If you’re planning to tour Kyoto, Japan for 3 days, our itinerary provides a time-saving plan-of-attack for efficiently visiting temples, shrines, museums, and exploring the city in an efficient manner. While our 3-day Kyoto itinerary focuses on the “best of” the city and its many highlights, we also share diversions away from the crowds that will give you a taste of why we love Kyoto so much.
Previously, we’ve indicated that you should follow our 2-Day Kyoto Highlights Itinerary for a shorter trip, and combine our other 1-day itineraries if you’re doing 3 to 5 days. However, after tweaking our other itineraries (yet again), I think there are some benefits in actually spelling out a 3-day touring plan, rather than just leaving you to piece one together.
From our perspective, the biggest issue with simply combining those itineraries is that our 1-Day Eastern Kyoto Itinerary is jam-packed with excellent things to do–and even skips a few great things due to a lack of time–whereas our 1-Day Central Kyoto Itinerary is admittedly a bit weak. (The 1-Day Western Kyoto Itinerary is pretty much perfect as-is, so we won’t mess with that day too much.)
Part of the reason our Central Kyoto Itinerary is weak is because we felt compelled to sprinkle in some “variety” as well as some popular points of interest that, if we’re being honest, we don’t like. With this itinerary, we’ve decided to exercise more editorial discretion. There are so many amazing places in Kyoto that we feel we’re doing a disservice by including places just because they’re popular.
This means that high-profile spots like Nijo Castle and Kyoto Imperial Palace, neither of which are that good, don’t make the cut. If you want to see an actual castle, there’s no substitute for making the day-trip to Himeji. If you want an imperial property that’s actually fascinating, visit Katsura Imperial Villa.
Accordingly, his itinerary will remove points of interest from Central Kyoto and include more from Eastern Kyoto. As we spend the majority of our time in the city walking through Higashiyama (Kyoto’s eastern mountains) we think it makes sense to recommend more time there for you, as well.
The result is a step-by-step touring plan for Kyoto that’s blunt and no-nonsense. While we’ve already rambled here a bit, we’ll be fairly brief with each step, as by now you’ve probably read our descriptions of each individual temple, and if not, you can always click the “read more” links.
As always, we’d highly recommend doing more than 3 days in Kyoto if you haven’t already booked your trip. If you do have additional time, consult our 1-Day “Cool Kyoto” (Northern Kyoto) Itinerary and 1-Day Southwestern Kyoto Itinerary, or even our1-Day Nara, Japan Highlights Itinerary, as all of those are solid options for days 4-7 in Kyoto.
With that said, let’s dive into the first day of your 3-day stay in Kyoto…
Kiyomizudera Temple – Arrive at Kiyomizudera between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. to beat the crowds. As it’s one of the most popular temples in Kyoto, arriving earlier ensures you beat the tour groups and are also done in time to stroll through the Higashiyama District before that fills with people.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site features great variety: an iconic main hall, pagoda, shrine, famed waterfall, great views into downtown Kyoto, and stunning (seasonal) cherry & maple trees. Plus, it’s all beautifully-situated on a mountainside, making for an incredibly photogenic temple. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kiyomizudera Temple.
Higashiyama District – Once you’re done with Kiyomizudera, walk back down through the empty streets of the Higashiyama District. It’s rare to have this area devoid of people, so embrace it.
Stop for photos along Kiyomizu-zaka, Sannen-zaka, and Ninen-zaka, and make sure to capture the view of Yasaka Pagoda from the narrow lane. Consider grabbing coffee from %ARABICA before this up-and-coming coffee shop’s lines get too long to fuel your remaining morning explorations. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Higashiyama District.
Kodaiji Temple – Your walk through the Higashiyama District should end by walking down Ninen-zaka. This lane is one of the most iconic, pedestrian-only streets in Kyoto, and it’ll lead you pretty much directly to Kodaiji Temple.
The highlights of Kodaiji Temple are its quirky and envelope-pushing architecture, pleasant landscaping, and intimate bamboo forest. (The nighttime illuminations are also awesome, if you’re around when one is scheduled.) Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kodaiji Temple.
Kennin-ji Temple – From Kodaiji, you’ll walk to Kenninji Temple, which is the unofficial southern boundary of the Gion district. This underrated temple is a must-do temple, in large part due to “The Wind and Thunder Gods” and other art on display.
Kennin-ji is a surprisingly large temple featuring a labyrinth of covered walkways, gardens, and nearly two-dozen buildings. Take a few minutes to sit on the far side of the temple, in the garden across from “The Wind and Thunder Gods” for a sublime experience. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kenninji Temple.
Lunch in Gion – Many of the best restaurants in Gion don’t open until dinner, which means you might be “forced” to stop at one of the excellent dessert spots here. Our favorites include Patisserie Gion Sakai, Gion Tokuya, or Gion Kinana (for incredibly unique ice cream).
If you want something more substantive, there are also a handful of ramen shops and other quick restaurants in Gion. Alternatively, Fresco Gion is convenient to this area, and they have some great prepared meals in their deli case. (We’d also recommend returning to Gion in one of your evenings for dinner and a stroll.) Click here to read and see more in our full post about Gion.
Maruyama Park – Following lunch or a snack break in Gion, it’s an easy walk to Yasaka Shrine, which is the gateway to Maruyama Park. This large public park features ponds, statues, and is popular among locals. The centerpiece of the park is a giant weeping cherry tree, which is the city’s show-stopper during sakura season. (It’s cool to see year-round, but during spring–wow.)
Maruyama Park is also a great spot for a picnic, so if you’d rather not eat a sit-down meal in Gion, it’s just as easy to grab some food and take it to the park. (Hence the Fresco grocery store recommendation above.)
Chionin Temple – Walking north from Maruyama Park, you’ll encounter the giant gate for Chionin Temple. Go inside and take the many steps up to find the main grounds of this free temple.
The upper grounds here are sprawling, and once inside you’ll want to head to the far corners to get away from construction, and also see some of the temple’s prettiest areas of hillside. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Chionin Temple.
Nanzenji Temple – From there, head northeast passing the Westin and Keage Incline. The next stop is Nanzenji Temple, which is another exquisite temple with free public areas.
Nanzenji has an impressive range of features: a Sanmon gate, main hall, shrines, rock gardens, tea rooms, pond gardens, fusuma, and an aqueduct. That aqueduct is the unequivocal highlight, and we’d recommend walking around and under it. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Nanzenji Temple.
Eikando Temple – The next stop is only about 2 minutes from Nanzenji, and is also convenient to Philosopher’s Path. Despite this, Eikando Temple is frequently overlooked, but we’d encourage you to give it a chance.
If you’re visiting during autumn, Eikando Temple is a must-visit. It is one of the most beautiful fall foliage spots in all of Kyoto, and even though admission costs more in November and December, it’s totally worth it–both during the day and at night. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Eikando Temple.
Heian Shrine – Rather than heading directly to Philosopher’s Path, we’re going to take a diversion towards Okazaki Park, which is the city’s museum district as well as being home to some great restaurants.
This is also where you’ll find the free grounds of Heian Shrine, and its paid inner gardens. Three seasons of the year, we could take or leave the garden, but it’s a must-do during cherry blossom season. If you’re visiting during another time of year, do Heian Shrine only if time allows. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Heian Shrine.
Yoshida Hill Temples & Shrines – A short walk north of Okazaki Park is Yoshida Hill, which is home to a trifecta of our absolute favorite temples and shrines in Kyoto: Kurodani Temple, Shinnyodo Temple, and Yoshida Shrine. All of these are free and all are hidden gems of Kyoto.
You’ll visit Kurodani first, exiting up by side street at the pagoda to Shinnyodo, the main entrance of which is directly down the street from one of Yoshida’s entrances. This shrine is part of Yoshidayama Park, which is one of Kyoto’s underrated green spaces, and is home to several sub-temples and shrines that are also worth exploring.
Philosopher’s Path – After strolling around Yoshidayama Park, walk back to the east for another stroll, this time down the Path of Philosophers, where the journey is the destination.
This quaint stone walkway winds along a canal connecting Nanzenji Temple in the south to Silver Pavilion in the north with a variety of temples and shops along the way. Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Philosopher’s Path.
Honenin Temple – As you stroll up Path of Philosophers, you’ll see signs for Honenin Temple, which is a gem of Kyoto hiding in plain site.
Honenin Temple features two beautifully-manicured sand mounds, a moss garden, bridges, small buildings, and the main hut. Even though it’s close to Path of Philosophers, it’s seldom visited by tourists. This plus the quiet setting imparts a sense of serenity that other temples in Kyoto cannot match. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Honenin Temple.
Silver Pavilion – At the northern end of Path of Philosophers, you’ll find Silver Pavilion, or Ginkakuji Temple. It features numerous temple buildings, a meticulously-manicured dry sand garden, and moss garden spread across forested grounds.
Silver Pavilion is an excellent and serene place to explore without crowds, and perfectly encapsulates the vibe of a zen temple. Normally, you won’t find it devoid of crowds, but arriving at the beginning or end of the day is your best bet. We love doing sunset here, as the loop around the garden provides some great views into the city, and the fading light makes the sand gardens glow. Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Silver Pavilion.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove – From Kyoto Station, take the JR San-In Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station, walking about 10 minutes due west to get to your first stop. Do this as early in the morning as possible, both to avoid crowds at the bamboo grove, and on the JR San-In Line, which gets busy.
For a peaceful and serene experience devoid of tour groups, you need to get to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove before 9 a.m., and ideally even before 8 a.m. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove draws huge crowds of selfie-stick and iPad-wielding tourists. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
Tenryuji Temple – From Arashiyama Bamboo Grove you can enter Tenryuji Temple via its north entrance. As with the bamboo grove, arriving here as close to the temple’s 8:30 a.m. opening time as possible is ideal; this UNESCO World Heritage Site gets very busy.
Tenryuji Temple is known for its use of borrowed scenery, which makes it appear as if the garden extends into the surrounding mountains. We’re not huge fans of Tenryuji, but it’s worth seeing. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Tenryuji Temple.
Monkey Park Iwatayama – Kyoto Monkey Park is a bit out of the way, but we’d walk 30 miles barefoot through the snow, uphill both ways, just to see some monkeys. We assume any reasonable person feels the same way.
Once you arrive at the ticket booth of the Monkey Park, you’ve got another ~20 minute uphill hike through a forest to reach the summit of monkey mountain. There, you’ll find a large gang of monkeys and a human cage through which you can feed the monkeys apples or crackers. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kyoto Monkey Park.
Togetsukyo Bridge & Sagano Shopping/Lunch – Retracing your steps back across the Togetsukyo Bridge, you’ll find Arashiyama Yoshimura, which is known for its tempura, soba, and great views. (It’s on Our Favorite Restaurants in Kyoto list.)
If time allows, peruse some of the shops in this area. There’s a surplus of options for dessert, matcha, and a variety of trinket shops. We usually stop for an ice cream break in this area.
Okochi Sanso Villa – The entrance is tucked away at the end of the bamboo grove, meaning you’ll be going through it again. At this point, you’ll be thanking us profusely that we advised you to do the bamboo grove early, as it’ll be totally bonkers at this hour. (YOU’RE WELCOME.)
Okochi Sanso Villa is the former residence of Denjirō Ōkōchi, a famous Japanese samurai actor, and has beautiful gardens that evoke Kyoto’s four seasons. It’s worth every penny (yen?) of the 1,000 yen admission, which includes a cup of matcha and sweet treat. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Okochi Sanso Villa.
Jojakkoji Temple – Continuing north, the next stop you’ll encounter is Jojakkoji. Routinely overlooked, we absolutely love Jojakkoji Temple and find it to be superior to some of the big name spots in Kyoto.
It has a lot of the iconic characteristics (thatched roof gate, mossy landscape, towering pagoda) and takes on a different aesthetic with each of the four seasons. I’d sooner skip Tenryuji than Jojakkoji, but that’s just me. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Jojakkoji Temple.
Gioji Temple – Between Jojakkoji and Gio-ji, you’ll pass several other moderately-prominent temples, all of which we’d recommend skipping.
For the minimal time commitment and cost (this temple sells a combo ticket with Daikaku-ji Temple–buy that), Gio-ji is worth visiting. Gioji Temple offers a single, beautifully mossy scene, which is a good option if you miss out on Kokedera.
Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple – It’s a 10 minute walk from Gioji Temple to Adashino Nenbutsuji, that takes you through a lovely, off-the-beaten path part of Kyoto. This also starts your gentle climb into the foothills of the city’s western mountains.
Here you’ll find 8,000 Buddhist statues placed here by local residents to honor the memory of those who perished. The thousands of statues are an impressive albeit somber sight, and it’s a nice stop on the way to the main attraction on this leg of the itinerary, Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple.
Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple – Continuing upward through the giant torii gate, past the thatched-roof teahouse, and walking along this lane of machiya homes. While it’s only 10 minutes from the previous stop, Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple rarely draws a crowd–despite being one of the most unique spots in Kyoto.
Quirky and playful unlike any other temple we’ve visited, Otagi Nenbutsuji features 1,200 cute and downright goofy Rakan statues created by amateurs feel to them. Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple is a fun and special place; you’ll find yourself spending a good deal of time looking at the statues and taking photos. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple.
Daikakuji Temple – There’s a bus that runs directly from Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple to Daikaku-ji Temple, making this an that is incredibly convenient next stop that’ll move you back in the direction of downtown Kyoto.
A huge complex that rarely draws crowds due to its location, Daikakuji features some beautiful art, fascinating architecture, and lovely free grounds situated around a pond. We recommend paying the admission to venture inside the interior complex (remember to buy the combined ticket at Gioji Temple), as these are top-notch. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Daikakuji Temple.
Free Time – At the outset, we indicated that we were skipping a few popular attractions in Kyoto, namely Nijo Castle and Kyoto Imperial Palace. Tastes vary, so consider doing those–or perhaps dinner along Pontocho Alley (which we actually do like!) or in Gion.
Fushimi Inari Shrine – Our favorite place in all of Japan, Fushimi Inari is an absolute treasure. This shrine is open 24/7, so the earlier you can get here, the better. The senbon torii loop will be busy by 9 a.m., so definitely arrive by then.
The early-morning hike up Mt. Inari is an awesome no-crowds experience, and we love watching the shrine “wake up” at this hour. When we had an apartment near Fushimi Inari for a month, we’d regularly do this hike in the early hours followed by coffee, tea, and sweets at Vermillion Cafe near the exit. If you have time to spare, double back to the front and look for the Secret Bamboo Forest of Fushimi Inari–it’s incredible and serene. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Fushimi Inari Shrine.
Tofukuji Temple – This temple is easily accessible by walking or taking the JR Nara Line from Inari Station, both of which will take roughly the same amount of time.
We like the free areas at Tofukuji Temple just fine, but the essential experience here is the Hojo Garden, which is among the very best gardens in Kyoto. During the fall colors season, you’ll also want to do the Tsutenkyo Bridge route; it’s one of the most beautiful foliage spots in all of Kyoto.
Kyoto National Museum – You can either walk to Kyoto National Museum from Tofukuji Temple or take the Keihan Main Line. The walk isn’t very pretty, so you’re not missing anything by taking the train.
Kyoto National Museum presents an interesting survey of Japanese art and history, and is the best non-niche museum in the city. It’s also one of the few that has English placards and an audio guide, and will give you a greater appreciation of the city’s rich culture. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kyoto National Museum.
Sanjusangendo Temple – Directly across the street from Kyoto National Museum is Sanjusangendo Temple. From the street, it appears rather unassuming, but don’t let that fool you–it contains one of the most jaw-dropping line-ups (quite literally) in Kyoto.
Sanjusangendo Temple is also a relatively quick stop, so do not skip it. With that said, be sure to slow down a bit to let the full impact of the scene sink in, and closely inspect the details of the impressive statues. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Sanjusangendo Temple.
Kyoto Railway Museum – The bad news is that you’ll need to take the bus to get from Sanjusangendo Temple to here, but the good news is there’s a bus stop right outside the temple, and more right outside Umekoji Park, making this a very easy and direct commute.
Even if your interest in trains is zero, do not skip the Kyoto Railway Musuem. This is the best museum in Kyoto. As you may have surmised by this point in the trip, railways are an integral part of Japanese life, and his highlights that, the history of trains in Japan, and technical progress. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kyoto Railway Museum.
Ninnaji Temple – From here we move from Central to Northwest Kyoto. To get here you’ll want to take the bus or the JR San-In Line via Tambaguchi Station. It gets tricky–remember that Google Maps is your friend.
Ninnaji Temple’s free main grounds that contain a five-story pagoda are moderately impressive, but it’s the paid Goten building that earns it a place on this itinerary. Do not miss this building and its stunning gardens. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Ninnaji Temple.
Ryoanji Temple – A short walk from Ninna-ji Temple, Ryoanji is renowned for its rock garden, which makes it one of the most-visited tourist spots in Kyoto. You should arrive in the last two hours of operation, which will cut down on crowds dramatically.
Nevertheless, don’t expect serenity at Ryoanji’s mysterious rock garden. Whatever you do, don’t skip the less renowned grounds, which make for a great stroll through the woods and around the main pond. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Ryoanji Temple.
Golden Pavilion – Even though it’ll take ~20 minutes, we recommend walking from Ryoanji to Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji Temple). Since this is the most popular temple in Kyoto, the buses to it tend to be standing room only. That’s the bad news; the good news is that you’ll be arriving at the end of the day, and the hordes of tour groups that crowd the Golden Pavilion earlier should be dissipating.
Linger until closing time and you can have one of the rarest experiences in Kyoto: a serene experience at the Golden Pavilion. Seeing the radiant glow of this pavilion reflecting the waning afternoon sunlight is also how the term “golden hour light” came to be. (Probably. Don’t fact-check us on that one.) Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Golden Pavilion.
That concludes a whirlwind 3-days in Kyoto! If you still have the energy on that final night, consider an evening visit to Fushimi Inari, which is our favorite time to see this shrine (remember, it’s open 24/7). Although it’s on the exact opposite side of Kyoto, the plus side is that gives you about 35 minutes on the bus to reach and regroup. Okay, so maybe that’s a bit too much, especially after you’ve probably walked 10+ miles per day over the course of 3 consecutive days. Either way, hopefully this itinerary enabled you to see Kyoto’s highlights while also pausing for some tranquil stops along the way, and gave you a greater appreciation for what makes Kyoto such an incredible place!
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
If you’ve been to Kyoto, do you have any feedback on our 3-Day “Best of” Kyoto, Japan Itinerary? Any stops you view as skippable, or can’t miss locations we overlooked? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? If you’re a first-timer to Japan, do you need further clarification about any of this? We know it’s a lot to digest, so if you have additional questions, we’ll do our best to answer! Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!