Kyoto could keep you busy for weeks, but if you’re traveling all around Japan you may have to limit your time in the ancient capital. Below is our 2–3 day sightseeing itinerary—you’ll be busy but not too exhausted and you’ll get to see all the top sights. The city is best divided into three sections: northwest, east, and south. For each area in our Tokyo to Kyoto itinerary, we’ve picked the four best spots as well as some alternatives in case this isn’t your first rodeo.
Tokyo to Kyoto itinerary — Jump to:
Day 1: Things to do in northwest Kyoto
Tracing the outskirts of the city, the highlights of this area are all relaxing Zen temples and bamboo forests, and a certain famous golden pavilion you may recognize from travel books. We suggest you start with the latter and work your way around, as crowds can quickly get hectic at the day goes on.
The symbol of Kyoto (if not Japan), Kinkakuji is a familiar site but never fails to impress in real life. This shiny temple is surrounded by beautiful gardens and perched above a helpfully reflective lake. Bonus if you catch it with blue skies or even better after it’s snowed. It’s been destroyed a few times (by natural disasters and angry monks alike); however, the current form has stood since 1955. You can enjoy green tea and a little gold-leaf-flecked wagashi in the tearoom and get your fortune nearby.
- When to go: The earlier, the better as it can get very crowded with a snake line of tourists.
- How long to spend there: The path is fairly short, so after your initial photo-taking it usually only takes around 30 minutes to walk through (but longer if you stop for tea).
- Nearest stop: Kinkakuji Bus Stop
A Zen temple with the most famous rock garden in Japan, Ryoanji is the place to go when you need a break. Take a seat on the wooden hojo steps and attempt to view all of the rocks at once. If you manage it, then you can revel in your hard-earned (and rarely achieved) enlightenment.
- When to go: Anytime works for Ryoanji—although it’s probably harder to be enlightened when surrounded by weekend crowds.
- How long to spend there: Around half an hour should be enough to soak in the Zen atmosphere, maybe longer if you’re intent on cracking the viewing angle.
- Nearest stop: Ryoanji Bus Stop
Certainly not as widely known as the other spots on the list, Ninnaji is a stunning temple complex registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As the home of Shingon Buddhism, it has an important role and is maintained beautifully, with a famous pagoda and plenty of cherry blossoms in spring. The Goten (head priest’s residence) costs to enter but has a rock garden and traditional buildings that make it worthwhile.
- When to go: This spot is quieter than most, so it’s a good option for afternoons between more popular sites. The gardens are stunning in spring as there are dozens of cherry trees which bloom a little later than most.
- How long to spend there: If you enter the full grounds, allow yourself an hour, otherwise 30 minutes will do for a stroll.
- Nearest stop: Ninnaji Bus Stop or Omuro-ninnaji Station (Randen Line)
Arashiyama—a haven outside of Kyoto’s city center—is the location of the photo-famous Sagano Bamboo Forest, Togetsukyo Bridge, and Tenryuji. While you may be familiar with the swaying green forests, there’s enough to turn this into a pleasant afternoon with a river for paddle boats, a monkey forest, and the lovely Nonomiya Shrine.
- When to go: If you want that solo shot among the bamboo, then turn up very, very early. Otherwise, just enjoy the people and turn it into a relaxed afternoon.
- How long to spend there: The full area can easily fill an afternoon if you stroll through bamboo, boat on the lake, and explore the temples and shrines. It pairs well with a morning spent visiting Kinkakuji.
- Nearest stop: Arashiyama Station (Keifuku Dentetsu Line) is the closest to the forest. Saga Arashiyama Station (JR) is nearby. Arashiyama Station (Hankyu Line) is across the bridge.
Alternative ideas for northwest Kyoto
Head to Otagi Nenbutsuji for 1200 uniquely faced statues carved by head priest and sculptor Kocho Nishimura as well as numerous visitors. While this sounds like something that would happen in the 16th century, it was actually a little more recent, with moss-covered cassette players giving it away if you look closely.
Access: The temple is a 20-minute walk from Tenryuji. Or, you can catch buses 64, 74, 84 and 94 (bound for Kiyotaki) and get off at Otagi-dera Mae bus stop.
Day 2: Things to do in east Kyoto
Probably the most famous quarter of Kyoto, the east side is filled with narrow streets, famous temples and that traditional style Kyoto is famous for. If you make your way from north to south you’ll be rewarded with sunset at Kiyomizudera, and what could be better than that?
1. Imperial Palace
Home to the Imperial Family until 1858, this impressive palace is located in the Imperial Park, right in the heart of the city. The grounds include the Sento Imperial Palace, numerous gardens, and cherry blossom trees. While you previously needed reservations to enter, the grounds can now be explored freely, with English tours available.
- When to go: Spring is a fantastic time to visit any garden, especially with cherry blossoms.
- How long to spend there: While you could easily while away an afternoon exploring the grounds, you can spend an hour seeing the main buildings (as they can’t be entered).
- Nearest stop: Marutamachi Station on the Karasuma Subway Line
2. Ginkakuji & Philosopher’s Path
A perfect pair on a sunny morning, the neighbors of this quieter corner of Kyoto are a little more relaxed than the more famous golden version. Once a retirement villa designed in the style of the shiny counterpart, it was turned into a temple and became a cultural hub. It is now known for the Sea of Silver Sand garden with its perfect cone, known as the moon-viewing platform. The Philosopher’s Path starts nearby and stretches to Nanzenji, lined with cafes and cherry trees, and short strolls to nearby temples.
- When to go: Spring is by far the best (but also busiest) time, but embracing crowds is worth it; the blossom-covered river is a real stunner.
- How long to spend there: Exploring Ginkakuji takes a relaxed 45 minutes. The path is a 2 km walk, which takes around 30 minutes—but leave time for temples and wandering.
- Nearest stop: Catch the bus Ginkakuji stop (numbers 5, 17 and 100)
3. Higashiyama District
The narrow, winding streets of Higashiyama are exactly what you picture when you think of Kyoto. Filled with traditional buildings hosting ryokans, cafes and sweet shops, the area is a real delight to wander through, especially in spring and summer with brightly colored kimono-clad locals enjoying a day out. The Daikoku-san Kongo-ji Koshin-do Temple (or Yasaka Koshindo for short) has some great colors and the nearby Hokanji Pagoda is iconic.
- When to go: Don’t arrive too early in the day as many places will be closed until around 10 am. If you catch the sunset by the pagoda, you will not regret it.
- How long to spend there: The earlier, the better, as it can get very crowded with a snake line of tourists.
- Nearest stations: Gion-shijo, Kawaramachi, Higashiyama, or Kiyomizu-gojo
The famous Kiyomizudera and its extended balconies are iconic to say the least. The wooden structure’s roof was recently under construction, but is complete as of June 2020. Visitors should explore the Main Hall and view the city from the balcony. Behind the temple hall is Jishu Shrine, well known for those seeking romance. There’s also Otowa Waterfall, where you can choose between educational success, longevity, or love.
- When to go: Late afternoon allows for views of the sunsetting across the city which is pretty hard to beat.
- How long to spend there: Allow 1–2 hours to visit the highlights and take in the traditional surroundings.
- Nearest stop: Kiyomizu-gojo on the Keihan Main Line
Alternative ideas for East Kyoto
Be sure to visit the Keage Incline in spring or pop over to the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art. Farther east you’ll find the small towns of Kibune and Kurama sandwiching an easy afternoon hike, with river-deck restaurants, stunning forests, and sacred spots along the way.
Day 3: Things to do in south Kyoto
This area often gets neglected (apart from Fushimi Inari Taisha) but has plenty to offer. It’s a great spot for those who have made the trip to Kyoto many times before and are looking for new corners to explore.
1. Kyoto Tower
A modern landmark in the city, Kyoto Tower is 131 m tall and offers panoramic views of the city from the observation deck and spire. As the tallest structure in the city, it’s easy to spot and can be found right outside Kyoto Station, with shops, restaurants and even an onsen in the building it stands on. Opened in 1964, Kyoto Tower a symbol of Japan’s success as it was the year when the bullet train began service and the first Tokyo Summer Olympics were held.
- When to go: Just before sunset is a great time for daytime views as far as Osaka (on a good day), the glowing sunset, and the night view too.
- How long to spend there: Allow around 1 hour for the transition above.
- Nearest stop: Kyoto
2. Sanjusangendo Temple (Rengeoin)
Sanjusangendo Temple (or Rengeoin) is home to 1001 statues of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, and is known for having the longest temple hall in Japan (although that’s far less of a fun fact if we’re being honest). The largest statue is of Kannon who has 11 heads (all the better to observe human suffering, my dear) and 1000 arms (all the better to help them fight their suffering, my dear). Surrounding her are 1000 statues of the same goddess, although all 1001 have just 42 arms, so don’t write in complaining—you were told.
- When to go: Sanjusangendo Temple makes for a good mid-afternoon stop-off destination.
- How long to spend there: Around 1 hour is all you need to marvel at the many statues and walk the grounds.
- Nearest stop: Shichijo on the Keihan Line
3. Tofukuji Temple
One of the city’s five most important temples, Tofukuji is certainly less visited than many of the other sites, mainly due to its location. Named using a combination of two important temples (Todaiji and Kofukuji), it was founded by the Fujiwara clan and is head temple for one Rinzai school. With many buildings remaining, it’s a great chance to see examples of Zen architecture from the Muromachi period, like the Sanmon Gate. Some areas are free to enter while some have a 400 yen charge, including the autumn-leaf-viewing spot of Tsutenkyo Bridge.
- When to go: Head over from mid-late November for some fantastic autumn leaves.
- How long to spend there: 1–2 hours is plenty of time to explore the grounds.
- Nearest stop: Tofukuji on the Nara Line
4. Fushimi Inari Taisha
Another guide-book cover image, Fushimi Inari is a maze of vermillion gates not to be missed. The shrine grounds are older than the city’s role as capital and it was dedicated to Inari, the Shinto God of Rice. You can follow the paths up the sacred mountain and explore the myriad offshoots and paths that lead to gates, cats and plenty of fox statues too (since they’re the messengers of the gods). There are food stalls around the side entrance and some trendy cafes near the station too.
- When to go: Early morning if you want to be alone. Seasonally, it’s beautiful in the snow!
- How long to spend there: 1 hour for a short exploration, 2 for decent, and 3 for the full hike!
- Nearest stop: Inari on the JR Nara Line or Fushimi Inari on the Keihan Main line
Alternative ideas for south Kyoto
If after reading the above suggestions and you’re thinking been there, done that, then head on over to Yasui Konpiragu Shrine where you can seek help in ending a bad relationship or starting a new (healthy) one. The unusually shaped power stone has a large hole through the middle which hopeful visitors climb through as part of the ritual: You write your wish down, climb through the hole with it, and then attach it to the rock. The temple is 15 minutes from Shijo Station on the Keihan Line.
Getting to Kyoto
The two most common routes to Kyoto are from Tokyo or Osaka/Kansai Airport. Both offer simple and affordable options as well as pricier but faster ones. Keeping in mind things like luggage, time limitations, and cost, read our guide to find the best Kyoto transport option for you, be it a night bus or a chance to ride the bullet train. When heading back be sure to check out our Kyoto to Tokyo transport recommendations too, as they can differ!
Kyoto accommodation options
Kyoto is the perfect place to try a traditional Japanese ryokan (a guesthouse with tatami, futons and onsen). While that is undoubtedly a unique experience, it can be a bit pricey. If you’re more of a budget traveler, there are plenty of other options. To give you an idea, we’ve picked our three choices: affordable hostel, mid-range hotel, and treat-yo-self ryokan.
The Len Kyoto Kawaramachi is a very trendy and affordable spot close to Kiyomizudera Temple and Nishiki Market. On the first floor is a cool cafe bar lounge space where you can relax and have a bite to eat. It has free wifi and boasts very high reviews for cleanliness, convenience and comfort. Dorm prices start from 2,000 yen.
The Nest Hotel Kyoto Shijokarasuma is a shiny new-build with modern rooms, a great location, and surprisingly affordable prices. Starting from just over 5,000 yen per night, you can stroll to Gion with change in your pocket.
Where better to experience the full ryokan experience than in the ancient capital? Ryokan’s vary wildly in price, so for the lower end why not try a Japanese room at The Kinoe, starting from around 12,000 yen per night.
If you really want to splash out, head to the Arashiyama Benkei Ryokan which has hot springs, river views and prices from around 30,000 yen+ per night.
FAQs: Confused in Kyoto
What should I see in Kyoto?
In a city with so much to see, it can seem pretty daunting narrowing down an itinerary. That said, the top three sites are Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion), Fushimi Inari Taisha (the red gates), and Sagano Bamboo Forest. Add in the Higashiyama area and Kiyomizedera Temple and you’ve got a great starting list!
How long should I spend in Kyoto?
Ideally we recommend three days, but you can hit all the main sites in two if you don’t mind being busy. Schedule in an extra day or two for side trips to spots like Nara and Uji and you’ll be content with your Kyoto experience.
What’s the best way to travel around Kyoto?
Kyoto has excellent public transport connections with a subway, multiple train lines, and an extensive bus service. Trains and subway lines accept travel cards like Pasmo and Suica as well as most regional versions ending in ‘ca’ (Icoca, for example).
The buses have a flat-rate fare of ¥230 for adults (¥120 for children), which is great if you’re traveling for a while, but might make you reconsider short journeys. If you’re planning on bus-hopping, consider the 500-yen day pass which can be bought from vending machines at the main bus terminal at Kyoto Station.
Kyoto does require quite a bit of walking, especially on the east side, so wear comfortable shoes and enjoy boosting that step count for a few days.
Can I use the JR Pass in Kyoto?
While the Japan Rail Pass can be used for some train lines like the journey to Nara or Osaka, within Kyoto it is of limited use. You’re better off with a 500-yen bus pass and a pair of sturdy sneakers with the occasional train ride thrown in.
Did you enjoy this Tokyo to Kyoto itinerary? For your next trip, try our 2-day Tokyo to Kanazawa on 10,000 yen guide.