The following post was published in May 2013 and updated in June 2019
There are few places in the world that just have a ‘feeling’ about them, where as soon as you arrive you know you’re about to experience something special. This is what the mystical Japanese city of Kyoto is like for many, a serene sanctuary steeped in tradition that’s a far cry from the vibrating pulse and bright lights of Tokyo. Here, you’ll find majestic temples, calming zen gardens and centuries-old palaces that aren’t disturbed by modern amenities like huge shopping centres and endless rows of vending machines; instead, you’ll wander through meticulous gardens shrouded in an ethereal mist come daybreak, relax in the healing waters of an onsen, and meet incredibly kind people who go above and beyond for visitors despite the language barriers.
While a stop here is worthy of at least a few days on your Japan itinerary, it is possible to see most of the major sites in just 24 hours with some pre-planning. Here’s the ultimate travel guide for spending one day in Kyoto.
Kyoto travel guide
Most visitors arrive in the city centre via the world-famous shinkansen, best known as the whisper-quiet bullet train. The Kyoto trip takes between two and three hours from Tokyo (be sure to get an early start!) and costs around 13,000 yen depending on the train and whether or not seats are reserved. Nozomi is the fastest, followed by Hikari. If you plan to do a lot of travelling around Japan, it may be worth ordering a Japan Rail Pass which can offer better value versus buying individual tickets.
Pulling into Kyoto, you’ll speed right into a futuristic station with stories-high ceilings and exposed steel beams. There are two tourist information desks inside, which are a great resource for picking up maps to help navigate the city, or booking a last-minute hotel for the night should you spontaneously decide to extend your stay (which there’s like, a 100 per cent chance you’ll want to as soon as you start walking around this enchanting city!).
Emerging from the station, the first landmark you’ll notice is the Kyoto Tower which soars 131 metres high. This is the perfect place to start your Kyoto day tour, as the panoramic views of the city from the 100-metre high viewing platform grant the perfect vantage point for getting a lay of the land. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., admission is just under 800 yen (around $10). Click here to book
Many of the best places to visit in Kyoto are centered around Japanese history, so once you’ve left the tower head over to the north side of the city which is made up of unassuming landmarks tucked into peaceful residential areas. Your first stop should be the Ryōan-ji Temple which is a fantastic place to visit early in the morning, as there’s no better time to visit the serene rock gardens than in the quiet of dawn before crowds of people clamour off the tour buses.
Hundreds of visitors flock to this Kyoto temple every day, but if you get there right when it opens you’ll likely be one of the only people there. The main attraction of the site is the rock garden itself, which is observed by sitting on a nearby platform. After finding your inner peace, you can wander around a number of tatami rooms or the surrounding gardens outside which include a pond. Ryōan-ji is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (4:30 p.m. December through February) and admission is 500 yen, or you can book a tour that combines other Kyoto attractions.
Once you’ve wrapped up your time at the temple, head over to Kinkakuji, better known as the Golden Pavilion due to its stunning, bright façade. The three-storey zen temple sits on a quiet pond which reflects the bright gold leaves which cover the building, making it a photographer’s dream and one of the most famous Kyoto sites. A lush green forest surrounds the temple, making it a picturesque scene. After taking some token snapshots, visitors can wander past the head priest’s former living quarter, walk along the paths that pass behind Kinkakuji and pass through gardens and a statue that people throw coins at for good luck.
You’ll eventually end up at the Sekkatei teahouse which makes for a nice place to rest, or you can pick up some delicious green tea ice cream to cool off. Admission to Kinkakuji is 400 yen, and the site is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Once you’ve hit the main highlights in the north part of the city, head back to the centre to take in the stunning palaces that date back to the Edo period, including Nijo Castle which is one of the top Kyoto tourist attractions. A crowd-pleaser for anyone who’s ever been interested in the secret lives of shoguns, it’s fascinating to learn about the interesting security measures that were put in place, including the famous ‘nightingale floors’ which were designed specifically to squeak so that intruders could never sneak in.
The palace was once used as the imperial palace and is made up of a number of buildings surrounded by stone walls and moats (classic castle move). Rooms feature classic Japanese architecture, with sliding doors, mats on the floor, decorated ceilings and wide open plans. Visitors will eventually come to the main audience room where the shogun used to sit on an elevated floor.
Once you exit the palace you’ll come to a beautiful garden made up of a pond, rocks and manicured trees. Budget at least an hour to see the site, which is open from 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last entry at 4 p.m.) Admission is 600 yen, and keep in mind it is closed on Tuesdays in January, July, August and December, as well as from December 26 to January 4. English audio guides are also available to rent.
If you haven’t had your fill of castles, walk over to Sento Palace which is part of the Kyoto Imperial Palace complex. Similar in looks to Nijo, it’s where the prince and princess stay when they visit Kyoto. You can take photos from the outside, or book a free, hour-long tour through the Imperial Household Agency. Those who pass through the gates will get to stroll through the garden and take a peek inside some buildings like a teahouse, though you won’t get to actually go inside any of the palace buildings. Tours are held at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., on most days except Sunday. Tourists are also welcome to go to the main Imperial Palace, again on a guided tour organized by the Imperial Household Agency.
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
This Kyoto shrine is found in the south end of the city, and is a popular spot for Instagrammers thanks to its vibrant orange torii gates leading into a wooded forest toward sacred Mount Inari. The Shino shrine is one of thousands dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice, and the gates are thanks to donations by individuals and companies (you’ll see the donator’s name and date of the donation inscribed on the back of each one).
Those short on time might only be able to see the entrance area, but those with a few extra hours may want to continue along the trail up to the mountain’s summit. The journey takes about two or three hours, and there a few shrines, restaurants, and great city views along the route.
Tours in Kyoto
To maximize how many Kyoto activities you can squeeze into your time here, book one of these tours which will take care of the transportation and logistics:
Where to stay in Kyoto
Arashiyama Benkei– This serene, boutique property is styled similarly to a Japanese tea house, where its ryokan accommodations are built in the traditional sukiya-zukuri architecture. It offers everything the country is famous for: onsens (hot springs), Japanese gardens and traditional cuisine, which makes for a memorable stay. Click here to book
Cross Hotel– This modern hotel is located in downtown Kyoto, and many major landmarks and train stations are just a short walk away. Rooms have a streamlined design that will have you feeling tranquil in no time, and are large by Japanese standards. Click here to book
Luck You Kyoto– This guesthouse seamlessly blends classic Machiya design with modern facilities, providing guest with optimal comfort. Guests adore the staff’s hospitality, and free access to an onsen right across the street makes it a great choice for Kyoto accommodation. Click here to book
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