The questions I get asked most often is what are the must-see sights in Japan and how long I recommend spending in each place. Since Kyoto is on almost every traveler’s itinerary (deservedly so!) I decided to put together this 3-day itinerary to give you a rough guide for your trip to Kyoto.
I highly recommend spending two full days in Kyoto, although three days will give you an opportunity to explore it better as there is quite a lot to see and you will need some time to enjoy and take it all in. Kyoto is not as small as one might think and all the major sights are spread out in different directions. It definitely is not walkable and you will be relying heavily on the public transportation to get from one spot to another. Whether you follow my itinerary or your own, I highly recommend splitting your list into areas – east, central, south and west to target places clustered in each area to make your daily ventures more productive and efficient. From practical point of view, the best place to stay in Kyoto is around Kyoto Station, which is a central railway station in the city and a major transportation hub. It will be very easy to get to places from there, by bus or metro. It is also worth noting that metro system in Kyoto is not as sophisticated as that in Tokyo, so you will have to rely on bus to get to certain places. I advise you to get a bus, metro and city maps from the Information Center in Kyoto Station upon arrival to help you navigate.
Catch an early bullet train from Tokyo. The journey takes about 2 hours and costs around $120 one way (if you don’t have a JR Pass). After you arrive and check into your lodging, head out to explore. If you need to grab an early lunch, Kyoto Station has lots of nice and affordable options (both local and western cuisine) on the 11th floor.
Head to Fushimi Inari Taisha to wander through the mesmerizing vermilion tunnel of torii gates planted in the woods. If you didn’t already have lunch, then I recommend settling in one of the small mom-and-pop restaurants overlooking the forest. These are located at random rest stops along the trail. I enjoyed my bowl of udon while taking in the beautiful scenery through the floor-to-ceiling windows – it was quite memorable. Also note that the further up you go, less crowded the tunnel is and bigger the opportunity to take beautiful pictures without anyone in the frame.
Next, catch a bus to the iconic Kiyumizu-dera, or Pure Water Temple. One of Kyoto’s many world heritage sites and one of the most celebrated temples of Japan, Kiyomizu-dera is a sprawling complex which attracts thousands of visitors daily.
I recommend ascending from the Uedacho street, which is more of a cobble-stoned alley that will lead you to the iconic view of the Yasaka Pagoda.
Make a quick stop by the % Arabica Coffee whose owner and barista at the counter, Junichi Yamaguchi, took out first place in the world Coffee Fest Latte Art Championship. You will also be lured in by numerous souvenir shops, and quite frankly, Kyoto has the best souvenir shops in Japan. Call me biased, but I stand by these words and highly encourage you to indulge in shopping.
On your way back from Kiyomizu-dera, take a route via Nanenzaka street to enjoy the atmospheric ambiance of Gion.
At the end of this street you’ll find yourself at another noteworthy little shrine – Ryozen Kannon – with not so small statue of Kannon. It was erected in 1955 to commemorate Japanese soldiers who fell during WWII and is an example of Showa era art. Seeing her against the placid, ever-green mountain range of Kyoto was definitely worth a visit.
From there you can head to Nanzen-ji Shrine, once the most powerful zen temple in Japan, featuring red brick aqueduct.
Alternatively, you can get your zen moment at Kennin-ji Temple, the oldest zen temple in Kyoto. With scenic landscape and rock gardens, ancient wooden hallways and beautiful art, it quickly became my favorite place here.
For dinner, I could not recommend Hafuu Honten enough. Their wagyu beef is simply outstanding and well worth the splurge.
Wake up really early and head to Arashiyama – you will start the day browsing through the famous bamboo forest! I said early because the place gets packed later in the morning, so if you want to take beautiful photos of no one but you in the frame, you’ll have to beat the crowds and be there around 8 a.m.. After touring the Tenryu-ji Temple, its vast landscape garden and the bamboo forest, follow the trail on your left which will lead you to the river. You can have a leisurely stroll by the bank or take a boat ride. Either way, you’re bound to have a relaxing time.
For lunch I recommend stopping by ExCafé, whose traditional interior does not match its modern hipster name. Their bento box was delicious, although don’t leave without trying the dessert!
Catch a bus to the Kinkaku-ji Temple, also known as the Golden Pavillion. It is perhaps the most iconic spots in Japan. Sitting in the middle of the pond, the opulent gold-sheathed jewel-like Zen- Buddhist temple is absolutely breathtaking.
Afterwards, walk to the Ryoan-ji Temples, the most famous rock gardens in Japan. 15 solemn stones arranged in three groupings set in the gravel, but only 14 of them were visible from any particular vintage point in the garden. The rock garden is probably one of the most quintessential images of Japan, a sight for meditative contemplation or a riddle to train the mind. In the Buddhist philosophy, number 15 signifies completion and the message conveyed by the garden is that completion is not possible in this world. The garden is also an epitome of Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetics, which finds beauty in transience and imperfection. The clay wall, which is stained by age with subtle brown and orange tones, reflects “wabi” and the rock garden “sabi”.
After a full morning + early afternoon of exploring, change the scene and end your day in Nishiki Market to do some more souvenir shopping – ceramics, matcha products, knives. Beware that shops close around 5 PM though. It’s also a good spot to get yourself a reasonably priced dinner in one of the food stalls or numerous restaurants around the neighborhood.
If you didn’t have time to visit Nishiki Market the day before, this might be a good place to start. Then make your way to Nijo Castle and Imperial Palace if you are interested. Afterwards catch a bus to Ginkaku-ji Temple in the north-east part of the town to tour its stunning Japanese garden. You can take a relaxing walk along the Philosopher’s Path and grab a bite at one of the cute cafes along the canal.
You can spend your afternoon exploring Heian shinto shrine, and/or make your way to Yasaka shinto shrine, or both.
End your day walking along Shijo Dori street, a busy shopping avenue that leads to Pontocho where you can have a nice dinner in one of the restaurants overlooking the river.
Alternatively, you can spend your third day in Nara or move on to Osaka. This itinerary is intended for those in mind who like to explore and don’t shy away from a full day of sightseeing, with some breaks in-between. Naturally, it is for general guidance only, and can be adopted to meet your schedule and preferences. For additional reference, you can check out my Kyoto travel series: 10 Spots in Kyoto That Will Leave You Breathless, Kyoto Food Tour, Discover Kyoto Off The Beaten Path.
Lastly, another immensely popular question asked is where and how to meet Geisha in Kyoto. I had a very lovely evening at Gion Hatanaka where you have a kaiseki dinner and enjoy the performance and company of geisha and maiko. However, if you are looking for a more budget-friendly option, here is an informative guide I found for you.
I will also be publishing a post about best day trips from Kyoto next. Stay tuned, hope you find these helpful. As always, if you have questions don’t hesitate to ask in the comments or contact me directly!
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Linking up with wonderful ladies at City Tripping #65, Wanderful Wednesday, Faraway Files #20 and Monday Escapes.
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I want to thank you for creating such comprehensive guidelines, with unique view/style! Your recommendations were very useful for me while exploring this magic country. Hope you will continue traveling around the world and sharing your view & impressions about them with us, your readers.
Good luck in your future steps,
Can I ask what camera did you use here? thank you!
Very detailed! Enjoyed reading it as it took me back to my trip to Kyoto last year. Absolutely my top 5 favorite destinations I’ve ever been to – something about the vibe of this city that is so magical. I wanna go back!
Great pics too!
This is such a nice itinerary! I would love to go back to Japan specifically to go to Kyoto. Hopefully I’ll get to go soon! All your photos are stunning!
Soooo stunning Nano! Really love the depth and detail and amazing photographs you always put in your posts. Kyoto just looks so beautiful in your lens. Thanks so much for sharing with #FarawayFiles, Erin
Erin, you are a peach, thank you so so much :) Hope to visit your neck of the woods some day and meet you in person. I feel like I know you already :)
Nano this post is truly beautiful, as always I love your photos. Kyoto is somewhere I would just love to visit and your photos make me want to visit even more, thanks so much for linking up lovely lady #mondayescapes xx
Couldn’t thank you enough for your lovely words. I am so happy to inspire my readers. I do hope that you’ll visit soon. Kyoto is a very special place in this world. :)
Kyoto looks so beautiful! I was lucky enough to go to Japan twice when I was much younger, but we spent most of our time in Tokyo and only ever ventured out to Osaka to visit relatives. I’m dying to go back and explore even more of this beautiful country. #FarawayFiles
Addie, hope you’ll plan a trip back soon. So much to explore and enjoy :) Thank you so much for reading!
Incredible Nano. Japan is so high up on my list of places to visit next. I cant believe they have all that beauty and that amazing looking coffee in Kyoto. It’s almost not fair! Thanks for sharing with us on #FarawayFiles. I have saved and will share widely
Katy, please do let me know if you plan a visit, I’d love to meet up and get to know you in person. :)
What a fantastic post – we had about two days in Kyoto on our trip so didn’t quite manage to do all the places on your list but quite a few of the highlights. I absolutely loved it there and would go back in a second if i could to revisit and see tge rest. #citytripping
Thank you!! Kyoto definitely is one of those places you do not tire to revisit :) Hope you’ll make it back some time too!
You’ve got me virtually booking a flight right now, Nano! Fantastic blog post, full of outstanding photos and great tips. You are definitely my go-to person when I finally do make it to Japan. I’ve wanted to visit Kyoto ever since reading Memoirs of a Geisha and this has only made me long to visit even more. Thanks for sharing your blogging brilliance on #FarawayFiles
Clare, please do do do book a flight!! I’d love to meet you and take you around :)
Fantastic photos, what beautiful places you got to visit :)
Thank you Cathy!
I’ve seen so many pictures of the major sights in Kyoto (like the bamboo) but I had no idea the city itself was so beautiful!
It is Amy, so charming and atmospheric. :)
Magnificent your photos are sooo good. I love the bamboo forest and the photos of the streets which are just so different to anything I’ve ever done. Thanks for linking up to #MondayEscapes
Thank you so much for your lovely words, hope you’ll plan a trip to Kyoto. It indeed is a unique spit in the world :)
Your photos are SO stunning! Kyoto looks beautiful, I’d love to visit some day!
C x | Lux Life – Luxury Travel & Lifestyle Blog
Loving your photos. We hired bikes in Kyoto which was really fun but we certainly didn’t see all of these places. I feel like I need to go back! The bamboo forest looks awesome! Thanks for linking #citytripping
Biking in Kyoto sounds fantastic! Sadly (and shamefully), I don’t know how to bike one. Hope you make it back and explore more :)
Wow wow wow that coffee looks incredible!!! And the mochi!! Love your photos as always.
Coffee was really good, I wish we had it in Tokyo too, I’d be a regular! Thanks for reading Sarah! xx
I think everything to have a proper visit to Kyoto is in here. I have been wanting to visit Japan for a long time but have no idea how to properly move within the city. When I visit a city, I try to spend three or four days. You itinerary looks perfect to me.
Thank you Ruth, I’m so glad you find it helpful and that itinerary flows. Three days for Kyoto is really the best option.
Oh my goodness, your pictures are so stunning!!! You honestly have made me want to visit Japan asap!!
Thank you so so much! I hope you do get to travel here soon. xx
Wow Kyoto is so beautiful! I’m kicking myself for not visiting my brother in Japan when he lived there for 3 years! #WanderfulWednesday
Thank you Christine. I do hope you’ll get to visit some time. Japan is stunning!
Wow, your photos are stunning! Kyoto (and Japan in general) is so high on my list that reading this has really given me a kick to finally book that trip. I know I would love everything about it. Thanks for the tips and recommendations – pinning! #citytripping
Thank you so so much, I’m so happy it inspired to come visit! Hope you make that happen soon :)
Kyoto is definitely one of the places on my list! Would love to go! Pinned this a long time ago! #CityTripping
Sending you all the positive vibes so that you can make that wish come true very soon! xx
Japan was easily our best family vacation ever and we can’t wait to come back! Your awesome photos are encouraging me to plan this trip sooner, rather than later! #citytripping
Hilary thank you so much! I hope you do come back soon. I think I’ll always want to return once we move to another country. It’s impossible not to. :)
Every photo made me want to visit! It looks amazing and your photos are too! #MondayEscapes
Thank you so so much!! I hope you do plan a trip eventually, the beauty of Kyoto is really hard to describe or depict. :)
Great notes on the Ryoan-ji garden, looks like a calm place I’d love to visit!
Kyle, thank you! I hope you get to visit. :)
Thank you Tanja!
Very useful information with some great pics, thanks! Saving this for a future trip (*fingers crossed*) to Japan one day…
Thank you, I’m so glad you found it useful!
Cool Nano – have Japan high on the bucketlist and def will use this when we do get it booked
Thank you, so glad you find the tips helpful! Hope you make it here soon!!
Hi there! I just so happened to stomp over your blog and decided to leave you a note. I went to Kyoto just last september and spent 2 days there as well. Your photos are amazing! How did you manage to take them without a sea of people in the frame?
Thank you so much for your sweet comment. As for the photos, it takes me a lot of time and patience to get these photos as I wait at each spot for quite a while to catch that perfect moment when no one is in my frame!
this is wonderful information and makes me even more excited for my upcoming kyoto trip!! xo
How wonderful, hope you’ll have loads of fun!
What a useful post and you’ve captured this beautiful place so well in your photos!
Thank you Angie, glad you find it helpful:)
Beautiful pictures. I can’t wait to visit Japan one day.
Hope you get to see it soon! Thanks for reading!
I love this!! Your photos are amazing as always. I was a bit sad when I visited Arashiyama last Dec and all the autumn leaves were gone. Your autumn photos made me yearn to be back there again. And I really need to visit Kinkakuji. I was SUPPOSED to visit Kinkakuji on the same day as Arashiyama as you suggested. But oh well, things happen. Next time I should put it as the FIRST place to visit so that nothing can happen along the way to stop me.
Absolutely, you must see Kinkakuji. It is always crowded but so worth it! :)
Japan is SO high up on my bucket list of places to go to, but I’ve never even considered visiting Kyoto as I haven’t heard much about it. It looks fab
Steph – http://www.nourishmeblog.co.uk
You should definitely go to Kyoto, it is stunning.
Kyoto looks amazing, and your photos are beautiful!