Thailand’s “second city” is a long standing favorite with digital nomads who love it for its cheap rent, fast broadband, and close proximity to lush, green nature. Chiang Mai doesn’t feel like a city; it maintains a small town vibe, with low-level buildings and the friendliest people in the country. Yet it is surprisingly vast, stretching far and wide on both banks on the Ping River; the city limits are only confined by the mountains and jungle that surround it.
Founded in 1296, Chiang Mai is a place where ancient meets modern, home to over 300 Buddhist temples (known as Wat in Thai), many of which were built in the 13th and 14th centuries. You quite literally can’t turn a corner without running into an antique red brick structure or two, but the city is also very forward-thinking, packed full of coworking spaces, souped-up gyms, and more vegan cafes than anywhere else in the country.
While the city is accommodating to foreigners, it hasn’t lost an ounce of its character, and you certainly couldn’t call it globalized. The former capital city of the kingdom of Lan Na (Country of a Million Rice Fields) is incredibly proud of its history and traditions, still maintaining its own language as well as a cultural heritage that sets it apart from the rest of Thailand.
The grid of Old City streets used to be a non-stop party destination, but the pandemic understandably put the brakes on that, with many venues shutting down. There’s still nightlife to be found, just less around the clock these days. It remains a wildly sociable hub and it’s easy to meet fellow nomads, who host all sorts of meet-ups from chess clubs to hiking groups. It’s also the perfect place to base yourself while you explore neighboring Pai, Chiang Rai, Lampang, and Chiang Dao on the weekends.
As a new arrival, you’ll want to be near the action so we’ve selected four central neighborhoods to detail. Long-term residents sometimes opt to move out to the ‘burbs where the jungle meets town, such as Mae Rim in the north or Hang Dong in the south, but we recommend starting in one of these inner districts, where you’ll be kept busy as you settle in.
As Chiang Mai means ‘new city’ in Lanna dialect, it’s enjoyably ironic that its first incarnation, a four-walled, small but mighty metropolis, is now known as the Old City. Demarcated by a moat, four gates, and some surviving stretches of wall, the old city is the primary destination for pilgrims and tourists alike. The streets offer a high density of excellent cafes and envelop over 50 temples, so you’ll no doubt see an orange-robed monk walking the streets within minutes of your arrival.
It’s a great place to live for party animals and health fanatics alike, and getting around is completely manageable by foot or on the back of a bicycle if you aren’t tempted to join the legions and hire a motorbike or moped. On weekdays you’ll no doubt be looking for good places to work and the old city is the top location for these spots, with three excellent coworking spaces. Alt Chiang Mai is a coworking and co-living space that hosts great events including talks, workshops, yoga, and ice bath mornings, and there are two Punspace coworking sites—one near Tha Phae Gate and another in the north of the old city.
If you prefer to work in cafes, you’re in the right place here too. Cafe de Thaan Aoan has a fantastic Thai menu, lovely hosts, solid WiFi, air conditioning, and plenty of outlets to go around. Into the Woods also has the hallowed three (WiFi, AC, and outlets) as well as ideally-sized tables and chairs that make for a comfortable working environment and excellent homemade cakes. A tiny gem, tucked away on a side alley is My Secret Cafe in Town, which has less in the way of electricity sockets but the cool staff and the delicious noodle salad make up for it.
Enjoy your downtime at one of the world-class sessions at Yoga in the Park, open most days in Nong Buak Haad Public Park, or take a massage at Wat Pan Whaen, where the Thai Massage is known amongst locals to be the best (read: most intense) and have a stroll around Wat Phantao, Wat Phra Sing and Wat Chedi Luang, three of the most stunning in the area.
You’ll be truly spoiled for choice food-wise. Vegans love Rad Rabbit Vegan Pizza, Vegan Society, and Good Souls. Brunch fans know Sunray’s Breakfast & Brunch is the place to be. For a fancy evening meal check out The House by Ginger, whose Thai dishes are only matched by Chef Tao’s Thai Cuisine, and for the leafiest environment in the old town, take your coffee and cake break at Fern Forest Cafe. Khunkae's Juice Bar has a lengthy menu of freshly-pressed juices to cure all ailments. Chai Restaurant (ไชย เรสเตอรอง on GoogleMaps) is the most gorgeous, retro spot in town but you’d never know it’s there unless you walk past it.
While nightlife is not what it once was, there’s a great scene at North Gate Jazz Co-op, where the owners/musicians play alongside internationally booked artists. Wine lovers will enjoy CRU 2nd floor wine bar and cocktail fans should get to Nophaburi Bar, which gives a Thai twist to classic cocktails. The highlight of the week is walking the Sunday night market, which spreads across the length of Rachadamnoen Road and sells food, arts, crafts, and clothes.
If you like your housing ultra-modern, you’re probably best off outside of the old city, in the apartment blocks of the surrounding neighborhoods. Nimman (Nimmanheim on the map) is known for its condo life and is Suthep’s liveliest area, full of cafes, restaurants, boutiques, malls, and a cinema. Nimman is a popular filming location for many east Asian movies, so was booming with young Chinese tourists before the pandemic, but now the buildings are emptier and you’ll likely find a great deal on monthly rentals—particularly if you use an agent such as Perfect Homes Chiang Mai, who offer three-month, six-month and 12-month contracts and come at a much better price than using Airbnb. Check for availability at the sought-after LIV @ Nimman and The Nimmana complexes, as while most condos come with gyms and swimming pools, these two are top of the lot.
Nimman is a great place to get social and creative—start by checking out what’s on at Free Bird Cafe, a vegan community hub with an eco-market, run completely non-profit as all proceeds go to their charity that supports Burmese refugees. There are regular talks, arts and crafts, and events that celebrate local Lanna culture here, and it’s a great place to meet people. The small mall One Nimman is another venue to check out, often hosting salsa dancing, live music events, and fun markets.
Whether living in Nimman or just passing through, you’ll want to work at Yellow Coworking Space, which is the biggest and best in all of Thailand. You’re completely spoiled for choice, food-wise in Nimman too, but don’t miss Kao Soy Nimman for Michelin star noodles, Why Not Italian for the best spaghetti in town, and Manifreshto for all-day brunch. This area also has great spots like the Heart N Soul Massage’s steam room or the Bully Bowl bowling alley. Make sure you don’t miss the twice-weekly sound baths at Chiang Mai Holistic and occasional movie nights at Alphabet City.
If the bright lights of Nimman are a bit too hectic, base yourself in the wider district, Suthep which is home to some of the most spiritual and peaceful sights in the city. There’s top-notch apartments at One Plus Condominium and Casa Condo, but with less of the hubbub of Nimman. Or for community vibes, get in touch Hub53, whose super reasonably priced rooms come with the use of their lovely workspace included.
Suthep is also full of lush natural sites to visit. Walk the Monk’s Trail up to Wat Suthep, a pilgrimage site that offers incredible views of the city below. Doi Suthep-Pui National Park is the place to go for hiking, and be sure to track down Huay Kaew Waterfall. If hiking isn’t your thing, get some fresh air at Angkaew Reservoir, which is surrounded by cute kiosks for coffee. Additionally, Suthep is home to some of the oldest and most impressive temples in town; take a tour of Wat Umong, visit Wat Suan Dok, Wat Lok Moli. Maybe not all on the same day, lest you get hit with temple fatigue. And as with most corners of Chiang Mai, Suthep has some excellent cafes, including Lamour Cafe and the super scenic Fernpresso at Lake.
This large district north of the Old City is home to Chiang Mai University and much of the city’s student population has a buzzy, vibrant feel while having an unmistakable spaciousness. Chang Phueak stretches out to the northwest and encompasses a large chunk of jungle and hillside, as well as the city below, so it’s a great neighborhood for living in close proximity to nature, offering a mix of charming older houses as well as a solid range of new condo buildings. There is a motorway running through the middle of this neighborhood, so you do have to be careful when crossing.
There’s so much to do in Chang Phueak which is full of cultural institutions for the museum lovers, including Chiang Mai National Museum, Saban-Nga Textile Museum, and the Highland People Discovery Museum—an awesome introduction to the lives of the diverse hill tribes who populate the north of Thailand. One of the oldest Lanna temples is also in this neighborhood, Wat Jod Yet, which is unique due to its Indian-influenced architectural style. Buy your flowers and plants at the enjoyably huge Kham Thiang Garden Market.
There are a couple of solid coworking spaces in the area; the large, open-plan space CAMP (Creative and Meeting Place) which you’ll find on the top floor of Maya Mall, and the more intimate but well-equipped One Workspace, closer to the old city. If you like to work in cafes, The Baristro x Ping River Cafe is a real treat: a cool modernist house conversion on the banks of the river as the name suggests, serving some of the best coffee in the city. Early Owls cafe is another beauty but less conducive for working, just downright pretty with a great menu.
The best gym and swimming pools in Chiang Mai are in this district. GoGym is a playground for health nuts, offering classes alongside their top-notch equipment— and the huge space is surprisingly cheap to use. Centre of the Universe has a 25-meter long swimming pool and two children’s pools so is a great place for a swim and family day out, while Looper is a more classy and child-free spot with a swimming pool, hot onsen pool, and ice bath alongside their cafe.
There are so many food spots to choose from in Chang Phueak but be sure to check out the exceptionally cute Cafe de Oasis, Salsa Kitchen for the best Mexican food in Thailand (this is no exaggeration), Food 4 Thought’s tasty healthy menu, Corner Bistro & Burrito Squad, and Lucky's Vietnamese Restaurant. Plus vegan favorites Kinphak cafe and Ama Vegan Kitchen (and cooking school) serve much-loved plant-based menus.
The seemingly busiest corner of Chiang Mai, Chang Moi’s thin winding streets sit to the east of the old city walls and moat. The former trade and merchant quarter stretches across both sides of the Ping River and consequently is still home to some of the city’s biggest markets as well as the bustling, vibrant Chinatown. It’s a great place to live for city dwellers who love a real city feel and the convenience of having great restaurants and cafes on your doorstep.
Coworking spaces are thin on the ground here but it’s so close to the old city, it’s not a massive inconvenience. Cafe' Felecius is a good place to get some work done, with comfortable tables and charging ports, as is Gateway Coffee Roaster where the coffee is not to be missed. There are a lot of varied, fun activities to do in Chang Moi; visiting Mueang Mai Market for your groceries is a necessity, kayaking up the River Ping from the boathouse at Wat Fa Ham is a Chiang Mai highlight, as is catching live music at super cool Thapae East which specializes in blues and soul. You can go for high tea at surprisingly swanky Vieng Joom On Tea House which is virtually hidden behind its tea shop exterior, or go shopping along Chang Moi Road—the road that leads to Chinatown, and of course, wandering and discovering Chinatown’s stores and shrines Kuan U Shrine and Pung Thao Kong.
Food options and nightlife are varied and abundant here, with options to keep you well-fed and entertained at any time of the day. Start with brunch at chic Mitte Mitte Cafe, where the eggs menu is unbeatable. Vegan brunch at Asa Vegan Kitchen and Studio is outstanding, especially the vegan french toast and pancakes. Take lunch at Vegan Heaven, one of the best restaurants in the city whether you’re plant-based or not, Nan’s massaman curry is second to none. For a nice evening check out Maadae Slow Fish Kitchen, The Swan Burmese, Spices Indian, or Barefoot Restaurant, followed by drinks at often boisterous The Riverside Bar. The Kasem beef noodle shop is tucked away on one-way street Sithiwongse Road but is worth the hunt.