Top 10 Must-See Places to Visit in Kyoto

by Mar 1, 2019Best Places, Japan

“If Japan were a human being, then Tokyo would be its brain, Osaka its stomach, and Kyoto the heart.” – a famous saying about Japan

How many great cities can say that they originated from a need to escape a curse, were discovered during a hunting trip and had their name chosen in a poetry contest?

Kyoto is one such city.

A curse?

Yes.

A hunting trip?

Well, sort of.

A poetry contest?

Yes.

About 1300 years ago, Japan’s capital was located in Nara (definitely also a place worth visiting). The capital wasn’t in Nara for very long when the Buddhist monks there started causing trouble by meddling in court politics, even going as far as staging a coup. So, the Emperor at the time, Kammu, who is considered one of Japan’s greatest emperors (and who by the way is part Korean) decided to move the capital to Nagaoka. However, after several deaths, the imperial family believed the city was cursed. So, the Emperor needed to find another capital. While out on a hunting trip (ok, actually the hunting was just a pretense for looking for a new capital), he discovered the land where Kyoto now stands. The royal court all moved lock stock and barrel to Kyoto. To come up with a name for the new city, the court devised a poetry contest. The winning name was “City of Peace and Tranquility.” Kyoto.

Kyoto is a great city and some of the features that made it so great in the past can still be seen today. The temples. The shrines. The old neighborhoods. There are so many historical and cultural places to visit in Kyoto that for the curious traveler whose time is limited, seeing all of them will be difficult. So, it’s important to carefully choose which ones to visit and which to leave out.

I chose these 10 places for their unique features. I wanted to give you an eclectic experience. Each temple, shrine, or neighborhood has a special feature that you can’t find at other places in Kyoto or sometimes even the world for that matter.

You can also jump to a detailed itinerary for each place by clicking on the button below the description or by clicking on the photo. Some itineraries haven’t been completed yet, but it should say so on the button.

BONUS: I've created a FREE detailed PDF version of this 3-week Japan itinerary. The guide also includes step-by-step instructions for buying and using your Japan Rail Pass.

Click here to get lots of great tips for traveling around Asia as well as this FREE 3-week Japan itinerary guide. 

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links.  As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.  Please see this website's Disclosure for more info.

1. Fushimi Inari Shrine

This shrine lived up to its hype. I was blown away by the otherworldly beauty of the red torii gates. At times when the gates were so close together, it felt like I was walking through a tunnel. Fushimi Inari consists of several buildings, the sacred Mount Inari, a forest covering the mountain, along with hiking trails going through the forest and up the mountain. The best tip I can give you is to go really early in the morning before 8:00 am (7:00 or 7:30 am ideally) to avoid the crowds.

TYPE OF LANDMARK:

a Shinto shrine

COST:

free

OPEN:

dawn to dusk

2. The Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama

Number 2 on my list of best places to visit in Kyoto is the Bamboo Grove of Arashiyama. Just what the name implies, the site is a forest of bamboo just like the pictures above. Why is it something that you must see? Well, if you go at the right time, it’s an amazing place. It’s one of the best places for photography. Go early in the morning at 7:00 or 7:30 to avoid the crowds. If you’re lucky, it’ll be a windy day and you can hear an eerie sound from the wind whistling through the bamboo grove and the leaves rustling in the wind.

TYPE OF LANDMARK:

a forest

COST:

free

OPEN:

dawn to dusk

3. Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion)

Kinkaku-ji Temple is a Buddhist temple famous for its beauty. It’s on my list for two reasons. One reason is similar to the Bamboo Forest and the other is the opposite of it. First, it’s on my list because of its uniqueness: a golden temple. There’s only one other golden temple that I’m aware of: Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar. The second reason is for the fact that unlike the Bamboo Forest, I came home with pretty good photos even though I took them at the time of day that all professional photographers warn you against taking them–in the afternoon. Coming home and seeing the photos makes the temple’s beauty even more obvious.

TYPE OF LANDMARK:

Zen Buddhist Temple

COST:

¥400 (US$3.60)

OPEN:

9:00 am – 5:00 pm

4. Old Neighborhoods of Kyoto

There are 3 streets that you must make sure to see during your stay in Kyoto. Number 1 is the Gion neighborhood, the area known for geisha entertainment. Make sure to walk down Hanami-koji Street. Here you’ll see restaurants and teahouses traditional wooden buildings. Number 2 is Sannenzaka and and Ninenzaka Streets with more old wooden traditional buildings with shops, teahouses, and restaurants. There’s a famous Japanese style Starbucks on Ninenzaka that you must NOT miss. Number 3 is Ponto-cho. It’s a very narrow pedestrian-only street filled with more wooden buildings that come alive at night, so make sure to visit then. The thing that makes it visually so special is the red lanterns hanging outside the bars and restaurants.

TYPE OF LANDMARK:

Neighborhoods with traditional wooden buildings

COST:

It’s free to wander the streets.

OPEN:

24/7, but stores, cafes, teahouses, and restaurants open at 9:00 am

5. Tenryu-ji

There are lots of temples like Tenryu-ji in Kyoto with a manicured garden, a raked rock garden, and minimalist tatami floor covered halls. Why is Tenryu-ji my favorite? The color is one reason. I went in the summer and the surrounding scenery was so amazingly green that it almost hurt my eyes. I could sit on the temple’s veranda and gaze out at the lotus pond and not get tired of its view. There’s always something interesting to look at. Second, other temples have minimalist halls and covered walkways, but Tenryu-ji’s were more eye-catching. The design, the unpainted woodwork of the walkways, the starkness of the halls, and the chosen colors really stood out for me. It was very aesthetically pleasing.

TYPE OF LANDMARK:

Zen Buddhist Temple

COST:

¥800 for temple and garden

OPEN:

8:30 am – 5:00/5:30 pm

6. Ryoanji

Ryoan-ji temple is famous for its much-photographed rock garden. The garden is considered one of the finest works of Zen art. I’d seen tons of pictures of it before coming to Japan. But those pictures don’t do it justice. Seeing it in person is the only way you can truly appreciate its stark beauty. But unfortunately, it’s hard to get a good picture of it without a wide-angled lens and without going at the right time of the day. What makes it so special is that it’s an enigma. What do the 15 rocks really mean? Are they islands on an ocean? Are they mountains sticking up over the clouds? Or does it represent something more profound?

TYPE OF LANDMARK:

Zen Buddhist temple

COST:

¥500 (US$4.50)

OPEN:

8:00 am – 5:00 pm; Dec-Feb: 8:30 am- 4:30 pm

7. Kiyumizu-dera

Kiyumizu-dera is a temple located in southern Higashiyama. When I visited in 2018, it was under construction like in the picture above, so to be honest, I was kind of disappointed. I’m putting it on this list because I’m pretty sure it would be stunning to look at when the construction is finished (March 2020). It’s got great views of Kyoto. The inside, which you can’t take a picture of, is dark and mysterious with its mysterious  statue of Kannon with its eleven faces. There’s also one more unique and trippy experience that I’ve never experienced at any other temple anywhere else in the world. Oh and one more thing, it’s in a really cool shopping area near the Sannenzaka Road (see #4). Check it out!

TYPE OF LANDMARK:

a Buddhist temple of the Hosso sect

COST:

¥400 (US$3.60)

OPEN:

6:00 am – 6:00 pm

8. Ginkaku-ji

The meaning of Ginkakuji is the Silver Pavilion. However, the pavilion is not silver at all. But perhaps that is why it’s so beautiful. Instead of the gaudy silver, it’s an understated wooden structure that blends perfectly into its surroundings. Why visit? There are a number of special features of this temple. It’s got one of the coolest dry landscape rock gardens that I saw in Kyoto. It’s called the Sea of Silvery Sand. There’s also a bamboo grove and garden covered in a carpet of moss. There are some great views over the city of Kyoto. Finally, the temple is at the end of the Path of Philosophy. There is a downside, though. The temple was pretty busy when I went late in the day. If you can, visit earlier.

TYPE OF LANDMARK:

a Zen Buddhist temple

COST:

¥500 (US$4.70)

OPEN:

8:30-5:00 pm; Dec-Feb: 9:00-4:30 pm

9. Yasaka Jinja

Yasaka Jinja is one of the most important shrines for the people of Kyoto. It’s the site of a famous festival, the Gion Matsuri Festival.  The shrine is located between the heavily-touristed Gion and Higashiyama areas, so it was actually quite busy and lively when I was there, and believe it or not, that’s why I liked it. Out of all the sites in Kyoto, this one had the most energy.  I also liked it for who frequently visited the shrine in ancient times–the entertainers of Kyoto—geishas, kabuki actors, etc. The other thing I liked about it was the bright orange colors (Vermillion, really, but it looked more orange to me.). The building with all the hanging lanterns. The walkway with the lanterns. After the rather stifling and serious Buddhist temples, this was a nice respite.

TYPE OF LANDMARK:

a Shinto shrine

COST:

free

OPEN:

24/7

10. Nanzen-ji

Nanzen-ji is one of the five most important temples in Kyoto (in ancient times these five temples received special privileges). When I was at Nanzen-ji, there were few people, so it was a nice and quiet experience. It’s a large temple complex with a gorgeous humungous wooden gate that you can climb to the second floor for a nice view of Kyoto. Along with the gate, there is the main hall, several beautiful sub-temples, an aqueduct from the Meiji period, a fine Zen garden with a pond, and a couple of Zen rock gardens.

TYPE OF LANDMARK:

a Zen Buddhist temple

COST:

¥500 (US$4.70)

OPEN:

8:30 am – 4:30/5:00 pm

There are even more places to see than just these 10 ones. The temples, Chionin, Shoren-in, Daitoku-ji, and Kodai-ji, should not be missed. Chionin is supposedly particularly special, but when I was there, it was covered up by a tent for reconstruction. And if you have a chance, visit the Kyoto National Museum, Nishiki Market, and the Kyoto Imperial Palace. To see these places, you’ll need at least four days. If you are really interested in history, heritage, and culture, you should stay five to seven days.

Pin it for later

Are you traveling to Kyoto soon? What places are you most looking forward to seeing in Kyoto?  Have you been to Kyoto? What were your favorite sites? What places would you put on your top 10 list?

About the Bamboo Traveler

Julie Krolak

Hi! I’m Julie, the Bamboo Traveler!  This blog is devoted to helping the inquisitive traveler explore Asia’s history, heritage, and culture. Fun facts about me: I’m from a town so small that if you blink, you might miss it. I once owned my own language school in China.

Subscribe

Get Your FREE Japan Itinerary Guide Here!

Subscribe to my newsletter to receive the latest travel tips for Asia and get a free 4-page PDF version of my 3-Week Japan Itinerary.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest