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Geisha in Kyoto

Kyoto: Ultimate 3-Day Travel Guide

To the point Beautiful Kyoto; from the golden pavilions to the tranquil paths of Arashiyama, there's something for all in this charming historic city.

Kyoto is more of a traditional Japanese city with its Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. You can also find many gardens and landscapes far from Shibuya’s neon signs; the contrast with Tokyo is very notable. Kyoto is a postcard-perfect destination with stunning and peaceful scenery.

As a first-timer in Japan, you will likely be visiting this charming city along with Tokyo. There is a lot to see, as Kyoto is the heart of Japanese culture and tradition.

Here is everything you need to know to plan your trip.

Kyoto school trips
Kyoto school trips

Kyoto: A 3-day stay

There is a lot of sightseeing to do in Kyoto and they are quite spread out in different directions, but you should be able to cover most of it in the span of three days.

If you have more time, take a slower pace, and enjoy your surroundings like that spectacular walk along Philosopher’s Path while the cherry blossoms or Sakura are in full bloom.

Kyoto sakura
Kyoto sakura

Kyoto - Day one

When you arrive in Kyoto, you should first hit Higashiyama Ward and the Gion District as it’s the historical centre of the city. You’ll be visiting a lot of temples and shrines, but they are pretty close to each other. The Gion District of Kyoto is a labyrinth of narrow streets and unique traditional wooden houses; it’s hard to take a bad picture here.

You can also rent a kimono to wear while you explore; you will be transported back in time with the setting around you. In addition, you can dress up as a full geisha with make-up and hair if you wish! That in itself can be an experience!

Geisha in Kyoto
Geisha in Kyoto

An iconic street to walk in is Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka, pedestrian roads with traditional Japanese houses on each side. It is very well preserved, and you will feel like you are wandering in the era of samurais and geishas.

As I mentioned, there are many temples and shrines in Kyoto; you can decide if you want to visit them all. But here are the best ones in this area:

  • Kiyomizu-dera
  • Yasaka Pagoda
  • Yasaka Koshindo
  • Yasaka Shrine
  • Kodai-Ji

Close to the Kamo River, you can find Pontocho Alley, which is another, but smaller, Geisha District. Then, explore Nishiki Market and try out local specialties! This covered market is also a great place to buy souvenirs.

Temple Hokanji

In July, the Gion Matsuri or festival is held at Yasaka Shrine; that event has taken place every year for over a thousand years. It is also the biggest and most famous festival in Japan.

Kyoto - Day two

On your second day in Kyoto, try to rise early to visit Arashimaya Bambo Groove Forest, especially if you want that perfect picture of yourself alone with a beautiful background, as it can get quite crowded.

While in the area, check out Tenryu-Ji, one of Kyoto’s Zen temples with a magnificent garden.

Then, make your way to Fushimi Inari Shrine for a hike. This Shrine consists of thousands of red torii gates that lead up the mountain, and it’s one of the most photographed places in Kyoto and Japan.

Foret de bambou d'Arashiyama
Sanctuaire Inari-taisha

End your day by visiting Kinkaku-Ji or Gold Pavilion as it is most beautiful around sunset. It is quite spectacular as it is covered in gold leaves and reflects on the Pond’s surface; it’s one of the most iconic attractions in Kyoto.

While this day doesn’t seem that loaded, hiking up and down Fushimi Inari Shrine can easily take a couple of hours. Also, as we are exploring the outskirts of the city, you will spend a lot of time getting from one place to another, but it’s worth it!

Palais d'été

Kyoto - Day three

On your third day, I recommend discovering more temples! Start with Ginkaku-Ji and its beautiful gardens, which is the Silver Pavilion. Unlike Kinkaku-Ji, Ginkaku-Ji is not covered in silver.

Then, make your way along the Philosopher’s Path, especially if you are visiting in the spring for a memorable walk.

Kyoto sakura 2
Kyoto Sakura

Nijo Castle is also not to be missed as it is the former palace of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Shogun of the Edo Period, an important time in Japan’s history. The Castle is divided into three sections: the Honmaru and the Nonomaru which are the main and secondary circle of defence as well as the gardens surrounding them. My favourite part was the traditional gardens.

After visiting the Nijo Castle, head to the Kyoto Imperial Palace, the residence of the Imperial Family until 1868.

Kyoto nijo castle
Kyoto Nijo Castle

Kyoto - Where to eat?

Kyoto is well known for its kaiseki or fine dining restaurants but you can easily eat ramen, sushi and donburi without busting your budget.

Gion Kappa: a very nice izakaya-style restaurant which serves great Japanese dishes to share

Katsukura Tonkatsu Sanjo: probably the best Tonkatsu dishes in town

Hachidaime Gihey: serves beautifully presented lunch sets at a reasonable price

Kitcho Arashiyama Honten: for the best kaiseki experience if you have no budget.

Kikunoi: a world-famous kaiseki restaurant

Kyoto kaiseki
Kyoto Kaiseki

Kyoto - Where to stay?

As Kyoto’s attractions are spread out over the city, the best places to stay are near the train station and in Higashiyama; most public transportation will pass through those areas, so they are convenient to explore.

Accommodation in Kyoto can be pricy, so I usually resort to AirBnB and independent hotels as they offer the most value, in my opinion; while the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto is a fantastic Marriott Bonvoy property, it is pretty expensive whether you pay in points or cash.

An excellent strategy to save on your stay is to buy Airbnb gift cards at grocery stores to receive 5X the points on your purchase with the American Express Cobalt® Card.

Remember to go through a shopping portal to book your stay in Kyoto! Then, you can use those same points for a statement credit.

Kyoto - How to get there with points and miles?

It may be difficult to book a flight to Kyoto using points in the near future, as it is a very popular destination and has recently reopened after being closed due to the pandemic.

It may be necessary to book well in advance or last minute in the hope that partner airlines will make more award seats available at a fixed price.

You can find more information on how to travel to Japan using points and miles in our complete guide.

Kyoto streets
Kyoto streets

Kyoto - How to get around?

The closest international airport is in Osaka, and there is a train that can take you straight to Kyoto in less than an hour and a half. There are alternative ways that can be cheaper but will require changing and connecting. Also, local passes can save you a lot of money on public transportation in the area.

Kyoto has an excellent public transportation system, including trains, buses, and metros, that will help you get around the city efficiently. Additionally, Kyoto is a relatively small and flat city, making it easy to explore on foot or by bike.

For more information on how to travel to Japan with points and miles and about public transportation in the country, see our complete guides.

Bottom Line

Kyoto can’t be missed on the perfect Japanese holiday. This city has preserved its traditional charm and will transport you back in time with the narrow alleyways of the geisha’s districts, whereas Tokyo is more modern. There is so much history and temples that you can spend days visiting them all.

Come to discuss that topic in our Facebook Group!

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