Kyoto is one of those cities that you can lose yourself in for days and never get bored.
It was the imperial capital of Japan for over one thousand years and has a lot of history to show.
It seems like everywhere you turn is a temple or a shrine to see, some of them buried away amongst the busy modern city, and others peacefully in the suburbs up in the hills.
Kyoto is the cultural capital of the country and all of its temples and shrines are intact, saved from not being bombed during WW2.
(Post updated 2019)
How to Spend One Day In Kyoto
Start the day by walking to Nishiki market. This is a seafood lovers paradise, with all types of food to try, many of which you would most likely have never seen before.
It stretches for a few hundred metres and many of the small shops have free samples to taste as you walk around.
A good place for a breakfast.
Walking on from there still in the centre of the city you can find Nijo castle. Inside is the Ninomaru palace, once the Kyoto residence of the mighty shoguns.
It’s a great example of shogun power and further around the complex there are several peaceful gardens to relax in and Fushimi castle.
Those interested in shogun and samurai history should definitely take a look.
Tip: get a Kyoto-Osaka Sightseeing Pass (1 day/2 days)(get one with that link) to use for the Keihan Railway which will take you to some of the best tourist attractions in Kyoto and Osaka (and the Kyoto cable car).
You can then leave the centre and go to the suburb area of Arashiyama, wonderfully located near the hills and filled with temples and gardens.
Tenryuji Temple is one of the most impressive to see and ranked as one of the great zen temples of Kyoto.
Arishiyama is a very tranquil place where you will find a bamboo grove and further on up one of the finest examples of a Japanese garden.
You could spend a few hours there to escape the busy city below, while taking in more temples and enjoying the river views.
Nearby is one of the most famous temples in all of Japan, and one of its most photographed.
It is the Golden Pavilion temple and sits perched peacefully by a pond filled with koi fish and Japanese Gardens.
Scattered all around the modern city are more temples and shrines hidden away down side streets, and others more boldly sticking out.
One of the largest wooden structures in the world is situated just a few hundred metres from the large central Kyoto train station. While smaller more obscure places can be hard to find.
In the east and south-east are more well known temples and shrines.
The Kiyomizu-Dera Temple sits up in the hills held up by massive wooden stilts. Walking to it you go through small side streets filled with food shops.
Many of the food shops hand out free samples for you to try!
This is one of the most popular temples to visit and can get very busy.
South of Kiyomizu-dera is Fushimi Inari shrine.
This is a lovely place as its orange shrine gateway rows head up into the hills and you can walk for several kilometres around it all getting lost.
There are many, many more temples and shrines to see apart from the ones shown here so far but there’s absolutely no way to see them all in one day in Kyoto.
These ones are the most popular for visitors to see and for good reason, and should be the ones you concentrate on.
By night back in the city you can find the old geisha district of Gion (recommended geisha tour here) and can still see geishas wandering around the neighbourhood in its old streets if you’re lucky.
You can find street food stalls scattered around the place selling all kinds of stuff.
One of the favourites being fried octopus on a stick and other such gems. Tasty!
All big cities in Japan are filled with massive shopping malls and food courts. Kyoto train station itself is a massive mall with a rooftop several stories high where you can get good views.
Getting lost in the bustling malls and seeing all the shoppers rush by is a good part of a visit to Kyoto to experience the modern city, if for a short time.
You can squeeze everything mentioned here in a very long day starting early and finishing late and you’ll see the best of Kyoto.
I would recommend spending at least two days so you can take it easier and soak it all in more.
But for those short on time you can get all this done. Or if you don’t want to rush it just choose one area out of this and concentrate your time there.
Depending on the time of year you could get the cherry blossoms in spring, or the falling colourful leaves of autumn.
You could also feel the extreme heat of summer and the the cool of winter.
Women walking around in traditional kimonos while others shop for fashion in the huge malls is just one example of how the old mixes with the new.
Visit Kyoto, you wont regret it.
I used Osaka as a base in Kansai to explore Kyoto, Nara, and many other places.
This is why I recommend Osaka over Kyoto as a base for exploring the region, if you have the time.
I wrote a guide on the best day trips from Osaka which can also be used as a guide for day trips from Kyoto as they are close together.
If you’re worried about the costs of a visit to Japan and Kyoto I wrote a popular post describing how Japan is not as expensive to travel as I thought it would be.
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