If Japan’s ancient capital is on the top of your travel hit list, but you’re not sure where to begin, here’s a starter’s guide to the top Kyoto attractions!
Kyoto easily has enough to keep you entertained for weeks. But if you’re on a whirlwind tour or just want to make sure you don’t miss anything major, look no further. Once the capital of Japan and considered today’s cultural capital, Kyoto has no shortage of temples and shrines, but there are also markets and bamboo forests to explore too.
1. Kinkaku-ji | 金閣寺
Featured on the cover of every Kyoto guide book, Kinkaku-ji is also known as the Golden Pavilion. The Zen temple was destroyed on multiple occasions (including once by an enraged monk who set it alight), with the current iteration built in 1955.
Perched beside a lake and surrounded by well-manicured gardens, the gold-leaf-covered temple is a sight to behold. It’s best visited when it opens in the morning as it is a tad quieter. If you have time, enjoy some green tea and a small gold-leaf-dotted wagashi sweet in the garden tearooms.
High School students: ¥400
2. Fushimi Inari Taisha | 伏見稲荷大社
Follow the famous trail of red gates as far as you can up the sacred Mount Inari. The main shrine will welcome you from the station, with a huge 16th-century torii gate, the main shrine buildings and plenty of food stalls.
Pro tip: Go on a Kyoto sake brewery tour in the famed Fushimi sake district.
Dedicated to Inari — the Shintō God of rice — the main shrine of Fushimi Inari was built in 1499. But some of the earliest parts of it date all the way back to 711. Foxes are believed to be messengers of Inari and plenty of appearances throughout the area, so keep an eye out. The most densely layered gates are found early on in the trail, so don’t worry about hiking the whole way to the top if you don’t have time (or energy).Take the JR Nara Line from Kyoto Station to JR Inari Station.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
3. Kiyomizudera | 清水寺
Known for its wooden veranda with stunning views of Kyoto, Kiyomizudera is a highlight of the city. It’s also the perfect way to end a walk through Higashiyama (next on our list).
Meaning “Pure Water Temple”, it was built close to the Otowa Waterfall and is now part of the Kita Hosse sect of Japanese Buddhism. As well as admiring the view both from and of the temple, you can pray for love at Jishu Shrine behind the main hall. Or choose between longevity, educational fortune, or luck in love by drinking from one of the waterfall’s three streams.Kiyomizudera is a 15-minute walk from Kiyomizu-gojō station on the Keihan Railway Line. Alternatively, take Bus 86 or 206 from the Kyoto Station.
4. Stroll the streets of Higashiyama | 東山
For that ancient-Kyoto feel, Higashiyama is the place to visit. It has narrow, winding streets, and traditional shop fronts for you to explore. And don’t forget the beautiful shrines and pagodas to admire too. Hōkan-ji’s pagoda and the brightly colored kukurizaku (decorative balls) of Daikoku-san Kongō-ji Kōshin-dō (or Yasaka Kōshin-dō for short) are just some of the highlights.
The most popular and photogenic streets are Ninnen-zaka and Sannen-zaka, which feature restored wooden-fronted teahouses, shops, and restaurants. These streets are close to Kiyomizudera and the walk between is one of the highlights of any trip to the city.Higashiyama is located between Yasaka Shrine and Kiyomizudera, best accessed from either Gion-shijō, Kawaramachi, Higashiyama or Kiyomizu-gojō stations. Buses 86 or 206 will take you to Kiyomizudera and you can explore from there.
5. Relax at Sagano Bamboo Forest
Stroll through the famous and picturesque bamboo forest and enjoy one of the top 100 soundscapes of Japan. With swaying trees and shady pathways stretching up to 500 m, you can explore the hidden spots around Tenryūji (#10 on our list).
Be sure to visit Nonomiya Shrine to make a wish on the tortoise stone and admire the beautiful heart-shaped ema. If you know anyone getting married or expecting a child, this is a great place to buy a small charm to wish them luck. The bamboo forest is extremely popular of course, so if you want to see it at its emptiest, arrive early!Sagano Bamboo Forest is a short walk from Arashiyama Station on the Keifuku Dentetsu tram. It’s a little farther from Saga Arashiyama Station on the JR San-in Line, which has trains direct from Kyoto Station. Arashiyama Station on the Hankyu Line will take you to the otherside of Togetsukyo Bridge which is a slightly longer but pleasant walk.
Sagano Bamboo Forest
6. Fill up at Nishiki Market | 錦市場
Squeezing over 100 shops into a five-block street, Nishiki is nicknamed Kyoto’s Kitchen, and certainly delivers on the food front. Originally a fish market started in 1310, today you can find stores that have stayed in families for generations, with traditional Japanese foods like pickled vegetables, locally grown rice and dried fish.
Many stalls offer tasters and there are plenty of stalls serving fresh food from steamed buns to homemade tofu and you can even try a quail-egg-stuffed mini-octopus!Nishiki is close to Shijō station on the Karasuma Subway line and Kawaramachi Station on the Hankyu Line.
7. Go Zen at Ginkaku-ji | 銀閣寺
Often known as the quieter counterpart of the Golden Pavilion, Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion) is a Zen temple with a more toned-down style. Originally a retirement villa styled after Kinkaku-ji, it’s believed to have been named after the sight of the moonlight reflecting on the thatched roof.
Converted into a temple in 1940, it was a hub of cultural development including the progression of tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and Noh theater. The Sea of Silver Sand contains the carefully constructed cone known as the moon-viewing platform, and the moss garden is equally beautiful.You can either walk the Philosopher’s Path from Nanzen-ji (around 40 minutes) or catch the number 5 or 17 buses from Kyoto Station.
8. Ryōan-ji | 龍安寺
Home to Japan’s most famous rock garden, Ryōan-ji is a Zen temple under the Rinzai sect of Buddhism. Originally though, it was an aristocratic villa. The garden features 15 different rocks, and it is thought to be impossible to see them all at once. However, if you manage to do so, you will be enlightened. There’s also a beautiful garden and pond to explore and a restaurant which specializes in yudofu (boiled tofu).The temple is a few minutes on Bus 59 from Kinkaku-ji. Or it’s 10-minute walk from Ryōan-ji Station on the small Keifuku Kitano line.
9. Spot a geisha in Gion | 祇園
The most famous of the five hanamachi (flower towns) of Kyoto, Gion is a well-known place for geisha spotting. Gion is filled with ancient ochiya (teahouses) and ryotei (restaurants) that host high-class evenings of entertainment. Many won’t accept new customers, so you may have to stick to street-watching if you are keen to catch a glimpse of the mysterious women (but be respectful, they are often surrounded). With or without the elusive figures, Gion is a beautiful area to explore day or night, with a traditional atmosphere and popular with couples for a stroll after dinner.Gion Shijō Station is the closest option for those arriving by train. Bus 206 can also take you close by.
10. Tenryū-ji | 天龍寺
UNESCO World Heritage Site Tenryū-ji is the most important Buddhist temple in Arashiyama. Built to appease the spirit of an emperor in 1339, various disasters have lead to re-building, but the garden has survived and remains a beautiful example of Zen design. With a central pond and the Arashiyama mountains forming an equisite backdrop, the view is perfect for a stint of contemplation, and exploring the grounds is a relaxing journey into nature.Tenryū-ji is across the road from the Arashiyama Keifuku Dentetsu tram station. Saga Arashiyama Station is a few minutes away and has direct trains from Kyoto Station, whereas the Hankyu Arashiyama Station is a pleasant walk from across the bridge.
11. Philosopher’s Path | 哲学の道
A peaceful place to reflect, the Philosopher’s Path runs along the canal in the Higashiyama District and is covered with cherry blossom in spring. It is beautiful throughout the year however, and is lined with the occasional cafe or shop with detours to shrines and temples along the way.
The path stretches between Ginkaku-ji and Nanzenji and is around 2 km long. One of Japan’s most respected philosophers, Nishida Kitaro, would walk this path to university each day and practice meditation, giving the path its name.The path is located right next to Ginkaku-ji, which can be reached by Bus 5 or 17 from Kyoto Station.
12. Yasaka Shrine | 八坂神社
Just across the Kamo River and the welcoming gate to the Higashiyama District, Yasaka Shrine is well known for festivals, weddings and hanami parties. Founded over 1,300 years ago, it is home to the most famous festival in Japan — the Gion Matsuri — which takes place every July. The shrine is surrounded by Matsuyama Park which is great for cherry-blossom viewing. It also contains Shōren-in, a temple with close associations to the Imperial Family dating back to the 12th century.Yasaka Shrine is a few minutes’ walk from Gion Shijō Station on the Keihan Main Line.
This post was originally published in September 2018. Last updated in February 2023 by Maria Danuco.