As one of the world’s top tourism destinations, Thailand’s capital city has countless sites all competing for space on your itinerary. Get the most out of your stay, sampling a full spread of Thai experiences with these top things to do in Bangkok.
With hundreds of temples, markets and street food stalls within Bangkok’s lively city limits, exploring the Thai capital in full can be as relentless as its whizzing tuk-tuks and all-hours nightlife. This guide will help you see the city through experiences that highlight its history alongside elements of modern Thai life, from street art that explores Bangkok’s communities to the intricate preparation of centuries-old cuisine.
Bangkok was once a flourishing trade centre, connecting areas of the expansive Siam Kingdom through its series of canals – or khlongs – throughout the Chao Phraya River Delta. Today, these narrow waterways of Thonburi still evoke the city’s old soul, lined as they are with floating wooden shopfronts, weathered teak homes and quiet temples. You can hire a colourful long-tail boat from any of the major tourist piers, like Tha Tien, or go hassle-free with a tour that picks you up right from your hotel. Pandan Tours are recommended, and cost around 500THB (£13) an hour for a boat rental, or 2,000THB (£53) per person for a day-long tour.
Learn how to meditate at the country's first Buddhism school
The Land of Smiles didn’t earn its moniker without a bit of soul-searching. Thailand’s Buddhist tradition is grounded in Vipassana meditation, a practice centred on mindfulness and gratitude. There are centres throughout the city that offer everything from introductory classes to multi-week silent retreats, or to just test the waters you could check out the International Buddhist Meditation Centre at Wat Mahathat, right near the Grand Palace. Three free guided meditation classes are held daily from 7am to 10am, 1pm to 4pm and 6pm to 8pm, assisted by English-speaking monks.
Dine at Jay Fai, the world's only Michelin-star street cart
Food Stand, Thai
The so-called ‘Queen of Thai street food’ runs the city’s only Michelin-star street cart, serving up fiery portions of noodles and curries from her two woks. Known locally as Jay Fai – or Sister Mole, a nod to her quirky style and the ski goggles she wears for eye protection – her shopfront is famous for its huge crab omelettes, earning her a spot on the recent Netflix special Street Food. If seafood is not your thing, there are plenty more savoury takes on Thai staples on the menu, from gravy-laden drunken noodles to spicy glass-noodle salad.
Royal Thai cuisine refers to dishes originally only served in Thailand’s palaces, with its recipes and methods closely guarded for centuries. Preparation starts with the art of choosing the finest, freshest ingredients and combining flavours to achieve a perfect balance and presentation. Long-standing culinary schools like the famous Blue Elephant adhere rigidly to these ancient traditions, passing down the secrets of recipes such as lon tao jiew puu, soy paste with crab and classically prepared massaman beef.
In 2018, the Thai government commissioned 10 street artists to design murals throughout the Phra Nakhon neighbourhood. Beginning at the Pipit Banglamphu Museum, you can follow a self-guided walking or bicycle tour through Bangkok’s Old Town. The murals on the route reflect the spirit of the neighbourhood’s unique communities, depicting artists’ interpretations of local crafts, traditions and foods. You can also take a break from the city heat at the museum itself, which highlights the area’s long history of mixed cultures, music, silver and goldsmithing and unique crafts like banana stalk carving.
This classic portrait studio was once the most distinguished in Thailand, photographing prominent Thai politicians and celebrities over the last century. The shop’s three floors evoke another era altogether – there’s a vintage changing room, a salon with classic dress uniforms and an opulent Rococo-style portrait studio. Join photographer Chaya Jitrakorn’s elite clientele by having your photo taken the old-fashioned way and touched up by hand using traditional oil-painting techniques.
The chefs at Wattana Panich have been cooking the same pot of soup for the last 60 years and over three generations. This family-run kitchen in Ekkamai is famous for its beef stew, and they are constantly topping up the enormous cauldron with fresh ingredients that are absorbed into the broth, ever deepening the flavour. The exact recipe is a prized family secret. Each morning, 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of fresh beef is added straight to the pot and cooked twice, then served with a selection of menu items.
This century-old market along the Chao Phraya features enormous collections of amulets with images of the Buddha, enlightened monks, Thai kings and more. In Thai Buddhist tradition, amulets are blessed by monks to guard against bad fortune or bring good luck. The most powerful ones are made with additions like ash from a sacred temple, or hair from a famous monk, to bolster their protective powers. Replicas fetch a few dozen baht and are considered good enough for garnering a daily dose of good fortune. But throughout the market there are prized pieces that attract the attention of dedicated collectors, who conduct their own appraisals and argue over the backstories and histories of individual amulets.
Thailand’s national sport is hugely popular in the capital. Throughout the city there are dozens of stadiums and training facilities, but for the novice there is no better starting point than Fight Night at MBK. It’s set up on the shopping centre’s ground floor, where a mix of Thai and international boxers face off across five rounds of fighting, complete with English commentary, ring girls and live music. Alternatively, level up and check out the city’s elite competitors duelling at venues like the brand-new Lumpinee Boxing Stadium or the long-standing Rajadamnern Boxing Stadium.
Bang Krachao is an artificial island formed by the canal systems of the Chao Phraya River, a quiet jungle oasis contained within the booming energy of Bangkok. From Klong Toey Pier, grab a long-tail boat to the island and hire a bicycle for the day. The whole island is protected as a heritage site, dotted only with traditional wooden houses and stilted shops among the thick, tropical vegetation. Bike paths wind through the terrain, leading to several small temples, a local floating market and botanical gardens. Just be on the lookout for the occasional lizard crossing the road!
This famous noodle dish has a unique – and surprisingly recent – history. Developed by the country’s prime minister after World War II in response to the high cost of rice production, its creation also served to unite the country’s provinces with a single national dish. Thipsamai in Bangkok’s Old City opened in the 1950s as one of the country’s first pad thai stalls, and adheres to the same family recipe today. Using soft sen chan noodles, a secret prawn-oil recipe and expertly thin egg wrap, Thipsamai whips up its signature dish over searing hot charcoal with a routine that takes its resident chefs more than three months to learn. The effort recently earned the local haunt a Bib Gourmand Award for exceptionally good food at a modest price.
Sepak takraw is one of Thailand’s oldest and most popular sports, believed to have originated from ancient Chinese military exercises. Today’s game is like a blend of volleyball and kickboxing, played with a woven rattan ball on modified badminton courts – and the fiercest showdowns take place at Lumpini Park. Take an evening break from Bangkok’s concrete streets and head to the park’s central playgrounds to catch the gravity-defying action of the city’s top competitors.
Thailand’s katoeys are transgender performers long embraced by Thai society and often associated with tidings of good fortune. These socialites are celebrated in the city’s cabaret culture with huge, extravagant shows that cycle between Hollywood glitz and glam, disco diva performances and even comedy skits. Calypso Cabaret at Asiatique is the longest-running show in town, operating since 1988, while the Playhouse Magical Cabaret is known for its broad set of shows that includes concerts, Thai cultural dancers, classical ballet and even hip-hop performers. Not in the mood for a full show? Check out Maggie Choo’s in Silom for katoey karaoke throughout the week.
At 310 metres (1,017 feet) high, this transparent glass skydeck extends over the edge of the King Power Mahanakhon building – Thailand’s tallest building – with uninterrupted views of Bangkok in every direction. The rooftop features Thailand’s newly crowned highest bar, with a full menu of champagne, spirits, wines and beers available in case you need a little liquid courage before stepping out over the edge. There’s also an indoor observation deck and the building’s highest point, The Peak, which offers full 360-degree panoramic views over the massive capital city.
Phuang Malai are floral garlands intricately woven in different styles, serving as a symbol of respect, reverence or luck in Thai culture. They’re used for good fortune and are tied to taxis and boats, draped over the shoulder of athletes and politicians and displayed in Thai households countrywide. At the huge 24-hour flower market Pak Khlong Talat, thousands of these garlands are handmade daily by skilled artisans. You can wander on your own at any hour – midnight is a good time, to see the arrival of millions of fresh flowers – or learn how to identify and prepare your own. Check out The Market Experience by Expique for its traditional tour and garland-making class.
Thailand’s cuisine is famously spicy, but its menus also offer decadently sweet dessert options, beautifully prepared and infused with local flavours. Staples like mango sticky rice are available at any street market or Thai restaurant, and different communities feature their own unique fare, like the Portuguese-inspired Kudeejeen cupcake from Bangkok’s Old City. But don’t miss treating yourself to the full spread of traditional Thai sweets. Baan Dok Pud in Lad Phrao has a gorgeous – and air-conditioned – space surrounded by a quiet koi pond, and serves colourful dessert sets afternoon tea-style. Try the bua loy, glutinous rice balls filled with mung bean paste drenched in coconut milk, or the popular tong yip, flower-shaped egg yolk tarts. Some Thai desserts are even believed to bring good luck, so there’s no need for sweetness in moderation.
Sample Thailand's up-and-coming craft beers at Golden Coins Taproom
Bar, Craft Ale Bar, Beer
Thai laws have long been difficult for home-brewers to navigate, favouring the behemoth national beer brands like Singha and Chang. But some craft patrons are driving a burgeoning local beer scene in the city, blending Thai flavours and regional ingredients to serve up locally inspired brews. Golden Coins Taproom is an Ekkamai pub that brews its crafts in Vietnam and then imports them to Bangkok, making use of a handy loophole in the legal code. There are 12 taps and a range of bottled beers, from stouts to pale ales and IPAs, as well as a great menu of pub grub if you’re craving comfort food from home.
Thai culture and history are heavily rooted in ancient superstitions, and there are dozens of haunted sites throughout the city. In the 1950s, the Thai government supported the construction of the Erawan Shrine to dispel ghosts believed to be haunting the central area of Bangkok. Today, local lore dictates that spirits continue to haunt the site, but can be tempted into delivering miracles with a little incentive. You can lay down offerings like flower garlands, asking your wish to be fulfilled and even hire traditional dancers to perform the ram kae bon, a classical dance thanking the gods.
Float in a restorative healing pod at Bangkok Float
Thailand’s wellness tradition has forged full-speed into the 21st century. At Bangkok Float, floaters are immersed in magnesium-infused saltwater kept exactly at room temperature, fooling your body into thinking it’s hovering in mid-air. The experience is designed for floaters to achieve the deep delta-wave state of mind of Buddhist monks more easily than through traditional meditation, while reportedly resetting the body’s hormonal and metabolic balance, improving immunity and generating high levels of endorphins.