3 Days in Kyoto: Complete Kyoto Itinerary + Map (2024)


Kyoto is a city that – in the most typically Japanese of ways – gracefully balances tradition with modernity.

Dark, ancient streets, serene gardens, a world-famous bamboo forest and majestic temples, this is Japan in a microcosm.

Be aware though, that Kyoto, despite its smallish size, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, with 28% of all visitors to Japan making their way here, so make sure you get up early to avoid the crowds wherever you can.

We loved our time in Japan, and we’ve documented our three days in Kyoto with meticulous detail and care so you can make the most of your time there too.

3 Days in Kyoto


DAY 1

Take the hop-on hop-off bus to cover lots of ground, seeing the UNESCO Heritage Sites of Nijo Castle, Kinkaku-ji and Ginkakuji-ji before a peaceful stroll down the Philosopher’s Walk.

DAY 2

Get selfies at the world-famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and find peace at the oldest Zen temple in Japan, before heading back into the city to explore the cobbled streets of Gion.

DAY 3

Get up early to see the Japanese icon that is Fushimi Inari, before seeing the best views of Kyoto from Kiyomizu Dera, then strolling back through the ancient shopping streets, parks, pagodas and temples of Higashiyama District.

OUR JAPAN CREDENTIALS

The Reeves Roamed for 25 days through Japan, taking notes as we went. Our route was based on our typically thorough research, though we also found some surprises along the way. We only write about places we’ve actually been, so you can be confident that the details are first-hand.

READ OUR COMPLETE JAPAN GUIDE
Ben Reeve
Post Author

MAP | Kyoto 3 Day Itinerary

How to use this map. Click on the top left of the map to display the list of locations, then click on the locations to display further information. Click in the top-right corner of the map to open a larger version in a new tab, or click the star to save to your Google Maps.  

3 day Kyoto itinerary | Day 1

Today we will be using the handy Kyoto hop-on hop-off bus, to easily cover ground around the city.

Tickets cost ÂĄ3,500 for adults, and can be purchased from the conductor onboard, or booked in advance.

using the kyoto skybus to plan out your route to key places

There is a full route map on the Kyoto hop-on hop-off bus website, but above I’ve highlighted the key places we’ll be visiting on the map, with the yellow line showing the bus route.

  1. Is the area around Sanjo Station, which is where we recommend you stay.
  2. Is Nijo-jo Castle, just three stops on the Tozai Line from Sanjo Keihan Station to Nijojo-mae Station.
  3. Is Kinkaku-ji – The Golden Pavilion
  4. Ginkakuji Temple and the start of the Philosopher’s Walk
a woman and daughter on a hop on hop off bus in kyoto japan 1
Becca and Grace taking in the sun on the open top bus.

🔥 HOT TIP: Book your tickets to the Skybus in advance for no extra cost.

Early Morning: nijo Castle

a traditional japanese white castle nijo castle in kyoto

Our first stop on this three day Kyoto itinerary is Nijo Castle. If you’re looking for timings, we got there just after 9am (it opens at 0845).

Built in 1603 by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period, this castle is a splendid showcase of Japanese feudal architecture and design. It’s famous for its unique “Nightingale Floors,” ingeniously designed to sing underfoot as a security measure against intruders. As with most historic buildings in Japan, it’s a shoes-off situation, but even on my lightest tippy-toes I couldn’t stop those floors from singing out, such a clever design (though I’m still not convinced it was intentional!).

Plan for a minimum of 90 minutes here, there’s a lot to explore, and if the weather is as good for you as it was for us, the gardens are stunning!

Top tips:

  • Climb the walls in the far corner of the grounds for a panoramic view of the castle.
  • Make sure you’ve got some coins to buy carp food – there are thousands of them in the moat.
  • Look up – the detail above the archways and in the top of the buildings is incredible.

Late Morning: Kinkaku-ji (GOlden Pavilion)

a golden temple in kyoto japan
The almost unbelievable Golden Pavilion.

Kinkaku-ji is an iconic image of Kyoto, so because of this, we were half expecting it to be an over-hyped tourist trap, but we were wrong. We loved the experience so much, we ended up putting it third on our list of best places we visited in Japan.

Yes, it’s busy, but the way they’ve managed the walkways around the pond meant we rarely had a blocked view, and it was easy to move at our own pace.

It was originally built as a villa in 1397 by the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and upon his death, it was converted into a Zen Buddhist temple by his son, as per Yoshimitsu’s wishes​​​​​​.

It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and those images of it glinting in the midday sun, Grace with her little camera in hand elbowing tourists out of the way to get her photos are etched in my memory.

We got to Kinkaku-ji about 1150. It’s relatively small, and we’d walked the main path in about twenty minutes, but there is a nice local market, a couple of other temples and a great ice-cream place that killed the rest of the time until the bus arrived again.

Early Afternoon: Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion)

a japanese multi tier temple beside a pond silver pavilion in kyoto

After another relatively short bus ride, the next stop is another part of the Kyoto UNESCO sites, we got to Ginkakuji Temple at just after 1330.

Ginkakuji, known as the Silver Pavilion, presents a simpler beauty compared to its more flamboyant counterpart, Kinkaku-ji, and one that felt much more peaceful. Despite its name, and the expectation set by the Golden Pavilion, the Silver Pavilion isn’t actually silver. It was intended to be covered in silver foil, but it was a plan that never came to fruition (one of a number of interesting Kyoto facts). Built in 1482 as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the Shogun died before construction ended, so technically, the temple remains unfinished.

What I’ll remember of this place was the gardens, with their expanses of perfect white stones, quiet little hideaways, birds of prey catching thermals above and the views out to Kyoto beyond.

Late Afternoon: Walk the Philosopher’s Path

a japanese canal with people walking beside it philosophers path kyoto
Our late afternoon stroll on the Philosopher’s Path.

We hadn’t actually researched the Philosopher’s Path, but on the short walk from the bus to Ginkakuji Temple, we’d noticed the beautiful little tree-lined canal, and then came across a sign telling the story.

Once we’d finished, we decided to walk the 1.8 km route (thankfully Becca is strong as Grace went straight on her back), and it was one of the highlights of the trip.

Named after the renowned Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who was said to meditate while strolling this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University, the pathway was finished in 1890, extended in 1912 and restored in 1968.

Thanks to the canal’s lining of cherry trees, it is very popular in sakura season, and appears on most lists of the top places to visit in cherry blossom season.

This was an unexpected excursion on our three days in Kyoto, but an absolute highlight.

After Philosopher’s Path

After Philosopher’s Path you have a few options, depending on your energy levels.

options after philosophers path
Rough directions for where to head after completing the Philosopher’s Path.

Assuming you are staying around the Sanjo area (and even if you’re not, the train links are good from here, you could choose to:

  1. Walk 1.4 km to Keage Station potentially stopping at Nanzen-ji Temple. Keage is on the same line as Sanjo Station, so is then easy to navigate back to your hotel.
  2. Walk 3 km directly back to the Sanjo area.
  3. Walk back to the Sanjo area, stopping at Okazaki Park and the beautiful Heian Shrine.

The choice is yours (or just grab a cab if your legs have given out by now!).

japanese people dancing in front of a traditional torii gate
Okazaki Park is well worth a visit if you have time.

3 Day kyoto Itinerary | Day 2

Today is split into two – firstly heading to the northeast of Kyoto to see the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and TenryĹ«-ji Temple, and then heading back near to the hotel for a tour around Gion – one of the most famous districts in Japan.

Morning: Arashiyama Bamboo Grove & Tenryū-ji Temple

GETTING TO ARASHIYAMA

purple tram in kyoto
One of Kyoto’s purple trams.

Arashiyama doesn’t fall on the metro system, but there are two ways to access it via public transport from the Tozai metro line.

Option one is to get the Tozai line to Nijo station, then get the JR Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station.

Option two (which is definitely the more fun of the two options) is to get the Tozai line to Uzumasa Tenjongawa Station, where you can get one of the purple streetcars (trams) through to Arashiyama Station.

Tenryū-ji Temple

a mother and child giving money to a pong where a stone frog sits behind
Getting some good luck at Tenryū-ji Temple.

On arrival at one of the two stations, it’s about a 10-minute walk through to TenryĹ«-ji Temple.

Built in 1255 and converted into a Zen temple in 1339 by the ruling shogun at the time, it is part of the Rinzai Zen sect, known for its meditation practices.

Over the centuries, Tenryū-ji has faced many fires and wars, leading to multiple reconstructions. Despite this, it stands today as a World Heritage Site, famous for its beautiful garden and pond, which were part of the original design.

Despite being very busy, it is possible to carve out the odd moment of calm around the grounds and temple, and it’s definitely worth paying the extra to go inside because of this.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

We had high hopes for the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest.

No pressure, but when you’ve appeared on the Conde Nast list of the 50 most beautiful places on earth, there’s a bit to live up to.

In the article there is a picture of an empty pathway through the along with the quote “Every traveler should experience the ethereal glow and seemingly endless heights of this bamboo grove”.

lots of tousists taking photos at a bamboo grove in kyoto
The reality of Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.

Our experience was as follows…

Selfie sticks, elbow bashing, ‘excuse me’ and crowd noise.

Yes, we were there around lunchtime (we should have followed our own Japan travel tips!), yes we are part of the problem, but just be prepared. Get here early or be disappointed.

bamboo groves at arashiyama
Follow this route for some quieter bamboo groves!

All is not lost though – here is a tip for finding some quieter spaces nearby.

Once we reached the top of the main bamboo path (marked in purple on the map above), by swinging a right and going down past the tourist railway, we ended up in a delightful Japanese housing area, which was interspersed with smaller bamboo groves which were much less congested.

a lady with a child on her back in a bamboo grove kyoto
Walk a short distance and you’ll find much quieter bamboo groves.

Whilst they may not have the ‘wow’ factor of the main Arashiyama grove, to us, they were far more enjoyable, as we got to experience some spaces almost completely alone, and could hear the strange noises of the bamboo, rather than the clicking of camera shutters.

Afternoon/Evening: Explore Gion

Once you’ve navigated your way back from Arashiyama, it will be well after lunchtime, so take a few hours to recover, and head out to Gion late afternoon, to make sure you’re still around as the sun sets.

gion walking route

To be completely honest, you can just wander around at random to get a feel for the place, but if you want a clearer route around Kyoto’s historic geisha district, I’ve put a suggested one on the map above (and you can see a zoomable version at the top of this article).

The 2.4 km route I’ve put together takes in:

However, there is a lot more to Gion than just the headline sights, so just wander and enjoy.

a traditional japanese wooden house on a street at night in kyoto
Gion after dark is a spectacular sight.

If you’re staying in Gion for the evening, then there are numerous great restaurants to choose from – try Obanzai Sakuragawa for traditional Japanese food at a reasonable price (try the set menu) or for something a bit different, check out Okonomiyaki Arachan for Japanese pizza.

3 Day Kyoto Itinerary | Day 3

Prepare yourself for a decent amount of walking today, both up the side of Mount Inari and through the streets of Higashiyama District.

Morning: Fushimi Inari Shrine

man standing amongst the red japanese gates kyoto
Ben getting his pose on.

Probably the most photographed place in Japan, Fushimi Inari Shrine is an iconic site. Known for its thousands of red torii gates, which trail up the forested mountain, the shrine has become a symbol of not just Kyoto, but Japan as a whole. 

Make sure you get here early (we arrived at 0745), as it is incredibly popular, with millions coming here every year.

Fushimi Inari is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice and prosperity, and each gate is donated by individuals or businesses hoping for blessings, in an ongoing process (we saw some being put up whilst we were there). The shrine dates back to the 8th century, making it one of the oldest and most significant Shinto shrines in Japan. 

Be aware that there is a fair bit of walking here, especially if you take the path through the gates, known as Senbon Torii (“thousands of torii gates”). It leads through the wooded forest of Mount Inari, which stands at 233 meters and as many as 10,000 stairs.

If you’re looking for the perfect torii gate photo, then persist, the further you get from the bottom the more people give up, so we found it got quieter the longer we went. 

Late Morning: Kiyomizu Dera

temple sticking out of dark trees

Kiyomizu-dera was on our visit list because as it’s one of the 17 sites that form the Historic Monuments of Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage list.

Unfortunately, it’s a tad difficult to get to, with the nearest station (Kiyomizu-Gojo) about a 1.5 km walk away (though there is a bus).

It’s well worth the effort though, partly for the imposing temple, which has been here since 1633 and partly due to the views back over Kyoto which are some of the best in the city.

Afternoon: Walk Through Higashiyama District

traditional japanese street
The traditional shopfronts of Higashiyama District – in a downpour!

The other bonus to Kiyomizu Dera, is its location on the east side of Higashiyama district, one of Kyoto’s best preserved.

On the map above, I’ve given a suggested walking route of about 3 km, and here are some of the key sites to see as you make your way down towards Gion.

Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka

These streets feel like a movie set with traditional wooden houses, tea shops, and souvenir stores (thankfully ones that sell umbrellas after the downpour that hit us). The Studio Ghibli and Beatrix Potter shop is worth a visit, and keep an eye out for the most customised Starbucks I’ve ever seen (though it still didn’t convince me to go in!

Kodai-ji Temple

A historic Zen temple known for its stunning gardens and bamboo grove.

Yasaka Pagoda

5 story pagoda at blue hour in kyoto

Becca was looking out for the five-story pagoda of Hokan-ji Temple, and said it was famous, but I had no idea what she was talking about, until I saw it and realised it was the front page of the Lonely Planet Guide I’d been reading for the whole trip! Great research Ben!

Yasui Kompira-gu Shrine

toddler crawling through a hole in a rock at a temple
Grace hoping this gets her a unicorn!

Famous for its unique power stone monument, where visitors can crawl through as part of a ritual for good luck and a change in relationships. Grace decided she wanted to go through, and wrote a wish for a unicorn on her piece of paper. I’ll update this post when it comes true!

Kennin-ji Temple

dragon ceiling paint

Kyoto’s oldest Zen temple, one of my favourite that we saw on the whole trip. It has a serene Zen garden and an incredible twin dragon roof painting, which was finished in 2002 to commemorate Kennin-ji’s 800th anniversary.

Maruyama Park

Kyoto’s most famous public park, particularly noted for its cherry blossoms.

Where to Stay in Kyoto

We recommend staying in the area around Sanjo station for your three days in Kyoto. It is well priced and within walking distance of some of the best districts in the city, such as Gion.

  • We stayed at Minn Apartments, a modern building with lots of space, we found it perfect for our little family.
  • If you’re travelling alone, or as a couple, Musubi is a good budget bet for a one-bedroom apartment.

Best Time To Visit Kyoto

SPRING (MARCH – MAY)

  • Weather: Spring in Kyoto brings mild and pleasant temperatures. Cherry blossoms, or sakura, bloom spectacularly, creating a picturesque setting.
  • Crowds: This is a popular time for both international and local tourists, especially during the cherry blossom season.
  • Events: The cherry blossom season is the highlight, with many hanami (flower viewing) events. The Aoi Matsuri, one of Kyoto’s three major festivals, takes place in May.

SUMMER (JUNE – AUGUST)

  • Weather: Summer in Kyoto is hot and humid, with occasional rain showers.
  • Crowds: Tourist numbers dip a bit due to the heat, but there are still many visitors.
  • Events: Gion Matsuri, one of Japan’s most famous festivals, takes place in July. Obon, a festival honouring the spirits of ancestors, is celebrated with traditional dances (Bon Odori) and lantern displays.

FALL/AUTUMN (SEPTEMBER – NOVEMBER)

  • Weather: The temperatures cool down, making it comfortable for sightseeing. The autumn leaves, especially the maples, turn Kyoto into a vibrant palette of reds and oranges.
  • Crowds: Autumn leaf viewing attracts many visitors, similar to the cherry blossom season in spring.
  • Events: The Jidai Matsuri, another of Kyoto’s major festivals, takes place in October. The Kurama Fire Festival is also a significant event, offering a unique cultural experience.

WINTER (DECEMBER – FEBRUARY)

  • Weather: Winters are cold but not extreme, with occasional light snowfall, adding to the city’s scenic beauty.
  • Crowds: Winter is less crowded, providing a more peaceful experience of the city.
  • Events: Kyoto brightens up with winter illuminations, especially in the Arashiyama area. New Year celebrations are grand, with many visiting shrines and temples. The Kyoto Restaurant Winter Special offers a chance to enjoy Kyoto’s cuisine at reduced prices.

How Many Days in Kyoto

japanese lady by a red japanese fence

You can cover the major highlights of Kyoto in 2 days, but ideally, 3 days in the city allows for a more immersive experience. This duration gives you ample opportunity to explore Kyoto’s famous sites and delve into its rich cultural heritage.

1-2 Days in Kyoto: Focus on the city’s most iconic sights such as Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, and the historic Gion district. A two-day itinerary would allow you to experience both the modern and traditional aspects of Kyoto. For a detailed guide, see our article on spending 2 days in Kyoto.

3-4 Days in Kyoto: With an extra day or two, you can explore Kyoto at a more relaxed pace. Visit additional cultural landmarks like Nijo Castle, Kiyomizu-dera, and the Philosopher’s Path. You’ll also have time to enjoy Kyoto’s exquisite cuisine and perhaps participate in a tea ceremony or a Zen meditation session. Consider taking a day trip to nearby Nara to see its famous deer park and impressive temples.

5-7 Days in Kyoto: A week in Kyoto allows you to thoroughly explore the city’s rich tapestry of temples, shrines, gardens, and museums. You can venture off the beaten path to discover hidden gems, attend cultural workshops (like calligraphy or kimono wearing), and explore the city’s vibrant arts and crafts scene. For more ideas, refer to our comprehensive list of the best things to do in Kyoto.

Getting Around Kyoto

Getting around Kyoto is easy thanks to the efficient metro system. Whilst there are a couple of locations that are away from the lines, these are backed up by bus routes where needed.

We’ve recommended you stay near Sanjo Station for a reason. It is strategically located, providing access to two key subway lines: the Tozai Line, which runs east-west, and the Keihan Main Line, useful for reaching places like the Fushimi Inari Shrine. The Tozai Line connects you to the Kyoto Imperial Palace and Nijo Castle, while a transfer to the Karasuma Line at Karasuma Oike Station opens up routes to Kyoto Station and the bustling Shijo area.

For first-time users, the Kyoto metro is user-friendly with clear signage in English. Purchasing a prepaid ICOCA card simplifies travel, allowing you to tap in and out at stations without worrying about exact fares. During rush hours, it’s advisable to avoid the metro if you’re travelling with large luggage or just if you prefer not to lose all of your personal space!

Visiting the Key Attractions in Kyoto

There are many different ways you can visit the key attractions in Kyoto, and whilst we think our three-day Kyoto itinerary makes great use of your time, there some great tours you can take to cut down your time further::

More Japan Guides

Us Reeves spent the best part of a month roaming through Japan, knocking off the classic route of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka but throwing in some curveballs too with visits to Hakone, Nikko and Nara.

We cover this in detail in our complete Japan guide.

the reeves family picture

AUTHOR – BEN REEVE

Reeves Roam, is a first-hand travel blog. The Reeves have lived in the UK, South Africa and Australia and have travelled extensively in Europe and Southeast Asia.

Booking your trip via the links on this page earns us a small commission at no extra cost to you. 

You can also buy us a coffee

Thanks – Ben, Becca and Gracie

Subscribe
Notify of

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments