It’s Jessica of Bon Traveler here and I’m excited to share a three-day itinerary to Kyoto. When it comes to Japan, there is no destination quite like Kyoto. Having been three times, I find myself falling more in love with each visit.
Something about its historical past, the preservation of arts, and natural beauty set it apart from other cities. Though it is an expansive city, it’s quite different from Tokyo and Osaka, two others frequently visited in Japan.
The slower pace in Kyoto gives you a chance to immerse yourself in traditional Japanese culture.
Nearby, natural landscapes like Arashiyama are opportunities to get outdoors. And of course, you can’t forget the temples, 1,600 of them to be exact. It’s the ultimate place to visit on any trip to Japan.
Ready to explore Kyoto? Here’s my ultimate three-day itinerary to the city!
Best Time to Go
Since the weather is rather temperate in Kyoto, it can be an ideal year-round destination. Each season ranges in temperature but nothing too extreme. The summer months of June-August are hotter and more humid and the winter months of December-February are colder.
The ideal time to visit for me would be in the fall months to catch autumn colors or spring for the cherry blossom festivals. In the fall, the maple trees light up in bright pops of oranges and reds, making it incredibly scenic. Of course, those delicate pink cherry blossoms in the early spring is an iconic experience for Japan as well.
Where to Stay
My personal preference for Kyoto is to be close to the Gion District or near Nishiki Market. The central location for both of these means easy access to nearby sights.
One travel tip would be to book accommodations near a metro station as you’ll often use the local metro to get out to the temples and experiences.
One great hotel in the Gion District is the Kyoto Granbell Hotel. On the last trip, I stayed a bit further north but conveniently near a metro stop at the Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto. It’s a splurge stay but worth every penny.
Your First Night
On arrival, I’d recommend making the scenic walk alongside the Kamo River near Gion-Shijo station. At night, the buildings light up and reflect across the river.
If you catch the sunset here, it’s even more scenic.
Adjacent to the river is the wonderful Pontocho Alley. A tight alley filled with endless restaurants and bars where there is something for everyone. I like to walk through the alley (the atmosphere is lively!) and head to my favorite gyoza restaurant, Chao Chao Sanjo Kiyamichi.
They serve traditional thin skin gyoza made extra crispy, stuffed with an assortment of meats and cheese.
Day 1: Explore Arashiyama + Philospher’s Path
If there’s one expert tip for making the most of Kyoto, it’s getting up early. Beating the crowds can be challenging but waking up for an early morning is a sure bet. Head straight out to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove (reachable by metro or taxi) to have it to yourself. I usually show up at sunrise and love how quiet it is with just a few locals running through.
Tip: Walk to the end of the grove where the split is and look back for an incredible photo.
Nearby, as you wait for the famed % Arabica Kyoto Arashiyama to open up for coffee (daily at 8 am), take a beautiful walk along Katsura River. The morning light here is beautiful for photography and the traditional wooden boats are incredible.
Lunch + Afternoon Walk to a Quiet Temple
As you’ll already be on the outskirts of town, I find it worth heading across to one of the other furthest experiences across town. Take the metro across and consider a taxi to get to where the Philosopher’s Path is.
Tip: If the metro option is too long, Uber is a convenient and affordable way of getting across Kyoto.
You can grab lunch at a traditional udon restaurant called Omen to fuel up for the day — don’t forget to slurp your noodles! Just outside of the restaurant is the start of the scenic path that follows a riverfront. In season, the cherry blossoms here are famous. Along the way, small boutiques and ice cream shops are there.
Just another 10-minute walk up the hill is a favorite place to beat the crowds.
Hōnen-in Temple is a moss-covered temple that sits perched up on the hillside. In the late afternoon, you’ll find you often have it to yourself.
Day 2: Local Goods + Flavors of Kyoto
Start the day by heading over to Here Café for a beautiful space and a slow breakfast. Their coffee bar has a wonderful selection of drinks as well. Traditional Japanese breakfast often can be more savory than sweet, but Here Café has some great sweet pastries as well.
Tip: Kyoto has a wonderful selection of local coffee shops. Here are 7 not to miss.
Explore the Market + Shop Local
One thing unique to Kyoto is the plethora of artisanal goods made locally. One spot to get to see a wide range is at Nishiki Market. This market hall sells everything imaginable and a good spot to get a bite to eat from one of the many vendors. If you like Takoyaki (fried dough balls stuff with octopus), the stands in the market are a wonderful spot to try it.
For more Japanese kitchenware and ceramics, you can check out these 7 shops in Kyoto as well. A few are just around the corner from the market and make for great gifts to bring home.
A must-do thing in Kyoto is eating ramen. There are hundreds of styles of ramen and each chef has their own take on it. Hunting for new ramen in Kyoto has become a favorite experience and there are a few I love to recommend.
The first is the iconic chain Ichiran. You order from a ticketing vending machine and get seated behind a wall where magically your order appears. The ramen here is a great introduction.
One of the best local spots in Kyoto for fattier broth ramen is at Honke DaiichiAsahi near the train station. I’ve waited in the line for forty-five minutes before and it’s worth it. This is my favorite ramen spot in Kyoto after trying several locations.
For a more upscale and refined ramen experience, wait in line for Wajouryoumen Sugari. The line will move fast here, so just buy a ticket with your ramen preference and follow the line. The ramen here has a stronger fish broth than most but rich in taste.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Day 3: Sights + Temples
Morning at the Red Gates
Fushimi Inari Shrine features a path creates by traditional, bright red gates leading up the mountainside. This another amazing experience to do while in Kyoto and worth waking up early to have it less crowded. It’s one of my favorite photography locations in Kyoto alongside these.
Tip: Take the metro to Inari Station for quick access to the path.
Explore the Historic District of Sannenzaka
This may be one of the most scenic areas of Kyoto to see. These pedestrian streets are lined with traditional wooden homes and buildings. The atmosphere is wonderful. You can shop for local goods here as well and stop in for lunch at one of the many restaurants.
A few favorite places to see in this district include Kōdaiji Temple, the wired good store Kanaamitsuji, dessert at Rakushō, and Nineizaka street.
Afternoon With a View
To end the day, head up to the Kiyomizu-dera temple. Later in the afternoon, the crowds tend to be milder. As you climb up, you have expansive views over the city. If the timing is right, you can catch the sunset here as well. This temple is one of the most impressive in Kyoto.
Tip: Be sure to check opening hours as the times vary depending on the time of year.
Afterward, there are many options for dinner nearby or reference this list for the 20 best restaurants.
Overall Kyoto is a wonderful destination for an itinerary in Japan. The traditional architecture, a plethora of sights to see, and a deep sense of history make it truly unique. You can easily spend a week here and not see it all.
Check out this ultimate guide to Kyoto to see more things to do in the city.