All Articles 3 perfect days in Chiang Mai

3 perfect days in Chiang Mai

Chawadee Nualkhair
By Chawadee Nualkhair25 Mar 2024 8 minutes read
Couple visiting Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Image: Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

Chiang Mai is my favorite city in Thailand, bar none. I love exploring the buzzy restaurants and shops along Nimmanhaeminda Road, then ducking down a winding side street for some peace and quiet. The weather is fantastic, especially in the cool season between December and February. And the locals are incredibly laid-back—except during Songkran, the Thai New Year celebration, when they are busy dousing each other with water. (They take these water fights very seriously.)

This three-day itinerary takes you to both the main highlights and some hidden gems and is designed to help you navigate the city as easily as possible. And to help you make the most of your time, we’ve incorporated Tripadvisor reviews and ratings. That way, you can be sure to visit the places that other travelers have loved, too.


DAY ONE

Dinner at The FACES Gallery and Gastro Bar
The FACES Gallery and Gastro Bar
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

MORNING: Ramble through history in the Old Town

There’s no better way to get acquainted with Chiang Mai than by navigating the streets of the historic Old Town, a very walkable (or bikeable) half square mile. At the very heart of the Old Town is the famous Three Kings Monument, commemorating the architects of the Lanna Dynasty (1664-1774). For even more about the history of Chiang Mai, check out the Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre behind the monument.

Even better, get in touch with history by visiting the ancient Chiang Mai Gate, where the crumbling brick walls once protected the city from foreign invaders. Then stop by one of the city’s more than 300 temples. The oldest is called Wat Chiang Man, and it dates back to 1296.

AFTERNOON: A bowl of noodles and a mountaintop temple

All that walking means you’ve definitely earned your lunch break, so head to the local institution called Khaosoi Lamduan Faham. The specialty of the house is khao soi, the curried noodle soup that’s the most popular dish in Northern Thailand. (The restaurant claims to have invented khao soi, and I’m not going to argue that point.) The broth here is lighter than at many of its rivals, with just a flick of coconut milk added right before it reaches your table. There are many options here, including those that will satisfy vegetarians.

After lunch, take a songthaew, the open-ended red buses you’ll find all over the city, to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. The city’s most famous temple complex is set high on a mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. Besides its panoramic views over the valley below, Doi Suthep has a battery of bells that you can ring for good luck. Ride the funicular up to the top of the temple and walk down the famous staircase, which has Chinese-style dragons on both sides. At the bottom, you’ll find souvenir stands and snack stalls waiting for you.

Travelers say: “Wat Doi Suthep is a must-visit destination in Chiang Mai, Thailand. This stunning temple is located on the top of Doi Suthep mountain, offering breathtaking views of the city and the surrounding countryside.” —@jwhartmann

EVENING: Shop at the city’s most raucous night market

If it’s Saturday, you’ll want to explore the night market on Walking Street, where more than 100 vendors set up shop. The best things to pick up here are fishermen’s pants, handmade bags, and artisanal soaps. Afterwards, stop for a bite and well-earned mug of beer at the nearby Faces Gallery and Gastro Bar, where the air-conditioned dining room looks out onto a gorgeous garden.

If it’s any other day of the week, head to one of the many restaurants that line the Ping River. I love the aptly-named Riverside Bar and Restaurant, a favorite since 1984. One of the don’t-miss dishes is tom yam khong, or fish soup with shrimp. You can even reserve an evening boat ride and enjoy your meal while floating past some of the city’s main sights.

CHIANG MAI OLD TOWN AND DOI SUTHEP TOUR OPTIONS

  • If cycling through Chiang Mai’s Old Town sounds fun, sign up for the Historic Old City Bicycle Tour. A knowledgeable guide will lead you to the city’s most interesting temples, markets, and monuments.
  • You’ll sample more than a dozen different dishes during the extremely popular Chiang Mai Food Tour. You’ll also walk around the Old Town, making sure you burn off a few of those calories.
  • To take in some of the region’s natural beauty, consider setting out on the Doi Suthep and Wat Pha Lat Hike. This two-hour trek takes you through the forest to Wat Pha Lat before heading to Doi Suthep for stunning views over the city.

Worthy detours along the way

DAY TWO

Doi Inthanon pagoda, Thailand
Doi Inthanon
Image: Mark Fitzsimons/Getty Images

MORNING: Sunrise in Thailand’s prettiest park

A little less than two hours from the center of Chiang Mai, Doi Inthanon National Park is Thailand’s most popular nature preserve. Mountain trails lead past flower-filled gardens, refreshing waterfalls, and indigenous villages. If you’re motivated enough to get here by sunrise, a stunning, rose-hued panorama awaits. If you’re here during the cool season (December to February), bring a jacket.

Travelers say: “Great waterfalls and trails. We especially loved the Wachirathan and Mae Ya waterfalls. The Kew Mae Pan nature trail is a great route through cloud forest and beautiful landscapes.” —@Radek_Rucinski

AFTERNOON: Feeding yourself (as well as the elephants)

If you aren’t up for a picnic in the national park, you can enjoy traditional dishes at the nearby Mae Chaem Gate Restaurant, where a thatched roof covers the open-air dining room. The choicest tables are scattered around the slightly overgrown garden.

At the Doi Inthanon Elephant Sanctuary, local Karen tribe members run an ethical haven where you can feed and bathe obliging pachyderms. You can also accompany them into the forest, a fun activity for any animal lover.

EVENING: Decompress with a Thai massage

Back in Chiang Mai, Nimmanhaeminda Road is where the city’s hipsters converge, thronging its cafes, boutiques, and spas. One of the best when it comes to hands-on pampering is Nimman House, where you can opt for a Thai-style tune-up that lasts as long as four hours.

One of Chiang Mai’s (and Thailand’s) foremost culinary pioneers is Chef Phanuphol “Black” Bulsuwan, who leads the team at the award-winning Blackitch Artisan Kitchen. There’s no need to order here, as the set menu, a melange of Asian influences, is where it’s at. Make sure to try the house-made beer and sake. Reserve a table well in advance.

DOI INTHANON TOUR OPTIONS

Worthy detours along the way

DAY THREE

Giant gold Singha statue at Singha Park, in Chiang Rai
Singha Park
Image: gildi/Getty Images

MORNING: A day in Lanna’s first capital

A three-hour drive north of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai served as the Lanna Kingdom’s first capital before King Mengrai moved his royal entourage farther from the border to avoid raids by Genghis Khan’s descendants.

Although it has a reputation as a sleepy little town, Chiang Rai has plenty that’s worth your while. Don’t miss the famous White Temple (also known as Wat Rong Khun), built almost from scratch by local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. The temple’s main building, accessible via a bridge depicting the “cycle of rebirth,” glitters with mirrored glass. Tripadvisor readers give it high marks.

Travelers say: “Wat Rong Khun has very detailed and beautiful architecture. It is not only pleasing to look at, there are many stories/lessons embedded in the artwork. It's an extraordinary example of creative expression based on religious devotion and well worth the admission price.” —@cornwall15

Afterward, it only makes sense to visit the Black House (or Baan Dum). Built by hometown hero Tawan Dachanee, the “museum” is actually a series of buildings (including a small house shaped like a whale), designed and decorated with the artist’s own unique style (think antlers and lots of animal skins).

AFTERNOON: Riverside lunch and a tea plantation

One of Chiang Rai’s claims to fame is its tea plantations. Among the most popular is Singha Park, where you can drive golf carts around the grounds and visit a petting zoo. Nearby Boon Rawd Farm is more focused on the farming side of things, but still offers beautiful views of the greenery.

Although there’s a restaurant at Singha Park, you might prefer the riverside setting of Chivit Tammada, a Thai-European restaurant set in an old mansion. If the temperatures are mild, opt for an outdoor table on the sprawling lawn next to the river. The Burmese-style gang hang lay (pork belly stew) is one of the best dishes here.

EVENING: A final night near Chiang Mai

Among the more beautiful communities near Chiang Mai is Mae Rim, about 40 minutes north of the city center. Locals and expats mingle at Terra and the Farmer’s Bar, which blends Northern Thai and Mediterranean cuisine. Enjoy a drink at the bar—which was brought over piece by piece from England—or browse in the little shop.

CHIANG RAI TOUR OPTIONS

  • In order to pack as much of Chiang Rai into one day as is humanly possible, choose the Chiang Rai Day Trip, which includes a soak in the hot springs and a stop at the infamous Golden Triangle, former hub for the opium trade.
  • If you want a local to guide you through the streets of Chaing Rai, try the half-day Chiang Rai Bicycle Tour. You have to arrange your own transportation from Chiang Mai, however.
  • If you want to hit all of Chiang Rai’s temples, take the Chiang Rai Temple Tour. Door to door from Chiang Mai, it takes a total of 12 hours.

Worthy detours along the way

Know Before You Go


The traditional high season, from December to February, is when cooler weather prevails. However, the haze from nearby farms setting fires to clear the fields can affect the visibility. Try to avoid March, when the haze is at its height. The rainy season, from July to September, with its usually intermittent showers, may be a better bet.



During Songkran, the Thai New Year celebration that lasts from April 13 to April 15, many businesses close. But taking part in the water fights that traditionally accompany this holiday is a lot of fun!



Most businesses open early (restaurants at about 7am, shops at around 10am), but they also close fairly early (9pm is usually closing time for most restaurants).



City Center: Among the most popular hotels in town, Na Nirand Romantic Boutique Resort gives the impression of being a secluded hideaway while still enjoying a conveniently central location. Even better, it’s within walking distance to the Night Bazaar and a short drive from the airport.

Old Town: Set in the heart of the historic center, the top-ranked Chiang Mai Old Town Hotel sits on one of the city’s quaint alleyways. Small and immaculate, the modern hotel gets extra points from travelers for its solicitous service.

Nimmanhaeminda Road: Chiang Mai’s coolest establishments are alive and well along this street. Here you’ll find Banilah, a cozy guesthouse with basic rooms at budget prices.



Public transportation: If you’re willing to suss out the city’s bus routes, public transportation is a cheap and convenient way to get around Chiang Mai.

By bike: Some hotels in the Old Town and on Nimmanhaeminda Road offer bicycles free of charge to guests. Motorcycle rentals are also readily available.

By songthaew and tuk-tuk: The open-ended red buses called songthaews are unique to Chiang Mai. They are easier to flag down on the road than the city’s yellow-and-blue taxis, and are far cheaper. They aren’t air-conditioned, so long trips might be uncomfortable. The iconic tuk-tuks, which seat three comfortably, can be found in touristy spots.

Airport transfers: Your hotel can arrange transportation to and from the airport. Taxis are also available, as are cars with the rideshare service Grab (Southeast Asia’s version of Uber).


Chawadee Nualkhair
Chawadee Nualkhair is a Thai-American food writer who currently resides in Bangkok with her husband and two children. Formerly a financial journalist, Chawadee has since published three street food guides and a cookbook, appeared in a number of food tele-vision shows. You can find her books, “Real Thai Cooking” and “Thailand’s Top Street Food” in stores.