When you only have a few days to spend in a historic city like Kyoto, planning an itinerary might seem daunting. Thankfully, it’s a comparatively small city, and many of its famous locations are easily accessible by bus and train. However, there are so many things to see and do you could drain yourself trying to jam it all in. Here, we’ve mapped the least exhausting yet most memorable three days in Kyoto that you can spend.
Also known as the Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji was the retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Now, gold leaf covers the top two floors of the temple, and it shimmers on the surface of the central pond. The impressive structure attracts visitors from around the world. You can avoid most of the crowds on weekday mornings.
The mysterious rock garden at Ryoanji Temple attracts hundreds of visitors a day. Historians debate the origins and original designer of the garden, which only adds to its wonderment. When you sit on the veranda of the Hojo, count how many large rocks you can see. There are fifteen strategically placed stones, but they pop in and out of view, depending on your vantage point.
A ten-minute walk from Saga Arashiyama Station takes you to the 400-year-old Togetsukyo Bridge. It spans the Katsura River and offers one of the best views of Arashiyama Mountain. Cherry blossoms bloom along the banks in spring, and in fall, the mountainside turns into a patchwork of color. From July to September, you can watch traditional cormorant fishing from the bridge, banks, or even on a boat tour.
After crossing Togetsukyo Bridge, the nostalgic streets take you to Tenryuji. Dedicated to Emperor Go-Daigo, this is the head temple of the Rinzai sect of Japanese Buddhism. It’s also one of the best places in Kyoto to see autumn leaves in the fall. The traditional Japanese landscape garden on the grounds has a spectacular unobstructed view of Arashiyama Mountain.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Exiting Tenryuji’s garden, you’ll find yourself enshrouded by the Sagano Bamboo Forest. The grove is particularly captivating when the stalks sway from gentle breezes. During the Hanatoro Illumination Festival in December, lanterns line the roads that wind through the forest, giving an otherworldly atmosphere.
Nijo Castle was Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Kyoto residence during his reign as Japan’s first shogun. The palace’s buildings are arguably the best surviving examples of feudal-era Japanese architecture. The main attraction is Ninomaru Palace, which is a complex of multiple buildings connected by squeaky nightingale floors. The elegant rooms feature painted sliding doors and intricately decorated ceilings.
Built in 1895, Heian Shrine celebrates the founding of Kyoto City. Behind the main buildings, the spacious grounds open to a striking garden with many weeping cherry trees. They bloom later than most varieties during the cherry blossom season and usually peak in mid-April. Heian Shrine is also the site of the annual Jidai Festival on October 22nd.
With over one-hundred shops and stalls, you can explore Kyoto’s local cuisine at Nishiki Market. Generations of families own and operate the same shops their ancestors did when the market opened in the 1300s. The lively five-block long shopping street specializes in fresh seafood, produce, and seasonal delights. There are a few sit-down restaurants, but most of the ready-to-serve fare is street food on skewers.
Between Yasaka Shrine and the Kamo River, Gion is Kyoto’s largest geisha district. Traditional style teahouses, shops, and restaurants fill the alleyways of Shijo Avenue and Hanami-koji Street. Many maiko and geisha live and work in this area, and you might be lucky enough to spot one. Otherwise, this is an excellent area to try Kaiseki Ryori, which is a Japanese haute cuisine course meal.
Established in 1606, Kodaiji Temple memorializes Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who unified Japan after the Warring States period. Maples and cherry blossoms surround the vast rock gardens, making it a spectacular destination in spring and autumn. During both of these seasons, illumination festivals take place on the grounds after sunset.
Kiyomizu-Dera Temple is a must for any visitor to Japan. The Main Hall’s wooden stage overlooks a forest of cherry blossoms and maples. During the fall and spring, the temple stays open late and lights up the trees with spotlights. In other seasons, it’s still worth going to drink from the Otowa Waterfall or to find love at Jishu Shrine.
From the outside, Sanjusangendo Hall looks somewhat ordinary, but the interior unquestionably is not. Inside, there are one thousand life-size statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, that flank a large wooden one. Each has eleven heads and forty-two arms. Together, the Kannons create an impressive sight that isn’t easy to leave.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
At Fushimi Inari Shrine, you can recreate your favorite scene from Memoirs of a Geisha. The sprawling grounds have an estimated 10,000 vermilion torii gates that local businesses donated over the years. The many pathways from the shrine lead to the summit of Inari Mountain. You can take a twenty-minute stroll or a two-hour hike depending on your mood.
Fushimi Sake District
High-quality sake comes from premium water and ingredients. The river that flows through the Fushimi Sake district is soft and clean and attracted the industry giant Gekkeikan in 1637. At the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, you can learn about the history of sake production. You can also take a tour at one of the local sake breweries, which often offer tastings at the end.