Kyoto is on the travel list of most first-time visitors to Japan for good reason. With its fleet of over 2000 temples, lush gardens and traditional tea houses, Kyoto is one of Japan’s major historical hubs – to say nothing of being easy on the eye (enjoy a sunset on the hill in Kiyomizu-dera to see what we mean).
It can be easy to get lost in the tangle of streets – Kyoto is one of those cities where it’s easy to just pick a walking direction and see what you find, whether it’s an unexpected shrine in the middle of a commercial street, sakura-lined canal or well-appointed park. But sometimes, it pays to prioritize. Plan a trip around the following can’t-miss sights and experiences to maximize your time in the city.
1. Stay golden at Kinkaku-ji
Kinkaku-ji is a tourist favorite – nicknamed Golden Pavilion for its gold-leaf gilded upper layers, this zen temple is a magnificent sight regardless of the time of year. One-way foot traffic flows fairly consistently but tends to bunch up directly in front of the temple, where visitors tend to pause to grab a show-stopping photo of the temple reflected in the pond (again, who can blame them?).
Consider visiting on a weekday to avoid the rush.
2. Walk through the iconic orange gates of Fushimi Inari Taisha
There’s a reason that Fushimi Inari-Taisha ranks high on every visitor’s list: the 10,000 vibrant orange torii (gates) snaking up the hill to create the ultimate photo op. The practice of donating a gate to the temple has been in place since the Edo Period and carries on today as businesses celebrate their successes with an act of gratitude.
Start at the lower level to admire the skulk of fox statues – the manifestation of the Shintō god Inari, the protector of rice, tea, agriculture and industry. The full loop takes two to three hours to complete, but it’s worth making the climb to avoid the throng of visitors that usually populate the lower levels (don’t worry, there are plenty of vending machines to keep you hydrated along the way).
Alternatively, it’s worth considering a sunrise visit, when the local monks are making their way up the hill to work and the resident cat population is out to play.
3. Find fortune at Kiyomizu-dera
Located in Eastern Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera literally towers over the city with the help of 139 stilts. During the Edo period, seekers would jump from the temple’s platform to the ground 43ft below in order to make their wishes come true. Today, you can instead find your fortune at the sacred Otowa Waterfall. Located on the temple’s lower level, the stream is divided into three sections, delivering longevity, academic success or luck in love depending on which one you drink from (take note that drinking from more than one stream is considered greedy). But you don’t need any luck to enjoy the temple’s panoramic views over the city, which are enhanced by spring sakura (cherry blossom) season, autumn foliage and stunning sunsets.
4. Time travel at Nijō-jo
Enter through Nijō-jō’s large eastern battlements to step back in time. The castle was the former home of Tokugawa shoguns, and its lavishly appointed gardens and opulent chambers filled with detailed murals and intricate carvings speak to the warlord collective’s extreme wealth.
Keep an eye out for the painted lions (created by an artist who had yet to see the real thing in person), and experience the sensation of walking barefoot across the “nightingale floors,” which chirp like the birds they’re named after – a built-in sonic defense against intruders.
5. Enjoy a stroll at Koke-dera
Koke-dera (the nickname for Saiho-ji) is so stunning that the temple inspired “Moss Garden,” a track on David Bowie’s 1977 album Heroes. However, walking in Ziggy Stardust’s footsteps takes some advance planning. In order to preserve Koke-dera’s tranquility, visitors must register at least one day in advance (although up to two months earlier is advisable due to capacity restraints).
Once inside, guests are asked to participate in an act of devotion, usually copying a series of Buddhist sutras. Consider it an appetizer for the main course: a half-hour stroll through the scenic garden blanketed in 120 different kinds of moss.
6. Sip on some matcha
Matcha was originally drunk by Chinese Buddhist monks who believed the highly caffeinated beverage assisted in their quest for nirvana. When the religion spread to Japan, matcha came with it, particularly in the southern region of Kyoto Prefecture, which has an 800-year tradition of cultivation. To learn more about the beverage, start with a traditional tea ceremony at Camellia for an experience that will not only walk you through the elaborate steps of preparation but also explain the historical and practical reason behind each movement.
For a more modern take, stop by Maccha House. Their flagship store on Shijō Kawaramachi serves a number of unique twists on the beverage, including a brown sugar matcha latte and their signature Uji Matcha Tiramisu. Tea shops like Ippōdō and Marukyu Koyamaen (located in Kyoto Isetan department store adjacent to Kyoto Station) can help you bring the zen home with you.
While you’re at it, be sure to grab some wagashi, a delicate red bean and sugar pastry that pairs perfectly with the matcha’s earthy essence.
7. Get your ramen fix
Kyoto’s food scene is often overlooked thanks to neighboring Osaka, aka “the nation’s kitchen.” However, the city has been teasing out different types of the famous noodle soup since the first ramen street stall was set up in 1961.
Kyoto Gogyo is known for its high-end burnt ramen, with broth cooked at extremely high temperatures to create a smoky char and entertaining fiery show while you eat – so be sure to request a seat at the bar. Vegan Ramen UZU Kyoto’s mushroom-based ramen is served in a darkened dining room, lit by TeamLab’s “Reversed Indiscretion,” a mesmerizing piece of digital art that creates calligraphy-like swoops across the walls and table. Engine Ramen has become a favorite due to its ability to make any item on the menu vegan or gluten-free. Just be sure to line up early as the restaurant regularly fills up after it opens for dinner at 4pm.
8. Embrace all the options at Nishiki Market
If variety is your spice of life, then Nishiki Market is your place. Also known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen,” this five-block collection of over 100 restaurants and shops is the perfect place for snacking on local specialties. It also doesn’t hurt that many stalls give out free samples. Feeling brave? Try the shockingly photogenic tako tamago (a baby octopus with an egg in its head), or beef sushi.
Other crowd-pleasers include soy milk donuts, rice crackers, and dashimaki – a Japanese rolled omelet that some stalls serve as tempura.
9. Bring home sustainable souvenirs
From bento boxes to washi (handmade paper) and porcelain, Kyoto is a great place to pick up souvenirs. You could easily spend the day browsing tourist-favorite department stores Takashimaya and Daimaru Kyoto. To bring home a piece of history, consider a stop at Vintage Kimono AN Gion, a cozy storefront crammed with vintage kimonos. Not only do they sell the historical robes at extremely reasonable prices (often as low as ¥1000), but they also offer obi belts and damaged kimonos for those looking to repurpose the silk.
10. Stay at a ryokan
Kyoto is considered one of the great historical epicenters of Japan, so there’s no better way to experience the region’s essence than by staying in a ryokan. These traditional inns are generally smaller than their western counterparts and outfitted with woven tatami mats, futons that are rolled out every night and all matter of meaningful art. The intimate setting allows owners to provide guests with more personalized attention in addition to the kind of lavish meals you’re unlikely to find elsewhere.
For the ultimate indulgence, consider a night in the Tawaraya Ryokan, where David Bowie and Iman stayed during their honeymoon. This historic ryokan is 300 years old and in its 12th generation of family ownership. It’s regularly considered one of the most exclusive hotels in the world.
11. Relax in an onsen
More than just a bath (although it certainly is that), onsen are a great way to connect with nature and friends while participating in an act of self-care, provided you’re comfortable with group nudity. Carefully wash yourself from head to toe before slipping into hot water with a mineral content that locals claim can cure a WebMD worth of ailments.
If you want to soak within the city limits, head to Fu-fu-no-yu, a facility with stunning rock-lined pools inches from the Katsura River.
12. Wander through Arashiyama
The sound of bamboo in the wind is part of Japan’s national heritage. Located in the Western Kyoto district of Arashiyama, the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is one of the most famous places in the world to hear it. Just keep in mind that, while scenic, the 140m (459ft) walk isn’t as quiet as you might have been led to believe thanks to its popularity. If you’re in the market for the ultimate selfie, or just a more restful experience, visit at sunrise.
Not an early riser? Opt to visit Shoden-ji, a temple in Northern Kyoto with an abundant bamboo groove that’s often overlooked by tourists.
13. Enjoy an urbane escape at Ōkōchi Sansō
Despite its proximity to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, many tourists miss Ōkōchi Sansō in their rush to grab that perfect Instagram snap. This former home of 1920s samurai film actor Ōkōchi Denjirō is the perfect place to escape the crowds. Work up a thirst with a wander through the immaculate hillside gardens that offer panoramic views of the city from the top. Then retreat to the on-site tea house for a proper break with a side of complimentary matcha and Japanese sweets.
14. Embrace the seasons at Osawa Pond
Osawa Pond is a 15-minute walk from JR Saga-Arashiyama Station, but the garden feels plucked from an entirely different era. The human-made pond is the oldest known surviving Japanese garden and a peaceful refuge to enjoy fall colors and spring sakura season. Be sure to visit Daikaku-ji next door, a sprawling Shingon Buddhist temple with architecture so untouched by time it’s often used as a filming location for historical dramas.
15. Explore Gion District
Geisha, or geiko as they’re called in Kyoto, are one of the icons of the city. These skilled hostesses and entertainers are usually employed at dinners and other high-end events at venues along the lantern-lined streets of the Gion neighborhood. Like the geiko themselves, the district is a living tribute to the Edo era, with its narrow wooden storefronts, teahouses, and stores dedicated to traditional handicrafts creating the perfect escape from the modern era.