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The first time I visited in 2016, I left feeling ‘meh’ about Chiang Mai. To be honest, I was ‘meh’ as a traveller back then, partying a bit too much and eating the nearest pad Thai the following day.
When I returned to Chiang Mai, I enjoyed the city much more because I explored it in greater depth. I spent two months in a co-working and co-living hostel, sussing out the street food, temples and surrounding nature while writing about the city.
Chiang Mai is one of my favourite Asian cities; I wouldn’t hesitate to return if I needed somewhere to base. It grows on you the longer you spend. I love the hidden corners you discover by wandering sleepy backstreets and catching red songthaew taxis out of town.
Let’s get stuck into my Chiang Mai itinerary for 3 days…
How many days in Chiang Mai?
It depends whether you’re just seeing the Old City or venturing further afield into Northern Thailand. If you just have one day in Chiang Mai, you can see the Old City with no problem.
3 days in Chiang Mai are enough to explore Doi Suthep, take a cooking class, visit Nimman neighbourhood and do some hiking. For this, follow my 3 day Chiang Mai itinerary below.
Read next: 101 Southeast Asia travel tips
Although 3 days in Chiang Mai is enough, you may wish to add extra time for day trips. I’d recommend Doi Inthanon National Park, the Sticky Waterfalls and an ethical elephant sanctuary (research these thoroughly to avoid animal cruelty).
I’ll share my day trips for 4 and 5 days in Chiang Mai towards the end.
How to get to Chiang Mai
By air – the quickest way is flying from Bangkok. Flight take just over an hour and start from €30. Search for the cheapest flights using Skyscanner.
By bus – regular buses connect Chiang Mai and Bangkok. They’re long at 9 hours but at least it’s the environmentally-friendly option. Prices start from €15.
By train – these are the cheapest option starting at €10 and taking 10 hours. Travel overnight in a cabin-style bed. The ultimate Thailand travel adventure!
Use 12Go to compare times, prices and book your ticket.
How to get around Chiang Mai
On foot – If you’re staying around the Old City, you can get everywhere on foot.
Hire a scooter – to go further afield like Nimman or the Monk’s Trail, you can hire a scooter. Your accommodation can sort this for you but, if you don’t feel comfortable driving (I’m with ya!), you can call…
Uber or Grab – to save money, order a scooter taxi rather than a car.
Songthaews – these big red share taxis roam the streets of Chiang Mai picking up passengers. Simply flag one down and tell the driver where you want to go (or show them Google Maps if there’s a language barrier). They’re not the quickest way to get around but they are cheap and authentic.
Tuk-tuks – organise a price with the drivers. They’re not as cheap as songthaews but not too expensive, either.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
Sadly my lovely co-working & living hostel has closed down but luckily there are loads of lovely places to stay in Chiang Mai.
- The Islander is a fun, social hostel run by an ex-pat and a Thai local who know exactly what makes an amazing hostel. There’s a bar, rooftop area and daily activities. Rooms start from $11.
- Pakping Hostel is in the heart of town close to all the attractions. There are small and large dorms, private rooms and free breakfast from $9 a night.
- 1948 Hostel is a cosy, family-run where you can relax in the comfy lounge areas but still meet people.
- Browse all options on Hostelworld.
Chiang Mai itinerary for 3 days
This itinerary is for those who want to see the main attractions during 3 days in Chiang Mai while also appreciating the culture and getting stuck into the food scene.
While this guide includes plenty of sights and activities, it’s not a super fast-paced itinerary because I want to leave time for sipping coffee and soaking up the city at your leisure.
Afterwards, I’ll include my bonus day trips in case you have 4 or 5 days in Chiang Mai… maybe you’ll decide to extend your visit once you arrive and fall in love with CM!
- Day 1 – explore the Old City. Temple-hop, eat khao soy, drink coffee, have a massage and visit night markets
- Day 2 – Thai cooking class, Doi Suthep temple
- Day 3 – Doi Inthanon National Park
- Days 4-5 – additional day trips (keep reading for my suggestions)
Day 1 – explore Chiang Mai Old City
Thanks to the affordable prices of Chiang Mai accommodation, you don’t have to stay far out of town to keep the costs down. Most travellers stay in the heart of Chiang Mai Old City and wake up with the city on their doorstep.
Breakfast at Blue Diamond
The first thing I usually do in a new city is research what to do over a pre-researched brunch (yes you can tell where my priorities lie).
My favourite breakfast cafe in Chiang Mai is Blue Diamond down a quiet side street near Wat Chiang Man Temple. I love the ambience of this garden cafe with its shady streets and sounds of running water.
You can sit outside on a colourful floor cushion and eat healthy muesli and fresh fruit platters as well as less healthy banana pancakes (hey, there’s fruit in there!), croissants and egg dishes. Wash it down with a fruit juice, smoothie, Thai tea or tasty coffee. Or all four since you’re on holiday?
There are over 300 temples in Chiang Mai which is crazy when you consider what a small city it is. Being one of the most temple-dense places in the world, it would be an opportunity wasted not to explore them.
Since you won’t have time for all 300, I’ve selected the best temples for your 3 day Chiang Mai itinerary:
Wat Chiang Man
If you followed my brunch rec, you will be nearby the oldest temple in the city, Wat Chiang Man, known for its gold stupa decorated with ancient elephant carvings.
As well as two temple halls, you can visit Buddha statues dotted around the temple site including one that locals pray to for rain before Songkran festival every April.
Entrance is free.
Wat Chedi Luang
Every travel blogger and his aunt will tell you about this temple. While I want to show you lesser-trodden sides to Chiang Mai too, I can’t deny this is a must. Wat Chedi Luang is the biggest temple in Chiang Mai located in the heart of the old city. While it’s at least 600 years old, it’s spent most of the last 450 years in disrepair from earthquake damage, only restored to its glory in 1992.
Wander the temple site and admire giant staircases flanked by naga (water serpent) statues. Thailand’s most famous relic, the Emerald Buddha statue, used to live here but it’s since been moved to the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
Another reason to visit Wat Chedi Luang is to partake in a monk chat. Exactly what it says on the tin, this is a chance to chat with the monks of the temple and ask questions about their lives during a cultural exchange that helps them practice English.
Entrance to Wat Chedi Luang is 40 baht and you can borrow a cover-up at the entrance.
Wat Sri Suphan
While it’s a little outside of the Old City, it’s worth visiting this temple often missed by tourists. Known as the Silver Temple for obvious reasons, it looks dissimilar to the other Chiang Mai temples made of stone and gold. Wat Sri Suphan is entirely made of silver, displaying intricate carvings telling tales of daily life and historical events.
While I was annoyed that women can’t go inside the temple hall, there’s plenty else to see around the site, and you can even meet the skilled local artisans who create the silver carvings. For a fun activity in Chiang Mai, make your own jewellery a silversmith workshop.
Wat Phra Singh
Locally known as the Monastery of the Lion Buddha is a 14th century at the heart of the Old City with numerous Buddha statues and gilded domes. Entry is free but the temple hall is 40 baht.
Other things to do in Chiang Mai Old City
If brunching and temple-hopping doesn’t fill the whole day, here are a couple of other things to do in Chiang Mai:
City Arts and Cultural Centre: right in the heart of Chiang Mai beside the Three Kings Monument, this is the best place to learn about Chiang Mai and general Thai history including Burmese rule, royalty, and life in days gone by. Entry is 180 baht. If you’re hungry after, head next door to Kiet O Cha to eat some of the best satay and fried chicken in the city.
Tha Phae Gate: there are four gates at each corner of Chiang Mai but this is the most impressive, dating back to the 13th century when it protected the Lanna Kingdon from invasion from the Mongol Empire. There are lots of street food stands here and on Saturday evenings, a live band plays.
Lunch – khao soi noodles
An old fable says that if you haven’t visited Doi Suthep and eaten khao soi, you haven’t been to Chiang Mai. I don’t know about you but nothing would rile me more than hearing this after visiting a city and feeling like a failed traveller… Best to slurp down some coconut chicken noodles to be safe!
Khao soi is served everywhere in Chiang Mai but my personal favourite was at Khao Soy Khun Yai, a modest restaurant set inside the grounds of Wat Khuan Khama temple. They’re only open from 10am-2pm but it’s worth fitting around their schedule to try this spicy, rich dish topped with crispy fried egg noodles. You’ll only pay 50 baht.
Another option I love is Kao Soy Nimman. Although it’s aimed at tourists, there are so many combinations and the flavours are out of this world!
Wondering where to eat in Chiang Mai? Check out my food guide.
Go for a massage
A beauty or pamper treatment would rarely be my first choice of activity in a new city but Chiang Mai is another story. It’s one of the cheapest places in the world for massages but better yet, the money supports local livelihoods and worthy causes. While you can get a cheap massage anywhere in Chiang Mai, why not add a prison inmate massage to your Southeast Asia bucket list?
Wait, say what? Yes, you read that right – a massage from an inmate. Due to the harsh Thai justice system, women are frequently imprisoned for minor crimes and find it hard to assimilate back into life after their sentences. By going for an amazing and cheap massage at this famous salon, you are supporting the rehabilitation programme which helps equip the women with employable skills.
Find the Training Center Of Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution on the corner of Ratvithi and Jhaban Road. Because it’s so popular, it’s advisable to swing by first thing in the morning to book a massage for later the same day.
Coffee shops in Chiang Mai Old City
The coffee culture in Chiang Mai is fantastic so I would recommend breaking up your Chiang Mai itinerary with a pitstop at a cafe. If you’re visiting in summer, being outside all day is hot and sweaty so you’ll need an aircon break.
My Secret Cafe in Town – a very swish cafe with a beautiful interior, hot and iced drinks, and some decadent desserts like Oreo cheesecake.
Evening – Night Market
There are so many Chiang Mai Night Markets that you’ll be spoiled for choice. Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is the most popular but my least favourite because it’s very touristy.
While the Saturday and Sunday Markets found on Walking Street are also very touristy, they’re still a good time because the whole city comes alive with street food stands and massage stations.
Another night market option is Chang Phuak Gate Night Market where you can try famous pork leg rice made by the Cowboy Hat Lady featured on the late Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. Whichever you choose to visit, make sure you tie in an atmospheric food market into your Chiang Mai itinerary because it will certainly be a highlight.
Fancy a food tour?
There’s so much amazing street food and countless markets in Chiang Mai. If the prospect of navigating the food scene alone is daunting, why not take a food tour?
I went on the Northern Food Tour by Truck with A Chef’s Tour where we travelled by private songthaew for the evening, visiting local markets and trying dishes like spicy northern Thai sausage and Burmese food.
Day 2 – Doi Suthep and cooking class
Now you’re well acquainted with the city centre, day two is for fun experiences and new destinations just outside of town. These are…
Morning – take a Thai cooking class
I love taking cooking classes anywhere in the world but Thailand is a special place because of the aromatic ingredients like ginger, lemongrass, lime and chilli. Not only are they fun to cook with, but you also get to eat the finished product.
Chiang Mai is surrounded by farms with organic veggie plots and kitchens onsite. Many of the best cooking classes in Chiang Mai hold morning classes following a local market visit.
Afternoon – visit Doi Suthep
Remember that fable earlier? Here it is again not.
”If you haven’t tasted khao soi or seen the view from Doi Suthep, you haven’t been to Chiang Mai.”Old Thai saying
Doi Suthep is a must for your Chiang Mai itinerary so I’d recommend visiting early to beat the crowds. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple sits on top of Doi Suthep mountain at 1,646 metres above sea level and looks down over the city.
Not only are the views fantastic but it’s one of Thailand’s oldest and holiest temples dating back to the 13th century.
According to legend, a breast bone believed to be from the Buddha was transported across Thailand for the inspection of King Keu Naone. The bone replicated itself and the elephant carrying it ran away from his captors. He roamed the mountain until he trumpeted three times, lay down and died on the spot that King Keu Naone decided should be the location of Doi Suthep.
Getting to Doi Suthep from Chiang Mai
Private taxi: arrange this at your accommodation.
Day tour: several companies will take you to Doi Suthep and combine other locations in the area. Book a tour on GetYourGuide.
Songthaew: board one for 60 baht outside Chang Phuak Gate Night Market. The market won’t be there in the daytime but you can use the Google pin location to find the location outside the 7-Eleven.
Evening – catch some jazz
A fun and different evening activity in Chiang Mai is to watch talented young jazz artists at The North Gate Jazz Co-Op. All you need to do in order to watch jazz all night is buy a drink at this atmospheric bar where people spill out into the open air.
The performers are mainly university students who have taken an interest in jazz and formed their own bands. There’s nothing amateur about it though… These guys are incredibly talented and watching them makes for a great night.
More Chiang Mai nightlife
Whether you want swanky rooftop bars or cheap beers with the locals, Chiang Mai has a range of nightlife options.
For the ultimate night out, Zoe in Yellow has been an institution for years (I remember going as far back as 2015). It’s popular with backpackers and plays chart and hip-hop music.
Finally, Chiang Mai’s Ladyboy Cabaret Show beside the Night Bazaar is always a classic. With singing, dancing and audience participation, it’s always a lively night!
Day 3 – The Monks Trail & Nimman
Today we’ll be exploring a lesser-known temple that requires a hike to reach. Although it’s uphill, the relatively easy hike to Wat Pha Lat, translating as Monastery at the Sloping Rock, is along a beautiful, peaceful track with impressive views out over Chiang Mai.
To reach the hidden jungle temple, simply follow orange strips of robe tied to trees.
The hike takes about an hour and will bring you out at Wat Pha Lat where you can explore temple buildings, Buddhist statues and a naga serpent staircase. The peaceful setting owed to its hidden location puts off many travellers; good news for those who make it!
Getting to the start point: Take a taxi or, for a cheaper and more adventurous option, board a songthaew. I paid 60 baht to get dropped at the start of the hike beside Chiang Mai Zoo.
Tip for Wat Pha Lat – bring a sarong or coverup for your legs and shoulders because there’s nowhere to hire one when you arrive.
Alternative option – Sticky Waterfalls
Fancy cooling down at a waterfall rather than hiking? If so, you might be interested in the Sticky Waterfalls, also known as Bua Tong Waterfall. Due to unique mineral deposits which make them feel sticky to touch, you can climb up them.
They’re an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai so you can either hire a guide, take an organised tour (or combine it with a Doi Suthep tour) or get a group together and split a songthaew there.
Afternoon – Nimman
After your culture dose from the past 3 days in Chiang Mai, you might fancy checking out Nimman, which is on the way back into town from Wat Pha Lat.
Whether you fancy shopping at stylish boutiques, visiting hipster coffee shops or having a decadent brunch after your morning hike, there are plenty of options in this stylish neighbourhood.
If eating is on the agenda, I would recommend The Larder Cafe & Bar where I had a delicious brunch of fig and goat’s cheese toast with a flat white. This cute cafe is just across the road from Maya Mall which is the spot for shopping with a big Thai food court and a cinema inside.
While Maya Mall has world brands, you can find lots of independent shops and cafes over the road at One Nimman, as well as an organic supermarket. You can also head up to the shopping viewpoint for a panoramic view of the neighbourhood.
Monk chat at Wat Suan Dok
Finish this Chiang Mai itinerary with a bit of culture after your not-so-cultural trip to Nimman. Wat Suan Dok is a twenty-minute walk from central Nimman, located to the west of Chiang Mai.
Not only is it an impressive temple to check out filled with gleaming gold and white domes, but you can join a monk chat between 5pm to 7pm on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Just arrive and follow signs to the office to register.
Dinner at Crazy Noodle
My favourite hidden gem in Chiang Mai is Crazy Noodle Restaurant, located nearby in Nimman. Every time I’ve visited it’s been full of locals but very few tourists which is always a good sign.
As the name might suggest, they serve noodle dishes with all manner of OTT ingredients like whole squids and chicken cutlets. Choose between different types of noodles and soup flavours then add your chosen toppings. In a modern cafe setting, it’s a cheap place to eat with dishes between 60 and 160 baht.
Bonus day trips to extend your Chiang Mai itinerary
I’ve designed this itinerary to incorporate the best of the city. But if you have time to enjoy surrounding Northern Thailand, why not take some day trips?
4 days Chiang Mai itinerary – Doi Inthanon National Park
One of the best day trips from Chiang Mai is to Doi Inthanon, a national park two hours away by car. Even if you’re visiting in the summer months, pack a jacket because this beautiful region located at 2,565m above sea level gets chilly.
Doi Inthanon is home to Thailand’s tallest mountain as well as the highest point in Thailand where you can snap photos beside a sign to show you made it.
The easiest way to visit is with a small group day tour from Chiang Mai.
Read next: how to visit Doi Inthanon from Chiang Mai
5 day Chiang Mai itinerary – Elephant Nature Park
Seeing animals in Thailand is a complicated matter because you have to ensure you’re supporting an ethical centre or sanctuary. Many people want to play with or ride elephants because they’re cute, failing to understand these animals have been tortured to accommodate them.
I would advise you research thoroughly any animal experience and check recent reviews.
Elephant Nature Park and Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary are two of the most ethical sanctuaries in Chiang Mai. The first is well-known so expect it to be busy while Kindred Spirit is much quieter. At these sanctuaries, you cannot ride or paint elephants or any of the other unethical activities some places allow.
What is the best season to visit Chiang Mai?
Dry season is November to April; this is the most pleasant time to visit Chiang Mai but there is one exception:
Burning season! In February and March, farmers burn the remains of last season’s crops, sending ash into the air. The whole of Chiang Mai is engulfed in smog so I would suggest avoiding these months if you can. November, December, January and April are better.
Rainy season is May-October. You can still visit but bring your rain gear.
Festivals in Chiang Mai
If you can time your trip around one of these festivals, do!
Songkran: Although the weather can be hot and sticky, the best time to be in Thailand is April when this annual water festival cools everyone down. Songkran celebrates spring by washing away negativity associated with the past year. You’ll spend the festival running the streets getting soaked as locals and tourists alike fight with water pistols and buckets of water. Don’t bring any valuables unless they’re waterproof!
Yi Peng and Loy Krathong: During these Chiang Mai lantern festivals, Chiang Mai is illuminated with lanterns. Yo Peng sees lanterns released into the sky to symbolise letting go of bad energy and keeping hold of the good, while Loy Krathong sees offerings to Mother Nature released into the river.
Chiang Mai Flower Festival: I was lucky enough to experience this on the first weekend of February during my recent trip to Chiang Mai. Huge flower displays, including those in the shapes of elephants, pop up in Buak Hat Park and elaborate lower-laden floats parade through the streets.
Where to go next?
Chiang Rai: If you’re travelling around Northern Thailand, I would really recommend Chiang Rai which is two hours away by bus. The best things to do in Chiang Rai include visiting funky modern temples, unusual museums and the giant Buddha statue in the countryside. Take the bus from Chiang Mai or a guided day tour.
Pai: this peaceful town in the mountains has a hippie vibe and excellent night markets. But the highlight is the countryside around it encompassing attractions like Pai Canyon or visit Pai Waterfalls.
Pai is a 3-hour drive from Chiang Mai so I’d suggest spending a few nights there. If you only have a spare day, opt for a guided day tour.
What NOT to do in Chiang Mai
Sadly, there are some unethical activities in Chiang Mai. These are:
- The Tiger Temple – this is an abhorrent place where tigers are drugged for tourist photos.
- Long Neck Tribe tours – many of these people are Burmese refugees being kept hostage. They’re not likely to receive much or any money from the tours so such villages/activities should be avoided.
- Any elephant sanctuary/tour where elephants can be hidden, painted etc. Elephants go through a rigorous ‘spirit crushing’ to allow them to be ridden. It’s heartbreaking.
Thanks for reading my 3 day Chiang Mai itinerary!
I hope you have a fantastic 3 days in Chiang Mai and find plenty of hidden gems and peaceful corners as you explore this captivating, friendly city. Enjoy!
Check out my other Thailand guides:
- Tips for solo travel in Thailand
- The perfect Southeast Asia backpacking route
- Complete Chiang Mai food guide
- The best coffee shops in Chiang Mai
- 11 fun and unique things to do in Chiang Mai
- How to spend 2 days in Bangkok
- Ayutthaya day trip from Bangkok
- The best food in Chinatown Bangkok
- Visiting Bangkok Airplane Graveyard
See you next time,
Ps. Liked this Chiang Mai itinerary in 3 days? Pin it for later!
These are my trusted resources:
Getting around by air – it’s easy to get between cities by flight. I use Skyscanner to find the best-value flights, using the ‘search by month’ tool to find the cheapest dates. You can also use the ‘to anywhere’ feature if you’re flexible on where you’re going.
Buses – buses are comfy and efficient. Use 12Go to book.
Trains – these are a good option for long journeys because you have a bed rather than a seat. Use 12Go to book.
Driving in Thailand – use Rentalcars.com to compare car rentals.
For hotels, I use Booking.com – they also have self-catering apartments. You can filter by review score and price to find the best-rated budget places. For hostels, I use Hostelworld.
To save money on accommodation, I use Trusted Housesitters, a website that connects homeowners going away and travellers who can sit their homes & pets.
Browse tours and activities on GetYourGuide. I also check Viator and Klook in case they have a better price.
For food tours with passionate local chefs and foodies, check out EatWith.
Need travel insurance? I use True Traveller (for UK & Europe residents) since it’s affordable but covers everything you’d need including various activities, valuables and pre-existing conditions. Unlike some companies, they insure you if you’re already travelling / don’t yet have your flight home booked. Get a quote.
For travel insurance for other nationalities, I recommend Hey Mundo and for long-term digital nomad travellers, I suggest Safety Wing.
Check out my resources page for more travel discounts and tips!