Planning a trip to Kyoto but don’t know where to start? Kyoto has so many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, cultural heritage sites, Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and traditional Japanese food and art it’s hard to narrow down the list! Let us be your guide for the 20 things you must see in Kyoto!
Even if you don’t know much about Kyoto, you’ve probably seen a picture of this amazing Zen Buddhist Temple. The gold leaf exterior sparkles across the reflective pond attracting visitors from all over the world. Kinkaku-ji (The Gold Pavilion) was built by in 1397 by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Can you believe the weight of all that gold is only 1 kilogram?
Try to get to this amazing World Heritage Site early as tourists and tour groups quickly crowd up the grounds! Explore the gardens surrounding the Pavilion, see the hundred-year-old trees, and enjoy some matcha at the teahouse before you leave Kinkaku-ji!
The architectural twin to Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Pavilion) was built in 1482 by Yoshimitsu’s grandson (Yoshimasa). Yoshimasa intended to cover the Pavilion in silver, but this never came to fruition. It likely never will as this Buddhist temple has become a place to experience the Japanese concept wabi-sabi (the beauty of imperfection).
Amazingly, Ginkaku-ji has survived years of earthquakes, fires, and other calamities. It stands today much as it did in the 15th-century! The path through Ginkaku-ji includes several gardens of different varieties and climbs up a hill where you can get a great view. Like Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji attracts a lot of people. You can avoid the crowds by going early in the morning.
Tenryu-ji is the most important Buddhist temple in Kyoto’s Arashiyama District, so you can't miss out on this UNESCO World Heritage Site if you travel to the west side of town! Shogun Ashikaga Takauji built Tenryu-ji in 1339 in an attempt to appease the spirit of Emperor Go-Daigo.
Takauji and Go-Daigo struggled against each other for control over Japan with Takauji emerging as the victor. Inside of Tenryu-ji’s buildings, you can see the dedication to Go-Daigo. Along the temple grounds, you’ll find a Zen Garden, the central pond garden, and roads leading through a wooded area featuring several different plants. Tenryu-ji is gorgeous during autumn when the maple trees change to varying shades of crimson and gold.
Following Tenryu-ji’s forested paths you’ll come across the Arashiyama Sagano Bamboo Grove. The total area of the forest covers 16 square kilometers (3,950 acres) of land. The bamboo stalks grow close together shading the roads into a dense, ethereal green.
The roads through here will lead you on to several destinations around Arashiyama, so use this footpath for both a sightseeing stop and a way of transportation. One word of warning though: from April 2018 Sagano Arashiyama Bamboo Grove has suffered a slew of foreign tourists carving their names into the bamboo. Please DON’T follow this new trend of vandalism as it damages the bamboo and ruins the experience for visitors coming after you!
Also in Arashiyama, Togetsukyo Bridge stretches 155 meters (508 feet) across the Katsura River. The first incarnation of it dates back to 836, but the current construction was built in 1934 to accommodate cars.
The modern bridge retains the traditional Japanese aesthetic. Although the bridge looks wooden, the structure is actually mostly made from concrete. The Togetsukyo Bridge is considered to be a masterpiece of natural scenic beauty. From here, you can see magnificent views of the western Kyoto hills.
In eastern Kyoto, the Gion District offers the finest in food, fun, and a chance to experience traditional Japanese cultural heritage! Within Gion District, you’ll find plenty of teahouses to try some real Japanese green tea. You’ll also see a high concentration of Meiji Period wooden townhouses called machiya.
Many of the machiya owners converted the homes into fine dining establishments where you can try some of Kyoto’s haute cuisine. Gion’s Hanami-koji Street is home to many Geisha and Maiko (Geisha in training), and if you are lucky you might spot a few, but don’t get fooled! Not everyone in a kimono is a Geisha, and in fact, they may be tourists having a bit of fun dressing up!
Kiyomizu Temple was founded in 780 and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. The wooden stage of the main hall juts out 13 meters (42 feet) over the hillside and offers one of the best views of Kyoto's cityscape!
While there, check out the Jishu Shrine and try your hand at crossing the 18-meter distance between the love stones with your eyes closed! If you can do it, they say you’ll be lucky in love. At the bottom of Kiyomizu Temple’s hill, you’ll see three streams each said to provide a drinker with either luck, longevity, or wisdom. Only choose one, though. Drinking from all three is said to be selfish!
Built in 1603, Nijo Castle served as the residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo period. In 1867, the imperial family regained power and moved into Nijo Castle. Later, it opened to the public. The castle is perhaps the best-surviving structure of its kind Japan and arguably the best place to enjoy 17th-century style architecture, which is why it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The grounds include Honmaru (the main circle of defense), Ninomaru (the second circle of defense), and their gardens. Walking into Ninomaru, the residence of the shogun, the so-called Nightingale Floor will squeak below your feet, an architectural design to warn against invaders. The inside of the castle also features gorgeous ornate ceilings fusuma (painted sliding doors).
The Villa and Garden in their present condition were completed in 1645 and served as the home to the Katsuras, who were members of the imperial family. To see this place you must make a reservation at the Kyoto Imperial Park. International visitors must show their passport when making a reservation! Also, be careful about taking pictures as there are a lot of prohibited areas.
The Katsura Imperial Garden is an excellent example of Japanese architecture and garden design in the entire country, so the workers take extreme care to protect it! Tours are only offered in Japanese, but there are audio guides available which provide translations into several languages.
Ryoan-ji Temple’s rock garden attracts visitors from all over the world. Dating back to the Heian period, the rock garden’s original designer, construction date, and meaning are unknown. A low dirt wall surrounds a plot of pebbles and fifteen large rocks on patches of moss. If you sit at the Hojo, the head priest’s residence, no matter which position or angle you view it from, you can't see all the stones!
This UNESCO World Heritage Site also features a pond garden, walking trails, and fusuma. Ryoanji Temple is a 5-minute bus ride or a 20-minute walk from Kinkakuji (The Gold Pavilion).
Like Kinkakuji you’ve probably heard of, or at least seen a picture of, Fushimi Inari Shrine. The Vermillion Torii Gates sprawl around the forest below Mt. Inari, and lead you through several miles of small shrines and statues dedicated to the Shinto Fox Gods of rice.
Carved into the gates, you can see the names of donators followed by the dates of their donations. Several thousand gates stand here, although the exact number is unknown. Maybe you can try to count them yourself when you go through! Take the Nara Line from JR Kyoto Station to JR Inari Station to get here.
Sanjyusangendo Temple may not look exciting from the outside, but the inside is a wondrous sight of 1001 gold statues of Kannon. They're known as the 1000-armed statues, although each one only has 42 arms each.
The life-size statues flank one large wooden Kannon where monks pray. The Sanjyusangendo Temple is across from the Kyoto National Museum near the Hakubutsukan-Sanjusangendo-mae bus stop.
Completed in 1964 for the Tokyo Olympics and the opening of the Shinkansen, Kyoto Tower offers one the best views in the city. Kyoto Tower is easy to find once you get off at Kyoto Station. Just head for the Kyoto City Bus stops outside of Kyoto Station and BAM! there it is!
Kyoto Tower is a rare modern structure in traditional Kyoto, which is mostly known for its shrines, Buddhist temples, and world heritage sites. Standing at 100 meters, Kyoto Tower is Kyoto’s tallest structure and offers a 360-degree view of the city. You can even see Osaka on a clear day!
History lovers might know that for centuries, Japan's capital moved at the whims of the emperor. The imperial family settled in Kyoto for a long time before moving to Tokyo. You can't enter the grounds of Tokyo's imperial palace, but here you’re free to explore.
Kyoto Imperial Palace's property also includes the Sento Imperial Palace, the Kaninnomiya Mansion, and the Kyoto Imperial Park. You can access the Kyoto Imperial Palace by taking the Karasuma subway line to Marutamachi or Imadegawa Station.
Otagi Nenbutsuji Buddhist Temple was built in 770 in Higashiyama, but it suffered many calamities over the years. It moved several times before finally settling along the foothills of Arashiyama in the early 1980s.
Otagi Nenbutsuji features around 1200 Rakan statues (Buddha’s disciples), but these statues don’t show the solemn faces of religious leaders. Different artists created each one, so the Rakans all have individual styles and faces. They smile, laugh, and drink sake with a friend eternally in joy. A popular game to play is to find the Rakan who looks most similar to you!
The charming old streets of this neighborhood in Arashiyama make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Somehow, this street survived the years and has retained its Meiji Period townhouse-styled buildings called machiya.
The townhouses were once private homes, but now most have been converted into restaurants and small shops. You can reach the Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street on foot, by bicycle, or ride a rickshaw. Just head North of the Zen Buddhist Tenryu- ji Temple and the Arashiyama Sagano Bamboo Forest.
The Philosopher’s Path is a little road you can use to access several places in Eastern Kyoto. The Philosopher’s Path follows along a canal that comes from Lake Biwa. Cherry blossoms line the way making this path one of the most popular destinations in early April.
Rumor has it that famed philosopher Nishida Kitaro (1870—1945) used the canal’s footpath on his daily commute to Kyoto University and took this time to meditate, thus giving this road its name. From Ginkakuji’s exit, head back down through the souvenir shops and over the small canal bridge. Immediately take a left to step onto the Philosopher’s Path and follow it through the traditional Japanese neighborhoods to Nanzen-ji.
Situated against the Higashiyama Mountain range, Shoren-in’s main hall exudes a palpable calm. The soft tatami floors give travelers a place to rest among colorful paintings of dragonflies or look out on the koi pond in the central garden.
Remove your shoes before entering to enjoy the buildings of this Buddhist temple. Then, retrieve your shoes at the main entrance before stepping out onto the garden’s path. First, you get a closer look at the pond itself before winding along the base of the mountain slope, through a bamboo forest, and across the small grounds. Shoren-in is a ten-minute walk from Chion-in Temple.
While in Kyoto, don’t miss the chance to see the keepers of traditional Japanese art: Geisha. The Geisha schools in Kyoto hold exhibitions several times a year to show off their Maikos, apprentice Geisha, at different theaters in Kyoto.
One of the most famous events you can go to is the Kyoto Geisha and Maiko evening offered by Gion Hatanaka Ryokan. Here, you can have a meal with Maiko and Geisha, plus a group of other guests, and watch traditional Japanese dance, play drinking games, and speak directly with Maiko and Geisha. Keep an eye out for other annual events held at different venues around Kyoto.
Dating back to the mid-13th century, the sprawling grounds of the Nanzen-ji Temple complex are yours to explore as you like. Entering from the Philosopher’s Path, you’ll encounter the Sanmon Gate right away. It’s hard not to miss this gate which towers over the trees! It’s possible to climb the steps of Sanmon Gate for a small fee and look out over Kyoto from the balcony.
Nanzenji Temple’s grounds include the sub-temples Nanzenin Temple, Konchi-in Temple, and Tenjuan Temple. Nanzenji Temple, a Buddhist temple, itself is free and open to the public, but the sub-temples have admission fees of varying prices.
Why Should I Go to Kyoto?
The lights of Tokyo might be attractive, but there aren’t too many places where you can experience historical Japan. In Kyoto, you can feel like you’ve stepped into the real Japan of your textbooks!
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When’s the Best Time to Go to Kyoto?
Most tourists go in autumn to see the maples change colors, and they are gorgeous, or in the spring to see cherry blossoms. While these are the prettiest times of years, they’re the most crowded. Summer and winter might be the lowest seasons for tourists, but you’ll have to deal with blistering heat or the dreary cold. To avoid crowds and harsh weather, I recommend Kyoto in the late spring right after cherry blossom season ends.
How Long Should I Stay in Kyoto?
Kyoto has so much to see and do it could take a lifetime to explore it all! For a short trip, three days is enough to hit the major highlights of Kyoto. A week will afford a truly immersive experience!
How Do I Get Around Kyoto?
The easiest way to get around Kyoto is by the city bus system. Buses come frequently, and many of the stops use the same name as the nearest sightseeing destination. If you listen carefully, you'll hear recorded announcements about their founding dates, legends, and other information. Announcements are in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean.
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