There’s so much to do in Kyoto, it’s hard to know where to begin. Everything looks so beautiful, and with over two-thousand temples, how do you narrow down your selection of things to see and do?
I spent five days in Kyoto, but three days seems to be the most popular length of time to spend in the city. For this reason, I’ve picked out my favourite places in Kyoto across five days and put them into a 3-day itinerary for those of you planning your own trip. So, without further ado, here’s how you should spend three full days in Japan’s most beautiful city…
Day 1: Famous temples, shrines and food markets
Morning: Kiyomizu-Dera Temple
After breakfast head to Kiyomizu-Dera, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in the city. The main hall of the temple offers stunning views of Kyoto from a huge verandah jutting out over the hillside. Though I must warn you, like most tourist attractions in the city, it can get crowded so don’t expect temple-hopping to be an entirely zen experience. Instead, enjoy watching just how snap-happy Japanese people can really be – you’d think it were a national sport!
Before you go, make sure to drink the sacred water from Otowa-no-taki waterfall, believed to bestow health and longevity. If you have time wander around the area of Nine-zaka-Sannen-zaka which consists of a couple of streets lined with old, picturesque wooded houses and traditional shops and teahouses.
Early afternoon: Nishiki Food Market
It’s time to explore Kyoto through your taste buds at noon with a visit to Nishiki Food Market. You’ll find all the major ingredients of traditional Kyoto cuisine on display here, including tsukemono (Japanese pickles), fresh tofu, wagashi (Japanese sweets), tea, and lots of fresh seafood.
Late afternoon: Fushimi Inari Shrine
Make your way to the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha located Southeast of Kyoto. This shrine is a visual treat, a blaze of orange torii gate tunnels wind endlessly alongside a hill. If the weather is good, you can spend hours here – stay until dusk if you like and catch the sunset – the further you go up the hill the less tourists you’ll find. It’s worth it. Hiking up the hillside through thousands and thousands of tori gates became the highlight of my trip to Kyoto.
At night: Downtown Kyoto
Before heading out for dinner I made a quick pit stop at my hotel to freshen up. In the evening you have to experience the bustle of downtown Kyoto. Head over to Shimbashi in the Gion District if you’re interested in geisha spotting, otherwise, check out one of the many romantic restaurants lining the river. If you’re heading to Japan in the right season, why not book tickets to see a Sumo wrestling match for a truly memorable night…?
Day 2: Path of Philosophy and Pavilions
Morning: Ginkaku-ji aka Silver Pavilion
With a name like the Path of Philosophy, how could I not walk along this seemingly poetic path? Instead of catching a taxi or taking public transport, take this scenic route to Ginkaku-ji aka the Silver Pavilion.
The Path of Philosophy starts about 100 meters north of Eikan-do Temple and takes over an hour of walking to reach Ginkaku-ji. There are several cafes en route where you can stop to enjoy nibbles, but the highlight is the ever-changing vistas and the slowly flowing waters of the stream which invite a contemplative state of mind. What else would you expect from the Path of Philosophy?
The Silver Pavilion was built in the image of the Golden Pavilion, but unlike the Golden Temple, which is gold as you would expect, the Silver Pavilion is actually black just to confuse you. Now that expectations have been managed, there should be no disappointment as Ginkaku-ji is exceptionally beautiful in its original colour and set among a charming garden too.
In the garden you will find quiet spots for relaxing and people-watching if you’re that way inclined. You can also climb up to a sight-seeing point for a spectacular view spanning across the whole all of Kyoto!
Mid afternoon: Kinkaku-Ji aka Golden Pavilion
Luckily I went to Japan out of season but I can imagine this place gets chock-a-block during peak seasons. However, the good news is since the temple sits amid a lake, it’s not difficult to get a good photo of it – in fact it’s impossible to take a bad photo Kinaku-ji! Any time of the year, this pavilion shines in a way a thing of beauty only can.
Late afternoon: Nanzen-ji Temple
Less crowded than the other temples I visited, it was easy to appreciate the subtleties of Nanzen-ji, including its lovely maple-lined path and brick aqueduct you pass reaching the temple. Don’t miss Nanzen Oku-no-in before leaving, a secret waterfall grotto about 200 meters up in the hills behind the temple.
At night: Downtown Kyoto
Eat dinner downtown and then take an evening stroll on Pontocho Alley if you’re still trying to catch sight of a Geisha, alternatively check to see if there’s a Miyako performance in town.
Day 3: Arashiyama
Morning: Tenryu-ji Temple
In Western Kyoto lies Arashiyama, a truly scenic distinct of Kyoto. Although peaceful it still attracts crowds but that’s not to say you can’t find your own spot of tranquility, especially along the river.
This temple has a gorgeous and grand entrance, but most people go for the lovely garden. I especially enjoyed strolling along the lengths of the pond where you can spot various wildlife. You can’t help but notice that this is one of the best examples of shakkei in Japan: the steep mountains of Arashiyama form are perfectly incorporated into the design of the garden.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Continuing from Tenryu-ji, I took the North exit to enter the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. I hate to say, I was a little disappointed by the forest, I expected it to be much, much bigger and wilder, even. However, it’s still provides a pleasant 30-minute walk and offers some decent photo opportunities, especially for those who like to showcase their travels on Instagram.
Afternoon: Stroll along the river
Arashiyama is located on a part of the Oi river, which is a beautiful area to visit and feel like you’re away from the city. There are plenty of places to sit along the water, and you can even rent a boat if you like. Since I was by myself, I gave that a miss.
Final night in Kyoto
On your final evening in Kyoto, I simply recommend you eat until your heart’s content! Just thinking about the food makes me dream wistfully to be in this beautiful city once again. Ahem.
Stay: In a modern Ryokan at Kyomachiya Ryokan Sakura. From here you can walk to all central locations and are within close proximity to bus stops and the subway to reach the Golden Temple and Fushimi Inari-Taisha.
Day trip to: From Kyoto Station take the train to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Nara, less than a hour away.
Spending longer in Japan and need inspiration? Read my 2-week itinerary.