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KYOTO

3-Day Kyoto Itinerary for First-Time Visitors

By Annika Hotta
Updated: February 20, 2024

Kyoto is one of the most popular destinations in Japan, boasting history, culture, beautiful sights, and delicious food. As the former capital, there is something for every kind of traveler… but how do you choose what to do in Kyoto and what to skip if you’re only in the area for a few days? 

Well, check out our 3-day Kyoto itinerary, suitable for both first-time visitors and people coming back for more, recommending some of the best things to see, eat, and do in Kyoto!

Getting to and Around Kyoto 

If you’re coming from overseas, you’ll likely be landing at Kansai International Airport, Osaka International Airport, or Chubu Centrair International Airport. Simply take a local train from the airport to get you to the city center. 

As an added bonus, if your hotel is in a central location, you’ll likely have at least a few temples and sights within walking distance. Otherwise, taking a taxi or a train is the most convenient way of getting around. The bus is also a cheap option if you can read Japanese and have cash or a travel card with you!

Like many tourists, you may also be coming to Kyoto from Tokyo, and there are a couple of options. You could go for the popular shinkansen (bullet train) and it will take around 2 hours and 15 mins, costing approximately ¥13,080 for a non-reserved seat.

Alternatively, you could take the Kyoto Tokyo Midnight Express, a night bus that takes about 9 hours and 15 mins and costs anywhere between ¥5,980 and ¥10,500, depending on the season. It usually departs from Tokyo at around 10pm, arriving in Kyoto at around 7:30am.

Day 1 

Ramen Street at Kyoto Station

Kyoto station's Ramen Street, showing a number of ramen restaurants.

If you’re just arriving in Kyoto, you likely need a quick, nourishing meal. Head on up the stairs to Ramen Street, an alleyway of ramen restaurants inside Kyoto Station. Ramen Todai is a personal favorite of mine whenever I’m in Kyoto as they have unlimited raw eggs, garlic, and spicy bean sprouts to add additional flavor, all at an affordable price. 

Get a glimpse of Kyoto’s temples at Kenninji

A front-facing shot of the Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Kenninji.

There’s no shortage of gorgeous Buddhist temples in Kyoto, and Kenninji is a great one to start with. Located just south of the famous Gion district, Kenninji is known for its pristine gardens and golden dragon painting on the ceiling. While the sights are truly impressive, it doesn’t take too long to tour the temple, so this activity is perfect if you’re jet-lagged or running low on energy. 

Get your fill of Kyoto specialties at Nishiki Market 

An interior shot of Kyoto's Nishiki Market, showing a multi-colored skylight and many shops.

Once you’ve worked up an appetite after lunch, head to Nishiki Market for some local snacks or dinner options. Already been to Nishiki Market? Check out these Kyoto food markets for a few fresh alternatives. 

Want to be guided through the busy market by an expert? Book one of our tours through Nishiki Market or our combined tours of Nishiki Market and Gion, introducing you to all the local food and sights without needing Google Translate nearby. 

As a Nishiki Market veteran, it’s my opinion that matcha products are better found elsewhere in Kyoto, but the grilled octopus skewers are a fantastic introduction to Japanese food for the uninitiated. They may cost a little more here, but you’re also paying for the experience of shopping and snacking in this beautiful shopping street.

Pro tip: Make sure to eat any food from shops or stalls on the side streets, not in the alleyways, as you may be given a small fine in some places.

Day 2

Walk through Arashiyama Bamboo Forest 

A shot of Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, with bamboo shooting up into the sky.

One of the most iconic destinations in Japan, Arashiyama is well worth a visit and hardly Kyoto’s best-kept secret, so get there early if you want photos without crowds of people in the background. 

Want to take your photos up a notch? Rent a kimono in one of the many kimono rental shops nearby to fully immerse yourself in Japan culture and style.

Dine like a Buddhist in Tenryuji Temple Shigetsu

A selection of dishes at Tenryuji Temple Shigetsu in Kyoto, featuring seasonal ingredients and flavors.

Once you’ve made your way through the bamboo forest, don’t forget to go inside Tenryuji Temple for stunning waterside views of the Sōgen Pond and traditional Buddhist cuisine at Tenryuji Temple Shigetsu, focusing mainly on soybeans and vegetables. Expect simple, elegant flavors and presentation. 

Take a stroll along the Main Street and try Yuba

A bowl of yuba soba, featuring a bowl of soba with two rolls of yuba (dried tofu skin) on top and a selection of seasonal vegetables.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice for visiting Arashiyama is to save the main street for last. There are dozens of shops to explore, but you’ll want to go through the bamboo forest first and leave time at the end to buy souvenirs or try different snacks. 

Arashiyama is known for its yuba (dried tofu or soy milk skin)—created by cooking soy milk over a low heat and then leaving the skin that forms to dry—so be sure to try Arashiyama’s unique dishes, like yuba skin soup and yuba skin ice cream. 

Kyoto is also famous for Kyoto matcha, and you’ll find no shortage of such delights, including matcha crepes and matcha parfaits at places like Arinco

Day 3

Enjoy Michelin-Star dining in Kyoto

Funaokayama Shimizu, a modern, sleek Michelin-starred restaurant serving traditional Japanese cuisine.

For a meal worth bragging about, head to Michelin-starred restaurant, Funaokayama Shimizu, a stylish spot with a modern interior that serves traditional Japanese cuisine. Its claim to fame is that Chef Shimizu—which translates to “pure water”—uses pure Kyoto groundwater from a well near Daitokuji Temple to cook its rice.

And, if you’re tempted to come back for dinner, you’ll discover Funaokayama Shimizu’s Standard, Superior, and Premium course options, using only the finest and freshest of seasonal ingredients to create flavors as harmonious as the restaurant’s setting. 

If you’re not feeling traditional Japanese cuisine on this day, though, feel free to check out these other affordable Michelin-star restaurants in Kyoto!

Attend a sake brewery tour in the Fushimi District

Five bottles of sake lined up on a stone wall. On each, a label with the brand names, written in calligraphy-style kanji.

What better way to top off a meal than fresh sake straight from the brewery? Learn how sake is made and what differentiates one bottle from the next with this Kyoto Sake Brewery Tour. You’re sure to learn some interesting facts that’ll impress your friends back home, so kanpai (cheers!) to that!

Take a hike at Fushimi Inari Shrine

A shot taken at Fushimi Inari Shrine, looking through the walkway of endless torii gates on a sunny day.

While you’re in the Fushimi district, why not go for a hike through one of the most photographed shrines in Japan? The iconic red torii gates lead up to expansive views of the greater Kyoto area. I haven’t personally tried this while tipsy from sake, but you’ll have to let us know in the comments how the experience goes!

I hope this Kyoto itinerary blog post gives you a few ideas on what to do on your trip to Kyoto! Whatever you choose, Kyoto is a beautiful, atmospheric city that is sure to be a memorable experience, whether it’s your first time or fifth time visiting. 

If you’re spending a little more time in Kyoto, take a look through our other guides for all kinds of things to do, eat, and drink in Kyoto:

Kyoto FAQs

How far is Kyoto from Tokyo?

It takes a little over two hours to get to Kyoto from Tokyo by bullet train. 

There is no direct flight from Tokyo to Kyoto, but you can get a connecting flight to Kansai International Airport in Osaka prefecture, Osaka International Airport, or Chubu Centrair International Airport near Nagoya. From there, you can take a local train to get to Kyoto, coming in at around an hour to an hour and a half.

What is Kyoto known for?

Kyoto is known for its traditional architecture, retaining a sense of Japan’s past, and an almost endless selection of temples. It is also seen as the heart of Japan’s ongoing geisha culture, along with local specialties in Kyoto matcha, yuba dishes, and the must-visit bamboo forest in Arashiyama.

When is the best time to visit Kyoto?

If you want to see cherry blossoms, March to May is the best time to go. Please note that Golden Week—aka the last week of April—is the busiest and most expensive time to go anywhere in Japan, especially Kyoto. 

If you’re aiming to see the fall foliage, October to mid-December is the best time. Keep in mind that these times correspond with the peak travel seasons in Japan, so if you want to avoid the crowds, go towards the beginning or tail-end of either season. 

What are some day trips you can do from Kyoto? 

Uji: Uji is a quaint town about 45 minutes out of the city center. Not only were a few scenes from A Tale of the Genji set here, but Uji is also known for its matcha. Tsujirihei Honten is a world-famous matcha shop, though you can find many high-quality green tea products in any of the shops lining the main street. Be sure to pick up matcha miruku (milk) for matcha lattes and food-grade matcha if you want to do some baking. 

Once you’ve had your fill of matcha and parfaits, head to Byodoin Temple, a site you may recognize from the ¥10 coin! At certain times of year (namely the fall and winter seasons), the temple hosts a light-up ceremony at night, which is a sight to behold. 

Amanohashidate: A sandbar that spans across Miyazu Bay, Amanohashidate is unlike any other view in Japan. If you’re craving a bit of exercise, visitors can walk or bike from one end to the other. There is also Amanohashidate Shrine, Amanohashidate Winery, and Amanohashidate Viewland – a viewing platform accessible by cable car for panoramic views of the peninsula! 

Ine: Just north of Amanohashidate is Ine, a picturesque fishing village located about two hours from Kyoto’s city center. Depending on the time of year, you can try out different seasonal seafood as well as attend local festivals. You can also rent bikes, take a boat or ferry ride, and peek inside a funaya (boat house) or fishing hut right along the water. 

Browse more food experiences in Japan and check out our YouTube channel for unlimited travel inspiration!

We strive to be as accurate as possible and keep up with the changing landscape of Japan’s food and travel industries. If you spot any inaccuracies, please send a report.
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Annika Hotta
After studying abroad in Shiga prefecture in 2019, Annika moved to Japan in 2021. In her writing, she highlights the best dishes and places to eat in Japan for both the picky and the adventurous.
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