“Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” ~ Gustave Flaubert.

Why create a 4 days in Kyoto itinerary?

Although many people have an itinerary for Kyoto, they usually skim over a handful of sights in 48 hours or less. I’m not sure why because spending 4 days in Kyoto means you can discover so much more (including Kyoto’s hidden gems) and not feel rushed.

I’ve visited this intriguing city on several occasions in different seasons, and can confidently say seeing Kyoto in 4 days is the perfect amount of time to visit many attractions in a relaxed, enjoyable way. Here’s why!

With its lush bamboo groves, beautiful Buddhist temples, stunning geishas and remarkable history, a visit to Kyoto should be at the top of your itinerary when travelling around Japan. Whether you’re staying for the first time or you’re a regular visitor there are over 2000 temples and shrines in Japan’s former capital city (amongst many other attractions) so you’ll never be at a loss for things to see and do!

4 Days in Kyoto Itinerary: Complete Guide for First-Timers | The Invisible Tourist

I am consistently blown away by Kyoto’s magnificent history and how beautifully many attractions have been preserved. From 794 through 1868, the Emperor lived in Heian-kyō (Kyoto today) so this was considered Japan’s capital city. It’s very humbling to realise during your visit that so much has happened here before you, and will continue to happen long after you leave. 

For my fellow book lovers, I created this itinerary using info from these Japan travel books so take a look once you’re done here. 

If you want to know the most efficient way to spend 4 days in Kyoto to enjoy the main attractions, learn how to beat the crowds and discover hidden alternatives to popular spots, read on for more!

This post contains affiliate links, at no extra cost to you. I may make a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. 

4 Days in Kyoto Itinerary: Complete Guide for First Timers | The Invisible Tourist
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Go feed your cat, grab yourself a beverage and get ready! Here are the highlights of Kyoto I’ll be explaining in further detail below:

2 Weeks in Japan: A Complete itinerary for First-Timers | The Invisible Tourist
KYOTO ITINERARY HIGHLIGHTS: 1: Arashiyama Bamboo Grove ~ 2: View from Sanjo Ohashi Bridge ~ 3: Daigo-ji Temple ~ 4: Kinkaku-ji Temple ~ 5: Fushimi Inari Shrine ~ 6: Backstreets of Gion ~ 7: Gio-ji Moss Gardens ~ 8: Kiyomizu-dera

How to best spend four days in Kyoto with a mid range budget

For any trip, staying in a centrally located hotel is of utmost importance if you want to maximise your travel experience. In Kyoto it means you’ll spend less time getting around and more time exploring UNESCO World Heritage sites, wandering the tranquil bamboo groves and enjoying the culinary delights that make Kyoto world-famous.

The hotel I’ve recommended below is for travellers with a mid range budget, in the heart of the action (Gion) and only a few moments walk to train stations.

Also, make use of shinkansen – Japanese Bullet Trains. They are the most efficient way to get to and from Kyoto. I’ll discuss these in more detail at the conclusion of this sample Kyoto itinerary.

TIP: This dedicated Kyoto guide is part of my full 2 Weeks in Japan Itinerary and 3 Weeks in Japan Itinerary. It also features in my Japan honeymoon itinerary, so be sure to take a look for more inspiration.

View from my room at Kyoto Granbell Hotel Gion
View from my room at the Kyoto Granbell Hotel, Gion

Where to eat in Kyoto

As Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto is one of the best places to visit in Japan for foodies. Manzara-Tei in Pontocho 先斗町 is one of my favourites, sit at the bar in front of the kitchen and watch the Japanese chefs work their magic. Also, any restaurant in the narrow, lantern-lit Gion alleyways (Geisha district) will be a great culinary experience. 

While Nishiki Market is a super popular Kyoto sightseeing destination, there are also a bunch of eateries around the Sanjo station area. It’s common to walk in to some restaurants and be met by a vending machine where you place your order and take a seat. Soon after your delicious (and cheap) meal will be brought over to your table by a friendly waiter. 

If you’re after a quick bite, I love and recommend Japanese kombini (convenience stores) or street food. My guide to snacks from Japan details the popular and traditional morsels to try, plus exactly where to find them!

Kyoto cooking classes

Do you love learning about other cultures through food? There are a number of authentic Japanese cooking classes you can take in Kyoto. I personally took a ramen cooking class and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Read about my Kyoto cooking class for what English speakers can expect during the class, if I managed to not screw it up and how to book your own!

It’s also possible to to do a cooking class combined with a tea ceremony in Kyoto (some you are able to dress up in a traditional kimono, too!). Click here for all combined traditional Kyoto cooking classes and tea ceremonies. Thanks to my class, the saying “ichi go ichi e” is now one of my favourite beautiful Japanese words.

Geisha & Maiko in Gion, Kyoto | The Invisible Tourist #geisha #maiko #kyoto #japan

Things to do in Kyoto: What to add to a 4 day Kyoto itinerary

As always, let’s break things up into a day-by-day guide by neighbourhood to make things easy in this Kyoto travel blog!

DAY 1: Getting There & Exploring Downtown Kyoto

Getting to Kyoto from Tokyo

The journey is 2h20 from Tokyo Shinagawa 品川駅 Station on Nozomi のぞみ shinkansen. But, what’s a Nozomi versus other train types? Should you bother with the JR Pass? Don’t worry, I’ve explained it all here in my full 2 Weeks in Japan Itinerary!

Cost: Adult Nozomi ticket JPY 13,910ea or free with the Japan Rail Pass.
You can find the Japan Rail (JR) shinkansen timetables used for this itinerary here: Westbound from Tokyo.

Nozomi Shinkansen

Things to do in Downtown Kyoto

As it’s likely you’ll arrive in the afternoon from Tokyo, spend what’s left of your day exploring downtown Kyoto 京都 to get your bearings. 

Don’t forget to look up at the huge Kyoto Tower just across the road from Kyoto Station if using the northern exits. I missed it during my first time in Kyoto as it was quite cloudy during my stay. The red and white tower was built in the 1930’s and either represents a lighthouse or candle, depending on who you speak to! Buy tickets to Kyoto Tower’s observation deck here.

If you prefer to just make your way directly to Gion, take a stroll along the Sanjo Ohashi Bridge 三条大橋 at dusk. This “Great Third Street” bridge spans the Kamo River and its first historical reference dates back to 1590. It is said to have been linked to an eastern highway between Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto.

Be sure to wander over to the Sanjo-kai Shotengai shopping arcade 三条会 – there are 7 kilometres worth of shops to discover. Seriously! Also around this area are Teramachi and Shinkyogoku shopping arcades, linking to Nishiki Market and the lantern-adorned Nishiki Tenman-gū Shrine – it’s interesting to find a shrine located within an undercover arcade.

One of my favourite walks in Kyoto during the evening is along one of the city’s main streets, Shijo-dori. Running east from the Kumo River towards Yasaka Shrine, it’s a buzzing spot with shops and eateries galore. The grand red and white entry gate to Yasaka Shrine looks magical illuminated in the evening. 

NOTE: If you’re lucky, you may even spot a maiko or two running errands around here.

TIP: If you’re hoping to visit during the cherry blossom season, my detailed guide to spring in Japan is packed with tips for more places to go, alternatives to popular spots, what to pack and how to avoid the huge crowds!

View from Sanjo Ohashi Bridge, Kyoto

DAY 2: Things to do in Northern Kyoto

For day 2 of this itinerary for Kyoto, we start up in the northern outskirts of the city. We’ll begin at Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, followed by Iwatayama Monkey park (optional) then explore Gio-ji, Adashino Nembutsu-ji and finish up at Kinkaku-ji.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

With a huge increase in popularity in recent years, it’s a wise idea to start day 2 of your Kyoto itinerary at Arashiyama 嵐山 Bamboo Grove (also known as Sagano Bamboo Forest).

This mesmerising setting is where you’ll be able to capture your postcard-worthy photos of this iconic Kyoto attraction! The endless rows of greenery are spectacular. This Arashiyama Bamboo Grove tour with a local guide will allow you the chance to visit the groves and have lunch at a UNESCO listed temple, too! 

TIP: If you can’t make it to the famous bamboo forest, no need to worry as I have an alternative for you further down on Day 3 of this Kyoto itinerary, and a hidden option at the end of this Northern Kyoto section!

NOTE: Due to overtourism in Kyoto, tourists have been etching their names into the bamboo stems. Why it may seem harmless, it can actually cause significant damage to the bamboo as it doesn’t heal. Please don’t be that annoying tourist who ruins this breathtaking area for everyone.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Iwatayama Monkey Park

Have you always wanted to see snow monkeys in Japan? you may wish to stop by Iwatayama Monkey Park while you’re in the area (cost: JPY 550). Here you’ll find plenty of Japanese macaque monkeys going about their monkey business. 

There may not be snow here during your visit but the little guys found in this area are the same as the hot-spring bathing ones Nagano is famous for. Remember the monkeys are wild after all so pay attention to the do’s and don’ts on signage throughout the area.

Gio-ji Temple & Moss Gardens

From the Bamboo Groves or Monkey Park, make your way over to Gio-ji Temple & Moss Gardens 祇王寺 (cost: JPY 300). These gardens are easily overlooked by other travellers (see why in my tip below) so it’s likely you’ll have them to yourself during your visit. 

The temple itself is quite small but the magnificent moss blanketing the grounds are truly stunning. You’ll feel relaxed just by looking at it! Certainly worth a visit to escape the heat during the warm summer months.

TIP: Gio-ji is approximately 3.2kms from Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. My travel buddy and I walked about 40mins to get there (it looked closer on the map, I swear!) Perhaps hire a bicycle and ride there instead if you’re not up for walking that far. Kyoto Option bicycle rental shop is 1min walk from Kyoto train station.

Take your time in Japan to discover hidden gems, such as Gio-ji in Kyoto

Get off the beaten path in Kyoto to discover hidden gems like Gio-ji Moss garden

Adashino-Nembutsu-ji

Also in the Arashiyama neighbourhood, Adashino Nembutsu-ji 化野念仏寺 (cost: JPY 500) is a lovely little shrine that’s worth your attention. Each stone represents a person who died without a next-of-kin. These people are remembered once a year with a small ceremony. 

I was so touched by this beautiful idea so I had to add it to my Kyoto itinerary. It’s around a 10min walk from Gio-ji Temple & Moss Gardens.

Adashino Nembutsu-ji is dedicated to those who died without a next-of-kin

Adashino Nenbutsu-ji

Kinkaku-ji Temple

After all that exploration and discovery in the Arashiyama area, finish the day at the famous Kinkaku-ji Temple 金閣寺 (cost: JPY 400). It’s quite obvious why this temple is nicknamed the “Golden Pavilion!” It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of Kyoto’s biggest drawcards, and one of the many things Japan is famous for.

Although photos do not do this incredible structure any justice, the gardens actually weren’t my favourite in Kyoto (more on that later). We grabbed a taxi to head there from Adashino Nembutsu-ji (20 minutes, cost: approx JPY 2,400). Our taxi driver mentioned to us it’s rumoured that 20kgs of gold leaf was used to cover Kinkaku-ji’s façade!

TIP: Kinkaku-ji can get very crowded at times. During our late afternoon visit, it was not crowded at all so afternoon my be the best time to visit.

DON’T MISS: If you love Japanese art by locals, Kinkaku-ji’s gift shop is a must. I picked up some gorgeous and unique hand-painted watercolours to commemorate this trip to Japan. See these and other hand-crafted Japanese souvenirs I bought!

TIP: Are you also heading to Nikko? See a miniature version of Kinkaku-ji and other world landmarks at Tobu World Square! More details for getting there in my Nikko day trip itinerary.

Kansai & Chūgoku Regions

Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto

Ema at Kinkaku-ji

Have some extra time in Northern Kyoto?

Completely underrated and not often spoken about, I absolutely LOVED Nijo Castle. Unlike like a typical Japanese castle, this UNESCO World Heritage site was the former residence of Tokugawa shoguns during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868). Photography of all kinds is forbidden within, however every nook and cranny of this elaborate structure is decorated with gold, intricate carvings or other ornate details. It’s truly remarkable, and its famed Nightingale Floors have to been seen to be believed!

Alternatively, you may wish to add the Kyoto Imperial Palace 京都御所 to your Kyoto itinerary. The Palace was home to imperial families throughout the centuries until Japan’s capital city moved from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1868. Although the buildings cannot be entered, the gardens are said to be very impressive!

Nijo Castle Entrance, Kyoto

Arashiyama rickshaw tour

DAY 3: Things to do in Central Kyoto

Day 3 of this Kyoto itinerary will have you exploring around the Central Kyoto and Higashiyama area. I recommend staying in Gion because it makes it super easy to miss the hordes of day-trippers who take over this area of the city from 10am – 6pm. 

By staying in the heart of the action means you don’t need to be up super early to beat the crowds (even 8 – 9am is not crowded) and you can enjoy the evenings when most of the crowds have left for the day.

Today we will cover Sannenzaka & Ninenzaka, Kiyomizu-dera, Jishu-jinja, Yasaka Koshindo, Kenninji, Kodai-ji and explore Maruyama Park, Yasaka Shrine and Gion at dusk.

Sannenzaka & Ninenzaka

Begin the day early by exploring the quiet slopes of Sannen-zaka & Ninen-zaka before 8am. Lined with beautifully restored traditional buildings, these pedestrian-only paved laneways and staircases are arguably two of Kyoto’s best preserved. It was along here I did my traditional tea ceremony – more on this below!

Pop into the shops and grab some souvenirs during this time. If you come back later in the day, this area can get so crowded it makes it difficult to push past tourists to enter the stores. 

TIP: It’s in this area where you can take great shots Kyoto’s icon, the ancient 5-storey Yasaka Pagoda. Go at sunrise or sunset to beat crowds and get an amazing shot!

NOTE: As Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka date back to 808 AD, if you’re observant you’ll notice there aren’t any modern overhead powerlines – they’ve been buried to keep the old-world charm alive.

TIP: A highlight of my time in Gion was experiencing an authentic Kyoto tea ceremony. Yes, it was with a real geisha in a traditional tea house! I found the entire process so fascinating to watch, from the purifying of the utensils to understanding Sado “the way of tea” to creating and enjoying the tea.

Kyoto Tea Ceremony, Ninenzaka, Japan | The Invisible Tourist

Kiyomizu-dera

Sannenzaka begins the upwards slope towards Kiyomizu-dera 清水寺 (cost: JPY 400). With over 1200 years of history, the temple is one of the unmissable things to do in Kyoto. Built on the site of Otawa Waterfall, the views over the greater city from here are incredible!

From the main hall lies an enormous wooden stage perched 13 metres above the thick foliage below. This elevated view over the surrounding scenery and city makes it a very popular spot during cherry blossom season in spring and red Japanese maple trees during autumn. Would you believe this entire structure was built without any nails?

Kiyomizu-dera is UNESCO World Heritage site dating back to 780 AD. No surprise it’s is one of the most celebrated temples in Japan, meaning it can also get very crowded so ensure you visit early in the day!

TIP: To make the most of your visit to Kiyomizu-dera, you may wish to take a Kyoto Tea Ceremony & Kiyomizu-dera Temple Walking Tour with a local guide. Not only will you be shown traditional tea and sweet shops in this area on the walking tour, your local guide will teach you more about Japanese religion and Kiyomizu-dera’s significance on local culture. As its name literally translates to “Pure Water Temple”, you’ll also learn about how the three streams of water here may bring you luck!

Entrance to Kiyomizu-Dera, Kyoto

Wide view of Kiyomizu-Dera, Kyoto

Kiyomizu-Dera, Kyoto

DON’T MISS: JISHU-JINJA SHRINE

I consider Jishu-jinja Shrine to be a hidden gem because it’s one of those places hiding in plain sight! It’s very easy to walk past the entrance to this shrine as it’s tucked away to the side within the grounds of Kiyomizu-dera. This UNESCO World Heritage site is dedicated to the god of love and relationships (specifically marriage) and dates back to ancient times.

One of the shrine’s main features are the Koiuranai-no-ishi , “Fortune Stones of Love”. It’s said that if you can walk with your eyes closed from one stone to the other, your wish for true love will come true.

You’ll notice on the ema (wooden wishes left by worshippers) a man holding a hammer and a rabbit, as well as statues of these figures nearby. It’s believed that anything the lucky hammer hits is meant to make money appear. So this one is obviously a popular photo spot for tourists!

Yasaka Kōshin-dō

Tucked away in the quiet streets behind Kiyomizu-dera in the Higashiyama neighbourhood is the surprising Yasaka Koshindo temple 八坂庚申堂 (also known as Daikoku-san Kongō-ji Kōshin-dō). It’s quite easy to walk right past the entrance, so this temple is often overlooked by foreign tourists! It’s an amazing hidden gem in Kyoto.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the thousands of colourful balls decorating the temple are pom poms, but they actually aren’t – they depict monkeys! Towards the back of the temple you’ll see the Three Wise Monkeys from Japanese folklore.

This small temple is dedicated to Kōshin-san, the guardian warrior of these monkeys and the deity you first see at the temple’s entrance. 

The so-called pom poms are known as kukurizaru, a monkey with bound hands and feet. Find out the full story in my guide to Kyoto’s hidden gems. Yasaka Koshindo is definitely one of the more unusual things to do in Kyoto! 

NOTE: This small temple is located within a quiet residential area, so please be respectful to its neighbours. It’s a good idea to minimise noise during your visit in order to not detract from the spiritual ambience here.

Kennin-ji

From Yasaka Koshindo, head on over to another amazing hidden gem in Higashiyama – Kennin-ji 建仁寺. This was one of the most impressive Kyoto attractions I’ve seen, and if you’re a huge art lover like me it’s definitely one to add to your 4-day Kyoto itinerary.

Dating all the way back to the 13th century, Kennin-ji has great historical significance as the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto. It has ties to Buddhist monk Yousai who founded the temple and introduced Zen Buddhism to Japan (as well as green tea cultivation) after returning from his studies in China.

Within the complex are several rooms with tatami mat flooring and traditional sliding doors painted with incredible imagery of dragons, landscapes and other Japanese scenery. One of Japan’s most important artworks is also housed here, Wind and Thunder Gods, and is considered a National Treasure.

What blew me away was the temple’s main hall with an intricate monochrome painting of two dragons intertwined on the ceiling. The attention to detail is absolutely incredible! More about this in my guide to Kyoto’s hidden gems.

TIP: As with many temples and shrines in Japan, you’ll need to take off your shoes on entry to Kennin-ji and use the slippers provided for visiting the main hall.

Kennin-ji is a must to ad to your Kyoto itinerary

Kodai-ji

My visit to Kodai-ji 高台寺 also left me very impressed. It’s here in the Higashiyama neighbourhood you’ll find my uncrowded alternative to Arashiyama Bamboo Forest! But first, a little history about this fascinating place. 

Kodai-ji was built in memory of one of Japan’s most important historical figures, Hideyoshi, and his wife Nene. Its most notable feature is its zen gardens and “dragon’s back” boardwalk overlooking the surrounding pond. If you venture deeper into the grounds, Hideyoshi and Nene are enshrined in a beautifully decorated small mausoleum here. 

If you’re a lover of the Japanese tea ceremony like me, you will greatly appreciate seeing two of the oldest preserved teahouses in the country here, designed by great tea master Sen-no-Rikyu. These are Important Cultural Properties recognised by the Japanese government!

Finally, the part you’ve been waiting for – the crowd-free bamboo groves! Towards the exit of Kodai-ji lies Nene’s Path, weaving its way down the hillside through a tranquil bamboo grove finishing in the backstreets of the Higashiyama neighbourhood. At this later time in the day, you’ll easily be able to snap away at the lush green bamboo without getting other people in your photos! It’s the perfect alternative to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.

TIP: Please don’t be that annoying tourist by carving your initials into the bamboo. We’ve seen the damage created by tourists in Arashiyama so I kindly urge you to be respectful of this untouched area. Help keep it pristine for everyone to enjoy!

Ema at Kodai-ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan | The Invisible Tourist

Yasaka Shrine

This is a very popular Kyoto tourist attraction so there’s a reason I’ve left it until visiting in the evening! If you’re heading to Yasaka Shrine from Kodai-ji, first visit Maruyama Park 円山公園 on your way and bask in the glory of its famous giant cherry tree. The park is the oldest in the city and and home to almost 700 cherry trees, so it’s a must to add to your Kyoto spring itinerary!

Strolling west through Maruyama Park will bring you to the grounds of the amazing Yasaka Shrine 八坂神社 (also known as Yasaka-Jinja). I’ve visited in the morning, afternoon and evening and have to say evening is my favourite time to visit. Not only are there fewer crowds but the night illuminations are breathtaking and create an alluring atmosphere. 

Yasaka Shrine is over 1350 years old (wow) and is one of the most famous shrines in Kyoto, located between the popular Higashiyama and Gion districts. Notice the hundreds of lanterns suspended from the stage? These are names of local businesses who made a donation to the shrine.

I was fortunate enough for one of my visits to coincide with the Gion Matsuri floats being on display. The detail in these are literally jaw-dropping! The Gion summer festival is the most famous in the country and many events are held here at the shrine to celebrate.

Gion

Finally, end your night in Kyoto along Shirakawaminami-dori (also less-formally known as Shimbashi), which is considered to be one of the most beautiful streets in Asia. The Gion Tatsumi Bridge is another iconic little landmark here in the Gion neighbourhood, if you’ve seen the movie or read the book Memoirs of a Geisha you’ll likely recognise it! 

Finally, standing proudly outside Exit 5 of Gion Shijo Station is the Izumo no Okumi statue. Wielding a samurai sword in one hand and a folding fan in the other, she is significant to Kyoto as the founder of Kabuki theatre.

NOTE: From 1 April 2024, the local government will be closing some streets in Gion in response to tourists’ harassment of geisha. It is a few select private streets, not the entire neighbourhood.

 

DAY 4: Things to do in Eastern Kyoto

It’s an early start for day four of this Kyoto itinerary, especially if you want to catch the world-famous Fushimi Inari without the crowds. Today we cover this iconic Kyoto attraction as well as Daigo-ji, Tofuku-ji, Nanzen-ji, Philosopher’s Path, Ginkaku-ji and finish up in Pontocho.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

What I like to call one of Kyoto’s Big 4 attractions, Fushimi Inari Shrine 社伏見稲荷大 is almost always super crowded. But it’s possible to avoid most other tourists with some forward planning.

As the most important shrine in the country dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice, Fushimi Inari is one of Kyoto’s most popular attractions due to the thousands of vermilion torii (gates) weaving trails up sacred Mt Inari.

The expansive grounds of the shrine are dotted with many statues of foxes as they are believed to be Inari’s messengers. 

To reach the summit takes around 2-3 hours. Take the time to stop and explore the many smaller temples on the mountainside as most of the visitors stay crowded towards the start of the main trail to capture photos. 

TIP: This shrine literally sits on the side of a mountain. Be prepared for loads of walking because the sign at the start is NOT to scale! Just keep in mind it’s not something you can quickly skip through during your visit.

TIP: The best time to visit the Thousand Torii Gate (cost: free) is around 6-7am before the day-trippers and crowds descend on the site, OR in the late afternoon/evening. It’s open 24 hours, and has a different (and peaceful) aura at night.

Entrance to Fushimi-Inari Taisha, Kyoto

Fushimi-Inari Shrine, Kyoto

Fushimi-Inari Shrine, Kyoto

Daigo-ji

Once you’ve spent your time at Fushimi Inari, head down into the city’s south-east to a lovely hidden gem called Daigo-ji 醍醐寺 temple and gardens (cost: JPY 1,500 March-May & October-December JPY 800 during the rest of the year). 

Due to its isolated location in the southern outskirts of Kyoto, travellers often overlook this beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site. This picturesque location is home to a pond, Japanese bridge and a Sanboin, the former residence of the head priest that dates all the way back to 1115 AD. Although, there are many more buildings and hiking trails up the mountainside. 

If you visit Kyoto in autumn you can expect the entire pond to be surrounded by hues of red and orange as the cooler weather changes the leaves. Keep your eye out for turtles in the pond!

Tofuku-ji

From Daigo-ji, start to head northward towards Tofuku-ji. Founded in 1236 AD, Tofuku-ji 東福寺 is famous for its expansive Japanese landscaped gardens, Zen rock gardens and “checkerboard” gardens of stone and moss. During the autumn months, visitors from all across the country come to Tofuku-ji to enjoy a valley of vibrant red Japanese maples from the wooden Tsutenkyo Bridge.

Standing at 22 metres tall, the Sanmon Gate is an impressive sight and has been standing here since 1425 (reminding me a lot of the many similar gates in Nara). During the summer months, lotus flowers symbolising the Buddhist faith densely populate the pond in front of it. I even saw a cute little turtle resting on the lilypads!

TIP: My phone’s GPS was all over the place in this area as I was trying to find Tofuku-ji from Tofuku-ji Station. I needed to stop by another temple along the way to ask for directions. On asking other tourists I realised this was a common issue. Note that you’ll need to walk through a covered footbridge that doesn’t show up on Google Maps to reach the Tofuku-ji’s main entrance.

Nanzen-ji

After you’re done enjoying the grounds of Tofuku-ji, Nanzen-ji 南禅寺 temple and gardens (cost: JPY 500) should be your next stop. Dating back to the 13th century and featuring a massive working aqueduct, Nanzen-ji is regarded as one of the most important Zen temples in Japan and is a popular spot for autumn colours. 

I found the aqueduct so fascinating as it’s still in use today, carrying water from a canal system that leads to Lake Biwa, and has been since the Meiji period (19th century). It’s also fun to access the walking trail along the top of the aqueduct, in some spots there are clearings in the trees and it’s possible to see the entire city.

From Nanzen-ji this itinerary will take you to today’s final stop, the stunning Ginkaku-ji.

Nanzen-ji working aqueduct, Kyoto

Ginkaku-ji

From Nanzen-ji, follow Shishigatani-dori until you reach the famous Philosopher’s Path (about 15mins walk). The length of the Philosopher’s Path from here to Ginkaku-ji is around a 20min stroll and lined with cherry blossom trees in spring. Along the way, stop and take a break at some of the nearby cafes or treat yourself to a green-tea ice cream from a nearby vending machine!

Ginkaku-ji 銀閣寺 (cost: JPY 500) is known as the “Silver Pavilion” and said to be the little brother of Kinkaku-ji, the “Golden Pavilion”. Having been modelled off the golden structure in 1482, I had to visit both siblings to decide for myself which was going to take my breath away more!

Despite what its nickname may suggest, the retirement villa itself was never actually covered in silver. It comes from the villa appearing silver in the pond’s moonlight reflection. In my opinion, Ginkaku-ji had the more exquisite gardens and stunning views over Kyoto that it’s more popular relative. 

I thoroughly enjoyed walking the weaving stone pathways, admiring the moss and Zen gardens, the leafy surroundings and trickling streams down the hillside.

For me, the entire temple grounds had a delightful sense of tranquility and calm I hadn’t quite felt in other temples. It turned out to be one of my favourite temples in Kyoto to visit, for sure!

Philosopher's Path, Kyoto

Ginkaku-ji, Kyoto

Pontocho

No Kyoto itinerary would be complete without exploring the narrow alleyways of Pontocho. As with Gion, it’s here where geisha appear like rare butterflies before disappearing into the night. You’ll also find small laneways branching off the main one of Pontocho.

These laneways are literally crammed with eateries and teahouses in dark, traditional buildings illuminated only by lantern light. The area is a must-see if you want to experience the old-world charm feeling of Kyoto.

BONUS: Leave space for one night of your Kyoto itinerary to check out “Gear”, an incredible non-verbal performance exclusive to Kyoto. The characters really come to life and tell a story through music, magic tricks, various choreography routines and colourful lighting.

Because it’s non-verbal, you don’t even need to know a word of Japanese to enjoy the show! It was a great night out and I highly recommend it. The show is a few blocks west of Pontocho. Learn more about “Gear” here.

Day trips from Kyoto 

If you’re after some options for day trips from Kyoto, here are a few ideas to inspire your itinerary. Alternatively, the following options can also be done as day trips from Osaka:

  • Osaka 15 minutes on Nozomi shinkansen
    Osaka is the obvious choice for a day trip with its beautifully preserved castle, crazy lights and famous street food on Dotonbori. Read more in my Osaka itinerary.
  • Nara 1 hour
    Japan’s ancient capital city before Kyoto, home to sacred deer and the world’s largest wooden building, Todai-ji with its giant golden Daibutsu (golden buddha). A Nara day trip from Kyoto is a popular option, read more in my Nara day trip itinerary or take a look at this Nara half-day walking tour with a local guide to show you the hidden spots.
  • Uji 1 hour
    Amazing city with over 1,000 years of history located between Kyoto and Nara. It’s home to the impressive Byōdō-in Temple (take a look at it on the back of your 10 yen coin!) and famous for green tea cultivation. Read more in my itinerary for an Uji day trip or experience a tea ceremony and discover this beautiful ancient area on an Uji Matcha & Byōdō-in Temple walking tour with a local guide.
  • Lake Biwa 1 hour 20 minutes
    Can’t make it to the famous floating torii gate in Miyajima? Lake Biwa’s is a lesser-known alternative and hidden gem!
  • Kobe 1 hour 30 minutes
    Get your fix of Kobe beef right here in this intriguing seaside city, once flattened by the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. You couldn’t tell today.
  • Himeji 1 hour 30 minutes
    Home to the incredible “White Heron” Himeji Castle, a National Treasure of Japan.
  • Kurashiki 2 hours 15 minutes
    Have you heard of the Venice of Japan? Kurashiki is an Edo-era preserved town virtually unexplored by foreign tourists! Read more in my detailed guide to Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter.
  • Mt Koya (Koyasan) 2 hours 30 minutes
    Explore the amazing temples and shrines in one of Japan’s most spiritual locations with this Mt Koya day tour from Kyoto.

Byodo-in Temple, Uji

TOP: See the Phoenix Hall of Byodo-in during this Uji tour ~ BOTTOM: The Venice of Japan: Kurashiki

Things to keep in mind about spending four days in Kyoto

Japan Rail Pass and Shinkansen (Bullet Trains) 

You can do this Kyoto itinerary from Osaka if you prefer, but note that contrary to popular belief, you DO NOT need to buy a JR Pass before you visit, especially if you’re travelling with a mid range budget! Find out why in my 2 Weeks In Japan itinerary.

Taxis in Kyoto

If you prefer to catch taxis between each attraction and you’re curious about how much they cost, take a look at this cool little Taxi Fare Calculator for Kyoto.

Taxis in Kyoto

 

Concluding my 4 days in Kyoto itinerary

I’m not sure why people only spend only 1 or 2 days in Kyoto when there are so many sights to explore! See more than regular tourists who day trip to Kyoto and miss out on so much. Take the extra time, and allow yourself to really experience this awe-inspiring city in the way it deserves. Why rush? You’ll thank yourself for it later!

As I’m sure you’ll agree, there was a LOT of walking in this itinerary, but it’s handy to know that Kyoto’s extensive public transportation options are always nearby if you wish. You’ll also be able to cover a lot of ground of you opt for any of the small tours I recommended with a local guide. Cultural experiences really help to enrich your trip and are my personal favourite thing to do!

Although it may look like my travel buddy and I crammed a lot into Kyoto, I can honestly say we never felt rushed. Because we were prepared, it allowed us to leisurely stroll between many attractions and enjoy taking our time uncovering the wonders that make this beautiful city so unique. Travelling The Invisible Tourist way is about being efficient and making the best use of your travel time. 

Did you know there are also quite a few do’s and don’ts to follow in Japan? Be sure to check out my guide! If you want to learn my strategies for how to “blend in” anywhere around the globe, find out by reading my #1 Amazon New Release Book!

What are you waiting for? Take the next step and get your Kyoto trip plan started by searching for hotels in Gion hereOr, why not read reviews and compare different Kyoto hotel prices here.

I’d LOVE to hear if you use this itinerary in Kyoto when you visit!  If you found this helpful please share it on Facebook or Pinterest then head on over to my TikTok or Instagram for more Japan inspiration!

Until next time,

The Invisible Tourist

 

Do you love Japanese sweets, snacks and candies?
Read my Tokyo Treat Review and get popular Japanese snacks delivered here, or read my Sakuraco review and get traditional Japanese sweets delivered here!

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4 Days in Kyoto Itinerary: Complete Guide for First Timers | The Invisible Tourist

4 Days in Kyoto Itinerary: Complete Guide for First Timers. Covering the best things to do in Kyoto, where to stay in Kyoto, getting around in Kyoto, where to eat in Kyoto and more! | The Invisible Tourist #kyoto #japan #itinerary #thingstodo #japantravel #kyotosightseeing

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42 Comments

  1. Hello Alyse, I am currently planning my two weeks trip in Japan, your posts(I have read so many) are so helpful and absolutely precious!!! Thank you so much for sharing and putting so much effort in all these hyperlinks and pictures and everything!!!

    1. That is such a lovely compliment, Xixi! I hope you have a fantastic trip and thank you so much for reading 😊

    1. Hi, there have been some misleading headlines in the past few days about this issue. In all honesty, partial closures of streets or alleyways in Gion is not a new thing. For a few years there have been no photography signs for private streets, and a selection of little alleyways closed off already as I have seen for myself. Some people are acting as though the whole neighbourhood is going to be closed off to tourists, to which I say there are dozens of hotels and ryokan in Gion in which they aren’t going to stop tourists from staying there. Tourists are still going to be able to interact with maiko and geiko in paid experiences. Hanamikoji Street is going to remain open to tourists, so it will be fine for visitors 🙂

  2. Thank you so much for your awesome itinerary recommendations. Can you recommend a guide that would take a small group around? We want to avoid the big group tours and spend time with a local/hear the history/do a customized tour.
    Thank you in advance,
    Maria

    1. Thanks so much, Maria!
      Yes, all the tours I’ve recommended in this article are small group ones (I personally prefer these to massive coach tours).
      My two personal favourite companies I have used multiple times are MagicalTrip and Arigato Japan.
      Here are a selection of tours in Kyoto with MagicalTrip
      And these food tours in Kyoto with Arigato Japan
      I know Arigato Japan can also do customised tours, just reach out to their friendly team and they will do the rest 😊
      I hope you have a wonderful time in Kyoto and thanks for reading!

  3. Well-written post!
    I have never been to Koyoto. But I would like to go there. Because I’m a travel-loving person. Also, my friends are travel-lovers. So, I also share this post with them.

    1. Thanks so much for passing this on, Ankita! I adore Kyoto and my visits always leave me wanting to revisit again, there is always so much to see 😊

    1. Hi Isabel,
      It really depends on your personal preferences as everyone spends differently.
      To answer I’d need a little more info, do you mean inclusive of accommodation, transport, food? Or just spending money?

  4. I really liked your blog. Just wanted to ask if it would be OK to plan a day trip to Kyoto on Sunday. I am hoping all the attractions would be open on Sunday. Thanks.

    1. Hi Shubh, thanks for reading! Most of the attractions in Kyoto are temples and shrines, shrines are open 24/7 but some temples will close in the late afternoon. In terms of cafes/restaurants etc, there should be no issues. Kyoto is an amazing city. To be on the safe side, you should check the official website of the places you want to visit, for instance the manga museum may or may not be open on Sunday. Have fun with your planning!

  5. Thank you for great content Alyse, I will also share with my friends who want to visit Kyoto. Once again thanks a lot

  6. wow thank you for information
    i was planning go to japan for holiday next year
    and if you don’t mind, would you give guide info for another city in Japan
    Thanks

  7. Hello! I am planning a trip to Kyoto from Sasebo in early December. I know it gets cold there, would this itinerary/trip be as fun and beautiful in the winter time? I have two small children, are these sights stroller friendly or would you recommend wearing them most of the time? Thank you! Love this post it’s very helpful!

    1. Hi Angela, how exciting for you! Although I personally haven’t visited Kyoto during the winter (I would LOVE to!) this itinerary would suit all seasons. It covers all the main sights and they’d look extra beautiful in snow from what I’ve seen 🙂 In terms of sights being stroller friendly, most of the temples mentioned here are fine as they have cobbled or paved pathways to stroll around. However Ginkaku-ji and Kiyomizu-Dera have some stairs to reach the viewing platforms over the cities. Sannenzaka & Ninnenzaka streets in Gion have paved stairs and if it’s crowded you may prefer to baby wear. I’d definitely recommend baby wearing at Fushimi-Inari as there are hundreds of stairs and it’s almost always crowded. I hope this helps and you have a wonderful trip!

  8. One of my days in Kyoto included going from Tenryuji to Otagi Nenbutsuji and then I saw this post and saw that Adashino Nembutsuji is on the way. How much time would you suggest spending at Adashino as the transportation up there is limited (one bus an hour if I am reading the schedules right) so I want to be able to plan accordingly to I don’t have to wait forever for the next bus! Thanks for the idea!

    1. Otagi Nenbutsuji would be lovely to see, all those different little stone faces look incredible! I’d suggest half an hour to walk around the grounds at Adashino Nembutsu-ji would cover you 🙂 If it’s not on your itinerary already and you’re interested in spending some more time exploring the area, Gio-ji Temple & Moss Gardens are about a 10-minute walk from Adashino Nembutsu-ji, too! I go into a little more detail about it in my article https://www.theinvisibletourist.com/kyoto-hidden-gems/ I hope you have a wonderful trip, Joshua!

  9. I love that your itinerary is focused for those with a mid-level budget. Usually I see extreme budget itineraries or luxury travel type posts. And I’d definitely want to spend at least 4 days in Kyoto. I was just telling a friend about how badly I want to go to Japan. Maybe at the end of this year!

    1. Thanks, Vicky & Buddy! Yes I noticed there were lots of travel blogs that focused on either backpacker or luxury budgets, but there wasn’t really anything in between. My travel style is neither of those so I thought I’d share my experiences with those who have mid-range budgets like me 🙂 4 days is a great amount of time for Kyoto, I hope you get to Japan this year!

  10. What a lovely guide. I must confess I was never attired by Japan but you present Kyoto so well with stunning pictures and beautiful descriptions that i only could add the bamboo forest, the philosopher path, Fushimi Inaru shrine and Gion to my must list. I don’t know when I will be able to see this sights but when I do, I will be sure to bring this guide with me. And yes, 4 days look perfect for Kyoto!

  11. 1600 temples! Wow! As an architecture lover I would absolutely love to visit the city for it’s Buddhist temples!
    A centrally located hotel is always helpful, I am glad you put that up. Never heard of the Shinkansen. I’d look that up! I loved the way you highlighted all the destinations in your collage! So easy on the eyes.
    Watching the chefs at work at Manzara-Tei on Pontocho would have been delightful! The Arashiyamam Bamboo Grove looks heavenly and so does the Maruyama Park!
    Thanks for this absolutely comprehensive itinerary! Gave me major Japan goals! Your picture of the Silver Pavilion is beautiful.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Divyakshi! Yes there are sooo many temples to see. If you’re a fan of architecture then you will definitely appreciate the beauty of Kyoto 🙂

  12. I have never been to Kyoto (I’ve been to Tokyo a long time ago). Now I know it is in Central Kyoto where I will find the Fushimi Inari Shrine! And I would add to my tour the Arashiyama Bamboo Groves in northern Kyoto. These will be my top 2 not to miss. If I have more time, I will add the Daigo-Ji Temple! Thanks for putting together a detailed guide for a first-timer like me.

    1. It’s easy to see many of the sight in Kyoto if you know where they all are before you visit 🙂 Thanks for your comment!

  13. What a fantastic itinerary. First of all, I have to say your photos are incredible and just by themselves inspired me to travel to Kyoto. I think I’m most interested in seeing the Bamboo Grove, but of course the point is not to just see one or two attractions, but rather spend all four days getting to all of them. I’m pinning this to remember in the future when I get to Japan (which I can’t wait for). The bullet trains also sound like a lot of fun, and I’ve been dreaming about riding one for years. Thanks for the work you put into this.

    1. Thanks so much for your lovely compliment, Skye! Kyoto is such an incredible city because there isn’t really anywhere else comparable to it. Good on you for not wanting to rush through it. And the bullet trains are so much fun, for me it felt like I was in an aeroplane but flying on the ground, haha! I hope you get to Japan really soon 🙂

  14. I’ve always wanted to visit Kyoto-ever since reading books set in Japan as a teenager-the geishas, the temples, the bamboo forests + getting to eat Japanese food every day-all reasons i’m sure I’d love this trip. The aqueducts and the green tea ice cream vending machine might be my favorite parts though! 🙂

    1. I hope you get there, Brooke! Maybe this year will be your year 🙂 Oh yes the food is such a big part of their culture too, everything looks like little works of art, you would definitely love it. And how good is green tea ice-cream?!

  15. Gosh what a wealth of information. I love the story of the Adashino Nembutsu-ji shrine and the stones for the dead. The aquaduct looks amazing too. My mother visited Kyoto and loved it, so it’s always been on my own list. I just have to find time!

    1. Thank you so much, Fiona! I was also really touched by the idea behind Adashino Nembutsu-ji when I was researching my trip so I knew I had to see it in person. The aqueduct was pleasantly surprising too, I wasn’t expecting it to be as huge as it was. I hope you get to visit Kyoto soon!

  16. Japan is really number 1 in my bucket list. I just love how neat and peaceful the place looks like. You have amazing photos! Kyoto should be in my itinerary when I visit Japan.

  17. I have to completely agree with all your suggestions, based on my experience. I was in Kyoto for 5 days last year and this is pretty much the itinerary I followed (I did a couple of day trips too, to Osaka and Nara). I like how you’ve represented, with priority and pictures, the things to do at the top of the post, it’s very helpful! I loved Fushimi Inari Shrine, Golden Pavilion and Kiyomizu dera temple the most!

    1. That’s so awesome, Medha! Fushimi-Inari is really amazing and the justice to the Golden Pavilion cannot be done in photos – it really needs to be seen in person to fully be appreciate. Glad you had a great time and thanks for your comment 🙂

  18. I’ve also had travel experiences where I didn’t realize how long it takes to walk/hike to the sight. Sometimes it feels like you’re wasting precious travel time.. but it’s all part of the experience and it gives you some exercise, which is nice because i always think i eat more than necessary on vacations!

    1. I agree, Dana. Sometimes it can feel as though you’re wasting time but as long as the overall experience was enjoyable it’s worth it 🙂

  19. Thanks so much for sharing your itinerary, it’s perfect! I’m heading to Kyoto soon and this will be very helpful. I especially love the moss garden, I hadn’t heard of that before. It’s so beautiful

    1. So glad you found this helpful, Eva! Gio-ji is certainly overlooked by many visitors to Kyoto. It’s very tranquil there. Hope you have a great trip and thanks for your comment 🙂

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