Our 5-day Kyoto itinerary is an efficient step-by-step Japan plan of attack for visiting temples, villas, shrines, and UNESCO World Heritage sites. In addition to the “best of” and hidden gems in Higashiyama, Arashiyama, and beyond, this Kyoto itinerary takes you away from the crowds in the mountains to the north and south of the city, and includes rest & relaxation at an onsen.
From our perspective, five days is the perfect amount of time in Kyoto. It gives you a chance to experience many sides of the city, and its full range from northern mountains to urban areas. Not many people take this much time to savor Kyoto, which we think is unfortunate, as it’s our favorite city in the world.
When visiting Japan, there’s the very understandable temptation to see and do as much as possible. For many people, it’s a once in a lifetime trip, and once you have a few days in one place, there’s an eagerness to move on. To that end, for many people, our 3-Day ‘Best of’ Kyoto, Japan Itinerary paired with our 1-Day Nara Itinerary, our 1-Day Kobe Itinerary, or our 1-Day Osaka Itinerary will be the best way to spend 4 days to a week in the Kansai region.
Since our 4-Day Kyoto, Japan Itinerary was an unwieldy 4,000 words, we’re taking a different approach here. The first four days of this itinerary are identical to that one–literally no changes whatsoever. As such, we’re going to do days one through four with each destination as a bullet point, and let you refer back to that itinerary if you want accompanying explanation or transportation tips. Finally, day 5 will be spelled out in full detail.
If you’re reading this in or on your way to Japan, we’ll stop you right here: the last day of this itinerary requires more ‘advance notice’ as two of its main stops requiring booking ~30 days in advance. If you don’t have that much time, you’ll definitely want to opt for one of the other cities listed above as your fifth day.
Another caveat here is that we’d recommend cutting some of the optional stops–and perhaps some of the regular ones, too–from each day of this itinerary. As we’ve stressed before, temple fatigue is very much a real thing, and you’ll experience it with 5 jam-packed days in Kyoto.
To avoid such fatigue, be sure to prioritize random exploration, eating & drinking, and strolling down random side streets. Kyoto offers so much more culture than just temples and shrines, and you’ll find a treasure trove of things just be wandering (even if that doesn’t fit neatly within any itinerary for the city).
With that said, let’s dive into our step-by-step, day-by-day stay in Kyoto, Japan…
- Kiyomizudera Temple
- Higashiyama District
- Kodaiji Temple
- Kenninji Temple
- Maruyama Park
- Chionin Temple
- Nanzenji Temple
- Eikando Temple
- Philosopher’s Path
- Honenin Temple
- Yoshida Hill
- Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
- Tenryuji Temple
- Monkey Park Iwatayama
- Togetsukyo Bridge
- Okochi Sanso Villa
- Jojakkoji Temple
- Gioji Temple
- Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple
- Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple
- Daikakuji Temple
- Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
- Tofukuji Temple
- Kyoto National Museum
- Sanjusangendo Temple
- Kyoto Railway Museum
- Ninnaji Temple
- Ryoanji Temple
- Golden Pavilion
- Kyoto Imperial Palace
- Kurama Onsen
- Enkoji Temple
- Silver Pavilion
Yoshiminedera Temple – This beautiful mountain temple is like a mix of Kiyomizudera or Kuramadera Temples. All are on mountains, all spread out to varying degrees, and all among the top 5 temples in Kyoto. Unfortunately, as with Kuramadera, Yoshiminedera is seldom visited by tourists because of the effort required to get there.
However, the full commute from Kyoto Station is possible in under an hour if you time your visit correctly. Catch the first bus of the day to Yoshiminedera Temple, which is at 8:35 a.m. from Mukomachi Station. The bus only runs once per hour, so don’t miss this one. (Consult Google Maps.)
Yoshiminedera Temple’s main loop takes 30-40 minutes to complete, and that’s if you don’t stop at all for photos or to admire the breathtaking mountain views. Nevertheless, it’s possible to finish your visit in just over an hour, in which case you can catch the 10:24 a.m. bus. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Yoshiminedera Temple.
Kokedera Temple (optional) – This is the famed “Moss Temple” that is pricey to visit and requires advance reservations that can be tricky to make. The payoff is arguably Kyoto’s most enchanting temple, an intimate moss-covered temple that feels like it’s straight out of a Ghibli film.
We think Kokedera Temple is worth the effort and expense, and there’s a sense of satisfaction in successfully booking this yourself. Most of the year, you’re going to be assigned a 1 p.m. time if you book Kokedera, and after the ceremonial portion of your “tour” is complete, you’re free to explore the grounds at your leisure. If you opt against doing Kokedera, we’d recommend spending some time south of Arashiyama, enjoying a relaxed lunch and whatever else catches your interest. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kokedera Temple.
Katsura Imperial Villa – As with Kokedera Temple, Katsura Imperial Villa now requires advance booking for English-speaking visitors (a change as of late 2018) and charges a fee. We’d recommend booking a 1 p.m. tour if do don’t do Kokedera, or a 4 p.m. tour if you do Kokedera.
As we noted in our gushing review of Katsura Imperial Villa, this is an absolute must-do for architecture enthusiasts, as it features exemplars of Japanese design. Even if you’re just “regular” people like us, Katsura Rikyū is a simply sublime experience and ranks very highly of all things to do in the city. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Katsura Imperial Villa.
Nijo Castle (optional) – We are not really fans of Nijo Castle. It’s not a towering fortress like Osaka or Himeji Castles, and is really more akin to Kyoto Imperial Palace. It’s one of the most popular tourist spots in Kyoto, but I’ll bet anything that if “castle” weren’t in the name, its visitation numbers would drop in half. (Curse those clever 17th century marketing minds!)
Doing Nijo Castle only makes sense if you skip Kokedera or you’re visiting during a time of year when the castle has its nighttime illuminations. Regardless, it’s an easy commute from Katsura Station to Omiya Station along the Hankyu-Kyoto Line. It’s a recommendation of convenience, not an endorsement. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Nijo Castle.
Toji Temple (optional) – This is Kyoto’s tallest pagoda, and an icon of Kyoto. We’ve been to Toji Temple a few times, most recently during fall colors and cherry blossoms seasons, and it’s starting to grow on us–particularly during those seasons. If I had to choose between Toji and Nijo, I’d definitely choose Toji Temple.
To get to Toji Temple, take bus 26 from Katsura–you’ll definitely want to use Google Maps for the best route options. It should take under 40 minutes entrance to entrance. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Toji Temple.
Yasaka Shrine & Gion – If neither Toji nor Nijo are options, or you’re just not interested in either of them, consider taking the Hankyu-Kyoto Line to Kawaramachi Station, where you’ll be minutes from the heart of Gion.
From there, you can grab a beautifully-presented dessert, eat dinner at one of Gion’s many excellent restaurants, make a visit to Yasaka Shrine, Kenninji Temple, etc. You’ll presumably have already done this at least one other night, but there’s no such thing as too much time in Gion. We’ve visited more times than I can count, and still haven’t eaten everywhere on our list. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Yasaka Shrine.
Phew, that’s a busy 5 days in Kyoto! Even with this jam-packed itinerary, you still won’t see all of the best temples and shrines in Kyoto. You will see every single location in our top 20, but with some 1,600 temples in Kyoto, it’s impossible (and highly unadvisable!) to visit them all. Nevertheless, we hope this itinerary helps you plan an excellent trip to Kyoto, and provides some info to soak up the atmosphere of Japan’s ancient capital.
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 5-day itinerary? Would you recommend it to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any other temples, shrines, etc., you view as skippable, or must-do 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!