One day in Bangkok Old City is definitely not enough time to discover the historic heart of the Thai capital on Rattanakosin Island, home to the glittering pagodas and gilded spires of the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Pho.
With only one day in Bangkok Old City you’ll be hard pressed to see everything and will need to prioritise, so content yourself with being a tourist for a day and taking in the historic centre’s most significant sights. You can explore more off the beaten track destinations next time, on a longer stay.
Surrounded by a narrow moat and once crisscrossed by numerous canals (most now filled), with the Chao Phraya River snaking around the western side, Bangkok’s Old City is essentially an island – Rattanakosin Island, the site of the capital of the Rattanakosin Kingdom, established in 1782 by King Phutthayotfa Chulalok or Rama I.
Focus your attention on Rattanakosin’s star attractions, which we recommend you not rush through and take your time to appreciate at a relaxed pace. For one, there is so much to absorb that you’ll be overwhelmed if you try to see everything Secondly, despite the majesty and grandeur of it all, there is much beauty to behold in the exquisite attention to detail of the pagoda architects and artists.
For instance, Wat Arun is utterly enchanting when admired from across the river, especially when it’s illuminated at night. But when you visit, get up close and you can see the pretty patterns of the broken Chinese porcelain and coloured glass mosaics that embellish the temple, each tile different to the next.
Lastly, you’re in the Tropics and even over the Thai ‘winter’ months of December and January, it still gets hot during the day. It’s only after dark and in the early morning when it cools. Wear a hat, slap on sunscreen, take plenty of water and electrolytes, and take your time. Nobody wants heat stroke to ruin a holiday.
And don’t forget that you’re visiting religious places of worship so, just as you would to a church or mosque you’ll need to wear modest, respectful clothes: long loose skirts, cotton trousers and shirts with sleeves are appropriate. Not allowed: tight or revealing clothes, see-through tops, sleeveless shirts, vests, midriff tops, mini skirts, shorts, bike pants, leggings, and ripped jeans.
Here’s our itinerary for how to spend one day in Bangkok Old City.
One Day in Bangkok Old City Itinerary for Discovering the Heart of Historic Bangkok
Where to Stay in Bangkok Old City
With only one day in Bangkok Old City, now part of the Phra Nakhon district, we recommend your stay in the historic heart of the Thai capital be in a lovely little boutique hotel that oozes history.
Check into Chakrabongse Villas on the southwest corner of Rattanakosin Island and you can arrange to arrive like a royal by boat. Funny about that: located on the Chao Phraya River and built by Prince Chakrabongse in 1908, the leafy property is still the home of granddaughter Narisa Chakrabongse, publisher of River Books, who lives in the elegant main house. The atmospheric accommodation is in the traditional teak buildings in the tropical garden, which have shelves filled with books. Bonus: a gorgeous swimming pool. The outstanding Museum of Siam is across the road and Wat Pho, Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the Grand Palace are within walking distance. You can savour the sunset from the riverside bar and watch the illuminated boats cruise by from the waterfront restaurant. Handily, the River Books shop is next door.
Book Chakrabongse Villas with our booking partner Booking.com
1905 Heritage Corner
A ten-minute stroll away, the lovingly restored 1905 Heritage Corner is on a quiet square in a well-preserved old neighbourhood at the centre of Rattanakosin Island. The beautiful bed and breakfast has just three romantic rooms, with polished wooden floors, big comfy beds with high thread count linens, down pillows and light-as-a-feather quilts, and white-tiled, wood-panelled bathrooms with bespoke natural toiletries. The welcoming young owners – who spent several years renovating the historic building – offer excellent insider eating tips and a complimentary morning walking tour to a backstreet local market. There are plenty of old school eateries in the area and they have a fair trade craft shop-cum-café around the corner.
Book 1905 Heritage Corner with our booking partner Booking.com
Bangkok Publishing Residence
Just outside the Old City walls and the whitewashed Mahakarn Fort in the northeast of Rattanakosin Island, Bangkok Publishing Residence in a splendidly remodelled former printing house. It’s close to the Golden Mount, another great spot for watching the sun go down. This handsome eight-room B&B feels more like a boutique hotel, with super-spacious rooms with polished floorboards, wood panelling, large bathrooms, and complimentary mini-bars. There’s a delightful litle rooftop garden with jacuzzi, and a library, from which you can borrow movies and books. Breakfast is served in the museum-like lobby-café and sunroom. The surrounding neighbourhood warrants a wander, especially along the canal, and there’s a nearby morning market that foodies will want to visit.
Book Bangkok Publishing Residence with our booking partner Booking.com
How to Get to Bangkok Old City
What do you mean you’re not staying in Bangkok Old City? Whatever your excuse, the most enjoyable way to reach Rattanakosin from other parts of Bangkok is by boat on the Chao Phraya River. Take the Skytrain to Saphan Taksin BTS Station, then head downstairs to Sathorn Central Pier. To travel as the locals do, just jump on the ‘orange flag’ Chao Phraya Express Boat (14 Baht a ride; pay on board) or buy a ticket from the booth to ride the faster, hop-on hop-off ‘blue flag’ Chao Phraya Tourist Boat (180 Baht for a day pass), which only stops at piers of interest to Bangkok visitors. There’s an English commentary pointing out key attractions. If you’re going to have breakfast at vintage café On Lok Yun, below, and you’re riding the tourist boat, alight at Yodpiman Pier for Pakklong Talad, the flower market, from where it’s a 15-minute walk. If you’re on the ‘orange flag’ public boat, get off at nearby Rajinee Pier. If you’re not going to breakfast and you’re making a beeline to the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha, continue on to Tha Chang pier.
If you’re coming from Siam or the Sukhumvit Road area, head to Hua Chang Wharf, one-block from Siam Square, where you can take a public speedboat along Khlong Saen Saeb or Saen Saeb canal. The rather thrilling ride whizzes you along one of Bangkok’s murkier canals, lined with dilapidated timber houses, providing a fascinating insight into local life. It will bring you very close to the base of Golden Mount, below, which for convenience sake you could even see now.
Breakfast in Bangkok Old City
If you checked into one of the Bangkok Old City boutique hotels, above, you’ll be spoiled with a generous breakfast. If you didn’t or think you can squeeze in a second, kickstart your one day in Bangkok Old City with breakfast at On Lok Yun to get a taste of these fast-disappearing, old-fashioned coffee shops. Found across Asia, in former British colonies such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, this style of café was typically started in the 1930s by Hainanese immigrants. Many Hainanese worked as cooks for British families, on ships and at army bases, and ended up cooking in hotels and restaurants or started cafés offering a century-old Hainanese-Western fusion of the kind you would find in a kopitiam in Southern Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. What you get at charming old On Lok Yun is a Thai-Chinese take on the traditional English breakfast or fry-up with sliced ham or back bacon, fried or poached eggs, sausages, and toast, butter and jam – only here the sausage is Chinese and the jam replaced with Thai-style kaya (coconut spread) and condensed milk. Also order the Hong Kong style French toast and wash it all down with Thai iced milk tea. A warning: in true British ‘greasy spoon’ style, dishes are, well, greasy. Go early to breakfast with locals; mid-morning you’ll be lining up with Singaporean and Malaysian tourists.
72 Charoen Krung Rd, Phra Nakhon. Open 5am-4pm.
Morning in Bangkok Old City
Your one day in Bangkok Old City should begin with Rattanakosin Island’s most sacred sites. Start at the Grand Palace complex to take in Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Then continue to nearby Wat Pho and the Reclining Buddha. Both royal temples are of the highest order; there are grades of temples and Wat Pho is first on the list of first-class temples – which means you can expect to be dazzled by gold. Both temples sit within sprawling walled complexes with much to see – giant mosaic-covered guardians, golden garudas, gleaming chedis, row after row of gilded Buddhas, and even more pagodas, pavilions and salas, as well as a mini Angkor Wat – you can easily spend a half-day at both attractions.
Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, Temple of the Emerald Buddha
If you’re walking from Tha Chang pier, ignore the touts that will tell you the Grand Palace closed – it rarely closes; they just want to take you on an over-priced tour. The extensive walled Grand Palace complex is home to Wat Phra Kaew, best known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Established as a private royal temple, it’s open to the public as it’s the location of the diminutive Emerald Buddha, Thailand’s most sacred Buddha image. Once inside the grounds of the Grand Palace, many make a beeline for Wat Phra Kaew to see the Emerald Buddha (actually carved from jade), about which many myths and legends abound. But once inside the ubosoth, the intricately detailed murals on the walls warrant stepping back from the shuffle for closer scrutiny. The elaborate paintings depict scenes of Buddhist cosmology, the Enlightenment of the Buddha, the Life of the Buddha, and the story of the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian Hindu epic, the Ramayana, and they are exquisite. Don’t miss the mother-of-pearl inlaid doors on your way in or out, which date to 1753, the late Ayutthaya period. Now take your time sauntering the rest of grounds, as you make your way to the Grand Palace itself. The interior is closed to the public, but there’s so much to see en route.
Na Phran Lan Rd, Phra Nakhon. 8.30am-3.30pm daily; 500 baht per person.
From the Grand Palace, it’s a 5-minute stroll along Sanam Chai Road to Wat Pho and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. If you’re peckish after the Grand Palace and need to retreat from the heat, break for lunch before visiting Wat Pho. If you think you have the stamina to continue, reward yourself afterwards by lingering over a leisurely meal.
Wat Pho and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha
If you can’t find Wat Pho, best known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha on Google Maps, it’s because the temple is identified by its full official name: Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararm Rajwaramahaviharn. Wat Pho is a contraction of its former name, Wat Photaram. Dating to 1788, it was the royal temple of Rama I – some of the King’s ashes are enshrined here – and is best known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha because it’s home to a stupendous 46 metre-long reclining gold Buddha. As jaw-dropping as it is, it appears to represent little more than a photographic challenge for selfie-takers and amateur photographers intent on trying to get the whole Buddha in frame. Don’t bother. Once again, the sublime beauty is to be found in the detail and there’s so much to absorb. The complex, which once again like it’s neighbour’s is expansive, is divided into two compounds, and hosts the Thailand’s largest collection of Buddha images, plus more glittering giant guardians, four great gleaming chedis (also called stupas), some 91 smaller chedis, a central shrine, numerous viharas (halls), two belfries, and various other buildings, pavilions, rock gardens, statuary, and a small museum. Once again, take your time. This is why you came to Thailand. Worth noting: Wat Pho was established as a centre for education and Thai massage, which means the engraved granite slabs you spot around the grounds serve as an encyclopedia of sorts, covering subjects such as history, religion, medicine, health, customs, and literature – and massages are not far away.
2 Sanamchai Rd, Phra Nakhon. 8am-6.30pm daily; 100 baht per person (will increase to 200 baht in 2019); children free.
From the Wat Pho exit mid-way along Chetuphon Road, it’s just a 5-minute walk to our recommended lunch spot.
Lunch in Bangkok Old City
One day in Bangkok Old City means only one lunch in Bangkok Old City, so it needs to be a memorable one and there are few more enjoyable spots to eat in the area than Err restaurant. This retro-chic eatery by two of Thailand’s best chefs, Bo and Dylan of Bo.lan, one of the country’s finest Thai restaurants, offers wonderful ‘urban rustic Thai’ food in a cool, casual space with street art on the walls in a renovated shophouse. It was Bo and Dylan who sparked Bangkok’s restaurant revolution with the launch of Bo.lan in 2010. The couple’s passion for street food and traditional cooking techniques such as preservation and fermentation is revealed on their menu with dishes listed under the categories such as ‘Preserved’, ‘Pickled’, ‘Char.Coal.Grilled’, etc. Sausage lovers should order the neam (grilled northern style garlic and sticky rice cured pork), sai ouwa (coconut smoked Chiang Rai curry sausage), and sai krok Isaan (Isaan style pork sausage). Don’t miss the nang kai tort (“chicken movie with home-made See-ra-cha sauce”), a crunchy, fried, whole chicken skin. The cocktails are concocted from Thai spirits and rice wine. Try the Flower Market Number Two made from manee flower rice wine with jasmine vodka, lime, lychee, and elderflower.
394/35 Maharat Rd, Ta Tien; 11am-4pm & 5-9pm Tue-Sun.
Afternoon in Bangkok Old City
An afternoon spent at the Museum of Siam is one of the most engaging ways to spend an afternoon if you only have one day in Bangkok Old City – and it’s an especially good stop if you’re travelling with children. Promoted as a ‘discovery museum’, and organised around the idea of ‘Decoding Thainess’, the state of the art exhibitions enable visitors to ‘explore’ questions of Thai national and cultural identity, and the social and cultural history of Thailand, and its relationships with its neighbours, using interactive cutting-edge museum techniques. Visitors are encouraged to open drawers, lift up objects, and even dress up in costumes, in perhaps the most popular section. Different rooms focus on subjects as diverse as identity, nation and religion to education, food and fashion. While you might not always agree with the conclusions arrived at during your voyage of discovery – some Malaysian foodies I met very passionately disagreed with explanations in the Thai cuisine exhibition – it’s still a fascinating and fun journey that will answer a lot of questions for visitors to Thailand and deepen their experience. It’s a really lovely space, too, located in a grand neo-classical mansion, with a café in the gardens and an excellent little bookshop cum gift store on the ground floor. Make sure you pick up one of the multilingual audio guides, which are essential to getting the most out of the experience.
4 Sanam Chai; 10am-6pm Tues-Sun. 100 baht per person, children and seniors over 60 free.
Wat Arun, The Temple of Dawn
Mosey along Maharat Road to the handsome restored buildings that house Ta Thien Market (foodies will want to stop for a poke around and perhaps buy some snacks) and turn left to take the boat from Ta Tien pier across the river to visit the splendid mosaic-tiled Wat Arun. At Tha Tien Pier, head to the booth and turnstile to buy a ticket (3.50 Baht) for a cross-river boat to Wat Arun. Best known as The Temple of Dawn, it’s certainly stunning in the early morning when the sun is shining on the temple, but we also love visiting in the late afternoon when it’s the perfect way to end one day in Bangkok Old City. Built during the reign of King Rama II in the early 19th century, Wat Arun is notable for its distinctive central prang (spire), which is embellished with prettily patterned broken Chinese porcelain tiles and coloured glass. Although after a recent and rather controversial restoration, it’s said the tiles aren’t as colourful as they were. Despite its name, Wat Arun is at its most resplendent at night, so after your visit, take the boat back to Tha Tien Pier, where you have some decisions to make.
Chao Phraya River, Thonburi side, opposite Tha Tien pier. 8am-5.30pm; 50 Baht per person.
Sunset and Dinner in Bangkok Old City
One day in Bangkok Old City means only sunset over Rattanakosin, so where do you watch it from and where do you eat afterwards? Here are three of our favourite options.
The Golden Mount and Pad Thai
If you still have some energy left, you could take a 30-minute walk over to the Golden Mount (Boriphat Road) in the grounds of Wat Saket and hike up the hill (there are 300 steps) to gawk at the gleaming golden chedi, take in the panoramic views and watch the sun go down over Bangkok. To get there, stroll past the Grand Palace through leafy Saranrom Royal Gardens, then through the residential neighbourhood to Rommaninat Park, cross the bridge, then zip up Boriphat Road. If you don’t have the energy, jump in a taxi or tuk tuk, which will cost three times the price of the taxi; negotiate and don’t pay more than 100 Baht. If you do this and you’re ready for an early dinner, you could take a 3-minute walk around the corner to Thipsamai (313-315 Maha Chai Road) to tuck into Bangkok’s best pad Thai or stand in line next door for fluffy crab omelettes and drunken noodles at Michelin-starred Jay Fai, but expect an hours long wait even after you sit down an order.
Sala Rattanakosin Rooftop Bar and Massaman Curry
If that seems like too much effort, you could head back around the corner to Maharat Road in the direction of Err restaurant and the Museum of Siam, and look for the sign to Sala Rattanakosin (39 Maharat Road), down an alley on your right. Both the riverside terrace and the rooftop bar (4pm-midnight) boast spectacular views of Wat Arun and the Chao Phraya River, making it one of our favourite spots to watch sunset in Bangkok. The fantastic cocktails and snacks are a bonus; order some Tom Yum martinis (with lemongrass, chilli and kaffir lime), croquettes, satay sticks, and spare ribs, and you’re set. If you really don’t feel like moving after a couple of drinks, the award-winning restaurant downstairs (which also has river views) is outstanding and as it’s a boutique hotel, they’re used to tourists in casual clothes. Whatever you do, order the sublime, melt-in-your-mouth Massaman lamb shank curry.
Supanniga River Cruise and Isaan Food
Lastly, you could hop on an ‘orange flag’ Chao Phraya River boat in the direction of Sathor and alight at Si Pha Ya pier for a 3-minute stroll to River City and the pier that is the departure point for the sleek, chic Supanniga Cruise. Book in advance. You could do the one-hour evening cocktail cruise (4.45pm Monday to Friday), however, we recommend the two hour-long 6.15pm dinner cruise with a 6-course feast of Supanniga classics. The food is reason enough to do the cruise, with a feast from Supanniga Eating Room, which dishes up wonderful food from Thailand’s north-eastern Isaan region and the east coast around Trat, based on the recipes of owner Thanaruek Laoraovirodg’s khun yai (grandmother), such as the moo cha muang (a complex pork stew with cha muang leaves), and hor mok poo (steamed crab meat curry). But of course there’s that other reason: two-hours of river views, from handsome heritage buildings such as the French Embassy and the Portuguese Santa Cruz church to the glittering monuments you visited today, such as the Grand Palace and Wat Arun, which is especially enchanting after dark. There are few better ways to end one day in Bangkok Old City.
BOOK BANGKOK OLD CITY TOURS
What’s your idea of a perfect one day in Bangkok Old City? We’d love to hear your thoughts on our one day in Bangkok itinerary in the comments below.