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Perfect 3 Days in Chiang Mai Itinerary for First Timers

Perfect 3 Days in Chiang Mai Itinerary for First Timers

Olly Gaspar

By Olly Gaspar, full-time traveler for 6 years. I visit every place I write about & share real tips, photos, & advice from my trips.

Visiting Chiang Mai for the first time? This itinerary for 3 days in Chiang Mai is just what you need to plan your trip to Northern Thailand’s cultural capital.

Located in the country’s mountainous northern region, Chiang Mai is considered Thailand’s cultural capital and it’s where you’ll find a large portion of its most interesting and unique attractions.

While Chiang Mai isn’t comparable in size to Bangkok, it’s not a small city either, and there’s also a lot to see and do within its surrounding countryside. That said, it’s the type of city that warrants a bit of planning– particularly if you’ve only got three days to spend.

Having several trips to Chiang Mai, I’ve narrowed down the things that are a must-see on your first trip to the city, and have put them into this itinerary which will tell you exactly how to spend 3 days in Chiang Mai!

Girl traveler following a chiang mai itinerary

Itinerary Overview

Chiang Mai is one of the most popular spots in Thailand to visit, and for good reason– with everything from temples to buzzing local markets, the city is full of the experiences that travelers head to Thailand in search of.

This itinerary is designed for people visiting Chiang Mai for the first time, so it aims to cover most of the best attractions. It’s a decent-sized city, and you aren’t going to cram everything into three days– but there’s a good mix of experiences here.

The itinerary covers: 

  • The Old Town 
  • Temples 
  • Hiking 
  • Thai cooking class 
  • Waterfalls 
  • Elephant Sanctuary 
  • Night markets 
  • Muay Thai

Travel tip: If you have any extra time, this three-day Chiang Mai itinerary can be extended very easily. I’d recommend exploring more of the surrounding region including Doi Suthep, Chiang Rai, and Doi Inthanon by using the extra time to go on a few day trips from Chiang Mai.

Wat chedi luang, chiang mai
Wat Chedi Luang Temple is a must-visit in Chiang Mai

Day 1: Mountain Trails & Temples

Hike the Monks Trail 

This 3 day Chiang Mai itinerary starts day one bright and early with a hike along the Monks Trail to Wat Pha Lat. The trailhead begins at the end of Suthep Road, close to Chiang Mai University. To get there, you can either drive yourself on a scooter and park your bike at the entrance, or take a tuk tuk or Songtheaw. 

The Monks Trail is a trekking route through the jungle, to a small (but beautiful) forest temple, and it’s one of the best ways to start your first day in Chiang Mai. It takes roughly 40 minutes each way and takes you through lush jungle pathways with a multitude of scenic viewpoints along the way.

If you’re an avid hiker, you can extend the route to Doi Suthep, which takes an additional 60-80 minutes. This section of the hike has some steeper sections and is definitely more challenging than the route to Wat Pha Lat– but it’s by no means a super challenging route.

The end reward of the hike is the breathtaking Wat Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai's impressive mountaintop temple.

Chiang mai monks trail
Buddhist robe tree wrapping on the monks trail chiang mai.

Exploring the Temples of Chiang Mai Old Town 

After spending the morning hiking, head into Chiang Mai’s Old Town for an afternoon of temple hopping. This area is known for its historic temples, quaint cafes, and ancient city walls.

Start your time in the Old Town at Wat Chedi Luang, one of the area's most ancient and beautiful temples. This temple is one of the most important and historic in Chiang Mai– so it makes for a good starting point for your temple tour.  

After visiting Wat Chedi Luang, head to the nearby Wat Phan Tao. In my opinion, this is one of Chiang Mai’s most impressive temples; the site consists of a dark and imposing teak structure as well as a gilded stupa, and the two contrast in a way that is really cool to look at.

Depending on how much time you have, you could fit in visits to another few temples. If you find yourself with the time, I’d recommend stopping at: 

  • Wat Sri Suphan, Chiang Mai’s silver temple 
  • Wat Chiang Man, the oldest temple in the city 
  • Wat Phra Singh, a 14th-century temple complex housing gold and copper Buddhas
Golden buddha temple in chiang mai

Evening Thai Cooking Class 

Close your first day in Chiang Mai with an evening Thai cooking class. If I can recommend you do one thing in northern Thailand, it’s a cooking class– the cuisine in this region is unbeatable, and being able to make it back at home is something you’ll enjoy for years to come. 

A lot of the cooking classes you’ll find start earlier in the day, but this cooking class is brilliant for anyone with a busy itinerary, as it starts at 5:00 pm. You’re able to pick a selection of dishes from the menu to learn how to make, as well as learn local cooking tips and techniques.

What better way to spend your first evening in Chiang Mai than learning how to cook your favorite Thai dishes?

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Day 2: Cafes & Elephants

Morning Almsgiving 

One of my favorite things to do in Chiang Mai is to wake up before the sun rises, and head out to watch morning life.

In a city with as many temples as Chiang Mai, there are a lot of Buddhist monks, and in the morning you’ll see them walking through the city in single files, collecting alms. This is an ancient tradition where monks collect food and other offerings from laypeople; it is a way to physically support the monks and in return receive a religious blessing.

Almsgiving takes place across the city, but the courtyard in front of the Three Kings Monument is one of the best places to watch the ceremony. You can also give alms yourself; things like fruit and prepackaged snacks are accepted, and you’ll also find shops selling gift baskets of food specifically for this purpose. The almsgiving happens between 6 and 8 am every morning, but it’s best to double-check times and locations with staff at your accommodation.

Monks walking in old town chiang mai

Cafe Hopping in Nimman 

Spend the rest of the morning trying out cafes in Chiang Mai's trendy Nimman area. Nimmanhaemin Road is nicknamed ‘coffee street’ and is known for its huge selection of quirky coffee shops, bars, and restaurants. Some of my favorites in the area are:

  • Librarista - a coffee shop turned library, with shelves packed full of books for you to read while drinking your coffee.
  • Cafe Rosemary - Best brunch in Chiang Mai. Try their French Toast
  • Roast8try - An artisanal coffee haven in the Nimman that is upbeat and a bit hipster– great coffee though.
  • Rustic and blue - a trendy cafe serving up tasty brunch options. 
  • Ristr8o - the place to go for insta-worthy latte art
Chiang mai cafe

Elephant Nature Park 

The lush jungles of northern Thailand are synonymous with elephants, and a chance to see these majestic animals up close is one of the reasons many travelers head to Chiang Mai.

Day two of this itinerary is spent visiting Elephant Nature Park, one of the few truly ethical elephant sanctuaries in the country. The sanctuary offers half-day visits where you get to spend a few hours alongside the elephants, observing their behavior and learning about their lives from staff. 

I recommend booking the afternoon session, as this is the time of day when the elephants cross the river to where they sleep at night– it’s an incredible sight to watch! 

The sanctuary is located about an hour's drive from the city center, and tickets include pickup from your accommodation.

Travel tip: this is the most popular elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, and tickets can get booked out during the busy season. It’s definitely worth booking ahead of time if you know what dates you’ll be in Chiang Mai.

Elephants crossing a river in chiang mai, thailand

Chiang Mai Night Bazaar 

Chiang Mai is well known for its night markets, and the night bazaar on Chang Khlan Road is one of the best places to spend an evening in the city. The local market runs every evening starting from 5 pm, so once you’ve been dropped back into town after your afternoon with the elephants, head there for an evening of shopping and eating. 

The market spans a couple of blocks between Tha Phae Road and Si Donchai Road, in the heart of the city.

I’d aim to spend about 45 minutes checking out the stalls, before heading to the nearby Ploen Ruedee food market for something to eat. There’s a huge range of very affordable food options here; to get the most out of the experience, mix and match a few items from different stalls. What I love about this food market is that there’s a great atmosphere as well as fantastic food, with live performances all night.

Chiang mai night bazaar market
Busy night markets in chiang mai, thailand

Day 3: Waterfall Day Trip & Muay Thai Session

Day Trip to the Sticky Waterfall 

To visit Chiang Mai and not head out on a day trip to the beautiful surrounding countryside would be criminal. Spend your final day in Chiang Mai on a day trip to the ‘Sticky Waterfall’, a fascinating natural phenomenon located in the Sri Lanna National Park, about 60 km north of the Old City. 

Bua Tong Waterfall is nicknamed the ‘Sticky Waterfall’ because of its unique geological composition– the limestone rocks have a porous surface, which means that no moss grows on them and they aren’t slippery when wet. The waterfall ascends at quite a gentle incline, and visitors are able to climb to the top of the falls without any equipment.

If you’re comfortable driving a motorbike, it’s definitely worth hiring a bike and driving to the waterfall yourself. If you’re staying in the old city you can pick up a bike very easily from one of the many rental shops you’ll see in the area, with a day hire costing between 200-300 baht.

As well as visiting the sticky waterfall, you can make stops at some of the other attractions in the area, like Mork Fa Waterfall and the Chet Si Hot Springs. 

Don’t worry if you aren’t confident enough to drive a motorbike– there are plenty of other ways to get to Bua Tong. You could hire a tuk tuk, jump in a songthaew, or join a day trip that includes other activities within Sri Lanna National Park.

Girl at the sticky waterfall of chiang mai

Muay Thai 

On your final evening in Chiang Mai, there’s no better activity to enjoy than Thailand's national sport: Muay Thai.

If you’re not too tired from this busy 3 days in Chiang Mai itinerary, book an evening class and give the sport a go yourself– it’s a fantastic workout and a great way to learn something new. I recommend taking an evening lesson at Dang Muay Thai, which is located in the old town and runs group lessons at 5:00 pm every day except Sundays.  

You can still experience the sport if you aren’t in the mood for a workout– why not watch a match instead? It’s a very enjoyable sport to watch and I really recommend the experience to anyone spending time in Thailand. Head to Thapae Stadium, where fights take place every night of the week other than Sunday.

Muay thai in thailand
Girl on the krabi monkey trail

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Where to Stay in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is the capital of the Northern Thailand tourist trail and a huge Digital Nomad hub. This is the reason why I'm always drawn back to this city. As you might expect, there are some excellent accommodation picks in and around the city, from unique boutique hotels and luxury chains to vibrant backpacker hostels. Below are three of the top places to stay for various budgets.

Por thapae gate chiang mai

1. POR Thapae Gate Luxury

With over 700 reviews this is the ultimate luxury hotel located 200m from Tha Pae Gate. The hotel provides an outdoor swimming pool, free bike rental, and an exceptional breakfast.

Outdoor swimming pool at rimping village, chiang mai

2. Rimping Village Mid-Range

Just a 10-minute walk from the Night Bazaar this hotel offers a large outdoor swimming pool, an on-site restaurant, and spectacular outdoor seating areas. Away from the crowds, this is a perfect place to unwind and relax.

Green sleep hostel, chiang mai

3. Green Sleep Hostel Budget

Situated in the heart of Chang Mai this hostel boasts a fully equipped kitchen, co-working space, communal area, and comfortable beds. A top pick for backpackers wanting a cheap and comfortable stay.

Tips for Visiting Chiang Mai in 3 Days 

  • Use songthaews to get from A to B - These are the bright red shared taxis you’ll see driving around the city. They’re a great way to get around and are very affordable– although if you’re in a rush they’re perhaps not the most efficient mode of transport. To hail a songthaew, just flag one down as you would a taxi. Let the driver know where you’re going, and if they are heading in that direction they’ll tell you the cost and let you jump in. If they aren’t heading in that destination– just wait until the next one comes along!
  • Download the ‘Grab’ app before you arrive. This taxi app is invaluable in Thai cities like Chiang Mai. Not only can you use it to book journeys, you can also use it to negotiate with tuk-tuk drivers– before flagging a tuk-tuk or local taxi down, quickly check Grab to find out how much you should be paying. 
  • Use the ‘Save’ feature on Google Maps. The Old Town in Chiang Mai is a very walkable area, and it’s packed full of temples and monuments. Before you arrive, save any attractions you want to see in the old town on your Google Maps. Then, when you’re out and about you can always see what’s nearby, so you can make stops without having to go too far out of your way.
Songthaew transport in chiang mai at night
Songthaews are a cheap and easy way to get around in Chiang Mai

My Top Three Chiang Mai Bookable Activities

Don't miss these 3 awesome tours and day trips you can book from Chiang Mai!

Wat rong khun tour

1. Chiang Rai Temples Small Group Tour

A day full of exploration to the incredible nearby Chiang Rai and its mindblowing temples. You'll want to have your camera here!

From chiang mai doi inthanon national park day trip

2. Doi Inthanon National Park Day Trip

If waterfalls, nature, incredible views, and learning about culture in a local hill tribe village is something you might enjoy then this tour should be on your list!

Night market street food tour, chiang mai

3. Chiang Mai Evening Street Food Tour

This small tour ticks all the boxes for deliciousness. Sampling different foods from two different night markets. Your tastebuds won't want to leave.

Chiang Mai Travel FAQs

How Long Should I Spend in Chiang Mai? 

3 days in Chiang Mai is a good amount of time to see many of the most popular attractions. If you want to explore in more depth and head out on day trips to surrounding areas, I’d recommend 5 days. 

What is the Best Time of Year to Visit Chiang Mai?    

November to December is the ideal time of year in Chiang Mai– temperatures are warm, dry, and sunny. 

Summer (March-May) can get very hot and humid in Chiang Mai. In addition to this, the burning season takes place between February and April resulting in quite bad pollution and smog.

The Rainy Season (June - October) is a good time of year to visit Chiang Mai if you want to avoid the crowds and see the mountains green. While the rain is pretty intense, it doesn’t last all day and it’s still possible to explore in between downpours.

How do I Get to Chiang Mai?

Chiang Mai is well connected to the rest of Thailand and you can travel by train, bus, or plane. Direct flights operate from Bangkok, Phuket, Krabi, and Surat Thani. 

If you want to save money, the sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is a fantastic option. Long-distance bus journeys are another great way to get to Chiang Mai from Bangkok.

Do I Need to Book Things in Advance? 

If you’re visiting Chiang Mai during the busy winter period, I would really recommend booking your accommodation and activities a week or so before you arrive. It’s a popular place to visit and things do get booked up in the high season.

Is Chiang Mai Safe? 

As far as cities go, Chiang Mai is generally very safe. Of course, things like petty crime and scams happen there (as they do everywhere!) so always exercise caution, but crime rates are fairly low in Chiang Mai. It's always a good idea to get travel insurance.

Where Else Should I Go in Northern Thailand Before and After Chiang Mai?

If your trip allows enough time to visit more of Northern Thailand, you should definitely visit nearby Pai and Chiang Rai. Both of these spots are pretty different to Chiang Mai and spending a few nights in each gives you a great taste of Northern Thailand.

What Should I Eat in Chiang Mai?

Everything! Chiang Mai is a haven for foodies. Don’t leave without trying Khao Soi, which is a very popular local dish. More local delicacies worth trying are Tom Sab, Khao Tom Mud, and Sai Ua.

Buddha in chiang mai

Chiang Mai is a very popular part of Thailand to visit, but for good reason– it has a lot of incredible experiences to offer travelers. Hopefully this 3 day Chiang Mai itinerary is the perfect resource to help you plan your first visit to this fantastic city.

Hidden beach, railay beach

Plan Your Thailand Accommodation

Still in the planning stages of your trip? Perhaps you're booking on the fly. The below accommodation guides will help you plan where to stay in Thailand.

Thanks for Reading

I'm Olly Gaspar, adventure traveler from Australia. I’ve spent the last six years traveling the world full-time, sharing my first-hand experiences & photography in over 700 travel guides on We Seek Travel. I visit every destination I write about to bring you unique travel itineraries, epic hiking routes, fun tour ideas, travel & photography gear ideas, & interesting places to stay.

I only make genuine, worthwhile recommendations based on my experience, expertise, & research. If you buy through my links, I may get a commission, supporting this website at no extra cost to you. Read my Publishing Ethics Statement.