My Best of Bangkok Itinerary
Ah, Bangkok. The rush of a tuk-tuk whirling past you, the lip-smacking goodness of your first sizzling bowl of street noodles, the dazzling lights that reflect off of temples by day and rooftop bars by night.
Most visitors to the city seem to either adore or abhor it. To me, even after half a dozen visits it’s equal parts overwhelming and charming. The city has a lot happening beneath the surface: good, bad, and ugly. But more than anything there’s beauty and adventure (and food!) to be found — you just have to know where to look.
I happen to think the only reason people don’t love Bangkok is because they don’t know it well enough! Hence why, after my latest visit, I became determined to share a Bangkok itinerary and city guide that I wish I had had for my first visit.
What To Do, See, and Eat in Bangkok
An itinerary for one of Asia’s most exciting cities.
We’ll start with the top things to do.
If you have one day in Bangkok…
One of the joys of visiting Bangkok are its impressive Thai temples. From the Grand Palace to the small neighborhood wats, the spirituality of Thailand reverberates from its temple walls. Don’t miss:
- Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew)
- Wat Pho
- Wat Arun
Visit a market
If temples are the serene spirit of Bangkok, markets are its beating heartbeat. Whether it’s a new outfit or a hot meal you’re after, you’ll find it somewhere in Bangkok’s busting marketplaces.
- Chatuchak (also known as JJ) Weekend Market (here’s an in-depth guide)
- Yodpiman Fresh Flower Market (near Wat Pho)
- Or Tor Kor Food Market
- Ratchada Train Market
- Wang Lang Market
Eat some street food
Street food has a bit of a contentious presence in Bangkok at the moment, with city officials requesting a move toward the ban of food served on the streets. The unofficial claim is that it’s a move toward cleanliness and order, but locals and tourist alike agree that street food is a true highlight of being in Bangkok.
Street eats are not only accessible and affordable, but frequently some of the most delicious offerings. Carts, stalls, and stands — it matters not…just wander and eat! One of my longstanding favorite street food sois (or, street) has already been mostly dismantled. Do not despair — eat Bangkok street food while you still can though!
If you’re in a rush to find street food or aren’t having much luck, try these two spots for some targeted street eating:
Sukhumvit Soi 103
Chinatown’s Yaowat Road
Any of the major markets (see above)
Another excellent resource: writer Matt Gross offered up a Google map in the NYT less than a year ago of his favorite spots for Bangkok street food post-ban.
If you have two days in Bangkok…
Visit some more temples.
There are hundreds, so you won’t be short if you take to the streets and give yourself time to enter the temples you see around you. A day trip to nearby Ayutthaya adds even more fascinating and significant temples to the mix, or you can add Wat Saket (Golden Mountain,) Wat Tramit (near Chinatown,) and Wat Benjamabhopit to your list.
Take a river cruise
You can opt either to get around on the Chao Priya River (not a bad idea) for the day, or just hop onto a boat for a few stops for an inexpensive view of the city from the water and a slice of daily Bangkok life.
For a more organized affair, I highly recommend Supanniga Cruises. They have a dinner cruise (with complimentary champagne!) that serves up six authentic courses with the beautiful backdrop of sunset on the river. Though the light is most beautiful just before dinner, there is also an afternoon cruise that serves tea and traditional Thai sweets (yes, please.)
Try a uniquely Thai activity
Some of my best memories in Thailand are of some of the activities or classes I sought out to try. Though many can be found throughout the country, Bangkok is as good a place as any to jump in. Check out whatever interests you most.
- Thai cooking class: making your own Thai meal with the proper Thai ingredients is a game-changing experience! I recommend one that also visits a local market, like Sompong Thai Cooking School.
- Muay Thai: aka Thai kickboxing. Watch a match or take a class! I absolutely loved my class at Krudam Gym.
- Thai massage: Admittedly you do want to be careful with the choice of establishment (I’ve wandered into places that offer services other than massage…) when you’re going the budget route. And I recommend you do! There are hundreds of excellent, reputable massage spots that offer a respite from a long day of walking, touring, or traveling for less than $10. (I recommend Siam Breeze in Khlong Toei if you want to be extra sure!)
See Bangkok at night
- Visit a rooftop bar
My favorites are the Sky Bar at Lebua at State Tower (which you may recognize from The Hangover 2) and Vertigo at the Banyan Tree Bangkok. I still think these are some of the best places to visit in Bangkok at night, if nothing else for the views and the city lights.
- Explore the seedy streets.
While I’m not necessarily recommending you seek out the sketchier side of Bangkok, I’ll admit I was curious. I stumbled upon Soi Cowboy (between Sukhumvit Soi 21 and 23) and while I was quite uncomfortable there, it was interesting to see some of what Bangkok is known for (go-go bars, etc.) out in the open. Other streets or bars will have very young Thai women or ladyboys soliciting business out front. And while we certainly shouldn’t gawk at it, it is the reality of what you may see and that’s why I’m addressing it.
Khao San Road is the famous backpacker area that I’ve tended to avoid at all costs, but many travelers really enjoy the scene and if it’s a lively night out, a classic pair of elephant pants (which I’ll admit, I quite enjoy,) or a couple of Thailand travel cliches you’re after, you’re likely to find it there.
If you have three days in Bangkok (or more…)
See something off-the-beaten-path.
- Go cycling and exploring on the island of Bang Kachao (‘The Green Lung.’)
This is one of my favorite experiences I’ve ever had in the city. Once you’ve seen the main sights, if you’re not opposed to biking I would check out this lesser known area. The nature and lack of tourists alone make it a worthy addition to your itinerary. I hired my bike from a Bangkok local tour company called Spice Roads, and they also do guided tours.
While there, try to stop in at:
- Bang Nam Pheung floating market
- Sri Nakhon Khuean Khan Park (take a break from cycling here.)
- A local restaurant that isn’t touristy (bonus points if served near or above someone’s home.)
- See the artist village of Baan Silipan
You can see a charming older village on the river, an art gallery, traditional Thai crafts, Thai puppet shows, and more at this beautiful spot in the Phasi Charoen district.
Take a day trip.
Here are some of my favorite day trips from Bangkok:
- The former Thai capital was destroyed by the Burmese in the 18th century, but the remains of the historic city and its many temples. I had heard mixed things about prioritizing a visit, but when I finally made it there I wished I had gone sooner. Make sure to seek out some of the lesser visited temples.
- Floating markets
- Damnoen Saduak is the most famous one, and hence the most crowded. I prefer Amphawa (afternoons and evenings only.) Both are about 1.5 hours driving from Bangkok, and you will find no shortage of drivers to take you there (negotiate price in advance!)
Explore a new neighborhood.
More of a choose-your-own-adventure approach, I love choosing a neighborhood in any city to explore for a day. Here are a few that are particularly worth checking out in Bangkok:
Get to any of the markets, temples, or activities you didn’t get to in your first few days.
What To Eat in Bangkok
You can’t go too wrong with food in Thailand. Eating is perhaps the best part of being in Thailand. Regional foods are going to vary, but here are a few tried-and-true favorite eats to get you started on your Thai culinary adventures.
- Mango sticky rice – insane dessert
- Pad see ew – delicious noodle dish
- Khao mun gai – chicken with rice
- Boat noodles – a popular noodle soup
- Som tam – papaya salad
- Pad Thai – the classic Thai dish
- Tiny coconut pancakes – just say yes
- Khao soi – coconut curry soup
Keep in mind that if you ask for spicy, “Thai spicy” is a whole other level of heat. Best to start with asking for mild (which most cooks are used to adjusting for Western palates) and build up your spiciness level from there.
Need more? Mark Wiens of Migrationology has been my go-to for Bangkok food recommendations since day one.
Where to Stay in Bangkok
I’ve been lucky enough to have a range of experiences staying at a variety of hotels, guesthouses, and hostels in Bangkok.
Here are the favorites I’ve enjoyed the most:
- The Athenee Bangkok (Luxury) << This is my absolute favorite hotel in Bangkok, but it’s more of a splurge.
- Lebua at State Tower (Middle) << Incredible value, huge rooms. Famous rooftop bar.
- House 23 Guesthouse (Budget) << A clean, well-located option if you’re looking for a cheaper, smaller guesthouse.
- Chan Cha La 99 (Hostel) << Nice spot for a solo traveler/backpacker – not in Khao San Road!
And I’ve got my eye on Hotel 103 Bed and Brews or Aster 9 (beautiful spaces + high praise!) for my next stay.
Other Bangkok Tips:
- Embrace the Skytrain! This is the easiest way to get around the city, especially when there is heavy traffic. (And there’s always heavy traffic.) The routes aren’t always the most convenient, and it’s tempting to just hail a tuk tuk or one of those cute pink cabs, but you’ll often get there quicker and the clean, fast, and easy Skytrain.
- Beware of scams. Don’t let anyone tell you the Grand Palace is closed…they want to take you to their gem shop. On that note, don’t take any super discounted or free tuk-tuk or taxi rides. Make sure your taxi driver turns the meter on, or that you’ve agreed on a price for your tuk-tuk journey before you start driving. Take my word for it!
- Look out for spirit houses. You may notice as you travel in Thailand that many homes and businesses have a tiny house, often elevated, out front. The small structures often have offerings like food or drink near them as well.
Ghosts and spirits are embedded in Thai beliefs, and the spirits houses are thought to provide shelter to friendly spirits (and appease the bad ones.) You’ll usually find them placed in corners, and once you know them you’ll begin to see them everywhere!
- Dress conservatively for temple visits. Both men and women will want to cover their shoulders and knees out of respect. Although strictness varies from wat to wat, you don’t want to be stuck not being able to enter for lack of proper dress. It can be especially difficult to remember during the super hot Bangkok days, so bringing a shawl or scarf along with you can be the easiest thing.
- The city’s full official name is… “Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit.” << the world’s longest!
Tip for my SF based travelers: I’ve taken several different routes for the long haul flight to BKK from SFO…connecting in Tokyo, even in Dubai. On this last trip I connected through Guangzhou (CAN) which had two benefits — one, you can get 14.5 hours of flight time in on your first flight, leaving less than three hours to Bangkok once you complete the first leg (as opposed to 10 and then another 9.) You can also plan a short stop in China without dealing with the visa process for Americans, using their 72 hour transit visa (helloooo dim sum!)
I know that most of you planning a trip want a quick overview of names of places or things to book. I get it — I’m the same way when researching a trip!
But I still hold onto the why in everything I write, and I want these itineraries to be no exception.
So here’s a quick note as to why you should experience Bangkok…
It’s no surprise that being in Bangkok for the first time feels a bit like taking a bite of Thai food for the first time. As an American traveler landing in Asia, the sound of “sawasdee kha” feels different in the ears. The sight of low light bouncing off the golden rooftop of a temple, or bright light illuminating a street crowded with power lines overhead… it’s all a bit, well, foreign. Flavors, sights, sounds, and smells that are unique just to this place; there’s no choice but to be inundated by new experiences here.
And that first bite is likely going to be too something…too sweet, too sour, too spicy. It shocks the system for a second, and you’re not sure what you feel. But as you relax into it, take a second or third bite, and breathe…that initial shock of newness starts to slightly wear off and you’re left with what feels something like the sweet scent of lemongrass or the smooth balance of a Thai tea.
Suddenly you realize that while again and again you may feel or taste or hear something like it’s the first time (Bangkok has a way of continuing to challenge you,) there’s a comfort and calm underneath the unfamiliarity that lingers. There’s a knowing smile where you expected shock. And as you come to know Bangkok, to know Thailand…you leave less and less with daze or awe and sit more and more in that calm.
That transformation is one that stays with you.
Disclosure: This latest trip to Bangkok was made possible by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and China Southern Airlines. I also have several trips to Bangkok under my belt that were paid for in full on my dime, and as always, all opinions are completely my own.
Bangkok too loud for you? Check out this story I wrote about Nan and why it’s worth it to see the quieter side of Thailand.
:: save it for later ::
I love Bangkok! I can’t wait to go back. This is an awesome guide – need to check out the flower market next time. I also love wandering to see what street foods I come across. It’s the best!!