Before we begin, I want to make it clear that 3 days are no where near enough to explore the best that Kyoto has to offer. I spent 20 days in Kyoto and enjoyed every bit of it, because there was just so much to see and do. With that being said, these places will definitely be enough to give you a flavour of Kyoto. If you enjoy culture, nature and history, Kyoto is definitely the place to be, and these places reflect why.
Firstly, you should start your day bright and early with a trip to one of the most iconic shrines in Japan- Fushimi Inari. On the way to the main shrine, there are many stalls selling street food favourites including Takoyaki. They offer a fantastic opportunity to try local delights while also having breakfast, so you should definitely consider buying some snacks.
Going beyond the beautiful main shrines, I strongly suggest following the hiking trail to the top, as the scenery is really beautiful. The whole visit to Fushimi Inari should take about 3.5 hours.
Then, you can take a 20 minute walk or the train one stop to Tobakaido Station to reach Tofukuji, a gorgeous temple that is a must see, especially in autumn. The temple is covered in maple trees and has several traditional gardens. This should take you 2 hours (including travel time).
Next take a 20 minute train ride to Shichijo Station to reach Rengeoin Sanjusangendo. If you are running behind time, make sure to reach before 16:30 (last admission). Sanjusangendo is an extremely famous Buddhist temple with 1000 statues of Kannon. You can take up to 1.5 hours here (including travel time).
Take a 20 minute train ride to Gion Shijo station to reach Nishiki Food Market, lovingly known as Kyoto's kitchen. Here, you have two options- eat a light dinner at a restaurant and then snack at Nishiki food market, or do what my friends and I did and go all out at Nishiki Food Market. We ate fresh seafood, onigiri, sweet potato, yakitori, mochi, soft serve ice cream and more with a budget of 2000 yen each.
After this you can spend however much time you want shopping around the area, before heading back.
Reach Arashiyama, and explore the famous Arashiyama Bamboo groves, the UNESCO world heritage site Tenryuji temple and the nearby scenic Arashimaya park Kameyama area. I recommend just relaxing and slowly enjoying the natural beauty of the area. There are plenty of snacks to buy for breakfast around Arashiyama station. This should take you 3.5 hours.
take a 20 minute walk up the hill to the Iwatayama monkey park, where you can spend an hour feeding the monkeys and taking in the view. The monkeys are wild, so be careful! This should take you 2 hours (including walking time).
You can take the river boat cruise down the Katsura river, which gives beautiful views of the mountains, and then spend time looking at the traditional craft and food stores that are in abundance especially near the Kimono forest area. You can spend about 2 hours for this.
you can choose to eat dinner at Arashiyama or anywhere else of your liking. You can then explore that area before heading back.
Firstly, make your way to Kinkakuji, the very famous and beautiful golden temple. There's not much food at Kinkakuji, so i recommend preparing your own for breakfast, but you can buy some soft serve ice cream there for dessert! This should take you about 1.5 hours.
Take the bus 12, 15 or 59 to reach Gion Shijo Station. This should take you about 40 minutes.
From there, explore Gion's traditional stores and find a restaurant to eat lunch at. Gion is Kyoto's most famous geiko district, with many tea houses, restaurants and craft stores. You can set aside 2 hours for this (including lunch).
From Gion, walk over to the nearby Yasaka shrine & Maruyama park. You can spend an hour walking around here. Yasaka shrine is famous for its summer festivals. Maruyama park is especially beautiful in spring. Depending on your preference, you can spend more or less time at Gion, and regulate time spent here accordingly.
Take bus 100 for 15 minutes to reach Kiyomizu dera. The reason why i recommend you visit Kiyomizu dera at this time is because you can view the sunset around 17:30 (depending on the season, sunset time varies so plan ahead) from a fantastic viewpoint. Exploring this large temple complex should take you 3.5 hours at maximum.
You can choose to eat dinner anywhere of your liking, before heading back.
Some extra tips:
- Some people plan to visit Fushimi Inari and Kiyomizu Dera on the same day. This is someting i would strongly not recommend doing as both places require lots of climbing.
- Nishiki Market is very long and there are many little shops, so take your time to survey around so that you can maximise your budget. There is a shop where you can grill mochi yourself, look out for that!
- Prices for temple items such as tablets, fortunes and charms remain fairly constant no matter which temple you visit (more or less famous).
- buses have flat rates of 230 yen, so taking the train is usually cheaper (*within Kyoto). if you plan on taking several buses per day, get a 500 yen unlimited bus pass.
- extend your trip. I'll admit that I'm biased because I love Kyoto, but seriously, this city has so much to offer. You can go for a Tea ceremony, be entertained by a Geiko, hike along Mt. Kurama, explore history at Nijo castle and so much more. So go ahead and add some days to your trip!
I just visited Kyoto and I totally agree that just when you think you budgeted enough time for Kyoto, you always feel you need an extra day. We are in Osaka now and took the Shinkansen back for the evening to see Gion at night since it's only a 15min ride.
For The Monkey Park, there is a really steep climb up that most visitors were not prepare for. Just take your time! The view at the top and monkeys are totally worth it.
One other thing - Kiyumizudera is still under construction, so the stunning cliff view is currently under awnings at the moment. We visited on 10/5/2017. The structure is still amazing but that one beautiful view is completely covered.
Wow I love the photo of Kiyomizudera! Last time I went there before closing but it was in spring and far from sunset.. also the temple was being restored.
I really liked this guide, what you choose to do for three days really differs from what I have done I Kyoto. (I guess it depends in the season as well).