(Last Updated On: October 31, 2020)

Kyoto is one of my favourite places in Japan, despite having become more and more crowded over the years as tourists flock to this traditional city. There is honestly so much to see here, that it’s nigh on impossible to get to everything in a mere three days, but it is a good amount of time to get a taster for what this city is all about. I’ve been back twice, and I’ve put together my suggestions on how to spend three days in Kyoto. 

How To Spend Three Days In Kyoto

Day 1

Morning – Yasaka Shrine

Once you’ve arrived in Kyoto (most likely fresh off the Shinkansen from either Tokyo or Osaka), I’m going to assume it’s mid-morning. Drop your luggage off at your hotel – I’m hoping you stay in the Gion area – and take a stroll up to the Yasaka Shrine. If you’re in Gion, then it’s the big shrine at the end of the Shijo-Dori (Fourth Avenue). Entry to the complex is free and it’s a great place to stroll around and watch locals and tourists alike visit to pray and pay their respects.

Take note of the wooden ’ema’ hanging around the temples – these wooden plaques are inscribed with wishes and then burned in ritual ceremonies. They’re available for purchase, too, if you feel inclined to write a wish down for the Shinto gods. Wander past the shrine area to the pond and park out the back and enjoy the serenity and beauty of the art of Japanese Gardens. 

Afternoon- Nishiki Market & Nijo-jo

Wander up to the Nishiki Market for lunch, where you’ll find a lengthy arcade full of Kyoto delicacies. As you wander the market, vendors will entice you with samples of their foods. There is an abundance of pickled vegetables, seafood and matcha products available as well as okonomiyaki and some other weird and wonderful things that to this day, I have no idea what they are!

Be warned that in Japan it is seen as being rude to eat and walk, so if you sample something from a vendor, stand at their stall to eat it and then be on your way. Once you’ve eaten your fill, it’s time to wander (or catch a bus) to the Nijo Castle. It’s about 30 mins walk from the market, and only about 10 minutes drive. 

Nijo-jo is a castle built in the 1600s that used to house the Shogun of the region before the fall of the shogunate. The vast castle complex and grounds houses a beautiful, intricately decorated Japanese castle with rooms covered in tatami mat floors.

The paintings on the walls to decorate these rooms are delicate and full of natural beauty. Amusingly, some of the paintings depict tigers, which look strangely out of proportion and as I read the information panels, I realised that it was because the painter had never actually seen a live tiger!

Evening – Dinner at Gion Tanto

Wander through the Gion area along Kyoto’s most famous street, Shinbashi Dori, to watch the lanterns start to flicker on. The narrow alleyways around this street house lots of great local places to eat, but I’d really recommend you seek out a particular favourite of mine, Gion Tanto.

This little restaurant often has a queue and they finish up serving around 8.30pm (in winter), so make sure to get there nice and early. You’ll get the full Japanese experience, including sitting at cushions on the tatami mat floor and cooking up your meal on the grill plate in front of you.

Day 2

Morning – Arashiyama

Head out to the Randen station at Shijo Omiya and buy a day pass to use both the red and blue lines. Hop on the red line first and ride the Randen right to the end of the line where you’ll arrive in Arashiyama. Visiting Arashiyama is an absolute must do in Kyoto as it is famous for its Bamboo Grove and beautiful surrounding temples like Tenryu-Ji.

Wandering the Arashiyama area is wonderfully relaxing, although if you do want Instagram-worthy photos free of tourists then you’ll need to get there super early. But never mind if you get caught on a day where there are throngs of people around – the flip side is there’s often a great chance you’ll spot locals dressed in traditional bright kimonos and they make for a wonderful picture too. 

Afternoon – Kinkaku-Ji and Ryoan-Ji

Take the Randen back halfway and then change lines to head out to the famous Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-Ji. This famed pavilion is one of Kyoto’s most visited sights and if you’re lucky enough to be there when the sun’s rays come out from behind a cloud and light up the gold, you’ll understand why. The reflection of the pavilion in the pond it sits on and the surrounding gardens are everything you’d expect from a Japanese garden – peaceful, serene and perfectly in place.

 

After enjoying the golden sight of Kinkaku-Ji, there’s another beautiful and very different temple waiting a short walk away. Wander towards the Ryoan-Ji Temple which is most famous for it’s Zen garden made of raked stones and strategically placed rocks. The temple grounds also feature a beautiful garden and pond, but I strongly suggest you take some time to sit in front of the rock garden in quiet contemplation – even if you’re not a spiritual person, it is wonderfully relaxing. 

Evening – Gyoza and Ponto-cho Alley

After a long day out in Arashiyama and Kinkaku-Ji, it’s time to grab a dumpling dinner. Gyoza are a favourite of mine and even if you’ve had dumplings before, these Japanese style are a little different to their Chinese counterparts. They’re still delicious morsels of mince and cabbage dipped in soy, but the dumpling dough is much thinner and lighter and the quintessential gyoza serve is lightly pan fried and they come all stuck together with a slight crisp to their skin. I love Chao Chao Sanjo Kiyamachi for gyoza in Kyoto – although they’re actually a franchise, they’re delicious and cheap with lovely staff.

 

Once you’ve eaten, then it’s time for a bit of Geisha spotting in Ponto-cho Alley. This narrow street contains a number of bars that you can stop off in to grab a drink as you wait in hope that you might see a geisha scurrying to an appointment in a tea house. When I visited around New Years, there were so many geisha about – I think I saw 14 in three nights! Please also remember that whilst it’s exciting to see them, Geisha are people going to work, so don’t jump in their way or demand photos – always be respectful and grateful that you’re seeing a special part of Japanese culture.

Day 3

Morning – Fushimi Inari Taisha

One of Kyoto’s most iconic photo spots is the orange torii gate trail at Fushimi Inari Shrine. Dedicated to the god of rice and sake, Inari, the shrine is decorated with little foxes that are the messengers for the god. Like the Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama, you’ll need to arrive early if you don’t want to content with hoardes of tourists, but luckily you can normally position yourself in such a way that you’re able to cut most people out of your photos of the orange gates stretching all the way up the mountain. Fushimi Inari is also free to visit, so it’s a great addition to your three days in Kyoto. 

 

Afternoon – The Philosopher’s Path

Another great free activity for your three days in Kyoto is to amble down the aptly named Philosopher’s Path. The path has some of the best cherry blosson photo opportunities in spring, but even in the depths of winter, it’s still beautiful to walk in contemplation alongside this pretty tree-lined stream. Depending on how much time you have, there are a number of temples along the path including the Silver Pavilion, Ginkaku-Ji, to stop in and visit. 

Evening – Sunset at Kodai-Ji and Tonkatsu

One of Kyoto’s most epic view for sunset is in a carpark out the front of the temple, Kodai-Ji. If you want to get that iconic shot of pagodas rising out of the mountainside with the town below as the sky turns pink and blue, then this is your spot. As well as getting an amazing town view, if you turn back to look at the Buddha statue at the front of Kodai-Ji, you might also see streaks of colour over the temple – making for a beautiful shot. As the sun goes down, temple bells ring out and from this spot you can watch the bell ringing ceremony as well as take in these epic views. 

Tonkatsu is one of my favourite dishes in Japan. Breaded chicken or pork that comes out golden, crunchy and with a range of sauces to sweeten the deal is my idea of a great meal. Tonkatsu Katsukura Sanjo is my pick to sample this dish in Kyoto, where you can make your own sauce and get free refills of shredded cabbage, miso soup and pickled vegetables!

And just like that, your three days in Kyoto to a close. There is honestly so much more to see and do here, but with this itinerary, you will have had a nice little taster that keeps you wanting more! 

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Three Days In Kyoto
Three Days In Kyoto

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