Top 7 Places to Visit in Kyoto

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Before visiting Japan, I was convinced Kyoto would be my favorite city. I even had doubts I would enjoy Tokyo, given that I usually prefer traditional over modern places. But then Tokyo totally swept me off my feet. And if I were a drama queen, I’d say that I love Kyoto, but I’m in love with Tokyo. Trust me, it’s complicated. Travel rarely is black or white.

Tokyo and Kyoto are two incredibly different facets of the Japanese culture. The vibe and craziness of Tokyo are only a distant echo in Kyoto, the old capital of Japan. But the serene state of mind and low profile, with often uneventful, low buildings, contrasts deeply with the vastness of the city. For what it’s worth, Kyoto is the most zen city I know.

When it comes to fashion, most people in Kyoto wear normal-ish clothes. However, kimonos are still all the rage and can be spotted predominantly around shrines and temples.

You see, entering a place of worship in Kyoto is like stepping back in time. Not to mention Kyoto has over 2,000 temples and shines and one would need months, maybe years to visit them all. My husband and I spent five days in Kyoto. Nevertheless, out of all the places and attractions we visited in Kyoto, these 7 are our favorites. And we both feel like they are a must visit for various reasons.

BEST ATTRACTIONS IN KYOTO

Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine

I loved both Arthur Golden’s novel ‘Memoirs of a Geisha‘ and the film adaptation. So I believe anyone who watched the movie would agree that the scene of young Chiyo running through endless rows of vermilion Torii gates was undoubtedly the most memorable and visually stunning location in the film. Although the movie was filmed mostly in California, some scenes were shot in Kyoto and Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine was one of the filming locations. #bucketlistmaterial

What is utterly surprising and completely different about this shrine is the huge number of vermilion Torii gates of different sizes, grouped in countless rows. It is estimated that there are well over 10,000 Torii gates at Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine. I really wasn’t expecting so many of them! They form covered trails up the mountain and one can walk for hours under the enchanting roof.

Each gate has a black inscription with the name of the company which donated it to the shrine. fdrinInari is not only the god of rice but also the patron of business and having a Torii gate here is believed to bring good fortune. We even spotted a couple of inscriptions in Latin letters! Also, the entrance is free, as it is at most shrines in Japan.

Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine can be reached by JR line from Kyoto Station. However, if you want to combine a visit to the shrine with the old tradition of sake drinking, this Fushimi Inari and Sake Brewery Tour is the answer. The best part is that you will learn about traditions and rituals you wouldn’t have otherwise heard about when visiting on your own.

Kinkaku-Ji Temple or The Golden Pavilion

We arrived at Kinkaku-ji just as the sun was gently caressing its pure gold leaf covered facade with the last rays of the day. It was also the moment we realized we weren’t the only ones who saw the image of this gorgeous pavilion in pictures all over the internet. Even one hour before closing time, the gardens were packed with visitors. This is one of the most popular and one of the best places to visit in Japan and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The pavilion houses relics of the Buddha and each floor features a different architectural style. We were not allowed to get anywhere near the building. Nevertheless, the gardens were delightful and allowed us to admire the pavilion from different angles.

Where to stay in Kyoto:

Kyoto Guesthouse Lantern – budget accommodation in Gion, the most charming geisha neighborhood in the world. Traditional facilities with a small Japanese garden.

Kyoto Century Hotel – conveniently located only 2 minutes away from Kyoto Station, which makes everything within reach. Elegant rooms and excellent staff.

Ginkaku-Ji Temple or The Silver Pavilion

The Silver Pavilion was built following the model of the Golden Pavilion. And this temple’s gardens were our favorite in the whole Japan. I wouldn’t know to explain why. It’s just that they were so serene and zen (this is a Zen temple after all) and inspired wonderful feelings. It also happened that Ginkaku-Ji was situated a stone’s throw away from where we were staying, so this was the first temple we visited in Kyoto.

The sand garden at Ginkaku-Ji and the pile of sand that symbolizes Mount Fuji are quite a sight and the moss covered wooded grounds are pretty spectacular too. It was the first time we saw people gently sweeping the moss. It would have never occurred to me, not in a million years, that this task could be a part of somebody’s job description. Talk about attention to details!

Gion District

This was another ‘Memoirs of a Geisha‘ moment. Okay, I admit I should have probably used a different image to represent Gion, but I just couldn’t help it. After all, it’s the funniest photo one can take in an otherwise almost austere district.

Gion is one of the best known and most exclusive geisha districts in all Japan. It recently underwent a restoration project and all utilities were moved underground.

Gion is the setting of ‘Memoirs of a Geisha‘ and guided tours are organized around it, showing curious visitors the places mentioned in the book. However, my favorite remains this walking tour in traditional kimono, which is an amazing opportunity for cultural immersion while exploring the steeped in history streets of Gion.

But Gion is even more fascinating after dark. The old wooden teahouses welcome their guests, and geiko (local term for geisha) and maiko (geisha in training) entertain visitors as ever. However, this is a cultural experience many foreigners find intimidating. And to be honest, it would be a pity to miss. At Gion Hatanaka Cultural Center you can witness an elegant maiko performance while you spoil your taste buds with local delicacies. This is such a fabulous experience and a unique opportunity to have your photo taken with a beautiful maiko!

Now, if you wander the streets of Gion long enough you can still spot a geisha or two. Well, we stumbled upon one, to be honest; just as she managed to briefly escape a group of tourists insisting on blinding her with their flashes. I was too startled to take a picture of her as she appeared right in front of me. Before I realized what was going on, the group swiftly followed her around the corner and all I learned from this was that tourists can probably be worse than paparazzi.

Kiyomizu-Dera Temple

Kiyomizu-Dera is yet another UNESCO Heritage Site from Kyoto. Its biggest attraction is the main hall, which is made entirely out of wood. And when I say entirely, I really mean entirely. Not one single nail was used and the building still holds together, thank you very much!

The hall is built on top of a cliff and its large veranda is supported by some very tall pillars. Apart from having spectacular views over the city and the waterfall nearby, it looked to us that either the architect really enjoyed a challenge or that was the only spot still available on the face of the earth.

Back in the Edo period people actually saw the humor in this and believed that whoever jumped from the 13m high cliff and survived, would have their wish granted. According to the records, over 200 people jumped and more than 85% survived. This practice is nowadays prohibited for obvious reasons.

But if you feel like trying your luck with mystic stuff, you can always give the ‘love stones’ a try. Why do I have the feeling that I got your attention now? Well, the love stones are two stones 6 meters apart and whoever manages to walk between them with their eyes closed will find love.

Now, before you jump on the first flight to Japan to complete the quest, do know there is no scientific evidence about it and walking between the stones it’s not all that easy because of the great number of tourists who might cross your path. That being said, please do jump on the first plane to Japan. It’s a wonderful country and as long as you visit for the right reasons, it’s cool.

You can visit Kiyomizu-Dera Temple on your own, or you can join a small group led by a scholar who will shed new light on the various Japanese religious rituals and practices. It’s up to you, but if you ask me, it’s always more fun when you have somebody explain the stuff you see. Plus, this particular tour includes several other shrines and temples.

Ryoan-Ji Temple

Ryoan-Ji, also called the Temple of the Dragon at Peace, has one of the best rock gardens in Japan. Plus it’s a UNESCO Heritage Site (one of 17 in Kyoto). The garden can be contemplated from the porch, which was actually quite nice as we also enjoyed some warm autumn sun. The grounds have a number of details to be discovered and a big pond covered with pretty waterlilies.

The temple building can be entered by anyone, provided you take off your shoes. However, the rock garden is the main attraction and can either leave you cold or stir the most profound revelation within you. Though the garden looks like a no-brainer due to its simplicity, it apparently has some very complex and varied interpretations. Unfortunately, we left just as puzzled as we arrived and our world is still the same.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Well, we couldn’t have left Japan without seeing a proper bamboo grove, could we? While Arashiyama is not literally situated in Kyoto but rather in a district on the outskirts of the city, it is still accessible by train and a definite must see attraction.

It so happened that on the way to the Arashiyama bamboo grove, we stumble upon a cute little festival. Being a festive day, the bamboo forest was pretty busy, but something tells me this is not the case on a normal day when one can walk and discover this unique place at their own pace.

Once we actually walked out way towards the end of the 500m long footpath guarded by majestic bamboos, we discovered an incredible feeling of tranquility mixed with just the right amount of mystery. While we’ve seen bamboo groves at different temples in Japan, none was this big, nor free of charge like the one in Arashiyama. So from my point of view, it doesn’t get any better.

USEFUL INFORMATION:

Where to stay in Kyoto:

When it comes to accommodation, I usually use and recommend Booking.com. But for Japan, I can’t help but recommend Agoda, the leading accommodation site in Asia, with discounts up to 80% off and more properties to choose from than any other website.

How to move around Japan:

The best way to get around Japan is by using a Japan Rail Pass, a very convenient and budget-friendly way to travel throughout the country. For train route ideas and city guides, check out the Japan by Rail book.

Further readings: 

Before you go to Japan we highly recommend you read A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony for a better understanding of the modern Japanese culture and lifestyle.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. If you buy via them, I will get some coffee money at no additional cost to you. Thank you for helping me stay awake!

59 Responses

  1. THAI LE
    | Reply

    Top 7 Places to Visit in Kyoto
    I was looking for one tip that I would try on my next trip, but I could not find one as they all are great tips! Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. JohnWooden
    | Reply

    Just want to say this is wonderful post. beautiful picture . I am impressed with Gion District

  3. Bonfilio Dazzle
    | Reply

    Amazing photos! I'm having my first trip to Japan next year and this will certainly help me see all the beauties of Kyoto! They're absolutely gorgeous

  4. Rosemarie of Migration Expert Canada
    | Reply

    Nice destinations! I would love to visit Japan at least once. They have beautiful scenery and landscape like it came out of a fairytale.

  5. Hoa Nguyen
    | Reply

    Ranking should be Hitachi hill. it is very beautiful.

  6. Chanel Brown
    | Reply

    I cannot wait to visit Kyoto for the first time in the spring – it will be my 3rd time to Japan and every time I go to the country, I fall in love <3

  7. Nyasha
    | Reply

    I just can't wait to get back to Kyoto. I want to do so many of the things listed, especially going to the shrine, but I also just want to photograph the city and its beauty. I cannot wait. It's been six years since I last visited.

  8. Oh wow! These pictures are gorgeous. You've captured Kyoto beautifully – I've always wanted to go and now so even more.

  9. Howard Henry
    | Reply

    I have been visited Japan about a year ago with my friend. Lots of places that I like there but a place that I like the most is "Kinkaku-ji Temple". It is also known as "The Golden Pavilion". It is one of the most popular temples of Japan. I must want to go there again in my life.

  10. Akhilesh Gannavarapu
    | Reply

    Going there tonight. Excited, thanks for the list!

  11. Simon Lee
    | Reply

    We have just back from Osaka and Kyoto 2 months ago, i have to admit that Kiyomizu-dera Temple is our favorite! We somehow slightly earlier to see the leaves turn red entirely:)

    Simon Lee

    • Laura
      | Reply

      Kiyomizu-dera is such a special temple, isn't it? We visited Kyoto about the same time of the year and missed the fall foliage, though in some parts of Japan the leaves were already turning red…

  12. Koodzi
    | Reply

    Wow! I missed some great stuff. I was in Kyoto for 7 days in May…I did a lot but wish I could have fit in more. I did manage to go to Arashiyama and Kikakuji. It was amazing but next time I'm taking your recommendations with me.

    • Laura
      | Reply

      It's impossible to see all Kyoto's attractions in 7 days. But then Kyoto is such a charming city that it surely deserves a second and even a third visit 😉

  13. Simon Lee
    | Reply

    Visiting Kyoto, Osaka and Nara this Nov, will definitely visit the places you recommend in the list:)

    Thanks Laura,

    Simon

  14. James
    | Reply

    Great list of place to visit in Kyoto. Can't wait to go to Japan next year.

    • Laura
      | Reply

      Happy to hear you'll be visiting Japan soon, James. I hope Kyoto is on your list 😉

  15. Jane
    | Reply

    Nice post. Kyoto seems to be a cool place. Nice images!

    • Laura
      | Reply

      It surely is. One of the most interesting cities in Japan. There are so many places to visit in this city, it's incredible!

  16. Eartha
    | Reply

    Thank you for this list! I'm headed to Kyoto next week and I can't wait to see all of these… 🙂

    • Laura
      | Reply

      We can't wait to read your stories 🙂 Have fun in Kyoto. It's one of the best places in Japan.

  17. The GypsyNesters
    | Reply

    We just returned from Japan and now I want to turn around and go back – we obviously missed one of the best places! -Veronica

    • Laura
      | Reply

      Kyoto is always a good reason to go back to Japan, even if you've seen it before.

  18. Daniel McBane
    | Reply

    The thing that makes the Ryoanji garden so famous is that the rocks are laid out so that, no matter your vantage point, you can never see all 15 of them. If you move and a hidden rock becomes visible, a different one will disappear

    • Laura
      | Reply

      We found the Ryoanji rock garden cool precisely because of this kind of details. Definitely one of the most intriguing places to visit in Kyoto.

  19. jimbojapanam
    | Reply

    Great blog piece. Always love to hear others favourite bits from Japan!

    • Laura
      | Reply

      Thank you! Kyoto is an amazing city and it has an incredible number of places that must be visited. We wish we could go back and visit more.

  20. zoomingjapan
    | Reply

    I've been to Kyoto many times.
    I agree that Fushimi Inari is a nice experience. Nearby is the famous Tofukuji Temple that is especially popular during autumn with all the great colored leaves!
    I recommend Arashiyama in general (not only the bamboo grove). It's especially beautiful during spring and autumn.

    I just love the Higashiyama district. It's always so nice to stroll around there.

    As I'm a huge fan of Japanese castles I can also recommend Nijo Castle and Fushimi Castle. The latter is near the earlier mentioned Fushimi Inari Shrine.
    A bit outside of Kyoto City is Uji (famous for Byodo-in and green tea) and Amanohashidate ("the bridge to heaven").

    • Laura
      | Reply

      I want to go back NOW! It looks like we missed even more places than we thought in the first place 🙁 *sigh*

    • zoomingjapan
      | Reply

      The problem with Kyoto is that there's so much to see that even if you live there you'll never be able to explore everything!

      I guess that's good news for Kyoto, though.
      People will always come back to see more! 😉

  21. I have always wanted to go to Kyoto. Beautiful photos!

    • Laura
      | Reply

      Thanks Michael! Kyoto is so beautiful and photogenic!

  22. Courtney Mroch
    | Reply

    Oh my…how awesome. The other night I had a dream I went to Japan. I have never really thought we would get there, but I'd love to. Especially after reading about Tokyo like this. (I also pinned your first pic. That really spoke to my soul.) Thanks for sharing!

    • Laura
      | Reply

      I can only recommend you visit Japan. It's such an amazing country!! And Kyoto (which is not Tokyo – I've heard many people making this mistake) is absolutely a gold mine from an cultural point of view.

  23. Derek4Real
    | Reply

    Yes yes YESS!! What a great post! I only passed through Kyoto for a few days (spent over half of my 90 non-Visa days exploring Tokyo) but I wish that I'd had more time…especially seeing as how I apparently missed some great sites 🙁 Thanks for sharing!!

    • Laura
      | Reply

      Well, then probably your next 90 non-Visa days in Japan should be spent in Kyoto 😉

      Don't worry, we feel the same. We missed quite a few amazing places too. We definitely need to go back.

  24. cybil
    | Reply

    that was a wonderful trip you had!
    i need some advice here, i shall be visiting tokyo for a conference in the end of feb, and ill only have one weekend for sightseeing and stuff… i was planning to visit kyoto by shinkansen (nazomi)for one day, but i was wondering if i could have a guided tour in kyoto (I will be all by myself and I’m not very good with the maps, hehe). is it that easy to walk around kyoto from place to place?
    your comments and suggestions will be highly appreciated. thanks a bunch. 🙂

    • Laura
      | Reply

      Hi Cybil, thanks for stopping by!

      Let's see… I totally recommend you experience the Shinkansen (especially if you haven't been with it before), plus as a bonus you can see Mt Fuji on your way from Tokyo to Kyoto.

      But… One day is NOT enough for Kyoto.

      Anyways, given your limited time, I recommend you either pick one area and visit the temples and shrines there or choose 2-3 attractions that you find most interesting and try to visit them using the public transportation system. In my opinion, Kyoto (with few exceptions, like Gion) is not a very beautiful city, and by walking around you would only waist precious time. You go to Kyoto to visit the temples, not explore its streets.

      Kyoto is a large city and it has a great number of temples and shrines, and it seemed to me they were all worth visiting. Even the small ones were fascinating (though less crowded).

      Alternatively you can visit the temples of Nikko. They are much closer to Tokyo and while gorgeous, you can visit the whole complex in one day. See our previous post about day trips from Tokyo. I hope this helps somehow.

      Have a wonderful trip! And let us know what you did in the end 😉

  25. Brandon Elijah Scott
    | Reply

    Brilliant, I can't wait to visit!

    • Laura
      | Reply

      Kyoto is absolutely amazing, I'm sure you will have a blast!

  26. Charu
    | Reply

    Beautiful photos, my dear! Another reason to visit zen Kyoto. My husband was there a while ago, and he has been raving about it since.

    • Laura
      | Reply

      Thank you, love! I can totally understand why your husband liked Kyoto so much. Next time we visit we definitely want to give it more days and hope for better weather 😉

  27. Eva Hamori
    | Reply

    Time to add Japan to my bucket list, Your first photo is stunning…

    • Laura
      | Reply

      You should definitely add Japan to your bucket list! It is such an amazing country, so different, and such an unbelievable mix of old and new.

  28. Jolly Princess
    | Reply

    Beautiful photos! Lovely places! Most of all well written stories! Thanks for sharing with us this tourist haven. 🙂

    • Laura
      | Reply

      Thank you Princess for stopping by and thank you for your kind words. Kyoto is amazing! 🙂

  29. Lane
    | Reply

    We have heard several times, "If you only can visit one place in Japan, make it Kyoto". I can see why.

    • Laura
      | Reply

      Yes, Kyoto is all about Japanese history and traditions. Tokyo is modern (thought to be honest I was expecting it to be even more modern than it is. Somehow the western world caught up I guess)

  30. I'm dying to visit! This is definitely on my dream destination list.

    • Laura
      | Reply

      Oh honey, you've been to Japan but missed Kyoto? You MUST go back!!

  31. The Guy
    | Reply

    I've never been to Japan but all those places look fascinating. Wonderful pictures, protected sites and some great stories. I love the idea of a solid wooden building without any nails.

    • Laura
      | Reply

      Oh, wait till you see Todai-ji Temple from Nara!! It was the largest wooden building in the world till 1998.

  32. Japan Australia
    | Reply

    Great post with most of my favourite places covered. My favourite place in Kyoto would have to be Kiyomizu-dera. I love the whole experience of walking up Chawan-zaka (Teapot Lane) with all the shops selling Kyoto handicrafts, snacks and souvenirs to the view from the amazing wooden veranda.

    • Laura
      | Reply

      I too loved the Teapot Lane. So colorful, it almost equaled the temple experience. I was just puzzled why they didn't let me take photos of the beautiful Japanese umbrellas. Other than that, the way up to the temple can also be a fascinating culinary experience, as there are tons of opportunities to sample local delicacies for free (and then buy the ones you like best, of course!) 😉

  33. Ciara Lynch
    | Reply

    Wow, what an amazing post and love the photos! This post has convinced me to travel to Kyoto on my Winter break in a few weeks time – I think everyone should try to visit Kyoto at least once in their life. Stunning!

    Thank you!
    Ciara 🙂

    • Laura
      | Reply

      Have you visited Kyoto before? I hope you'll have better weather than we had! Have tons o fun! 🙂

  34. Nick Rutten
    | Reply

    Bookmarked your page. I'd love to see some of those when I get to Japan!

    • Laura
      | Reply

      Oh, you must! All these places are so beautiful and unique!

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