Kyoto Itinerary 3 Days in Japan’s Cultural Capital

Kyoto conjures romantic images of wooden architecture, atmospheric alleys, and poised, graceful geishas. For this reason, it is one of Japan’s most touristed cities and a must-stop locale on any first-timers 2-week itinerary.

Arriving by Shinkansen at Kyoto Station, I was somewhat taken aback by how large and modern Kyoto felt. While the 2000+ Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites are featured on the tourism posters, modern urbanism will be your first perspective when arriving by train.

To experience the picturesque Kyoto of your dreams, you will want to find lodging in the Higashiyama district. Gion, the most photographed area of Kyoto, is a smaller district within Higashiyama. My top hotel recommendations are:

  • The Park Hyatt. Eye-wateringly expensive but one of the most scenic properties in Kyoto and has top-notch service. If you have Hyatt points, use them here. If not, stop by the rooftop bar one night for a cocktail with an unforgettable view.
View from the Park Hyatt’s tiny, 12-seat bar.
  • SOWAKA Gion. Another very pricey luxury property that combines the feel of Ryokan with the expanded amenities of a hotel. Michelin-starred restaurant on site.
  • The Hyatt Regency. This property is a great value pick and is where we ended up staying. Some amenities we enjoyed here include a complementary taxi transfer from the train station and a nightly maiko (geisha apprentice) performance exclusively for hotel guests.

Kyoto Itinerary 3 Days in the Cultural Capital

As I mentioned in the intro, Kyoto is incredibly large. To make the most of your time, plan your sightseeing by geographic area. Of the 2000 temples/shrines, pick a handful that interest you. Obviously, the UNESCO properties are some of the most visited.

While the temples/shrines can start to look a bit same-y (much like the cathedrals of Europe or mosques of the Middle East), the grounds and settings make each property memorable. If you visit Kyoto during one of the three-night illumination periods, I recommend attending one or two of these events for a spectacularly different viewpoint.

Lastly, Kyoto is always packed with tourists, many of whom are day-trippers. To best enjoy some of the areas in the manner that you probably imagined, either start very, very early or stay up late at night. We opted for the latter and had the romantic streets almost to ourselves, creating some of our favorite memories of Kyoto.

Day One

Ideally, you will arrive in Kyoto by early afternoon on your first day. We took a 10 AM Shinkansen from Tokyo that offered amazing views of Mt. Fuji (if coming from Tokyo, sit on the right side of the train in seats F/D). After getting checked in, make your way back to the train station or take a cab to explore the sights south of the city.

Gorgeous Mount Fuji views from the train!

The most visited of these is the Fushimi Inari shrine with its 10,000 vermillion torii gates. The shrine is at the base of a mountain and walking the full gated path to the top can take about 2 hours. Crowds dissipate considerably the higher up you go.

Kyoto Itinerary 3 Days
Things are much quieter at the top of the hill!

The Tofuku-ji Temple, Komyo-in Temple, Senyu-ji Temple, Toji Temple, Kyoto Tower (modern & ugly, IMHO), and the Kyoto Railway Museum are other options to consider on the south side of Kyoto.

After dinner, take some time to wander the back streets of Gion by night. The Yasaka Shrine and shopping streets of Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka are so quiet and atmospheric after dark.

Kyoto Itinerary 3 Days
Kyoto Itinerary 3 Days

Day Two

Start your day at Nishiki Market and have fun sampling the delicious foods and shopping for souvenirs. The market is packed but fun. When you’ve reached your limit, make your way to Ginkaku-ji Temple. Explore the grounds and view the Silver Pavillion (which is no longer silver) then walk the Philospher’s Path south towards Nanzen-ji Temple.

Stop at your leisure. Quaint shops, restaurants, and other well-marked temples and shrines appear regularly along the tranquil path. The blossoms during cherry season and foliage in the autumn months are just spectacular!

Kyoto Itinerary 3 Days
Philosopher’s Walk

After walking the path and seeing its sights, take a cab or train to the west side of town (30-60 minutes depending upon traffic). We found cabs to be much more efficient here. In this section of Kyoto, you will find:

  • The Kimono Forest. This small but effective display of kimono-print covered pillars is located in the Arashiyama train station. If you enjoy fashion/textiles, it’s worth a quick stop.
  • Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. The bamboo forest and streets surrounding it are swarmed with tourists. The forest itself is not huge but it is unique. If you are extremely interested in this site, come very early in the morning one day and hope for smaller crowds.
Kyoto Itinerary 3 Days
  • Iwatiyama Monkey Park. Home to over 100 snow monkeys (aka, Japanese Macaque). Enjoy the beautiful views of the Katsura River as you cross the bridge to get here. It’s a popular spot for Japanese families to enjoy an afternoon.
  • The Fukuda Art Museum. A family-owned art museum featuring pieces from popular Kyoto painters.
  • And many more temples and shrines! If this is your jam, get out your Google Maps to gauge proximity and visit a couple.

Day Three

On day three, we started our morning with a quick visit to Sanjusangendo Temple, right next to the Hyatt Regency, to see the 1,001 Golden Buddhas on display. Another option that we could have explored is the Kyoto National Museum, one of the most pre-eminent art museums in Japan.

No photos of the Buddhas allowed so had to take a photo of a photo!

Next up is one of the highlights of Kyoto for most travelers, Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavillion). It is on the far north end of the city and could be combined with Arashiyama area sights.

Kyoto Itinerary 3 Days
Kyoto Itinerary 3 Days

The grounds and pavilion are magnificent however, I’ll always remember it as the site where I got my “bad” fortune (see photo below). 😏

My fortune: Very Good, yet nothing will go well and I will always feel uneasy.

We spent the rest of our day back in Gion and the downtown area. There are certainly many more very popular sights to visit including Nijo Castle, Mt. Kurama, the Imperial Palace, or Katsura Villa.

Kyoto Itinerary 3 Days

Final Notes

Remember, this itinerary is a guide, not a mandate. Feel free to change things up to accommodate your specific interests, the weather, and any special events that might be going on while you are in town. With three days, you will only be scratching the surface of what Kyoto (and its environs) has to offer.

Again, we really enjoyed the night illuminations and took part in ones at Kodai-ji Temple and Kiyomizu-dera Temple. Take frequent breaks. Enjoy the tea shops. Kyoto, while spectacular, can be overwhelming. Especially during the crowded late morning and afternoon hours.

Kyoto Itinerary 3 Days
Night illumination at Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Kyoto Itinerary 3 Days

Dining

Reservations are recommended for all but the most casual of dining venues. We often rely on Google reviews and advice from Reddit on where to dine when traveling.

In Japan, another handy resource is Tabelog. More of their reviews are made by native Japanese than tourists. Also note, that on Tabelog, ratings of 3 stars or higher are considered quite excellent and on par with American 5-star ratings. It’s a cultural quirk that we tend to rate at the extremes whereas the Japanese are a bit more discretionary with their feedback.

Goichi is a good choice if you’re in need of a pizza break. Chao Chao Sanjo Kiyamachi is great for gyoza. And if you are looking for a Michelin experience, we tried HANA-Kitcho. Here, we were served a traditional kaiseki-style meal in a private room with several dedicated attendants. The food was great and the presentation, unforgettable!

As you plan your trip, be sure to check out my previous posts on Osaka & Himeji Castle and Hiroshima & Miyajima as well as our full two-week itinerary.


Until next time…keep cultivating a simple, stylish, and satisfying life!

Kyoto conjures romantic images of wooden architecture, atmospheric alleys, and poised, graceful geishas.  For this reason, it is one of Japan's most touristed cities and a must-stop locale on any first-timers 2-week itinerary. #kyoto #kyotoitinerary #3daysinkyoto
Kyoto Itinerary 3 Days in Japan's Cultural Capital! Learn all my tricks for making the most of your first-time visit to Kyoto! #kyoto #japan #travelguide

Author: Betsy Ramsey

Betsy Ramsey is the author of Natty Gal. Born and raised in Northeast Ohio, she now lives there with her husband and Bichon-Frise, Dolce. A mindful fashion & capsule wardrobe enthusiast, she travels extensively, visiting 56 countries to date. Betsy is committed to helping others live their most fulfilling life!

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