Chiang Mai is second on most Thailand travellers' to-do lists, after Bangkok, but the city is a bit more complicated than its must-visit status would have you believe. First of all, while Chiang Mai has a reputation as being more laid-back and less crowded than Bangkok, said reputation has led to an onslaught visitors, foreign and domestic.
My advice? Get outside the City Walls, confining as they may be, and even outside the city limits. Go to the hilltop Doi Suthep Temple or, even better, to Doi Inthanon, the aptly-named "Roof of Thailand," home to a stupa that puts all the ones in Chiang Mai to shame.
Chiang Mai has also generated controversy in direct relation to another of its biggest claims to fame: Animal tourism. Namely, the so-called Tiger Kingdom (which I visited and enjoyed—I can't be a hypocrite) and a nearby cobra show, but also some of the elephant sanctuaries. A general rule is that if you can pet an animal that should be able to kill you, or ride an animal that isn't a horse, there's probably abuse at hand.
Another option would be to skip Chiang Mai altogether—sacrilege, I know. Instead visit Chiang Rai, a city further north and east, which sits near the "Golden Triangle" where Thailand meets Laos and Myanmar. A smaller, sleepier city, Chiang Rai embodies both the aesthetic and the energy most travellers expect from Chiang Mai.
In addition to being a hub for coffee drinking and growing (TIP: book a day tour to Doi Chaang Coffee Farm, which sits in the mountains around the city), Chiang Rai and the surrounding region are a paradise for lovers of both architecture and spirituality. Within the city center, for example, you can spend your morning at the surreal Wat Rhong Khun ("White Temple"), head to Baan Dam ("Black House") in the afternoon and then, after sunset, watch an amazing light show at the flamboyant Clock Tower in the center of town.
These treasures also extend to the periphery of Chiang Rai province, from Mae Sai (which sits on the border with Myanmar and is home to several outstanding examples of Burmese architecture), to Chiang Saen (which is near the "Triangle" itself, where you'll find a boat holding a golden Buddha floating in the river), to Chiang Kong on the border with Laos.