Everyone loves Kyoto. And so to be honest, I was prepared to think it is overrated. For the record – it isn’t! I have jumped on the band wagon and I am a fan. I’d like to go back and spend some more time, less rushed.
I spent two full days in Kyoto but could have easily done three (maybe even four). That is unusual for me. I recommend you use Kyoto as your base to also see Nara and Osaka (add 1-2 days for each). The exception to this is if you have kids. If you have kids then you will want to focus on Osaka with Legoland, Universal and the Aquarium.
Here is my recommendation for 2 full days in Kyoto. I was able to squeeze in everything I wanted to do so if you have 3 days I would recommend the same stops but you will be less rushed and have time to linger in some of the beautiful gardens, to pop into shops and just meander a bit. But you will never see it all. Kyoto has 17 UNESCO sites, more than 1000 Buddhist temples, 400 Shinto shrines and countless parks and alleyways to explore. But after weeks of research here is what I saw and recommend:
Kyoto Imperial Palace: The palace has its origins in the 8th century and was used as the imperial residence until 1869 when the capital moved to Tokyo (Edo at the time). Official state ceremonies are still held here. English tours are offered twice a day.
**Niijo-jo Castle: While I feel like you have to go to the Palace because it is the heart of Japan’s history, the Tokugawa Shogun castle was one of our favorite stops in Kyoto and thus far my favorite castle in Japan. Plan on at least 3 hours here. The grounds and paintings are beautiful. This is also the location of the famous “nightingale floor boards.”
Philosopher’s Path: This was a beautiful walk in the summer but must be stunning in the spring or fall with either cherry blossoms or fall colors. So I would say in the summer it is a nice to do but don’t miss it if here during the other times of the year. But also of note is the nearby Ginkaku-ji Temple (Temple of the Silver Pavilion) which was one of our favorites in Kyoto. It was smaller, beautiful, and less busy. It is also surrounded by several local cafes and shops.
Golden Pavilion: The Golden Pavilion is definitely touristier than the Silver Pavilion. But it is famous and well visited for a reason. It is absolutely stunning! I would recommend it despite the crowds.
Sanjo Bridge and Pontocho alley were also recommended to me. And while I would not consider them destinations in themselves, I would recommend visiting Sanjo Hasi Bridge in the evening, walking to Pontocho alley and then continuing your walk through the old streets of Kyoto. This is what you think of when you think of Kyoto. The beautiful wooden buildings and small alley ways. This is a wonderful place to stop for dinner or a drink along the river.
Sainho-ji temple and moss gardens – This temple is out of the way, peaceful and beautiful. For a portion of our visit we were the only ones here and for our entire time we were definitely the only Westerners. At one point we passed a group of well-dressed middle aged women who looked like they could be part of a book club or cultural club. There are two gardens here. We liked the first best, but since you are here, it is worth walking up the stairs to the second. I recommend taking a grab or taxi here and then walking to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. From there you can take public transportation back to the city.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove – I almost cut this from our trip. It is a bit out of town. I have heard mixed reviews. And I had just been to the bamboo grove in Kamakura the week before (and I loved it). Granted, it was busy. But it wasn’t insane and the crowds thinned out as you walked through the grove. If going to Kyoto with someone who had never been, I would go again. Especially because, we loved the nearby Sainho-ji temple.
Kiyomizu-dera temple – I recommend ending one of your days at Kiyomizu-dera. This is a beautiful temple overlooking the city. You can see the sunset and then head down the hill to the Gion district to wander the streets, have dinner and look for Geisha’s on their way to work.
**Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine – Last but certainly not least, Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine. If you are short on time and only see two things in Kyoto, it should be Niijo-jo Castle and Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine. This is why I had to come to Kyoto and it did not disappoint. I never grew tired of the Torri gates and could have spent another hour or two here. It will be busy but once you walk a bit the crowds will disappear.
Mezopotamia Kebab – is a street vendor with a couple of stools to sit on. They only have two things for sale – chicken doner and beer / drinks. These doners are amazing! Go early in your trip so you can go more than once. I lived in Turkey for 2 ½ years, my friends lived there for over four years. We both agree this doner is the best we have ever had. It has the most divine sauce!
Menbakaichidai Fire Ramen – the ramen actually is not that great. However, the experience is so fun and unique that I would definitely go back!
A few additional notes: a lot of books and blogs recommend Kyoto Station. I am not sure why it is recommended as a destination. You will go through it anyway if taking the Shinkansen from Tokyo or taking the train from Kyoto but I didn’t find it particularly noteworthy.
For a city more than 1000 years old, Kyoto is very spread out. The train will not go everywhere you want and taxis can get expensive. We found the bus to be very easy to use. You can use your train card for both the bus and train. And if coming from Tokyo, your Sucia card can be used here too.
Where to stay? I won’t recommend our lodging but if I were to return I would stay near Gion, Pontocho alley or Kyoto station. They are convenient to food, transportation and charming places to wander.