The 20 most amazing tourist attractions in Kyoto. Get lost in ancient Japanese culture
Kyoto (京都市) is one of the most amazing cities in the world. It’s quite easy to find a temple more than a thousand years old, and right next to it the craziest cyber café or gambling hall. Truth be told, I honestly couldn’t think of any city more versatile than Japan’s former capital. There are just so many things to do in Kyoto.
And it is not just the city of Kyoto itself. The whole Kansai region offers you beautiful day trips you will remember a lifetime. Everything seems to be picture perfect. The gardens (small and large), the temples and shrines, the hotels, and especially the food. 17 unique sites in Kyoto form one gigantic World Heritage Site, while there are 95 Michelin-starred restaurants to dine at.
It is close to impossible to not fall in love with Kyoto. But since there are so many tourist attractions in Japan’s culture capital, you really have to plan ahead. It’s quite easy to spend a week in the mega-metropole without ever feeling bored. I compiled this list of things to do in Kyoto so you will have a good starting-point. Feel free to do your own research, and definitely, buy a guide book or two! The Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide is quite good, but pick whatever brand you are accustomed to!
1. Climb Fushimi Inari Shrine
It is a tough decision, but if there is one thing you absolutely need to do in Kyoto, then it is visiting the Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社). Located on the slopes of the Inari Mountain, this temple consists of kilometers upon kilometers of crimson corridors.
Each single torii (how the red gates are called in Japanese) was donated by a business. There are literally tens of thousands. The shrine can be a bit busy in the lower regions, bust just climb further up the hill to enjoy a quiet moment. (For full details read my guide to Fushimi Inari Shrine).
Pro tip: From the top, you can enjoy a beautiful view of Kyoto. And do eat the famous Kitsune Udon (noodles with fried tofu) at one of the many restaurants along the paths.
2. Go Geisha hunting
Kyoto’s flowers bloom all year and they are called geishas. The almost mystic entertainers are the very epitome of Kyoto’s ancient culture. Not many of them are left and so they are quite hard to spot. Your best bet will be the back alleys of Gion around dusk. (read my guide to Geisha watching to increase your chances!!).
Pro tip: If you don’t want to sound the illiterate foreigner, do call them geiko (or maiko for the young apprentices). Oh, and always treat them respectfully.
3. Visit the Kiyomizu-dera
The Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) is a gigantic Buddhist temple on the outskirts of Kyoto. The temple is abutting a small hill and a huge terrace was built to make up for that. Definitely walk beyond the halls of the temple to enjoy the classic postcard view! Make sure to read my article on Kyomizu-dera, so you don’t miss any of the highlights.
Pro tip: Visit in autumn when all the leaves turn into fabulous golden hues.
4. Take a picture of Kinkaku-ji
Even if you’ve never heard of Kyoto, chances are high you’ve seen a picture of Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺). The golden temple is so beautiful it almost seems surreal. The outer walls are completely covered in gold, creating a sparkling vista hard to escape. I wrote a little article about Kinakuku-ji, so make sure to read it if you want to know more about this fascinating structure!
Pro tip: You cannot go inside Kinkaku-ji. But there is quite the lovely garden around Kinkaku-ji and even a tea house.
5. Visit Ginkaku-ji
Kinkaku-ji has a brother: It’s called Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺), which translates roughly to silver pavilion. Originally this temple was intended to be covered with silver. These plans never came to fruition – what remains is still an amazing piece of architecture (a little less gaudy than its brother). Ginkaku-ji is also quite famous for its garden.
6. Have a Zen moment at Ryoan-ji
Zen is a Buddhist movement particularly strong in Japan. If you want to have your own Zen moment, you definitely have to visit the Ryoan-ji (龍安寺). The temple features a magnificent dry landscape rock garden (karesansui), fabled for its utter serenity.
Pro tip: 15 stones are perfectly arranged around moss patches in the Zen garden. Sitting in any spot on the veranda, you will always only see 14. Do try it out!
7. Visit the Katsura Imperial Villa & gardens
Now this might be personal preferences, but the most beautiful spot in Kyoto is the Katsura Imperial Villa (桂離宮). At the first glance, it is “only“ an extremly beautiful garden with rural tea houses. Mind you, these simple teahouses (which are in fact anything but simple) are breathtaking. But at the very heart of it stands a sprawling imperial villa from the 17th century.
And it is this utterly minimalistic villa that impressed me the most. On my first visit, I was quite literally close to tears. I just couldn’t handle that beauty. While in Europe, golden splendor like Versaille stood in its prime, prince Toshihito built a palace of simple lines reflecting a refined taste. A place for silent introspection and thoughtful contemplation. So futuristic for its time. Do visit!
Pro tip: You absolutely need to get your tickets for the imperial villa before your visit. Do so via the Imperial Household Agency. You will need your passport.
8. Visit Nijo-jo Castle
Nijo-jo Castle (二条城) is an outstanding flatland castle in the middle of Kyoto. The ancient structure is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kyoto and was once the official residence of the shoguns when they were in the city. Together with the wonderful gardens, the castle gives intimate views into the courtly life of 17th century Japan.
9. Get lost in the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is another of these postcard motives Kyoto is so famous for. A perfectly tailored bamboo forest you cannot ignore. There is actually more than bamboo to Arashiyama. Inside the public gardens monkey can be seen and in spring the huge bridge spanning the Ōi-river is a favorite spot to watch the cherry blossoms.
Pro tip: Walk all the way through the grove, and you will find the outstanding Okochi-Sanso villa.
10. See Byodo-in Temple
Byodo-in (平等院) is one of the oldest temples in Kyoto. Originally built in 998 AD as a courtly villa, it got transferred into a temple a couple of years later. The temple is peacefully resting along the shores of a small artificial lake. Utterly beautiful.
Pro tip: Check your 10 yen coins. You will find an image of the Byodo-in on one side.
11. Walk along the Path of Philosophy
The Tetsugaku-no-Michi (哲学の道) is one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful walk in Kyoto. It was named for a Kyoto University professor who walked along the channel each day for meditation. Plan roughly 30 minutes to do the walk – or take your time and visit the many shrines along the way.
Pro tip: A must see during cherry blossom season; Do go at night when the path is illuminated by artificial lights to avoid the crowds.
12. Get off the beaten paths at Honen-in Temple
Honen-in (法然院) is one of the most serene temples in Kyoto, yet it seldom appears on any list of things to do in Kyoto. Which is quite the shame, because the moss covered approach to the quiet little temple is nothing short of spectacular.
Pro tip: Unlike the gardens, the main hall is only open from 1-17 April. Then the camellias are in full bloom. Also, open during 1-7 November when the maples turn red.
13. Be amazed by Chion-in Temple
Chion-in Temple (知恩院) is vast. And with vast I mean gigantic. The original temple was built in 1234 but burned town in the 16th century. What you see today is a reconstruction from the middle of the 16th century. Do look out for the roof crests of the temple, where you can still the see family crest of the Tokugawa shoguns. In most other places around Japan, they got replaced by the imperial seal.
14. Do a day trip to Nara
Kyoto is often called the thousand-year capital. It truly was the capital of Japan for that long, until the Meiji government moved the capital to what is today known as Tokyo. But before all that, from 710 to 794, the small city of Nara was the capital of Japan. The so-called Nara Period was an era of cultural bloom. Even more than 1,300 years later, the city is one gigantic testament to the treasures of that time.
There is so much to see in Nara that you should consider staying a night or two. The two main highlights are the Todai-ji (the biggest wooden temple in the world), Horu-ji (the oldest wooden structure in the world), and Kasuga Taisha, the temple of the 10.000 lanterns. I wrote a super detailed guide to Nara you don’t want to miss. If you just want to do a day trip, read this article.
Pro tip: There are tame deer all over the city. Street vendors sell treats to attract them at every corner so you can take your perfect picture.
15. Wander through Gion
Gion is the very heart of Kyoto’s Geisha culture. Countless ancient tea houses are sprinkled all over the narrow alleys of the district. You certainly should not only head there to get a chance to see a real Geisha. There are also wonderful antiquity shops in the quarter where you can buy an authentic souvenir.
16. Attend a tea ceremony
Japan is famous for its tea ceremony. Probably nowhere else you will get the chance to attend this formalized ritual in a better way than in Kyoto. Tea houses can be found in almost every garden and special arrangements can be made to have a tea master (or even a geisha) introduce you to this ancient art form.
17. Host an ozashiki
If money doesn’t matter, and I mean really doesn’t matter, you should consider hosting an ozashiki. What translated as honorable tatami matted floor, is nothing but the Japanese name for a geisha party. All bookings have to be made through the kenban (geisha office), which will be impossible directly. You will need someone to vouch for you to do a booking. A few high-class ryokans will be able to offer you this service. Expect prices around 1,000 US-Dollars upwards. Here is a story from my first ozashiki.
Attention: There are a couple of tourist agencies offering group meetings. While not being an outright scam, these will not be able to give you the authentic geisha experience. If a picture is all you want, then this will be fine.
18. Watch a Kabuki Performance
There is, believe it or not, yet more about Japanese performing culture than tea and geishas. Kabuki is a classical Japanese dance-drama. Only men of a decent age are allowed to participate, the prettiest among them incorporating the female roles. Don’t be afraid to go. There are earphone guides available to translate the formalized plays into English.
Pro tip: Go in December during the Hanamachi sōken – to see a performance and the many geishas attending!
19. Eat Kaiseki dinner
If you truly want to get intimate with Kyoto’s soul, you absolutely have to eat at least on Kaiseki dinner (懐石). It is a traditional multi-coursed menu that puts a huge emphasis on regional and seasonal ingredients. All courses will be presented on carefully selected (and often ancient) dishware, perfectly arranged to match the seasonal pattern. Each dish will be quite small, but there can be as much as 9 of them.
Pro tip: Don’t go to one of the cheap restaurants (where you can eat the so called casual kaiseki). Rather invest that extra dime to experience authentic Kaiseki at a traditional ryōtei (how the small restaurants serving it are known).
20. Sleep at a traditional Ryokan
Last, but certainly not least on this list of things to do in Kyoto, you should definitely sleep at least one night at a traditional Ryokan. Ryokan are no hotels, but rather very elaborated guesthouses. One of them, the Tawaraya, often ranks among the top 10 hotels in the world (read my review, video included, of the Tawaraya here).
What makes them so special? They often have their own natural hot spring, you will sleep on traditional tatami mats surrounded by folding screens and priceless art. All food is served inside the room and is often the very reason Japanese stay at a Ryokan. Most of them are famous for their food. While Kyoto’s Tawaraya will cost you 1,000 dollar a night or more, there are way cheaper options as well.
Pro tip: Most better Ryokan’s in Kyoto serve excellent kaiseki. Since food is included in the room fare, it often cheaper to book a good Ryokan than staying at a cheap hotel & going out for dinner (provided you option for the same quality).
Other things to do in Kyoto
My, this list got very long. But I really felt like showing you the true beauty of the city. That being said, there are so many other things to do in Kyoto. There are like 400 shrines and 1,000 temples in Japan’s former capital. It is quite impossible to see them all. I really tried to limit this guide to all the highlights in Kyoto.
Kyoto is right in the middle of Japan and will be an excellent starting point for further day trips or to explore the rest of the country. Apart from Nara, fantastic Osaka or Lake Biwa would be excellent sightseeing opportunties. The Shinkansen high-speed train will get you anywhere in a matter of hours (or even minutes).
How long to stay in Kyoto?
How much time do you need for Kyoto? Hard to say. If you want to do all the tourist attractions on this list, you will probably need as much as five days in Kyoto. Even though you can probably see #1 to #7 in one day, I would certainly recommend you to stay at least 2 days.
I have been frequently asking myself just how many days in Kyoto is enough, and I only found one answer. A lifetime will probably not suffice.
When is the best time to visit Kyoto?
There are, quite obviously, two very popular seasons: The cherry blossoms will transform the city into a fairytale land in April, while late October/early November clothes the city in golden red autumn hues. Be aware that spring and autumn will also be the most crowded time of the year.
As Kyoto can be extremely hot and humid in summer, July and August might not be the best idea, though it is certainly nothing like visiting Uzbekistan during that time (and believe me, I did it!). In winter everything will be very quiet, but equally as beautiful. Celebrating New Year’s can be an excellent idea, as would be the Setsubun festival in February.
Pro tip: On October 22 you can attend the Jidai Matsuri (Festival of Ages), where a grand, grand costume parade tours the city.
So I hope you liked my little list of things to do in Kyoto. What do/did you plan to do? Any questions or suggestions? Do ask me in the comments below. And don’t forget to pin this article for later!