Kyoto: Don’t miss these top sights on your trip
Kyoto is a melting pot of culture, religion and ancient history. Which is exactly why this sacred city is one destination not to miss. Get ready to explore the top Kyoto sights, here in this guide!
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. And as a result, making it one of the most visited cities in all of Japan!
Planning the perfect trip to Kyoto can be a bit tricky. Especially considering the amount of awesome things to do and see in the city. In this guide, we highlight the top Kyoto sights you shouldn’t miss on your visit.
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Top Kyoto Sights not to Miss
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.
The station is very big. Although there are clear signs in English, Japanese and Chinese, finding your way around can be a bit of a mission. So, to make getting around a bit easier, visit the station’s website here for a comprehensive map.
Kyoto Observation Tower
The 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.
Or, skip the queues…and get your ticket here:
If you want the best city views, visiting the Kyoto Tower should be high on your top Kyoto sights list. The best time to visit is in the evening. Not only will you have a chance to see the whole city lit up, I also found it to be less crowded and extremely romantic.
If you want to have a nice stroll around, pop into the Higashi Temple. The temple is only a 5-10 minute walk away from the Kyoto Station and Observation Tower. The main hall is the largest wooden structure in Kyoto. And, very impressive to see first-hand.
You can visit the beautiful grounds from early morning to 17:30, daily. There’s also one more perk to visiting here, entrance to the complex is free.
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 and sake to pickled goods and sweets.
I loved strolling around the market and sampling all the delicacies on offer here. There are however some pretty freaky things, half of which I couldn’t even name. But, if you are a more adventurous eater, or simple want to sample some weird and wonderful Japanese treats, don’t forget to add Nishiki Market to your top Kyoto sights list!
Nishiki Market gets quite lively. So, it’s best to time your visit here. If you want to avoid the crowds or tour groups, rather come in the early morning.
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.
Here you can wander around gorgeous gardens, make secret wishes, and duck into cute little shops selling all kinds of Japanese trinkets. So, if you are looking to pick up some souvenirs, this is the perfect spot to find some. Especially seeing that everything from traditional tea sets to handmade postcards and sake to traditional snakcs are on offer here.
When making your way around the grounds and sublime gardens, be sure to stop in at one of the many tea houses! Here you can sit back and relax with a cup of Matcha (Japanese green tea) and some local sweet treats. And of course, really enjoy the beautiful surrounding scenery. I found the cutest little outdoor tea house here and spent more than an hour sampling the tea and treats on offer.
You can reach Kiyomizu-Dera Temple by bus #100 or 206 from Kyoto Station. The ride only takes about 15 minutes and entrance fee to the complex is ¥400.
Based at the foot of Inari Mountain, is the Fushimi-Inari Shrine. It is one of Japan’s most famous Shinto shrines. And, 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. Rightly so, making it one of the top Kyoto sights you should not miss on your trip.
There’s also a great choice 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 if you are visiting Japan on a shoestring budget, you’ll be pleased to learn that there luckily is no admission fee.
Pro Tip For Solo Female Travellers
Japan is extremely safe, but it is always best to err on the side of safety. This probably goes without saying, but always avoid walking alone, specifically very late at night. Also, it gets dark early, especially when visiting Kyoto in fall or winter. So, if you do plan to hike the entire trail, I recommend sticking to daylight or hours.
Similarly to Fushimi-Inari, Heian Shrine is another top Shinto shrine of Kyoto, and Japan as a matter of fact. It is dedicated to the very first and last emperors ruling over Kyoto, so it plays quite an important role here in Kyoto.
It’s a nice place to take a relaxing stroll around, as 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 only takes about 30 minutes from Kyoto Station and yet again, there is no admission fee to enter the area.
One of the top Kyoto sights is undoubtedly Kinkaku-Ji, or as it is more often referred to, the Golden Pavilion. This majestic structure has gold-plated top floors and overlooks a large pond, whilst sublime gardens surround it.
After a relaxing stroll around the gardens, and snapping up all those amazing pics, be sure to try the Gold Leaf ice cream at Kinkaku Soft. It’s insta famous!
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 more commonly referred to as the Silver Pavilion is another spectacular sight to add to your must-see top Kyoto sights list.
In fact, it was one of my favourite places to visit in Kyoto. Strolling around the gardens almost felt unreal, as every turn produced a new jaw-dropping moment for me. Especially seeing that I timed my visit here during the autumn leaves season. Which is by the way, the best season to travel to Japan.
Transcend yourself into luscious gardens, admire a striking zen sand garden, stroll along beautiful moss gardens, ponds, secluded miniature waterfalls and of course enjoy the 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 the entrance fee is ¥500.
Gion is Kyoto’s traditional entertainment district and most probably one of the most famous districts in all of Kyoto. Particularly if you are after fine dining and a traditional Japanese nightlife scene. 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.
By the way…
If you want to discover all the best spots to spot geishas, consider joining this Kyoto Geisha Districts Tour.
You can reach Gion by bus #100 or 206 in 20 minutes from Kyoto Station. Alternatively use the subway.
Pro Tip For Budget Travellers
Dining in Gion is extremely expensive. So, 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 let’s not forget the entertainment on offer here. Ponto-cho is more specifically home to many geiko houses, tea houses, bars and restaurants – making it a great place to catch a glimpse of Kyoto life.
Whether you just want to have a nice stroll around, duck into one of the tea houses, or perhaps even hoping to catch a glimpse of a geisha – Ponto-cho is a great add-on to your top Kyoto sights!
Ponto-cho really comes to life at night, so if you are after a fun night out, pop into one of the many bars that line the alleyway. But, if you really want to get a glimpse into local life, I suggest ducking into an Izakaya – a traditional Japanese beer house which offers small barbecue eats.
Most shops and restaurants are open from 5pm – 11pm.
Like Gion, Ponto-cho does not really cater to travellers on a tight budget. But, that does not mean you should give it a skip of your top Kyoto sights to-do list. Therefore, if you are on a shoestring budget, consider grabbing some Yakitori or pop into a Izakaya for more reasonable prices.
Getting to Kyoto
There are many ways to reach Kyoto, depending on where you’re coming from. But, just to set you at ease, Japan has some of the best transportation systems in the world. So, getting to Kyoto is easy by either train, bus, taxi or even private transfers.
I took a Japan Railways West train from Kansai Airport which took me right to the Kyoto Main Station. It was easy, relatively fast and affordable considering Japan’s prices.
These are some of the easiest and most convenient ways to reach Kyoto…Limousine Bus Transfers between Kansai International Airport (KIX) and Osaka or Kyoto Private Kansai International Airport Transfers (KIX) for Kyoto 5 Day JR Kansai WIDE Area Pass (KIX Pick Up)
If you’re hoping to see a bit more of Japan, be sure to also check out this Japan 2 week itinerary and guide for awesome tips and things to do across the country.
Have you been to any of these top Kyoto sights?
And, what travel tips or hacks do you have for the top Kyoto sights?
And finally, where are your favourite places to visit in Kyoto in fall? Let us know in the comments below. We’d love to add to this list.
Fancy strolling through the Bamboo Grove at Arashiyama or feeding the deer at Nara? Head to our Japan section to learn more about easy day trips from Kyoto. Also, feel free to join our mailing list and follow us on Instagram and Facebook for instant updates on our travels.
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This post was updated on February 29, 2019.