Three Days in Chiang Mai, Thailand: The Perfect Itinerary
No trip to Thailand is complete without being hit by the charms of Chiang Mai, the serene Northern Thai town nestled in the misty mountains of the country’s highlands. Whether you’re tempted by delicious Northern Thai cuisine, a day trip to an Elephant Sanctuary to befriend a few elephants or you just want to sip some coffee with all the vegan yogis and digital nomads running about town, this city should not be missed off your Thailand travel itinerary.
But not sure how long to spend in Chiang Mai?
Even just three days in Chiang Mai will give you the opportunity to soak in plenty of its humble, oh-so-hippie vibes. Here’s my guide to the very best things to do with just 3 days in Chiang Mai. Though I can’t promise you won’t want to return. Again and again.
Chiang Mai Itinerary: Day One
Start your day with a strong coffee (and a side of breakfast) at one of Chiang Mai’s prolific cafes. The city’s cafe culture is like no other; you’re spoilt for choice. Though I do have a few firm favourites. Perhaps kick off your day at Overstand, a top-notch breakfast spot that’s been voted Chiang Mai’s best cafe three years in a row. Try one of their epic breakfast plates, that come with a sourdough base. And if you’re feeling adventurous, sample their Dirty Chai - a fantastic blend of black coffee and Masala Chai.
If you’re vegan - and hot damn Chiang Mai is the perfect place to visit if you are - then try Freebird, an artsy cafe cum charity that funds education for refugee children. Try their cacao nib and trail mix pancake, which is basically a little slice of heaven. And if you like to enjoy your breakfast alongside some seriously beautiful interiors - or just want somewhere beautiful to sit and plan your next leg of travel - then hit up the The Barn: Eatery Cafe. It’s stunning.
With some calories to burn, you’ll be ready to hit up some of Chiang Mai’s best temples and wats. With only three days in the city, you won’t be able to see them all, but even with just a few hours you can visit a few. The most renowned are Wat Pra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phan Tao, which can all be found in and around Chiang Mai’s Old Town.
Just don’t forget to go off-the-beaten track too. Pop into a few smaller, lesser-known temples that catch your eye. These surprise gems, where you just might get the privilege of watching the monks go about their business with no one else in sight, are truly my favourite.
If you get through the temples quite quickly (or experience temple fatigue - which admittedly happened to me a few times in Southeast Asia), then spend the rest of the your afternoon on Nimman Road, also called Nimmanhemin. This hip part of the city is really good fun and probably the best area to do some shopping in Chiang Mai. There are loads of small independent and artisanal shops, restaurants and cafes. Did I break my backpacker budget here, you ask? Guilty as charged.
Go vegan (that is, if you’re not already) and try one of Chiang Mai’s incredible vegan restaurants. They’re easy to find as they’re scattered all over the city. The most renowned is probably Vegan Heaven, a local institution. But Reform Kafe, where I had a mushroom burger so good I was nearly converted, was my absolute favourite. I fell so head over heels for this spot I went back on at least three occasions during my time in Chiang Mai. This despite getting eaten alive by mosquitos every single visit. Whatever you chose, Chiang Mai is a fantastic place to learn about veganism and discover if it’s a lifestyle choice that might be right for you.
Then walk off dinner with a trip to the Chiang Mai Night Market - or Night Bazaar. Expect crowds, tourist-trap souvenirs and some serious haggling but also some good fun. You’ll find everything from clothing to useless trinkets to local street food you’ll want to sink your teeth into.
But if you’re in town on a Sunday, then you’re in for a real treat. You can visit the Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market, where local artisans come and showcase their wares - anything from coconut-oil based beauty goodies to leather bags and purses to cool crystal jewellery.
Still going strong? Time to get a taste of Chiang Mai nightlife. Head to the Northgate Jazz Co-op for some seriously good live music. There’s a gig every night and you can stumble on anything from a jazz quartet to a jam session to the sounds of a local rock band. The house is always packed, with guests sprawling onto the street. If music’s your thing, this is not to be missed.
Chiang Mai Itinerary: Day Two
Morning and Afternoon:
Book yourself onto a Chiang Mai cooking class - ideally with Sammy’s Organic Thai Cooking School if you can help it. This is one of Chiang Mai’s best day trips. And sure - that’s your day done - but it’ll be worth every single minute. Even if, like me, you’re not a die-hard foodie. You’ll get picked up from your hotel or hostel bright and early (8am) to start your day at a local food market, where you’ll be greeted by Sammy and his smile. There, you’ll select a series of dishes you’d like to cook before going on a food tour around the market stalls.
Then, you’ll drive through the lush Thai countryside, direct to Sammy’s Cooking School. There, he’ll take you around his garden - where he grows everything from lemongrass to coconuts to Keffir limes - and learn how to make the Thai dishes we all know and love: Pad Thai, Green Thai Curry, Green Papaya Salad and my favourite, Mango Sticky Rice. He’ll even show you how to make coconut milk from scratch. Just prepare to be rolled home.
Head back to Chiang Mai’s Old Town for a wander, a light dinner (if you can eat again) and, most crucially, a traditional Thai massage. You’ll find countless Thai spas, as well as masseuses offering their services on the street (especially near the big markets and popular tourist spots), so you won’t be short of options.
But I’d recommend finding a little hole-in-the-wall spa. They’re nothing fancy, but if you get lucky, you’ll be matched with an experienced masseuse who will know exactly which muscles to work on. Plus, Thai massages don’t break a backpacker’s budget. But if you do want to treat yourself to something a little more luxurious, book yourself in at the renowned Chiang Mai spa Fah Lanna, which offers every beauty treatment under the sun.
Chiang Mai Itinerary: Day Three
Morning and Afternoon:
Visit the Chiang Mai Elephant Nature Park or another elephant sanctuary and spend the day trekking, feeding and even bathing with elephants. This is an absolute must do in Chiang Mai. These rehabilitation centres look after elephants that have been rescued from captivity or have nowhere to roam. It’s a complex and dark history that I don’t have the expertise to go into, but if you spend a day at a reputable elephant rescue centre, the staff will happily educate you. Plus, your ticket will help keep the centre up and running and provide continued care for the elephants.
It’s another early start (and active day) but the sanctuary will also pick you up direct from your accommodation for this Chiang Mai day trip. A few hours drive and you’ll be back in the beautiful Thai countryside, where you can go on a jungle trek with the elephants, help make their snacks, feed them and even bathe with them in a local stream. You do need to be cautious, given their sheer size and power, but you’ll be well looked after by the sanctuary’s team. And you’ll be left in utter awe as you get so close to these magnificent creatures.
Evening and Night:
Why not leave city with a bang and check out a bit more Chiang Mai’s nightlife before you go? There’s a small bar street where you can dip in and out of a few interesting venues if you want to squeeze in a few more rounds of Chang. Start with Roots Rock Reggae - which also has some really some decent live music - and bounce around from there. Just don’t forget you have flight (or bus) to catch come morning.
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