Kyoto has so many religious sites that you would probably have to spend a month there and visit two a day to see all of them. And though temples and shrines make up the bulk of the things to do in Kyoto, the city is also really cool to just wander around and soak up the culture. A balanced Kyoto itinerary takes a little bit of the best of everything to give you some varied experiences and avoid temple fatigue.
The following things to do in Kyoto can easily take up three or four days, and it would be downright exhausting if not impossible to squeeze it all into a shorter time. It’s also important to remember that when it comes to the top sites in Kyoto, you’ll want to visit many of them first thing in the morning to avoid the awful crowds that can ruin the quaint traditional feel of the city. So three full days would allow you to peacefully explore Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, the Arashiyama bamboo forest, and Kiyozimu-dera Temple first thing each morning.
Kyoto attractions to set your alarm for
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
Hands down Kyoto’s most popular attraction, this Shinto shrine honors the god of rice, Inari. The iconic path of torii gates weaves around the Main Hall of the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine and up the mountain of Inariyama, which is considered a sacred place. Scattered around the grounds, you’ll find other smaller shrines. The downside of Fushimi Inari Taisha is that it is always busy, but on the other hand, you can escape the crowds by hiking further and further up the mountain along the torii path. The full hike will take at least 2 hours. Going higher up and deeper into the forest, the path provides tranquility and lots of shade. Most people drop out early in the hike and most that go further still only get to the viewpoint at the Yotsutsuji intersection halfway up. That gives you plenty of shrine to see without any crowds.
Arashiyama bamboo forest and surroundings
Another of Kyoto’s popular sights is the Arashiyama bamboo forest. What people don’t realize about the forest is that it’s actually a walking path that’s about 500 meters or about 1/3 of a mile. Given its popularity, the short and narrow walk becomes quite crowded and a lot less serene. The best way to visit is to go first thing in the morning and see it in the morning light with 5 or 6 dedicated tourists and photographers. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of traditional farmers wearing sugegasa.
Getting to the bamboo forest can take a bit of time if you’re staying in central Kyoto, so if you’re all the way over there, you might as well stay for part of the day and check out the adorable and peaceful area arround it. Near the Randen tram station, you’ll find the Kyoto Kimono Forest, which is made of pillars decorated with different colorful kimono fabrics. Tenryu-ji Temple is also adjacent to the forest so it’s an easy stop and not as popular as the other religious sites in the city.
If you are interested in more natural scenery, you can take a leisurely stroll through Kameyama Park and along the river. You can even take a Hozu-gawa River boat ride in traditional boats that are steered with bamboo. The boat ride lasts anywhere from one to two hours depending on the water level and takes you through a gorge and gives you a river view of the cherry blossoms during spring.
The Kiyomizu-dera Temple is a Buddhist temple located conveniently close to central Kyoto and Gion. Up on a hill, you can get several stunning views of the city from behind the red and white structures and pagodas of the temple. Though much of the grounds are free to visit, you need to pay to go to the Main Hall with its famous wooden terrace.
One of the things that sets this temple apart as a must-do is that the area around it is full of food and shopping and beautiful traditional buildings. One of the best reasons to go early is to see these streets without people. Even if you arrive before stores are open along Matsubara Dori, you’ll likely spend a couple of hours exploring the temple and give commerce a chance to start up on your way down. This way, you can do some shopping or eating before the crowds get really heavy. An offshoot of Matsubara Dori is Sanneizaka, another shopping street that descends downhill toward the pagoda of the Hokan-ji Temple. It’s one of the most beautiful views in the city and offers a lot of unique wares and souvenirs.
Kyoto attractions you can enjoy later in the day
Eat at Nishiki Market
Nishiki Market is a long, albeit kind of cramped food and shopping marketplace which is great for quick lunch or for souvenirs. You can find both fresh and cooked food along with shops selling everything from knives to shoes. Simple etiquette for eating at the market is that you shouldn’t eat while walking. You should always eat in front of the shop where you bought your food (this way you can also return your trash to the shopkeeper) or take your food home. Some of the food stalls have seating in the back, so if something looks tasty to you, they’ll find a way to accommodate you. Most shops specialize in one or two things like fried seafood, sushi, or gyoza, so you can pick a few places to make a complete meal.
Sometimes you don’t want to spend two or three hours wandering around a temple. Kinkajuki Temple is the perfect size, packing a lot of beauty into a relatively smaller space. The small Zen Buddhist temple is known around the world for having its two top floors completely covered in gold leaf. It’s not possible to enter the pavilion but you can walk all around the pond where it sits. After your visit around the grounds, you’ll come to the Sekkatei Teahouse, where you can sit and have traditional tea and sweets before you leave the temple area.
This is also a site that gets crowded so it’s best to visit as close to opening or closing time and during the week if possible. If you’re making an early morning stop at Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, you can take a bus here and arrive as it opens.
Wander around Gion
Gion is the geisha district of Kyoto. Though you’ll want to avoid gawking or taking photos if you do see them, this is a great place to potentially catch a glimpse. Kyoto’s women of the arts are usually on their way to an engagement and they’re not there to entertain tourists. Gion is notable for its traditional architecture and Hanamikoji Street, which is lined with restaurants and boutiques.
If you’re not sick of shrines and temples by this point, you can check out Kennin-ji Temple, where you can have tea and enjoy the Zen garden – it’s the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto. There’s also the Yasaka Jinga Shinto Shrine, which is over 1300 years old.
Nijo Castle was originally built as the residence of the first shogun of the Edo Period but was used for a time as an Imperial Palace. The castle is fortified by two circles of defense that include high stone walls and moats. The main buildings of Nijo Castle are surrounded by picture-perfect gardens. An entrance fee gives you access to Ninomaru-Goten Palace, which was the shogun’s main residence. The floorboards of the palace were designed to be purposefully creaky to warn of incoming intruders. The interior is ornately decorated but photos are not allowed.
Wine and dine in Pontocho Alley
Pontocho Alley is a long street that runs parallel to the river with many traditional shops, bars, and restaurants. It’s not uncommon to spot a geisha in this area in the evening as the street has some exclusive clubs that attract high-end clientele. Though it may be difficult to get a table for dinner without a reservation, some places like Bar Cask are foreigner-friendly and locals are happy to chat you up at the bar and give you recommendations. The nearby area can get rowdy with karaoke bars and night clubs.
Kyoto is the best place to experience traditional Japan and see some of the country’s most famous sites. It has all this to do and more, so a visit to the city will be well worth your while.
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