48 Hours in Chiang Mai

Wat Prathat Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai

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Chiang Mai is a popular launching point for trips into other parts of Northern Thailand, but the city is very much a destination in its own right. Two days in Chiang Mai will go quickly with so many interesting things to see and do!

Chiang Mai's Old City—a perfect square enclosed by a medieval moat and crumbling brick wall — is filled with ancient temples, charming guesthouses, and plenty of cafes serving coffee from the nearby hills. To the west, Nimmanhaemin (Nimman) Road welcomes shoppers, diners, and party animals with its collection of shopping centers, restaurants, and bars.

Beyond the city, Chiang Mai is literally surrounded by tourist activities. Attractions include a zoo, night safari, zip-lining, bungee jumping—the list is extensive. Operations collect tourists in the Old City, take them out for day trips, then return them in the evening sunburned and happy. Doi Inthanon National Park and Chiang Mai Canyon are also within day-trip striking distance of Chiang Mai.

Although there are enough choices in the immediate area to keep you occupied for at least a week or more, most people will find that 48 hours in Chiang Mai's Old City area is enough to enjoy the best it has to offer. We'll focus our two-day itinerary on activities within or very near to the Old City.

01 of 07

Day 1: Morning

Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai Old City, Thailand
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9 a.m.: Spend your first day in Chiang Mai getting your bearings. If you’re staying in the Old City, spend the early hours visiting some of the temples in the Old City; most of them are within easy walking distance, so just grab a free map and begin walking.

You can take tuk-tuks or order a Grab ride-hire to farther points when you get tired (taxis aren't really a thing in Chiang Mai). Stop for frequent breaks at one of the many quaint cafes or healthy juice shops.

Within the Old City, you’ll find four key temples: Wat Chedi Luang (right in the heart of the Old City), Wat Pan Tao (made of teak; very near Wat Chedi Luana), Wat Phra Singh (dates back to the 14th century), and Wat Chiang Man (13th century; elephant statues).

While visiting temples, ask if the location offers a "monk chat." Participating temples around Chiang Mai will let you ask an English-speaking monk whatever you like. These daily events provide a unique opportunity to learn a little about how the monks live and think. (You should be dressed appropriately for interacting with the monks. Avoid off-the-shoulder or sleeveless shirts; wear reasonably conservative pants or skirts.)

12 p.m.: For lunch, choices abound. Chiang Mai is home to a lot of vegetarian restaurants. Many run cooking schools. In the Old City, get over to Rad Rabbit Pizza for a surprisingly delicious pizza experience. Asa Vegan and Goodsouls Kitchen are two other quality choices. Outside the Old City, there’s always the Bodhi Tree Cafe, located off the beaten path on Rachadamnoen Soi 5.

You also can't visit Chiang Mai without trying khao soi, the regional noodle curry with a sweet-and-spicy taste. Nearly every restaurant in town has it on the menu, but a few specialize in khao soi. For the "real deal," go to Khao Soi Wulai near the Saturday Market’s Wua Lai Road—you know it’s good because it’s packed with locals, but not a lot of tourists!

Another popular option is Huen Phen on Ratchamanka Road in the middle of the Old City. Lunch is a better value and less crowded than dinner. The menu is ideal for sampling local Lanna specialties, especially the sausages and sticky rice (khao niaw).

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02 of 07

Day 1: Afternoon

Warorot Market, Chiang Mai

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2 p.m.: Even in the cooler peak season, midday and afternoon heat in Chiang Mai can be savage, so now’s the time to head indoors.

The best way to escape the heat in Chiang Mai? Grab a massage. Chiang Mai is an oasis for inexpensive massage options, although more lavish spas can also be found.

For a uniquely Chiang Mai experience and to support a good cause, you can opt for a massage at the Women's Massage Center By Ex-Prisoners. They have five branches across Chiang Mai, staffed by vocational graduates from the local women's prison; get a massage while helping ex-prisoners successfully reintegrate into professional society.

3 p.m.: Feeling nice and relaxed, it's time to head to Warorot Market, the largest market in Chiang Mai. The multi-level indoor market is located a 15-minute walk east of the Old City, just before the Ping River.

Walk out of the Old City at Tapae Gate, stop in briefly to see the quirky statues in front of Wat Mahawan on the right (think: Donald Duck), then take a left at the Tops Mini Market. Warorot Market sells supplies to local restaurants, but it won't be as busy in the afternoon. With a little negotiating, souvenirs will inevitably be cheaper than the next stop.

5 p.m.: Walk 10 minutes south (crossing back over the main road) to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar to grab an evening drink as you wait for vendors to get set up. They typically open around 6 p.m. The Night Bazaar lures in (and overcharges) tourists seven days a week.

Don't expect to find many bargains on the cramped sidewalks at the Night Bazaar—that's why you visit Warorot Market first—but numerous art shops and eating and drinking spaces make walking the strip an interesting diversion.

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03 of 07

Day 1: Evening

Zoe in the Yellow nightclub
Zoe in the Yellow

7 p.m.: There are plenty of Western dining options around Chiang Mai, but surely that’s not what you’re here for. You’ll find a good selection of decent-to-great Thai dining options for dinner around Chiang Mai Old City. A few favorites include:

  • Dash: Tucked away in a soi (alleyway) near Tha Pae Gate, Dash serves up Thai fusion food in a classic residential garden setting.
  • Khantoke at Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre: The Chiang Mai Cultural Centre pulls out all the stops with its nightly Khantoke Dinner. Dig into classic Northern Thai fare while enjoying traditional dancing entertainment.
  • Ginger & Kafe: The decor-filled, traditional Thai house setting for Ginger and Kafe sets you up wonderfully for the fusion Thai menu. Don’t leave without ordering the classic massaman curry.

If you’re on a budget, try the outdoor eating scene at Chiang Puak Gate in the northern part of the Old City. Numerous carts sell delicious local food cooked in front of you: chicken satay, pad thai, and mango with sticky rice, among other things. Slow-roasted pork leg (khao kha moo) is a favorite here, served by a lady vendor wearing a cowboy hat.

9 p.m.: Now's the time to take advantage of Chiang Mai's nightlife if you plan to do so. Most of the bars in the city observe a strict midnight closing time, although there are after-hours spots.

For a serious party—and numerous live music choices—head over to Zoe in Yellow. The square at the corner of Ratchapakhinai Road and Ratvithi Road is home to small live-music venues covering the spectrum of dance, reggae, ska, and even heavy metal. The 48 Garage car bar on the corner is a good option if the drunk backpackers around Zoe get to be too much.

A more "sophisticated" option is to head over to North Gate Jazz Co-op at the Old City's north gate. The popular hole-in-the-wall is a Chiang Mai institution. Jazz musicians (sometimes famous ones) jam as spectators sweat and sway in the cramped space, which is open until midnight.

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04 of 07

Day 2: Morning

Wat Umong, Chiang Mai

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10 a.m.: Since you'll be on the western side of the Old City, begin the day by diverting to Wat Umong, Chiang Mai's "Tunnel Temple." The underground temple is unique, and the grounds are lovely. Even if you've seen your fill of temples, this one is different and worth exploring. The peaceful grounds are rarely busy.

11:30 a.m.: Before making the 40-minute trip up the mountain, you'll need to decide if you want a "real" lunch or don't mind just eating from some of the food/snack carts near the temple. Your dining options on top are limited.

If breakfast wasn't substantial, go 10 minutes north through Chiang Mai University to the Nimmanhemin Road area. Frequently shortened to "Nimman," this part of Chiang Mai is home to many tempting choices, including the following:

  • Café de Nimman: A popular Thai restaurant with all the greatest hits, including papaya salad, coconut curries, khao soi, and tom yam goong, among others.
  • Cherng Doi Roast Chicken: A Michelin Bib Gourmand awardee that made its name on its classic roast chicken with crispy skin; the place solidly delivers good Northern Thai food like papaya salad and laab.
  • Beast Burger: A straightforward but excellent burger joint; order their namesake sandwich with aioli and crinkle-cut fries.
  • Seoulmind: This Korean cafe serves a mean Korean fried chicken, with a choice of two styles. Going with a group? Go big by ordering the 16-piece set.  
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05 of 07

Day 2: Afternoon

Inside of Doi Suthep

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

After lunch, head outside of the Old City to explore Doi Suthep, the 5,500-foot-tall mountain that’s home to one of the region’s most important temples, Wat Phra Tat Doi Suthep. Assuming you aren't visiting during the "burning season" when smoke obscures views, you'll be able to photograph Chiang Mai from above.

Doi Suthep is located about 45 minutes west of the Old City. Although you can easily get a tuk-tuk to take you there, go the local way by sharing a ride on one of the city’s many red pickup trucks (songthaews). 

Ask at the songthaew lot near the North Gate of the city; look for the Doi Suthep sign.  You can also find songthaews bound for Doi Suthep on Huay Kaew Road near the Chiang Mai Zoo (40 baht per person, or about $1.25).

 An adventurous option is to rent a scooter and drive yourself to Doi Suthep, but the road is very steep and winding—don't attempt it unless you consider yourself a proficient driver in Asia!

At Doi Suthep, you can ride the cable car (for a fee) or walk the 300-plus stairs to the top for a view. At the terrace at the top of the steps, explore the different temples surrounding the golden Chedi (stupa) at the very center of the complex.

Take your time enjoying the most important temple in Chiang Mai. A small market, food stalls, and other facilities are available. Entrance costs 50 baht (around $1.60); remember to wear modest clothing, as you’ll be entering an active house of worship.

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06 of 07

Day 2: Evening

Night street food market, Chiang Mai
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5 p.m.: Grab transportation back down the mountain (traffic will be heavy around now) to the Nimman area. If you wish, spend a little time in the Maya Lifestyle Shopping Center at Nimmanhemin Road and Huay Kaew Road junction. The rooftop has an open-air atmosphere and several pleasant picks for a sunset drink.

If you prefer to avoid the mall scene, check out the Kad Na Mor student night market near the university (ask around for it). Arranged in an open-air shopping area, over 100 shops sell fashionable items at student prices. Cheap food and drinks are also available.

7 p.m.: The entire Nimmanhemin Road area north of campus is jammed with hipster joints, chic cafes, wine bars, boutique shops, and more. It's a hangout and hallowed grounds for students and "digital nomads" who live in Chiang Mai.

Again, there's no shortage of interesting options for dinner nearby. Save the Western food for home; eat Northern Thai food while you can, at one of the following Nimman joints:

  • Blackitch: Artisanal fusion food in Chef’s Table style, located at the Nimmanhemin Road area. The dishes have an eclectic range of influences, from Nordic to Northern Thai. Make reservations, as the space only has 12 seats.
  • Ginger Farm Kitchen: A farm-to-kitchen restaurant at One Nimman with food straight from local organic farmers. Meat is on the menu, but the Kitchen offers a separate “veggie-friendly” menu.
  • Kinlum Kindee: A contemporary-style restaurant serving traditional Northern Thai dishes in a “tapas” style, letting you pick and choose your favorites without ordering giant quantities.  

9 p.m.: If celebrating your last night is the plan, start at the Warm-Up Cafe, one of the most popular spots in the neighborhood. It's a busy, social place with live bands, a dance room, and a garden.

The Sangdee Gallery is a place to enjoy art, music, and drinks in a social setting.

Beer Lab is, you guessed it, the place to go to sample a wide variety of beer from around the world—a good option if you're burned out on Thailand's usual beer choices.

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07 of 07

Detour: The Weekend Walking Street Markets

The Sunday Walking Street market in Chiang Mai, Thailand
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Try scheduling your visit to Chiang Mai to coincide with the weekend, so you can check out the Saturday or Sunday walking street markets at your leisure. As with any Thai night market, they’re fun and (largely) free—a great place to walk around, see bits and bobs of the local culture, eat some authentic street food, and buy interesting souvenirs to take home.

The Saturday Walking Street Market is located on Wua Lai Road, just south of the Old City near the “Silver Temple” (Wat Sri Suphan). This is the more laid-back of the weekend markets, given its less central location. Not that it’s any less fun: handicrafts from local hill tribes have more of a presence on Saturday, including woven wallets, home decorations, and costumes; competing for attention alongside the usual complement of souvenir shirts, postcards, and candles.

Saturday’s market also offers a wider food selection—the different food zones cover traditional Thai food, surprisingly affordable seafood, and even fried insects! There’s a lot to choose from, so pace yourself while going through the market.

The Sunday Walking Street Market unfolds right at the Old City’s Tha Pae Gate down Ratchadamnoen Road. As it starts at Chiang Mai’s “front door” and continues down its busiest street, Sunday’s market is the busier of the two—the selection is much greater, though the crowds during the high season can make the lanes feel positively claustrophobic.

After browsing through the Market’s hundreds of souvenir and food stalls, look for the tents where cheap foot rubs are on offer. For 70 baht (about $2.25), you can enjoy half an hour of relaxing foot massages that knead away any exhaustion from your limbs—setting you up for another few hours of walking around!

Enjoying the markets: Both markets begin in the late afternoon and wrap up by 11 p.m. Arrive early if you're serious about eating and shopping—it will be hard to move around much later in the evening! Prices for locally made souvenirs and trinkets are competitive (and you can haggle them down within reason).

The two markets differ in feeling and setting. There's no reason not to enjoy both!