Kyoto is old Japan writ large: atmospheric temples, sublime gardens and traditional teahouses. In fact, there are more than 2000 temples here, inviting visitors to breathe deeply of Japan's rich traditions.
Tack on fabulous food – best experienced in foodie Nishiki Market – and you'll find almost as many reasons to linger as there are types of sushi and toppings for ramen noodles. This is a city with oodles to see, and despite Japan's expensive reputation, you can see much of it for free. It would be easy to spend a lifetime exploring Kyoto's historic quarters and serene natural surroundings, but with less time to spare, it pays to prioritize. Plan a trip around the following don't-miss sights and experiences.
Kyoto’s magnificent Golden Pavilion is one of the most iconic sights in the country, and with good reason. The top two tiers of this Zen temple are completely gilded in dazzling gold leaf, a reflection of the opulent tastes at the time it was first constructed. Kinkaku-ji has been burned down several times during its long history, but the reconstruction is largely faithful to the 14th-century original. When you see it from afar, surrounded by pine trees and reflected in the pristine waters of the pond below, it’s a spectacular and otherworldly sight. Go early or late on a weekday to avoid the inevitable crowds its beauty draws.
Garden-hop at Ginkaku-ji
You've experienced gold – next comes silver, in the form of Ginkaku-ji, Kyoto's Silver Pavilion. In fact, the name comes from the unfulfilled ambition of Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the shogun who built the temple – it was never actually covered in silver, but its delicate grace is the living embodiment of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which finds beauty in simplicity, transience and imperfection. In addition to the temple itself, there are stunning Zen gardens to explore: take the walking path past a meticulously-raked sand garden with a huge cone representing Mt Fuji – a space said to have been created for moon-viewing – then meander between mossy gardens, small ponds and islands linked by stone bridges.
Wander historic Gion
The city’s most famous geisha district, Gion, is an atmospheric labyrinth of charming backstreets and traditional townhouses. Geisha – known here as geiko – still scurry around around the narrow lanes in immaculate kimonos and make-up, as they have since the Edo period. On one level, it's a museum piece, but the interiors of many of the buildings have been transformed into art galleries, charming teahouses, and shops selling specialist local arts and crafts. Despite Gion's fame, it's still the best place in Kyoto to escape the 21st century.
Feast on kaiseki
In a city blessed with fabulous food, it would be remiss to pass on the refined and elegant experience of eating kaiseki cuisine. Kaiseki consists of a number of delicate, small courses, largely vegetarian, served on exquisite crockery and lacquerware – the preparation and service is as outstanding as the food itself. Diners are usually served in private rooms at specialty restaurants, such as the highly regarded Kikunoi, and many ryokan (traditional inns) serve kaiseki meals for guests. Prices can be steep when it comes to this Japanese haute cuisine but it’ll be the meal of a lifetime.
Find Shinto perfection at Fushimi Inari Taisha
With its thousands of torii gates creating a vermilion tunnel up the mountainside, Fushimi Inari Taisha is arguably Kyoto’s most photogenic Shinto shrine. It's dedicated to Inari – the god of rice, good harvest and business success – and the gates are all donations from individuals and companies, erected to encourage the gods to be generous with luck and prosperity (the black kanji characters indicate who donated each one). Nestled in amongst the monumental gates are hundreds of miniature versions offered by those with smaller budgets. Foxes are thought to be messengers of Inari, so you’ll also find countless fox statues throughout the vast grounds. Head up the hillside to escape the crowds who clog the lower levels.
Take a food safari at Nishiki Market
Nishiki Market positively oozes the ambience of old Japan. You can really imagine what it was like here before someone decided to attach the word ‘super’ to the word ‘market’. For a break from Kyoto's temple trail, trawl the stalls to discover some of the fascinating and sometimes bizarre ingredients that go into Japanese cuisine, and the tools used to prepare it. When you've had your fill of peeking into drums of slimy, shiny, slithering and spicy ingredients, sample the finished product from one of the market's street-food stall. Tempted to make your own? Head to Aritsugu for high-end kitchenware and knives as sharp as samurai swords.
Soak up calm at Ōkōchi Sansō
While tourists descend on the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove like paparazzi snapping photos of a big-wig celebrity, nearby Ōkōchi Sansō sits out of the limelight like a star waiting to be discovered. This charming estate is the former home of famous 1920s samurai film actor, Ōkōchi Denjirō, and its sprawling gardens invite long, lazy wandering. There are fine views from the top of the hill, and a traditional teahouse serves matcha (green powdered tea) and Japanese sweet treats to help you relish your escape from the crowds.
Find love at Kiyomizu-dera
The name of this popular Buddhist temple translates as "pure water temple", a nod to the sacred Otowa Waterfall. Spilling into the grounds of Kiyomizu-dera, the falls are split into three sections, and drinking from them is said to bestow either longevity, academic success, or luck in love depending on which stream you choose. For extra help in your love life, head to Jishu shrine behind the main hall. In front of it are two large stones, and walking between them with your eyes closed is said to bless you with true love. You'll want to keep your eyes open on the temple's wooden veranda; it juts out 13m above the hillside, offering panoramic views over Kyoto.
Take in the scenery at Arashiyama
The scenic, temple-filled district of Arashiyama in the west of Kyoto is a beguiling place to explore. Centred on the Togetsukyo bridge, this historic neighborhood is famous for its bewitching bamboo grove, where the air is cool and the light takes on a mystical green hue. To get the best from a stroll beneath its towering canopy of bamboo stems, get here early in the morning, before the Instagrammers gather. Nearby is the splendid Tenryū-ji temple, whose sprawling landscaped gardens perfectly encapsulate the concept of shakkei (borrowed scenery), co-opting nearby mountains into the design. The temple’s restaurant, Shigetsu, is a great place to sample the traditional vegetarian Buddhist cuisine known as shojin ryori. Even meat-eaters will be impressed by what the chefs can do with tofu.
Storm the battlements of Nijō castle
The imposing ramparts of Nijō-jō are a visual testament to the power of Japan’s old military warlords, the Tokugawa shoguns, and the grand palace buildings inside bear witness to the shogun's fabulous wealth. The Ninomaru palace and its opulent chambers are open to the public to explore – a treasure trove of intricate carvings, stunning murals of animals and seasonal trees, and gorgeously painted sliding doors. Some rooms have concealed chambers for bodyguards to hide in, and are connected together by 'nightingale floors' that sing when walked upon, ostensibly to warn residents of intruders and assassins!
Sip on matcha
Kyoto’s fabled green teas are regarded as some of the highest quality teas in Japan, and possibly the world. The small town of Uji just south of Kyoto produces some of the best brews. The best way to sample is to attend a traditional matcha tea ceremony; Camellia and En are two elegant teahouses where you can learn about Japanese tea history and etiquette, as well as how to make (and taste) the perfect cup. Alternatively, head to Ippodo tea shop or the lively Nishiki Market if you’re looking for teas to take home with you. Also grab some wagashi – traditional Japanese sweets that make an ideal accompaniment to the natural bitterness of green tea.
Discover Zen at Daitoku-ji
Carefully raked gravel representing rippling water, stylised arrangements of rocks, pruned trees, lush moss, dripping water – just one Zen garden would be enough to leave you feeling serene, but at Daitoku-ji you have a mini world of them. This complex of wandering lanes and sub-temples hides some of Kyoto's most beautiful kare-sansui (dry landscape) gardens. The compound also serves as the Rinzai Daitoku-ji school of Zen Buddhism headquarters – you'll be hard-pressed to find anywhere in town that feels quite so meditative and atmospheric.
Shop the streets
You could lose yourself for days among Kyoto's boutique-filled backstreets – a beacon for shopaholics and anyone hoping to recreate elements of Japanese life back home. Hours can be whiled away just in the bentō box or stationery sections of Takashimaya and other fancy department stores, and Kyoto's clothes boutiques sell everything from lavishly decorated kimonos to fancy-dress costumes for cosplay. Once you discover the many traditional stores selling everything from lacquerware and eggshell-fine ceramics to bright wagasa (waxed-paper umbrellas), you'll be hunting for a luggage shop for something to take it all home in.
Stay at a ryokan
There's nothing quite like the experience of staying at a ryokan – these traditional Japanese inns have woven tatami mats on the floor, futons instead of beds, and atmosphere breathing from the walls. Kyoto's best ryokan offer a sublime mix of fine Japanese cuisine, attentive staff who treat you like an honoured guest, and beautiful rooms with garden views. You may have to forego private bathrooms, TVs and modern conveniences, but in return, you get a taste of authentic Japan that exists as much for locals as for tourists. Everyone has their own favourite ryokan, but it's widely accepted that 300-year-old Tawaraya is pick of the crop.
Chant your way to Chion-in
Described as ‘the Vatican of Pure Land Buddhism’, this energising temple complex is a thriving hub of religious activity. It's the headquarters of the Jōdo sect of Japanese Buddhism and the 24m-high San-mon gate is one of the largest wooden tower gates in Japan. Drift around the gardens and drop into the collection of historic temple buildings and you'll be transported to blissful realms by the chanting of the monks. Don't miss the enormous 70-tonne temple bell on the hillside.
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This article was originally published in March 2020 and updated in July 2021.