Heading to Chiang Mai, Thailand? You’re in the right place. Read on for the perfect Chiang Mai itinerary, featuring ornate temples, the best of Northern Thailand cuisine and adventure-filled day trips.
If you’re searching for the best Chiang Mai 3-day itinerary, then you probably plan on stopping there on your trip to Thailand.
You’ve made the right choice! Chiang Mai is a must-visit while in Thailand.
The laidback riverside town is located in a lush, mountainous region of Northern Thailand that feels worlds away from the hectic streets of Bangkok.
Chiang Mai is recognized as a hub for arts and culture, where artisan markets and temples line the streets and the rich aroma of Thai spices fills the air.
Three days is the perfect amount of time to enjoy the city’s slower pace – that is, if you manage to escape it. The 700-year-old city is known for trapping travelers with its leisurely charm, turning three-day visits into long-term stays.
Follow this 3-day Chiang Mai itinerary to fully experience everything the city has to offer, from its celebrated cuisine to its intricate temples. Continue reading for additional information on traveling to Chiang Mai, including the best time visit, how to get there and where to stay.
Top Things To Do In Chiang Mai
Here’s a quick overview of the things you simply cannot miss during your trip to Chiang Mai. Keep reading for the full Chiang Mai itinerary below!
- Explore Old City: Chiang Mai’s Old City is encircled by ancient walls put up centuries ago for protection. Inside, you’ll find some of the most impressive temples in the country, plenty of khao soi-slinging restaurants and trendy boutiques.
- Night Bazaar: Shop your heart out at this buzzy night market.
- Sunday Weekend Walking Street: If you’re in town on a Sunday, this market filled with cultural performances and local artisans is a must.
- Doi Suthep: The most famous temple in the city, located in a pretty unique vantage point!
- Elephant Nature Park: Volunteer or simply spend the day among rescued elephants.
- Thai Cooking Class: Learn to make regional dishes alongside locals.
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What To Pack & What To Wear In Chiang Mai
Thailand is a warm destination, where you spend most of your time visiting outdoor attractions. That being said, you want to pack lightweight, breathable clothing that’ll get you through a full day of exploring under the sun.
Here’s a look at some of my Thailand packing essentials.
- Lightweight tops
- Breathable bottoms
- Long & short dresses (this dress is perfect for visiting temples since it covers both your knees and shoulders)
- A light shawl to cover your shoulders when visiting temples
- Good pair of hiking boots
- Flip flops that can get wet
- Comfortable walking shoes
- Flat sandals
- eBags packing cubes to stay organized (I never travel anywhere without them!)
- Quick-drying microfiber travel towel
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Chiang Mai Itinerary: How To Spend 3 Days in This Northern Thailand Gem
Three days is the ideal amount of time to spend in Chiang Mai. Below, take a quick look at what to expect from this robust Chiang Mai itinerary, which provides a well-rounded experience for first-time visitors.
Chiang Mai 3-Day Itinerary
- Day 1: Explore the Old City & visit temples (AM) + Night Bazaar (PM)
- Day 2: Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (AM) + traditional Thai cooking class (PM)
- Day 3: Elephant Nature Park (All Day)
- Day 4 (optional): Day trip to Chiang Rai or Doi Inthanon National Park (All Day)
Chiang Mai Itinerary Day 1: Explore Temples In The Old City
Welcome to Chiang Mai: Your first day is all about getting acquainted with the laidback town and Northern Thai culture.
You’ll start your day with breakfast in Chiang Mai’s Old City, bounded by ancient walls built hundreds of years ago to protect the city from invasions.
Head over to Good Morning Chiang Mai, a guest house serving breakfast in a beautiful tropical setting. Or you can swing by a truly local venue, Jok Sompet, for a traditional Thai breakfast of rice porridge stacked with pork or seafood, and an egg.
Now that you’re fueled up for a day of exploring, it’s time to visit the city’s ornate temples. The most notable temples in the Old City include:
- Wat Chedi Luang: an enormous, pyramid-like structure with a water serpent staircase and a base decorated with elephants
- Wat Phra Singh: a visually stunning golden temple with slanted roofs, one of the most famous in the Old City and home to a giant reclining Buddha statue
- Wat Chiang Man: the very first temple built in Chiang Mai in the late 1200s
- Wat Saen Muang Ma Luang: lesser known but equally as impressive Burmese-style temple
- Wat Rajamontean: colorful temple joined by a large sitting Buddha
Here’s a walking tour that covers the five temples above, but feel free to stop at others you find along the way:
When you find yourself getting hungry, khao soi is the answer. Scoop up a bowl of the creamy noodle dish at Khao Soi Khun Yai, Khao Soi Mae Sai or Khoa Soy Nimman.
In the afternoon, head over to Terracotta Garden (a Chiang Mai hidden gem) for a cool drink in its leafy cafe. Trust me when I say you’ll be more than happy to sit back and cool off from a full day of temple-hopping.
Alternatively you could check out the buzzy Nimmanhaemin Road, where trendy cafes, restaurants and shops are aplenty.
By now you’re probably ready to head back to your hotel to freshen up for the evening.
At night, you’re going to cross another major Chiang Mai experience off your bucket list: The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. The city’s biggest street market begins setting up around sunset at the intersection of Chang Khlan Road and Loi Khro Road. Here you can buy everything from Thai silk and jewelry to backpacker favorites like the “Thai elephant pants.”
Chiang Mai Itinerary Day 2: Visit The Famed Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
You’re going to start Day 2 of your 3-day Chiang Mai itinerary with an excursion outside the city.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of the most sacred temples in northern Thailand and a must-visit for everyone who travels through Chiang Mai. The Buddhist temple, often just called “Doi Suthep,” stands out from all the rest for its innate beauty and unique location.
The Buddhist temple can be found at the top of a mountain by the same name, overlooking the city of Chiang Mai. Shrined in gold and surrounded with ornate Buddhist statues, the visually striking temple is a major pilgrimage site, as well as one of the top tourist attractions in Thailand.
When you arrive, you can either walk up the 300 or so steps to the top or take a funicular. Have your camera ready for the views up top.
Despite its unique location, Doi Suthep is relatively easy to get to.
- Driving: If you rented a car or a motorbike, you can take the 1004 or Huay Kaew Road toward Chiang Mai Zoo. It’s about a 30-minute drive from the center of the Old City.
- Songthaew: Many people choose to hire a songthaew. Drivers going to Doi Suthep leave from Huay Kaew Road near the zoo, and they usually wait until the car is full of passengers before leaving. You can aslo hire one from anywhere in the city if you’re in a group and can split the costs.
- Hiking: This is the most exciting way to get to the temple! The Monk’s Trail starts on Suthep Road past Chiang Mai University, near the zoo. You’ll come across the Pha Lat Temple first, then continue onto Doi Suthep.
Make sure you head back into town early enough to enjoy a traditional Thai cooking class, one of the most popular things to do in Chiang Mai. You can learn how to make regional dishes like Khao Soi, Pad Thai and rich curries alongside locals.
Chiang Mai Itinerary Day 3: Spend The Day at Elephant Nature Park
You’ll spend your third and final day in Chiang Mai with some of the most beautiful creatures on earth.
Elephant Nature Park is a rescue and rehabilitation center for elephants and other animals, and it’s one of few ethical establishments that treats the species with the respect and care it deserves.
There are several other tour operators claiming to be “ethical elephant sanctuaries” but Elephant Nature Park is the one I found to be the most reputable.
I recommend heading to their office as soon as you arrive to ensure you’re able to book the day trip during your three days in Chiang Mai. There are several different day trips available, and all include transportation from the city.
You can even stay overnight and volunteer at the sanctuary, too. View all packages available here.
Note: Aside from visits to the rehabilitation center itself, there are also trips available to different villages that are trying out the park’s concept of caring for the elephants rather than using them for work. During this kind of visit, you’ll most likely be able to walk alongside the elephants in their natural habitat, and sometimes even help bathe them in a stream or waterfall. Remember that you should never, under any circumstances, ride the elephants.
Day 4 (Optional): Chiang Rai or Doi Inthanon National Park
If you can add a fourth day to your 3-day Chiang Mai itinerary, there are a number of exciting day trips worth looking into.
Two of the most popular day trips from Chiang Mai are to Chiang Rai to visit the White Temple, or to Doi Inthanon National Park, where you’ll find the highest peak in Thailand.
Chiang Mai Day Trip to Chiang Rai
Many people choose to day trip to Chiang Rai to visit the White Temple, or Wat Rong Khun, an impressive all-white shrine with unbelievably intricate carvings.
Chiang Rai sits about three hours and a half from Chiang Mai. You can drive there yourself, take a bus or schedule a day tour that’ll include additional stops along the way.
This wonderful Chiang Rai tour option includes a visit to the Golden Triangle, where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet; a scenic boat trip along the Mekong River; and the White Temple in Chiang Rai.
Learn more about a day trip to Chiang Rai here!
Chiang Mai Day Trip to Doi Inthanon National Park
The Doi Inthanon National Park is home to several hikes, waterfalls and the highest peak in Thailand. The park, however, is mostly known for Naphamethinidon and Naphaphonphumisiri, or the King and Queen pagodas. The two towering pagodas sit in a colorful garden overlooking the Thai mountains.
The park is about two hours from Chiang Mai by car. You can rent a car and explore the park on your own, or go with an organized tour.
I personally did a full-day tour that included a stop at the beautiful Wachirathan Waterfalls, as well as the highest point in Thailand. We also stopped at local markets along the way, as well as a village to learn about the history of its people, shop for handmade textiles and try freshly brewed coffee.
Learn more about day tours to Doi Inthanon National Park here!
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Where To Stay in Chiang Mai
There are hotels and hostels of all kinds and for all budget levels in Chiang Mai.
The Old City is the most convenient place to stay, especially if you’re visiting Chiang Mai for the first time. From here you can easily walk to all the major temples and attractions, as well as hundreds of restaurants and shops.
Here are a few of the best hotel options in the Old City.
BEST BUDGET OPTION: HILLDA HOUSE
Hillda House features minimalistic yet modern double rooms at a wonderful price. Rooms come with air conditioning, private bathrooms and free toiletries. You can also count on a 24-hour front desk, tour desk and luggage storage.
BEST MID-RANGE OPTION: BURI GALLERY HOUSE
This hotel is a rustic tropical oasis — I mean, can my future home please look like this? The Buri Gallery House is located a short walk from Wat Phra Singh and the Sunday Walking Street Market. It features a pool, a restaurant nestled in a lush garden, a mini library and a shop selling local goods on site.
BEST LUXURY OPTION: PRA SINGH VILLAGE
A gorgeous property with mountain views, a pool, lush gardens and room service. The rooms are spacious and elegantly designed with wooden accents. The best rooms come with spa-like hot tubs and a sun terrace.
WHERE I STAYED: SABAI HOUSE
I actually stayed a few blocks outside the Old City to be near a couple of friends who were also visiting Chiang Mai at the same time. Sabai House was affordable, comfortable and clean. The biggest benefit was that it was only a 5-minute walk from the Night Bazaar.
Where To Eat in Chiang Mai
If there’s one thing you must eat while in Chiang Mai, it’s khao soi. It’s the star of Northern Thai cuisine, and you can find it all over the city. Here are a few notable spots where you can experience all the robust flavors of Northern Thailand.
- Khao Soi Khun Yai: Order the coconut milk-based khao soi. The restaurant is very popular and often quite busy.
- Khao Soi Mae Sai: Popular street stall with a rich rendition of beef khao soi.
- Kao Soy Nimman: Lovely restaurant with a varied selection of khao soi.
- Tong Tem Toh: Trendy spot with a full range of Northern Thai fare.
- Khao Soi Islam: Serves the original Halal version of the khao soi dish.
- Huen Phen: Another busy spot specializing in khao soi, especially at lunch time.
Best Time to Visit Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai has three notable seasons: cool, hot and rainy. Overall the city’s temperatures are cooler than Bangkok due to its geographical location.
The best time to visit Chiang Mai is during the cool season from November to February, when humidity and rainfall are low.
You want to avoid traveling to Chiang Mai in March or April, known as the burning season.
This is when local farmers burn old crops to make way for new ones, sparking a crazy-high level of air pollution across the city. The city and surrounding countryside become so hazy it could ruin the experience.
Notable festivals: The giant water party known as the Songkran festival happens over three days in mid-April, and the famous lantern festival Yee Peng is held in November.
How To Get To Chiang Mai From Bangkok
You’ll most likely be starting your Thailand trip in Bangkok, the country’s capital and central transportation hub.
There are many ways to get to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, including by plane, train or bus. The easiest way is to fly. The 1 hour 20 minute flight can be incredibly affordable, as low as $30 for a one-way ticket.
Budget travelers can opt for an overnight train or bus to save money on a hotel night. If you’re someone who enjoys truly local transportation experiences, the overnight train is a must!
How To Get Around Chiang Mai
Getting around the city of Chiang Mai is easy. If you’re staying in or near the Old City, you can walk to several notable temples, restaurants, bars and shops.
There are also plenty of transportation options, including:
- Uber and Grab
The most popular form of local transportation method is the songthaew, a converted pickup truck with rows of seats. It’s very easy to locate them all over the city. Tuk-tuks are also readily available, if you prefer not to share a ride.
Ride sharing apps like Uber and Southeast Asia’s own version known as Grab are also available in Chiang Mai. Many times these apps are cheaper than a regular taxi service.
Speaking of traditional taxis, they are available, but most people only use them to get to and from the airport, train station or bus station.
Chiang Mai Budget: Is Chiang Mai Expensive?
Chiang Mai, like all of Thailand, can be a very affordable trip. If you’re traveling on a budget, you can spend as little as $25 to $30 per day. If you plan on dining out repeatedly and participating in a day tour or two, then plan for anywhere from $40 to $70 per day.
I spent about $60 per day in Chiang Mai, and this included two day trips, quite a bit of shopping and dining out for all three meals of the day.
Are you feeling more prepared for your trip to Chiang Mai? I hope this 3-day itinerary has given you all the information you need to plan your stay in Chiang Mai. I’m sure it’ll be an unforgettable trip!