Kyoto, Japan’s second-largest city, is a picturesque region full of rich history, culture, and 1,600+ temples. Many describe it as the “heart” of Japan, and it also serves as a prime hub for taking day trips.
Although we (unfortunately) can’t travel right now, we’re still able to plan for the future. Here’s a suggested 7-day itinerary to make your time in and around Kyoto memorable and unforgettable.
Please note that this itinerary is tailored to someone who holds a JR Rail Pass, which is available for different time periods ranging from 7-21 consecutive days. My partner and I had the 7-day pass while basing ourselves in Kyoto, and it was such an incredible value. This post also contains affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission (at no additional cost to you) to help keep this site running.
Day 1: Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji, Philosopher’s Path
Upon arrival, head to Kinkaku-ji Temple (Golden Pavilion), possibly Kyoto’s most famous tourist attraction. Originally built as a retirement home for a famous shogun, the entire temple is made of glittering gold leaf and its Zen garden is a photographic haven. However, it is located in the far northwest region of Kyoto and not near any major train lines, so you’ll need to look up local bus routes or book a Kyoto Sky Bus tour beforehand.
About 30 min. away by bus 102 or 204 is Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion), where you can enjoy a few temples, a beautiful moss garden and a unique dry sand garden. Unlike Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji was actually never covered in silver; its nickname arose as a contrast to the Golden Pavilion. It is believed that its silvery appearance can be from moonlight reflecting on the building’s dark exterior (which used to be covered in black lacquer in the past).
From Ginkaku-ji, take a stroll along the Philosopher’s Path, a 2 km-long stone path through the northern part of Kyoto’s Higashiyama district. A number of cafes, shops, and smaller temples and shrines dot the path, one of the most famous being Honen-in, with a stunning entrance gate notably in the autumn leaf season.
Day 2: Arashiyama Bamboo Forest & Fushimi Inari-taisha
For your next day in Kyoto, be prepared for an early start – 6 a.m. at the latest. In order to get beautiful photos of Arashiyama Bamboo Forest without people, you’ll need to arrive at the Saga-Arashiyama JR station by 7 a.m. While there, consider renting a traditional Japanese kimono from Kyoto Kimono Rental Wargo to complete your experience of this tranquil site. Their day rental packages start from ¥2980 and men can also rent a yukata (or if you’re more interested in training as a samurai, that’s also an option).
Clad in kimono, head to Fushimi Inari-taisha from there, just a 35 min. train ride. This is a Shinto shrine famous for its thousands of brightly-coloured torii gates that adorn a 2-3 hour long hiking trail. You can easily spend half a day wandering through these scenic trails, admiring the view if you go all the way up to the summit.
Day 3: Osaka (Day Trip)
For day 3, you can’t miss Osaka – it’s one of my favourite cities I’ve ever been. Osaka is a foodie heaven, known as “The Nation’s Kitchen.” Dotonburi is a famous food district, with street food ranging from takoyaki to okonomiyaki.
Don’t forget to pay a visit to the gold-trimmed Osaka Castle, one of the most beautiful and famous castles in Japan. You can even rent gold-trimmed gozabune boats to ride in the inner moat of the castle for 20 min.
If you’re looking for a more exciting activity in Osaka, you can channel your inner Mario Kart skills and ride a real street kart throughout the city. This is also offered in Tokyo and Kyoto (I did it in Tokyo and had an unbelievable experience). You even ride up to 70 kmh, which is SPEEDY!
Many also choose to hop over to Universal Studios Japan, which is very close to Osaka Aquarium, one of the most spectacular aquariums in Japan and one of the largest in the world with 470+ species. It even has eight floors that spiral around amain tank that houses a whale shark!
Day 4: Nara & Uji (Half-Day Trips)
Nara is a quick 45-minute day trip from Kyoto as well. In addition to being a compact city with plenty of beautiful gardens and temples to explore, Nara is most famous for Nara Park, a public park that allows you to feed deer with senbei crackers.
You can spend a few hours here while photographing the beautiful temples and shrines throughout this park spanning 660 hectares. The most famous of the temples onsite is Todaji Temple, which houses one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha.
You can squeeze in Uji after Nara, which is only a 20 min. train ride. Uji is famed for its green tea, onsen (natural hot springs), and the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Phoenix Hall, which is embellished on every ¥10 coin. You can admire the inside of the Phoenix Hall with an extra ¥300 ticket once you enter the grounds of Byodo-in Temple, as guided tours run every 20 min.
Uji also has an array of matcha-flavoured foods (gyoza, ice cream, ramen) that can’t be found anywhere else. Consider eating at Aiso, an inn and restaurant with traditional tatami mats and prime views of the Uji River. From there, you can cross any of the bridges along the river to To-no-shima island. Don’t miss Ujigama Jinja, a UNESCO World Heritage Site believed to be the oldest existing Shinto shrine in Japan. You can find an array of rabbit figurines and good luck omamori charms here, as legend holds that a rabbit guided a deity who got lost on the way to Uji.
Day 5: Kanazawa (Day Trip)
Kanazawa, hailed “Little Kyoto” for its ornate gardens and samurai castles, is another great place to see. With a limited-express train, it’s about 2 hours & 15 min. to get to Kanazawa from Kyoto. Kanazawa is known for its gold origins, so it’s an impressive city to visit with its gold-flaked ice cream, milkshakes, desserts, and sushi around many corners.
There are three geisha districts in Kanazawa: Higashi Chaya-Gai, Nishi Chaya-Gai, and Kazue-Machi Gai District. All are within walking distance of each other, but you should ideally explore them toward sunset for a better chance of spotting a traditional geisha in these areas. Many of the old tea houses here have been converted into small museums and souvenir shops, making it a wonderland for shopping and perusing.
Kanazawa is also home to Kenroku-en, one of the Three Great Gardens in Japan. Spanning over 25 acres, the garden can be explored for a few hours of tranquility. Just outside one of the garden’s exits, you can grab a gold leaf ice cream cone from Imai Kinpaku.
Day 6: Nagoya (Day Trip)
On day 6, you can travel to Nagoya, about 2 hours & 15 min. from Kyoto. It’s the fourth largest city in the country, best known as the center of the automobile industry (Honda, Toyota, and Mitsubishi headquarters are all here).
Nagoya is also revered for its tasty specialty dishes like misokatsu, fried pork cutlet covered in thick miso sauce, which can be found at the famous Misokatsu Yabaton restaurant. It was absolutely delicious and hands-down the best katsu I’ve ever had in Japan.
Nagoya has stellar shopping options, especially Osu shopping street (for bargain/secondhand and vintage finds), Mitsukoshi department store, and the futuristic Oasis 21. It is often compared to Tokyo with its large range of shopping areas and arcades.
Day 7: Gion District, Yasaka Koshindo & Kiyomizu-dera Temples
For your last day in Kyoto, stay in the city and experience a chado or sado, a traditional tea ceremony that is especially sacred in Kyoto due to its strong Zen Buddhist roots. During the ceremony, the cup of tea is prepared artfully before being served. You are meant to acknowledge the utensils, each other’s company, and the tea itself while being mindful of the present moment throughout this ceremony. Maikoya, the #1-rated tea ceremony venue in Japan, offers traditional tea ceremonies in the historic Gion District and Kyoto station area with kimono options.
Afterward, head to Gion, Kyoto’s entertainment district and hub for artists, theatres, and geisha. At Minamiza Theater, you can even book a kabuki show, a form of Japanese theatre with highly stylized song, dance, and dramatic makeup. From the beautiful architecture of Hanami Lane to the busy boutiques of Shijo Dori, you’ll feel like your senses are being overloaded with awe in Gion district.
While in Gion district, visit Yasaka Koshindo Temple, Kyoto’s most colorful temple. Visitors write their wish on a colorful pom-pom ball (kukurizaru) and hang them at the site. In exchange for giving up one of your greeds, your wish may come true.
Finally, head to Kiyomizu-dera Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with over 1,200 years of history. It sits atop a beautiful hill, built to withstand earthquakes, extending over a cliff supported by 18 pillars. At the base, you can drink the sacred water of Otowa Waterfall from three different streams symbolizing success, love, and longevity. Drink from the stream that correlates to your greatest desire for the best fortune.
Kyoto and its surrounding areas are magical areas in Japan, quite traditional and full of rich history. I hope this 7-day Kyoto itinerary (and worthwhile day trips) guide was helpful for you, but be aware that wherever you choose to go, you’re bound to have an unforgettable trip.