Top 15 things to see in Kyoto

The former capital of Japan lacks the chaotic vibrancy and crowds of Tokyo, with a more cultural and historical charm. Way more immersed in tradition, Kyoto is where you will see more people dressed in Kimonos, theatres with Miyako Odori (Geisha dances), Japanese tea ceremonies and other such activities rooted in their culture. The temples and shrines are equally beautiful, if not better and certainly more peaceful.

I would recommend you to spend 3 - 5 days in Kyoto. Just like Tokyo, the city can be a good base for exploring neighbouring areas. Here's a list of Top 15 things you can do, including a few day-trips you must consider if you have time:

#15 Nijo Castle

Although this is the most popular place to visit in Kyoto, I was personally not very impressed. The sprawling gardens surrounding the castle are probably the most attractive part of the castle. You can only enter one of the structures - Ninomaru Palace, famous for its squeaky floors. The interiors are quite grand, reflective of the power wielded by the former occupants of the palace. Unlike the Osaka and Himeji palace which stand tall, multi-storied and perched on high rocks, this one is more flatly laid out.

For information on opening hours and ticket prices, click here.

Suggested read: What you need to know BEFORE travelling to Japan

#14 Kyoto Imperial Palace

This palace is the former residing place of the Emperor of Japan, who is now residing in Tokyo, the capital. You need special permission to visit the palace which needs to be applied for in advance by filling up a form and presenting your passport. If you don't have a lot of time in Kyoto, I'd suggest giving this one a skip.

For information on opening hours and ticket prices, click here.

#13 Kyoto Tower

Located right as you exit the Kyoto station, this tower is slightly lesser impressive than the one at Tokyo. It is located in one of the most lively areas, the so-called 'downtown' of Kyoto with shops, restaurants, and bars surrounding it. The tower also has an observation deck that offers a 360-degree view of the city.

For information on opening hours and ticket prices, click here.

#12 Tenryu-ji temple & zen garden

Located in Arashiyama, right next to the Bamboo Grove, there is a ¥500 charge to enter the lovely gardens and the temple. These are probably one of the best Zen gardens I saw in Japan, only next to the Shinjuku Gyoen Gardens in Tokyo. Numerous green trees, little ponds with fish and pink flowers make this place not only beautiful but also immensely peaceful and an absolute pleasure to walk through.

For information on opening hours and ticket prices, click here.

Suggested hotel stay in Kyoto: Meldia Hotel Kyoto Nijo

#11 Day-trip to Kobe

With not a lot to do in Kobe except the China Town market, I would suggest only to make a trip to this city if you're keen on trying authentic Kobe beef, right from where it comes! It's very easy to get to Chinatown; take a train from Kobe station (which is hardly 27 minutes by train from Kyoto station or 12 minutes from Osaka on the Shinkansen) to Motomachi station (only 1 stop from Kobe station) and walk about 300m to Chinatown. The area is packed with street shops, restaurants and food stalls, quite lively and crowded.

#10 Day-trip to Himeji

The Himeji castle is one of the prettiest castles, next to Osaka castle. Himeji is about 1 hour by train from Kyoto and also from Osaka. The elegant, white appearance of the Himeji castle makes it stand apart from most other architecture in Japan. The castle miraculously survived the bombings of Second World War. If you choose to enter the castle and climb 6 floors (by staircase), you can enjoy lovely aerial views from the top. You can also visit the Kokoen Garden which is located next to Himeji Castle.

A combined ticket to the gardens and the castle will set you back by ¥1040. The castle can be reached by walking 1 km from the station, on the Otemae-Dori Street. Alternatively, you can take a public bus from the station.

For information on opening hours and ticket prices of the castle, click here.

#09 Day trip to Nara

Located 45 minutes away from Kyoto by train, Nara has the famous Deer Park which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hundreds of deer roam free and amidst the people, who can feed them special cookies, sold in the market nearby. The deer are mostly friendly and tame unless they smell food on you, for which they will follow you around and even try to snatch it.

Right next to the deer park is Todai-Ji Temple, one of the oldest and historically significant temples in Japan. It houses one of the largest Buddha bronze statues, almost 15m tall. The temple and deer park can be reached by taking a public bus (or the city sightseeing yellow line bus) from the Nara station.

#08 Day-trip to Osaka

Osaka is one of the largest cities in Japan, after Tokyo and Kyoto. Hardly a 12-min train journey away by Shinkansen, Osaka can be combined with either Nara or Himeji and Kobe.

One of the most popular places to visit in Osaka is Osaka Castle, hardly a 15-minute walk from the Osaka station. Once you enter the compounds, there is an uphill climb towards the castle, for about 5 minutes. Osaka boasts of a modern urban cityscape and this castle is a trip away from the lively and buzzing city life. The castle has 8 floors of historical displays and a viewing deck located on top, with panoramic views of the city.

For information on opening hours and ticket prices of the castle, click here.

From Osaka station, take a train to the JR Namba station and walk towards Shinsaibashi, one of the premier shopping destinations in Osaka. Luxury chains, trendy boutiques, departmental stores, electronic shops and souvenir shops line the 600-m long shopping street which is as crowded as the streets of Tokyo. The covered shopping area ensures that you're protected from the sun and rain yet enjoy a street shopping experience.

Right at one end of Shinsaibashi shopping street is Dotonburi, perhaps the most lively area I saw in Japan after Shibuya and Shinjuku. Only next to Tokyo in its liveliness factor, Osaka's Dotonburi Street is a foodie's haven, with hundreds of restaurants including known international chains and some very authentic Japanese fine-dining restaurants. The street is lit up with jazzy bright lights, LED screens and humongous displays on the buildings. A little canal passes from in between, where sightseeing boats cross and the bridge has some of the bridge over this stream is the best place to capture pictures of the lovely night scene here.

#07 Day trip to Hiroshima & Miyajima Island

These two places can be done in a day trip from Kyoto or Osaka, although we decided to spend a night in Hiroshima to make it easier and more convenient for us. The best way to travel to Hiroshima from Kyoto is to take the 12-minute Shinkansen from Kyoto to Shin-Osaka and then the 1.5-hour Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka to Hiroshima.

In Hiroshima, take the tram car from the Hiroshima station to the Peace Memorial Park (about 20 minutes). A quiet walk in the park will take you through the historical relevance of the area and the stories of people whose families and homes were destroyed during the Second World War. At the end of the Peace Memorial Park are the preserved remains of the Atomic Bomb Dome, one of the few ruins which have been maintained since the atomic bombing (it explains here that the people found it too painful to preserve too many remains from then as it brought back memories of the devastating incident).

If time allows, walk (15 minutes) towards the Hiroshima Castle, which was built in the 16th century but was completely destroyed in the bombing. The 'main keep' is about five stories tall and offers panoramic views of the city from the deck above. This is the only area that has to be paid to enter. The precinct has a shrine and some ruins, and a large garden which is free to walk through.

From the Hiroshima Station or the nearest station, you need to get to Miyajimaguchi station, from where you will catch the (10 minute) ferry to Miyajima Island. This is where the famous Itsukushima Shrine is and the O Tori Gate that is in the middle of the ocean (when the tide is high).

As you approach the island by the ferry, you will be able to see this gate from the ferry itself. Walk about 10 minutes from the pier towards the Itsukushima Shrine, amidst many small shops selling lovely souvenirs, street food and one of the most interesting sweets that are manufactured on this island - Momiji sweets. You will see a lot of (naughty and wild) deer walking free here as well. The deer here can be very nasty, trying to snatch your belongings, so be careful as they're wild creatures!

The Itsukushima Shrine and Five-storied Pagoda are right next to each other and are two of the most iconic places to visit on this island.

#06 To-Ji Pagoda

Soaring high above the cityscape of Kyoto, this five-storied pagoda is about a 15-minute walk from Kyoto Station. Although there is a fee to enter the pagoda, you can stroll around in the gardens surrounding the temple for free. I would recommend taking a walk around as the best views are available from the outside itself.

For information on opening hours and ticket prices, click here.

#05 Sannenzaka District

This is one of the most popularly photographed areas of Kyoto. While walking towards Kiyomizu-Dera from Kawaramachi Hankyu train station, you will come across this charming street with its wooden houses, souvenirs shops, and tea houses. The stroll along the alleyways almost make you feel like you're on a movie set! It is perhaps the most charming street you will find in Kyoto and it is unique if compared to the streets of other larger cities such as Tokyo and Osaka.

If you're planning to hike the Magome – Tsumago Trail in Japan, click here to read all you need to know.

#04 Kiyomizu Dera

If you're in Kyoto, you cannot miss this temple. During the cherry blossom season, the temple is engulfed with pink and white flowers and people flock here to take some amazing pictures of its main hall, which is elevated and has a platform offering spectacular views of the city. Unfortunately due to the ongoing renovations when I visited, the platform was covered though still accessible. The temple was built in the 8th century and the 3-storied pagoda in its vicinity is fairly new, built in the 17th century. The waterfall located on the ground floor, just below the main hall, is believed to have special powers where visitors looking to improve their health and prolong their lives drink the sacred waters. The approach to the temple is a lively little street selling local snacks, handicrafts and souvenirs.

For information on opening hours and ticket prices, click here.

#03 Fushimi Inari Shrine

This is one of the most popular places to visit in Kyoto and for the right reasons. The thousands of red colored Torii gates, placed adjacent to one another forming a path, are a pleasure to walk through, and there are two sets of these. The bright red Romon Gate which forms the entrance to the shrine is equally stunning and has two foxes (sculptures) guarding it on either side.

The shrine is as lovely at night as it is during the day, with bright lights setting the entire area aglow. Lovely little lamps light your path inside the Torii gates as well. It is said that these torii gates were donated by thousands of people who found success in their lives and careers after having worshiped at this shrine. This is the reason why each gate has the name of the donor and the date of donation inscribed in Japanese.

The gates at the beginning of the trail are much taller and are located at the back of the shrine. As you walk along, you will be greeted by the Senbon Torii; these are much smaller and stacked up closer to each other. Many people choose to hike all the way up to the mountaintop, which takes about 1-2 hours. I went to the shrine a little later in the day so decided against going all the way to the top.

#02 Kinkaku-Ji Temple

This is another one of the most iconic sites in Kyoto. Also known as 'Golden Pavilion, the name is derived from the bright golden temple located in the middle of the pond. Unfortunately, there was no way to enter this lovely little building itself so we had to make do with a walk around it, in the gardens. The pond brilliantly mirrors the architectural marvel and the trees, creating a beautiful effect and making for some lovely pictures, which you might have to struggle to take amidst the pouring crowds. Nevertheless, it's a treat for the eyes and tops my list of things to see in Kyoto.

For information on opening hours and ticket prices, click here.

#01 Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

This is a unique place you will visit in Japan. Strolling between these towering bamboo trees is a humbling experience. Located right next to Tenryu-Ji Temple in Arashiyama, the entry to the bamboo grove is free for all but it is also a very crowded place so if you're looking to enjoy a quiet time, its best to get here as early during the day as possible. The sunlight peeking through the tall trees creating soft shadows on the walking path makes for some really charming pictures.

Grab some delicious potato croquettes on the way or borrow a kimono for a lovely photo shoot in the bamboo grove. From the Saga-Arashiyama station (which is about 15 min from Kyoto station), you will walk about 10 minutes through these lovely shops and cafes before you arrive at the Bamboo Grove.

Suggested read: How to spend 5 days in Tokyo

67 thoughts on “Top 15 things to see in Kyoto”

  1. I love Japan! Really want to visit Kyoto some day, but haven’t had the chance yet. Hopefully next year.

  2. Kyoto sounds like a fabulous base to do day trips in and around Kansai – I recently visited Kansai but we based ourselves in Osaka, so didn’t make it up to Kyoto, but I would love to get back to Japan to visit – Kinkaku-Ji Temple is high on my list! I’m fully behind your recommendation to do a day trip to Kobe – we did a day trip here from Osaka and had the most amazing dinner I’ve ever had – Kobe beef was divine!

  3. Such a neat list of things to see. I haven’t been to Kyoto yet but love Japan. I was just there the other day, sadly just for a layover. 🙁 The sky deck at the Kyoto Tower sounds like the best place to see the city. The day trip to Miyajima Island is right up my alley. Adding Kyoto to my bucket list.

  4. Kyoto is such a great city! We spent a few days there a couple years back, but I’d love to return and do some more exploring. Lots of great suggestions on things to do—thanks! We are definitely adding a day-trip to Himeji and the To-Ji Pagoda to our list for our next visit. One of our favorite activities in Kyoto was the Tenryu-ji temple, zen garden and bamboo grove—such a pretty area!

    1. Fushimi Inari Shrine, Bamboo Grove and Kinkaku-ji were some of my favourite places in Kyoto 🙂 And of course, the day trips were awesome too!

  5. I didn’t know that Kyoto had that many of the traditional Japanese towers. I would love to spend a couple of days and just visit as many of them as I could. I really want to see the Nijo Castle. I have pictures of it that my grandfather just after WWII.

  6. I haven’t made it to Japan yet, but Kyoto is at the top of my list. I found it interesting that 1/3 of the things you’d do in Kyoto are day trips. Are there fewer things to do in Kyoto or you just think that the day trips are just so much more amazing? I’m just curious how much time you think a person should spend in Kyoto (for future travels). Thanks for the advice!

    1. There’s a lot to do in Kyoto but a lot more that’s not too far and must be visited. I’d say minimum 5 days for Kyoto is reasonable 🙂

  7. Hey! My friend who visited Japan told me to visit Kyoto instead of Tokyo. When I see all the green places such as Tenryu-ji temple and its zen garden, it really makes me what to explore this part of the world. Your post is a proof of the variety of activities there!

    1. I like both, although very different. I wouldn’t tell you to skip Tokyo altogether, although I also personally enjoyed Kyoto a slight bit more.

  8. Amazing recommendations! I hold such vivid memories of visiting Kyoto in both the spring and summer, and it is one of my favorite places in Japan. You’ve given some great recommendations for what to do in the city, and for day trips nearby. Hiroshima is well worth visiting, and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is incredible. This post makes me want to go back to Japan!

    1. Yes I definitely recommend a visit to Hiroshima from Kyoto, it’s a good experience 🙂

  9. Wow, your article makes me feel like we missed so much during our time in Kyoto. We were only there for one day, but now I will have to go back and check out everything on this list! Tenryu-ji temple & zen garden seem amazing and I would not mind paying the 500 yen to enter for that! I wish I had time to get a kimono and wear it in the Bamboo Grove like you suggest. It does make for great photos! I was told it takes more like 3 hours to get to the top of the Fushimi Inari Shrine…anyway, we didn’t make it all the way either. We happen to find a shortcut way down which was a cool behind the scenes area to see as well!

    1. Yeah I didn’t make it all the way to the top, it was already sunset time and I didn’t think it was something I wanted to do that late 🙂 Kyoto was so amazing!

  10. The Himeji Castle looks amazing! I want to see it for real. OMG deer snatching cookies… sounds so interesting. The pagodas of Kyoto are so photogenic. I hope I can do all of these some day.

  11. It looks like you had a nice long time to wander the Kyoto region and beyond. I’ve been twice and Kyoto once at the end of the cherry blossom season. That was magical. Nice to read about a few things I missed in Osaka but we were with Japanese friends. They knew I love green tea and took me to a special shop and the shrine where the tea ceremony was born. I’d love to live in the Kyoto area for a month or two and explore from there.

    1. Wow I am sure the tea experience would’ve been pretty cool, it’s always nice to explore a place with locals!

  12. These are definitely highlights and cool places to also do for short day trips around Kyoto. I did a tour in the Japanese alps close by to a small village in the hills that was also very cool called Takayama..

  13. i loved kyoto so much.. but we couldnt manage to go everywhere in your list..we spent just 3 days..arashiyama was my fav part of kyoto.. ur pics r stunning and makes me wanna go back to Kyoto.

  14. Wow, what a beautiful blog post! Kyoto must be a fantastic place to visit – maybe I will go there next year. I love your pic from the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove – this looks so cool!

  15. Lovely articulation for the places to see. I have experienced Kyoto. I would love to hit the one day trips from Kyoto next time I am in Japan. Thanks for such an organized post.

  16. Every sight you mentioned in the post has so much history and are unique only to Kyoto I think. I am yet to explore Japan, definitely going to bookmark this for my future reference. Visiting Hiroshima Is something I am really looking forward to.

  17. There are so many things to see and do in that area, just incredible! I want to see very shrine, temple and pagoda I can fit into a vacation. The architecture is simply breathtaking. I also enjoy all of the bright lights of the downtown areas. You were able to get great photos of all the buildings. Seeing Hiroshima would be very moving I am sure.

    1. I fit all these things into my really short trip and it was a bit tiring but I wanted to see every shrine, temple and pagoda too! Yes, Hiroshima was a very different experience.

  18. i fell in love with kyoto when we visited..its one of my fav cities…their history, culture..everything about it makes u wanna fall in love..great post..reminded me of our travel to japan

  19. Your photos of Kyoto are incredible! It seems to have everything from temples, city life and wildlife too! I’d like to take a day trip to the island, and wander around the gardens for an hour, just a beautiful place. Hope I get to visit soon!

  20. kyoto looks awesome and I love how it has still preserved so much of Japanese culture. For me the Zen gardens and Himeji castle would be top on my list. i had no idea it was so easy to access the other cities from Kyoto. Thanks for the tips

    1. Kyoto is amazing, so different from Tokyo and has such a charm of its own. Also, a good base for exploring around 🙂

  21. oooh I’d love to visit all the different gardens and the deer park! They look beautiful and so peaceful, and it’d be cool to see deer a little more up close!

    1. Yea the deer can be very naughty though, they snatch the food from you and even chew on your clothes sometimes. Lol.

  22. I’m going to Kyoto next week so your post is very timely and handy! I discovered many points that I didn’t know and I’m now considering Hiroshima as well. Do you think 1 day is enough to really enjoy Nara?

    1. Yes Dinh, in my opinion, a day was enough for Nara. You could consider spending 1-2 nights in Osaka and even in Hiroshima.

  23. The pictures are so pretty! I would definitely take a day trip to Nara and Osaka and spend some time in the Zen Garden 🙂 – I really can’t wait to visit Japan!

    1. All the gardens in Japan are amazing, some even in the middle of the busy city of Tokyo! So peaceful to just take a walk through them or sit and read a book.

  24. Omg this is my dream place! I probably won’t be there for maybe a year or two but definitely going to read this again when I go!

  25. I’ve never been to Japan (in fact the only Asian countries I’ve visited are India and Jordan!), but it’s definitely somewhere I’d like to visit in the future. Interesting that you think 5 days wasn’t enough and others say it’s more than enough… Will have to do a bit more research i think! x

    1. Becca, if you’re very short on time and don’t get more than 10 days or 2 weeks off from work, then 5 days are enough. But with all the things to do and see, to explore beyond the tourist attractions, to enjoy to the fullest and really connect with the culture and people, you need so much more time!

  26. Ooh I so want to go to Kyoto, and every place you mentioned on this list looks amazing! I love the look of the Tenyru-ji temple and gardens and the Toji pagoda, looks so quintessentially Japanese!

    1. Tenryu-ji temple’s gardens are so amazing! It’s right next to the famous Bamboo Grove and although it costs ¥500 to enter the gardens, I feel it’s totally worth it. My favourite temple was Kiyomizu-Dera though 🙂

  27. Japan is an amazing country with amazingly polite people. Despite the language barrier they would go out of their way to help you if you approach them for any help or guidance. Visiting Japan “just once is not enough”.

  28. Kyoto is my favourite place in Japan. However, some of the ones you mentioned are outside of Kyoto. They are still pretty interesting though. I also wanted to see the Silver Pavilion or Ginkaku-ji but didn’t have time. 🙁

    1. There are so many things to see in Kyoto, I also felt like 5 days were too less! I could’ve easily spent a whole week or maybe even more.

  29. Ah Japan 😀 – I have never been before but it is up there very high on my list, I just know it will be one of those countries I just don’t want to leave. This post makes me want to go right now 😀

  30. Absoutely loved reading this! Kyoto is high up on my list of places to go and now I know what to do there! Thanks!

    1. Although the castles aren’t very fairytale-like, definitely not like the ones in Europe, they’re definitely interesting and stand apart in their architecture. Temples, shrines and street markets were my favourite things to explore 🙂

  31. I loved Kyoto! Japan is so absolutely gorgeous, I would love to go back one day. I feel like I could see a million photos of Japanese architecture and still be full of awe every time. Great job showcasing the best parts of an incredible city in an incredible country.

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