Escaping for 3 days in Kyoto is pure bliss. With a perfect balance of history, nature, monuments and shopping, Kyoto ranks very high on my list of top travel destinations. If you’re visiting for just a short period, it’s crucial not to waste time. Here you’ll find my recommendations for what to see, do and eat during 3 days in Kyoto.
After almost a year without a real holiday, I was seriously craving adventure. I wanted to see something new, experience a different culture, get lost down the winding paths of a never before visited city. The problem is, when you go all year without a holiday, you’re exhausted (that was the situation for us anyway). We still wanted adventure, but we wanted it to be as stress-free, safe and relaxed as possible, so we set our sights on Japan. Kyoto to be specific.
Japan holds a dear place in my heart. My first trip overseas was to Tokyo. It’s where my love of traveling began and for the last ten years, I’ve been wanting to go back. This time though, I wanted to experience Kyoto. We only had 5 nights free as this was a stopover on our way to Australia. I was initially concerned we wouldn’t have enough time to see everything. I looked up some advice online and many people suggested 5 nights would actually be too long. I can honestly say now that I’ve visited, that anywhere between 3 days in Kyoto to 6 would be perfect.
My guide here is for 3 days in Kyoto. These 3 days are packed full of everything I loved. Some things may not be for you, but this is just a guide and you can always pick and choose from it what interests you.
If you’ve been to Kyoto and have any recommendations, make sure to leave me comment below letting me know.
We stayed in Kyoto Grandbell Hotel in Gion. The hotel was incredible value for money. It was very chic with a traditional touch. Our room was cosy but had everything you could need. Downstairs, there are tradition Japanese baths. I recommend that everyone tries this at least once. It’s so relaxing and leaves you feeling very zen. As for the location, I’ve read mixed reviews concerning Gion and I must say that I loved it. Yes, it’s a little touristy, but the central location is perfect for a 3-day trip.
I recommend starting your first day in Kyoto nice and early. Try to leave before 7am and head towards the Hokanji Temple. The main street that leads up to the 5 story Buddhist temple becomes easily overcrowded so make sure to have a peaceful explore and take some photos early. At 8am %Arabica opens. They’re located at the bottom of the main street leading to the temple and make some of the best coffee in Kyoto. If you’re using Google Maps, enter “%Arabica Kyoto Higashiyama” and you’ll soon find your way.
Once caffeinated, walk a little up the hill (yes, back towards the temple) and to your right, you’ll find bright orange gates marking the entrance to Yasaka Koshindo. Covered in colourfull, small, cloth balls, Yasaka Koshindo quickly became one of my favourite Temples in Kyoto. It’s small and only takes a few minutes to see it in its entirety, but for me, it was one of the most memorable places we visited. The colourful balls adorning the temple are said to represent Kukurizaru, a monkey with bound feet and hands, which represents the control of desire. To have a wish granted, one must sacrifice one desire and place it inside the monkey (the colourful ball). Apparently, the monkey will help banish that desire in order to help make your wish come true. I really wish I could read Japanese because I’d love to know what desires people were willing to sacrifice.
Hokanji and Yasaka Koshindo are just two of many temples in the southern Higashiyama area. The temples tend to run more or less north to south for a few kilometres in this area and you can easily walk to each of them. I recommend starting south at Kiyomizu-dera, then walking north towards Kodai-ji and finishing Chion-in. Allow yourself to get lost in the winding back streets along the way, stop for a coffee at Portland Roasting Coffee, and try some matcha or redbean crepes at one of the various stores along the walk. If you’re like me and need to pee every 5 seconds, you’ll be happy to know that you’ll come across many clean public toilets during this walk. Once you’re completely overwhelmed by temples, head back toward Gion.
You’re no doubt famished by the morning’s adventures. Luckily just next to Kyoto Grandbell Hotel you’ll find a small Gyoza restaurant called Gyoza8.I’ve eaten a lot of these little tasty dumplings in my life and must say, these are some of the best I’ve ever had! They serve both traditional and non-traditional flavours. My favourites were the truffle gyoza and the pork and mandarin gyoza. Two unique flavour combinations that were utterly divine! If you’re still hungry, walk directly across the road and you’ll find Yakitori Tarokichi a small yakitori bar. Gyoza are delicious but not particularly filling so finishing your meal with a few perfectly marinated and cooked skewers is an option I definitely recommend.
After Lunch, take a short stroll down Shijo Dori. I recommend spending the afternoon checking out the major Japanese department stores. I particularly liked OIOI (apparently this is pronounced as Marui). On the ground floor, you’ll find some of the best Moochi you’ll ever taste, and if you’re in need of more coffee, Unir make a mighty good latte. Upstairs, you’ll find fashion, accessories, basically everything you’d expect to find in a department store.
If you’re after the best of Japanese fashion and international brands, you’ll want to continue down Shijo Dori to an eight-storey department store called Fujii Daimaru. Once you start shopping here it’s difficult to stop. I know I ended up spending far too long in this department store. It’s also great for men’s fashion. Julien isn’t a big fan of shopping and even he loved some of the shops there.
If food is more your forte, you won’t want to miss the enormous food hall in the basement of the Takashimaya Department Store. Here you’ll find everything from sweet delicacies, to the freshest of sushi, to the largest variety of soy sauce you’ll ever see. If this wasn’t a stopover holiday, I would have filled my suitcase to the brim with goodies from this store.
Depending on where you flew in from, you’ll probably be quite exhausted after this jam-packed first day. I recommend spending the evening relaxing and slurping up a big bowl of ramen. The first night we arrived in Kyoto it was quite late and one of the only restaurants still open was a little ramen restaurant called Ramen Itsuwa. We didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be one of the best ramen restaurants in Kyoto. The menu is small, it’s inexpensive and will completely blow your mind! It’s a must visit for ramen fans!
If you’re like me and need a coffee before you can start your day, you’ll be pleased to know a cute, little coffee shop called Weekenders, opens nice and early (7:30am to be precise). This tucked away café roast their own beans and make exceptional filtered coffee as well as lattes and espressos. Conveniently, Weekenders is located a short walk from where you’ll be taking the bus to get to Kinkaku-ju, the emblematic, golden Buddhist temple. The temple opens at 9am and being one of the most popular monuments in Japan, I recommend arriving as early as possible. The easiest way to get there is by taking the 205 bus from Sanjo Dori to Kinkakujimichi bus stop. From there, you’ll have a short walk, but it’s easy to find. Visiting the temple and its gardens doesn’t take very long (approximately an hour), so you’ll be left with plenty of time to see other things later in the afternoon.
After visiting Kinkaku-ju, take the bus from the opposite side of the road back into centre of Kyoto. If you’re a fan of all things kawaii, head to Elk café for some incredibly big, fluffy pancakes and a 3D cappuccino. It’s a little expensive, but certainly very unique and worth trying.
Late in the afternoon, around 3pm, start walking towards Fushimi Inari-Taisha. Visiting later in the day means you’ll contend with far less tourists than during the early afternoon. It’s quite a long walk, but I found it to be really enjoyable. You’ll have the opportunity to see things off the beaten track, such as cute Japanese residential areas and hidden shrines. There’s also a good coffee shop along the way called Vermillion.
Once you’ve arrived, take your time to enjoy the glowing, red shrine. Walk through the famous torii gates that lead around the site and into the forest. I personally loved the fox statues found all around the area. Historically, the shrine was dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice during the 8th century to ensure prosperity in business. The foxes were Inari’s messengers who hold keys in their mouths to the rice granary. I find it so fascinating to see how the role of deities have influenced the design of such monuments. It left me so inspired that I ended up taking hundreds of photos there.
A short walk from Fushimi Inari-Taisha you’ll come across Dragon Burger. Whilst I know many of you will think it’s crazy to eat a burger when you have access to so much delicious Japanese food, but trust me these burgers are amazing! Each burger has its own unique Japanese twist, such as wasabi mayonnaise, or yuzu sauce. Even the bun is made from Hokkaido bread flour and fresh eggs from Ako to make it extra fluffy. If this doesn’t tempt you and you’d still prefer something more traditional, I recommend walking back into the city centre and trying the region’s famous Okonomiyaki, a delicious savoury pancake dish, covered in Tonkatsu sauce and bonito flakes – YUM! .
If you’re fan of uniquely brewed beers, I recommend heading to Spring Valley Brewery. All the beers on tap sounded amazing. It was impossible to pick just one, so I chose the beer flight which consisted of 6 small glasses of varying beers. I can’t remember the names of my favourites, but there was a liquorice stout that was particularly delicious, as well as a refreshing IPA style one that I loved. If beer’s not your thing, you might want to instead grab a drink at Bar K-ya, or if it’s warm, head to the outdoor terrace at Atlantis.
Rise and shine! Yes, there are no sleep ins during my 3-day tour (sorry!). Maybe it was because of the time of year I was in Kyoto, but I found that touristy sites quickly became overcrowded. Getting up early is definitely worthwhile.
As soon as you wake up, take the Arashiyama tram line from Shijo-Omiya Station to Keifuku Arashiyama Station. This station gives you access to the scenic Arashiyama where you’ll find sites such as the Arashiyama Monkey Park, Tenryuji Temple and the famous bamboo forest. I recommend starting your day at %Arabica café. Not only is their coffee delicious but you get to enjoy it with incredible views of the lush mountains and Togetsu-kyo Bridge. Next follow the signs toward Arashiyama Monkey Park. This was one of the highlights of our trip. The monkeys are wild and visit the park for food and to sunbake on the tin room. I thought we might see one or two monkeys from a distance but they were everywhere. Babies were playing, some were fast asleep in the sun and well, some were, let’s just say ‘feeling the love’ ;). We spend a couple hours there, it was an incredibly memorable experience.
Spend what’s left of the morning exploring the bamboo forest and Tenryuji Temple. It’s also worth having a look along the main street. It’s touristy but there are some good gift stores where you can find some nice souvenirs to take home. Before taking the tram back to Kyoto city centre, stop by Zarame for a cherry blossom or matcha flavoured fairyfloss. Unlike most fairyfloss that tastes just like sugar, these have a real distinct taste and are seriously yummy.
If you plan on having lunch in Arashiyama, I recommend trying Unagiya Hirokawa, a tradition Japanese restaurant specialising in Unagi (grilled freshwater eel). It’s a popular spot for lunch so make sure to book a table in advance to avoid lining up.
If you prefer to have lunch in Kyoto city centre, try Yakiniku Marutomi, on the top floor of OIOI. Here you can find the finest Japanese beef varieties, including Saga Beef, Miyazaki Beef and of course, Wagyu. You have the option to grill the meat yourself, or to order from the menu. The lunch time menu is excellent value (much more affordable than the dinner menu). I chose the Roast Beef Donburi Rice Bowl and Julien chose the Stone Grilled Bipimbap. Both meals where extremely delicious and in addition having fantastic food, Yakiniku Marutomi also have amazing views over Kyoto.
After lunch, spend the remainder of the afternoon checking out the Nishiki Markets. This is Kyoto’s largest traditional market and here you’ll find everything from the weird to the wonderful. Force yourself to be daring and taste and try as much of the unknown as possible. If you consider yourself quite the foodie you’ll love it this market, you’ll find every ingredient you can imagine, plus more. I particularly liked the large barrels full of strange looking fermented and pickled vegetable, and the stalls selling fresh sashimi skewers.
One of my favourite restaurants in Kyoto was Butaya Ton’ichi. Located in Teramachi, a long arcade filled with shops and restaurants, Butaya Ton’Ichi serve classic Japanese dishes cooked to perfection. The pork bowls are the most delicious and flavoursome I’ve ever tried and also excellent value for money. We tried this restaurant on the first day we arrived in Kyoto and we were so impressed we went back the next day. Unfortunately, they had closed for renovations and were not reopening until after we were to leave Kyoto. We spend the rest of our holiday trying to find pork as tasty as what we had there, but couldn’t find any that even came close. During peak periods, you may have to line up to get in, but trust me, it’s worth it! Teramachi closes quite late so while you’re there take your time to have a look around, before wandering back to the hotel for a late night onsen.
So, there you have 3 days packed full of adventure, history and lots of delicious Japanese food and coffee. In an ideal situation, this itinerary would be spread out over 4 or 5 days giving yourself time to relax, get lost and see the unexpected. However, if you only have 3 days in Kyoto, following this guide will ensure that you see and eat and experience what I consider to be the best that Kyoto has to offer.
If you’ve visited Kyoto recently, please drop me a comment below letting me and other readers know your favourite things to see and do!
SOME FINAL TIPS
- Always have cash on you. Very few restaurants and cafés accept payment by card.
- When taking the bus or tram, you pay when you get off, not when you get on.
- Bins are often quite hard to find so try to avoid eating on the run.
- Give yourself plenty of time to get to Kansai International Airport. We almost missed our flight because I underestimated how much time it would take to get from our hotel to the airport.
- Kyoto railway station is extremely difficult to navigate. Arrive extra early so you don’t miss you train.