The capital for a millennium, Kyoto was also the heart of religion, philosophy, art and cuisine, making it a treasure trove of history and culture. Located in west-central Honshu, in the picturesque valley of the Kamo River with surrounding mountains, it is one of the most historic and attractive of the world’s cities.
This beautiful city has over 1,600 shrines and temples and is the headquarters of many Buddhist sects. Known for where cultural arts were born – the tea ceremony, Kabuki and Geisha, Kyoto is an ancient city that is worth spending some time exploring.
These are the highlights of things to see in Kyoto according to us. We hope you find this article helpful when deciding what to see in Kyoto.
Let’s discover them! shall we…
Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavillion)
Kinkaku-ji is a Zen temple in northern Kyoto whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. The history dates back to 1397 when it was a villa, before being turned into a zen temple in the early 1400’s. Kinkaku-ji has been burned down numerous times, with the most recent being in 1950 when a disgruntled monk set it on fire before trying to kill himself.
For me, a trip to Kyoto would not have been complete without visiting this stunning temple! Read more about Kinkaku-ji.
Getting there: Kyoto City Bus 205 from Kyoto Station to Kinkakuji-michi Stop, or Kyoto City Bus 59 from Sanjo-Keihan to the Kinkakuji-mae Stop.
Hours: Daily 09:00 – 17:00
Admission: JPY 400
About 20 minutes’ walk west of Kinkakuji. The Ryoanji Temple Originally an aristocrat’s villa during the Heian Period, the site was converted into a Zen temple in 1450 and belongs to the Myoshinji school of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, whose head temple stands just a kilometer to the south.
The garden consists of a rectangular plot of pebbles surrounded by low earthen walls, with 15 rocks laid out in small groups on patches of moss.
Besides the stone garden, the Hojo features some paintings on the sliding doors (fusuma) of its tatami rooms, and a couple of smaller gardens on the rear side of the building. In one of the gardens there is a round stone trough that cleverly incorporates its square water basin into a Zen inscription, which students of kanji may be able to appreciate.
Getting there from Kyoto Station:
- By JR bus – the bus ride takes about 30 minutes and cost 230 yen.
- By local bus – the bus ride takes about 5 minutes
- By train – take the Keifuku Kitano Line to Ryoanji-michi Station, then a 5-10 minutes’ walk to the temple
Hours: Daily 08:30 – 16:30
Admission: JPY 500
Nijo Castle was built as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period. The Tokugawa family ruled from 1603-1867 before it fell and the castle has since been used as an imperial palace before being donated to the city and opened up to the public as a historic site. Its palace buildings are arguably the best surviving examples of castle palace architecture during Japan’s feudal era, and the castle was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994.
You can enter the Ninomaru Palace, which is famous for its “nightingale floors” (squeaky floors that would alert occupants to the presence of intruders).
The entrance of Nijo Castle is a short walk from Nijojo-mae Station along the Tozai Subway Line.
From Kyoto Station:
- By subway – take the Karasuma Subway Line to Karasuma-Oike Station and transfer to the Tozai Line to Nijojo-mae Station (the whole trip takes about 15 minutes and costs 260 yen)
- By Kyoto City Bus numbers 9, 50 or 101 (15-20 minutes, 230-yen one way)
- By Kyoto City Bus number 12 (15 minutes, 230-yen one way)
Hours: Nijo Castle open from 08.45 – 17:00 (last admission at 16:00) and the Ninomaru Palace open from 09:00 – 16:00
Closing days: Tuesdays in January, July, August and December (or following day if Tuesday is a national holiday) and 26th December to 4th January
Admission: JPY 600 (from April 2019, an additional 400 yen will be charged for admission to the Ninomaru Palace)
English audio guides are available for hire at 500 yen; furthermore, 90-minute guided tours of the castle in English are held twice per day for 2,000 yen.
Established more than 400 years ago, Nishiki Market is one of the oldest and best-loved food markets in Japan. It is a narrow, five block long shopping street lined by more than one hundred shops and restaurants. The entire street is 400-meters long and runs between Teramachi street and Takakura street. Most of the shops in Nishiki Market are family-owned businesses, operated by the same family over generations.
Getting there: The Nishiki Market street runs parallel to Shijo Avenue, one block north of Shijo Avenue. It can be reached on foot in less than five minutes from Shijo Station on the Karasuma Subway Line (4 minutes, 210 yen from Kyoto Station)
Hours: Varies by store, typically 09:00 – 18:00
Kyoto Railway Museum
Japan has many railway museums, and Kyoto Railway Museum is the newest of these, having opened in April 2016. It is one of Japan’s three great railway museums alongside JR East’s “Railway Museum” in Saitama and JR Central’s “SCMAGLEV and Railway Park” in Nagoya.
Among the past and modern trains, you can see the evolution of engines, the technology behind them and explore detailed replicas of old train and subway stations. The museum is especially great for families. There are plenty of themed playgrounds for children, large models that allow you to control miniature trains and virtual reality games.
The railway museum can be reached in a 20 minutes’ walk from Kyoto Station. Alternatively, it is a short bus ride by bus number 103, 104, 110, 86 or 88. Get off at Kyoto Railway Museum-mae bus stop.
Hours: Thursday to Tuesday, from 10:00 – 17:30 (last admission at 17:00)
Closed on Wednesday (except when Wednesday is a national holiday and during spring and summer school holidays), and from 30th December to 1st January
Admission: JPY 1,200
It is one of Kyoto’s most atmospheric dining areas. It is a narrow alley running from Shijo-dori to Sanjo-dori, one block west of Kamogawa River. The alley is packed with restaurants on both sides offering a wide range of dining options from inexpensive yakitori to traditional and modern Kyoto cuisine, foreign cuisine and highly exclusive establishments that require the right connections and a fat wallet to enter.
Business hours and closing days of the restaurants, bars and shops along Pontocho vary by establishment, but most places are usually open from around 17:00 – 23:00.
Getting there from Kyoto Station:
- By bus – take bus # 17 or 205 to Shijo Kawaramachi stop.
- By subway – take the Hankyu Line to Kawaramachi Station. Alternatively, take the Keihan Line to Shijo Station.
Often referred to as Kyoto’s Geisha District, Gion lies north to south of Shijo Street and stretches from Kamo River in the west all the way to Yasaka Shrine in the east. It is filled with shops, restaurants and ochaya (teahouses), where geiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha) and maiko (geiko apprentices) entertain.
Interspersed among the restaurants are a number of ochaya (teahouses), the most exclusive and expensive of Kyoto’s dining establishments, where guests are entertained by maiko and geiko.
A visit to Gion is best combined with a stroll through the nearby Higashiyama District between Yasaka Shrine and Kiyomizudera Temple. This area has more preserved streets and traditional shops selling all kinds of local foods, crafts and souvenirs.
Getting there from Kyoto Station:
- By bus – take bus number 100 or 206 to Gion bus stop (20 minutes, 230 yen)
- By train – take Keihan Line to Gion shijo Station or take Hankyu Line to Kawaramachi Station
Tucked away on a lush forest hill, Kiyomizudera (“Pure Water Temple”) is best known for its wooden stage that juts out from its main hall, 13 meters above the hillside below. The temple was built back in the year 778 in honor of the Kannon Goddess of Mercy, but had been burned down many times since then. It was rebuilt around the Edo period (1600’s), and designated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1994.
Getting there from Kyoto Station:
- By bus – take bus number 100 or 206 to Gojo-zaka or Kiyomizu-michi bus stop (15 minutes, 230 yen), then 10 minutes’ walk uphill to the temple.
- By train – take Keihan Railway Line to Kiyomizu-Gojo Station, then walk about 20 minutes to the temple.
Hours: Daily 06:00 – 18:00
Admission: JPY 400
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi Inari Shrine is a stunning shrine. This is probably the most famous spot to visit in Kyoto. This large Shinto shrine is located on Mount Inari and consists of thousands of red torii gates lined up as a pathway up and down the mountain.
The hike to the summit of the mountain and back takes about 2-3 hours, however, you are free to walk just as far as you wish before turning back. Along the way, there are torii gates are donations by individuals and companies, and you will find the donator’s name and the date of the donation inscribed on the back of each gate.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is located just outside JR Inari Station, the second station from Kyoto Station along the JR Nara Line (5 minutes, 140-yen one way). The shrine can also be reached in a short walk from Fushimi Inari Station along the Keihan Main Line.
Toji Temple is one of Kyoto’s oldest temple and is famous for its five-story pagoda. It was founded as a guardian temple for the city in 796 just two years after Kyoto was established as the imperial capital.
Toji Temple is one of Kyoto’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites. Just 15 minutes’ walk south of Kyoto Station. Toji’s awe inspiring buildings and beautiful Buddhist statuary make it an essential stop when touring Kyoto.
Getting there from Kyoto Station: Take Kintetsu Kyoto Line to Toji Station (2 minutes, 150 yen), then walk about 5 minutes to the temple
Hours: Daily 08:00 – 17:00 (last admission at 16:30)
Admission: JPY 500 (JPY 800 during special openings of the pagoda)
Yasaka-jinja Shrine was founded in 656, and during the Heian Period became a shrine largely supported and patronized by the Imperial Court. With a history of over 1300 years, it is one of the most venerated temples in Kyoto and all of Japan.
The shrine is also the host shrine of the well-known Gion Matsuri (Gion festival) which takes place annually on July 17th. The Gion Matsuri is Japan’s most famous festival and its main attraction is a procession of massive floats and hundreds of people; the procession begins from the Yasaka shrine.
The Shrine’s bright vermilion colored wooden gate, stands at the top of a flight of stairs at the intersection of Gion and Higashiyama area, and makes it difficult to miss. Its open 24-hours and entrance is FREE!
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Tenryu-ji Temple is the most prestigious temple in Arashiyama district. It was built in 1339 by the ruling shogun Ashikaga Takauji. Takauji dedicated the temple to Emperor Go-Daigo, who had just passed away. The two important historic figures used to be allies until Takauji turned against the emperor in a struggle for supremacy over Japan. By building the temple, Takauji intended to appease the former emperor’s spirits.
Tenryuji is just a short walk from the Keifuku Arashiyama Station, which is connected by the small Keifuku trains (also referred to as Randen) with the Ryoanji/Kinkakuji area and Omiya Station along Shijo-dori Street. The temple can also be reached in a 5-10 minutes’ walk from JR Saga-Arashiyama Station, which is connected with Kyoto station by train (10-15 minutes, 240 yen).
Hours: Daily 08:30 – 17:30 (until 17:00 from late October to late March)
Admission: JPY 500 (an extra 300 yen for entrance into the temple buildings)
From the Tenryu-ji Temple, you can easily enter the bamboo grove by its north entrance. The walking paths that cut through the bamboo groves make for a nice walk. The groves are particularly attractive when there is a light wind and the tall bamboo stalks sway gently back and forth is atmospheric and a somewhat magical. The bamboo grove itself won’t take long to walk through, and afterwards you can enjoy the charming village full of shops and restaurants.
Getting there from Kyoto station: Take the JR Sagano Line to JR Saga-Arashiyama, then walk about 10 minutes to the temple.
Kyoto is a city full of hidden beauty, either by simply admiring the glorious temples or getting lost in the narrowest of passages, infused with a somewhat mystical ambiance, to uncover the unique charm that makes this city tick. You will not be disappointed!
It’s important to think about your hotel location for making the most of your time in Kyoto. Read our ‘Where To Stay In Kyoto‘ for a rundown of the most convenient Kyoto districts for sightseeing.
Note: The information provided in this post was correct at time of publishing but may change. For final clarification please check with the relevant service.