Stepping off the bus from one of the northern beaches, it doesn’t feel like I’ve arrived in a different part of Phuket island – it feels like I’m in a different part of the country!
Gone are the coastal vibes – the smell of salt air, the stores selling cheap sunglasses, the board shorts and flip flops.
Phuket Town is not about beaches. In fact, it’s not even really about tourism in the same way much of the island is.
Sure, there are lots of things to do in Phuket Town for tourists (which I’ll come to shortly), but the city is defined much more by the people who live here than the people who visit.
Phuket Town (or Phuket City – the name depends on who you’re talking to) has a population of about 80,000 people. It’s not massive compared to the big Thai cities on the mainland, but it’s four times as large as Patong Beach, and about the same population as all of Koh Samui.
In other words, this feels like a city. It looks like a city. It operates like a city.
Is Phuket Town worth visiting?
Although Phuket is best known for its beaches, the heritage in Phuket Town is a real highlight of the island. There are lots of things to do in Phuket Town, including temples, cafes, and shopping.
How many days should you spend in Phuket Town?
One day is long enough to see all the highlights of Phuket Town. But another option is to stay here for a few nights and use it as a base to travel to different beaches and other parts of Phuket island.
How do you get to Phuket Town?
There is a direct tourist bus from the airport to Phuket Town (called the Airport Bus), which costs 100 baht and takes about 1h 30m.
A taxi from the airport to Phuket Town will cost about 650 baht. Or you can book a transfer in advance here.
From other parts of Phuket (such as Patong), the cheapest option will be the local buses, which are about 50 baht and leave relatively regularly throughout the day.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons many tourists choose not to visit Phuket Town. If you’ve come for the beaches, why spend time in an urban environment like this.
But I think that’s a mistake. For starters, Phuket Town can actually be a good base for your time on the island, offering easy public transport access to different areas, if you’re keen to explore.
Beyond that, though, there’s also a rich cultural heritage here that is a joy to discover. Some of the most interesting things to do in Phuket Town will take you deep into the multicultural story of the city, or the cool hipster elements that are now flourishing.
The historical part of the city, known as Old Phuket Town, has its heritage proudly on display in the architecture of its grid-pattern of streets, and in the small temples and shops hidden behind the facades.
But all throughout Phuket City, you’ll get a more authentic experience than in the beach resort towns, which are oversaturated with tourism development.
Here, where many Thais live (often travelling by bus or motorbike to the beaches each day for work), there is a huge range of restaurants offering local food (and local prices!).
There are, however, still plenty of cafes and other shops designed for the visitors, creating a nice balance of styles in the streets.
In the same way, if you want to do local things in Phuket Town, there are markets and temples to see. Alternatively, there are boutique shops and museums catering more to visitors.
I end up spending quite a few days in Phuket Town, wandering the streets, exploring the neighbourhoods, even hiking up the mountain to the viewpoints. It’s certainly a change from the beaches, but a change that I think adds more texture to this trip.
To help with your planning, here are my top tips for what to do in Phuket Town.
Old Phuket Town
In the early 1800s, Phuket was one of the world’s most important tin-mining centres, attracting workers from around the world. What is now Old Phuket Town was once a bustling commercial centre serving all these people.
That’s why today you’ll find an abundance of exquisite Sino-Portuguese architecture, along with a meld of diverse cultural influences, including Thai, Chinese, Malay and Portuguese.
The historical and contemporary cultural influences are on full display, from the street art to the food, and in the town’s attractions and festivals.
One of the most charming streets in Old Phuket, the architecture of Soi Rommanee will transport you back to the tin-mining era of the 19th century, when many Portuguese and Chinese migrants lived here.
Myriad Sino-Portuguese buildings, complete with ornate details and vibrant hues, remain from that period, contributing to a sense of nostalgia and a feeling of having travelled back in time.
The picturesque Soi Rommanee is particularly enchanting for photography buffs, keen to capture a taste of the Thailand of old. For a different kind of taste, pull up a seat in a pavement eatery to sample local and international fare while soaking up your surroundings.
Peek around corners to discover an array of beautiful street art, wander along narrow lanes and browse for local souvenirs in small boutiques.
Phuket Thai Hua Museum
Phuket Thai Hua Museum is located within a handsome two-floor Sino-Portuguese building that was once a school for local Hokkien Chinese members of the community.
Also known as the Thai Hua Peranakan Museum, today the educational museum teaches visitors more about the life of Straits Chinese who settled in Phuket, including their traditions and daily life in times gone by.
You can peruse wide-ranging exhibits that help to bring the past to life, with old photographs, clothes, accessories and household items just a few of the featured displays. I found the interactive presentations especially useful for delving deeper into the area’s history.
Attractive murals and public art are dotted among Old Phuket’s historic buildings, with many paying homage to the area’s past and rich cultural traditions. Although many murals are fairly modern, the striking images help to enhance the area’s olde-worlde vibe and all-round charm.
Discovering the street art was one of my favourite things to do in Phuket Town. You could also arrange a walking tour to maximise your time and learn more about each piece from a knowledgeable local guide.
Although the street scene is constantly evolving, major works to look out for include The Child and the Rooster, which reflects the area’s agricultural roots, The Old Man and the Sea, which nods towards the island’s maritime history, and The Memory of the Dragon, which reflects the town’s strong Chinese heritage.
As I mentioned, Phuket Town is home to many historic buildings and landmarks, covering various times throughout the town’s history, and reflecting the many changes over the years.
Although Old Phuket is noted for its magnificent well-preserved Sino-Portuguese architecture, you’ll also find Chinese-style shophouses interspersed with typical Thai structures, temples and shrines that showcase varied architectural styles.
If you’re interested in exploring the top sights, I would recommend this guided tour of the old town. Or here are some highlights to see by yourself.
Surin Circle Clock Tower
One of the most distinctive landmarks in Phuket Town, the striking Surin Circle Clock Tower stands on a flower-filled roundabout near the entrance of Old Phuket
As well as marking the time for passersby, the ornate clock in shades of pale yellow and cream is in keeping with the area’s Sino-Portuguese flavour. It’s frequently lit up in the evening, the soft glow creating a beautiful contrast against the dark sky.
The often-photographed tower stands on the spot of a much older tower, which dates back to the Peranakan period in Phuket. Although today’s structure was built in the early 2000s, it was designed to fully match the area’s character.
Chinpracha House is a marvellous Sino-Portuguese building that was built in 1903 by a wealthy Chinese immigrant. Originally a family home, today the home offers fascinating insights into the opulent life of those who flourished during the tin-mining boom.
As the only such mansion in Phuket open to visitors, it’s well worth a visit if you’re interested in art, history and heritage.
You can peer inside the traditional kitchen, bedrooms and the inner courtyard, complete with period furnishings, some of which were handed down the generations, decorative objects collected from across the world and historic photographs.
The stained-glass windows, wooden balcony, colourful tiles and terracotta roof are especially striking.
Siam Niramit Phuket
Siam Niramit Phuket is a dazzling attraction that brings Phuket’s history and culture to life through traditional costumes, music and performances, enhanced by special effects and spectacular stage scenes.
The purpose-built theatre takes you through rustic Thai villages, magnificent palaces, fertile jungles and places of spiritual worship. More than 100 performers transport you to another time and place, letting you dive deeper into the rich cultural traditions from across the Land of Smiles.
Before the show, you can explore market stalls brimming with an array of local wares, watch intimate dance shows, marvel at traditional instruments, take selfies with costumed performers and sample tasty Thai food.
You’ll need to book ahead and buy your ticket here.
The Memory at On On Hotel
The award-winning Memory at On On Hotel opened its doors in the late 1920s, making it one of the oldest hotels in Phuket. The building itself is in the Sino-Colonial style that’s typical of the area, boasting a pale exterior, ornamental details and wooden shutters.
Inside, restorations have been careful to preserve the building’s character, with a dark wood reception desk, beautiful floor tiles, stylish fabrics and old-time decorations, fittings and furnishings.
Staying at the Memory at On On Hotel gives you the chance to sleep in luxurious surroundings reminiscent of the past, without sacrificing modern comforts and amenities, such as en suite bathrooms, cable TV and Wi-Fi.
But even if you’re not a guest, you can wander in and have a look at the beautiful foyer.
Temples and shrines
Revered temples and shrines are dotted across Phuket City, providing a place for devout locals to make merit and pray and for visitors to appreciate a range of religious art, architecture and practices.
Spiritual sites reflect the area’s cultural diversity, with a blend of common Thai, Chinese, Malay and Indian beliefs, including Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Brahmanism and ancient animist rites and rituals.
Wat Mongkhon Nimit
Also referred to as Wat Klang, Wat Mongkhon Nimit is one of the main temples in Phuket Town and across the island. It was built in 1880.
A major place of worship for Thai Buddhists, you may witness people praying, meditating, chanting or making offerings. You’re welcome to visit the temple, but, as with all Thai temples, remember to dress modestly and remove your shoes to go inside buildings.
You can admire vibrant colours and devotional art, both inside and out. The temple features gleaming Buddha statues in diverse sizes and postures alongside statues of revered monks and other religious artefacts.
Outside, giant Yak statues guard the grounds, and you’ll also find several chedis and funerary monuments.
Wat Khao Rang Samakkhitham
Ascend the Naga-lined staircase to reach Wat Khao Rang Samakkhitham, set atop Khao Rang hill, to admire the views, soak up the peaceful vibe and be dazzled by the large golden Buddha image that sits cross-legged on top of the roof.
The often-overlooked temple is usually blissfully free of large tourist crowds, allowing you to appreciate how serene temples are supposed to be. If you’re lucky, you may spot monks clad in saffron robes wandering the tranquil grounds.
You may also see locals lighting incense or candles in honour of famous monks, whose time-worn statues stand in a line outside of the temple.
Sangtham Shrine/Hainan Shrine
The nearby Sangtham and Hainan Shrines have drawn Thai-Chinese and Chinese-migrant worshipers for more than a century. Filled with spiritual symbolism, the serene shrines are open to visitors as well as those looking to make merit.
The small house-like Sangtham Shrine features an ornate Hokkien-style roof with dragons and dolls, and the shrine was created to hold images of respected Chinese Gods and Goddesses. The inner walls depict a popular legend from the Tang Dynasty.
The Taoist Hainan Shrine has long been a place for devout members of the local Thai-Chinese community to worship various deities. You’re sure to be impressed by the contrasting shades of deep red and gold and the many intricate details.
Jui Tui Shrine
Established during the mining era, Jui Tui Shrine is one of the oldest Chinese shrines in Phuket. A canal once ran in front of the shrine, where locals made turbines to make the rice harvest easier.
The historic shrine takes its name from this, with Jui meaning water and Tui meaning a mortar (as in mortar and pestle).
Now a popular tourist attraction as well as a place of ancestor and deity worship, the decorative shrine features lots of Chinese art and statues, colourful tilework, marble figures, wooden carvings, lanterns and other religious symbols.
If you’re visiting Phuket Town towards the end of September or the beginning of October, try and catch the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. The Jui Tui Shrine is the focal point of the cultural festival.
Phuket Town is a terrific base for starting diverse tours to explore more of the island’s gems. Tours cater to varying interests and budgets and include those centred around culture, sightseeing, food and adventure activities.
Organised tours also provide interesting insights from local guides, helping you learn more than you might if you went sightseeing alone.
Join a small-group or private walking tour of Old Phuket to learn more about the area’s famous landmarks and uncover local history. A tour ensures you don’t accidentally miss any of the hotspots or get lost down meandering lanes.
Tours typically pass many of the town’s majestic Sino-Portuguese buildings and street art, with plenty of photo stops, stories and opportunities to pick up souvenirs or refreshments. You’ll also have the chance to look inside museums and places of worship.
I would recommend this guided tour of the old town, which focuses on the heritage. Or there are a few other good options here:
Some tours also include a wander around a local market or a typical Thai lunch, so have a look to see which suits you best.
Pack plenty of highlights into a day trip around Phuket Island, going from town to coast as well as places in the island’s interior.
Compare and contrast popular tourist areas with local villages, taking in sights such as the Big Buddha and Wat Chalong, amazing viewpoints and stunning beaches.
Some tours may include ethical elephant experiences, exploring mangroves, water sports, and more. Have a look at some of the top ones here:
Alternatively, choose a day trip to nearby islands to see even more of the Land of Smiles.
There’s this tour to Koh Phi Phi, which is renowned for its picturesque Maya Bay. Or Phang Nga Bay is famous for its iconic pinnacle-like karst of Koh Ta Pu and there’s this cruise to Khao Phing Kan, AKA James Bond Island.
Inject some adventure into your Phuket trip with an ATV tour. Ride through the lush jungle, keeping your eyes peeled for a rich array of flora and fauna, finishing with a visit to an ethical elephant sanctuary or the iconic Big Buddha.
Seeing the huge white Buddha image is sure to impress even the most temple-weary travellers, and the views are well worth climbing all the steps for.
Other adventure activities in Phuket include ziplining, canoeing, jet skiing and bamboo rafting, some of which are easily combined with an ATV tour:
Don’t forget suncream, sunglasses, and clothes that you don’t mind getting wet!
Phuket Town offers shopping for all tastes and budgets, from modern malls with refreshing air conditioning to lively markets where you can browse an assortment of local souvenirs and produce while getting a feel for local life.
Phuket Town Central Market
A place where both locals and tourists go to shop, Phuket Town Central Market is a hive of activity. The food section is at the heart of the market, where you can peruse a wide range of ingredients while soaking up the sights, sounds and scents.
Vendors sell colourful vegetables and fruits – so grab some juicy pineapple, crunchy guava or sweet rambutan to get in your five-a-day, as well as fresh meat, fish and poultry. Stalls also display an array of Thai staples, such as spice blends, fish sauce, rice and dried noodles.
Outer stalls have affordable homewares, clothes, accessories, trinkets, handicrafts and more.
Housed within a gorgeous Chinese-Portuguese building with a striking blue façade, golden detailing and dark brown shutters, Endless Summer is a unique boutique and café.
Artful displays grace the stylish interior, with carefully curated collections of women’s clothes, accessories, beauty products, toiletries and unusual gifts. You can also purchase luxurious items for the home and decorative goods.
The on-site coffee shop is perfect for taking a break after a busy day of exploring and shopping, and you can savour delectable dishes based on traditional European recipes. Alternatively, cool down with a gelato or refreshing drink while enjoying the boho vibe.
Central Phuket is a multi-level shopping centre on the outskirts of Phuket Town. It boasts more than 400 shops that sell everything you may wish to buy, from designer clothes and electronics to household goods, handicrafts and toys.
If Central Phuket isn’t quite enough, you can cross the footbridge to Central Floresta for even more browsing and buying in air-conditioned comfort.
Central Phuket has many eateries for when you need a little pick-me-up, serving various Thai and international dishes as well as refreshments. You’ll even find a replica floating market and a thronging food court, or you can take a seat beneath a palm in the light-filled public house.
There’s even a cinema and aquarium here, so it’s also got a few good things to do in Phuket if it’s bad weather or if you’re travelling with kids.
Food and drink
In many of the beach towns in Phuket, the food scene is fairly similar – Western food or Thai food that has been adapted to Western tastes. You sometimes need to look a bit harder to find real local dishes.
But in Phuket Town, with so many local residents, the vibrant dining scene is full of authentic cuisine, with menus that include country-wide favourites and local specialities.
Learn more about Thailand’s culinary traditions and typical ingredients on an educational – and tasty – food tour!
Set off on a gastronomic adventure with a local guide who can explain the various herbs, spices and ingredients in detail. Delve into the history of some dishes and discover how meals are usually cooked.
A food tour also lets you sample an array of delicious dishes; be sure to remember your favourites so you can order them again later!
I would recommend this food tour in Phuket Town, or there are some other good ones here:
Your local guide will take you to hidden foodie gems that you probably wouldn’t notice on independent explorations.
Phuket Town has several inviting cafes where you can take the load off your feet and rejuvenate with tasty food and drinks in a casual ambience. Many offer both indoor and outdoor seating, letting you choose whether to enjoy a cooling aircon blast or indulge in a spot of people-watching.
China Inn Café has something of an exclusive air, opening only for lunchtimes on selected days of the week. Enter through the doorway of a Sino-Portuguese building to find yourself surrounded by antiques or sit in the nature-filled garden to enjoy beautifully presented fare.
Aungku Phuket is another hotspot, housed within a pretty white building adorned with dusky pink flowers. The café is especially noted for its sweet treats; indeed, you may need to be patient and wait for a table as its reputation means it’s often busy. Check out the neighbouring mural while you wait.
Other popular cafes in Phuket Town include Neko Cat Café, The Tent, 36 Café, Rose Espresso and Gallery Café Phuket, although you’re sure to stumble across many charming establishments as you wander through the Old Town.
The many restaurants throughout Phuket Town offer opportunities to try an array of Thai dishes, including those traditionally from the South. Malay influences are often a hallmark of Southern specialities along with Chinese influences in Phuket.
Look out for khao yam nam budu, a herby fish salad with fermented fish sauce, gaeng som AKA orange curry, spicy kua kling curry and authentic massaman curry. Naturally, the seaside location provides abundant bounties from the ocean, too.
Localised Phuket specialities often have Chinese, Hokkien and Peranakan influences. Mee Hokkien, or Hokkien noodles, are omnipresent, from restaurant menus to street food stalls.
The omelette-like oh tao is also widely available. Other recommendations for foodies include the sweet and salty stewed pork belly dish of moo hong, yellow crab curry and the refreshing shaved ice treat known as o-aeo.
When it comes to deciding where to eat, you’ll be spoilt for choice in Old Phuket. Mee Ton Poe is one of the island’s oldest restaurants, serving Thai-Chinese cuisine for several generations. Go Benz Rice Porridge was awarded a prestigious Michelin star for its top-class street eats.
Tu Kab Khao and the Charm Phuket focus on Southern Thai cuisine, and the historic Raya House is popular among Thailand’s hi-so. For fusion food, check out The Cook.
Around Phuket Town
While you’ll have no shortage of things to see and do in Old Phuket, there are even more delights just a stone’s throw away. The surrounding areas also often have the added benefit of being quieter than the town, with fewer visitors to get in the way of your perfect pictures.
Just a short drive from the heart of town there’s Khao Rang, which I already mentioned because of its peaceful lesser-visited temple with an impressively large Buddha statue.
However, the hill has other great reasons to visit it. You can either follow the path to walk up the hill or beat the heat and drive to the summit.
At the top, you’ll find landscaped gardens and a pretty park. Spot mischievous monkeys frolicking in the foliage, listen to the chatter of birdsong and visit the lookout point for sweeping vistas across the city to the distant hills and isle-dotted coast. The hill has several excellent restaurants and cafes, too.
Saphan Hin is a lovely seaside park just a couple of kilometres outside of the Old Town. Once a major trading port, today it’s a popular spot for locals to gather. Mingle among people of all ages enjoying leisure time, especially later on in the afternoon and evening when the temperature’s not so hot and work is done for the day.
Stroll along the boardwalk through a mangrove forest to reach the water’s edge, watch people playing a wide variety of sports, burn off some calories with a brisk walk or jog around the track and relax in shady grassy areas. Several street food stalls are set up near the monument to tin mining.
Ko Sire is a small island towards the east of Phuket Town. You don’t need to worry about catching a boat across the water, as a small bridge connects the smaller island to Phuket Island. You may spot monkeys marauding close to the bridge, so watch out for snatch and grabs!
A peaceful sanctuary where you can escape the hustle and bustle of town life, the island has sandy stretches and a colourful hilltop temple with a large reclining Buddha. Ko Sire is also home to a small community of Chao Lae, also known as Sea Gypsies.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN PHUKET TOWN
Although there are no beaches here, this is a really convenient base to explore different parts of the island.
With a nod to Phuket’s heritage, the Neighbors Hostel has a lovely traditional design but modern and comfortable facilities.
Clean and comfortable with a bit of character, Xinlor House is great value right in the Old Town.
Set in a beautiful Baba-style mansion, 2rooms Boutique Hotel has had a stunning renovation in a perfect location.
With an amazing rooftop bar, Novotel Phuket City Phokeethra has panoramic views from its luxurious rooms.