Anybody will have a great time in Kyoto, but it’s a shame to visit the city and not admire its millennium-old heritage.
If you’re not familiar with the exceptional history and culture of Kyoto, read our Kyoto culture guide first – your visit will be so much more fascinating!
Let’s be frank – the city of Kyoto is so rich with cultural heritage that it’s basically impossible to see it all for the duration of a regular holiday.
If you have the time, go out and explore at your leisure – after all, Kyoto has about 2,000 shrines and temples, a stunning 17 locations on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, a wide variety of museums, theatres and performance centers, restaurants, tea rooms, nightlife spots, and so much more. You’re bound to come across something interesting.
But, if you have limited time on your hands, take our list of must-see locations in Kyoto as your guide, and visit the most fascinating, history-packed corners of the city.
The Foodie District: Pontocho (先斗町)
You’ll need plenty of energy to explore the wonderful time machine that is Kyoto – so you better eat first!
The best place to find food in Kyoto is the Pontocho district, a narrow alleyway just west of the Kamo River. You’ll find everything, from street food vendors to high-end establishments here.
If you’re visiting in the summer, don’t miss the opportunity to dine on a kawayuka (or kawadoko), a picturesque platform overviewing the riverside. It’s the ancient method of surviving the stuffy summer weather in Kyoto!
Restaurant terraces dotted by riverbanks are namedkawayuka on the Kamo River only – and kawadoko (川床) elsewhere.
Kyoto Skyline Landmarks: Five-Storied Pagodas
They’re unmistakable marks of Kyoto skyline: its five-story pagodas, standing tall and proud, honoring Japan’s Buddhist history.
Pagodas, especially as high as 5 stories, were an architectural wonder of the day. Today, Kyoto’s zoning rules restrict construction of buildings over 31 meters in some districts to preserve the beauty of the cityscape. That’s why you can still feel the grandiosity of the pagodas, as you would back in the days of feudal Japan.
Kyoto boasts 4 five-storied pagodas, 3 of which are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.
- To-ji Temple (東寺) – An oasis of peace surrounded by urban life, close to the city center and near the Kyoto station. The temple was originally one of the gates to the city, and it dates back to the very foundation of Kyoto in the 8th
The currently-standing pagoda was built in 1644. At 57 meters, the pagoda at the To-ji temple is the tallest wooden pagoda in the country.
- Daigo-ji Temple (醍醐寺) – Whether you come in spring or fall, you’ll find a firework of colors of the trees in the Daigo-ji gardens. Loved equally for its gentle sakura blooms and fiery maple leaves, this temple is an ancient refuge.
One of the most prominent buildings on temple grounds is, of course, the Daigo-ji Pagoda, the oldest wooden structure in Kyoto. Standing 38 meters tall and erected in 951, this pagoda has witnessed the many joys and terrors of Kyoto history.
A scenic escape – Daigo-ji temple
- Ninna-ji Temple (仁和寺) – If you arrived in Kyoto just before summer, you may have given up on hanami – sightseeing for the lovely sakura: cherry tree blossoms. You may still get your chance if you visit Ninna-ji Temple – the grounds of which feature a 36-meter-high pagoda and omuro-zakura, late-blooming sakura trees.
- Yasaka Pagoda (八坂の塔), the only remaining structure of the 6th-century Hokan-ji temple. The 46-meter-tall five-story pagoda was burnt down and rebuilt several times, so the present structure dates back to 1440. Located in the heart of Higashiyama, Kyoto’s historic district, Yasaka pagoda (and all the narrow little streets around it) are so well-preserved they feel a bit like time travel.
Yasaka pagoda as seen from the street Yasaka-dori – the Kyoto from postcards
The Geisha District: Gion (祇園)
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Kyoto?
Chances are it’s images of traditional Japan – a machiya, wooden townhouse with washi paper windows and lanterns, a beautifully grotesque kabuki show, a small bridge and a lamp post painted bright orange, a pair of maikoin colorful kimonos, strolling elegantly.
These images come to life in Gion, the best-known district of Kyoto. Today, it also involves cars and souvenir shops.
This once remote district was built to welcome the many pilgrims, merchants and travelers on their way to Yasakashrine.
Quite quickly, Gion became widely known for its captivatingly graceful entertainers – geisha. A more endearing term was soon adopted in Kyoto, so the lovely multi-talented artists are known as geiko (芸子) in the local dialect.
Where can I see a geiko in Kyoto?
Geiko and their novices maiko live, train, and work in neighborhoods called hanamachi – flower towns. The streets are bustling with traditional teahouses (ochaya) where you might just catch a glimpse of a geiko dance!
Hanami-koji dori and Gion Higashi are two locations to check out to see geiko. The area around Yasaka Pagoda is also a great cultural spot. But really – you’ll find amazing food, souvenirs, entertainment, and fascinating sights anywhere you go in the Higashiyama district (east of central Kyoto).
Sannenzaka is a street near Yasaka Pagoda – and an incredibly popular photo spot
From Urban to Traditional: Shijo Street, Yasaka Shrine, Maruyama Park, and Chion-in Temple
Japan is widely known as a unique mix of modern and traditional, and Kyoto’s Shijo Street (Shijo-dori) is a shining example.
Starting as one of the most prominent high-end shopping spots in central Kyoto, Shijo-dori passes through Gion and reaches all the way to the traditional, spiritual, Eastern heart of the city – the Yasaka shrine.
Also known as Gion shrine, 八坂神社, Yasaka jinja is not to be confused with and a long walk from Yasaka Pagoda. Older than Kyoto itself, the Yasaka Shrine was a key institution that helped develop the local culture. Among other things, this shrine devoted to one of the chief Shinto gods, Susanoo, is the place of origin of Gion matsuri (祇園祭), one of the most famous and longest-running yearly festivals in Kyoto.
The Yasaka Shrine is at the entrance to Maruyama Park, a famous cherry blossom viewing spot and a home to an important Buddhist temple – Chion-in.
A lovely shot of Yasaka Shrine, the Shinto home of Gion festival
Cypress Mega-structure: Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) Temple
For a foreigner, all of Kyoto is exotic and enticing – and a visit to any shrine or temple is special. But for people in Japan who are more-or-less used to the sights, one location stands out as must-see in Kyoto – Kiyomizu-dera.
Take your time to soak in this huge complex at your leisure – it’s a journey that blends natural landscape and deep-red wooden structures.
Kiyomizu-dera main hall is famous for its huge wooden stage, complicatedly composed of about 170 pillars. The stage and the large balcony on top offer a breathtaking panoramic view of Kyoto rising over colorful maple trees. This might be the best vantage point of the city, right next to Kyoto Tower’s observation deck.
When you soak in the sights, enjoy the reputedly healing sound of Otowa waterfall, the local spring of pure water, kiyoi mizu (清い水), the temple is named after.
Endless Torii Gates: Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社)
It may look like dreamscape, but it’s real.
A row of endless red gates, about 10,000 of them, standing proud one after another. They create a long, wavy path through the forest. Each is a torii, a symbol of holy ground and donated by patrons in prayer and gratitude.
The Fushimi Inari shrine is one of the most important holy Shinto locations in Kyoto. Its large grounds are devoted to Inari, the god of rice, agriculture, and business. Japanese legends say that foxes have the power to act as messengers of gods, so you’ll also find many elegant fox statues dotted around the shrine grounds. Some of Inari’s foxes symbolically carry a granary key in their mouths.
Visit Fushimi Ward, the southeast part of Kyoto, to experience Fushimi Inari shrine for yourself.
Before entering the shrine, visit one of the many snack shops and try the traditional tsujiura senbei crackers – it’s the great-grandfather of the fortune cookie!
Shimmering Gold: The Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺)
Zen temples don’t usually glimmer in the sun, but Kinkaku-ji does, and it does so brilliantly.
Head to northwest Kyoto to reach the famous Golden Pavilion, a former retirement villa for a shogun now living a new life as a religious temple and museum.
Surrounded by a peaceful lake and a huge strolling garden, the Golden Pavilion is an unusual and meditative sight. The golden leaves covering the upper floors of the building were symbolically chosen to purify the mind, and specifically help one process thoughts about death.
Total Zen: Ryoan-ji Temple Garden
Ryoan-ji presents Zen in its most compact form. Unlike the usual, spacious temple gardens with ponds and rock compositions, Ryoan-ji takes the minimalist approach to a space that invokes mindfulness.
Within less than 250 square meters, Ryoan-ji places the most famous rock Zen garden in the city. The rectangular garden consists of pebbles and 15 large rocks on mossy patches. The unique feature of this composition is that one of the rocks is always hidden from view, no matter where you stand.
Compared to usually spacious Zen gardens, Ryoan-ji garden is tiny and confined in walls. For that very reason, it’s famously hard to photograph whole.
Tea Ceremony History: Sen no Rikyu Tearoom (Taian, 待庵)
My history buffs and tea lovers should consider taking a day trip to Oyamazaki, a town just southwest of Kyoto. The Myoaki-an temple (妙喜庵) there holds a piece of history of green tea.
The Japanese love their tea – so much that they developed entire ceremonies in appreciation of tea. Well, Kyoto just happens to be the place where one of the key figures, Sen no Rikyu, a founder of the tea ceremony had his last chashitsu (茶室, tea room). This tea room, named Taian (待庵), is the only existing tea room made by Sen no Rikyu.
A Few Great Contemporary Spots in Kyoto
The abundant tradition of Kyoto is amazing – but it’s far from everything that the city has to offer. Here are a few contemporary locations to enjoy!
Kyoto Tower Observation Deck
At 131 meters high, the Kyoto Tower is the tallest point of the city. See all of Kyoto at a glance from the tower’s 100-meter-tall observation deck.
Sitting on top of a 9-story hotel right across the street from Kyoto Station since 1964, the tower brings a dash of modernity to Kyoto’s traditional, pagoda-dotted cityscape.
The Kyoto Art Center
Art is everywhere in Kyoto – but a great place to turn for a variety of contemporary art events, shows, exhibitions, and workshops should turn to the Kyoto Art Center (京都芸術センタ). Besides organizing many events, the center also provides a hub for artists in residence.
Feel free to walk in, browse any current exhibitions or simply have a coffee at its coffee shop!
International Museum of Manga
Sure, traditional Japan is interesting, but their pop culture is an entire world of fun too.
Manga lovers visiting central Kyoto should head to the International Museum of Manga, an establishment that houses over 300,000 volumes and includes many rare editions and out-of-print finds.
Kyoto: A Treasure Trove
No matter how long your stay in Kyoto, there’s always be something new to explore.
From the incredibly rich religious heritage, its Heian imperial history (and the many feudal castles we didn’t have space to talk about here, including the Kyoto Imperial Palace and the Nijo Castle), the beautiful Arashiyama nature, to its modern artistic energy, you’ll never be bored in Kyoto. So we hope we provided a good place to start your journey!
In our next article, learn about the most delicious sustenance to try locally while you’re in Kyoto!