Bangkok, also known as the City of Angels and Venice of the East, will hit you like a ton of bricks. Hot, polluted, and chaotic, it thrills with energy, and the sightseeing, shopping, and eating possibilities are so vast that you'll have little time to rest. When you do find a moment, though, you can pamper yourself at spas, skyline-view bars, luxurious hotels, and excellent restaurants.
The city is a mesmerizing blend of old and new, East and West, and dizzying contradictions. Temples and red-light districts, languid canals and permanent gridlock, street-side vendors and chic upscale eateries, all exist side by side. Bangkok rarely fails to make an impression, and yes, you might need to spend a few days on the beach to recover from it all.
Bangkok is not known for jaw-dropping tourist attractions, but it does have an endless supply of worthwhile pilgrimages. The Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew, and the Emerald Buddha are tops on most visitors' itineraries, and lesser-known temples, such as Wat Benjamabophit, the golden stupa of Wat Sakhet, and Wat Suthat all merit a look. Besides temples, there are plenty of niche touring possibilities. Take in a venom-extraction and python-feeding show at the Queen Saowapha Snake Farm, or go to the nearby Jim Thompson House to learn all about the famed Thai silk industry. If architecture appeals to you, there is the Suan Pakkard Palace with its antique-teak-house collection. Even more astounding is Vimanmek Mansion, the world's largest golden teak building.
The Old City is a major destination for travelers, as it's home to opulent temples like Wat Po and Wat Phra Kaew. Across the river is Thonburi, a mostly residential neighborhood, where you can find Wat Arun. At the northern tip of the Old City is Banglamphu, one of Bangkok's older residential neighborhoods. It's best known now for Khao San Road, a backpacker hangout, though the neighborhood has much more to offer, especially when it comes to street food. North of Banglamphu is Dusit, the royal district since the days of Rama V.
East of the Old City is Chinatown, a labyrinth of streets with restaurants, shops, and warehouses. Chinatown deserves at least a day on every travel itinerary—be sure to check out the sprawling Flower Market and the nearby Thieves market. Farther down the Chao Phraya River is bustling Silom Road, a major commercial district. Patpong, the most famous of several red-light districts, is also here. Bang Rak is home to some of the city's leading hotels: the Mandarin Oriental, the Peninsula, the Royal Orchid Sheraton, and the Shangri-La. To the north of Rama IV Road is Bangkok's largest green area, Lumphini Park.
Continue north and you reach Sukhumvit Road, once a residential area. More recently, Thong Lor, farther east along Sukhumvit, has become an "in" neighborhood. The Nana and Asok areas of Sukhumvit are now home to even busier red-light entertainment districts (Nana and Soi Cowboy) than Patpong.
In all these neighborhoods you will find cuisine unrivaled for spice, taste, and variation. From multicourse meals to small bites from street vendors, the one constant here is food that's fresh and delicious at every level. You can lunch on superlative roast duck or wonton noodles on a street corner, and dine that evening on the sophisticated creations of world-class chefs. Your choices aren't limited to spicy Thai, either. A recent foodie revolution has resulted in the introduction of excellent French, Italian, and other restaurants—you'd need a few months to survey all the options available.