Kyoto is the place to head to experience the historic and ancient Japan. Kyoto is Japans cultural capital, and have all the things that the Land of the Rising Sun is all about: 400 colorful Shinto shrines, 1600 ancient Buddhist temples, and stunning Japanese gardens. That Kyoto is home to incredible 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites really says it all!
But Kyoto is not only about old cultural sites and buildings, it also has cool shops, great restaurants, mountains and nature, and geisha dance performances. You will never run out of things to do in Kyoto! Kyoto has it all and should be on everyone’s bucket list. No trip to Japan is complete without a visit to Kyoto.
How To Get Around Kyoto
Kyoto has an extensive network of buses and trains. There are, however, few JR lines in Kyoto, so if you have bought a JR Rail Pass, and plan to stay several days in Kyoto, you might want to wait to activate it until the day you leave Kyoto. You can activate the JR Rail Pass at the main JR ticket office in Kyoto Station.
The best way and cheapest way to get around Kyoto is with a Kyoto pass. You can choose between different types of Kyoto passes (which are all bought at Kyoto Station):
- Kyoto City Bus Only, All-Day Pass – 500 Yen for adult and 250 Yen for a child. This pass gives you unlimited use on the same day on all buses inside Kyoto city. Not valid for zones outside of Kyoto city, so it is not valid for Arashiyama (Bamboo Grove) or Fushimi Inari shrine.
- Kyoto Sightseeing Bus and Subway, One or Two-day Pass Card – 1200 Yen for a one-day adult card, 600 Yen for a one-day child card. Two-day card: 2000 Yen for adult, 1000 Yen for a child. Unlimited use on all buses and subways for one or two days.
- Surutto Kansai Miyako Card – You charge it with 1000 Yen, 2000 Yen, 3000 Yen or 5000 Yen, and use it on city buses and subway lines, as well as Hankyu Line, Keihan Line, and other participating private companies. You pay per trip until the card is empty.
- Traffica Kyoto Card – You charge it with 1000 Yen or 3000 Yen and it is valid on all city subways and buses. You pay per trip until the card is empty.
3 Day Kyoto Itinerary – What To Do in Kyoto
Day 1 – Temples and Shrines in the Higashiyama Area
The Higashiyama area of Kyoto is where all the action is in regards to temples and shrines. This is the main sightseeing area of Kyoto and is packed full with colorful temples, shrines, museums, parks and Zen gardens.
The Higashiyama area is divided in two; The Southern and The Northern part. You can easily spend an entire day exploring these two areas and their magnificent temples.
- Opening hours: Most temples 09:00 – 16:30/ 17:00
- Ticket price: You have to buy a ticket at each temple, around 300-500 Yen = 3-4 USD per temple for an adult
1. Southern Part of Higashiyama Area
Start with the Southern Higashiyama, this is the most popular area and contains the most famous sights. The walking tour we have outlined below is easily walked in less than an hour, but you will, of course, want to stop to explore the temples along the way.
If you want to shorten it, you can choose some of the temples and shrines and skip the rest. To start, take the Tozai Line to Higashiyama Station.
- Higashiyama Station – from the station walk up Sanjo-dori street.
- Shoren-in Temple – This is one of the biggest temples in this area and used to be the residence of the chief abbot of one of the biggest Buddhism schools in Japan.
- Chion-in Temple – A grand temple, dating back to 1234, where one of the most famous figures in Japanese Buddhism taught and later starved himself to death. It is the most popular pilgrimage temple in Kyoto.
- Step into the Maruyama-koen park, and take a look at the Gion shidare zakura, Kyoto`s most famous cherry tree.
- In the park, head west to see the grand and colorful Yasaka-jinja Shrine.
- Walk past the Otani cemetery and on to Kodai-ji Temple, founded by a woman to honor her late husband. The temple is surrounded by a really nice garden and tea house designed by a famous Japanese landscape architect.
- From Kodai-ji Temple, walk west down the long flight of stairs past the parking lot, and into Ishibei-koji street, the most beautiful street in Kyoto. Going for a stroll here feels like stepping back in time to when samurais and geishas dominated the streets of Kyoto.
- Continue back towards the parking lot at Kodai-ji, but turn right onto Ninen-zaka street and Sannen-zaka street lined with beautiful old traditional wooden houses. If your stomach is starting to rumble at this point, step into one of the many cozy cafes and teahouses in this area and have a well-earned break.
- At the end of Sannen-zaka street, take a left and continue onto Kiyomizu-michi street and follow it uphill till you reach the famous Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The hall has a huge verandah with stunning views of the hillside and Kyoto city.
Below the temple is a waterfall where you can drink sacred water for good health.
You can also test your success in love by closing your eyes and walk 18 meters between two love stones. If you walk past the love stone, you will not find love.
Just next to the entrance to Kiyomizu-dera Temple is Tainai-meguri, a symbolic womb of a female bodhisattva.
Enter its pitch darkness, spin the rock and make a wish.
2. Northern Part of Higashiyama Area
If you still have some energy left, you can spend the afternoon exploring the Northern Higashiyama. If you have more than three days in Kyoto, consider splitting the temple sightseeing over two days and save Northern Higashiyama for the next day.
To start on the Northern Higashiyama tour take the Tozai Line to Keage Station, or Kyoto City Bus no. 5 to Eikando-michi stop.
- Keage Station – walk for five minutes downhill and turn right and walk a little uphill.
- Nanzen-ji Temple – Maybe the absolute finest temple in Kyoto. It is surrounded by a big park and consists of several sub-temples. At the entrance is the huge Sanmon gate. Step up to the second level, and you will have an amazing view of Kyoto city. The temple has a beautiful classic Zen garden, Leaping Tiger Garden.
- Follow the Path of Philosophy/ Tetsugaku-no-Michi street, a pedestrian path that goes beside a canal, beautifully lined with cherry trees and flowers. It got its name from the 20th-century philosopher Nishida Kitaro who used to wander this street lost in thoughts. It takes about 30 minutes to walk this path.
- Along the Path of Philosophy is the famous temple Honen-in, dating back to 1680. It is beautifully set back in the woods and is very peaceful.
- Head over to the Ginkaku-ji Temple, following the walkway through the garden containing cones of white sand that symbolize mountains, tall pines and a small lake in front of the temple.
Day 2 – Golden Pavilion & Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama Area
1. Golden Pavilion at the Kinkaku-ji Temple
Early in the morning, head to the Northwest of Kyoto and the Kinkaku-ji Temple. This is where the famous Golden Pavilion is “floating” on a small lake in the middle of a beautiful garden.
The building dates back to 1397 and was once the retirement villa for a famous Japanse Shogun. His son later converted the house into a temple.
The temple, however, sadly was burnt down in 1950 by a young monk obsessed with the temple.
The temple was then reconstructed in 1955 and is today one of Kyoto´s most popular sights. By getting here early in the morning, you might beat the crowds, but don`t expect to be alone…..
Expect to spend about an hour exploring the temple and its garden.
- How to get there: Kyoto City Bus 205 from Kyoto Station to Kinkakuji-michi Stop, or Kyoto City Bus 59 from Sanjo-Keihan to the Kinkakuji-mae Stop, or take a taxi to Kinkaku-ji Temple.
- Opening hours: 09:00 – 17:00
- Ticket price: 400 Yen = 3,7 USD
2. Tenryu-ji Temple, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove & Okochi Sanso Villa
From Kinkaku-ji Temple, take a taxi to Tenryu-ji Temple in Arashiyama, which is the easiest option, or see the “How to get there” section below for public transport.
Enter and explore the Tenryu-ji Temple which was built in 1339.
History says that this temple was built on the former site of an Emperor`s villa because a priest had dreamt that a dragon was rising from the nearby river, which meant that the Emperor`s soul was at unease. So they built the temple to ease his soul, thereby it`s name which means “Heavenly Dragon”.
The temple building you see here today was built in 1900 and is surrounded by a stunning 14th-century Zen garden.
From the Tenryu-ji Temple, you can easily enter the Bamboo Grove by its north entrance.
The Bamboo Grove located in Arashiyama area is one of the absolute highlights of Kyoto. Walking between these bamboo stalks which are shivering in the breeze is atmospheric and a somewhat magical
Start at the north gate of Tenryu-ji Temple, and walk all the way through the Bamboo forest up to the Okochi Sanso Villa, which is the home of the famous samurai actor Okochi Denjiro.
The walk takes about half an hour at a slow pace. The garden surrounding the villa is beautiful and open to the public, although the entrance ticket (1000 Yen = 9 USD) is a bit expensive, you get tea and cake included in the price.
If you’re feeling a bit hungry, there are several eateries on the main strip. Grab a bowl of noodles.
If you want to visit the forest with an English speaking guide, then you can book a private tour.
- How to get there: From the Golden Pavilion (early in the morning), head back to Kyoto Station by bus 205 from the Kinkakuji-michi Stop. Take Kyoto City Bus 28 from Kyoto Station to ArashiyamaTenryuji-mae Stop, or take the Hankyu Line to Arashiyama Station. Or just take a taxi from Kinkaku-ji Temple to Tenryu-ji Temple like we did.
- Opening hours: Tenryu-ji Temple: 08:30 – 17:30 (till 17:00 21st of October to 20th of March), Bamboo Grove: Dawn – Dusk, Okochi Sanso villa: 09:00 – 17:00
- Ticket prices: Tenryu-ji Temple: 600 Yen 5,5 USD, Bamboo Grove: FREE!, Okochi Sanso villa: 1000 Yen = 9 USD
- Webpage: Tenryu-ji Temple
3. Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama
The climb up the hill to where the monkeys are is a bit steep, and expect to be a bit sweaty, especially if it is a hot day, as you reach the top, but it`s totally worth it!
Over 200 Japanese monkeys live in this park, of all sizes and ages. And what`s cool about this monkey park is that the monkeys run around free and all the human visitors are in cages! Love it! 🙂
You also get a great panoramic view of Kyoto from the park.
- How to get there: From the Bamboo Grove, walk over the Togetsu-kyo Bridge, and up the steps near the orange torii of Ichitani-jinja. If you are in downtown Kyoto, take Kyoto City Bus number 28 from Kyoto Station to Arashiyama-Tenryuji-mae Bus Stop.
- Opening hours: 9:00 – 17:00 15th of March till October, 9:00 – 16:00 November till 14th of March
- Ticket price: 550 Yen = 5 USD per adult and 250 Yen = 2 USD per child. You buy the entrance ticket to Monkey Park at the machine to the left of the shrine located at the top of the steps.
Day 3 – Downtown Kyoto, Nishiki Market, Manga Museum, Fushimi Inari Shrine & Gion
1. Nishiki Market
Start your day at the famous Nishiki Market in downtown Kyoto and indulge in lots of delicious snacks.
The Nishiki Market is packed with all the weird and delicious food that makes up the famous Japanese cuisine.
All the stalls are very welcoming and many hand-out free samples. This is also a great place to buy souvenirs and gifts to bring back home.
You can even join a Nishiki Market Tour which includes a delicious seven-course Japanese lunch. It is a great way to learn about Japanese food and snack, and what makes the Kyoto cuisine so special.
- How to get there: Take the Karasuma Line to Shijo Station, or the Hankyu Line to Karasuma Station or Kawaramachi Station.
- Opening hours: 09:00 – 17:00. Some stalls are closed on Wednesdays.
- Ticket price: FREE!
2. Kyoto International Manga Museum
From Nishiki Market, walk over to the Kyoto International Manga Museum (takes about 15 min).
The Kyoto International Manga Museum is huge, and contains over 300 000 (!) Japanese comic books or manga.
This is the perfect place to learn about this Japanese art form that is a huge part of Japanse culture, and to see how the art of manga has changed over the years. There is also a section of manga translated into other languages like English.
You can even learn how to draw manga and have your portrait drawn by a manga artist. We did this, and this is how it turned out, pretty cool if you ask me:
- How to get there: Take the Karasuma or Tozai Line to Karasuma-Oike Station. It is just a short walk from Karasuma-Oike Station to the Manga Museum (4 min)
- Opening hours: 10 – 18, closed on Wednesdays
- Ticket prices: 800 Yen = 7,5 USD for an adult, 300 Yen = 2,8 USD for a child
3. Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi Inari Shrine is a stunning and atmospherical shrine that consists of thousands of red torii gates lined up as a pathway 4 km up the mountain.
It’s best visited in the afternoon when the light renders the gates at their most beautiful and the temperature is a bit cooler. Walk as far up as your energy permits, and head back down.
The Fushimi Inari Shrine was first built as early as the 8th century by the Hata family to worship the gods of rice and sake.
Along the pathway, you will also see plenty of stone foxes.
The fox is considered to be the messenger of Inari – the god of rice and business.
The fox is carrying a key in its mouth which is the key to the granaries.
- How to get there: From Manga Museum, walk to Karasuma-Oike Station (3 min) and take the Karasuma Line to Tokyo Station and then change to the Nara Line to Inari Station. This takes about 20 min. Or take the Tozai Line from Sanjo Station to Keihan Line to Fushimi Inari Station. This takes about 20 min. You can also walk to Sanjo Station, which takes about 20 min walking.
- Opening hours: Dawn to Dusk for the shops, although it never really closes
- Ticket prices: FREE!
4. Geisha spotting in the Gion neighborhood
At dusk, head back to downtown Kyoto for dinner, and go for an evening stroll through Kyoto’s geisha district Gion. Maybe you are lucky and get to see a real geisha?!
Don`t miss the Shimbashi street in Gion, which is a beautiful street in the evening (start at the intersection between Shijo-dori and Hanami-koji, and walk north, take the third left).
There are a lot of options for dining in Gion. From upscale restaurants serving traditional Kyoto cuisine to weird and wonderful restaurants such as the Issen Yoshoku Restaurant, that serves Issen Yoshoku which is a sort of the Japanese specialty Okonomiyaki (pancakes) filled with all sorts of yummy stuff like spring onion, egg, dried shrimp, beef, and ginger. Delicious!
The restaurant is unique, pay attention to the interiors and decorations on the walls.
You might even be so lucky that you get to dine with one of the five Kimono girls that sit at some of the tables. The girls are mannequins and made of plastic! 🙂
You also get to see how they make the Issen Yoshokus (or Okonomiyaki) as the kitchen is an open space.
- Address: 238 Giommachi Kitagawa, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto (in the middle of Gion)
- Opening hours: 10:30 – 22:00
These are the highlights of things to do in Kyoto in our opinion, packed into three pretty intense days. We hope you find this article helpful when deciding what to do in Kyoto.
Feel free to pick and choose from what interests you most in this itinerary.
If you want a guided tour of the highlights of Kyoto (temples and castles), check out the Kyoto Tour: From the Golden Kinkakuji to the Nijo Castle
Other Things To Do In Kyoto
If you have more than three days in this beautiful city, you can either take things a little slower by spreading this itinerary out across more days or add some more activities. Some of the highlights that we could not fit into this three-day Kyoto itinerary are:
- Kyoto Imperial Palace Park – Located in Central Kyoto the Imperial Palace and especially the garden surrounding it is a lovely place to relax and have a picnic. It’s very popular during Cherry Blossom season.
- Nijo-jo Castle – An impressive castle from the Edo period that shows off the power and influence of the Shogun Warlords.
- Shopping in Shijo – Along Shijo-dori there are modern shopping malls that can rival Tokyo. The two largest are Takashimaya and Daimaru department stores.
- Ponto Cho – A traditional nightlife area and Geisha district. Ponto Cho has many old wooden buildings that are lit by Japanese lanterns in the evening making it a lovely place to go for a drink and an evening walk.
- Toei Kyoto Studio Park – A combination of theme park and working television/ film studio. Here you can dress up as Samurais and wander around a replica Edo period Samurai town where many movies and tv series have been shot. It’s all a bit crazy but a lot of fun too.
- Kyoto Station – Is well worth a visit for its famous modern architecture made of steel-and-glass, it’s hundreds of shops and varied selection of restaurants. The station has many levels. Make sure to go up to the 15th floor where there is an observation deck with a nice view of Kyoto.
- Kurama and Kibune area – Here you find the famous Kurama-dera Buddhist temple, established as early as 770. It is beautifully located just below the peak of Kurama-yama, and you will have a nice walk up a small hill through a forest to get to the entrance of the temple (or you can take the tram to the top). You can also relax at the nearby hot spring Kurama Onsen, which has an indoor bath and a sauna.
Day Trips From Kyoto
There are several great day trip options close to Kyoto. Here are our favorites:
Nara (1 hour by train from Kyoto one way) used to be Japans capital back in the 8th century. Nara is famous for deer roaming the streets and is packed with beautiful ancient temples and shrines. The most famous is Tōdai-ji Temple with the 15-meter tall bronze Daibutsu (Great Buddha) as it`s highlight.
Osaka (1 hour by train from Kyoto one way) is also a popular place to visit, with the 16th-century Osaka Castle as it`s highlight. Osaka also has a great nightlife and delicious street food.
Another great option is the coastal city Ise (3 hours by train from Kyoto one way, so you might want to stay the night here). Ise is famous for Ise Jingu – a massive Shinto shrine. The city also has more than 100 other temples and shrines.
Where To Stay In Kyoto
Century Hotel Kyoto
We highly recommend this hotel, as we loved it! The best hotel we stayed at throughout our entire Japan trip!
The rooms are big and beautiful decorated, with huge comfortable beds. Great service from the staff and excellent location just next to Kyoto Train Station (100 m walk). You will love this hotel!
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Hotel Mystays Kyoto Shijo
We stayed at Hotel Mystays in Tokyo and it was fantastic! Hotel Mystays is a business hotel chain. The rooms are not the biggest but have everything you need and more (even slippers!).
The location of Mystays Kyoto is perfect, close to Maruyama park and many shrines, and very close to a subway station (300 m) and bus stops. There is a good selection of restaurants nearby and there is a supermarket next to the hotel. It is a quiet hotel, and all rooms have good wifi. There is a laundry room with washing machines and dryer and a coffee machine in the lobby that you can use for free.
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Karasuma Kyoto Hotel
A nice budget hotel centrally located with plenty of eating places within a short walk. It is within walking distance to the Gion area and to Nishiki market. Reasonably sized rooms (big for Japan) and have a small fridge and coffee/tea maker. The breakfast is delicious. The bathroom is fully equipped with all the necessary toiletries.
There is a Starbucks next to the hotel, and the hotel is close to a big supermarket, many restaurants, as well as bus stops and a subway station (2 stops from Kyoto Station). Take subway Karasuma Line to Shijo Station (exit 6).
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We used the Lonely Planet`s Japan travel guide on our trip. You can get that and other great books by clicking on the pictures below:
Have you been to Kyoto? Have we missed something in this itinerary? What did you like the most about Kyoto? Please leave a comment in the comment area below. If you like this article and find it useful, please share on social media. Thanks! 🙂
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