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Kyoto is the cultural heart of Japan and the most famous place in the country to see ancient temples, try traditional Japanese foods, and maybe even catch a glimpse of a geisha. For most visitors to Japan, Kyoto is at the top of the must-see list, perhaps second to only Tokyo.
From 794 to 1868, Kyoto was the capital of Japan and the emperor’s residence. Today, Kyoto attracts visitors from around the world to its many Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, Zen gardens, and traditional ryokans and dining options.
I visited the city several times and still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface in terms of places to go and foods to try. In this guide, I’ll share my top recommendations to create the perfect three-day Kyoto itinerary.
Additionally, I included a summary of my day trip to Nara guide and incorporated it as a suggested extension of your trip to Kyoto.
Visiting Tokyo too? Check out my ultimate five days in Tokyo itinerary for inspiration.
What is the best Kyoto itinerary?
How To Get To Kyoto
From Tokyo, the most common way to travel to Kyoto is via the Shinkansen (high-speed bullet train). The Shinkansen takes just over 2 hours and has departure points from Tokyo Station or Shinagawa Station (via the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen line). The end destination is Kyoto Station and a one-way ticket will cost you about ¥14,000 (~USD $110). The Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto departs around every 20 minutes.
Pro Tip: Book a reserved seat on the Shinkansen
Even with departures every 20 minutes, the Shinkansen route from Tokyo to Kyoto is one of the most highly frequented lines in Japan. As a result, the trains can be quite crowded. When you buy your ticket at the window, you can elect to either book a “reserved” or “non-reserved” seat. If you are traveling as a couple or in a group and care to sit together, I strongly suggest booking a “reserved” seat.
If you plan to travel between several major cities in Japan, consider purchasing the Japan Rail Pass to save money.
Alternatively, you can also fly into Osaka International Airport (Itami Airport). From this airport to Kyoto Station, it takes about an hour by train or limousine bus and will cost about ¥1,100 (~USD $9) one-way.
Where To Stay In Kyoto
Whenever I visit Kyoto, I try to stay in the Higashiyama Ward as it is quite central and close to many of the major sight-seeing destinations. My second recommendation for the most convenient area to be based in during your trip is Shimogyo Ward. It is also well-located and has good train connections to various parts of the city.
Kyoto has hundreds of phenomenal accommodation options. If you can, I highly recommend staying at a ryokan (traditional Japanese-style inn) and booking at least one of their set breakfasts or dinners. Experiencing the hospitality and charm of a ryokan is an absolute must for anybody visiting Japan. You’ll get to sleep on a futon (floor bedding) and, in most places, have access to a private onsen (spring water bathhouse).
Some of my recommended places to stay in Kyoto are:
What To Do In Kyoto
Kinkaku-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple that is one of the most photographed places in all of Japan. This temple derives its name from its iconic gold color and literally means “Temple of the Golden Pavilion”. Kinkaku-ji and its surrounding grounds have a rich and complicated history that dates back hundreds of year.
The Golden Pavilion is at the heart of the temple complex and beautifully reflects in the garden pond all year round. Kinkaku-ji is located in the north part of Kyoto and takes about 45 minutes to reach by bus. You can explore the entire complex relatively quickly (less than 30-45 minutes), but given how far it is from most of the other major attractions in the city, I suggest visiting it either near the beginning or end of your day. As an extra bonus, Kinkaku-ji is most beautiful in the golden morning or evening light.
The admission fee is ¥400 (~USD $3) per adult and the temple grounds are open to the public from 9AM-5PM.
Ginkaku-ji literally translates to “Temple of the Silver Pavilion”. However, unlike Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), Ginkaku-ji was never covered in silver. Instead, legend states that the nickname comes from the way moonlight reflected off of the temple’s dark exterior.
The Zen Buddhist temple Ginkaku-ji initially served as the retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa in the late 1400s. Ashikaga Yoshimasa was the grandson of the shogun who used Kinkaku-ji as his retirement villa.
Over the centuries, the temple served as an artistic center in Kyoto. The art of Japanese tea ceremony, flower arrangement, poetry, and architectural and garden design developed on the temple’s grounds.
Today, the Ginkaku-ji complex consists of the Silver Pavilion, several temple buildings, a sand garden, and a moss garden.
I highly recommend visiting Ginkaku-ji because unlike it’s more famous counterpart, Kinkaku-ji, this temple welcomes a comfortable level of tourists. The less frenetic atmosphere is lovely and makes for a very enjoyable visit.
Admission is ¥500.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Fushimi Inari Taisha is the head shrine with which all Inari shrines are affiliated. Inari is a popular deity in Shinto and Buddhist beliefs and is the Japanese kami (deity/divinity) for foxes, rice, agriculture, and industry. Over one-third (>30k) of Shinto shrines in Japan are dedicated to Inari.
Fushimi Inari Taisha has become one of the main places associated with Kyoto and is a must-visit for any visitor to the city. The shrine grounds include a network of pathways that wind up Mount Inari. The pathways are framed by the famous, brightly-colored torii gates. When you see photos of Fushimi Inari Taisha, most likely you will see images of the reddish-orange torii gates.
The initial few pathways of Fushimi Inari Taisha are incredibly crowded with tourists and people taking photos, but the higher you climb, the more the crowds thin out. The hike to the summit takes around 2-3 hours on paved, well-maintained pathways. However, you are free to turn back at any point before the summit.
There is no admission fee to enter Fushimi Inari Taisha and the grounds are always open.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is a stunning pathway on the far east side of Kyoto that is famous for, as the name suggests, its towering bamboo forest. The pathway is about 500 meters long and can be accessed near the entrance of Tenryu-ji Temple (it’s a good idea to combine visiting this temple with the bamboo forest).
From Kyoto Station, it takes around 30 minutes by train to reach the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. This destination is a bit far from the other popular attractions in Kyoto, but the feeling of being dwarfed by massive bamboo trees is worth the trek.
If you visit Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, you must explore neighboring Tenryu-ji. This stately Zen Buddhist temple boasts a stunning garden that is largely preserved in its original design from the 14th century.
Like many historical structures in Kyoto, Tenryu-ji burned down and was reconstructed many times over the centuries.
The buildings of Tenryu-ji as seen today were built during the Meiji Period (late 19th century).
Tenryu-ji is my favorite temple in Kyoto because it is a bit off-the-beaten-path and has gorgeous flowers in the spring and foliage in the autumn.
Admission to only the garden is ¥500. Entrance to the temple buildings is and additional ¥300.
Kiyomizu-dera is a World Heritage site and mountainside Buddhist temple that has a history of over 1,250 years. Located halfway up Mount Otawa, this temple provides magnificent views of Kyoto and the surrounding forests. The expansive complex is comprised of thirty Buddhist buildings, including a main hall and many multi-tier pagodas. You can easily spend over an hour exploring the many buildings and trails of Kiyomizu-dera.
The main hall’s wooden balcony is a popular viewing and photograph spot, so I suggest arriving very early in the morning if you are hoping to get a crowd-free experience.
Kiyomizudera literally means “Pure Water Temple” and was founded at the location of the Otawa Waterfall. Today, you can drink from one of the waterfall’s three streams at the base of the main hall. Each stream represents something different: academic success, longevity, and a fortunate love life.
While this temple is magnificent year round, the spring and autumn are particularly wonderful because the hillside erupts with the changing colors of the trees.
The admission fee is ¥400 (~USD $3) per adult and the temple grounds are open from 6AM-6PM (6:30PM in July and August and 9:30PM during special illumination events in the spring and autumn).
Gion (Ninenzaka & Sannenzaka)
Gion is the geisha district of Kyoto and one of the best places in the country to see traditional Japanese architecture. Gion has a maze of pedestrian streets with the most well-known being Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka. The streets are lined with souvenir shops, restaurants, and boutiques and are typically packed with visitors.
Although its known as the geisha district, don’t hold your breath in the hopes of seeing one of these traditional Japanese entertainers! Geisha are rare and discrete, so its unlikely you’ll see one openly strolling down the crowded walkways.
I suggest wandering through this district after visiting nearby Kiyomizudera or in the very early morning to beat the crowds.
Nanzen-ji is a large Buddhist temple famous for its Zen garden and many walking paths. The history of the temple area dates back to the mid-13th century, but the original buildings were destroyed in a civil war during the 14th-16th centuries. The oldest structures remaining today are from the period of the civil war.
Perhaps surprisingly, there is a large brick aqueduct running through the temple grounds that was built in the late 19th/early 20th century as part of a canal system.
The central temple grounds are free of admission fees, but the buildings and some of the surrounding areas have a small fee.
Rengeoin Sanjusangendo is a long temple in the east part of Kyoto that is most renowned for its 1,001 statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. This temple is the largest wooden structure in Japan.
You can wander through the temple ground’s beautiful Japanese garden as part of your visit.
The admission fee is ¥600 (~USD $4.5) per adult and the temple grounds are open from 8:30AM-5PM (April 1-November 15) and 9AM-4PM (November 16-March 31).
Walk along Kamo River
Kamo River is a large river that runs through the heart of Kyoto. It has a wide promenade that is popular for walkers and joggers alike. Various restaurants and homes flanks the sides of the river and provide a gorgeous backdrop for a run or picnic.
You’ll see many locals and visitors buying bento boxes or snacks and enjoying them along the banks of the river.
What To Eat In Kyoto
Due to the city’s deep history as the political and cultural capital of Japan, Kyoto’s food scene particularly excels with traditional Japanese dishes.
If you stay at a ryokan (traditional Japanese-style inn), I highly recommend that you book their breakfast or dinner set menu. You’ll receive a variety of small, traditional dishes to sample and, as a highlight, get to eat in the comfort of your own room!
先斗町の石碑と駒札 is a popular alley across the river from Gion-Shijo Station with many restaurants and bars. Try exploring this neighborhood for a bite to eat and a chance to snap a photo of an iconic street in Kyoto.
While Kyoto has hundreds of incredible restaurants, some of my favorites are:
📍278 Enpukujimaecho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, 604-8045
Kamehameha serves the best okonomiyaki I’ve ever had. The meals are cooked right in front of you by a friendly chef and you can choose from several different types of okonomiyaki. I recommend making a reservation in advance since the restaurant is very small.
📍373-3 Kiyomotocho, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0084
This is a delicious, inexpensive place for fried gyoza. Enjoy either (or both!) the ginger or garlic gyoza for a quick meal. You need to put your name down on the list in front of the restaurant to hold your spot in the queue. Expect to wait at least 30 minutes to be seated.
📍367 Kiyomotocho, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0084
Izuu is a relaxed spot to enjoy Kyoto-style sushi. These sushi are hearty! I suggest arriving on an empty stomach and ordering less than the volume you typically would eat for “normal” sushi. You can also order sushi to-go and eat it later since the fish isn’t raw.
📍545 Gionmachi Minamigawa, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0074
The restaurant of the five-star hotel Yuzuya Ryokan offers many delicious dishes featuring yuzu. I enjoyed the fresh and unique dishes while looking out onto the well-maintained Japanese garden.
📍〒605-0812 Kyoto, Higashiyama Ward, 東大路松原上る四丁目 毘沙門町38−1
Tousuiro Gion is a serene and elegant tofu restaurant (it has options for meat-lovers and vegetarians alike). You’ll get to taste a variety of small dishes that feature tofu prepared in different ways.
Toiyoki Kon Kon
📍12-4 Fukakusa Ichinotsubocho, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, 612-0012
Toiyoki Kon Kon serves my favorite taiyaki in Japan (I love the custard-filled one!). This little stand sells freshly-made taiyaki that is slightly crispy on the edges and soft with filling on the inside.
📍〒606-8402 Kyoto, Sakyo Ward, Ginkakujicho, ４０ 銀閣寺 まつばや
This cafe near Ginkakuji serves delicious choux cream puffs with matcha, vanilla, or sakura cream filling. After a long day of sightseeing, visit this cafe as a perfect snack break.
Go Go Coffee
📍〒603-8372 Kyoto, Kita Ward, Kinugasa Kaidocho, 13番地
Go Go Coffee is a trendy cafe near Kinkaku-ji that serves coffee, matcha, and ice creams. Their specialty is an ice cream sandwich with traditional Japanese ingredients.
📍226 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0862
Located conveniently in the heart of Gion, this premium ice cream shop sells soft-serve ice cream of many flavors. Their most famous flavor is the one pictured on the left with matcha powder.
Three Day Kyoto Itinerary (And One Day In Nara)
Prefer a guided tour? Check out this day tour through Klook that covers some of the suggested locations in this itinerary.
Day 1: Kinkaku-ji, Tenryu-ji, & Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
This afternoon itinerary requires a bit of planning to successfully see all three places in a few hours. Check out my afternoon in Kyoto guide for more details.
If you arrive in Kyoto in the afternoon, drop off your bags and head straight to Kinkaku-ji.
Kinkaku-ji is about an hour by bus or 40 minutes by taxi from Kyoto Station and many of the other attractions in the city. Considering it is also one of the most popular destinations in Kyoto, it’s a good idea to get there either at the beginning or end of its opening hours (9AM-5PM).
Since it is so far from the other sights suggested in this guide, I recommend visiting Kinkaku-ji on a different day than most of the rest.
Tenryu-ji and Arashiyama Bamboo Forest are neighboring destinations that are far east of the other sights. After visiting Kinkaku-ji, take a bus and train for about 45 minutes to Tenryu-ji (this temple closes at 5:00PM). Leave from the north exit to walk into Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. The forest closes to visitors at 11PM, so you should have plenty of time to comfortably visit it.
Day 2: Rengeoin Sanjusangendo, Kiyomizu-dera, Gion, & Nanzen-ji
Start your day early at Rengeoin Sanjusangendo to see the 1,001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. This temple complex is relatively compact so you should be able to visit it in under an hour.
Next, head to the extremely popular Kiyomizu-dera and take your time walking through its maze of pathways and Buddhist buildings. If you can, arrive well before noon to avoid the height of the crowds.
Thirdly, enjoy lunch in Gion and explore the main boutiques and restaurants. The pedestrian streets of Gion are known for their traditional Japanese architecture and are a popular place to take photos.
Lastly for the day, visit Nanzen-ji to see the Zen garden and examples of Japanese architecture born over the past few centuries.
Day 3: Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kamo River, and Ginkaku-ji
On your third day in Kyoto, visit Fushimi Inari Taisha and hike through the iconic torii gates. The further into the pathways you go, the less crowded they will be. The hike to the summit takes around 2-3 hours, so wear comfortable walking shoes! The pathway is well-maintained and paved.
After your hike through Fushimi Inari Taisha, gather up your remaining energy to stroll along Kamo River. Better yet, bring some snacks to enjoy a relaxing picnic along the river bank.
In the afternoon, enjoy beautiful Ginkaku-ji in the northeast of Kyoto. This temple receives far fewer visitors than the similar Kinkaku-ji, so it’s a great destination for a more relaxed few hours.
Day 4: Nara
On your fourth and final day in the area, head south from Kyoto to Japan’s first permanent capital city: Nara. From Kyoto Station, it takes about 35 minutes on a direct train (Kintetsu Limited Express) to reach Kintetsu-Nara Station.
Pro Tip: Leave Your Baggage At Kyoto Station
If you head to Nara directly from Kyoto, leave any large baggage in one of the many coin lockers at Kyoto Station. The route back to Tokyo from Nara involves a transfer at Kyoto Station, so you can save yourself the hassle and leave any extra luggage in a locker for about ¥500-¥700 (~USD $5).
I’ll share a summary of what to do during your visit below, but check out my article about how to spend the ultimate day in Nara for more details.
During your day trip, walk through Tobihino Park to visit Tōdai-ji, Kōfuku-ji, and Yoshikien Garden.
- Tobihino Park is an expansive park in the center of Nara with many deer. This is one of the best places to see the highest number of Nara’s deer in one place.
- Tōdai-ji is one of the oldest and most historically important Buddhist temples in Japan. It is home to a 15 meter tall Daibutsu (Buddha statue) and is one of the most iconic attractions in Nara.
- Kōfuku-ji has several Buddhist halls and pagodas on its grounds, including the second tallest wooden pagoda in Japan.
- Yoshikien Garden is a serene Japanese garden with a pond, bridge, and beautiful foliage.
I hope you enjoy a wonderful three days in Kyoto and also have the chance to explore Nara. Together, these two cities make for an incredible getaway in Japan and reflect the country’s long and rich history.
- Nara, Japan: Experience The Ultimate Day Trip (Deer, Temples, More)
- How To Spend Five Days in Tokyo (5 Day Itinerary)
- Japan Travel Tips: What You Need To Know For Your Trip
- 13 Most Essential Japanese Phrases For Tourists (+ Free PDF)
- The Best Afternoon In Kyoto (Kinkaku-ji, Tenryu-ji, Arashiyama Bamboo Forest)
- The 5 Best Luxury Hotels In Kyoto
- 5 Best Vegan Restaurants in Kyoto You Need To Try