If you’re visiting Thailand for a two or three week holiday, spending around four days in Chiang Mai is a good introduction to the cultural capital of the north and you’ll soon appreciate why Chiang Mai regularly features in lists of the world’s best cities to visit.
Our main advice with any Thailand itinerary is don’t try to cram too much in. With so much to see and do in Chiang Mai, you’ll need to prioritise what you’d like to experience during your time in Thailand’s second city. To help you plan your trip, we’ve put together some ideas for a four day Chiang Mai itinerary. This will give you a taste of what Chiang Mai has to offer; culture, history, food, music, nature, and local life.
Charming Chiang Mai
Bangkok is one of the most exciting cities in Asia, but can also be overwhelming for first-time visitors. Chiang Mai is a far gentler introduction to Thailand and Thai culture. The pace of life here is more relaxed compared to the capital and the city is more compact and easier to navigate. If you’re visiting Thailand for the first time on a two or three week holiday, consider Chiang Mai and North Thailand at the start of your trip. From Chiang Mai you can then travel to the beaches or islands and leave Bangkok for the end of your trip when you’ve had time to acclimatise.
Spend the morning in Chiang Mai’s old city. Surrounded by a moat and with reconstructions of the old city walls and gates, this is the historic heart of Chiang Mai. It’s a pleasant area to walk or cycle around and get your bearings. You’ll find dozens of temples in and around the old city. Amongst the most interesting and photogenic, make time for Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang (and the adjacent teak temple of Wat Phan Tao) and Wat Chiang Man.
Go for a foot massage or traditional Thai massage at any of the many small massage shops in the Old City. For something more luxurious, but still budget-friendly, take a look at Fah Lanna Spa and Oasis Spa.
Seen one temple, seen them all, right? We don’t think that’s true and to prove our point, pay a visit to Wat Srisuphan (aka the Silver Temple) in the traditional silver-making district of Wualai. Either before or after your visit, enjoy street-food heaven at the nearby Chiang Mai Gate market or book a food tour and try some classic northern Thai dishes.
Support the samlor drivers of Chiang Mai
The samlor (bicycle rickshaw) is a traditional use of transport in Chiang Mai. Although they are not as common a sight as they once were, you can still experience this elegant form of travel with an organised tour. When you book a samlor tour you’ll be supporting responsible tourism and benefiting from meaningful travel experiences.
Morning and afternoon
For the second day of your Chiang Mai trip, travel out to the countryside for a slice of rural life. This is also an opportunity to visit one of Chiang Mai’s many elephant centres. Before deciding where to go, do your research and look for an ethical elephant sanctuary.
For an unforgettable introduction to the delights of rural Chiang Mai, take a look at The Tuk Tuk Club. Their tours are a wonderful way to experience this corner of North Thailand with responsible tourism at the heart of everything they do. One day trips include the chance to drive your own tuk-tuk, visit an ethical elephant facility and go bamboo rafting.
Relax in the evening at any of Chiang Mai’s numerous live music venues. With its location opposite Chang Phueak Market, a visit to North Gate Jazz Co-Op means you can combine eating street food with a night of music. Complete your night with cocktails at the quirky speakeasy, White Rabbit.
If you’re staying closer to the river area or Night Bazaar, check out The Riverside or Good View for dinner and music. Located undercover in the Night Bazaar building, the long-running and much-loved Boy Blues Bar (named after the late owner Khun Boy) packs in music lovers with a friendly mix of locals and tourists.
Day trips from Chiang Mai
If you are staying in Chiang Mai for less than four days, try to resist the temptation to do day trips that involve long drives out of the city. Although Doi Inthanon and Chiang Rai can both be visited on a day trip from Chiang Mai, it makes it a long day to sit in a bus or minivan.
Visit Waworot Market (known locally as Kad Luang) and the Chinatown area. This part of town is also home to the Flower Market and it’s a fascinating and colourful location to walk around at any time of the day.
Enjoy a coffee or cold drink at any of the riverside cafes before taking a leisurely boat ride along the Ping River. Alternatively, enjoy an alfresco afternoon tea at the historic 137 Pillars House or Anantara hotel. Whichever option you choose, you’ll still have time to explore the Wat Ket area and also be able to support elephant conservation by shopping at the Elephant Parade House.
Treat yourself to an evening at any of Chiang Mai’s leading restaurants. Book a table at The House by Ginger and from there you can make the stroll across the road for live music at Paapu House or Troubadour. The homely Baan Landai restaurant is another excellent option. From here you can either revisit North Gate Jazz Co-op or walk along Prapokklao Road towards the Three Kings Monument where you can finish off the evening with live music and drinks at Mahoree City of Music or Saneha.
Chiang Mai markets
Whether you like shopping or not, the various markets in Chiang Mai are well worth a visit. If you’re lucky enough to be in Chiang Mai on a weekend, look out for the Saturday and Sunday Walking Street Markets which set up in the late afternoon along Wualai Road (Saturdays) and along Ratchadamnoen Road in the old city (Sundays). The Jing Jai Farmer’s Market that takes place on weekend mornings is also not to be missed. The Night Bazaar is more touristy, but can be fun and has the advantage of being open every night.
Make the short journey out of town to the temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Located on Doi Suthep mountain, the temple is one of the holiest sites in North Thailand and there is a saying locally that you haven’t visited Chiang Mai until you’ve visited Doi Suthep. If you have a full day left in Chiang Mai you could spend the morning in town and visit Doi Suthep in the late afternoon for the daily monk chanting ceremony. Before or after Doi Suthep, stop off at One Nimman and the nearby Nimmanhaemin Road area for food, drinks and shopping.
To round off your stay in Chiang Mai, visit any of the city’s rooftop bars. Although there isn’t anywhere near the same choice of rooftop bars that you can find in Bangkok, there are some noteworthy options. Near the river, Melia offers fabulous 360 degree views of Chiang Mai. In the Old City, the rooftop at Thapae Grill is a no-frills and laidback option. Over in the Nimman area, the rooftop at Maya Mall is a good spot to watch the sunset over Doi Suthep with the nearby Rise Rooftop bar at Akyra Manor Hotel a fine choice too.
Food and drink in Chiang Mai
Don’t leave Chiang Mai without sampling khao soi, the signature dish of the region. Look out too for other northern Thai favourites like sai oua and gaeng hinlay.
9 must-try northern Thai dishes
12 Michelin recommended restaurants to try in Chiang Mai
Explore more of North Thailand
If you have more time to spend in North Thailand you can use Chiang Mai as your jumping off point. Travel to nearby Lampang or across to Chaing Rai, Nan, Phrae and Phayao. Or travel in the other direction to the north-west province of Mae Hong Son with a stopover en route in Pai.