Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, Japan

Three Killer Days in Kyoto

It was easy for me to fall in love with Kyoto when I first arrived. It was about an hour before sunset and the sherbet glow of the sky gave Kyoto’s sakura, which were in full bloom, a surreal incandescence, to say nothing of the temples, torii and kimono-clad women everywhere. Had it not been for all the smartphones, Westerners and the ultra-modern buildings that have sprung up around Kyoto’s contemporary center, it could just as well have been 1814 or 1414 as 2014.

Kyoto is among the most timeless places I’ve ever visited—I wish I had an eternity to explore it. I didn’t, however, and chances are you don’t either, which is why I’ve assembled this incredible Kyoto itinerary. Seeing Kyoto in three days is not a realistic way to absorb all the history and heritage the city has to offer, but it is enough to start a love affair that will keep you coming back year after year.

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Where to Stay in Kyoto

Kyoto isn’t just a bastion of world heritage—it’s paradise for hotel lovers, whether you stay somewhere traditionally Japanese or marvelously modern. Super high-end travelers can enjoy one of Japan’s finest traditional ryokan guest houses at NAZUNA Kyoto Nijo-tei, while Ryokan Kyoraku is a fair-priced alternative not far from Kyoto station. Click here for a more in-depth review of the best places to stay in Kyoto, no matter your budget.

Things to Do in Kyoto: The tl;dr Kyoto Itinerary

These top Kyoto attractions can be spread out over three days in Kyoto as I intended, condensed (if you’re very fit and keep sensible hours) or extended into a Kyoto itinerary 5 days or even longer:

  • Kyoto Imperial Palace
  • Nijo Castle
  • Golden and Silver Pavilions (Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji)
  • Philosopher’s Walk
  • Kiyomizu Dera
  • Gion (aka the Geisha district)
  • Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
  • Fushimi Inari Shrine
  • Day trip to Nara

If you plan to spend longer than your three days in Kyoto in Japan, make sure to check out my three weeks in Japan and one month in Japan itineraries.

Day One: The Joy of Getting Lost

Have you ever opened a dozen applications on your computer or phone, launched several browser windows, started uploading photos and watched in horror as the thing overheated and shut itself down? That’s how my brain felt the first time I set foot into Kyoto—but in the best possible way.

Kyoto is absolutely overflowing with amazing sights to see, and while many of the major choices among what to do in Kyoto are absolutely can’t-miss, part of the joy of traveling in Kyoto is discovering the city on your own terms. Spend the first of your three days in Kyoto with several main Kyoto attractions in mind, but as you piece your Kyoto detailed itinerary together, consider walking instead of taking the bus, and don’t be afraid to wander into deserted temples or down seemingly forbidden streets.

For example, you might begin the first day of your Kyoto itinerary at Kyoto Station, then take the Route 100 tourist bus line to Kinkaku-ji – Golden Temple, before heading across town to its sister temple, Ginkaku-ji – Silver Pavilion, which is home to one of the best gardens in Kyoto. After following the aptly-named Philosopher’s Walk southward toward Anraku-ji, continue west and then south on foot into Gion, Kyoto’s de-facto Geisha District, but don’t stop there—yet.

Instead, make your way eastward along the Shijo Dori main street toward Kiyomizu-dera, an eight-century temple that is not only Kyoto’s most famous attraction, but perhaps the best place in the city to enjoy a panoramic sunset. After night falls, traipse back into Gion in search of Geishas or perhaps to enjoy local street food delights like takoyaki octopus fritters or yatshuhashi – unbaked sweet dumplings.

Robert Schrader in Kyoto, Japan
Kyoto, Japan sakura
Asian tourists dressed as geishas in Kyoto
Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Robert Schrader in a Kyoto ryokan
Train station in Kyoto, Japan

Day Two: A Tale of Two Forests

As you wake up on the second morning of your Kyoto tour, Japanese green tea in hand, you might feel tempted to continue exploring the nooks and crannies of central Kyoto, but I promise you: They can wait until your next trip. Instead, spend your second of three days in Kyoto, Japan exploring two enchanted forests on the periphery of town.

By morning, take a local Nara line train from Kyoto station and get off at Inari station, which is where you’ll find Fushimi Inari shrine. A dizzying sequence of thousands of bright orange torii that have been assembled on the forested hillside as far back as the eight century, Fushimi Inari is allegedly the most-visited place in all of Japan, which will be evident the moment you set foot onto its crowded path.

Continue climbing up the hillside for as long as you wish – getting to the top takes approximately 90 minutes at a brisk pace – before heading back to Kyoto Station, where you can take the Sanin line to Sagaarashiyama, the gateway to Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. You’ll feel like you’re trapped in a samurai film as you wander through it, in the absolute best way possible.

Use your evening to explore sights you’ve missed in central Kyoto, whether you hit up places I mentioned the first day that you didn’t get to, or discovering ones I didn’t suggest at all, such as Nijo Castle or the Kyoto Imperial Palace.

Day Three: Be a Deer in Nara

Just as you awoke the second of your three days in Kyoto and wondered whether you should just stay put, you’ll wake up the third and think you can’t possible head even farther outward to explore. My line of reasoning, too, will persist: Spend your third day in Kyoto outside Kyoto, taking day trips from Kyoto, such as to the urban deer (and ancient wooden architecture!) paradise of Nara.

Deer in Nara, Japan

Take the same train you took to get to Fushimi Inari, keeping in mind that it’s best to take an express or rapid service this time, to maximize your time in Nara. Nara is famous for a number of things—namely Todaiji Temple, the world’s largest wooden structure—but its most ubiquitous symbols are the deer that freely roam around its old city. To be sure, most of Nara’s non-deer sights are architectural in nature, from the Five-Story Pagoda, to Kasuga Taisha, a stone-lantern lined walked that is the Nara to Fushimi Inari’s Kyoto.

Dotonbori in Osaka, Japan

If you go from Kyoto to Nara early enough to finish just after lunch or, for some God-forsaken reason are not interested in seeing it at all, you could additionally (or alternatively) spend Osaka, although in general I wouldn’t recommend trying to stretch three days in Osaka and Kyoto—it’s best to choose one. (TIP: Read my Osaka itinerary and take this best from this one and that one to formulate the ultimate Osaka Kyoto itinerary 3 days, or however long you plan to spend in the cities!

The Bottom Line

Is three days in Kyoto enough to see everything this city has to offer? Almost certainly not, though you can also see Kyoto in two days if you must. But if you follow my recommendations or even use them as a starting point, you’ll enjoy a mix of culture, cuisine and nature so alluring you won’t have a choice but to come back in the future, getting to know the city on a deeper level with every subsequent Kyoto tour you take.

Leave Your Daily Hell   Filed under: Japan

About The Author

is the author of 916 posts on Leave Your Daily Hell. Robert founded Leave Your Daily Hell in 2010 so that other travelers would have an entertaining, reliable source of information, advice and inspiration at their fingertips. Want to travel more often? Subscribe to email updates today!


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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

MissLilly May 25, 2015 at 10:06 am

oH I wish!!! what a dream trip!

Melissa May 25, 2015 at 4:57 pm

I liked all of the cherry blossoms on the trees. I think you planned your trip at the right time of year. Beautiful pictures.

Grace Blake May 26, 2015 at 8:21 am

Oh now I’ve definitely got to add Kyoto to my bucket list after this list! Thanks for another great article Robert 🙂

Robert Schrader May 26, 2015 at 5:02 pm

Success 🙂

Robert Schrader May 26, 2015 at 5:02 pm


Robert Schrader May 26, 2015 at 5:02 pm

Enjoy it!

Taptashka May 30, 2015 at 9:10 pm

Thank you so much for sharing you experience with us. I am going to Japan in March-April 2016 and I find you site fascinating!

Cyril Oh July 17, 2016 at 7:43 am

Hi, I recently got into photography, and I find your photos really beautiful! I’ll appreciate it if you tell me where you edit them. Thank you 🙂

Robert Schrader July 20, 2016 at 1:10 pm

I shoot in RAW and use photoshop

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