Although my trip did not start in Kyoto, my series of blog posts will. Sprawling Tokyo is taking time for me to arrange my thoughts in a straightforward way. However, Kyoto is packed with must-see spots that are well laid out and an itinerary comes together pretty naturally. Here is how I suggest spending three days in Kyoto.
I want to note that we spent two days in Kyoto, but missed some things and felt rushed on one of the days. Three days will allow a less grueling travel pace and allow more sites to fit in. If you only have two days, you can slash some items from this list and still see a lot of the major draws.
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Day 1: Eastern Kyoto
Your first day in Kyoto is a good opportunity to explore some of the most famous historical neighborhoods in all of Japan. Japan-guide.com has a good walking tour that I borrowed (in reverse) to build my itinerary. Start the day at famous Kiyomizu-dera, a Buddhist temple built in the 1600s without using a single nail. The temple complex features some of the best views of Kyoto and other adjacent temples and shrines (such as the three storied pagoda pictured above).
A really popular thing to do for both locals and tourists is to rent a kimono or yukata. There are lots of spots to rent these and many will also do your hair for you. The price runs about $25-$100 (depending on upgrades). You can also shop (or window shop) at Vintage Kimono AN Gion, which has kimonos at price points starting at $6 and up. I do not know if they assist you in wearing the kimono the way the rental shops do.
After taking in the sweeping views at Kiyomizu-dera, walk through the famous Higashiyama historic district. Make sure to walk down Sanneizaka and Nineizaka paths for a more curated selection of tourist shops. This is also where you can get lunch, and the iconic view of Hokan-ji temple pagoda.
Continue your walking tour to stop by Kodaiji Temple which is notable for its zen gardens. Then head to Maruyama park and view the beautiful Yasaka shrine.
This is where my stamina wore out, and I headed back to the hotel for a soak in the hotel’s onsen. (Note, we had hiked at Fushimi Inari earlier in the day. On this guide, that is planned for tomorrow). If you still have energy, there is more to see in this historic city, so keep reading.
If time allows, there is plenty more scenic walking ahead of you along Keage Incline and the Philosopher’s Path. There are two more notable Zen Buddhist temples in this area, Ginkakuji and Nanzenji. Following this itinerary will result you in the northeast part of Kyoto. I found uber to be fast and affordable for getting back to the hotel.
Day 2: Fushimi Inari and Central Kyoto
These iconic orange tori gates are one of the major draws to Kyoto. Start your day as early as possible at Fushimi Inari, because it will get crowded. There are thousands of gates and they continue all the way up the mountain, so the farther you hike, the more dispersed your fellow travelers will be. The souvenirs in this area are so cute: fox-themed everything. Foxes are considered messengers of the gods at this shrine so you will see fox stuff everywhere.
After you’ve hiked as far as you’re comfortable with, head back down and buy lunch from the vendors outside the entrance of Fushimi Inari. They sell delicious foods I didn’t see elsewhere in Japan such as a crispy spiral potato or bacon-wrapped rice balls with your choice of topping. However, when eating at a vendor like this, it is custom to eat standing right at the stall – don’t meander around while eating, even though it is street food.
You’re probably tired from all the walking this morning (and the day before). So slow down the pace for this afternoon. After lunch is a great time to soak in an sento or onsen (public bath). If your hotel does not have one, there are options you can visit and simply pay a day fee. Consider ubering to Funaoka Onsen (northwest part of town) or Higashiyama-yu (northeast part of town). Remember that a) you have to get naked for these baths and b) those with tattoos might have to purchase one or more large sticker(s) to cover them up. Find a list of tattoo-friendly onsen over on yourjapan.com.
After you’re feeling refreshed, spend an hour or so meandering through Nishiki market. Then have dinner in the Kiyamachi Dori neighborhood adjacent to a lovely canal, and explore the Pontocho Park alleyway. Scope out the restaurant scene ahead of time and have your concierge make a reservation for you, especially during weekends or high season.
I’m not an expert in Kyoto night life, but I do know of two bars that are featured on world’s best bar lists. Bar Rocking Chair and L’Escamoteur are both famous, and have the long wait times to show for it. Arrive right when they open, or ask your concierge for other recommendations for a nightcap.
Day 3: Arashiyama and North Kyoto
In order to have your whole day ahead of you, go ahead and check out of your hotel and have them hold your luggage. Or, have them hold a small carry-on with one day’s essentials and arrange for it to be sent ahead to your next hotel for you.
Start your day in Arashiyama bamboo forest. Like with Fushimi Inari, this is a very popular (and Instagrammable) spot, so get there as early as possible if you want photos without random people in them. The bamboo makes such a lovely ambiance when there is a light breeze and it all sways together in a otherworldly way.
After you leave the bamboo forest you can stop by the Tenryu-ji temple and gardens. These are located between the bamboo forest and…
Iwatayama Monkey park. Animal lovers will find it exciting to walk alongside adorable Japanese macaque monkeys and feed them food available for purchase. Note, the monkey park is located up a steep hill. Aside from the monkeys, visitors are rewarded with a beautiful view of Kyoto.
Not exactly grouped together with the above three sites, another notable site on the north side of Kyoto is the Kinkaku-ji golden temple. The temple itself features three types of architecture at once. The top two floors are covered in gold leaf, which is quite an arresting sight. The grounds contain beautiful gardens and a tea house where you can enjoy matcha and sweets.
These four items may not quite make up a whole day, so this afternoon/evening is a good opportunity to take the train to your next destination.
Day Trip: Nara
If you have the time, I highly recommend a day trip to Nara. Even if you don’t have the time, you could collapse the above 3 days into two and make time to visit… it’s that special. The biggest draw for me happened to be the plentiful deer that roam the east part of town among all the shrines and temples. Aside from the deer there are many historic sites to view from when Nara was the capital of Japan. There is a famous golden Buddha housed Todai-ji Daibutsuden, one of the largest wooden buildings in the world.
If you have a JR pass, you can take a train or a local train to Nara easily. We departed Kyoto around 10 AM and left Nara after dinner at 6 PM. Visiting Nara was a highlight of my whole trip and you can read more details at my blog post here.
Where to stay
We stayed at Hotel Resol Trinity Kyoto, and this was one of my favorite hotels of the whole trip. The room was a good size and had tatami mats on the floor. The hotel breakfast was really good and the onsen was a luxurious highlight. Read my full review here. I really liked walking around the neighborhood that was filled with sweets shops, antique shops, and more.
Two more hotels I was considering for our trip were Ace Hotel (a little more expensive) and Imu Hotel (less expensive). Knowing what I know now, it would have been convenient to book a hotel closer to the east part of the city. However, I think the hotel we stayed at was totally a retreat from the hustle and bustle of the major tourist areas.
Fellow travelers, did I mention your favorite spot in Kyoto? What did I miss? Please leave a comment! Looking forward to hearing from you and as always, thank you for reading.
Photos by Doug and Staci Jackson for The Voyageer.