A 3 day Kyoto itinerary for first timers
This Kyoto itinerary is a short, sharp way to see Kyoto in just 3 days.
Kyoto doesn’t really need much of an introduction. Chances are if you’re already planning to head to Japan, you probably already looking for that gorgeous, old-world cultural Japanese charm.
This Kyoto itinerary is ideal if it’s your first time to Kyoto.
If you’re spending a week or two in Japan sightseeing across the country, typically 3 days is my recommendation if you’ve never been there before. 3 days is just enough to give you a good taste of what Kyoto looks and feels like. From there you can decide if you want to spend a little longer there next time.
This itinerary is tailored more towards sightseeing, with a few food recommendations mixed in here and there, as that’s what I like to focus on when I travel. I’ve left experience-based activities out – although there’s plenty of those to do in Kyoto like Geisha performances, tea ceremonies, calligraphy, zen meditation etc.
Anyway, let’s get to it.
Chances are you’ll be starting from Midday if you’re travelling to Kyoto from Tokyo. Or, you just like to sleep in. Either way, let’s start here in the afternoon.
Hokanji temple (Yasaka no tou) is a very picturesque 5-storied pagoda located in the heart of my favourite part of town, Higashiyama ward.
As a subject to photograph, it’s a beautiful sight contrasted with the rest of the city. The best perspectives to capture this pagoda from are down the road near %Arabica (which also has fantastic coffee too, by the way), or more commonly just up the road from Yasaka-dori.
From there, you can slowly make your way through the streets of Nineizaka – a collection of old-world teahouses and shops with architecture locked in Japanese history. This part of town really illustrates the cultural experience you go to Kyoto for.
Continue onwards to Sanneizaka for even more classic Japanese architecture and make sure to stop at some of the stalls there too! There’s so many different types of souvenirs and things to see. If it’s your first time to Japan you’ll also notice just how nicely packaged all the ‘gifts’ are too – purposefully wrapped and ready for you to gift to your friends and folks back home.
All this walking through the old world of Kyoto is actually leading you to this point, Kiyomizu-dera.
Kiyomizu-dera is arguably Kyoto’s most famous and beautiful temple, known for its many shrines, halls, architecture and city views, all surrounded by beautiful foliage; Cherry Blossoms during April and Koyo during Autumn.
It’s a stunning location to visit during sunset, which is when I suggest you go. You can easily spend an hour here exploring all the halls, gardens and waterfall, so make sure you leave some time to really soak all of this beauty in.
Ramen at Musoshin
After all that excitement and sightseeing, you’re probably pretty hungry, and this wouldn’t be a proper Kyoto itinerary without suggesting a ramen spot.
One of my favourite ramen spots in Kyoto is a place called Musoshin, not too far from where you started at Hokanji temple.
It’s a tiny place, as most ramen joints are, but I assure you, the ramen is some of the best I’ve had in Kyoto (and I’ve had a lot).
Well, if it’s your first time, a proper Kyoto itinerary wouldn’t be complete without this place, right?
But here’s the biggest difference: we’re going there for sunrise. Why?
Because there aren’t any tourists around.
Most people don’t wake up that early, but if you do, you’ll be rewarded with a tranquil, quiet and peaceful experience, devoid of people and tourists. You’ll have the place to yourself and you’ll get to experience the real tranquility Fushimi Inari offers. Not to mention, your images will have no one in them!
If you were to stay for just an hour or two late, you’ll start to see the tourists appear in droves. By 10am, there’s a slow moving mosh pit wading its way through the gates. It’s actually a scary sight. But more importantly, forget about taking a good photo or enjoying your time there then.
Side note: You can actually walk all the way up the mountain! While there isn’t much of a view from the top, the entire way up is lined with numerous Torii and shrines, making for a great experience you don’t usually see on Instagram or social media.
Coffee at Weekenders
And after all of that, you’re probably pretty tired. Especially after having woken up for sunrise.
No matter! If you’re a coffee snob like me, one of my favourite coffee places (recommended to me by my local friends) is called Weekenders. They do high quality brews that rival the high quality coffee we get even in Sydney and Melbourne.
It’s a bit of a random spot – it’s a tiny cafe behind a car park – but the randomness is all part of the fun.
Spend your mid to late morning exploring and walking around the Kyoto Gyoen National garden. It’s another tranquil and beautiful place, arguably the prettiest garden in Kyoto.
Just be aware that there’s an entry fee to get in. It’s inexpensive and worth it though.
Have a rest midday. I’m sure you’re tired from this mornings sunrise mission.
Come out again mid afternoon after you’ve had some R&R, ready to get at it again.
Of course no Kyoto itinerary would be complete without trying to find some Geiko (that’s what Geisha are called in Kyoto), so we’ll head to Pontocho alley, where there’s a chance you might spot some!
Pontocho alley is a tight, pedestrian-only alley filled with teeny restaurants and izakaya (casual pubs). It’s a great place to eat actually, and you should totally randomly choose a place to eat for dinner here later tonight.
At the end of the alley though, there’s a performing arts centre called Pontocho Kamogawa Odori. It’s a venue that specialises in Geiko performances.
It’s at this end of the street that (if you stay long enough, or if you’re lucky) you’ll get to see Maiko (trainee Geiko) quickly scurrying between the local shops and the venue.
Be quick though, because they’ll be gone in a flash.
The other location to spot Maiko is around Gion corner; another performing arts venue for Maiko and Gaiko performances.
The streets around here are also very much decorated in traditional Japanese architecture, so spend some time wandering; this entire area is beautiful.
As it gets later into the night and more tourists come out, perhaps it might be time to leave. Head on back to Pontocho alley for some dinner and have an early night, because tomorrow; another sunrise mission.
This one is a little bit of a pain to get to, but it’s worth it if you want to see a sight not many other people bother to see when they visit Kyoto. This definitely isn’t a place you’ll find on any other Kyoto itinerary out there.
And, having been to hundreds of shrines all across Japan, Shirahige shrine is one of my top 3.
It’s a beautiful, giant, floating Torii gate in the middle of Lake Biwa. It’s serene, gorgeous, and somewhere totally off the beaten path from your typical Japan tourism route.
Getting here by public transport is a bit annoying though. You’d have to catch the first train out (usually around 5.30am) to Omi-Takashima station (40ish minutes), then walk half an hour to the shrine.
Alternatively, getting there by car is easy, or if you’re ballin’ out you could just catch a taxi. It’s an hour’s drive though.
Righto, on to the next place: Kinkaku-ji.
Kinkaku-ji is a historical temple that’s painted in gold. Sounds pretty cool, huh? Not only that, it sits in front of a pond which is usually quite still, casting reflections and light like crazy. The combination of visuals here is just すごい！
Most of the compositions you’ll find at this place live behind a fence, so when it comes to images, for the most part it doesn’t matter too much if there’s a busload or three worth of tourists here (and there usually is).
For the last stop of this 3 day Kyoto itinerary, we’re headed to Nishiki market; swapping tranquility and peace for chaos and claustrophobia.
It’s Kyoto’s most iconic market. One that dates over 400 years old.
Here, you’ll find just about every cuisine Japan is famous for, served in a setting that only Kyoto can pull off.
It’s strange, but every time I come to Kyoto, I never actually intend to come here – it’s not really the kind of place I look for when I’m searching for photographic stories – but I always find myself revisiting this kilometre-long market for some reason or another. Maybe it’s because I love food so much.
Whatever it is, Nishiki market has a homely charm that speaks to me every time. It’s probably one of my favourite markets in Japan and a great place to finish off your visit to Kyoto.
I hope you enjoyed this 3 day Kyoto itinerary. I love Kyoto; the old capital is just so different to any other part of Japan and it’s a place I look forward to revisiting every time I’m in the country.
I’m sure you’ll love it too.