This 3 days Chiang Mai sightseeing itinerary is perfect if you only have limited time in Chiang Mai Thailand. Here's our top suggestions on things to do in Chiang Mai.
3 Days Chiang Mai Sightseeing Itinerary
In January 2019, Vanessa and I spent three weeks in Chiang Mai as part of our five month trip to SE Asia. A destination known for its large expat community, Chiang Mai is popular with digital nomads and travelers alike.
Having stayed there for a few weeks, and having also met people who chose to call Chiang Mai home, we thought that the city is probably more suited to people who, like us, want to spend a longer time there.
At the same time, the city has more than enough to offer for people who want to stop by Chiang Mai for a few days. In this blog post you can find our suggestions for a three days Chiang Mai sightseeing itinerary.
Where is Chiang Mai and why should I go there?
Located between mountains and national parks in Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is a popular standalone destination, but also the gateway for people who want to hike and experience more of Thailand’s lovely landscapes.
The city itself has a walkable centre full of street markets, local eateries, Buddhist temples, handicrafts shops and stalls selling inexpensive clothes.
This part of the city is surrounded by a moat, has four distinct gates and is called the Old Town. There are also several shopping malls and plenty of expat-friendly cafés and restaurants in Chiang Mai.
What should I do in three days in Chiang Mai?
With three days in Chiang Mai, you will be able to see all the main sights, and get a good idea of what the city has to offer.
To be fair, if your main interests when travelling are markets or temples, you might want to allow a couple more days, as Chiang Mai has plenty of both. Otherwise, three days in Chiang Mai is pretty much the ideal amount to spend in the city.
Temples in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai has an incredible number of over 300 Buddhist temples, known in Thai as Wat. A few of them are big and luxurious, and you need to pay an entrance fee. However, most of the Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai are free to enter. Chiang Mai is also home to a few mosques, Sikh and Hindu temples.
If you are interested in meditation or Buddhism in general, Chiang Mai is a good place to be, as some temples offer monk chats, where you will get the chance to talk to monks about their everyday life and Buddhism. Meditation classes are also offered in some of the temples, free of charge.
When visiting a Buddhist temple, remember to cover your knees and shoulders, and overall be respectful. Shoes and socks are not allowed inside the temples, so you must leave them outside and walk barefoot.
Tip – wear flip-flops, sandals or slip-ons.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
The city’s most famous temple is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Built in 1383 on the nearby Doi Suthep mountain, it’s a popular destination for travelers, expats but also locals.
To reach the temple you can take a bus or taxi, or hike the Monk’s Trail for a couple of hours. While the hike is not the easiest, it is still fine for people of average fitness level. The stunning temple is home to several stupas, nagas, elephant statues and other Thai architectural elements and features, and is mostly covered with gold.
We are somehow embarrassed to admit that we didn’t visit the Doi Suthep temple, as we kept postponing our visit until we eventually left Chiang Mai. Our lame excuse is that by that time we had already visited too many Buddhist temples, in both Chiang Mai and other countries, and we just couldn’t get motivated.
As for you, allow a half-day or more for Doi Suthep, and try to get there early in order to avoid the tourist buses. If you prefer, you can also take a tour.
Wat Phra Singh
Wat Phra Singh is one of the oldest and most impressive temples within the Old Town, dating from 1345. The large complex includes three separate buildings, and is quite popular with locals and visitors. Do not miss the Lai Kam hall with the amazing restored murals and the 15th-Century Buddha statue.
Wat Phra Singh gets particularly busy during the Songkran Thai New Year festival, from 13-15 April.
Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chedi Luang is one of the largest and most important temples in Chiang Mai. Founded around 1400, its massive pagoda took several years to be completed and was originally 80 metres tall.
Unfortunately, it was damaged during an earthquake in the 16th century, and was never fully restored. Even so, you simply can’t miss it, and it’s one of Chiang Mai’s landmarks.
The Wat Chedi Luang once hosted the Emerald Buddha, Thailand’s most sacred religious object, which can now be found in the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
Wat Chedi Luang is one of the temples offering the opportunity to join one of the popular monk chats, taking place at tables just outside the temple.
Here, you will meet plenty of young monks who are eager to talk about their lives, Buddhism or anything really.
An unforgettable moment was when Vanessa had the opportunity to talk to the young monks about the Meteora monasteries, and explain how Greek monks have a full beard and unkempt hair, which is in stark contrast with the clean shaven Buddhist monks.
Wat Suan Dok
Not far from the Old Town, to the West, you will find the white-washed Wat Suan Dok, another 14th-century temple. Also the site of an important Buddhist University with an entirely unpronounceable name, Wat Suan Dok offers monk chats and meditation classes and retreats, open to everyone.
Wat Sri Suphan / The Silver Temple
Wat Sri Suphan is one of the most impressive temples in Chiang Mai due to its unique, hand-crafted silver decoration. It was built in the beginning of the 16th century as a silversmiths’ temple, and was gradually covered in silver, hence its name.
Sadly, women are not allowed inside the temple, but all visitors can wander around the small studios next to the temple, where silversmiths are still working.
The temple also offers meditation guidance and monk chats. If you are going to the Saturday evening market, you can combine it with a visit to the Wat Sri Suphan.
Wat Lok Moli
This temple was literally a two-minute walk from our accommodation in Chiang Mai, so we simply had to visit. The grounds of the temple were originally home to the Royal Palace, until the end of the 14th century it was turned into a monastery to host a group of monks from Burma.
The current temples were built around the mid-16th century, and eventually became the burial place of the King and Queen at the time.
Other Temples in Chiang Mai
Apart from this short selection, there are – literally – hundreds more temples in Chiang Mai that you will no doubt come across as you are strolling around the city.
If you only have three days in Chiang Mai, we suggest that you just pop in and out of the ones that appeal to you, and have a look.
Chiang Mai Markets
South East Asia is really all about markets. There are impossibly huge markets everywhere – food markets, clothes markets, handicrafts markets, junk markets, local markets, tourist markets, floating markets, evening markets and night markets.
It’s impossible to spend three days in Chiang Mai without bumping into a few of them. We visited many markets in Chiang Mai and she thought that they were among the best markets in Thailand.
When you are visiting Chiang Mai’s markets, it’s a good idea to do some price research before you actually buy something. You will find the exact same clothes and souvenirs at a range of prices, often in the same market.
It seemed to us that the Sunday market might be slightly more expensive, but it’s not like anything you bought at a Chiang Mai market would break the bank – apart from singing bowls, which actually were fairly expensive. I remembered them being much cheaper in Kathmandu!
You should also know that bargaining in Thailand is an inherent part of the culture, so you are almost expected to ask for a lower price.
At the same time, our suggested approach is to not overdo it – chances are that you are much better off financially than the local vendors and prices are very low, by Western standards, to begin with.
Sunday Evening Market Chiang Mai – Tha Pae Walking Street
Arguably the most commercial and the most overwhelming market in Chiang Mai, the Sunday Walking Street runs every Sunday from about 4-5 pm to midnight. You can’t really miss it – it starts from Tha Pae Gate and runs on the whole length of Rachadamnoen Road and all the streets around it, sprawling inside the Old Town.
There is nothing that you can’t find in this market. From tasteful souvenirs, to inexpensive clothes and jewelry, to unique handbags and to fantastic street food, the Sunday market has it all. It is one of the most popular markets in Chiang Mai, so avoid it if you don’t like crowded places, but by all means take your time if markets are your thing.
Seriously – the market is so big that you might end up spending four or five hours without finding the end of it!
While strolling around the market, check out the temple courtyards that double as street food corners. This is where we had some of the best street food in Chiang Mai. Make sure that you pop in whichever temple is open – seeing them lit up is a whole different experience.
If you only visit one market, make it this one.
Saturday Market Chiang Mai
The Saturday Market is just outside the Old Town, on Wua Lai Road, just opposite the Chiang Mai Gate on the south. It runs on Saturday evenings, from about 5-6 pm to 10-11 pm.
In our experience it was a little less busy and seemed smaller than the Sunday night market. The goods were more or less the same, though the Sunday market seemed to have more variety. Go early to avoid the peak crowds, and do not miss the Silver Temple.
Daily Night Market & Bazaar East of Old Town
This massive market which is apparently one of the oldest in Chiang Mai can be found to the east of the Old Town, on Chang Khlan Road. It is actually several separate markets merging into one, with plenty of outdoors and indoors sections.
Check out Ploen Ruedee, Kalare and Anusarn markets on GoogleMaps. Stalls operate between about 6pm and midnight on a daily basis, though the Anusarn market section is actually open from midday onwards.
You can find anything you may be looking for in terms of clothes and souvenirs, along with electronics and DVDs of obscure quality, counterfeit bags and shoes.
We thought that the quality in this market seemed a little lower overall, but there was more selection of everyday stuff that is not aimed at tourists.
In terms of street food, there are food stalls everywhere, but also a large dedicated food court including a number of non-Thai eateries.
It’s worth mentioning that Chang Khlan Road is close to the area where the first expats moved to in Chiang Mai. If you are craving a Starbucks coffee or a Burger King / McDonalds burger, this is where to head to.
Warorot Market Chiang Mai
Warorot Market was the most authentic local market we visited in Chiang Mai, with no other tourists in sight. It is located to the east of the Old Town, to the north of the night market. It operates on a daily basis, from early morning until late in the evening.
There are massive arrays of stores selling inexpensive clothes, textiles, houseware and other everyday items. There is also a large covered section where you can buy herbs, spices, dried fish and shrimp, and other food items you may not have seen before and will probably not recognize.
Mueang Mai Market Chiang Mai
To the north of Warorot Market, Mueang Mai is a local fresh market where you can buy any food you might be interested in. You will find fruit and vegetables at a fraction of supermarket prices, as well as fresh meat and fish.
Street food in Chiang Mai – Food markets in Chiang Mai
We thought that food in Chiang Mai was some of the best food in SE Asia. You can find any type of Thai food, both from North and South Thailand, but also international food – pizzas, burgers, and several ethnic food stalls and restaurants.
Our favourite place was a small, no-frills, no-name restaurant close to a café called Cats in Wonderland. Run by two ladies that speak minimal English, this cozy little place soon became our staple. Both the menu and the portions were absolutely huge, and flavours were divine. That said, pretty much anywhere we had a meal was way above average.
With street food in mind, Chiang Mai is heaven. If you visit the Saturday or Sunday markets, don’t forget to spare some time for the food courts, where you can taste the local delicacies.
Things that stood out for us were the popular mango with sticky rice dessert, meat on a stick, baked sweet potato on a stick, corn with butter, but also more unusual snacks, while iced juices deserve a special mention.
Whether eating while walking through a busy market is a pleasant experience though, is a matter of personal taste!
Food Markets in Chiang Mai
In terms of food markets and food courts in the city, it is impossible to spend three days in Chiang Mai without bumping into one of them. Apart from the food corners and stalls operating within the larger markets, there are also markets dedicated entirely to food.
Sri Wattana Market Chiang Mai is located to the north of the Old Town. It’s a clean, affordable market where you can buy fruit and veg, but also meat, fish, and unidentifiable, but mostly yummy, take-away meals and desserts. As we were staying a 10-minute walk from Sri Wattana market, it soon became a favourite.
Chang Phueak food market was literally two minutes from where we were staying, so we visited a few times. Although some of the food wasn’t the greatest, it was filling, cheap and convenient. We wouldn’t necessarily suggest that you include this in your three-day Chiang Mai itinerary though – we thought that the food courts in the Saturday and Sunday markets and the Night market were superior.
Many of the city’s malls, like Central Kad Suan Kaew or the upmarket Maya have food courts just outside, so after you are done with shopping you can grab a local delicacy to take away.
If you like beer, stick to regional brands when drinking in Chiang Mai, especially if you are budget-minded. Local beer is inexpensive and refreshing, and you will see plenty of locals and expats sitting down for a cold one at the end of the day.
Food market tours and Cooking Classes in Chiang Mai
For those with little time in Chiang Mai, it might be worth taking a food market tour, where you will learn lots about Thai food and ingredients and have the chance to taste several local dishes and delicacies.
In fact, we should have probably taken one ourselves, instead of trying to ask what we are eating through sign language.
If you ever wanted to know how to make a proper Thai green curry and other less famous Thai dishes, you can try a food market tour combined with a Thai cooking class.
Now that we are back in Greece, Vanessa really regrets not taking one – though admittedly some Thai ingredients are really hard to find in Athens.
Go to one of the Shopping Malls in Chiang Mai
Like most SE Asian cities, Chiang Mai has its fair share of shopping malls. While we weren’t really interested in buying anything, we ended up returning to Maya Lifestyle Shopping Centre, for two reasons.
Firstly, it has a big supermarket where we could find some European foods that we had missed (hello olive oil!). Secondly, it has a lovely cinema, offering discounted prices on some days. There was also a co-working space that seemed very popular.
Other malls you can visit in Chiang Mai include the slightly dated Central Kad Suan Kaew with its lovely food court, the Central Plaza Chiang Mai Airport, and the Promenada Chiang Mai, further out of the centre.
Visit Nimman in Chiang Mai
If you are staying in Chiang Mai for a few weeks and are feeling a little homesick, your best bet is to visit the upmarket Nimman area in Chiang Mai.
With a range of expat-friendly coffee shops, restaurants, bars and boutiques, this is where the digital nomads go. We’ll be honest though – it wasn’t really our favourite area of Chiang Mai.
Have a Thai massage in Chiang Mai
Like everywhere else in Thailand, Chiang Mai has its fair share of massage studios. Quality, service and prices vary a lot.
Even though we read a bunch of reviews for massage in Chiang Mai, we ended up trying a couple of random places not far from Tha Pae Gate.
Tip – if you want a relaxing massage, make sure you explain it, as Thai massage can be pretty intense.
Yoga in Chiang Mai
If you are into yoga, you will be pleased to know that Chiang Mai has an abundance of studios and schools. Combine this with the opportunities to learn more about meditation in the city’s temples, and you can easily spend weeks there researching your spiritual side.
If you have never tried yoga before, don’t worry – there are plenty of classes suitable for beginners. Many of the studios are located in the Old Town.
Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai
In my opinion, there's all sorts of ethical concerns in regards to elephant sanctuaries. Some may very well be genuine, whilst others are simply there for tourists.
Personally, I appreciate seeing animals out in the wild more, so decided to give it a miss.
Day trips from Chiang Mai
The surreal White Temple, in the nearby city of Chiang Rai, is a very popular site. Unless you are travelling to Chiang Rai after Chiang Mai, you can visit on a day trip.
As for those who are looking to explore the nearby countryside and the Chiang Dao valley region, there is nothing better than cycling around Chiang Mai province!
Three Days Chiang Mai Sightseeing Itinerary – Choices, choices!
With all the above in mind, you can easily see that Chiang Mai has plenty to offer if you are staying for three days. However, we can’t possibly suggest a one-size-fits-all three days Chiang Mai sightseeing itinerary, as people have different interests.
Furthermore, what to do in three days in Chiang Mai also depends on the days of the week you are there, and the month you are visiting. Check out our guide here on the best time of year to visit Chiang Mai Thailand.
What you shouldn’t miss though, is walking around the Old Town and spending some time in the city’s vibrant markets and temples, soaking up the lively but laid-back ambience. Plan less and explore more – that’s our advice for Chiang Mai.