Kyoto is the 7th most populated city in Japan, though to most people, it is their favorite place to visit.
This is because Kyoto still has all the conveniences you get in a larger city yet possesses a vast array of historical and cultural entities that are quintessentially Japanese.
Kyoto is my favorite Japanese city and this itinerary highlights all of the best places to visit in Kyoto to make the most of your stay.
Wondering where the where to stay in Kyoto? I feel that the best area to stay in Kyoto is the Gion District.
Here you will find shops, traditional Japanese teahouses, stores, restaurants, temples, architecture, history, and culture.
It has everything you want to see and makes for a great base for Kyoto sightseeing.
The Gion District can be quite busy during midday so try to take an early morning or later evening stroll before it gets crowded.
We (Dave and Deb) suggest booking a Ryokan in Kyoto.
A Ryokan is a traditional Japanese Inn usually attached to hot springs. Here you’ll stay in tatami rooms with yukatas (summer kimonos) supplied for dining and leisure activities.
Search for Ryokans in Gion on TripAdvisor
Check out TripAdvisor or Booking.com for more Kyoto Hotels and reviews in the Gion District.
Kyoto Attractions Map
- Click here or on the map for an interactive version of all the places to visit in Kyoto
Day 1 in Kyoto
To get you charged up and ready to explore Kyoto, look no further than Coffee House BAU.
It’s located just north of Nijo Castle and is run by an older Japanese gentleman who seems to have a PhD in the art of making coffee.
All joking aside, he carefully and methodically made me a wonderful brew which I enjoyed in the confines of his shop before starting off on my day. You can tell he was so dedicated to his craft and it showed in the taste.
With Nijo Castle right around the corner, you can take in the architecture and surrounding gardens while the caffeine begins to take its effect.
The castle has the designation as a “Historic Monument of Ancient Kyoto” and is used as a venue for state-sponsored events for official visitors.
Official guest or not, you can venture around and see the various fortifications, gates, and towers in addition to Ninomaru Palace.
When taking the time to view Kyoto’s temples, always try to go early in the mornings.
These are immensely popular sights that are best enjoyed at first light with few people around.
Kinkaku-Ji – The Golden Pavilion
The Golden and Silver Pavilions, better known as Kinkaku-Ji and Ginkaku-Ji, respectfully, are situated across the city from one another, so it is best see them on two different days.
- Fun fact: These two temples are two of Kyotos 17 UNESCO World Heritage-listed temples and shrines.
Since you are on this side of the city at the Ninomaru Palace, I suggest starting with Kinkaku-Ji.
Kinkaku-Ji is covered in gold leaf, hence the name the golden pavilion.
The temple grounds boast exceptionally well-manicured gardens that emphasize the zen-like atmosphere.
Ginkaku-Ji – The Silver Pavilion
You can either move on to GinkakuJi temple across town or save it for day 2, but while I am talking about it, here is some information.
It was modeled after the Ginkakuji temple but it was never plated in silver. Instead, there is a long silver cone within its garden and its walls remain unpainted.
Ginkaku-Ji is a Zen temple that is very scenic and possesses a traditional Japanese sand garden.
Don’t miss the Philosopher’s Path.
About two kilometers in length and starting from Ginkaku-Ji, it is a stone walkway following the canal that is lined with cherry trees.
This was named after a famous Japanese philosopher who would walk this path and practice meditation on the way to Kyoto University.
The path is a top draw for visitors flocking to see the famous Kyoto Cherry Blossoms in April.
The next stop is Nishiki Market, which has anything from matcha ice cream to a variety of seafood dishes, Japanese souvenirs, and high-end clothing.
Ramen is an incredibly ubiquitous dish in Japan and you can find it anywhere.
Good ramen places are easy to find, but if I had to recommend one place, I would say highly Kyoto Gion Raman Muraji, also in the Gion District.
It’s well priced, has a great atmosphere, and the ramen is top notch.
On the outskirts of the Gion district lies the Kiyomizu-dera temple.
The Kiyomizu-dera is a Buddhist temple boasting fantastic views of the entire city of Kyoto and its catalog of gardens and brilliantly colored buildings make it a gorgeous backdrop for any photographer.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is immensely popular, especially in November where the site holds special evening illuminations (an extra ticket charge).
The temple is free to see up to a certain point, then further access requires a proper ticket.
Geishas of Kyoto
If you’re lucky, you may see geishas strolling around Gion before or after their daily training.
If you do see one, you may find that many people are trying to snap photos of them (often while chasing them), which can create quite the stir.
Instead of this, I suggest simply asking one if it’s ok to take their photo since unauthorized photography of them can now result in a fine.
But I find it best to just sit back and admire them for their dedication to their profession and keep the camera packed away.
Day 2 in Kyoto
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in western Kyoto is known for its bamboo-tree lined pathways and serene atmosphere.
Bamboo Forest – Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Arguably, the most special place in Kyoto may be the bamboo forest.
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is idyllic, serene, and tranquil and is best visited right after sunrise.
This is just the spot to unwind after the busy city pace of Tokyo or to relax right after arriving in Japan.
This short path is in the western part of Kyoto and is accessible by the San-in Line train from Kyoto station to Saga-Arashiyama station.
Since the trains start a bit later after first light, it’s best to take a taxi to Arashiyama (if you’re also looking to get a photo without many people).
Taxis starting from Kyoto station to this area will run you about 30,000 Yen (about $30), a small price to pay for having such a place to yourself.
Fushimi-Inari Taisha shrine
Known for its over 1000 orange tori gates, the Fushimi-Inari Shrine is at the top of every Japan traveler’s list.
A veritable ‘must-do’ in Kyoto is the Fushimi-Inari Taisha shrine, known for its plethora of orange tori gates lining its entire path all the way up to the top of Inari Mountain.
Admission is free and this shrine is open all day and night. Like the other temples in Kyoto, it is best enjoyed around sunrise.
The Japanese characters are visible on the back side of the gates, so they can be seen when coming back down the mountain.
This was easily my favorite place in all of Kyoto.
Kyoto Day Trips
Some other attractions to see around Kyoto, easily accessible by train in less than an hour include:
The most pristine castle by far is located in the city of Himeji. Himeji castle has never been damaged by a natural disaster or war.
Have you ever asked yourself, “Is there a castle in the world that has never been damaged by natural/manmade disasters and has never been attacked in war?”
It doesn’t matter if you’ve asked yourself that or not, but this castle DOES exist and it’s in the small city of Himeji.
Himeji Castle is therefore the most pristine and well preserved castle in the country.
It is located about 20 minutes (walking) from Himeji rail station and entry is 1000 Yen/Adult.
The culinary mecca of Japan.
Some people oftentimes spend days in Osaka and visit Kyoto for a day trip as well, just depends on your preferences.
Nonetheless, Osaka is reachable by train in less than an hour’s time.
About an hour south (by train) of Kyoto is the city of Nara. Nara Park is home to hundreds of friendly deer.
They are used to human interaction and will often go up to you without any fear.
Make sure you grab some rice crackers from a nearby vendor to feed them and keep them around long enough to get that perfect shot.
With it’s central location in Japan, collection of historically significant monuments and temples, array of markets and shops, and culinary delights, you have no excuse not to go. Enjoy!
Whether for just a few days or a few months, Kyoto should be a stop that you intend to make on your holiday.
Other Things to do in Kyoto (By Deb)
Kyoto is known for its shrines and temples, but there are other things to see and do.
If you are looking for a few more ideas, check out these highlights of Kyoto.
Kyoto is one of the most traditional places to visit in Japan.
The tea ceremony originated in Kyoto and there is nothing more authentic than taking part in a tea ceremony while visiting the city.
Kyoto is a large producer of green tea and you can tour the Kyoto Obubu Tea farms or even take a two week tea masters course there.
Many people study in Kyoto and there are many options to book a tea ceremony at Get Your Guide.
Ryoanji Temple houses one of Japans most famous rock gardens.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of Japan’s most visited tourist attractions.
This Zen rock garden houses meticulously raked gravel surrounding rock covered boulders.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
Before moving to Tokyo, the ruling family of Japan resided in Kyoto. Located in the Kyoto Imperial Park it is a tranquil place to visit.
It is worth spending an afternoon here as there are plenty of things to see in the park.
Protip: Kyoto Food
No matter your culinary preference, don’t leave Kyoto, or Japan for that matter without trying Octopus balls, also called takoyaki.
These are made by a wheat flour-based batter and cooked in a special molded pan and is filled with minced or diced octopus (tako) with tempura scraps, pickled ginger, and green onion.
Getting Around Kyoto
Kyoto is very bike-friendly which is a preferred form of transportation as most people rely on a massive network of buses with just a few subway lines along the main avenues
You can get a 2 day subway/bus pass for 1700 Yen/Adult
There you have it. An excellent Kyoto itinerary for about 4 solid days in this Japanese city.
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