Kyoto was built in 794 AD and served as the capital of Japan until WWII. The ancient city was spared during the war, and much of its 1,000-year history is still on display. Kyoto has such a great wealth of cultural attractions that one could spend a month there and still not see them all. However, most visitors don’t have the luxury of that much vacation time. So how do you make the most of three days in Kyoto? The city’s main attractions are helpfully clustered in neighborhoods, so it’s possible to tackle several spots in one day. This detailed itinerary highlights the best things to do in each area, along with tips on where to eat along the way.
DAY 1 – Higashiyama & Gion
Perched on a slope of the Higashiyama mountains, Kiyomizu-dera is one of the most recognizable sights in Kyoto. The UNESCO-listed temple complex dates to 778 and is dedicated to the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kannon. Destroyed by fire and rebuilt several times, the current wooden structures were erected in the 17th century, supposedly without the use of a single nail. A terrace off the main hall, known as Kiyomizu Stage, offers some of the best views of Kyoto, particularly during spring and autumn.
The area surrounding Kiyomizu-dera is packed with shops, traditional inns and tea houses, and historic charm. Steep stairs lead down to pretty Sannenzaki, a pedestrian street lined with restored architecture and souvenir stores. A towering cherry tree adds extra magic to the staircase come springtime. Inoda’s Coffee Shop near the base of the staircase is a good place to stop for lunch before continuing onto Ninenzaka, another picturesque shopping street. Note that many stores in this area are cash-only.
If you’re searching for that classic old Kyoto photo backdrop with the five-story pagoda, head towards Yasaka Hokanji Temple, which is tucked in a courtyard a little west of the Ninenzaka steps. Across the lane, compact Kongoji Temple is riotously colorful, especially when packed with kimono-clad ladies posing for selfies. Gion is known as Kyoto’s geisha district, but the only ones I saw on my most recent trip were tourists in costume. I asked some Japanese friends how they felt about this, and they replied that they were simply happy to see others taking such an active interest in their culture.
Set down a narrow bamboo-lined path off Nene-no-michi lane, the secluded Kodai-ji is easy to overlook. The temple was designed in 1606 in memory of Toyotomi Hideyoshi by his widow, Nene, who became a Buddhist nun after his death. The complex has many important cultural artifacts related to Hideyoshi spread throughout its buildings, and the tombs of the warlord and his devoted wife are located on the tranquil grounds. Kodai-ji Garden, with its perfectly raked rocks and weeping cherry tree, is a highlight. If you want a photo of the rock garden and sakura framed through a window, be prepared for a lengthy queue.
Google Maps helpfully sent me an alert when Kodai-ji’s special tree was in peak bloom. When I set off to find it, I first stumbled onto the nearby Ryozen Kannon, Kyoto’s WWII memorial. The centerpiece is a large seated sculpture of Kannon.
Before leaving Gion, pop by bustling Yasaka Shrine. It was established in the seventh century and is considered the official guardian shrine for the district. Orange lanterns point the way through Maruyama Park, a sprawling green space that’s home to Gion’s massive weeping pink cherry tree. During the peak spring season, tatami mats are spread on the ground around the tree so locals can picnic and admire the sakura (an activity the Japanese call hanami).
The area across the river from Gion is packed with restaurants, making it a good place to go for dinner. A top choice is Chao Chao Gyoza, easily recognizable for the long queue snaking out the door. This popular eatery specializes in gyoza, or pan-fried dumplings. The varieties are endless, and part of the fun is sampling as many as you can. My personal faves are egg yolk, shiso, chicken and mozzarella, and the classic pork, which come in “sticks” of eight.
DAY 2 Kinkaku-ji & Arashiyama
(Today’s attractions are spread across the western side of the city. I recommend taking taxis unless otherwise noted to save time and energy.)
Kyoto’s beautiful Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji, began as the retirement villa of a shogun. It was converted into a Zen Buddhist temple upon his death in the 15th century, and sadly lost to arson by a fanatical monk in 1950. The reconstructed pavilion is covered in gold leaf and looks marvelous set against its reflective pond.
Ryoan-ji is another villa-turned-Zen temple, though this one is more meditative than photogenic. It features a meticulous rock garden that demonstrates the Zen principles of simplicity and harmony. Non-Buddhists might find Ryoan-ji a little lackluster compared to Kodai-ji (day 1) and Tofuku-ji (day 3), but you won’t know unless you see it for yourself. The surrounding park is worth a stroll, particularly in the spring, and the on-site restaurant is a good choice for lunch.
It’s hard to believe that Arashiyama Bamboo Grove exists within the confines of a major city. Towering stalks of bamboo line both sides of a walking path and form a tunnel with their leafy tops. The bamboo gently sways in the wind, dappling the light and creating a haunting soundtrack as the hollow stalks knock together. Many guides tell you to combine a stroll through Arashiyama with nearby Tenryu-ji temple, but I skipped the latter as it was heaving with tour groups. (The grove wasn’t nearly as crowded as I expected, but that might have been lucky timing.)
Instead, I entered the blissfully quiet Okochi Sanso Garden that’s tucked behind the bamboo grove. Okochi Sanso was a private villa belonging to a popular Japanese movie star from the 1920s, and was opened to the public upon his death. There is a well-marked route through the gardens, which are absolutely stunning. The plantings were cultivated to show off the seasons and include the very best elements of Japanese landscape design. And the mountaintop location provides some spectacular views! Entry includes a cup of green tea and piece of candy in the estate’s tea house.
Walk back through the bamboo forest to the Arashiyama station of the Keifuku Randen tram line. In addition to the old-fashioned appeal of the vintage tram cars, the station boasts a colorful “kimono forest” and a hot spring foot bath right on the platform so you can rest while you wait. Ride the Randen line to its terminus at Shijo-Omiya station, transfer to the Hankyu Line, and continue to Kawaramachi station. This will return you to the restaurant enclave of the previous night.
For a traditional Japanese feast, head to Tsuchifuku Kawaramachi. The quality and attention to detail at this humble eatery are impressive, and the set meals are incredibly good value. If you’d like to try something more modern, check out the Nishitomiya croquette shop. A variety of savory croquettes, such as octopus and spring cabbage, are complemented with a small selection of salads and sweets. I thoroughly enjoyed the avocado with natto (a Japanese fermented bean) and candied figs stuffed with butter.
DAY 3 Fushimi Inari & Kyoto Station
With its tunnel of vermilion torii gates snaking up a mountain, Fushimi Inari Taisha is one of the most iconic sights in Kyoto. It is also one of the country’s most important Shinto shrines. Fushimi Inari was founded in the eighth century and is dedicated to the god of rice. Foxes are thought to be the god’s messengers, hence why there are so many fox statues at the site. This was by far the most crowded attraction I visited in Kyoto. If you hope to get a photo of the gates without any people walking through, go early or be prepared to wait. The street leading to the shrine from the train station is packed with souvenir stores, cafes, and street food stalls – be sure to grab some lunch before continuing on to the next attraction.
One train stop from bustling Fushimi Inari, serene Tofuku-ji seems worlds away. This Zen temple was founded in the 13th century and is my favorite of the ones mentioned in this post. The main building is surrounded by four strikingly different gardens, including one with an unusual checkerboard pattern created with squares of moss and stone. Tofuku-ji is known as a prime autumn foliage viewing spot, which could explain why it was nearly empty during my spring visit. Whatever the reason, it was a refreshing change of pace.
Another temple worth visiting along the Keihan train line is Sanjusangen-do. The Hall of the Lotus King contains an astonishing 1,000 life-size statues of Kannon, flanking a large seated wooded statue of the same deity. These treasures are so sacred that no photos allowed inside the temple, so you’ll just have to take my word for how impressive they are. The temple grounds were simple but pretty with the cherry blossoms in bloom.
If your stay in Kyoto has come to an end, you’ll likely need to pass through Kyoto Station. Give yourself enough time for a meal at Sushi no Musashi. There is often a line outside this conveyor belt sushi joint, and for good reason. The sushi is fresh and plentiful, with enough variety to suit all tastes. Prices are reasonable, too, assuming you don’t grab only the most expensive plates off the belt. (Plates are color coded, making it easy to see how much you’re spending.)
To see how three days in Kyoto can fit into a longer tour of the country, check out my two-week Japan itinerary.