Though vastly smaller than Bangkok, a weekend is still nowhere near enough time to discover the full delights of Chiang Mai’s myriad cultural, arty and foodie attractions, especially when trying to soak up the town’s refreshingly laid-back pace of life; but if you have to cram in as much of Thailand’s Rose of the North as possible into just two and a half days, we can help.
Forty-eight hours filled with monks, markets, massages and meals on repeat, here’s our guide for how to spend a perfect weekend in Chiang Mai.
First things first: food. Start your northern Thai stay with authentic northern Thai fare. Featuring more jungle herbs than central Thai cuisine, along with plenty of pork, northern Thai food offers a unique mix of ingredients, textures, flavours and scents often paired with sticky rice. Choose from dining in a traditional wood house at Huen Muan Jai, the trendy Kinlum Kindee in the Nimmanhaemin district or brave the inevitable wait at Tong Tem Toh – three restaurants specialising in northern Thai dishes made to share. Opt for an appetiser platter which will likely include an assortment of boiled vegetables, pork rind, sausages and chilli relishes for dipping, then add a few other must-try northern Thai dishes to your order.
After dinner, make your way to North Gate Jazz Co-Op in the old city near Pratu Chang Pheuak. With live music nightly from 8.30pm, this is a go-to spot to catch some tunes and mingle with an eclectic crowd of locals, expats, travellers and international musicians. Jazz not your thing? There are plenty of other live music venues in Chiang Mai.
Rise early for an activity-filled day following a theme of your choosing. But first, spray on mosquito repellent and make the short trek (about 45 minutes) along the monk’s trail up to Wat Palat. Stroll around the mountain temple complex for a bird’s eye view of Chiang Mai then walk back down and head to your accommodation to freshen up.
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Into arts and crafts? Head east from Chiang Mai’s city centre to check out work from Thai artists at the country’s only dedicated contemporary art museum, Maiiam Contemporary Art Museum. Just minutes away from the museum, the Bo Sang umbrella-making village showcases a traditional local craft while plenty of other handicraft workshops and showrooms dot the highway between Bo Sang and San Khampaeng. Back in town, learn more about traditional and contemporary crafts in hands-on workshops with the Weave Artisan Society.
In need of more nature? Located about three hours south of Chiang Mai city, Doi Inthanon National Park boasts the highest peak in Thailand and is one of the country’s most popular national parks thanks to its well-maintained hiking trails, remarkable vistas, hill tribe villages and cascading waterfalls. It’s best to visit the national parks with your own transportation (motorbikes and cars are available to rent throughout the city) or plan ahead and book an organised day tour.
If you want to dive into Chiang Mai’s more spiritual side, catch a yoga class after your morning hike at one of Chiang Mai’s many studios like Wild Rose Yoga or Hidden House Yoga. After savasana, head to Wat Chedi Luang’s drop-in monk chat to learn more about Thai Buddhism and ask the temple’s monks any questions you may have. From there, make an appointment for a healing ayurvedic, reiki or qi gong treatment at The Chiang Mai Ayurvedic Center or Chiang Mai Holistic.
With the sun beginning to dip below the horizon, head to One Nimman: a one-stop-shop for drinking, dining and shopping with a range of local Thai boutiques and restaurants. Sip on craft beer at the 5th-floor Parallel Universe of the Lunar 2 on the Hidden Moon then try the bright and friendly Somtum Der or Ginger Farm Kitchen for dinner. For dessert, snag Thai tea-flavoured soft serve at the Cha Mue Tre shop. Alternatively, for a more romantic outing, make advance reservations for the Riverside Bar & Restaurant’s evening dinner cruise.
Once sufficiently satiated, head to the Anusarn Night Bazaar for the thoroughly entertaining Chiang Mai Cabaret (performing twice nightly at 9.30pm and 10.30pm) or grab a nightcap at one of the city's intimate cocktail bars, such as Drinksmith.
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Sundays are meant for markets, self-care and hanging out. Any resident will tell you that the best weekends in Chiang Mai aren’t fully booked schedules but those that offer plenty of time to see how the day unfolds.
Start by strolling through one of Chiang Mai’s special Sunday morning markets. Rustic Market at the Jing Jai Market complex, running from 7.30am-1pm, draws locals and long-term visitors to stock up on farm fresh produce. The family-friendly market also has plenty of homemade goods and prepared eats and sweets, plus a live band playing Thai and American folk songs. At the base of Doi Suthep, Baan Kang Wat’s Morning Market (open from 8am-1pm) takes the term 'cute' to the next level with local crafts and clothing purveyors setting up tables in addition to the artist community’s permanent sellers.
A trip to Chiang Mai is not complete without indulging in a massage. Even better, the indulgence won’t break the bank. For a particularly local – and wallet-friendly – experience, find one of the no-frills massage shops at an old city temple, like Wat Phan Whaen, where an hour-long treatment will only set you back 150 baht. For a more atmospheric experience, Fah Lanna Spa is a must for spa lovers. Bonus: they offer free transportation to and from your hotel.
After your massage, temple- or cafe-hop...or both! You’re never far from either in Chiang Mai.
For a concentration of temples, head to the old city and hit the heavyweights of Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang, as well as the smaller and distinctly different Wat Jet Lin, Wat Phan Tao and Wat Inthakhin Saduemuang. Outside of the old city, but still nearby, Wat Sripsuphan dazzles with its hammered-silver–covered shrine, while the forest monastery of Wat U Mong is home to a unique series of tunnels and meditation caves.
With coffee beans coming from the surrounding hills and emphasis on creating picturesque cafes, Chiang Mai’s coffee scene is undeniably impressive. A number of popular cafes like Graph Cafe, Akha Ama Cafe, Fern Forest Cafe are conveniently found in the old city, while the Nimmanhaemin neighbourhood serves as another cafe hotspot. Home to favourites like Ristr8to, The Baristro cafe at The Barisotel and SS1254372 Cafe, you can quickly walk from cafe to cafe for your next caffeine hit.
If you're still in need of some last-minute souvenirs, head to the Sunday Walking Street. While it gets into full swing by 6pm, many stalls will be set up between 4-5pm, allowing you to make some earlier purchases and avoid the bulk of the crowds.
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Where to stay
It can be difficult to choose accommodation in Chiang Mai, not for lack of options but too many. Plan to stay in either the old city or around Nimmanhaemin Road, both of which are central, easily accessible hubs.
How to get there
Chiang Mai International Airport is just a 10-minute drive from the old city centre and has direct domestic and international flights. The Arcade Bus Terminal (about 4km from the old city) and train station (about 2.5km from the old city) connect Chiang Mai with the rest of Thailand through cheap rides. Within the city, public buses running on a circular route, túk-túks, sŏrng·tăa·ou (passenger pick-up trucks) and ride-sharing services through the Grab app offer different ways to easily get around town.