Visiting Kyoto: A Journey Through Japan’s Culture Capital

Tucked away in Japan’s lively Kansai region, Kyoto is a charming blend of history, culture, and natural splendor. Its impressive temples, lively festivals, and peaceful gardens make it feel like a living museum of Japan’s fascinating past.

Kyoto has been the imperial capital for over a thousand years and is brimming with historical gems, including UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But there’s more to this city than ancient relics. Picture-perfect bamboo groves, streets adorned with cherry blossoms, and quaint traditional houses add to its allure.

Foodies flock to Kyoto for its renowned matcha tea, exquisite kaiseki cuisine, and captivating geisha culture. Whether exploring the bustling Nishiki Market or taking a leisurely stroll along the tranquil Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto promises a delightful journey through Japanese tradition and a vibrant atmosphere you won’t forget.

Best Time to Visit Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto, Japan
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Kyoto is a beautiful destination all year round. However, it truly comes to life in early spring when the cherry blossoms turn the city pink in March and April or fall. In November, it is one of the top places to visit in Japan for fall foliage. Spring and fall typically offer pleasant days with less rain than during summer and comfortable temperatures, making it perfect for a city break destination.

If you’d prefer to skip the crowds these popular times bring, avoid late March, early April, and mid-late November. Golden Week, usually the first week in May, is also a peak time for domestic tourism and can be exceptionally busy, so I’d recommend avoiding traveling during this time if you can.

Kyoto is a large city, and the best sights are spread throughout. With over 2,000 temples and shrines and a rich cultural heritage, you should ensure you dedicate enough time to enjoying each site and area without rushing. Plan for five days in Kyoto, which will allow you to see the sights in Kyoto for four full days and take one additional day trip to a nearby destination.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto, Japan
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One of the most photographed places in Kyoto, the thousand vermilion torii gates of Fushimi Inari, dating back to the 8th century, are a must-see. The walk up the hill to the top takes around 2-3 hours for a return trip, and crowds thin as you make your way higher up (meaning better chances for photos!). 


Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, Japan
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Make your way up the back hilly streets of Higashiyama, and you’ll find Kiyomizu-dera, one of Kyoto’s most famous temples. With its five-story pagoda and sweeping views across the city’s oldest rooftops, it’s especially popular at sunset. To avoid the crowds, head there first thing in the morning, and don’t miss looking out over the fall leaves from the wooden platform, a truly remarkable sight.

Higashiyama and Gion

Higashiyama District in Kyoto, Japan
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The historic quarter of Kyoto belongs to Higashiyama and Gion. Here, traditional wooden houses known as machiya line the streets, and geisha can be spotted on their way to work in the evening. It’s also one of the most photogenic places in Kyoto. Many quaint local stores sell handmade goods and local food, and cute cafes serve some of the most Instagrammable desserts.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Kyoto, Japan
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One of Kyoto’s most famous sites is this leafy bamboo grove west of the city. Bamboo stalks rise to 20 meters high, creating a rustling canopy of green overhead. In Japanese culture, bamboo symbolizes strength, resilience, and purity, making the grove a well-celebrated destination in Kyoto.

Tenryu-ji Temple

Tenryu-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan
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There are many more things to do in Arashiyama than just the bamboo grove, and Tenryu-ji Temple is one of the best. Established in the 14th century, the temple was UNESCO-listed in 1994 and featured a peaceful zen garden with a large pond against Arashiyama’s mountains. Just a short walk from the bamboo grove, don’t miss it while you’re in west Kyoto.

Hozugawa River Boat Ride

Hozugawa River in Kyoto, Japan
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Nature lovers will relax during a 2-hour boat ride along the Hozugawa River in Arashiyama. Surrounded by a gorge, you’ll be taken through the scenic surroundings in a flat-bottom boat steered by a boatman using traditional bamboo sticks to guide the boat. You can also return on the Sagano railway to see the views from within the forested hillsides.

Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle in Kyoto, Japan
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Explore Nijo Castle, the former residence of the Tokugawa shoguns. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is known for its stunning architecture, elaborate paintings, and beautiful gardens. The castle also hosts several events throughout the year, including digital projection and illumination events. 

Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Japan
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Foodies will love Nishiki Market. With a history of around 400 years, it now has approximately 130 stalls selling catch-of-the-day seafood and local bites. Nishiki Market provides an immersive experience of Kyoto’s culinary culture and offers opportunities to sample authentic Japanese cuisine and delicacies. Aim to visit in the morning before the lunchtime crowds build.

Kinkaku-ji Temple

Kinkaku-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan
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Kinkaku-ji, known as the Golden Pavilion, is one of Kyoto’s most iconic and beloved temples. Built in the late 14th century, its most striking feature is its top two floors, completely covered in gold leaf. During your visit, enjoy the strolling garden featuring meticulously manicured trees and shrubs and the temple reflections in the pond on sunny afternoons. 

Philosopher’s Path (Tetsugaku No Michi)

Philosopher’s Path (Tetsugaku No Michi) in Kyoto, Japan
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Following a route along a canal built during the Meiji period, the Philosopher’s Path is a scenic walking trail connecting several shrines and temples in northern Higashiyama. Some of the best places to visit while wandering the path are Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion), Honen-in Temple, and Eikan-do Temple. Come spring, the canal also becomes a hotspot for cherry blossoms and enjoying hanami (cherry blossom viewing).

Japanese Tea Ceremony

Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony
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Participate in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony to learn about preparing and enjoying matcha. Many tea houses in Kyoto offer tea ceremony experiences for visitors, which should be pre-booked to avoid missing out. Some will allow visitors to wear a kimono during the ceremony, and wagashi, a type of Japanese sweet, is often served alongside the green tea.

Food to Try in Kyoto, Japan

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While Kyoto’s neighbor Osaka is known as the kitchen of Japan, Kyoto has plenty of local specialties that visitors should try. One must-try dining experience is kaiseki, a traditional multi-course meal typically served on many small plates and bowls. Head to Gion Karyo or Hanasaki to try it.

Kyoto also has several other Japanese food and drink worth trying, including:

Matcha: You can’t visit Kyoto without having some matcha. Whether you want to enjoy a traditional tea ceremony at Camellia Flower Tea House or indulge your sweet tooth at Saryou Suisen, there are many ways to enjoy the flavor of the famous green tea in Kyoto.

Kyoto-style sushi: Like other dishes, Kyoto has its own regional sushi style. Gio Mametora serves Temari, a type of sushi that is even smaller and rounder than regular sushi. 

Omurice: Omurice is a dish made of flavored rice topped with a fluffy omelet. Kichi Kichi, a restaurant that has become famous thanks to entertaining chef Yukimura Motokichi and his playful culinary skills, is one of the best places to try it.

Nara Day Trip

Koriyama Castle in Nara, Japan
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The number one day trip from Kyoto is Nara, which has become increasingly popular on social media thanks to its local stars, the bowing deer of Nara. Beyond these cute residents is a collection of cultural and heritage sites that shouldn’t be missed. Be sure to visit the Great Buddha at Todai-ji Temple, Kasuga Taisha Shrine, and wander through the Isuien Garden. 

How to get there: Take a 55-minute rapid train on the JR Nara line to Nara Station from Kyoto Station for one of the best day trips from Kyoto.

Himeji Day Trip

Castle in Himeji, Japan
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Just one hour from Kyoto, Himeji is home to Japan’s best-preserved castle. Like something from a Japanese fairytale, the five-storied white castle looks especially spectacular when framed by cherry blossoms in spring. Walk around the Edo-style garden at Kokoen and sample Sake, a local rice-based alcoholic beverage, at Nihonshu Bar Kokoromi.

How to get there: From Kyoto Station, take a JR Hikari train for an hour to Himeji Station.

Uji Day Trip

Byodoin Temple in Uji, Japan
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Kyoto is most famous for matcha, and Uji is home to some of the best tea-growing areas in the region. Perfect for the matcha-obsessed, you can eat and drink matcha-flavored everything here for your fix. Don’t miss buying some green tea to bring home, too; this is the best place to do it.

How to get there: Just 20 minutes from Kyoto, Uji is easily reached by train on the Keihan Line or JR Line.

Visiting Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto, Japan
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Kyoto is one of the most visited destinations in Japan for good reason: it’s full of history and culture and offers incredibly beautiful pockets throughout this ancient city. From the sanctuary of forested hills and temples in Arashiyama to the historical highlights in Higashiyama and Gion, this is one place you shouldn’t miss in Japan.


Visiting Kyoto: A Journey Through Japan's Culture Capital
Bronwyn Townsend

Bronwyn Townsend is a travel writer and photographer with a penchant for outdoor adventures, scenic vistas, and colorful curiosities. She’s visited more than 45 countries, always with her camera in hand, and has been published in National Geographic Traveller, Conde Nast Traveler, and ELLE.