In this guide I will detail all the things you can in Kyoto and present you many options to choose from. Best places, side-trips, what to do at night, best activities; you will discover them all in this guide!
But first, let me quickly introduce you to the city.
Kyoto: The Cultural Capital of Japan
Kyoto is the one Japanese city you need to visit, even if you don’t have too much time on your hands.
This city embodies all that would come to mind if you were to sit and think of Japan! It encapsulates all of the very traditional elements of Japan that you see in movies or read about in books.
Kyoto city is located towards the west-central part of Honshu Island in Japan, roughly 30 miles north-east of Osaka, the industrial city. It is also about the same distance away from Nara, a Japanese cultural center.
Kyoto, together with Osaka and Kobe, constitute the Keihanshin Industrial Zone, the second largest urban zone in all of Japan! And one of the most productive population zone in the world!
Also, a fun fact, Nintendo HQ is in Kyoto 🙂
Traditional Japanese elements and symbols to see in Kyoto include the ‘geisha’ (traditional Japanese women performers), theaters, dances, tea ceremonies, wooden tea-houses, bamboo forests, thousands of red gates, silver and gold shrines and temples, and massive feasts!
There are literally thousands of things you can do in Kyoto!
Each different region of Kyoto has something fascinating to offer. For example, Gion is popular for being Kyoto’s geisha district. Similarly, if you are interested in seeing temples, monkeys, and bamboo forests, you need to head over to Arashiyama. This is one of the most popular spots to visit for an authentic Japanese vibe!
In order to really enjoy Kyoto and everything that it has to offer, you will have to stay a minimum of four days in the city. Check out my extensive guide on the best time to visit Japan. I’m pretty sure that this guide will help you choose when to go to Japan and where to head to.
Let’s go back to our subject: The charming Kyoto!
There are a few places and a few activities you should absolutely not miss out on when in Kyoto. These include learning how to cook traditional Japanese food with Emi, visiting the Tenryu-ji temple for authentic Zen Buddhist feelings, visiting the Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Temple), visiting the peaceful, magical, Yasaka-jinja during the night, or even just walking through the red gates of the Fushimi Inari shrine.
So here is the plan for this guide:
First, I will present you 14 of the best places in Kyoto that you need to visit. You can try and go to all of these places, or you can choose from this list what suits your itinerary. But don’t miss #1, #6, and #13.
Then I will give 5 awesome activities you can do during your stay in the city. You can skip #2 if you’re not fan of Samurai but I highly recommend trying it. Also #4 depends on when you plan to visit Kyoto; try to adapt your plans so you can experience it.
Following that I will give you some options of what yo can do in Kyoto by night. You can choose freely here, but I think you can easily manage to do them all during your stay.
Then you can choose from 7 side-trips detailed in the fourth section of this guide. Here I’m pretty much sure you can’t do them all (only if you stay 2 weeks or more in the city), so choose wisely. For me, I would recommend #3 and #8 as they are the most beautiful and most original in my opinion.
And finally I will give you some recommended Ryokan (traditional Japanese hotels) you can try to live a fully traditional experience in the former capital of Japan.
So let’s dive in!
I- The Top 14 Best Places in Kyoto
Here is my list of the fourteen best places in Kyoto that you need to visit whenever you plan a trip to Japan.
1. Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi Inari shrine is a very important Shinto shrine located towards the Southern part of Kyoto. The shrine is popular for its thousands of vermilion torii gates. The Fushimi Inari shrine is perhaps the most significant of the thousands of shrines dedicated to the Shinto god of rice, Inari.
There are also a large number of trails that lead inside a wooded forest. The holy Mount Inari lies near the grounds of the shrine.
Hiking all the way to the summit of the mountain and back takes roughly two to three hours, but visitors have the option of walking as far as they want to before turning back.
There are also numerous smaller shrines and restaurants for visitors to enjoy along the way.
2. Kinkaku-ji: The Golden Pavilion
Kinkaku-Ji or The Golden Pavilion (formerly known as Rokuon-Ji) is a Zen temple and is situated in the Northern part of Kyoto. The first two floors of the temple complex are almost entirely covered in goldleaf.
Originally this temple was the retirement home of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. As per his will, the home was to become a Zen temple after his death in 1408.
The temple has a massive structure that has been constructed overlooking a pond. It has been burnt down and been destroyed multiple times, and the current structure was built in 1955.
After viewing the temple complex from across the pond, visitors can even pass by the main priest’s former living quarters. This same path can also take them to the temple’s ancient gardens that have retained their structure in all this time.
Tourists will also find the Anmintaku Pond fascinating as it is said never to dry up.
When leaving the complex, you can stop by the souvenir shops to buy gifts for your family back home, and there is also a charming little tea garden where you can enjoy sweets along with an authentic Japanese matcha tea.
3. Kiyomizu-dera Temple
The Kiyomizu-dera temple or the ‘pure water temple’ is one of the most famous temples in all of Japan. It was founded back in the 8th century BCE at the place where the Otowa Waterfall is currently located in the hills, towards the eastern part of Kyoto.
For many years now, the temple has remained on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites.
This temple complex is best known for its wooden stage that is situated roughly 13 meters above the hillside below. From this stage, visitors can get a great view of the many different maple and cherry trees below and also the city of Kyoto from a distance.
There is a main hall that was built together with the stage, and this houses a small statue of the thousand armed, eleven faced, Kannon.
The Otowa waterfall is located at the bottom of the temple’s main hall. The waters of the waterfall are waters are divided into three separate streams, and each stream is supposed to have a separate benefit for the person who drinks from it.
4. Yasaka Shrine
Yasaka Shrine, also known as Gion Shrine, is one of the most popular shrines of Kyoto. The shrine was founded nearly 1350 years ago. It is situated between the Higashiyama District and the popular Gion District. The shrine is regularly frequented by visitors walking between the two districts.
The main hall of the shrine is a combination of the inner sanctuary and the offering hall. There is a dance stage located right in front of the hall that is lit up with hundreds of lanterns each evening.
This shrine is best known for the Gion Matsuri or the summer festival, celebrated each July. This may, in fact, be the most famous festival held in all the country.
This summer festival dates all the way back to over a thousand years. It involves hundreds of participants and makes use of huge floats.
In addition to this summer festival, the shrine is also pretty popular in April, around the cherry blossom, season.
The Maruyama Park, adjacent to the shrine is one of the most popular cherry blossom locations in all of Kyoto.
5. Kyoto Imperial Palace
Kyoto Gosho or The Kyoto Imperial Palace used to be the imperial family’s residence place up until 1868 when the capital was moved to Tokyo. The palace is located in the massive Kyoto Imperial Park a good looking park, right in the center of the city.
The current form of the Imperial Palace was made in the year 1855 after it was destroyed a few times over.
The complex is surrounded by long walls and numerous halls, gardens and gates. Various enthronement ceremonies were held inside the main hall of the palace.
Some time back, the palace grounds could only be accessed on tours. Now, it is possible to visit the palace grounds even without joining a tour.
Visitors can enter and see the gardens and grounds but still cannot enter any of the buildings.
6. Gion District
Gion is the most famous geisha district in all of Kyoto. It is situated near Shijo Avenu with the Yasaka Shrine to its east and the Kamo River to its west.
The district is full of restaurants, shops, and teahouses where the geisha entertainers perform.
There are a whole lot of attractions in Gion that attract tourists, such as the wooden machiya houses.
Gion’s most famous area is Hanami-koji Street, stretching all the way from Shijo Avenue, all the way to Kennenji Temple.
This is a nice area with exquisite looking restaurants lining every alleyway and street. Some restaurants in the area serve Kyoto-style cuisine, and even other types of local and international cuisine.
There are also Kyoto’s famous teahouses or ochaya located in this area. Here, guests are waited on by geisha in traditional Japanese attire.
7. Yasaka Pagoda
Yasaka Pagoda of the Hokan-ji temple is a landmark of the Higashiyama District along with other popular spots, including Ninenzaka, Sannenzaka Slopes, and the Kiyomizudera Temple.
The temple comprises of a pagoda that is roughly 46 meters tall and has sloping roofs on each of its tiers. The pagoda lies right in the center of an ancient neighborhood of Kyoto. It is certainly one of the gems of the entire Higashiyama district.
The tower is open for visitors who can come inside and appreciate the architecture, paintings, and statues of the tower.
This tower was originally built by Prince Shotoku in the 6th century BCE, and according to legend, it was inspired by a dream.
8. Katsura Imperial Villa
Katsura Imperial Villa is one of the most prominent examples of traditional Japanese architecture and gardens. The current form of both the garden and villa came into being in 1645 by members of the Katsura family, an imperial family of Japan.
In order to visit the Katsura Imperial Villa, you must join a tour. The tour takes visitors through a walking trail surrounding the pond at the centre.
Visitors are not allowed to enter the Palace buildings from the inside and they can be viewed only from the outside. Photography is allowed but only from certain spots.
9. Ryoan-Ji Temple
Ryoanji Temple is the area where Japan’s most popular rock garden is situated. This area attracts hundreds of visitors each day.
During the Heian period, this area was the residence of an aristocrat. In the year 1450, that villa was turned into a Zen temple.
Less is known of Ryoanji’s famous rock garden. The garden comprises of a rectangular shaped pebble ground surrounded with rocks on small patches of moss. An interesting aspect of the garden is that from any given view point, at least one of the rocks remains hidden from the viewer.
According to some people, the garden symbolizes the theme of a tiger carrying her cubs across islands in the sea. Some even believe that the garden represents the concept of infinity.
At the end of the day, it is up to the visitors to interpret whatever meaning they can from the garden. It is recommended that you visit the temple and garden early morning when there is less crowd.
10. Kifune Shrine
Kibune is a small town inside a forested valley, only about 30 minutes away from Kyoto City. It is the perfect place to experience some sort of peace and quiet.
The area itself is worth a visit because of the seasonal flowers that bloom alongside the river and the local wildlife. The area also has a whole lot of local restaurants and traditional inns that serve meals on areas built on top of the river.
The area is best known for the Kifune Shrine. Legend goes that a goddess kami traveled over the river all the way from Osaka to Kyoto and the shrine was built on the exact site where she landed at first. The shrine is built in her honour.
Three distinctive areas make up the Kifune Shrine – Yui no Yashiro, the primary shrine, Yui no Yashiro or the middle shrine and finally Okunomiya. Most people tend to first pay a visit to the main shrine, then head over to Okunomiya, and end their pilgrimage by a visit to Yui no Yashiro, or the middle shrine. Kifune Shrine is equally stunning in the summer and winter.
11. Ginkaku-Ji (The Silver Pavilion)
Ginkaku-Ji or The Silver Pavilion is a Zen temple situated alongside the eastern mountains in Kyoto. The history of this temple dates all the way back to the latter half of the 15th century. The shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa constructed his retirement home at the current site of the temples.
Slightly inspired by the structure of The Golden Pavilion, this home was ultimately made into a Zen temple after the death of Yoshimasa.
The temple complex today comprises of the Silver Pavilion, six other temple buildings, an enchanting moss garden and even a very distinctive garden that is made up of dry sand.
12. Kawadoko at Kamogawa River
Kawadoko is the summer experience of dining outside on temporary wooden platforms constructed on top of a flowing river.
The most famous area to experience kawadoko is alongside the Kamogawa River. This area is famous for serving kaiseki meals, but other types of meals are also available.
Terrace dining is also pretty common alongside the Kamogawa River especially during evening time, during holidays, and over weekends.
13. Bamboo Grove
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is another very popular spot in Kyoto. In fact, it is one of the most photographed sights in the entire city. The bamboo grove has an other-wordly feeling like no other and like no feeling experienced any where else.
The bamboo grove can be directly accessed from the main streets of Arashiyama, towards the northern side of the Tenryu-ji Temple. In fact, any visit to the bamboo grove is usually paired alongside a visit to the temple.
There is only one possible route to the grove that you can take. This path slowly goes uphill. At the very top of the hill is the entrance to the magical Okochi-Sanso Villa which is also worth a visit.
14. Tenryu-ji Temple
Tenryu-ji Temple is one of the main attractions in all of Arashiyama. This temple is a stunning Zen temple. The best features of this temple are its gardens and the beautiful mountain views that the temple has to offer.
The temple was built back in the 14th century by the shogun Ashikaga Takauji.
Not only is this temple attractive in terms of how it looks, it is also one of the most significant temples in all the area. Within the Rinzai Zen sect, this temple is the head temple.
This temple was ranked at number one out of all five of this city’s Zen temples. It is also registered as a world heritage site.
II- Top 5 Best Activities in Kyoto – Things To Do In Kyoto
Kyoto is one of the most useful cities in Japan if you wish to see the traditional elements of Japan such as ‘geisha’ – Japanese women in traditional kimonos (Japanese attire) that are usually performers in art, dance, or theater.
The best place to ‘geisha-watch’ in Kyoto is probably the Gion district which is often referred to as the ‘geisha district’ of the country.
Most geisha tend to head out for their various engagements towards evening time so this might be the best time to see them.
When photographing geisha, make sure to either photograph them from the side or from the back but avoid, if possible, taking pictures from the front.
2. Samurai Experience
Kyoto remained the imperial capital of the country for the longest time. as a result, there are a number of samurai experiences that you absolutely should not miss!
Many different spots in the country where you can get an authentic samurai experience exist. One such place is the Samurai and Ninja Interactive Museum and Show.
Here, you can learn about the history of samurai and Kyoto. Visitors to the museum can even wear samurai armor and learn sword techniques characteristic of samurais from a swords master.
A fun attraction like this should not be overlooked! 🙂
3. Food Tour
In the fun things to do list, Kyoto has numerous food tours that you can opt for. All you have to do is select the tour you want and enjoy!
The most popular tours include the night foodie tour, the bar hopping night tour, the keiseki dinner tour, the Nishiki market food tour, and the casual evening tour among others.
Strolling through the beautiful streets of Gion, you can learn a whole lot about the food culture of Kyoto. You can also share a table with a local guide who can tell you exactly which local foods you absolutely need to try.
4. Attending a Festival
Kyoto has a whole lot of festivals you can attend as well. The most popular of these are the Gion Matsuri, Jidai Matsuri and Aoi Matsuri.
Gion Matsuri is one of the most popular festivals held in the country. The festival is held in July each year. It has been taking place for more than 1200 years and has attracted thousands of tourists in this time.
Jidai Matsuri or the ‘Festival of the Ages’ started all the way back in the 19th century and was a celebration of when the Emperor Kammu entered Heian-kyo. It is also one of the most important festivals of Kyoto.
5. Experiencing a Tea Ceremony
The Japanese tea ceremony is a rich tradition steeped in Japanese heritage. The tradition involves making and drinking green tea in a tea room that is typically made up of a tatami floor.
The purpose of the ceremony is for the tea-drinkers to enjoy their tea in an atmosphere far away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Various organizations all across Japan offer all sorts of tea ceremonies of differing degrees of authenticity and level of organization. Many traditional gardens and hotels even host these ceremonies sometimes.
Kyoto is home to some of the most popular destinations to enjoy tea ceremonies in all of Japan.
III- What to do in Kyoto at Night
1. Wandering around Pontocho Alley
Pontocho Alley runs parallel to the western bank of the Kamogawa River. According to many of Kyoto’s residents and even tourists, this is perhaps the single most beautiful street in the entire city.
The street is entirely lined with traditional restaurants and shops. There is no sign of a modern looking building in this area.
Evening time is the best time to visit this street. The street transforms into a magical place each evening. If you’re lucky, you may even be able to do some geisha watching here.
2. Stroll along Kamogawa River at sunset
Kyoto’s Kamogawa River flows from north to south all through downtown Kyoto. It is the perfect place to experience all of the delights the city has to offer such as, the enchanting views from the river bed , the autumn leaves scattered all over the ground, and the beautiful flowers.
A stroll alongside this beautiful river, particularly at sunset time is ideal for anyone, whether you are alone, or with a significant other.
3. Go on an Izakaya Food Tour with a Local Guide
There are various food tours that operate in Kyoto specializing in Izakayas or local drinking houses. A tour is always the best option if you want to get an authentic feel of any place.
You should opt for an Izakaya tour if you want to explore the streets of the city along with its traditional cuisine and free-flowing drinks to go with it.
4. Enjoy a 10-course Kaiseki
Kaiseki is a unique traditional Japanese multi-course meal. At various places in Kyoto, you can enjoy a 10-course Kaiseki.
According to some, kaiseki is one of the greatest meals in the world so make sure to grab your hands on this while in Kyoto.
5. Arashiyama Kimono forest
The Arashiyama Kimono Forest is basically an art installation situated near the Arashiyama terminal station belonging to the Keifuku Randen Tram Line.
The Kimono Forest comprises of about 600 acrylic cylinders that are all about two meters in height. Each cylinder represents a different sort of kimono fabric design.
6. GEAR Theater
This is a unique one of its kind non-verbal sort of theater performance unique to Kyoto.
The purpose of the performance is to stimulate all five of your senses. The setting of the story is always the future and the performances always make use of the latest technology.
7. View illuminated cherry blossoms at Kiyomizu Shrine
The cherry blossoms at the Kiyomizu Shrine are decorated with all sorts of illumination effects at night fall that are certainly worth looking at.
If you find yourself in Kyoto during the sakura season, don’t miss this opportunity to see such a gorgeous scenery.
IV- Side-Trips From Kyoto
1. Ine no Funaya
Also known as the Venice of Japan, Ine no Funaya is a small village situated in the Ine town, Kyoto prefecture.
The beautiful village of Ine lies inside the region that is often referred to as ‘Kyoto by the Sea’. This is a traditional area and is the closest thing Japan has to a beach living lifestyle.
Ine no Funaya is a traditional fishing village. It comprises of more than 200 rustic boathouses that float on the Ine Bay.
The unique, surreal scenery of the village makes it one of the most beautiful spots in all of Japan.
2. Wazuka Tea Plantations
The Wazuka tea plantations are a sight to behold. They are located near the small town of Wazuka. The area appears to be unreal at first. You get to walk by various rice paddies and tea fields. You can even rent out a bike and ride it around the area.
The Wazuka tea plantations account for approximately 45% all tea production in the Kyoto Prefecture. Not only are the tea plantations useful, they are also extremely picturesque.
There are slight differences in the view based on what time of year you decide to visit them but the plantations are always a sight to behold.
This nearby city is home to various UNESCO world heritage sites including the ‘Hall of the Great Buddha’. Lots of people also decide to take a road trip from Kyoto to Nara just to see the temples and the wild deer in the popular Nara Park.
Nara comes in second place to Kyoto as the most traditional and culturally rich place in all of Japan. In fact, Nara is full of rich heritage and cultural sites.
Nara houses some of Japan’s best temples and shrines. It is also home to a number of different museums, gardens, and even traditional neighborhoods.
4. Osaka Castle
The Osaka castle is one of the most popular landmarks in Japan, and it is easy to see why. In fact, it is perhaps the most popular landmark of the country. This five-story castle is a sight to behold and its history goes back about 4500 years.
The castle has a rich history and this itself warrants a visit or two. The castle was built by a certain Hideyoshi Toyotomi, a powerful feudal lord and warrior during the Sengoku period, in the year 1583.
Hideyoshi was obsessed with gold, and therefore insisted that the castle’s interior furnishing be made fully of gold.
5. A Full Day in the Peace City: Hiroshima
The primary reason to visit this city is to pay your respects to the WW2 atomic bomb attack victims which destroyed the entire city on 6th August 6th, 1945. There are a number of different trip options you can opt for. You can for example take a round-trip from Kyoto by a high-speed bullet train that can take you through all of the major historical sites and landmarks
You can visit the Peace Memorial Museum to pay your respects to the victims. You can even visit the ruins of the bomb which might be a chilling experience.
There are a number of different trip options you can opt for. You can for example take a round-trip from Kyoto by a high-speed bullet train that can take you through all of the major historical sites and landmarks.
6. Miyajima: The Shrine Island
Miyajima, also called Itsukushima, is a small island located right near Hiroshima. It is most well known for its large shrine complex, which is listed as a UNESCO heritage site, especially its torii gate. At high tide, it appears as if this gate is floating on the water! This is a truly stunning sight to see.
There are a number of trips you can opt for from Kyoto. Most of these take you to visit Hiroshima as well as Miyajima.
The shrine island has a whole lot to offer to anyone. So it is certainly worth talking a round trip from Kyoto to see these places.
7. Himeji Castel
The city of Himeji houses the feudal-era fortress of Himeji-jo. This is one of the most exquisite castles in all the country and is very impressive to behold. This castle is perhaps the main reason to visit this city.
The castle is also known as the White Heron Castle because of its graceful, white appearance. It is often considered Japan’s most fantastic castle because of its huge size and natural beauty and its well preserved grounds.
The castle is both a national treasure and a world heritage site.
Most people tend to take day trips from Kyoto only to see the castle.
If you are interested in seeing temples, bamboo forests, and other traditional elements of Japan, you need to head to Arashiyama, one of the most authentic places in all of Japan.
I already included some of its highlights (the bamboo grove and the Tenryu-Ji temple) in the 14 best places in Kyoto, the list above in this article.
Arashiyama is, in fact, a very pleasant and district that is immensely popular with tourists. It is situated on the western outskirts of Kyoto. This area has, in fact, been popular since the Heian Period, when noblemen would come out here specially to enjoy the natural setting of the place.
Arashiyama is a place that is especially popular during the fall season, and when the cherry blossom trees bloom and cover the landscape in gorgeous white and pink flowers.
If you’re looking for a quiet, serene, and peaceful way to explore Japanese culture and history, without being swarmed by tourists, then Kanazawa is just the place for you. The city has well-preserved, ancient neighborhoods that aren’t flooded with tourists.
The city also has beautiful art museums, shrines and temples, massive gardens, old samurai and geisha districts, and an ancient castle.
The best way to travel from Kyoto to Kanazawa is the train that takes two and a half hours to run. In fact, you can even travel from Tokyo to Kanazawa and then to Kyoto, and make a three-day loop of all three cities.
V- Where To Stay In Kyoto
Here are some of my recommendations of traditional accommodations in Kyoto. Click on each one of these Ryokan to have more details and photos:
Kyoto has a whole lot to offer anyone who wishes to visit. It is full of beautiful forests, temples, heritage sites and authentic Japanese food. It combines elements of modern Japan with those of old Japan, and in doing so, Kyoto has a lot to offer anyone.
The cheery blossoms are a must see, while the samurai experience and the geisha-watching experience is something you must do when you are in Kyoto.
This was my comprehensive guide on the best things to do in Kyoto. If you think I missed out on anything, please let me know in the comments below.