Easily one of the most popular places to visit in Thailand, Chiang Mai is definitely worth a visit on any Thailand itinerary!
Located in the northern edge of the country not far from Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai is a hub for travellers of all kinds because it has so much to offer.
In fact, it's proven so popular with backpackers and tourists, that many expats now choose to call Chiang Mai their fulltime home!
The expat/digital nomad community is truly thriving here for those (like our friend Jo at The Working Traveller) who have decided to live in Thailand.
And with everything right through from buzzing night markets to glorious Buddhist temples in the mountains, it's not difficult to see why!
Based on our experience, 3 days in Chiang Mai is the perfect amount of time to visit the historic city and to experience the best attractions on offer.
So, if you have the same amount of time to spend here, then here’s what I believe to be the ultimate 3 day Chiang Mai itinerary for travellers of all ages!
I’ll also give you some extra details on how to make the most of your time in Chiang Mai.
So with that, first up ...
Getting to Chiang Mai is pretty straightforward as the routes here are well trodden by other travellers.
You can fly to Chiang Mai, get the train, catch a bus or even ride there on your own moped!
But to clarify, here’s how to arrive from the three most common locations ...
If you already find yourself in the north of Thailand then you can easily get a cheap bus from Chiang Rai (or even Pai).
The buses run from both locations very frequently and are very cheap.
If you’re in Chiang Rai then you can simply head to the bus station in town and there will be a lady at a desk.
On her window, there will be prices and times for buses to Chiang Mai.
There are three “levels” of buses, the cheapest being 3rd class (a dump of a bus- which you will see surrounding you - they will have no aircon and probably broken seats etc), 2nd class is typically a lot more luxurious and has aircon, then 1st class which is usually some form of sleeper bus.
This is only a short journey of 3 hours so probably not necessary.
We chose the second level and this is with a company called Green Bus and I can confidently recommend going with them.
It’s comfortable, has aircon and you get free water.
Alternatively, the easiest and most convenient way to book bus travel to Chiang Mai is through 12goAsia.
They offer incredibly cheap rates, usually the same as what you would pay in person.
If you are visiting Chiang Mai during popular tourist months, then I advise booking online ahead of time to make sure you get space on a bus, as they do sell out!
Your three main options here are to take a bus (lasts about 10-13 hours), a train (lasts roughly 14 hours) or to fly (takes about 1.5 hours).
Buses range in price from roughly 650 baht up to 800 baht or more, depending on when you book and what quality of bus you choose.
This amounts to about $USD20 which isn’t exactly expensive for how long it is.
Trains cost around 1,000 to 1,300 Thai Baht (so about $USD35) which, though more expensive, do include a space to sleep in, and you do get to enjoy the views going north.
I’ve never been a fan of long bus journeys in Thailand, but I tend to find train journeys to be a lot more peaceful and enjoyable!
The quickest option is to fly, and the great news is that flights to Chiang Mai aren’t that expensive!
The cheapest rates with Air Asia are 600 Thai baht, though you’ll need to add on luggage as well.
We’ve had good experiences with Air Asia all across Asia and have flown with them lots of times.
As you’ll soon see, many of the best things to do in Chiang Mai are all located within the Old City walls.
So your best way of getting around is actually walking, so long as you stay in this area, as this allows you to soak up as much of the city as possible.
When exploring the wider parts of Chiang Mai, it’s possible to use local taxis and tuk tuks.
When venturing out to visit the best sites near to Chiang Mai (more on that below), my top advice is to rent a moped for the day.
They are really cheap and are an awesome experience in themselves.
Chiang Mai is a big city, so naturally there are LOTS of choices when it comes to choosing Chiang Mai hotels.
You could choose to stay outside the Old City walls, closer to the mountains, but as I mentioned above, it’s pretty handy to stay in the Old Town.
We stayed in a place called 9 Resident which was located in the heart of Chiang Mai.
This was a lovely place: the staff were wonderful, it was a short Uber ride to the local markets and food areas and the beds were clean and comfortable.
It cost us £GBP5.75 a night each for a double room with aircon, which was very reasonable!
Alternatively, here are a few other great picks of Chiang Mai accommodation to choose from:
Based on our experiences in Chiang Mai and throughout the rest of Thailand, here’s my top recommendation for what to do in Chiang Mai.
Sure, Chiang Mai is a massive city and you could easily spend a week or more here doing everything, but on a Chiang Mai 3 day tour, you want to squeeze in as much excitement as possible, and this is the perfect way to do exactly that!
So, first up ..
When you arrive in the city, you’ll soon realise that Chiang Mai is bursting with wonderful temples!
The most famous of which is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, but I actually recommend visiting this as a part of a day excursion from Chiang Mai, so I talk about it separately below.
Inside of the Old City walls, it’s possible to go on your own personal walking tour, along the way visiting the temples.
You don’t need to follow an exact route, and part of the fun is actually getting lost amongst the hustle and bustle of the city.
However it is worth marking a few key temples on a map so that you have a rough idea of which important streets to pass down.
Key temples worth seeing in Chiang Mai Old Town include:
Another monument I will mention is the Three King Monument which stands roughly in the middle of the walled city.
One of my favorite things to do, not just in Chiang Mai but anywhere in Thailand, is getting a proper Thai massage.
I can tell you this much, for such small women, they really do like to get in there!
They will bend you and twist you in ways you never thought possible, but afterwards it does feel amazing.
It’s not as relaxing as a typical massage but it’s an experience I think everyone should have in Thailand and Chiang Mai is the perfect location, with tonnes of massage parlours offering massages for very cheap (at least by Western standards).
If you’re a bit larger, you can even expect the ladies to get up and climb on you as they work their magic!
This is located east of the city moat between the Ping River on Chang Khlan Road. This is definitely one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai at night.
It’s the perfect place to pick up some souvenirs (there are hundreds of stalls) and pick up great food!
There is one cafeteria type of area that is a food market indoors and it’s packed with great, high-quality food.
There are a couple of different night markets around Chiang Mai and I suggest you go to them all (not every night), but there is so much amazing food on offer I believe you need the chance to sample them all!
Not only that, there are great smoothies, desserts and drinks to try.
We enjoyed a glass of strawberry wine in the middle of one market for 25 baht and ended up chatting with another couple late into the night!
Just like the massage, another great experience to have when in Chiang Mai is participating in a Thai cooking class.
These have become pretty famous in Chiang Mai with lots of schools offering them to foreigners.
For example, this one here teaches you how to make a selection of dishes that you can personally choose.
Including famous dishes like Thai spring rolls, Tom Yum soup, Pad Thai and Thai Green Curry.
Bradley actually got his Sak Yant tattoo when in Bangkok, a few weeks before we visited Chiang Mai.
However, we’ve since realised that Chiang Mai seems like a much bigger hub for those looking to receive this traditional Buddhist tattoo.
Which is great because there are now lots of traditional skilled Ajarns giving them in much cleaner and more hygienic facilities than what you can expect from a temple for locals.
Of course, receiving a Sak Yant tattoo is a big commitment and not a decision to be taken lighthearted; so do your research.
For getting a Sak Yant in Chiang Mai, here is a great option with Where Sidewalks End.
After spending a day or two cooped up in the sprawling city of Chiang Mai, I recommend taking time to hire a moped and get outside of the city.
All of a sudden, you enter into the beautiful natural surroundings which offer many of the best things to see in Chiang Mai.
We ended up renting a moped in all major spots in Thailand, as it’s not only the best way to see everything on offer, but also a heck of a lot of fun itself!
It also allows you to save some money, which is useful if you’re backpacking Thailand on a budget.
If you’ve never hired a moped in Southeast Asia before, then it’s worthwhile reading this guide first.
Once you’ve got your moped, here are a few places to visit in Chiang Mai that you simply can’t miss ...
The Grand Canyon ended up being probably our favourite place to visit in Chiang Mai!
It’s a large canyon filled with water which you can dive off, swim, or zip line if you choose.
There are actually two parts to this: one side is filled with bouncy castles, and courses for you to tackle which costs 450 baht and actually looks like a lot of fun if you haven’t done it before.
The other side (which we did) costs 100 baht and allows you to swim and dive in the canyon.
It’s a lot of fun, clean and exhilarating and it’s actually quite strange being in the water because you can’t see below you because it’s surprisingly deep.
So if you’re not a fan of not knowing what’s underneath you then it will make you nervous.
But, it’s just rainwater, so it’s fine; they even give you a life jacket to wear, which I’d take advantage of so you can bop along the water.
There are tyres to float in and paddle boards if you so wish and there are two main diving areas.
A smaller one (which I took advantage of), or the big daddy, which is approximately 7 meters in height which Bradley continually ran and dived from (he used to be a diver!).
You could easily spend a couple of hours here having fun and if you want to do something that isn’t seeing temples (i.e. if you’ve been in Asia for over three months :P) then go for it!
I know for a fact that this is one of the main reasons that people go to Chiang Mai.
There are so many companies that offer the chance to see elephants and the only problem is you HAVE to be ethical.
Do your research and visit a rescue centre rather than somewhere that claims you can ride elephants.
Under no circumstances should you ride an elephant - don’t let your kids either; let them know that it’s not okay to ride elephants they will surely understand.
I never visited elephants in Chiang Mai, I visited them in Hua Hin at a rescue centre.
I had the chance to take them a little walk, feed them bananas and wash them.
It was magical as there was also a baby elephant there and she was the sweetest!
Our friends visited and elephant nature park in Chiang Mai and they paid around 1,000 Thai baht for that and a cooking class combined.
As mentioned earlier, one temple in Chiang Mai you absolutely have to visit is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
Just to clear up any confusion, this is the proper name of the temple, whereas Doi Suthep is actually the name of the mountain where this is located.
From the Old City, it’s about a 40 minute drive up here, so I think it’s best to include it on a Chiang Mai day trip outside of the city (for more information, keep reading for the day-to-day itinerary breakdown below).
Unfortunately for us, on the day we planned to visit the skies opened about an hour before our visit and it rained like crazy!
As such, the views were spoiled, which is annoying because it’s famous for having some of the best views over Chiang Mai you could imagine!
Oh well, I guess you win some and lose some.
The temple itself is very sacred to Buddhists and there’s a hefty 306 step climb to reach it!
The entrance is 40 baht and it’s open from 6am till 6pm.
Whilst up here, you could always explore other parts of the national park, where you’ll find waterfalls, viewpoints and caves.
Right, now that we've covered many of the best things to do in Chiang Mai in 3 days, let’s have a look at a rough 3 day Chiang Mai itinerary.
This itinerary assumes you arrive on the morning of day 1 and stay for 3 nights.
I deliberately left it relatively un-packed as everyone is different and will want to spend longer at certain things.
As such, feel free to completely alter it or to squeeze in other activities or tours that you plan on doing in Chiang Mai.
To make this a true Chiang Mai travel guide, here are answers to a few more burning questions you probably have.
If you want to take the planning and stress out of your visit to Chiang Mai, then it’s entirely possible to book a tour guide for each day.
Here are 4 of the most popular tours as offered by Klook:
In recent years, Chiang Mai has absolutely exploded in popularity.
As such, the city can get extremely busy during peak tourist months like January; but that’s understandable as it’s also the time with some of the best weather.
The more stable weather in Chiang Mai runs from November through to April; with chances of monsoons and heavy rain falling outside of these months.
That being said, our visit fell in October and the weather was mostly amazing!
At this time, there were a lot less tourists and you can get some much better deals on accommodation.
Absolutely, in fact I think it’s the perfect amount of time to get a strong sense of what the city offers before moving on.
That being said, we know tonnes of fellow nomads who have visited Chiang Mai and actually chose to return and even live there while working!
So who’s to say you won’t fall in love and stay as well ...
Prices in Chiang Mai are very similar to those across Thailand; nothing is particularly expensive (at least by Western standards).
If you aren’t paying for any expensive tours, then you will likely spend somewhere between 2,500 and 4,000 baht on 3 nights in Chiang Mai.
That assumes you stay in half decent accommodation but don’t splurge too much on food and alcohol.
For a better breakdown of Chiang Mai accommodation and transport prices, scroll back up to the top of this post.
When you visit Thailand on a UK or Irish passport you get 30 days in the country “free”. However, we did more than this; with our visit to Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Pai actually falling after a visit out of Thailand to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
As such, we were able to extend our visa for free because we left the country and then returned. This worked well for us anyway because we did the South of Thailand, then went to Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos then back to the North of Thailand.
So if, like us, you want to spend longer than 30 days in Thailand, then split your stay between the north and south and cross over into another country in the middle to reset the visa.
If you find yourself in northern Thailand, then two spots I can recommend checking out are Chiang Rai and Pai.
Though if you're limited for time and had to choose just one, I’d probably have to side with Pai.
Check out our two guides here and decide for yourself:
So there you have it, a list of my suggested itinerary for how to spend 3 days in Chiang Mai.
If you've got any other suggestions, then pop them below for others to see!
Other guides to read when planning your visit to Thailand: