Thanks to its strategic southern Thailand location and natural bounty, Phuket’s backstory is a fascinating one. Europeans (Dutch, Portuguese, French, and British) began to arrive from the 16th century, but the largest group of international arrivals were the Chinese, who flocked here in the late 19th century to stake their fortunes on the tin-mining boom. These workers married into Phuket’s Siamese community, and the local ‘Baba’ (also known as Peranakan) culture was born here. This distinctive cultural blend is visible all over Phuket Town, from its architecture to its food.
Plenty of travellers blitz through Phuket Town on a half-day visit, but there’s plenty more to linger around for. Stay a night or two and you’ll get to sample its busy nightlife, dig into its hugely varied culinary scene, explore its vibrant art scene and crash in quirky century-old homes transformed into boutique guesthouses.
Phuket Town's Baba inhabitants were made rich by tin-mining and built majestic, European- and Chinese-inspired mansions featuring breezy terraces, elaborate wood-carved doors and central tile-floored courtyards. Others set up slim, multi-level hôrng tăa·ou (shophouses), with louvered windows, upper terraces and elegantly arched ground-floor porches.
A DIY walking tour of Phuket Town’s Sino-Portuguese highlights could begin at the Standard Chartered Bank, before meandering along Th Thalang with its colourfully restored shophouses. Next, wander past vividly revamped shophouses with golden-stuccoed pillars on pretty Soi Romanee. Check out the stunningly refurbished Phra Phitak Chyn Pracha Mansion (now home to famed Blue Elephant Thai restaurant) and pop next door to swoon over the antiques in Chyn Pracha House. Brush up on local history at Phuket Thaihua Museum on Th Krabi or, for an in-depth tour with local experts, link up with Phuket Heritage Trails.
Phuket’s capital isn’t all tin-mining grandeur. Sprinkled amid the Sino-Portuguese storefronts are a number of serene Chinese temples that are a pleasure to explore. One of the most enchanting is the elaborately carved, restored 1890s Shrine of the Serene Light, a Taoist shrine with intricate wall etchings at the end of an alley off Th Phang-Nga.
Visit in late September or October and you’ll see these hushed worship spaces burst into action for Phuket’s famously frenzied Vegetarian Festival. Expect thunderous firecrackers, skewer- and knife-pierced worshippers, and colourful street parades. This important local celebration invokes the nine emperor gods of Taoism through self-mutilating mediums (mostly men). Jui Tui Shrine and Bang Niew Shrine are major sites for festival action.
Phuket Town’s multicultural makeup means its cuisine is as diverse as it is celebrated. From super-fresh seafood to some of the best curries outside the Indian subcontinent, Phuket Town’s culinary creations, both traditional and inventive, are just as likely to be served up on shophouse porches as inside early-20th-century mansions.
On Th Thalang, Kopitiam by Wilai is a great place to try some Phuketian favourites; try the mee sua (sautéed noodles with egg, sea bass, prawns and squid). A few doors east, long-standing Abdul’s Roti Shop doles out roti with sweet banana or savoury massaman curry. Antique-packed Sino-Portuguese townhouse Raya pulls in a loyal following for its well-priced Phuket specialties, such as mŏo hong (pepper-and-garlic-braised pork). At Cookie House, pick up boxes of Phuket’s signature cookies made from freshly pulverised almond paste, egg yolks and butter.
At the gourmet end of the local dining spectrum, Suay surprises with fantastic fusion fare featuring mangosteen sôm·đam (spicy green papaya salad) and lamb-chop massaman curry. Blue Elephant hits all the classic notes with its Royal Thai delights served in a glammed-up 1903 mansion.
Coffee lovers, you’re in luck. Though this isn’t quite Melbourne or London, Phuket Town has a lively emerging coffee scene and there are plenty of urban-chic spots to get your caffeine fix in style.
Sporting lots of exposed brick and wall-mounted bicycles, Th Thalang cafe-gallery Bo(ok)hemian is the perfect example of Phuket Town’s creative buzz. It's the perfect place to while away a few hours over tasty cakes and single-origin espresso with a novel in hand. Across the street, China Inn lures visitors into a beautifully renovated Sino-Portuguese home for tea, coffee and organic-fuelled bites.
On Th Yaowarat, Gallery Cafe is a hugely popular yet laid-back hang-out for delicious breakfasts (Thai and European), brews and fresh juices in a revamped yellow townhouse.
Phuket Town is known for its excellent-value lodgings, many of which are tucked into refurbished century-old buildings oozing historical charm. Cheap sleeps abound in characterful, European-style hostel dorms, such as those at Ai Phuket Hostel. Comfy dorms are on offer alongside stylish mosaic-tiled doubles at Memory at On On Hotel; this gorgeously remodelled Sino-Portuguese stunner starred as a grimy backpacker haunt in the film adaptation of The Beach.
If you're more of a flashpacker, bag one of four arty polished-concrete rooms at boutique-chic The RomManee, which unravels behind a bright turquoise façade on Soi Romanee. An exquisite upper-midrange choice is white-on-white boutique pad Casa Blanca, complete with private pool, all-fresh cafe and Spanish-inspired flourishes.
Art and fashion
Many of Phuket Town's historical shophouses house an eclectic bunch of one-of-a-kind boutiques and local artist-owned studio-galleries. Squeeze past antiquated stone Buddhas to find Thai-vintage-inspired women’s couture at Ranida, or sift through rainbows of fabrics at Ban Boran Textiles.
With wavy kaleidoscopic canvases, metallic furniture and soft-booming background bass, street-art-inspired Drawing Room is easily Phuket Town’s most fun gallery. Meanwhile, Mr Zen crafts charismatic abstract portraits and canvases of mythical creatures at shophouse-bound Wua Art Gallery & Studio.
There’s nothing like plunging into the depths of a local market to find Phuket’s pulse; several can be found in Phuket Town.
The jam-packed Weekend Market, three kilometres southwest of town, is reminiscent of Bangkok’s legendary Chatuchak Weekend Market (only not as massive). You name it, they’ve got it, from knock-off designer handbags to silky moo·ay tai (Thai boxing) shorts, to tasty and affordable evening feeds.
Constantly stocked with fresh produce, busy Th Ranong Day Market offers an insight into day-to-day life on this ever-popular island. From Wednesday to Friday (from 4pm), an evening shopaganza unfolds at Indy Market. Travellers can also stock up on quirky souvenirs and vintage clothing flogged by stylish young Thais at Th Thalang’s Sunday Walking St (from 4pm).