The Ultimate 3-Day Kyoto Itinerary in 2021

Kyoto is Japan’s beating historical, cultural and spiritual heart.

Unlike other cities in Japan that have embraced modernity, Kyoto has steadfastly clung to the old traditions. Robed monks glide between temple buildings and prayer chants echo across manicured Zen gardens. Geishas scurry along dimly lit alleyways to their next appointment.  

Home to more than 1,600 Buddhist temples, 400 colourful Shinto shrines, a vast samurai castle, an Imperial palace and no fewer than 17  UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Kyoto is a destination that rewards repeat visits.

golden temple with reflection in lake and trees which is included in a 3-day kyoto itinerary

But how should you plan your visit to Kyoto if your time is limited? Some tough choices will be needed.

This is where I can help you.

Based on my experiences as a two-time visitor to this seductive city, I have put together a 3-day Kyoto itinerary to help you make the most of your time there. Spending three days in Kyoto will allow you to explore the main sightseeing districts of the city and to experience the city’s rich culinary traditions.

To help you make the most of your time in Japan’s second-biggest city, this Kyoto itinerary explores the best things to see and do in three days. If you have time to spare, there are also some options for day trips from Kyoto that I would recommend.

This article also includes how to get to Kyoto, how to get around, what to eat in Kyoto, hotel recommendations and suggested reading.


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Recommended Kyoto guidebook

Packing a good guidebook to help you to plan your trip to Kyoto, and to explore the city whilst you are there, is a wise move. I used the Lonely Planet guide, which is super slim yet packed with useful information.

Lonely Planet Kyoto

  • Detailed coverage of Kyoto
  • Includes day trips from the city
  • Recommendations for where to stay and where to eat
  • Includes valuable contextual information
  • Full-colour maps and photos throughout

WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THIS ARTICLE ...

A Short History of Kyoto

Before we get started, let’s get to know a little bit about the city’s history to place what you are going to see during your 3-day Kyoto itinerary into context.

Kyoto was founded in 794 and flourished during the Heian Period (794 – 1185) when Heian-kyo (as Kyoto was then called) was the centre of government, learning and the arts. Little still remains from this period (794-1185), but the subsequent periods have left a lasting legacy in Kyoto.

A succession of shoguns moved their governments to Kamakura (the Kamakura period, 1185–1333). During the Edo period (1600–1867), Japan was ruled from Edo (now Tokyo).

Finally, in 1868 the Meiji Restoration took the imperial family to the country’s new capital, Tokyo.

Sightseeing Districts of Kyoto

As Kyoto is a sprawling city, orientation can be challenging for a first-time visitor. But once you break it down into the main sightseeing districts, it becomes much more manageable.

  • Central  – Nijo Castle, Imperial Palace and park, Fushimi Inari, Downtown,  Nishiki food market, Kyoto Station.
  • Western Kyoto (Arashiyama) – Tenryu-ji and Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
  • Eastern Kyoto (Higashiyama) – Gion, Philosopher’s Path, Nanzen-ji, , Ginkaku-ji
  • Northwest Kyoto – Kinkaku-ji

Best Time to Visit Kyoto

Kyoto can be visited year-round.

Visit in April and May for temperate weather and to welcome the cherry blossom.

CHASING SAKURA IN JAPAN

Regarded as a symbol of renewal, vitality, and beauty, Japan’s cherry blossom, or sakura, is a national obsession and draws visitors in their thousands.

The blooming time can vary widely based on the geographical location with blooms usually opening first in Japan’s southern region, and progressing northward. Prevailing weather conditions can cause the cherry blossoms to appear either earlier or later than average and can also lengthen or shorten the blooming season.

As with many of nature’s spectacles, the timing is not a given and if you are booking your trip early, you will have to take a punt on when you will see the spring blossom.

The Japan Meteorological Corporation starts to release its cherry blossom forecasts from the start of the year, revising these dates at regular intervals.

If you decide to visit Kyoto in May, try to coincide your visit with the Aoi Matsuri Festival. Also known as the Hollyhock Festival, this takes place each year on 15th May and is one of Kyoto’s biggest and most important events.  

My first visit to Kyoto took place in May and, purely by chance, I arrived on the day of this festival.  It was quite a sight. A procession of two oxcarts, four cows, 36 horses, and 600 people dressed in the traditional costumes of Heian nobles paraded behind the Imperial Messenger from the Imperial Palace to the Kamo shrines.

Japanese people in traditional costume with horse and cart during festival in kyoto
Japanese man in orange traditional costume during festival in kyoto

My most recent visit took place in March when sightseeing conditions were perfect and prices moderate. Although I was there too early to see the cherry blossom, it was peak time for the weeping cherry and plum blossom in Imperial Palace Park.

close up of white blossom in kyoto
pink blossom in kyoto

Although less expensive, the summer months are hotter and wetter.

Japan’s typhoon season runs from May to October each year, peaking in August and September. However, as few of these typhoons make it as far as Japan’s main islands – Okinawa bears the brunt of these – there is no need to avoid travel during these months.

Given the choice again, I would visit Kyoto in autumn when the foliage is a kaleidoscope of dazzling colours, from the deep russet of the city’s maple trees through to vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows. As with sakura,  the timing is a bit of a gamble. But if you are able to book your trip to Kyoto closer to the time of departure, you can check out the fall foliage forecasts.  

If you are visiting Kyoto in spring or autumn, sharpen those elbows in preparation for doing battle with the crowds.

How Long Should You Spend in Kyoto?

Avoid the temptation to visit Kyoto as a day trip from Tokyo or Osaka. This is a city that is best savoured at a slower pace.

You could easily spend a week here and not run out of things to do and see. At a minimum, I recommend spending three days in Kyoto. This will allow you to get a flavour of the city, enjoy Kyoto’s highlights and perhaps discover a few hidden gems of your own. 

However, if you only have two days in Kyoto, you will be able to cover a lot of ground, albeit at a faster pace.

How to get to Kyoto

Kyoto is well served by air and train.

How to get to Kyoto by air

Whilst there is no airport in Kyoto itself, the city is within easy reach of Kansai International Airport and Osaka International Airport (Itami Airport). Despite its name, Itami Airport caters to domestic flights.

Getting to Kyoto from Kansai Airport

The Limited Express Haruka train runs to Kyoto in 75 minutes. This is covered by the JR Pass.

Alternatively, catch the limousine bus that makes the same journey in 90 minutes.

Getting to Kyoto from Osaka Airport

Catch the limousine bus from Osaka International Airport to Kyoto. The journey time is around an hour.

How to get to Kyoto by train

The Hikari shinkansen (bullet train) travels between either Tokyo Station or Shinagawa Station in central Tokyo and Kyoto Station in 2 hours and 40 minutes.

people standing in front of railway indicator board at kyoto station japan
Checking departures at Kyoto train station.

Two other trains run along this line: the Nozomi and Kodama. However, as Nozomi trains are not part of the National JR Group, they are not included in the Japan Rail Pass. The Kodoma makes more stops and takes longer to travel between Tokyo and Kyoto.

Kyoto is a mere 12 minutes from Osaka on the shinkansen.

SHOULD YOU BUY A JR PASS?

Travelling through Japan by rail is a breeze and the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) is one of the world’s best travel bargains. This golden ticket allows unlimited access to all JR trains, as well as some partner railways, buses and ferries for 7, 14 or 21 days.

As a (very) general rule of thumb, if you are making at least one long-distance return journey on a shinkansen, it is likely a 7-day JR Pass will be worth the money. If your train journeys are likely to be confined to the Kansai region, consider one of the JR Kansai Passes.

– JR Kansai Area Pass (one to four consecutive days travel in the Kansai region)

– JR Kansai Wide Area Pass (five consecutive days travel in the wider Kansai region)

It is considerably cheaper to buy your JR Pass before leaving home.

How to Get Around Kyoto

As the attractions included in this 3-day Kyoto itinerary are clustered in different areas of the city, at some point you will need to tackle the city’s public transport system.

Compared with other Japanese cities, navigating Kyoto can be challenging for the first-time visitor.

Whilst there are two subway lines, these are not always useful for accessing the places that you want to see as a visitor. You will find that buses or taxis are often your best option. I used a combination of buses, subway, trains and taxis to get around.

Using Kyoto’s buses

Kyoto has an extensive and efficient large bus network. However, queues for buses can be long, especially at Kyoto train station.

people queueing for a bus at kyoto station
Tourist bus stop at Kyoto Station

Kyoto city buses are boarded from the rear and exited from the front. There is often an indicator at the front of the bus displaying the next bus stop. When you are approaching your stop, press the button to let the driver know that you want to disembark.

You pay as you get off the bus with cash, a travel pass or a rechargeable IC card. Kyoto has both flat-fare routes (within the city) and non-flat-fare routes.

In 2021, the flat fare is 230 yen. If you are paying with cash, deposit the exact fare into a machine by the driver’s seat. If you don’t have the exact fare, there is a change machine at the front of the bus that can break down coins and 1000 yen notes.

If you are travelling outside of the flat fare zone, remember to take a numbered ticket when you enter the bus. The screen at the front of the bus will show your number and fare.

Although it may sound complicated, it’s pretty simple.

Travel passes are a convenient alternative to cash fares.

However, do the maths to make sure that a travel card will be good value for you based on the number of journeys that you plan on making. Much of the time it’s quicker to walk between Kyoto’s tourist sights and you may not use public transport as much as you might think.

These passes are available from any Kyoto Tourist Information Centre (there’s a convenient one on the second floor of the Kyoto Station building), Kyoto subway stations, the Bus Information Office outside the main entrance of Kyoto Station and the Kitaoji Bus Terminal.

KYOTO TRAVEL PASSES: 2021

Kyoto City Bus One-Day Pass 600 yen

One day’s unlimited travel on Kyoto bus routes within the flat fare zone. Not valid for zones outside of Kyoto city, so it is not valid for Arashiyama (Bamboo Grove) or Fushimi Inari shrine.

The Kyoto Subway & Bus Pass 900 yen / 1700 yen

Covers all Kyoto City buses, all Kyoto Municipal Subway trains and some buses run by the Kyoto Bus and Keihan Bus companies (serving outlying areas).

Rechargeable IC cards such as SUICA, ICOCA and PITAPA can be used on all buses in Kyoto. Outside the flat fare zone, you need to touch your card to an IC card reader when you enter the bus and again on your way out.

In addition to the standard city buses, there are also three Raku sightseeing buses that charge the same flat fare of 230 yen.

These brightly coloured buses are very user-friendly for tourists. They stop only at key sightseeing locations, and unlike the city buses, announcements are made in English and other languages as well as in Japanese. 

RAKU BUS SERVICES

Raku Bus 100 departs from Kyoto Station every 10 minutes between 7:40 and 17:00. It follows the following route: Kyoto Station – National Museum & Sanjusangendo Temple – Kiyomizudera Temple – Gion – Heian-jingu Shrine – Ginkakuji Temple

Raku Bus 101 departs from Kyoto Station every 15 minutes between 8:00 and 16.30. It follows the following route: Kyoto Station – Nijo-jo Castle – Kitano Tenmangu Shrine – Kinkakuji Temple – Daitokuji Temple – Kitaoji Bus Terminal

Raku Bus 102 departs from the Ginkakuji-michi Bus Stop every 30 minutes between 8:04 and 16:34. It follows the following route: Ginkakuji Temple – Kyoto Imperial Palace – Kitano Tenmangu Shrine – Kinkakuji Temple – Daitokuji Temple – Kitaoji Bus Terminal

Using Kyoto’s subway system

The city’s subway lines run from north to south (Karasuma Subway Line), and from east to west (Tozai Subway Line).

In 2021, single fares for adults range from 210-350 yen, depending on the distance travelled.

You will need to buy your ticket from a ticket machine. If the machine does not have English instructions, don’t worry! Just take a look at the route map above the machine to determine your fare and then press the button corresponding to that fare.

ticket machine in kyoto subway
Subway ticket machine in Kyoto

The Kyoto Subway & Bus Pass gives you unlimited travel on the subway as well as the city bus routes.

There is also a Kyoto Municipal Subway One-day Pass (600 yen)

Kyoto’s train system

Kyoto has six train lines, which can be used to get around the city as well as for journeys further afield.

Using the train system can be a quick way to travel across the city and as these JR services are free for Japan Rail Pass holders, very economical.

The JR Sagano Line, connecting Nijo, Uzumasa and Saga-Arashiyama with Kyoto Station is particularly useful.

Kyoto’s taxis

Taking a taxi in Kyoto can often be a speedier way of getting from A to B, and is cost-effective over short distances if there are two or more passengers to share the bill.

Expect to pay around 600 yen for the first 2 km, and then an additional 80 yen every 400 meters. Most taxis charge a 20% surcharge between 23:00 and 5:00 am.

As taxi drivers in Kyoto are generally honest and will turn the meter on, you shouldn’t worry about being ripped off.

There is no need to tip; simply pay the fare shown on the meter. Tipping the driver will only embarrass or confuse him

It will help the driver to have a map available or the address of your destination written in Japanese.

Best Things to See in Kyoto in 3 Days

golden temple of kinkaku-ji is one the best things in kyoto
Kinkaku-ji
grey roof of Japanese temple next to pond with greenery
Eikan-do
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine
Gion


A 3-Day Kyoto Itinerary

This 3-day Kyoto itinerary will allow you to cover the best things to see in the city in a relatively short space of time. You will be busy and need to reckon on at least six hours a day of sightseeing, excluding evening strolls, and early starts. Bring your most comfortable shoes!

Setting out early is essential, not only to make the most of your three days in Kyoto but to give you a fighting chance of avoiding the worst of the crowds at a few of the busier spots.

There’s no need to slavishly stick to this itinerary.

You can follow this itinerary in any order, and if you are short on time – if you have only two days in Kyoto for example – can combine days 1 and 2 into a longer and faster paced day.

Northern and Southern Higashiyama blend into one another and you may decide to visit more or fewer sights on a particular day. And that’s fine; consider this itinerary as a way of broadly structuring your time in Kyoto.

If you like to explore a city at a faster pace, you may wish to fit in more of Kyoto’s attractions. If that’s the case, I have included a few suggestions towards the end of this article.

But, most importantly, there are hundreds of temples and shrines that aren’t included in this itinerary and a huge part of the joy of exploring Kyoto is to stumble across these lesser-visited treasures.

Kyoto Itinerary: Map

To help you plan your visit and to navigate the city, I’ve included a map of the places included in this Kyoto itinerary.

map of best places to see in kyoto in three days included in 3-day kyoto itinerary
Best Things to See in Kyoto in 3 Days. Map Data @ 2021 Google (click on image for interactive map)

This map is colour coded to correspond with the days in this itinerary:

  • Day 1 – red star
  • Day 2 – yellow star
  • Day 3 – purple star

 

Kyoto Itinerary Day 1: Temple Hopping in Northern Higashiyama + Pontocho Alley

Higashiyama area is Kyoto’s main sightseeing area, home to the densest concentration of its temples, shrines, museums, parks and Zen gardens. Much of your 3-day Kyoto itinerary is split between the southern and northern part of this area.

Your first day in Kyoto is an active one, exploring the temples and shrines along the famous Philosophers Path in Northern Higashiyama before spending the evening in Pontocho Alley.

The first stop on your tour of Northern Higashiyama is Ginkaku-ji, also known as the Silver Pavilion. To reach Ginkaku-ji, catch Raku Bus 100 or 102, or city bus 5 or 17, from Kyoto Station.

Ginkaku-ji

Once the home of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436 – 1490), Ginkaku-ji is the first of the main temples on the north-eastern side of Kyoto. Also known as the Higashiyama Jisho-ji, this graceful temple is most well-known for the silver leaf encasing its roof of overlapping blocks made from native cypress trees held in place with bamboo nails. 

temple building of ginkaku-ji in kyoto with reflection in pond

But, for me, its beauty lies in its gardens. White sand meticulously raked into cones, designed to reflect the moonlight, surrounded by lush moss gardens.

Sadly, Ginkaku-ji offers little opportunity to sit and contemplate. To see the temple’s buildings, ponds and gardens you have to follow a prescribed circular walking route around its grounds.

Don’t miss the footpath, starting in the north-eastern corner of the garden, that leads to a viewpoint over Kyoto.

VISITING GINKAKU-JI

Address: 2 Ginkakujicho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 606-8402

Admission: Fee applies

After exploring Ginkaku-ji Temple, walk about 100 meters to the Path of Philosophy (Tetsugaku-no-Michi).

The Path of Philosophy

The Path of Philosophy (Tetsugaku no Michi) is an ancient stone path that runs alongside the Lake Biwa Canal, connecting Ginkaku-ji to Nanzen-ji. It should take you between 30 and 40 minutes to walk its 1.8km length.

Lined with thousands of cherry trees, this walking trail is spectacular during sakura season when the banks of the canal are an explosion of whites and pink blossoms. But at any time of year, it is one of the most rewarding and peaceful walks in Kyoto. 

canal lined by greenery and buildings known as philosophers path in kyoto
cherry blossom framing narrow canal with bridges known as philosophers path in kyoto

The path is punctuated with craft shops and places to stop for a drink or snack and there are plenty of benches on which to sit and … well … philosophise.

Honen-in

Around ten minutes’ walk from the start of the Path of Philosophy is the lovely Honen-in.

Founded in 1680 to honour the priest Honen, this secluded and serene temple, featuring raked sand gardens, is a welcome refuge from the crowds that descend on more well-known temples.

VISITING HONEN-IN

Address: 30 Shishigatani Goshonodancho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 606-8422

Admission: Free

Otoyo Shrine

One of the things that I love about Kyoto is that there are seemingly hidden gems around every corner. The Otoyo Shrine, a minor detour from the Philosopher’s Path, is one of these.

cherry blossom tree in front of temple building of otoyo shrine in kyoto

Legend has it that this shrine was built in 887 as a devotion for the recovery of Emperor Uda from an illness. Today, it is the guardian shrine for local people.

Some of its sub-shrines have animal statues, including mice, monkeys and kites, and it is also famous for its symbolic trees.

VISITING OTOYO SHRINE

Address: Shishigatani Miyanomaecho, Sakyo-Ku, Kyoto 606-8424

Admission: Free

Eikan-do

Another frequently overlooked temple on the Path of Philosophy (apart from autumn when it’s rammed with fall foliage spotters!) is the wonderful Eikan-Do.

stone bridge crossing lake with reflections at eikando in kyoto japan

This is one place in Kyoto that I debated visiting because of its relatively steep entrance fee, but was so glad that I parted with those yen.

Founded in 853, Eikan-Do is special because of its varied architecture, gardens and works of art. Wooden walkways take you on a prescribed route around the temple’s buildings, which feature exquisite gold leaf silk screens from the Edo and Momoyama periods and painted sliding doors.

The star of the show is the famous Amida Statue, with his face turned to look over his shoulder

VISITING EIKAN-DO

Address: 4 8, Eikandocho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 606-8445

Admission: Fee applies

Nanzen-ji, the final temple of the day, is a few minutes’ walk south of Eikan-do.

Nanzen-ji Temple.

Located at the base of the Higashiyama mountains, Nanzen-ji is one of the most impressive temples in Kyoto.  

2 women dressed in kimonos walking towards the temple of nanzen ji in kyoto japan

This complex of Zen temples and sub-temples has it all.  An imposing two-storey entrance gate (Sanmon Gate), a beautiful zen garden (Hojo Garden), a scenic location, a soaring main hall and serene and secluded sub-temples. It is also home to a red-brick aqueduct, built in 1890.

For me, the highlight of Nanzen-ji was Nanzen-ji Oku-no-in, a small shrine concealed in a forested hollow behind the main precinct.

small shrine in woodland in kyoto nanzen ji

To get there, follow the road that runs parallel to the aqueduct up into the hills, and walk past Kōtoku-an, a small sub-temple on your left. Continue up the steps until you reach a waterfall in an idyllic mountain glen.

VISITING NANZEN-JI

Address: 86 Nanzenji Fukuchichō, Sakyō-ku, Kyoto 606-8435

Admission: Fee applies to Hojo Garden and Sanmon Gate. Temple grounds are free to enter.

To return to central Kyoto, walk 15  minutes to Keage Station where you can pick up the subway (Tozai Line). Alternatively, catch city bus 5 or Raku Bus 100 towards Kyoto Station.

As night falls, Pontocho Alley beckons

Pontocho Alley

The narrow pedestrian-only street of Pontocho Alley is hard to beat when it comes to atmosphere.

illuninated red japanese parasols on ground on pavement of narrow alley in kyoto

Running from Shijo-dori to Sanjo-dori, one block west of Kamo-gawa (Kamo River), Pontocho Alley barely warrants a second glance during the day. But by night it is transformed into one of Kyoto’s most beautiful streets.  

Lined with a huge selection of restaurants with traditional wooden exteriors illuminated with vibrant lanterns, it’s the perfect end to the first of your three days in Kyoto. 

Kyoto Itinerary Day 2: Temples and Geisha in Southern Higashiyama & Gion

Day two of this three-day Kyoto itinerary continues our exploration of Higashiyama’s temples, including in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kiyomizu-dera and the iconic Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine, ending with a walk around the geisha district of Gion.

To reach Kiyomizu-dera,  take Raku Bus 100 or city bus 206 to Gojo-zaka or Kiyomizu-michi bus stop, from where it is a ten-minute uphill walk to the temple. To beat the tour groups, aim to arrive at Kiyomizu-dera before 8 am (the main hall opens at 6 am).

Kiyomizu-dera

Occupying a commanding position overlooking Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera, or ‘Pure water temple’, is one of the most celebrated temples in Japan. Founded at the end of the 8th Century, the temple was associated with the Hosso sect of Japanese Buddhism but formed its own Kita Hosso sect in 1965. 

women dressed in kimonos praying at shrine at Kiyomizu-dera in kyoto japan

Kiyomizu-dera is best known for its massive wooden veranda which juts out from the temple’s main hall, 15 meters above the hillside below. At the base of the main hall is the Otowa-no-taki spring, the sacred waters of which are said to bestow long life, success at school and success in love, depending on which of the three streams you drink from. Take your pick.

Kiyomizu-dera is also the location of Tainai-meguri, one of Japan’s most unique experiences.

Said to represent the womb of a female Bodhisattva, you descend into this space in total darkness, guided only a thick chain of wooden beads. When you reach the bottom, you’re invited to make a wish whilst spinning a sacred stone. Emerging blinking into the sunlight outside is intended to give you a feeling of being reborn.

I’ll let you know if my wish comes true!

VISITING KIYOMIZU-DERA

Address: 294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0862

Admission: Fee applies

 

From Kiyomizu-dera, it’s a 25-minute walk north through Higashiyama and across Maruyama Park to Chion-in.

Chion-in

Omit Chion-in from your 3-day Kyoto itinerary at your peril.

Founded in 1234, Chion-in, sometimes called ‘the Vatican of Pure Land Buddhism’, is the headquarters of the Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhism.

When I visited in 2020, the temple’s main hall, the Miedo Hall, was in the latter stages of restoration and closed to the public. Lack of access notwithstanding, Chion-in is still a must-see.

main temple building of chion in in kyoto against a blue sky

Standing 24 meters tall and 50 meters wide, the temple’s main entrance gate (Sanmon Gate), is the largest wooden gate in Japan and dates back to the early 1600s. For you cinephiles out there, the gate’s staircase was used in the 2003 Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai.

Chion-in is also home to the largest bell in Japan, so immense that 17 monks are needed to ring it at New Year.

The temple’s expansive grounds spread onto the surrounding forested hills and are interlaced with a series of stone paths that connect Chion-in’s main buildings and gardens.

VISITING CHION-IN

Address: 400 Rinkacho, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-8686

Admission: Free for temple; fee applies to gardens.

 

Exiting Chion-in, continue walking south across Maruyama Park and you will reach the Yasaka Shrine in five minutes.

Yaskaka Shrine (Yasaka-jinja)

Straddling Higashiyama and the Gion district, Yasaka Shrine, also known as Gion Shrine,  was the liveliest and most colourful shrine I visited during my three days in Kyoto. It explodes with character and charm.

2 women dressed in white and saffron outfit entering building at yasaka shrine in kyoto

The shrine’s striking Vermilion Gate, a local landmark, is flanked by imposing statues of Zuishin to guard the grounds.  

Hundreds of lanterns, each bearing the name of a local business, hang in front of Yaskaka Shrine’s 17th-century main hall.  

Visitors flock to Yasaka’s famous sub-shrines, seeking beauty – inside and out – or love.

Yasaka Shrine sponsors the famous Gion Matsuri festival, which is celebrated every July.

VISITING YASAKA SHRINE

Address: 625 Gionmachi Kitagawa, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0073

Admission: Free

To reach Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine, take the private Keihan Line from Gion-Shijo station to Fushimiinari. From here it’s a 5-minute walk to Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine.

Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine

Gracing many of Japan’s tourist brochures, the iconic Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine is Kyoto’s show-stopper.

This shrine is tourist nectar; as such, it can get busy. Very busy.

To avoid the worst of the crowds, aim to visit Fushimi Inari later in the day – as in this Kyoto itinerary – or early in the morning. The light is at its best later in the afternoon. The shrine is open 24/7.

Dedicated to the Shinto God of Rice, Inari, the complex comprises five shrines scattered across the thickly wooded slopes of Mount Inari.  Hundreds of vermillion torii (Shinto shrine gates) line the 4km pathway winding its way to the summit of the sacred mountain from the main shrine.

path lined with orange tori at fushimi inari in kyoto

Allow yourself enough time at Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine to relax and explore its natural beauty. Despite the shrine’s popularity, in my experience, finding a quiet spot to sit, reflect and relax was not difficult.

Walk for as long as you wish and then circle back. Depending on your pace, the full pilgrimage route to the top of the mountain and back takes 2-3 hours. Bring water and snacks with you.

VISITING FUSHIMI INARI SHRINE

Address: 68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, 612-0882

Admission: Free

 

To reach Gion, the final stop of your second day in Kyoto, jump back on the Keihan Line and travel four stops to Gion-Shijo Station.

Gion

Kyoto‘s Gion district is synonymous with the city itself. 

The origins of this famous geisha district were in teahouses catering to visitors to the Yasaka Shrine. But by the mid-18th Century, Gion was Kyoto’s prime entertainment district and capital of the geisha world. 

Did you know?

In Kyoto, geisha are known as geiko. A maiko is a girl who training to become a fully-fledged geiko.

With its understated townhouses, wooden-fronted teahouses, temples and shrines, Gion exudes the charm of old-world Japan.

old wooden buildings with bridge and canal in gion district which is part of a 3-day kyoto itinerary

This is a district that is best explored after the sun goes down. Not only do Gion’s streets take on an ethereal, dimly illuminated beauty but it’s also the best time of day to spot a geisha hurrying along its narrow streets to her next engagement.

GEISHA SPOTTING IN GION

Many people visit Gion, hoping to spot a geiko or maiko.  If you are lucky enough to spot a geiko or maiko – I was on my first visit to Kyoto – please treat her with respect.

Don’t touch her, follow her or block her way. She is a working woman with appointments to keep. And don’t shove a camera in her face or – worse still – ask for a selfie. Complaints about tourists behaving like ruthless paparazzi have escalated in recent years.

Lastly, don’t confuse the many visitors who dress up as Geisha with the real thing. On the other hand, they will usually happily pose for a photo for you.

the flashpacker with two women dressed as gesiha in gion in kyoto
Not the real thing!

Gion is located in and around Shijo Avenue with Yasaka Shrine to the east and the Kamo River to the west. The most scenic sections are Shimbashi district, starting at Tatsumi-bashi bridge, and Hanami-koji Street.

As Gion is home to some of the finest restaurants in town, this is perfect end to the second day of your Kyoto itinerary.

Kyoto Itinerary Day 3: Golden Pavilion & Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama Area

Spend the last of your 3 days in Kyoto in the northwest of the city.

Day three’s itinerary begins at the sublime Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, before moving on to Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion, and the delightful Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, before ending up in the Imperial Palace Park.

To reach the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove take the JR San-In Line from Kyoto Station to Saga-Arashiyama Station, from where it is a ten-minute walk. Aim to get there as early as possible to avoid both crowds at the bamboo grove, and the JR San-In Line at its busier times. The bamboo grove is open 24/7.

The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

One of my favourite places in Japan, the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is one of the most photographed spots in Kyoto. This can be selfie stick hell!

bamboo trees at arashiyama-bamboo-grove-kyoto

However, even the most fervent Instagrammers cannot detract from the beauty and serenity of this place.  Walking amidst the soaring bamboo stalks, casting shadows from the morning light, is a magical, almost eerie, experience.

Are you looking for that special someone? If so, don’t miss the Nonomiya Shrine within the bamboo forest. People flock to this small shrine seeking luck in love and marriage.

two statue heads with bamboo trees in background at nonomiya shrine kyoto

Follow the one main path through the grove, which leads slowly uphill to the Okochi-Sanso villa, which was formerly the home of the famed film actor Okochi Denjiro (1898-1962).

I baulked at the ticket price – 1,000 yen when I last checked –  and, as yet, haven’t seen inside the villa. However, this steep admission fee also buys you a Japanese sweet and a cup of hot matcha tea at the end of the tour.

VISITING THE ARASHIYAMA BAMBOO GROVE

Address: Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, 616-0007

Admission: Free

Tenryu-ji

If you love gardens and landscaping, don’t head away from the bamboo forest before stopping by Tenryu-ji, a temple with an attractive stroll garden set against the backdrop of Arashiyama mountains.

VISITING TENRYU-JI

Address: 68 Sagatenryuji Susukinobabacho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, 616-8385

Admission: Fee applies

To get to Kinkaku-ji from the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, your easiest option is to take a taxi. If traffic is not too heavy, the journey should take you 10 – 15 minutes.

If you are making the journey on public transport, take the JR Sagano line to Nijo and, from there, bus 101 to Kinkaku Temple. But as Kinkaku-ji is one of the most popular things to see in Kyoto, expect the bus to be crowded.

Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion)

The shimmering reflection of Kinkaku-ji in a large pond, fringed by pine and cherry blossom trees, with a lush bamboo forest as a backdrop, is an unforgettable sight.

temple building of kinkaju ji with reflection in pond which is one of the best things to see in kyoto in three days

Formally known as Rokuonji, the temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, becoming a Zen temple upon his death in 1408. It has been rebuilt on many occasions since then and the present building dates from 1955.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site owes it sheen to the gold leaf covering the top two floors of the building. Each floor of the temple has a distinct architectural style and it is topped with a Golden Phoenix on the roof.

A path takes you on a prescribed route around the temple and its grounds. On my last visit, I spent around 30 minutes at Kinkaku-ji, but you can easily spend more time there if you want to relax and take lots of photos.

Near the exit, you can stop for matcha tea and Japanese sweets at  Sekkatei Teahouse, added to Kinkaku-ji during the Edo Period. Outside the exit, Fudo Hall is home to a statue of Fudo Myoo, one of the Five Wisdom Kings and protector of Buddhism.

VISITING KINKAKU-JI

Address: 1 Kinkakujicho, Kita Ward, Kyoto, 603-8361

Admission: Fee applies

The lesser-known Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is a 15-minute walk southeast of Kinkaku-ji.

Kitano Tenmangu Shrine

This delightful Shinto shrine, dedicated to the scholar and politician Sugawara Michizane, is popular with students praying for success with their exams. Home to nearly 2,000 plum trees, it is also one of Kyoto’s most popular fall foliage spots.

prayer tablets at kitano tenman ju in kyoto japan
VISITING KITANO-TEMMANGU

Address: Bakurocho, Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto, 602-8386

Admission: Free

From the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine it’s a 30-minute walk to Kyoto Imperial Palace Park. Alternatively, catch Raku Bus 102 to Karasuma Imadegawa.

Kyoto Imperial Palace Park

The last stop on your 3-day Kyoto itinerary is optional most times of the year, but essential if you are visiting during the blossom season.

Interlaced with wide boulevards and narrower pathways, Kyoto Imperial Palace Park, is one of the best spots in the city for viewing spring blossoms, not only cherry blossoms – there’s a spectacular grove of these – but also plum trees.

I have the staff at Kyoto’s super-friendly tourist information office to thank for this top tip. They even marked out the location of the grove of weeping cherry trees – these bloom earlier than most cherry blossom trees – and the plum arbour to help me on my way. 

As it happened, I barely needed a map. The Japanese take their sakura VERY seriously. All I had to do was follow the guys with the hefty DSLRs armed with pro lenses.

 

My favourite was the photographer who came prepared with a ten-inch tall doll, complete with face mask to add foreground interest to his images. But any other object was fair game; small children, pets, ice cream, teddy bears …

small dog in red coat under cherry blossom tree in park

A perfect end to three days in Kyoto.

If you have more than 3 days in Kyoto …

Perhaps you are lucky enough to have more than three days in Kyoto?

If so, you could enjoy the attractions included in this itinerary at a more relaxed pace, taking time to discover less popular gems. Alternatively, add other local attractions to your three-day Kyoto itinerary.

Here are a few suggestions

The Sagano Romantic Train

This is top of my list of things to do in Kyoto when I next visit. The Sagano Romantic Train travels a leisurely, 25-minute route from Saga Torokko station, close to the Arashiyama bamboo forest, to Kameoka Torokko Station, through the stunning scenery of the Hozukyo Ravine.

Nishiki Food Market

This lively, five-block long shopping street, lined by more than one hundred shops and restaurants, specialises in all things food related. Also known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, this 400-year-old food market has a dizzying array of produce, from Japanese pickles to weapon-grade knives.

stall in nishiki market in kyoto with people in the background

Nijo Castle (Nijo-jo)

This imposing castle from the Edo period (1603 – 1867) was designed to demonstrate the power and influence of the Shogun Warlords. From 1884, Nijo-jo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was used as an occasional residence by the Imperial Family until 1939, when it was presented to the city of Kyoto.

white nijo castle in kyoto japan against blue sky

Guided Tours in Kyoto

This 3-day Kyoto itinerary has been designed to make sure that you experience the best that the city has to offer independently. But if you are short on time, or are looking for a cultural –  or fun! –  experience, it makes sense to explore the packaged activities available.

GetYourGuide is my go-to platform for booking organised activities. They offer a broad selection of activities with generous cancellation options, allowing you to book in advance with zero risk.  

They have a ton of activities in Kyoto from which to choose, but here are a few related to the attractions included in this itinerary.

 

Day Trips from Kyoto

Thanks to its good rail connections, Kyoto also makes a great base for day trips to neighbouring cities. Here are a few suggestions.

Himeji

For a chance to visit Japan’s most magnificent surviving feudal castle, and another UNESCO World Heritage Site, take a day trip from Kyoto to Himeji.

himeji castle against a blue sky

On my most recent visit to Japan, I stopped used Himeji as a stopover between Fukuoka and Kyoto and loved this small city and its friendly people.

Himeji is also an excellent place to taste different varieties of sake!

How to get from Kyoto to Himeji

Direct trains from Kyoto station to Himeji take just under an hour.

Nara

The site of Japan’s first permanent capital, Nara is stuffed full of historic treasures, home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites and some of Japan’s oldest temples.

Its most famous residents are the friendly Sika deer that roam freely in the gorgeous Nara Park.

deer-holding-map-in-mouth-in-nara-japan
The day a deer ate my map. Nara, Japan

How to get from Kyoto to Nara

Direct trains from Kyoto station to Nara take just under an hour.

Hiroshima & Miyajima

For a more sombre day trip from Kyoto, visit Hiroshima, the site of the world’s first atomic bomb. Marking the site where the bomb was dropped, the city’s Memorial Park is a profoundly moving place to walk around, a reminder of what happened but also a celebration of peace.

peace memorial at hiroshima japan
Hiroshima, Peace Memorial

Extend your day trip by visiting Miyajima, a small island less than an hour from Hiroshima, which is famous for its giant torii gate, which appears to float on the water at high tide.

How to get from Kyoto to Hiroshima & Miyajima

Direct trains from Kyoto station to Hiroshima take around two hours.

Trains depart from Hiroshima Station every 15 minutes for the 26-minute ride to Miyajimaguchi (JR Sanyo line), from where you catch the ferry bound for Miyajima (you can ride on the JR Ferry for free with the Japan Rail Pass).

The ferry takes 10 minutes to reach Miyajima.

Osaka

Osaka’s important history and its vibrant cultural scene are just a few of many compelling reasons to visit Japan’s third-biggest city as a day trip from Kyoto. But, for me, one of the biggest reasons to visit Osaka is to have the opportunity to eat some of the best food of your life, including okonomiyaki, a sublime savoury pancake.

okonomiyaki-on skillet in osaka
Okonomiyaki

How to get from Kyoto to Osaka

Catch a direct train to Shin-Osaka station from Kyoto. Trains are frequent and the journey time is 12 – 14 minutes. Slower trains (29 minutes) terminate at Osaka station.

Kanazawa

To check out Kenroku-en, one of the country’s top three gardens, and to eat an ice cream sprinkled with gold flakes visit Kanazawa, Japan’s samurai town.

Kanazawa has geisha districts to rival those in Kyoto, as well as several attractive temples and a handful of first-rate museums.

two women in kimonos walking past wooden fronted buildings in kanazawa japan
Higashi-chaya district, Kanazawa

How to get from Kyoto to Kanazawa

The frequent JR Thunderbird limited express travels between Kyoto and Kanazawa in just over two hours.

Is Kyoto Safe for Solo Travellers?

Japan is one of the safest solo travel destinations in Asia, if not the world. This is a country that takes pride in its safety, uniformity and order, and has a very low crime rate.

Whilst you shouldn’t be complacent, you don’t have to be concerned about pickpocketing or walking alone at night as much as you would in other countries. If you use your common sense, watch your belongings, drink alcohol in moderation and share your itinerary with someone back home, your trip to Kyoto should be trouble-free.

Safety as a solo traveller is a particular concern of women travelling alone.

Whilst you are in Japan it is highly unlikely that you will be subjected to the catcalling experienced in other countries. However, women have been the recipients of unwelcome male attention when riding the subways.

Chikan, or public groping, has been a dark cloud hovering over Japan for many years. This has led to railway companies introducing designated women-only cars. In Kyoto, there are cars reserved for women on commuter trains.

Where To Eat in Kyoto

Whichever way you judge it – atmosphere, service or quality of food – Kyoto is one of the world’s great culinary destinations. Although there are great places to eat throughout the city, the best spots are in the downtown area.

Here are few places that I tried that I can recommend

Ohako

An excellent yakitori restaurant in Pontocho Alley.

199-1 Shimokorikicho, Kyoto

Chao Chao

Super-friendly, cheap and busy gyoza joint near Pontocho Alley

Apple gyoza with ice cream anyone?

117 Ishiyacho, Kyoto

Katsakura Sanjo

The main branch of this chain of hallowed tonakatsu restaurants in an alley just off the Sanjo Shopping Arcade.

What’s so cool about this place – apart from the super tender pork – is that blend your own dipping sauce at the table by grinding sesame seeds before adding the sauce of your choice.

16 Ishibashi-cho, Kyoto

Where to Stay in Kyoto

I recommend staying either near Kyoto Station or in the downtown area.

On my first visit to Kyoto I stayed close to the main train station. As I was using Kyoto as a base for day trips further afield, this made perfect sense and because Kyoto Station is one of the city’s main transport hubs, it made getting around easier. The downside of staying near the train station is that this area is not overflowing with good restaurants.

Second-time around, I stayed in the downtown area, two blocks from the restaurants of Pontocho Alley, and on many of the main bus routes. Although my preference would be to stay in this area again on a return visit, I wouldn’t baulk at staying near Kyoto Station again.

I can recommend all of these hotels in which I have stayed. They will suit a traveller on a mid to high-end budget (Kyoto is not cheap).

Kyoto Station area

Hotel Granvia Kyoto

I stayed in this 5-star hotel on my first trip to Kyoto.

Located within the railway station, Hotel Granvia allows you to travel with ease within the city and to take the train on day trips out of town.

It features spacious rooms, great service and an indoor swimming pool.

Downtown Area

Cross Hotel Kyoto

I used this superb hotel as my Kyoto base on my second visit.

Its location is perfect. Hankyu Kawaramachi Station, Sanjo Station, Kyoto Shiyakusho-mae Station and Sanjo Keihan Station are all less than six minutes on foot, frequent buses pass nearby and the restaurants of Pontocho Alley and Gion are within easy walking distance.

In terms of luxury, the Cross Hotel Kyoto punches well above its 4-star rating with stylish and comfortable interiors and stellar service.

Hotel Gracery Kyoto Sanjo

As the Cross Hotel wasn’t available for my final night in Kyoto, I moved to this 4-star hotel in the same area.

Whilst not as luxurious as the Cross Hotel, this is a great choice of comfortable accommodation in the same convenient area at a lower price. Free coffee is available in the guest lounge.



Japan: Suggested Reading

Do you want to learn a little bit more about Japan? Here’s my pick of books to read either before travelling to Japan or whilst you are there.

One of my favourite books ever, Hiromi Kawakami’s gentle novel sets three national obsessions – dining out at izakaya, hanami (flower viewing) parties during cherry blossom season and discussing baseball – against the growing relationship between a thirtysomething woman and a much older man. The literary equivalent of being wrapped in a warm blanket.

There had to be at least one Murakami book on this list and this is my current favourite. In this tale of love, friendship, and loss, the main protagonist tries to make sense of being abandoned by his closest friends. Unforgettable and heartbreaking.

Ever since reading The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro has been one of my favourite authors. This excellent novel set in post-war Japan features an artist who uses his skills promote the military government’s imperialist ambitions

Sayaka Murata’s offbeat but wonderful novel delivers a message of non-conformity wrapped up a great read. Keiko Furukura doesn’t really ‘fit’ anywhere until she finds purpose and happiness working at a convenience store.

Why You Should Visit Kyoto

This is not a city preserved in aspic for the gratification of tourists.

Whilst there are frequent reminders that Kyoto is Japan’s spiritual heart – the glimpse of a temple roof, a waft of burning incense, a vibrant vermillion torii –  modern Kyoto goes about its business like any other city.

Kyoto is not a Disneyfied representation of Japan and I like that.

The iconic sights of Fushimi-Inari, Kinkaku-ji and the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove are unforgettable. However, it’s likely that it will be hidden gems tucked away on side streets, that you stumble upon when walking between the main attractions, that will capture your heart.