If you’re headed to Japan, then the odds are you’re going to pass through Kyoto. The city is Japan’s old capital and was left relatively untouched during the war. As a result, the city feels very traditional while having modern services.
There are over 1,600 temples, more than 400 shrines, and 17 Unesco World Heritage sites in Kyoto. With so much to see and do, how do you spend 3 days in Kyoto? The simple truth is that you’re going to have to be picky about what you see or spend an additional day in the city. Here’s a Kyoto 3 day itinerary that is manageable.
How to get around Kyoto
First off, you’ll need to know how to get around Kyoto. The city has a vast network of public transportation, but the subway is really not that impressive when you compare it to Tokyo. Fortunately, all the Kyoto attractions are relatively easy to get to by some form of public transportation
Raku bus – The Kyoto tourist bus, also known as the Raku bus has three lines and gets you to all the major Kyoto attractions. A one day pass will cost you 500 yen (250 yen for children under the age of 12). Read my Kyoto tourist bus guide for more information.
JR Pass – If you have a JR pass, it’ll be of limited use in the city since JR only has two lines. Fortunately, those two lines will get you to Arashiyama, Fushimi Inari-taisha, and Nara which are some of the top things to do in Kyoto.
Day 1 – Arashiyama & Kinkaku-ji
The assumption is that you’ll be arriving in Kyoto this day so you may not actually have a full day. From Kyoto station, it’ll take about 40 minutes to take the Raku bus to Kinkaku-ji. If you have limited time, take a cab. Kinkaku-ji is more commonly known as the golden temple and is one of the most popular Kyoto attractions. You can’t actually go inside the temple, but walking the grounds will take an hour and is well worth your time. Admission to the temple is 400 yen.
After you’re done with Kinkaku-ji, take a cab to the Arashiyama area. To make things simple, tell your cab driver to take you to Tenryu-ji Temple. Tenryu-ji was built in 1339 and is now a World Heritage Site. Access to the gardens will cost you 500 yen. If you want to see the temple buildings, an additional charge of 300 yen will be applied.
Next door to Tenryu-ji Temple is the famous Arashiyama bamboo forest. Although the forest is full of tourists, there’s no denying the magic you feel once you arrive. The bamboo canopy completely dwarves you and is mesmerizing to look at. How much time you spend here depends on how many pictures you want to take.
What you do next will depend on time and your personal preference. Those looking to get close to the local life may be interested in the Arashiyama Monkey Park. To get there, you need to cross the Togetsukyo Bridge which is one of the best spots for fall foliage. If you prefer to see more temples, Jojakko-ji, Nisonin, and Adashino-Nenbutsuji temple are located north of the Arashiyama bamboo grove.
In the evening, explore Kyoto station. I know it sounds weird that I’m suggesting exploring a train station, but there’s two malls here and quite a few food courts. There’s also an observation deck, so there’s quite a bit to see.
Day 2 – Southern Higashiyama
Start your day two Kyoto itinerary at Kiyomizudera Temple which is known as the water temple. The temple is located up a hill so you’ll get some stunning views of the city while you’re here. The grounds aren’t huge, but you’ll still want to budget about 60 minutes to see everything.
If you didn’t explore the streets before entering Kiyomizudera, now is the time to do it. The Higashiyama District is full of traditional buildings with shops and restaurants. Most of this stuff caters to tourists, but you need to pass by it to get to Hōkanji Temple and Kodai-ji Temple so you might as well not rush things.
Once you’re done exploring this area, head over to the Yasaka-jinja Shrine. The bright orange colour of the shrine is a nice change of scenery compared to the other temples you would have seen by now that are most brown. Directly behind Yasaka-jinja is Maruyama Park which is a traditional Japanese garden and park. Just north of the park is Chionin Temple which is the head temple of the Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhism. When you depart Chionin, be sure to turn around and admire the Sanmon Gate.
There’s a good chance that you’re tired of temples by now, so I recommend making your way east into the city. You’ll pass by the area of Gion, but save that for later tonight. Instead, head over to Nishiki market and just browse. You’re in the “downtown” area now so you can shop at one of the department stores if you so desire.
After taking a break at your hotel, head back out to Gion to see the buildings lit up at night. This area is popular with tourists and locals. Traditional meals can be had here, but they can be quite expensive. For a little more action, head to the Pontocho area which is a series of alleys that has tea houses, restaurants, and bars.
Day 3 – Northern Higashiyama
Your Kyoto 3 day itinerary ends in Northern Higashiyama. Some routes suggest doing all of Higashiyama in one day, but I don’t think it’s practical. That being said, if you’re tight on time, just pick a few temples and make the most of your day.
Start your day at Ginkakuji which is known as the silver pavilion. The temples here aren’t that impressive, but it’s the zen gardens that people come for. To be honest, I don’t get what’s so remarkable about zen gardens, but it was interesting to see nonetheless. Admission to Ginkakuji is 500 yen.
Once you leave Ginkakuji and follow the Philosopher’s Path. This stone path is parallel to a small canal and is exceptionally beautiful during the cherry blossom season. It also conveniently connects you to Honen-in, Zenrinji (Eikando), and Nanzenji Temples, so there’s no reason to miss it.
To be perfectly honest, you can skip the temples, just take your time on the Philosopher’s Path and eventually make your way to the Heian Shrine. The Heian Shrine is similar to the Yasaka-jinja Shrine you would have seen the day before, but it’s much bigger and more spacious.
Once you’re done at the shrine, you have a few options. If you’ve got a lot of energy left, you could go to the Kyoto International Manga Museum or Nijo Castle. To be honest, both aren’t that impressive. I recommend heading to Kyoto’s last major attraction that you haven’t been to yet, the Fushimi Inari Shrine. This shrine differs from the others as there are thousands of torii gates that you’ll pass through. The shrine starts at the base of a mountain, if you want to hike the entire trail, it’ll take you about two hours.
Day 4 – Day trips from Kyoto
3 days in Kyoto may not be enough which is why I’ve added a fourth day to this Kyoto itinerary. Generally speaking, this day should be used for day trips.
Osaka – If you don’t have Osaka scheduled separately during your Japan trip, you may want to head there now. The city is known for foodies and people who like to shop. Head straight for Dotonbori which is the central tourist area where you’ll find some of the best eats and shopping in the city. Other highlights of the city include the Umeda Sky building where you can get great views from the observation deck and Osaka castle. If you have a JR Pass, you might as well make the trip.
Hiroshima / Miyajima – I wrote a Hiroshima and Miyajima in one day from Kyoto guide which explains how to get there and what to see. To summarize, Miyajima is serene and relatively calm since it’s an island while Hiroshima is famous for its history. I personally think it’s worth adding to your Kyoto itinerary if you have the time.
Nara – A lot of people build Nara into their Kyoto 3 day itinerary, but I personally think it’s a bit of a waste unless you like to see deer chase people. Don’t get me wrong, the temples here are stunning, but while in Japan, you’ll see temples every day, you’re going to get tired of them. Now, if you love temples and can’t get enough of Japanese culture, then definitely make a trip here.
Kyoto is a stunning city with a rich culture that completely contrasts the futuristic feel of Tokyo. 3 days in Kyoto may not be enough time, so consider adding another day to your Kyoto 3 day itinerary.