The perfect Chiang Mai itinerary | how to spend 3 days in Chiang Mai

Getting your feet ‘stuck’ as you climb up a roaring waterfall, spending hours watching tuk tuks zoom past you as you drink some of the world’s finest coffee and marvelling at temples, their gilded spires glistening in the Thailand sun. What do these all have in common, you might ask? They’re all what you can expect of a few days in Chiang Mai, our number one city in Thailand. From getting your hands dirty in a local cooking class, to hiking the hills and market-hopping for beautiful wares, Chiang Mai is a traveller’s paradise – we could spend weeks there or, if pressed for time, see the key sights of Chiang Mai in 3 days. So, here is our perfect Chiang Mai itinerary.

Our perfect 3 days in Chiang Mai itinerary

So what does the perfect Chiang Mai itinerary look like? Here is our suggested guide on what to do in this fantastic city in 3 days.

  • Day 1 | Coffee, temples and market hopping
  • Day 2 | Bua Tong Sticky Waterfalls
  • Day 3 | Wat Doi Suthep and cooking course

Why choose Chiang Mai?

You’re probably already convinced to spend time in this northern beauty but, in case you’re still considering it, there are a few good reasons to craft the perfect Chiang Mai itinerary:

  • Like all of Thailand, Chiang Mai is eminently easy to travel. Most people speak English, it’s geared towards tourism, and the quality of accommodation is particularly high.
  • It’s got lashings of culture. We love Chiang Mai since it’s so laidback and chilled, but others love it because it’s jam-packed with things to do – markets, cooking classes, hiking, temples, you name it.
  • The food. Who isn’t a lover of Thai cuisine? Chiang Mai is home to some of the more fiery dishes but has dishes to suit most taste buds and a smorgasbord of cooking classes for you to take the skills back home with you.
  • This might not be important to you but, for many, the internet speeds and café culture of Chiang Mai makes it ideal for digital nomads. It’s often voted the #1 place for digital nomads to settle and that is since the wifi speeds are fast but, more than that, it has a very open coworking culture.
  • Lastly, price. Thailand is more expensive than some of its other South East Asian counterparts, but it still offers a bargain for most travellers. Also, Chiang Mai is cheaper than cities like Bangkok or it’s island cousins like Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi.
Picture of tuk tuk vehicles in Chiang Mai Thailand

Getting to Chiang Mai

We haven’t put a lot of detail on how to get to Chiang Mai itself since there are a number of travel routes you might take, depending on where you are originating from.

Assuming you land at Chiang Mai airport (as we did the last time we visited), it’s a relatively easy trip into the city or old town. And so check out the flight options into Chiang Mai through Skyscanner. The options are below but it’s also worth checking with your hotel or accommodation if they offer a free transfer service, as many do.

Getting to Chiang Mai from the airport

Taxi: There is a prominent taxi booth in the arrival hall where you can book a taxi into the city to your accommodation. There are two options – both meter or ‘airport taxi’, both of which usually end up costing about 150 THB (4.75 USD/3.75 GBP).

Tuk Tuk: If you’re up for a more authentic Thai experience, there are usually lots of tuk tuks waiting for you outside the arrivals hall. Remember to bargain on price and only put your luggage in once you have agreed the fee, which should be anywhere between 100 and 120 THB (3.15 and 3.75 USD/2.50 and 3.00 GBP).

Songthaew (Shared taxi): The second cheapest way to transfer, these red pick up trucks take a number of people together and usually cost between 40 and 50 THB (1.25 and 1.50 USD/1.00 and 1.25 GBP). You’ll need to wait until it’s full before departing but they will drop you at your accommodation, just perhaps not first on the trip into Chiang Mai town.

Airport Bus: The bargain way to get into the city is using the blue airport bus. The bus stops at a number of key places in the city and you’ll then need to either walk or take onward transport. It costs just 20 THB (0.65 USD/0.50 GBP).

Lastly, there are apparently minibus shuttles that operate, although infrequently. Since there are so many other options, we have never considered this.

Grab taxi

Travel Insurance for Thailand

Got your travel insurance booked? We promise to never push a brand or product we don’t personally use, and the travel cover from Safety Wing is a policy we don’t just use, but we highly recommend. They offer some of the most flexible policies, amazing customer service and are affordable too.

Check out the latest travel insurance prices with Safety Wing here.

Getting around Thailand or to Laos

If you’re looking to continue to explore Thailand, we’d recommend checking out Bookaway for the best trains, bus and transfer options. They have amazing 24 hour support and many options have great cancellation options – which is a bit of a relief, when you need to change travel plans. Trust us, that happens more than you’d expect.

If you are also travelling to Laos from Chiang Mai – Bookaway have a great bus & boat option, which takes you to the Thailand/Laos border crossing and then the infamous two day slow boat to Luang Prabang. A really amazing experience that we did when last in the region.

Recommended: When you get to Laos, make sure you check out the beautiful temples in Luang Prabang!

Day 1 – Coffee, temples and market-hopping

Akha Amma Coffee House

When you think of Thailand, coffee is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. However, the country has a buzzing coffee culture, most so here in the north like Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. You’ll find the locals are hugely passionate about the coffee bean, and we had many a conversation with guides and tuk tuk drivers about the best place to drink it.

In Chiang Mai, one shop continues to lead the caffeine wars: Akha Ama Coffee. The owner was still a young boy when he found his love in the dark brew and decided to grow, source, grind and sell his own coffee.

There is more than one branch in Chiang Mai, but head to the ‘La Fattoria’ outlet for authentic Thai coffee. Sit on the front porch to see the city life pass you by.

Picture of tea and coffee at Akha Amma Coffee in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Location: Tambon Si Phum Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand

Open: Daily 8.00am to 5.30pm

Wat Phra Singh

A few blocks from the coffee house is arguably the best temple in the city, Wat Phra Singh.

The original temple here was built in the 14th century, and since then several other buildings have been added to form a large complex with several smaller chedis and kuti, where the monks live. It’s one of the most attractive temples in Chiang Mai, with gorgeous gilded rooftops and whitewashed walls but also one of the remaining working temples, as you see the monks roaming about and there is a school on the grounds itself.

Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai

Location: 2 Samlarn Rd, Phra Sing, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50280, Thailand

Open: 6.00am to 5.30pm

Wat Chedi Luang

One of the oldest temples in Chiang Mai, which was partially destroyed due to an earthquake in 1545 and then restored, partially, by UNESCO in the 1990s, we really enjoyed our time at this unique temple. The temple was really cool, but what we enjoyed most was the opportunity to chat about Buddhism and Chiang Mai with its monks. Every day the Wat hosts ‘monk chat groups’ where you can have a great conversation with them. Note there is a 40 THB entrance fee (1.25 USD/1.00 GBP).

Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Rai

Location: 103 Prapokkloa Rd, Tambon Si Phum, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand

Open: 6.00am to 6.30pm daily

Night Markets

Chiang Mai is a shopper’s paradise and one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai at night is to wander the maze of streets around its markets in the old city. It has a number of different ones but the ‘old favourite’ is the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. This bustling market on Chang Khlan road is on every single night, with stalls starting to hawk their wares at around 6.00pm and shutting down around 11.30pm.

Here you’ll find everything from mango sticky rice and pad thai, to row upon row of ‘elephant travel trousers’, fake designer sunglasses, local handicrafts and even furniture!

There are a number of other night markets to frequent but if you’ve got a weekend in Chiang Mai,

you must visit the Sunday Walking Street market. Located in the heart of the tourist area, running from the Tha Pae Gate, the road is closed down to traffic every Sunday evening and transformed into an Aladdin’s cave of food, trinkets and service stalls, including a huge tented massage area where you can enjoy a speedy foot rub after all that walking! This is one Sunday night market in Thailand that you don’t want to miss.

There is a similar market on a Saturday night, this time stretching down Wualai road from the South Gate to the Silver Temple.

Day 2 – Bua Tong Sticky Waterfalls

It’s one of the most unusual experiences we’ve ever had and one we would highly recommend for your bucket list: traipsing up a waterfall with your feet ‘stuck’ onto the rocks!

The limestone sticky waterfalls are a 90 minute drive north of Chiang Mai (60km), and are essentially a cluster of waterfalls where limestone mineral deposits have, over the years, accumulated to give them a lot of ‘grip’. This means you can scale the waterfalls from bottom to top, walking up through gushing water; something we had never even heard of before arriving in Chiang Mai.

You can of course drive there yourself, either by hire car or motorbike, but we would strongly recommend taking a guide and booking this as a tour. It’s invaluable having someone walk you through the falls the first time and point out the pitfalls and areas to avoid. There also aren’t great food and drink options near the falls so doing this as a tour means your guide will cater for you; and we’ll attest that the food and drink on our tour was fantastic!

If you’re looking for a great tour – check out this one on Get Your Guide.

Picture of couple at top of Sticky Waterfalls in Chiang Mai

Top tip: Take insect repellent since the area can have quite a few mosquitoes, depending on what time of the year you go.

Location: Mae Ho Phra, Mae Taeng District, Chiang Mai 50150, Thailand

Open: Daily 8.00am to 5.00pm

Day 3 – Wat Doi Suthep and Cooking Course

Wat Doi Suthep

It’s a little bit out of Chiang Mai but well worth the trek to the Doi Suthep temple. It’s about 40 minutes out of town and about 300 steps up to this mountain temple, characterized by heavy gold accents and a number of other sights surrounding it. While you are there, you can do the monk chat at their Buddhism Centre, or visit the large hilltop Hmong village. There are even a few waterfalls nearby, to cool if you like.

The best way to get there is via a shared songthaew taxi which is about 200 THB (6.25 USD/5.00 GBP) both ways.

Location: 9 Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand

Open: Daily 5.00am to 9.00pm

Thai cooking course

You can’t come to Thailand and not do a Thai cooking class – it’s surely the rules?! Either way, Chiang Mai is a great place to do it, since you’ll experience some of the northern Thai speciality dishes such as Khao Soi (creamy coconut curry noodle soup), Laab (spicy salad) and Sai Qua (spicy sausage).

The town is characterised by many options to try your hand at Thai cuisine but the most popular is May Kaidee’s Cooking School. Founded in 1988, the school specialises in vegetarian dishes and runs twice daily, at a cost of 1,500 THB per person (47.00 USD/38.50 GBP).

Bonus activities to add to your Chiang Mai itinerary

Don’t like our list? Chiang Mai has many more exciting sights to take in, and things to do. Here are a few tried and tested ones:

Relax with a Thai Massage

A bit like taking a cooking class when in Chiang Mai, you can’t really head to the city without chalking out a little time for a Thai massage!

Whether you grab one at the night markets, which feels a bit more authentic, or pop into one of the many massage shops, it’s up to you – but boy, will your body thank you for it.

Cycle Tour

The city offers a fantastic highlights tour, from the seat of a bicycle! Go with a local guide and do the Chiang Mai Sightseeing Cycling Tour. We haven’t personally done this ourselves, but have heard from fellow travellers who loved it… and the reviews speak for themselves.

Wat Umong

Built in the 1300’s, this impressive temple includes a series of tunnels which feel like underground bunkers to explore.

Day trip to Doi Inthanon National Park

If you’re looking for beautiful hiking, waterfalls, views and the tallest mountain in Thailand, then you must head out to the Doi Inthanon National Park.

Located around 70km from Chiang Mai, the national park, known as the Roof of Thailand, is actually part of the Himalayans. I know. Mind blown and bucket list ticked in one go…

With the park being a good 2 hour drive from Chiang Mai and the need for a vehicle in the park, unless you are super comfortable on a scooter, we’d recommend booking a tour!

Muay Thai at the Kawila boxing stadium

Keen to see a traditional Muay Thai fight? The Kawila Boxing stadium hosts the best and most authentic fights, although usually only runs on Friday nights. It’s about 500 THB (15.50 USD/12.75 GBP) for a ticket. Although if you want to get right into the action, ringside seats will cost you more.

Book your skip the line ticket here.

Night Safari

This one is more suited to families. The Chiang Mai night safari sees the zoo come alive at night! Head out in a tram to see eerie cat eyes looming back at you, or feed the giraffes as you traverse the park. Adult tickets are 800 THB (25.00 USD/20.00 GBP) and kids’ tickets are half price.

Visit an elephant sanctuary

We are not huge fans of elephant tourism, hence not including this as a recommendation. However, if you do choose an experience with elephants, make sure it is sustainable. We’ve been told that the Mahouts Elephant Foundation runs a good elephant nature park.

Where to stay in Chiang Mai

Like it’s glut of fantastic cafes and restaurants, Chiang Mai is full to the brim with fantastic accommodation. A quick search on Agoda will help you snag one of the best Chiang Mai hotels, plus Airbnb also has some good affordable options.

That said, here are three suggested places for Chiang Mai:

Luxury: Ten minutes from the night market is one of the most beautiful boutique hotels in Chiang Mai, 137 Pillars House. It offers huge, luxurious suites with garden views and has an outdoor pool, a highly-rated spa and gym.

Mid-range: Chiang Mai has a host of great options in the midrange budget but the best of the bunch is 18 In Town Homestay. It has a lush green garden, lovely cozy clean rooms and free bikes to help you get around the town.

Budget: We stayed at Hostel by Bed, and would really advocate for this great little hostel. It’s impeccably clean, has a huge shared kitchen, friendly staff and delicious breakfast each day!

Where to eat in Chiang Mai

The thing that struck us most about the city was the sheer number of first-rate eateries as well as the focus on sustainable fare and vegan food in Chiang Mai. You can eat like a king at the markets but you can also go eco and slurp up smoothie bowls and ginger tea at hip establishments across the city, with so many incredible foods to eat! Here are some of top recommendations for where to eat as part of your 3 day Chiang Mai itinerary.

Best for street food: The night market and walking streets. Pad Thai, green curry, quail eggs, mango sticky rice – whatever Thai delights your heart desires, you’ll find it sold at a stall in one of the markets.

Best for healthy food: We ate here three times in two days – trust us, it’s a winner. Good Souls focusses on vegan Western and Thai dishes, as well as offering healthy cakes and tasty teas and coffee. It provides arguably the best smoothie bowl we’ve ever had: banana and passion fruit, as well as a mean serving of banana pancakes.

Picture of tea and banana pancakes at Good Souls, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Best for local flavour: It used to be a hidden gem but is fast becoming a Chiang Mai institution. Nun’s Restaurant is known for having the best Khai Soi in town, delicious yellow curry and bananas in coconut milk that you’ll dream about for years to come.

Best for digital nomads: Need strong wifi but also delectable food? CAMP (which stands for ‘creative and meeting place) is the hottest spot in town. They not only have a wifi network but by buying food or drink you get access to their premium wifi service, which is ideal for photo and video download and upload.

Is 3 days in Chiang Mai enough?

We think that 3 days in Chiang Mai is just about enough time to explore the city. Within these 3 days you should be able to cover all the key sights in the city. Although if you’re keen to do fantastic day trips out to Chiang Rai, the Golden Triangle and Doi Inthanon National Park, then we’d suggest that you base yourself for at least one week in Chiang Mai

But in saying that a lot of travellers fall in the love with the place and end up staying in Chiang Mai for far longer than they expected.

Day trip to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai

It’s the quieter cousin of Chiang Mai but we’re also huge fans of Chiang Rai, which offers some of the most unique temples in all of Thailand. We’d recommend this as one of your day trips out of town but, if possible, extend your 3 days in Chiang Mai for 1 to 2 full days to give Chiang Rai the time it also deserves! It’s only 3 hours on the bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, so pretty close.

If doing a day trip, we highly suggest hiring a guide to get you around. You’ll want to tick off all the ‘colours’ of Chiang Rai: the white temple, the blue temple and the black house!

Here is an amazing tour that we’d recommend!

The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)

One of the major landmarks in Thailand, the White Temple is actually a privately-owned art exhibit, created by Chalermchai Kositpopat… it definitely is stunning but totally unconventional and a refreshing alternative to many other temples. Alongside the main white temple, there are loads of other interesting exhibits and buildings to explore. There is an entrance fee of 50 THB (1.50 USD/1.25 GBP).

The White Temple, Chiang Rai

Location: Pa O Don Chai, Chiang Rai 57000, Thailand

Open: Daily 6.30am to 6pm

The Black House

We didn’t love this one, but most visitors do, so add to it your Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai itinerary! Baan Dam (known as the Black House) is a park with a weird and wonderful collection of buildings, displays, sculptures and installations. Baan Dam is a display of the life’s work of Thai artist Thawan Duchanee. There is an 80 THB entrance fee (2.50 USD/2.00 GBP).

The Black House, Baan Dam, Chiang Rai

Location: 414 Moo 13, Ban Du, Chiang Rai

Open: Daily 9.00am to 5.00pm

The Blue Temple (Wat Rong Suea Ten)

This is a much smaller and, to be honest, slightly less impressive temple but its unique blue colour makes it worth a visit in Chiang Rai.

The Blue Temple, Chiang Rai

Location: 306 Maekok Rd, Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai 57100

Open: Daily 6.00am to 7.00pm

Read next: Our guide to all the best temples in Chiang Rai

Bonus: Adding a few days in Pai onto your Chiang Mai itinerary

Pai is fast becoming a hotspot for Northern Thailand travel, as it’s filled with incredible scenery and hiking that is still virtually untouched. It’s only three hours from Chiang Mai on a minibus, so if you have a few extra days available, we would really recommend you spend it in Pai.

But, what to do there you ask?

Pai Canyon: Navigate this canyon, ideally at sunrise, and jump across huge red cracks along your narrow walking trail.

Hot Springs: Head to the hot springs to relax – they are about 8km out of Pai, but easy to access with a tuk tuk. Spend the day soaking in mineral baths, springs or the swimming pool.

Pam Bok Waterfalls: Another great way to escape the heat, you can hike out to the waterfalls and spend time chilling in the icy cool water.

Wat Phra That Mae Yen: The ‘temple on the hill’ is ideal for a sunset in Pai, seeing the town laid out before you.

Night market: Didn’t get enough of the walking streets in Chiang Mai? Head to Pai’s night market to stock up on souvenirs, or just some sizzling kebabs!

Picture of the view from Pai Canyon, Thailand

When is the best time to visit Chiang Mai?

Generally peak tourist season runs between October and April since the weather is sunny yet still cool and manageable. Within this, January to March is generally ideal since tourist volume is lower. Chiang Mai is also lovely during festivals, like the Lantern Festival in November.

What camera equipment and other gear do we use?

We’re living proof that you don’t need the most expensive gear to travel the world and take good photos. Here are some of our must have items that make it into the packing list for all our travels.

Some useful Thai phrases

  • Hello – Sawatdii
  • How are you? – Sabaaidii mai?
  • I’m fine – Sabaaidii
  • I’m not well – Mai sabaii
  • Thank you – Khop kun
  • Sorry – Khot hort
  • Goodbye – Bai

Frequently Asked Questions – Chiang Mai

What should I pack for Thailand?

Well, like most of Southeast Asia, you’ll need cool, lighter coloured clothing (ideally), sandals, sunscreen and definitely an adapter! Remember also that if visiting temples (which you inevitably will), you should cover your shoulders and your knees. Want to know more? Check out this more comprehensive Thailand packing guide.

Which is the best elephant sanctuary to visit in Chiang Mai?

As we said above, we are not really fans of elephant tourism, or really any animal tourism other than sustainable safaris and national parks. So, we’d ask you to reconsider going to any animal sanctuary as there are always mixed reviews.

What is the best 3 to 4 day itinerary for Chiang Mai?

There is so much to do in Chiang Mai but we think it’s important to visit a few temples, take in the night markets, do the Sticky Waterfalls and try your hand at a cooking class!

So, we’d suggest that this is the best 3 to 4 day itinerary

  • Day 1 | Coffee, temples and market hopping
  • Day 2 | Bua Tong Sticky Waterfalls
  • Day 3 | Wat Doi Suthep and cooking course
  • Day 4 | Day trip to Chiang Rai

How do I get from Bangkok to Chiang Mai?

It’s about 680 kilometres between the two but isn’t that difficult to transit between them. The quickest way is undoubtedly via air (1.5 hours), with loads of carriers – Air Asia, Thai Smile, Thai Airways etc – offering convenient and affordable flights.

You can also take the train, but this takes between 12 and 15 hours and is not known for its comfort! Night trains make the journey at bit more palatable as you can book a sleeper berth.

There are also a number of busses, from cheap local options to VIP minibuses, all taking approx. 12 hours between the two points.

How do I plan an itinerary for Thailand for 10 days?

We currently have a 3 week itinerary up which you could use to craft your perfect 10 days in Thailand. Or if you need a bit more detail on the delights of Bangkok, why not check out this 4 day itinerary for Thailand’s capital.

Where can I find very high speed internet in Chiang Mai?

Generally Chiang Mai has solid internet speeds but if you need absolutely lightning quick, head to CAMP restaurant.

So, what did you think of our list of what to do in Chiang Mai? If you have any other suggestions of things to add to our 3 days in Chiang Mai itinerary, leave us a comment below!

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  1. Krista Staudinger
    30th October 2019 / 5:04 pm

    I booked a one-way ticket to Chiang Mai last week for the latern festival and your blog has been a great resource for me! Thanks for all of the helpful information and recommendations 🙂

    • James & Lee
      31st October 2019 / 3:56 am

      Awesome! Enjoy Krista… Chiang Mai is such an amazing city. And we’re so glad that it’s been useful. Do drop us a note if you need any other recommendations or advice! We’re hoping to get back to Chiang Mai soon, maybe some point early next year.

  2. Tausha
    3rd December 2019 / 4:26 pm

    Found your post via pinterest while doing research for our upcoming trip. Your post was great, just wanted to say THANKS!

    • James & Lee
      3rd December 2019 / 10:33 pm

      Thanks so much for letting us know Tausha! Make sure you get in touch if you’ve got any specific questions or would like any tips/advice.

  3. Jennifer
    10th January 2020 / 7:24 pm

    My Boyfriend and I will be visiting Chiang Mai in February. We really would like to do the Doi Suthep sunrise visit. Did you happen to book a sunrise tour, or did you venture on your own? Great travel blog BTW. Love the pics and recommendations!

    • James & Lee
      11th January 2020 / 4:45 am

      Hi Jennifer, awesome – how exciting. We absolutely loved Chiang Mai. One of the places we could see ourselves being based in the future as digital nomads. We’re usually very much the venture on your own type where we can, so if you’re ok on a bike or happy to hire a driver to take you out, that would definitely work.