A 3-Day Kyoto Itinerary for Adventure and Culture
Engaging monkeys, mysterious geishas, karaoke parlors, thousands of beautiful temples, samurai sword play, and candied octopus on a stick…Kyoto is a family playground waiting for you! With a seemingly unlimited number of top-rated tourist attractions, stunning vistas and gourmet cuisine, the mystical city of Kyoto will enchant your whole family!
While significantly more compact than Tokyo, it would still take weeks to visit the entire cornucopia of Kyoto’s sights. Here is our 3-day Kyoto itinerary highlighting much that the city has to offer families. (Note: this plan is best for tweens/teens.) After our time in this spectacular city, we understood why Travel & Leisure named Kyoto the #1 city in the world to visit!
What to do in Kyoto, Japan: A 3-Day Kyoto Itinerary
Day 1: Welcome to Kyoto
Step back in time to 1603 by heading to Nijō-jō Castle, the official Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa shogun. With impressive stone walls and ramparts, this castle and its well-manicured gardens introduce you to beautiful Kyoto. My kids were intrigued by the “nightingale” floors which emit bird-like sounds when stepped on and warned the shogun of an impending ambush. Challenge your kids to locate the various concealed hiding spaces for bodyguards who covertly protected the shogun.
After touring the sprawling castle grounds, we craved a traditional Japanese sit-down lunch. Kushikura Honten’s Japanese charcoal-roasted yakitori fit the bill. Delight in this restaurant’s charming renovated wooden townhouse built over 100 years ago. The kids loved slipping off their shoes and relaxing in this welcoming restaurant. Our highlights included succulent yakitori (grilled chicken) prepared many ways, seasonal Kyoto vegetables grilled over charcoal fire, and quail eggs. The restaurant also offers private rooms, a la carte and set menus.
The next stop will depend on your family’s interests. If you are into animals, check out the Kyoto City Zoo. If you adore Japanese comics, drop into the Kyoto International Manga Museum. Or if you are like us, self-proclaimed “foodies,” spend the afternoon strolling through Nishiki Market, known to locals as “Kyoto’s Pantry.” This market is a wonderful introduction to local life and food. Seek out fresh tofu, Kyo-yasai (Kyoto vegetables), tsukemono (Japanese pickles), wagashi (Japanese sweets), seafood and more. Dare your kids (or partner) to snack on traditional delicacies such as candied octopus on a stick!
Just a block away is the mega Daimaru Department Store. My girls loved spending time sampling Japanese treats on the food floor in the basement and shopping for souvenirs such as decorated chop sticks and traditional sandals.
As evening approaches, meander around the charming Gion entertainment neighborhood, home to the elusive white-faced red-lipped kimono-clad geishas and their apprentices, maikos. Geishas, traditional Japanese female entertainers who are highly trained in the arts of conversation, dance and song, set out for their evening appointments right before dinner time. If you are lucky, you may catch a glimpse of one on her way to dinner. (Remember to keep a respectful distance.) The famed Gion neighborhood is a trip back in time to the old world and is a true highlight! Wander through the narrow cobblestoned streets bordered by hidden tea houses, quaint streams, and expensive restaurants.
Tonight for dinner, bring smiles to your whole family’s faces by shouting that, “It’s GYOZA time!” Choose one of many gyoza spots around town and start ordering plates of these delicious delectable dumplings of flavor. Kid-friendly and so inexpensive, they are addictive!
Tip: For those who want to watch geishas perform, consider booking tickets to one of the city’s cultural shows (moderately expensive) or a dinner with a geisha (very expensive).
Day 2: A Spiritual Journey
Grab your camera and head to one of my favorite places in the entire world: photogenic Fushimi Inari Taisha Shinto Shrine in southern Kyoto. Embark on a spiritual walk through a tunnel of over 10,000 bright orange torii gates. Hike a short distance uphill (like us) or go all the way to the top. Tell your kids to be on the lookout for small white fox statues. On the trail back downhill to the starting point, grab a well-earned drink at the New York-style Vermillion coffee house. What a treat!
To maximize our precious time, we hopped a taxi to the entrance of the Kiyomizu-dera Temple complex in the southern Higashiyama district. My family loved strolling the fun, touristy Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka shopping streets leading to the Temple. This is the perfect place to shop for souvenirs.
Next, enter this spectacular temple complex and prepare to be wowed. Kiyomizu-dera Temple has brilliant panoramic views, a postcard perfect pagoda, lush landscaping, and stunning architecture. The highlight for kids is Jishu-jinja, where you can try to walk from one stone pillar to another with your eyes closed. Successfully doing so is supposed to ensure a lucky love life. My girls had a blast doing this challenge and so did my husband and I!
We then grabbed a cab to enjoy dinner at cozy, casual Japanese-Italian Il Zaccaya. Their gourmet salads, sandwiches, and pastas hit the spot after a long day of sightseeing. After visiting ancient temples and shrines it was time to take the kids to karaoke! Tip: Pick a karaoke parlor with private rooms and one that offers English songs.
Day 3: Monkeys, Bamboo and Swords, Oh My!
Get an early start in the picturesque region of Arashiyama and hike up to the Iwatayama Monkey Park. Wear comfortable walking shoes, bring some water, and take breaks on the benches when needed. When you reach the top, prepare to be up close and personal with macaque monkeys. This is kid heaven! Note: this hike is steep and may not be suitable for younger children. Pay attention to all warning signs regarding visitor behavior in the presence of monkeys.
At the top, there is a cabin where you can cool off during the summer and purchase food to feed the monkeys. In a way it feels like a reverse zoo: you are inside a room with wire windows and the monkeys are free to roam around outside. The wide-reaching view from the top of the mountain is an extra bonus.
Next stop: lunch at one of our favorite Japanese restaurants over our two weeks in Japan, Yoshiya, right in the heart of the Arashiyama tourist attractions. We loved our lunch box sets and relaxed while gazing out their picture windows at pleasure boats floating on the serene river, the famous Togetsu Bridge, and surrounding countryside. Tofu is a regional specialty of Kyoto and must be sampled while in town. A highlight for our girls was making our own tofu at our table at Yoshiya. We learned how to cook yuba (tofu skin) and fresh tofu. My favorite course was the light and flavorful tempura. Mmmm! The various courses arrived in beautiful dishware, served by friendly staff with extreme attention to detail.
Next up, a short walk to the otherworldly, seemingly endless, towering stalks of the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Tell your crew to stand still and listen to the unique rustling sound that reverberates through the grove when the wind blows. Take a quick gelato break at Il Gelato Naturale, an award-winning shop with inventive and distinctly Japanese flavors such as lemon-yuzu.
Afterward, hail a taxi to the northwestern region of the city to the must-see Kinkaku-ji Temple (the Golden Pavilion). This zen temple’s top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. Watch the shine and sparkle reflect off of the mirror pond which sits in front of the temple. Wow! Be forewarned, however, this iconic sight is perpetually crowded.
For the grand finale of your Kyoto vacation, attend a Samurai Kembu theater show and lesson. We gasped and awed throughout the one-hour intimate English show which thrilled us with intricate master swordplay and left us with a deeper understanding about the traditional Japanese arts. Following the show, we donned colorful samurai costumes and took a family-friendly course teaching us how to use a katana, a traditional sword. What a memory, and so much FUN!
After our long day of adventure, we were starving and needed a casual restaurant. Ootoya Gohan-dokoro, a chain that is a modern-designed, extremely reasonable (actually bordering on cheap) sit-down restaurant, pleased our whole gang. With English picture menus, a kid’s menu, and standard Japanese dishes, it’s easy to see why this restaurant is popular with natives and tourists alike.
Where to Stay Near Kyoto
We made the beautiful Hilton Osaka our home base for our stay near Kyoto. With spacious modern rooms, a friendly staff, and a helpful concierge team, this hotel was perfect for our family. Hilton Osaka is located directly across the street from the mega Osaka Station, which is literally a city in and of itself chock full of restaurants and stores. Trains from the station to Kyoto run frequently and are quick and inexpensive. Feel free to add your own ideas about what to do in Kyoto, Tokyo in the comments section below.
You may also enjoy:
- 5 Memorable Things to do in Kyoto with Kids
- 9 Tips for Viewing Cherry Blossoms in Tokyo
- 11 Best Things to do in Tokyo with Teens
- 15 Unique Experiences Only in Tokyo
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Lisa has been traveling all her life…and loving it! Leaving the sunny skies of Miami, Lisa traveled to Philadelphia where she attended the University of Pennsylvania…stayed for…