This post offers a step-by-step itinerary for Central Kyoto, with advice on transportation between temples, museums, and other points of interest recommended in this Japan touring plan. If you’re visiting for 3 or more days, you should dedicate the third day of your itinerary to Downtown and Central Kyoto.
In a way, you can think of this as the “Table Scraps” Kyoto Itinerary more so than a Central Kyoto one. This touring plan is the result of creating our Western and Eastern Kyoto Itineraries, then looking at our list of the top 20 things to do in Kyoto, and trying to include as many of those as possible that weren’t in the previous itineraries.
Between the three itineraries, we manage to hit 18 out of the 20 temples and other points of interest, plus a bunch of things other people rank highly (out of a begrudging sense of obligation). The path to getting there is a bit convoluted in this itinerary, which is in no way walkable. Although Kyoto’s downtown is very walkable, it’s “central” attractions are in no way centralized, so that’s pretty much unavoidable.
You could cut some stops from this touring plan and make it walkable, but Downtown Kyoto doesn’t have the same romanticism and beauty as Arashiyama or Higashiyama. It’s more utilitarian, industrial, and real. While it can be fascinating to see the everyday side of the city where most Kyotoites live and work, you’ll get plenty of that without walking a 20K.
Nijo Castle – There’s a deceptive amount of walking (over an hour’s worth) among the first three stops, and we want to be very upfront in our position that these are not the highlights of this itinerary, so don’t get burnt out early on. Skip any or all of these if that’s what you think it’ll take to finish this day out strong.
Kyoto has a ton of things going for it, but a strong castle game is not one of those things. There’s nothing wrong with Nijo Castle–it’s perfectly fine–but if you’re going to be bouncing around the Kansai region, Himeji Castle is the flagship draw. Nijo is a good compliment to that and Osaka Castle, but we wouldn’t put it among the best things to do in Kyoto. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Nijo Castle.
Kyoto Imperial Palace – From the entrance of Nijo Castle to the entrance of Kyoto Gyoen (the park that encompasses Kyoto Imperial Palace and a few other shrines and palaces) you’re looking at about a 10 minute walk. The actual walking time is much longer once you’re inside the park, as it’s huge.
To be honest, we’re not huge fans of Kyoto Imperial Palace. We view it as the weakest of the three imperial properties in Kyoto. However, we bow to the crushing pressure of consensus, which seems to love this place. It’s not bad by any means–and it is open to the general public free of charge and without reservations–so it’s probably worth the stop. If you leave thinking “that’s it?” instead of “wow, that really is one of the top attractions in Kyoto,” don’t say we didn’t tell you so.
Shimogamo Shrine – From the north entrance of Kyoto Imperial Palace, you need to decide whether you want to walk another 20 minutes to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, or take the train south. It’s a lovely walk along the Kamogawa River and through a park, if that helps you decide.
We are moderate fans of Shimogamo Shrine. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it is what it is. Despite appearing quite large on the map, the grounds here are relatively small. We’ve happened upon weddings a couple of times here, which has probably elevated our opinion of the place, too. All things considered, we would probably skip this shrine if your feet are tired or you’re concerned about running out of time for the later stops. This itinerary is heavily back-loaded.
Kyoto National Museum – Regardless of whether you go to Shimogama Shrine, you’ll take the Keihan Main Line to get to Kyoto National Museum. It’s a short walk from Shichijo Station.
At present, Kyoto National Museum is the best non-niche museum in the city. It’s also one of the few that has English placards and an audio guide, features a hybrid of art and history, and will give you a greater appreciation of the city and Japanese culture.
Sanjusangendo Temple – Directly across the street from Kyoto National Museum is Sanjusangendo Temple. From the street, it appears rather unassuming (and small), but don’t let that fool you.
Sanjusangendo Temple packs a powerful punch and is a relatively quick stop, so do not skip it. We would recommend not making it too quick of a stop, though; take your time to let the full impact of the scene sink in, and closely inspect the details of the impressive statues. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Sanjusangendo Temple.
Honganji Temples – Between Sanjusangendo and Kyoto Railway Museum are Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji, the latter of which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They’re a good way to break up the walk, especially if you don’t want to stop at Kyoto Station.
Both are free, have impressive main halls, and it’s worthwhile to make a quick stop at one of them. Unless you really want to up your ‘temple count’ we view stopping at both as redundant (and a waste of time) since they are very similar.
Kyoto Station – If you’re doing this itinerary on your third day in Kyoto, as we’d recommend, there’s almost no chance you haven’t been to Kyoto Station. If so, this is not necessarily a must-do stop on the itinerary–or even a convenient one if you’re doing Nishi Honganji.
What it is, is a decent option for a diverse selection of lunch options. We are big fans of Kyoto Ramen Street, located up the grand staircase. Seeing that when it’s illuminated at night is a much better option, but lines for the ramen joints can get pretty bad in the evenings.
Kyoto Railway Museum – After the Honganji Temples or Kyoto Station, you’ll walk a bit farther before entering Umekoji Park, which is an okay-ish green space that’s also home to the Kyoto Aquarium. At the end of this park is Kyoto Railway Museum.
Despite being “only” the third-best railway museum in Japan, this is the best museum in Kyoto. Even if your interest in trains is zero, we highly recommend this museum. As you may have surmised by this point in the trip, railways are an integral part of Japanese life, and his highlights that, the history of trains in Japan, and technical progress. Particularly if you have kids, this is not to be missed. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kyoto Railway Museum.
Ninnaji Temple – From here we move on to what’s better described as Northwest Kyoto, and to get here you’ll want to take the bus or the JR San-In Line via Tambaguchi Station. The latter would be our recommendation, and we’d take it either to Hanazono Station and walk 20 minutes to Ninna-ji from there, or connect to the Keifuku Dentetsu-Kitano Line for less walking. Google Maps is your friend with all of these transportation options, as it’ll offer the most efficient route for your departure time and your personal preferences.
Ninnaji Temple features free main grounds that we find moderately impressive, particularly the five-storied pagoda towering visible from a distance. However, it’s the paid Goten building that earns it a place on this itinerary. The art and sense of borrowed scenery outside Goten is lovely. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Ninnaji Temple.
Ryoanji Temple – A short walk from Ninna-ji Temple, Ryoan-ji Temple is one of the top tourist spots in Kyoto, and a popular spot earlier in the day. You should be arriving in the last 90 minutes of operation, which will cut down on crowds dramatically.
Nevertheless, don’t expect serenity at Ryoanji’s famous rock garden. This mysterious garden is well worth braving the tour groups to see, as it will give you the key to the meaning of life. Okay, perhaps not, but it is an interesting. Ryoanji is less renowned for its grounds, which is unfortunate, as they are stunning. The temple is designed around a large pond, and its buildings that are scattered through the woods. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Ryoanji Temple.
Golden Pavilion – Kinkakuji Temple (its “official” name and what you’ll see on buses and other signage) is the most popular temple in Kyoto. We recommend walking from Ryoanji (~20 minutes on a mostly straight path), but there are buses that run between the two. Be warned that these buses tend to be standing room only on this stretch.
This is another spot to which tour groups flock, and during the middle of the day the parking lot is a sight to behold. The good news here is that crowds die down in the late afternoon, and if you linger until Golden Pavilion closes (our recommendation), you can have one of the rarest experiences in Kyoto: a serene experience at the Golden Pavilion. Seeing the radiant glow of this pavilion reflecting the waning afternoon sunlight is also how the term “golden hour light” came to be. (Probably. Don’t fact-check us on that one.) Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Golden Pavilion.
Dinner – You could grab dinner somewhere in this area of Northwest Kyoto, but many options on the tourist strip here will be closed by the time you leave Golden Pavilion, and that leaves walking a bit farther into neighborhoods. There is a solid okonomiyaka restaurant (Okonomiyaki Katsu) in the area, but it’s closer to Ryoan-ji.
Honestly, we’d recommend heading back Downtown for dinner rather backtracking the ~25 minutes to Okonomiyaki Katsu. That’s also a good chance to wander the quiet streets of Gion or head to the Okazaki Museum District if one of those is having a late opening.
That covers it for our Central Kyoto Itinerary. While we love the overall experience of our Arashiyama and Higashiyama walking tours, this one is more utilitarian and ‘down to business’ than it is ‘the journey is part of the destination.’ I guess in that way, you could say it’s like Downtown Kyoto, itself. In any case, we hope you like the stops on this one, and found this itinerary to be at least somewhat satisfying. I’m even more excited about the fourth day of our Kyoto itinerary, which will take you beyond the major tourist paths to see some of the best hidden gems of Kyoto. Stay tuned for that!
If you’re planning a visit to the Japan that includes Kyoto, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to determine everything you should see and do while there.
If you’ve been to Kyoto, do you have any feedback on this itinerary for Central/Downtown Kyoto and other assorted table scraps? Any stops you view as skippable, or can’t miss locations we overlooked? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? If you’re a first-timer to Japan, do you need further clarification about any of these steps or points of interest? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!