The laid-back city of Chiang Mai is an endearing mix of old and new: the moated, walled old quarter shelters ancient temples, while a traveller-friendly scene caters to everybody from culture vultures to the party set. Many visitors decide to call the city home for as long as possible during their trip, but if you’ve only got one day, here’s how to make the most of it.
Jump start your day with a cup of coffee brewed with local, direct-trade beans at Akha Ama, one of the Chiang Mai’s best cafes.
As you’re already inside Chiang Mai’s ancient walled city, you’re only a short walk from some of the city’s highlights such as the exquisite 19th-century wall paintings at Wat Phra Singh, the graceful wooden temple at Wat Phan Tao and the impressive ruins at Wat Chedi Luang.
From here, take one of Chiang Mai’s emblematic and ubiquitous rot daang (red pickups that also function as taxis) to Talat Warorot, the city’s central market, where in addition to food you’ll also find the type of workday Thai items (read: quirky souvenirs) that have long disappeared from the country’s malls and department stores. Alternatively, if it’s a Friday, consider visiting the open-air Ban Haw Friday Market, which unfolds in the eponymous neighbourhood, uniting Muslim, Shan and hilltribe vendors selling unique produce from the area’s hills.
Come midday, it’s time for lunch, which in Chiang Mai, should mean at least one bowl of kôw soy, a legendary local dish of wheat noodles in a rich curry broth. We recommend going straight to the source, Chiang Mai’s predominately Muslim Ban Haw neighbourhood, from where kôw soy allegedly originated, and where you’ll find longstanding restaurants Khao-Soi Islam and Khao Soy Fueng Fah.
Post-lunch, you can choose one of two routes. The active option is to hire a motorycle and drive the windy, mountainous 15km to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the mountaintop Buddhist temple that is arguably Chiang Mai’s most significant – and impressive – religious pilgrimage. Alternatively, for those who prefer to pursue a more passive route, consider a Thai-style massage at the Vocational Training Center of the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution.
Chiang Mai’s (relatively) cool evenings are undoubtedly the reason for its many outdoor markets. Open every evening is the expansive and largely open-air Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, where you can stock up on everything from tourist tat to local handicrafts. If you’re in Chiang Mai on a Saturday, consider the art-focussed Saturday Walking Street, or on Sundays, the atmospheric Sunday Walking Street, which takes place in the centre of the walled city.
Lunch was a casual affair, so for dinner, it’s time to go upscale. For northern Thai specialities in a pleasant setting, you can’t go wrong with homely Heuan Phen or the even classier Ruen Tamarind, at Tamarind Village. After dinner, head to buzzy Th Nimmanhaemin, where locals go to socialise, and reward yourself with an ice-cold tipple at a popular watering hole such as Beer Republic.