Kyoto is the city where we met and fell in love. During the twelve months that we lived there, we biked through every square inch of the city and remember it with greater clarity than the places where we grew up.
Over the years, a lot of friends have asked us for suggestions on what to do when they visit our favorite city. In the future, we can just refer them to this post.
In this guide, we’ll show you how to experience Kyoto as a local for $100 a day.
Who should use this itinerary?
Budget conscious solo travelers, couples or small groups of 3-5 looking for ways to avoid the tourist traps in favor of a quieter, slower pace of travel.
What are the best times in the year to visit?
There are only two correct answers to this question:
- During the first two weeks of April or,
- During the last two weeks of November
For reasons that should be obvious:
And here’s what you can expect when you visit outside of Spring and Fall:
What’s the best way to experience Kyoto?
Where should I stay in Kyoto?
Western Kyoto (near Arashiyama) is an extremely peaceful and underrated area. Staying here allows you to steer clear of downtown and the accompanying tourist traffic.
The Utano Youth Hostel is located right across the street from the dorms we stayed in during our one year abroad. You can get a room for as little as $35 per night. Plus they offer bike rentals for $6 a day on a first-come first-serve basis.
How do I use this guide?
The map is divided into three color-coded areas:
- Day 1 attractions are in Blue (Western & Northern Kyoto)
- Day 2 attractions are in Red (Eastern Kyoto)
- Day 3 attractions are in Yellow (Southern & Downtown Kyoto)
- The grey markers are for optional sites
For simplicity’s sake, this itinerary assumes that you’ll be visiting in the springtime. If you’re visiting during the autumn, just replace Ninnaji Temple and Hirano Shrine with Tofukuji (grey) and Eikando (grey). Kodaiji Temple (grey) is probably the best place to see the momiji/autumn leaves light-up after sunset.
Note: All currencies below are in USD.
A 3 Day Kyoto Itinerary
Day 1 (Blue)
- Rise early. Breakfast at Utano Youth Hostel ($6) or stop by a Japanese bakery on your bike ride to Arashiyama. Bakeries open as early as six.
- Rent a bike ($6) from the hostel and make your way to Hirosawa Pond (free). We went on our first date here and not many people know about this place. It’s perfect for a secluded picnic or to watch the sunset. You can also rent little rowboats and head out onto the water.
- Arrive at Arashiyama, it’s a popular weekend spot for locals so you should arrive early to avoid the crowds. Walk through the Bamboo Forest (free). If you insist on visiting a temple here, we suggest Adashino Nen-Butsu ($5, opens at 9) to see 8,000 moss-covered Buddhist statues.
- Visit the Arashiyama Monkey Park ($5.50). Hide your food and watch out for poop.
- Find the super secret temple. It’s called Senko-ji ($4). When you come down from Monkey Park, stay on that side of the river and walk until you see a narrow flight of steps to your left. At the summit of this magical trail is a tatami hut lined with calligraphy boasting an equally magical view of Kyoto. Sign the book before you leave. You’re welcome.
- Lunch at Unagiya Hirokawa for grilled eel. Basic grilled eel set costs around $20-25. Get some cherry blossom flavored ice cream for dessert from one of the Arashiyama vendors.
- Ditch Arashiyama before the tourists arrive. Head to Ninnaji Temple ($5) and local favorite Hirano Shrine (free) for cherry blossoms.
- Make the obligatory stop to the Kinkaku Temple/Golden Temple ($4). In our opinion, this is the most overrated of Kyoto’s well-known attractions. Looks way better in photos.
- Visit Kitano Tenman-gu ($3). This temple is popular with students studying for exams. It’s known for its plum blossoms in late February and the flea market held on the 25th of every month.
- Head back to Hirosawa Pond to watch the sunset.
- Dinner at Jumbo Okonomiyaki ($5-10, closed on Mon & Tue). This place serves jumbo-sized okonomiyaki and yakisoba. A popular spot for broke university students looking for huge portions on the cheap.
- If Jumbo is closed, head over to Kura Kaiten ($1 per plate) for some conveyor belt sushi .
- End the night in a karaoke booth at Karaoke Build Kitano Hakubaicho Branch ($5 per hour)
Cost of Day 1
Hostel ($35) + Travel costs ($68.50) = $103.50 (+$15 optional costs)
Day 2 (Red)
- Visit the Garden of Fine Arts ($1, opens at 9), a unique building designed by famous Japanese architect Tadao Ando. It’s one of the coolest places in Kyoto. A slice of Renaissance Europe in Imperial Japan.
- Head over to the Hieizan Cable Car Entrance at Yasehieizanguchi. A round trip ticket costs $16 for views of Kyoto on one side and Lake Biwa (largest lake in Japan) on the other.
- Hike 30 minutes to Enryaku Temple ($7). The atmosphere here is noticeably solemn compared to other “tourist attraction” temples in the city. The monks here are hardcore.
- Have a vegetarian lunch at the Enryaku cafeteria with a prior reservation (prices vary) or there’s a restaurant serving soba noodles ($10) downstairs near the temple office.
- Descend the cable car. Walk the Philosopher’s Path (free).
- End the afternoon at Heian Shrine (free), featured in the movie Lost in Translation.
- Whatever you want. Hang out by the Kamogawa River. Be free!
Cost of Day 2
Hostel ($35) + Travel Costs ($33) = $68
Day 3 (Yellow)
- Check out of hostel. Take the bus or train down to Kyoto Station ($2).
- Leave your bags at a coin locker or with the luggage storage office ($3-7) at Kyoto Station.
- Bus to Fushimi Inari Taisha ($2), the temple with the orange gates. Admission is free and it’s open 24 hours. But try to get there early in the morning to avoid the crowd.
- Lunch at Roan Kikunoi Restaurant for traditional Japanese kaiseki cuisine. Typically places like this start at $100, but Roan does pretty decent lunch sets for $40 and $70. Without reservations, you should get here as soon as it opens.
- Walk through Nishiki Market (price varies).
- Kiyomizu Temple ($4) is not quite as overrated as Kinkakuji, but is also four times as crowded. The trick here is to buy your tickets 45 minutes to an hour before it closes at 6. They stop selling tickets a half hour before closing time, so you’ll have the whole place to yourself.
- Explore the Gion District & Pontocho Alley. Where the geisha and maiko hang out. Drinks here will destroy your wallet.
- Dinner at Sushi Musashi ($1.5 per plate) near Kyoto Station. Higher quality conveyor belt sushi that’s popular with the downtown crowd.
Cost of Day 3
Hostel ($35) + Travel Costs ($66) = $101
And if you're having trouble deciding which temples and shrines are worth going to in Kyoto, we've ranked the Top 30 temples and shrines here to help you narrow down your list!