Kyoto is a melting pot of culture, religion and ancient history. Which is exactly why this sacred city is one destination not to miss. Surrounded by breathtaking mountain ranges, Kyoto lies in the heart of Japan’s Honshu island. Once the home to the Emperor and Japan’s former capital for 1200 years, Kyoto oozes with ‘old Japan’ charm. The city’s age-old history is clear in its 1000 impressive Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and imperial palaces. In addition, Kyoto boasts with gorgeous Japanese gardens, colorful architecture and culinary delights.
Top sights not to miss
Planning a trip to Kyoto is quite tricky considering the amount of things to see and do. This guide highlights our top picks to explore on your visit.
1. Kyoto Station
Getting around in Kyoto is extremely easy. The city has a highly efficient transportation system allowing easy access to all major tourist spots. And it is here, at the Kyoto Station, where most of your journeys will start. Whether it is catching a taxi, taking the subway, whizzing off on the Shinkansen or hopping on a sightseeing bus; the Kyoto Station will make your travels a breeze.
The station boasts with beautiful architecture and a stunning Skyway Tunnel. It also serves as a gateway to a number of department stores. If you aren’t in a rush to catch a train, enjoy a stroll around the station, grab a relatively cheap meal, or head to the Skyway Tunnel on the 11th floor for terrific city views.
Note: The station is very big. Although there are clear signs in English, Japanese and Chinese, finding your way around can be quite daunting. For a comprehensive map, visit the station’s website, here.
2. Kyoto Observation Tower
The Kyoto Observation Tower is the tallest structure in Kyoto and offers all-round breathtaking views of the city and surrounding mountain ranges. The Sky Lounge is just as impressive; enjoy a light meal or cocktail here, before heading up to the Observation Tower. You can also buy souvenirs and some of Kyoto’s most famous treats in the main building’s entrance hall.
The tower is open 7 days a week from 9am – 9pm. The admission fee will set you back ¥770.
3. Higashi Hongan-Ji
The Higashi temple is an easy 10 minute walk from the Kyoto Station and Observation Tower. The main hall is the largest wooden structure in Kyoto.
You can visit the beautiful grounds from early morning to 17:30, daily. Entrance to the complex is free.
4. Nishiki Market
Nishiki Market, better known as ‘Kyoto’s Kitchen’ is a food lover’s paradise. With more than 100 stalls and restaurants lining a 5 block narrow walking street, it’s hard not to snack on local delicacies here. Just about anything food related is sold at the market; from fresh seafood, sake, pickled goods to sweets.
Note: Nishiki Market gets quite lively. Come in the early morning, if you want to avoid the crowds and tour groups.
This remarkable Buddhist temple is also known as the “Pure Water Temple”. It is one of Japan’s most famous temples and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in 780, Kiyomizu-Dera offers visitors a glimpse into Japan’s religious history accompanied by breathtaking city views.
Whilst making your way through the grounds and sublime gardens, be sure to stop in at one of the many tea houses. Here you can enjoy the beautiful surroundings with a cup of Matcha (Japanese green tea) and some local sweet treats.
You can reach Kiyomizu-Dera Temple by bus #100 or 206 from Kyoto Station. The ride takes roughly 15 minutes and entrance to the complex is ¥400.
6. Fushimi-Inari Taisha
Based at the foot of Inari Mountain, the Fushimi-Inari Shrine is one of Japan’s most famous Shinto shrines. For good reason. With red torii gates lining parts of the 4km trial up Inari mountain, impressive red and gold temples, fox statues and beautiful city views, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by this shrine.
There’s also a great selection of street food at the shrine’s entrance gate. Grab a few snacks before attempting the 2 hour hike up the mountain. If you don’t intend on hiking to the top, great views can still be enjoyed at one of the lookout points along the trail.
The grounds are open 24/7 and there is no admission fee.
Note to solo female travelers: Japan is extremely safe, but it is best to err on the side of safety. Always avoid walking alone, late at night.
The Heian Shrine is one of the top Shinto shrines in Japan. It is dedicated to the very first and last emperors ruling over Kyoto. There are a few museums, an extravagant entrance gate and a wide court on the spacious grounds.
Take Kyoto bus #5 or 100 to reach Heinan Shrine. The ride takes about 30 minutes from Kyoto Station and there is no admission fee to enter the area.
Kinkaku-Ji or better known as the Golden Pavilion, is a majestic structure with gold-plated top floors. The temple overlooks a large pond and sublime gardens surround it. After a relaxing stroll around the gardens, be sure to try the Gold Leaf ice cream at Kinkaku Soft.
The temple is open daily from 9am – 5pm and the entrance fee will set you back ¥500. Take bus #101 or 205 from Kyoto Station to reach the Golden Pavilion. The ride takes about 30-40 minutes.
Ginkaku-Ji, or the Silver Pavilion is another spectacular sight to add to your must-see list. Admire a striking zen sand garden, beautiful moss gardens, ponds, secluded miniature waterfalls and foliage as you make your way around the circular route.
Getting to Ginkaku-Ji is easiest by bus #5, 7 or 100 from Kyoto Station. The ride takes about 40 minutes and entrance is ¥500.
Gion is Kyoto’s traditional entertainment district. The alleyways are home to hundreds of beautiful traditional Japanese wooden houses filled with shops, tea houses and fine dining restaurants. It is also one of the best places in the city to catch a glimpse of a geisha.
You can reach Gion by bus #100 or 206 in 20 minutes from Kyoto Station. Alternatively use the subway.
Note to budget travelers: Dining in Gion is extremely expensive. Unless you plan to splurge, grab a bite before visiting the district. For more reasonable prices, pop into a fast food chain on one of the main streets.
The small atmospheric alleyway of Ponto-cho is within walking distance from Gion. This narrow cobbled alley is famous for its traditional architecture and entertainment. Ponto-cho is home to many geiko houses, tea houses, bars and restaurants.
Note: If you are on a tight budget, grab some Yakitori or pop into an Izakaya. Most shops and restaurants are open from 5pm – 11pm.
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