Kyoto sightseeing can be overwhelming, especially if you’ve never been. The is first and foremost because Kyoto is much larger than its reputation would lead you to believe—almost 1.5 million people call Kyoto home, and only a small minority of them live in the city’s ancient wards.
Another part of this, of course, is because there are just so many things to do in Kyoto—and outside the city as well. Here’s a simple breakdown of Kyoto’s top attractions, which will help you quickly and easily plan your next trip to Japan’s ancient capital.
The Ultimate Kyoto Bucket List
- Top Kyoto Destinations and Experiences
- Best Day Trips From Kyoto
- How Many Days Should You Spend in Kyoto?
- The Bottom Line
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Top Kyoto Destinations and Experiences
Explore the Temples of Higashiyama
When you think of Kyoto sightseeing, you think of ancient temples—you think of Higashiyama, the beautiful and hilly district in the eastern part of the city. From the “Silver Pavilion” of Ginkaku-ji in the north to iconic sunset spot Kiyomizu-dera in the south, and other famous attractions like Yasaka Pagoda, Maruyama Park and the Philosopher’s Path, Higashiyama should be the focal point of your trip to Kyoto.
Stay in a Traditional Ryokan Guest House
The best place to stay in Kyoto is a somewhat subjective matter, but my M.O. is always simple and authentic, as opposed to elaborate and extravagant. Some of my favorite Kyoto ryokan include Ryokan Uemura, which is located in the heart of Higashiyama and has been in the same family for six generations, and Ryokan Kyoraku, which is a short walk from Kyoto Station.
Get Lost in Lush Arashiyama
Most people only know the district of Arashiyama, in western Kyoto, for its lush Sagano Bamboo Grove. However, there’s a ton of other Kyoto attractions here. If you want to escape the crowds, pay the ¥1,000 fee to enter Okochi-Sanso Villa, the former home of a famous Japanese actor. Or, take a walk on the wild side at Iwatayama Monkey Park, accessible via the south bank of the Hozu River.
Enjoy Cherry Blossoms or Autumn Colors
The bad news? Whether you seek out Kyoto cherry blossoms or its autumn leaves, you’ll be one of millions of tourists. The good news? The beauty of these seasonal spectacles outweighs the stress of these crowds. TIP: Wake up early (around 5 or 6 if you can) to see famous hanami and koyo spots like the Philosopher’s Path and Maruyama Park without throngs of tourists.
Find a Geisha in Gion
Not all Kyoto sightseeing revolves around building or blooms. Case in point are the mysterious Geisha women who wonder through the district of Gion by night. Don’t have the patience to find one “in the wild,” or the camera to photograph them in darkness? Book a Maiko dinner, which features a Japanese meal served kaiseki-style and a dance performance by a Geisha (or two!)
Best Day Trips From Kyoto
Be a Deer in Nara
There’s no more beloved Kyoto day trip than to the city of Nara, though there’s more than meets the eye here than its famous population of urban deer. Japan’s capital before Kyoto (which was the capital before Tokyo), Nara is home to some of the oldest wooden structures in Japan and the world, including the five-tiered Kofuku-ji pagoda and Todai-ji, which houses a massive bronze Buddha.
Marvel at the Castles of Lake Biwa
Another one of my favorite day trips from Kyoto will take you northeastward to Lake Biwa, one of Japan’s largest freshwater lakes. On the eastern shore of this lake, you’ll find Nagahama and Hikone Castles, which are two stunning examples of Japanese feudal architecture. Both originally date back to the 17th century, though only Hikone’s castle retains its original keep.
Eat Your Way Through Osaka
Japan’s second city Osaka simply doesn’t get the love it deserves—but that’s a topic for another post. For now, if you plan to visit Osaka on a day trip from Kyoto, go with an empty stomach. The most famous place for street food in Osaka is Dotonbori pedestrian street, but you can also find snacks like takoyaki octopus fritters and gyoza dumplings at Osaka Castle and Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine.
Sip Matcha in Uji
Headed to Nara and wanted to stop somewhere else on the way back? Disembark the train in Uji, a city that’s famous for two main reasons. First, its outskirts are where some of Japan’s most famous matcha green tea is grown. Secondly, the city center is home to stunning ancient structures, including 10th-century Byodo-in temple and a 13-tiered stone pagoda.
Touch-and-Go in Hiroshima
Many travelers want to take a Hiroshima day trip from Kyoto, since the cities are just a couple hours apart via Shinkansen bullet train. This isn’t optimal (I recommend spending at least one night in Hiroshima) but it is possible. TIP: Leave for Hiroshima first thing—and plan to come back after nightfall—so you can watch sunset behind Itsukushima Shrine, the floating torii gate on Miyajima island.
How Many Days Should You Spend in Kyoto?
The question of how many days in Kyoto you should spend is at once simple and complicated. The simple answer is that you should spend as many days in Kyoto as you can. The complicated answer? Days can quickly turn into weeks and even months, if you don’t have somewhere else to be (and you don’t run out of money, which is always a danger in Japan!)
Assuming you spend around 2-3 weeks in Japan, I’d recommend a Kyoto itinerary of about 3-5 days in length, which assumes you’ll spend 3-5 days elsewhere in the Kansai region, which also includes Osaka and Kobe. If you stick to the shorter end, your trip will necessarily take place primarily within Kyoto’s city limits; the longer you stay, the more day trips you can take.
The Bottom Line
No matter your appetite for Kyoto sightseeing or how long you plan to spend in the city, exploring Japan’s ancient capital doesn’t have to be stressful or complicated. If you break down attractions inside (and outside!) the city and make yourself a plan, it can actually be very simple. Moreover, your first trip to Kyoto is very rarely your last, so if you miss something this time, you can just see it when you come back!
Robert Schrader has traveled much of the world, but still considers Kyoto to be its most beautiful city, especially during cherry blossom season. He created Japan Starts Here as a source of information—and inspiration—for travelers to his favorite country. Follow Japan Starts Here on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to keep up.