Best things to do in Kyoto: 15 Must See Sights
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Historically the capital of Japan and former seat of the Emperor, Kyoto is home to a stunning array of ancient temples and unique shrines as well as some of the most iconic sights in Japan.
From it’s Bamboo Forest to the resident Geisha, Kyoto is fascinating at every turn. We’ve put together our ultimate guide to Kyoto with the best sights and things you must see and do. Happy planning!
Getting around Kyoto
Kyoto is a beautiful city, however most of the major sights are spread across this massive city and getting between them can be a challenge. We highly recommend using Kyoto’s efficient public transport system.
The ICOCA IC Card is a contactless travel card which works on JR, subway, private railway, buses in Kyoto. You can purchase this in advance of your trip and it’s one of the cheapest ways to get around the Kyoto transport system – check prices now!
By guided tour:
One of the best ways to see the main sights in Kyoto in a limited time is by guided tour. The sheer variety of things to see and the size of the city makes it difficult to plan your time in Kyoto. We recommend the Klook app for booking tours and admissions and have used them extensively throughout Asia. Klook have a highly rated single day tour of Kyoto which covers all the main sights in a single day – check prices now!
1 | Feel tiny at the Arashiyama bamboo forest
Walking through the soaring bamboo stalks of the densely packed Bamboo Forest in the shadows of the morning light is eerily beautiful and incredibly serene. The Bamboo Forest thoroughly deserves its spot as an iconic Kyoto sight and one of its most photographed spots!
Kyoto sightseeing tip: the Bamboo Forest is hugely popular and gets extremely busy throughout the day. Arrive early – we had the place to ourselves for a short time after sunrise and it was magical. Plus we got to capture some amazing pics!
Sagano Romantic Train: Any visit to the Arashiyama bamboo forest should include a trip on the now famous Sagano Romantic Train which departs from Saga Torokko Station close to the bamboo forest. This stunning 25 min train journey winds its way in a vintage style train along the Hozugawa River from Kameoka Station to Saga Station. The Sagano Scenic railway operates from March 1 to December 29 so make sure to book it if you’re visiting Kyoto during these times. Klook has the best ticket prices and you can reserve in advance You can pick up tickets from Kansai airport, Osaka or Kyoto Station – check prices now!
Where to stay in Kyoto
Like most Japanese cities we highly recommend staying as close to the main JR train station. This makes getting around much easier. However the best hotels close to the train stations fill up weeks ahead of time (in some cases months) so you’ll save yourself a lot of extra walking or expensive taxis by booking your accommodation well in advance.
Hotel Granvia Kyoto: this hotel could not have a better location – it’s in the actual Kyoto JR station with super quick access to the trains and the rest of the city. A modern hotel with comfortable western style rooms, a fitness centre and swimming pool, there are lots of food options in and around the station. This is our number one pick for where to stay in Kyoto – check latest prices here!
Hotel Kintetsu Kyoto Station: Another great hotel located within Kyoto JR station too. Hotel Kintetsu is slight cheaper than Hotel Granvia, however it is still a great choice with decently sized western style rooms and beds – check latest prices here!
Ibis Kyoto Station: The Ibis is a great value option and, it’s so close to Kyoto station, you can catch a glimpse of the hotel from the Shinkansen platform! – check latest prices here!
Kyoto sightseeing tip: Kyoto Station is the perfect location for a Kyoto stay as most visitors arrive and depart from Kyoto station and sights such as the Bamboo Forest and Fushimi Inyari Shrine are just a few minutes train journey away. It also has a host of great food options like most of Japan’s major train stations.
2 | Fushimi Inari Shrine
The Fushimi Inari Shrine, with its thousands of orange torii gates snaking up the Inari Mountain is another Kyoto icon. The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the god of rice and the patron of business and merchants. A donation is made by those who have had their wish fulfilled and a tori gate is erected in their name.
Kyoto sightseeing tip: the shrine snakes 4km up the mountain so go a little further into the forest if you want to escape the crowds although the density of the gates decreases as you move further along.
3 | Golden Pavillion, Kinkaku-ji Temple
Along with the Bamboo Forest and the Fushimi Inari shrine, the Golden Pavillion temple makes for a trio of iconic Kyoto sights. The top two floors of this Zen Temple are covered in gold leaf and the Mirror Pond and lush green backdrop make for an incredible setting.
Kyoto sightseeing tip: if you’ve visited/are planning to visit Mount Koya make sure to check out the statue of Fudo Myoo in the grounds of the Golden Pavillion. The statue is said to have been carved by Kobo Dashi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, who is believed to rest in eternal mediation in Okunoin Cemetery in Mount Koya.
4 | Tenryu-ji Temple
When leaving the Bamboo Forest make sure to stop by the Tenryu-ji temple which is adjacent to the forest. The grounds of this 14th century zen temple are among the finest we saw in Japan and the Cloud Dragon painting in Dharma Hall will have you gazing skywards in awe.
5 | Stroll the Path of Philosphy
OK, we actually cycled along the Path of Philosophy but either way its a really beautiful route along the canal! The Path was named after one of Japan’s most famous philosophers who practised meditation on his regular walks along the canal. It’s one of the picturesque spots in Kyoto during cherry blossom season but the colourful foliage and lush green backdrop mean it is stunning throughout the year.
6 | Higashiyama District
Walking through Kyoto’s Higashiyama District is like taking a step back in time. Narrow streets snake up the side of Mount Otowa and the streets are lined with shops, restaurants and local specialities of pottery, crafts and sweets. This historic district, with its wooden buildings and traditional stores, invokes a feeling of old: it is crammed with tourists and makes for a fun and picturesque afternoon in Kyoto.
7 | Kiyomizu-dera Temple on Mount Otowa
Kiyomizu-Dera, the ‘Pure Water temple’ is located in the beautiful Higashiyama District in Kyoto. It’s vantage point on Mount Otowa allows for stunning views sweeping across Kyoto and the temple is steeped in history and legend. The temple is named after Otowa Waterfall and those who catch and drink the water from the waterfall are believed to have wish granted powers.
Kyoto sightseeing tip: If you are looking for love be sure to stop by Jishu Shine: dedicated to the God of love. visitors who successfully walk between the two love stones with their eyes shut will find true love.
8 | Geisha spotting in Gion
Gion is the the Geisha capital of Japan and an entertainment district dotted with traditional Japanese tea houses and restaurants. It’s known as the birthplace of Geisha culture and has the feel of a Japan gone by. It’s often possible to see a Geisha hurrying along the streets between engagements but be careful not to confuse them with the many visitors who dress up as Geisha’s, a popular activity offered by many studios in the area.
9 | Shorenin Temple
Shorenin is one of the Kyoto’s monzeki temples, a temple whose head priest was traditionally a member of Japan’s imperial family. Despite being only moments away from the heaving Higashiyama District, Shorenin is one of the quieter temples in the city and a visit instills a sense of peace and tranquillity. The four gardens of the temple are one of its highlights.
10 | Rengeo-in Temple, Sanjusangendo
Rengeo-in is an amazing temple with 1001 life size wooden statues of the Goddess Kannon which make for an extraordinary site. No pictures are allowed inside the temple hall but, trust us, this is one of the most incredible things you will see in Kyoto!
11 | Kyoto Imperial Palace
The Imperial Palace was the residence of Japan’s ruling family up to the mid 19th Century when they moved to the Tokyo Imperial Palace and Kyoto’s Palace was placed under preservation. The buildings have been closed off to the public but we enjoyed the historic setting while cycling through the gardens and admiring the palace exterior.
12 | Love Hotels
Rented by the hour and no reservations accepted, Kyoto’s Love hotels gave us a giggle! Some of the love hotels have standard rooms but they many have themed suites and the cartoon style fronts make them easy to spot. Rooms are booked through a vending machine and the fridge contains an interesting assortment of
Japan serves up a range of incredible foods and Kyoto is the perfect place to sample some of its amazing dishes. Sushi is an obvious choice and Kyoto has plenty of options from conveyor belt to fine dining and, after indulging in plenty of sushi, here’s some of the other favourites we found in the city.
13 | Eat crepes
Japan has a little bit of an obsession with crepes and Kyoto is no exception. Beautifully presented savoury and sweet crepes are whipped up in the blink of an eye and the creperies are the perfect pitstop to refuel on sightseeing jaunts!
14 | Nishiki Food Market
The 400 year old Nishiki Market is Kyoto’s best traditional food market and attracts locals and tourists in equal measures. Stalls of exotic food line the market and patrons gather around to eat, buy or just admire the variety of food and wares on offer. From roasted chestnuts to Japanese knives Nishiki is the perfect place for a afternoon souvenir wander and to sample the delicious food synonymous with the city.
15 | Slurp ramen at a hole in the wall
Kyoto is full of ramen gems and we couldn’t get enough of the tiny hole in the wall ramen joints across the city. Cheap, delicious and filled with locals, our favourite was the ramen at 花心涮涮锅 washed down with a cold beer of course!
Getting around Kyoto
We used a mix of trains (for getting to the Bamboo Forest and the Fushimi Inari shrine) and then a mix of walking and e-bikes for the city based sights. Taxis are quite expensive (we used one to get to the Golden Pavillion temple) and the train/bus system within Kyoto is not very efficient for seeing the major sights. With the flexibility of the e-bikes we were able to explore most of Kyoto in a single day.