The ancient capital of Kyoto is always on the bucket list of passionate travelers worldwide thanks to the centuries-old history and preeminent nature. This populous city of the Kansai region is the religious hub with an assortment of ancient holy shrines nestled by the dream-like maple forest and the lively culture of the local life. No matter if you’re a history buff or passionate shutterbug, Kyoto has everything it takes to be your favorite vacation in Japan. If you’re striking out to Kyoto for the first time, here are the 10 most iconic attractions to unfold the city’s best features.
What to Expect before Setting out to Kyoto?
Speaking of where to visit in Japan, Tokyo comes first and Kyoto comes at second. The capital of Japan is the icon of the present days but once you talk about the good old days, Kyoto is the cream of the crop. You only need around 130 minutes of a train ride to end up in a slow-paced, deliberate and atmospheric lifestyle. Home to 1.5 million citizens, Kyoto is one of the most populous cities in the land of sunrise.
This ancient capital was ruled by the Shogun from 794 to 1868. Nowadays, the Shogun era is long gone and left behind an extensive collection of atmospheric temples hugged by sublime gardens. Meanwhile, the traditional teahouses and crowded matcha sweet shops speak for the mix of the old and the new.
The finest quintessence of traditional Japan all gathers at this ancient capital, making Kyoto the most beautiful city in the country. If you are an out-of-towner setting out to Kyoto for the first time, make it during spring or fall to embrace the most striking beauty of the land!
10 Best Attractions Reflecting Kyoto’s Finest Charisma
Arashiyama, a mecca of holy shrines and natural landscapes, is thrusted at the foot of the Arashiyama Mountains in Western Kyoto. While many travelers flock to the main street of Arashiyama around the iconic bridge of Togetsu-kyo, you can go off the grid by strolling around Kameyama-koen park before immersing into Tenryu-ji Temple.
As the spotlight of Arashiyama, Tenryu-ji promotes a typical beauty of a Zen temple enclosed by a lush and dreamy garden. A trip around Tenryu-ji brings you closer to the breath of nature, especially with a splendid view over the distant mountains.
If Tenryu-ji is the focal point of Arashiyama’s best temples, then the vast Bamboo Grove is a true natural charmer of Japan. These soaring stalks of bamboo brace you in from all four directions and open a door to another world. When the wind forces the sprawling bamboo, they sway from side to side and whisper along with the movement of air. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is not only a photogenic spot in Kyoto but also a paradise of handcrafted souvenirs made of this versatile wood.
Looking for a ticket to the good old days of Kyoto? Look no further as Kiyomizu-dera Temple is there to keep you occupied! Literally translated as “the temple of pure water”, Kiyomizu-dera is a UNESCO world heritage site in Kyoto whose history dates back to the year 780. Nestled by the soaring waterfall of Otowa, the temple inherits the wholesome water from the woods that pours over the wooden stage on the outside of the main hall.
Standing behind the grand stanchions, you’ll have a chance to catch a glimpse of the vivid maple trees and cherry blossoms below as well as the far-flung cityscape of Kyoto. More than just a holy shrine, Kiyomizu-dera beholds a great architectural value that showcases jaw-dropping construction techniques in the former days. Today, it still stands the test of time with a perfect preservation of worship objects as well as the grand statue of Kannon deity.
Gion Geisha District
Nestled by the East side of Kamo River, Gion was once a rest stop for the pilgrims to Gion Shrine. Fast forward to the modern days, this neighborhood has put on a new appearance. Gion turned itself around in a charming and historic way to be the hub of Kyoto culture and tradition.
Most travelers and locals alike refer to Gion as the geisha district. It always has something for everyone. The serene landscape of the Yasaka shrine welcomes peace-seekers. The exceptional architecture of Hanami Lane mesmerizes street togs. Meanwhile, the high-spirited festival of Gion Matsuri is the top of the crop for culture vultures.
However, the most prominent feature that Gion has to offer is the collection of traditional tea houses where you can explore the surviving culture of geisha. There’s no better place in Kyoto than Gion to unfold traditional Japanese culture. Within only a day of sauntering around the neighborhood, you will feel as if the old Japan jumps out from the past. Not only can you embrace the rich and well-preserved history of Japan but also partake in a cooking or floral design class to provoke your thirst for discovery.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Boasting a flamboyant path of thousands of vermilion torii gates, Fushimi Inari Shrine is an essential landmark in the South of Kyoto dedicated to the Shinto God of rice. The temple was built in 794 featuring multiple fox statues across the ground area as the animal is believed to be Inari’s messenger.
Lying behind the vivid main hall, the torii gate-covered hiking trail leads you to a sacred forest at the base of Mount Inari. The dense, parallel rows of Senbon Torii emerge as the limelight of the sacred mountain, which takes you a good amount of 45 minutes to conquer the entire path.
Don’t give up on the hike just yet because the vista over Kyoto halfway up the mountain is a special reward to any tough soul. If you’re looking for a brand new way to spice up your trip and work your legs at once, pay a visit to Fushimi Inari Shrine and you won’t return disappointed!
Going strong for 400 years, Nishiki Market is the gold mine of Japanese authentic goodies. This traditional bazaar dominates the heart of Kyoto as an indoor pedestrian arcade. Housing 135 stores selling all sorts of foods native to Japan, Nishiki delivers a fun, pleasant, and busy ambiance where you can immerse into the full-on scene of Kyoto culinary delights.
The stores come in various sizes and each of which concentrates on a specific goody. A visit to this exciting market opens a door to not only Kyoto’s authentic culinary but also its local daily life. All you need is slowing down, making a long walk down the path, and unfolding the unique delights you are not even aware of! Nishiki is a huge market with lots of people spilling in and out, especially on a rainy day.
Hence, get ready to line up before sampling the best Kyoto street food you find along the stroll. There’s also a Samurai Museum located in the market where you can enjoy a samurai lesson and wear authentic samurai costumes!
Also known as Golden Pavilion, the Zen temple of Kinkaku-ji is an elegant holy shrine with a shiny golden exterior casting glitters on the mirror-like pond underneath. Hugged by a lush garden on the surrounding, Kinkaku-ji is a 2-story temple which used to be the retirement villa of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. This impressive architecture has witnessed the ups and downs of Japanese history including the Onin civil war. The new structure you see today underwent a massive restoration in 1955 to preserve the splendid Kitayama culture.
Not only does the stunning outer appearance captivate your attention but the inner décor also speaks for different styles of architecture. If the first floor takes you to the Shinden-zukuri style from the Heian Period, then the second floor is the introduction of Bukke samurai style. The combination of historical stories and beautiful architecture have come together and sets Kinkaku-ji apart from other temples in the area. Make sure to save at least 1 to 2 hours to stroll around the magnificent surrounding park before leaving!
Kyoto’s Authentic and Distinctive Matcha Scene
Japanese matcha has been taking the world by storm with its fun, distinctive flavor and amazing nutritional benefits. But what’s so great about Kyoto’s matcha that shapes the reputation of this ancient capital? Uji Matcha, the highest quality of all Japanese green tea, is located smack dab here in Kyoto. It yields a prosperous and diverse scene for any matcha lover.
Other than fusing matcha with water and milk, you can leverage your love for this aromatic element by indulging your sweet tooth in a range of confectioneries and desserts!
One of our favorite places in Kyoto is Saryo Tsujiri, home to the famous Tsujiri Parfait using Uji matcha as the core ingredient. You can dine in at their laid-back vibe or take away some Matcha Floats if you’re having the itchy feet. Otherwise, drop by Nakamura Tokichi and pick amongst their extensive menu of soft serve, home-brewed tea, and desserts.
Eikando Zenrinji Temple
Kyoto’s temple is not only a place to immerse yourself in the hypnotic realm of beautiful architecture but also get in touch with the dream-like scenery. One of the most famous temples representing the fantasy-like nature of Kyoto is Eikando Zenrinji.
Locally called eikan-do, this temple makes global headlines with the iconic fall foliage of maple leaves. Strolling around the koi fish pond before ending up at the stone bridge to catch fall foliage early in the morning or late afternoon is the best way to find your inner peace. No matter which angle you frame at, it always feels like coming out of a postcard.
Every autumn, a light-up event is introduced to travelers worldwide who love to embrace the glittering atmosphere of the fall foliage at night. An insight into the event is only 1 ticket away! So if you happen to visit the temple during the day before the light show starts, feel free to head back out, claim a ticket, and move back in again to enjoy the lights!
Apart from indulging in the maple garden, you can observe paintings, statues, and ancient tomes on the ground and the exhibition rooms.
Philosopher’s Path falls under the list of Kyoto’s most famous places with its mesmerizing scene of cherry blossom when Spring arrives. The cherry blossom season spruces up Kyoto in mid-March and hits the peak in April.
Beyond doubt, Philosopher’s Path is the best place in Kyoto for a fun and photogenic cherry blossom watching day. The path, connecting the two famous temples of Ginkakuji and Nanzenji, is soaked in the vivid shades of cherry blossoms during the spring festival. Philosopher’s Path is a narrow and cobblestone trail making a parallel run with a dreamy canal at the foot of Higashiyama Mountains.
Stretching for 2 kilometers, the path takes you roughly 30 minutes to complete. The best time to hit the path is at the beginning of April when they fully bloom and bathe the entire trail in the magnificent pink petals. 500 cherry trees dominating the whole trail attracts millions of visitors each year for an absolute photo op!
Ine no Funaya
Ending the list of Kyoto’s top-rated places, Ine welcomes you to the Northern coast of Japan. The mirror-like water dotted by the wooden boathouses speaks volumes of the village’s charm. This seaside village translates a tame and courteous beauty which is well reflected through the special architecture of the boathouses.
Watching from the distance, you can instantly see the boats docking underneath while the upper floors make space for the living quarters. Imagine having a spacious waterfront boutique villa while your exclusive yacht has its own garage! That’s exactly how life goes by in Ine no Funaya.
Thanks to the tranquil scenery, Ine becomes the pick of the litter in multiple films and TV shows. To enjoy Ine to your heart’s content, you can cruise the bay to admire the landscape from the water or enjoy the laid-back vibe with a fishing day after cycling around. Ine no Funaya is a perfect hideout if you’re looking for a retreat from the hectic city life.
Japan does a perfect job of balancing the old and the new, the modern advancement and the old-established customs. If you’re hunting for a ticket to the good old days of Japan, Kyoto is the right place to be! Make sure to save at least 3 days in Kyoto for a pleasant and absolute discovery of this ancient land!