the expat family living here in Chiang Mai have used these hotels and guesthouses – here’s the crème of the crop that we use again and again when we’re passing through rather than living here (looking for expat options or just more of a selection? This link covers all the long-term accommodation in Chiang Mai!).
9 Hostel: Inside the moat. 3/1-2 Rajchapakinai Rd. Soi 1.
Right in the backpacker area of town this is well-appointed, a budget option, includes wifi, and is convenient if you’re only in town for a couple of days, want good proximity to everything, and don’t mind a lot of other travelers!
Sabai Hostel: Inside the moat. 189/1 Rachamankha Rd.
This area of the moat is a tad less touristy than the northeast corner, so this makes a fun base from which to explore. This is the part of Old City where I lived for about a year total.
Na Inn: Inside the moat. 136/7 Ratchaphakhinai Rd. Near Moon Muang Soi 4.
The staff are quite friendly and the hotel is well situated and includes wifi and other amenities. It’s right in the center of the old town; all the major Wats in Chiang Mai are walkable from here. Only slightly more expensive than backpacker accommodation but clean and worth it for a more laid-back experience.
De Naga Hotel: Inside the moat. 21 Soi 2 Ratchamanka, Moon Muang Road.
What a gorgeous property and a higher midrange option for a very comfortable and convenient place to stay in town.
Baan Hanibah: Inside the moat. 6 Moonmuang Rd. Soi 8.
This is on the high side of mid-range. It’s a beautiful boutique guesthouse in a good location, very amenable staff and good value for the extras and ambiance you get.
5 Best Hidden Gem Markets
There are a good number of markets in Chiang Mai – a ton. So this is really just a couple, all can be made fun and enjoyable.
Sunday Night Market:
This market proves that you don’t have to “go local” to have a fun experience. It’s touristy as hell, claustrophobically packed with people after 7pm, but a lot of fun and a Sunday Night ritual. Go early (between 5p and 6p) for dinner at the Wats on one end of the walking street; the east-most Wat, (near to Thae Pae Gate), has the best smoked pork in the city according to my roommate. I prefer the vegetarian options at Wat Sum Pow 200 meters further west down the road (find the vegetarian samosa lady and say hi!).
TIP: Go for a back massage and people watch for an entertaining half-hour.
Warorot Market: Outside the moat. Near the Mae Ping River. All songthaews and tuk-tuks will understand!
A huge complex open daily for the bulk of the day (7am – 6pm). Good for a wander and street eats. Also a great spot if you need to replace some clothes in your backpack or do a bit of shopping for other–they have the fun, the useful, and the mundane.
5 Places to Have a Good Time
Bully Sing-Along Karaoke: Inside the moat. Kad Suan Kaew Shopping Complex.
This is my kind of fun, more so that the major dance clubs most weeks. The karaoke bar is hard to find and on the top floor, at the very back of the shopping mall. The selling point: small themed and personal karaoke rooms with an array of ridiculously awesome karaoke videos… a lot of fun if you go with a handful of friends!
Second Floor Bar: Inside the moat. Kitty corner from Zoe in Yellow. On corner of Ratwithi & Ratchaphakhinai.
A really chill spot, very low key with an open-air patio. Free salsa lessons are currently on Thursdays (but seem to move around through the week, so check!). Reasonably priced drinks and one of the few spots serving tasty BeerLao!
UN Irish Pub: Inside the moat. 24-24/1 Ratvithi Road.
I heart the UN Pub – it’s a great spot and popular with just about everyone, but mostly foreigners. Quiz nights on Thursdays are always packed (and surprisingly tough!).
Northgate Jazz: On the inside moat road. Right near the North Gate of Chiang Mai, Sri Phum Road.
Popular with expats and Thais alike because of the open-mic nights and fun vibe, it’s not unusual to see the crowds spilling out on the sidewalk on the busy nights. Reasonably priced drinks and good option. I believe Tuesdays are still the hot night there.
Zoe in Yellow: Inside the moat. 48/4-5 Ratwithi Road
Your quintessential backpacker bar – trendy and surrounded by several other happening bars and dance clubs with fire-dancers and entertainment on busy nights.
5 Best Chiang Mai Day Trips
This is bookable directly through the organization and they will pick you up in Chiang Mai. They offer up day-trips, several days, and even weeklong stays at the nature park. If you’re looking to interact with elephants in Thailand, this is the only place you should consider, they are a conservation center and take in mistreated elephants and offer a safe environment with ethical interactions for tourists!
You’ll see signs for this attraction all over town and you might be inclined to check it out. I am not a huge fan of zoo tourism, but this is the more reputable of the Tiger projects in Thailand. Tiger Temple swears the tigers are not drugged and instead have been trained through behavior modification to play nice with the tourists. This is a fuzzy area on the ethics scale. I am not entirely opposed to it from what I’ve read online and heard from other travelers, but it’s a personal call whether you believe their claims. This post breaks down on the ethical tourism situation in Thailand.
Wonderfully local, these coffee journeys are limited throughout the year to only coffee-harvesting season (roughly November through March). Check the website and if you’re in town for one of the monthly journeys you will never forget the experience. You spend the weekend in a small hill tribe community and Lee, the founder, explains his village’s slow journey toward fair-trade and sustainable coffee growing. He also runs a great coffee shop outside of the downtown area, worth finding!)
5 Best Festivals & Celebrations
The province of Chiang Mai is filled with beautiful celebrations throughout the year. Somewhere near Chiang Mai city, there is some sort of interesting festival taking place every month of the year. I made a habit of visiting everything on the calendar at least once, even the small ones in nearby towns. Some make fun day trips from the city, other festivals—like Songkran and Loy Krathong—take over the entire city of Chiang Mai. Check the calendar and see if you’re in town for any of these fun ones:
Bo Sang Umbrella Festival (January)
This is a small and low-key weekend festival in one of the tiny towns about 15 kilometers outside of Chiang Mai. If you’re in town it’s worth spending half a day or so wandering the streets (pick up an umbrella as a souvenir) and then head back to town. (Directions and specifics included in the post).
Chiang Mai is nicknamed the “Rose of the North” and never is the name more apt than during the annual Flower Festival which features parades, a beauty pageant, plenty of street foods, and the famous orchids from this region.
Take part in the world’s largest water fight; the streets of the city are drenched during this week of festivities as the young and the old take part in the revelry, as well as the more spiritual side of the celebrations with the cleansing of Buddhas and other ceremonies.
Loi Krathong Lantern Festival (November)
I timed my trip back to Chiang Mai with my niece so that we could both experience this week of festivities. The visual images are striking and it’s like a beautiful and spiritual evening as locals and foreigners light thin lanterns and send them floating into the sky, and also make krathongs and release them into the river.
There is a ton to do in and around Chiang Mai. This is a mere start of the handful of things you can do inside the city and on a short visit. There are certainly more comprehensive lists, but this is what I loved during my year+ living in Chiang Mai both solo, and I moved back to the city with my 11-year-old niece in tow, so this post includes several spots that work great for kids too.
If you’re traveling throughout Thailand, don’t forget to check out my Best of Guide for Thailand too.