If you’re traveling to Japan and plan to tour Kyoto for 2 days, this provides our itinerary for efficiently experiencing temples, shrines, and the most popular attractions in Kyoto to save time. In so doing, our 2-day Kyoto itinerary also offers a few suggestions for off-the-beaten-path ways to “stop and smell the roses” (or cherry blossoms, as the case may be) and enjoy the essence of Japan’s cultural capital.
This Kyoto itinerary will enable you to see as many temples and shrines, and in as little of time as possible. It includes stops at many of our top 25 things to do in Kyoto (as enumerated in our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan) , plus several other points of interest that are not on that list. Nevertheless, we also want to be blunt and realistic: this is a “lemonade out of lemons” itinerary. One thing that cannot be overemphasized is that 2 days is not enough time to experience Kyoto.
If you are still planning your trip, we beg of you, please allocate more time for Kyoto. Not just because you need more days to see all of the major points of interest, but because racing around Kyoto at a breakneck pace (which is what this itinerary will have you doing) is far from the ideal way to experience this enchanting city.
To that end, we include a few stops each day in this itinerary that we view as expendable. We’ve crafted this itinerary to position you to see a lot by foot at a fairly leisurely pace, and avoid crowds to the greatest extent possible. Nevertheless, we’d caution you against trying to overdo it, and also to give yourself time to wander off the path and make discoveries of your own. Temple fatigue is a real thing, and there’s so much more to Kyoto than its impressive collection of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Some of our favorite moments in Kyoto are the chance discoveries–stumbling upon a shop selling giant tanuki figures in bizarre outfits, perusing a kimono art gallery, stopping for green tea in a peaceful courtyard, or chatting with a man sitting with a collection of kittens. The little moments like this constitute some of our fondest memories of Kyoto, and are things we can’t include in an itinerary. Give yourself the opportunity to have these same types of discoveries: be inquisitive and willing to wander.
With that said, if you only have 2 days in Kyoto, you’ll have to make sacrifices. Cutting a few stops from the itinerary and taking the time to absorb the stops you do visit would be one sacrifice we’d strongly recommend you make, but everyone tours places differently, and pace is your prerogative.
The other sacrifice we’ve made in this itinerary is Central Kyoto. This itinerary focuses mostly on the Eastern and Western sides of the city, with a (more or less) linear route that features a lot of walking. Downtown and Central Kyoto are mostly omitted from this itinerary because you’d lose too much time in transit and would have to take the buses (or taxis) quite a bit.
I should also note that if this itinerary seems to be arranged very differently from others you might consult for Kyoto…that’s because it is. As a photographer, I place a strong emphasis on when things are most photogenic, and have balanced picture-perfect scenes with optimal times for photos at the most important spots in Kyoto.
One last note: if you have more than 2 days in Kyoto, do not follow this itinerary. I currently have a half-dozen itineraries in various stages of draft, and you can find our other touring plans listed in our Japan Itineraries for Tokyo, Kyoto, and Beyond. Those collectively will form a 3-day itinerary, and after that, I’ll move on to other itineraries for the spring cherry blossom season and fall colors season.
1. Golden Pavilion – Also known as Kinkakuji Temple, Golden Pavilion is the most popular attraction in all of Kyoto–maybe in all of Japan. You will absolutely want to get here at opening or arrive right before closing. My personal preference is to do Golden Pavilion at the end of the day for a more photogenic scene and lower crowds, but for the sake of efficiency, it’s the first stop on this itinerary.
We’ve commented on this in the past, but we think Golden Pavilion is overrated. Nevertheless, it still rates very highly (even for us), and for most visitors to Kyoto, it’ll be a top 3 experience. There is no denying that the Golden Pavilion is beautiful and unique–unlike anything else on this list. Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Golden Pavilion.
2. Ryoanji Temple – From Golden Pavilion, Ryoanji Temple is just under a 20 minute walk, or around a 10-minute bus ride. Kyoto’s buses can be a bit confusing or chaotic, so the safe bet is taking the straight shot walk, which is fairly pleasant.
Ryoanji is renowned for having one of the most famous rock gardens in Japan–it’s definitely the top rock garden you’ll see on this itinerary. This garden is shrouded in mystery and its unclear meaning leads visitors to ponder its design, projecting their own interpretations onto it. 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.
3. Ninnaji Temple – The next stop is Ninnaji, which is conveniently located “next door” to Ryoanji, which makes for an easy walk. Ninnaji Temple is also located directly across the street from Omuro Ninnaji Station; you’ll go there and take the Keifuku Kitano Line to Arashiyama Station to access the next leg of this itinerary when you’re done here.
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, the the closest most people will get to being inside an imperial palace in Kyoto, 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.
4. Lunch – Upon arriving at Arashiyama Station, it’s probably a good time for lunch. The Sagano shopping district leading to Togetsukyo Bridge has no shortage of good options, but most are touristy.
We’d recommend Arashiyama Yoshimura, which is known for its tempura and soba. (It’s one of the dining spots on Our Favorite Restaurants in Kyoto list.)
5. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove – The next several steps will involve a bit of backtracking, but it’s worth it. Unfortunately, there’s no way to avoid crowds at our next two stops. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is best visited first thing in the morning, as it’s fairly crowded midday. Nevertheless, the crowds typically aren’t overwhelming, and you’ll likely be aiming your camera upwards, anyway.
This long stretch of a bamboo forest essentially comes out of nowhere, and meanders back behind the side streets of Arashiyama. It’s beautiful and is quite famous as one of Japan’s “bucket list” destinations. We love the otherworldly feel of walking through this grove, but think it might be a tad overhyped. You’ll be able to see other (albeit lesser) bamboo groves at other stops in this itinerary. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
6. Tenryu-ji Temple – You will either start or finish walking through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove at the back entrance to Tenryu-ji Temple. If you don’t finish at this entrance, simple double back through the Bamboo Grove.
Tenryu-ji Temple is one of Kyoto’s many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and is known for its garden’s use of borrowed scenery, which makes it appear as if the garden extends into the surrounding mountains. Tenryu-ji is particularly stunning during fall foliage season. Make sure you find the trail that juts above the tree-line, as it is relatively uncrowded and offers some beautiful views. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Tenryuji Temple.
7. Kyoto Monkey Park – From Tenryu-ji Temple, you’ll walk across Togetsukyo Bridge (walk off to the left side of the bridge before crossing to get a photo of this famed bridge with the mountains behind it) and head towards the entrance of Iwatayama Monkey Park. The reason we arranged the previous two stops slightly out of logical order is so you can enjoy sunset up at the top of Mount Arashiyama, where these wild Japanese macaque (snow monkeys) live.
To get there, you’ll take a pretty hike (of moderate intensity) through a forest to reach the summit, where you’ll find a large clearing with a large gang of monkeys and a “human cage” through which you can feed the monkeys apples or crackers. This location also offers some of the best panoramic views of Kyoto, so even if you’re not into monkeys (HERESY!), this is a good place to visit. If you are into monkeys–as any logical being is–you are in for one heck of a treat. You’ll witness hilarious and heartwarming interactions between the snow monkeys, and some grouchy monkeys, too. This is one of our favorite spots in Kyoto. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kyoto Monkey Park.
8. Kimono Forest – This is definitely a skippable stop, or one you could do earlier in the day when you arrive in Arashiyama from Ninnaji Temple, as the forest is at that Keifuku station in Arashiyama. We like doing it after sunset, as it gives us a chance to stroll back across Togetsukyo Bridge and wander that shopping district with minimal crowds, maybe grabbing ice cream or tea along the way. The Kimono Forest is illuminated at night, and the moody lighting makes it infinitely more photogenic.
The downside to this is that it requires walking across the bridge…and then walking right back to go to the other Arashiyama Station (the one with the Hankyu-Arashiyama Line to Kawaramachi Station in Gion). It’s not a long walk, but you’ve already walked a lot today…and you’re not done yet. Whether you do this or skip it really depends upon how much you want an Instagram-ready photo at the Kimono Forest.
9. Wandering Gion – There’s a lot to do in Gion, which is most well-known as the place to go geisha and maiko stalking (let’s just call it what it is). We’d recommend starting with a walk through Nishiki Market and the Teramachi Shopping Arcade. This area is a madhouse during the day, but many vendors start to wind down business around this time in the evening, so you should experience lower crowds. Buy a few snacks from street vendors, but don’t make a full meal out of it.
Either before or after dinner, we’d also recommend wandering through the beautiful streets of Gion. You’ll definitely want to stroll the tree-lined pedestrian lane of Shirakawa-dori, which is Kyoto’s most or second-most iconic district (you’ll visit the other the following night). Other spots you’ll want to hit include the high-rent shopping district on Shijo-dori, and the large Shijo-Ohashi Bridge that spans the Kamo River. If you see a geisha or maiko, consider it a pleasant surprise–don’t be the creepy tourist clutching a camera to your face as if stalking prey through Gion.
10. Dinner – There’s no shortage of incredible restaurants in Gion. This is the epicenter of Kyoto’s high end dining scene, and one of the best food districts in the entire world. Whether you want to spend $10 or $500 per person, you can have a great meal and great experience.
We tend to skew towards the ‘value’ end of the spectrum, with our picks being Ramen Muraji Kyoto Gion for an inventive bowl of ramen in a chic setting or Gyoza Hohei for bar food and a low-key cool setting. We’re also huge fans of Menya Inoichi if you’re willing to walk a bit.
1. Silver Pavilion – Day 2 is going to be one very long north-south walk along the slopes Kyoto’s eastern mountains. As with its distant “cousin” the Golden Pavilion, getting to the Silver Pavilion is a pain, and pretty much requires taking a bus or taxi. That’s part of why it’s our first stop. The other (bigger) reason is that the Silver Pavilion gets very busy, and it’s a delightful, entrancing experience early in the morning before the crowds arrive.
Not really made of silver and not really related to the Golden Pavilion, we actually prefer the Kyoto’s second-place pavilion. Unlike Golden Pavilion, Silver Pavilion is not a one-trick pony. It features numerous temple buildings, a meticulously-manicured dry sand garden, and moss garden spread across forested grounds that is mesmerizing when aglow with morning light. Silver Pavilion is an excellent and serene place to explore without crowds, and perfectly encapsulates the vibe of a zen temple. Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Silver Pavilion.
2. Path of Philosophers – This itinerary does involve a lot of walking, but the good news is that part of the journey in Kyoto is itself the destination (how’s that for some armchair zen philosophy?!). This stone walkway winds along a canal that connects Silver Pavilion to Nanzenji Temple with a variety of temples and quaint shops in between. The path is named after influential Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who meditated while walking this path on his daily commute to Kyoto University.
We adore Philosopher’s Path. It’s a quintessential Kyoto experience, and you’ll feel like your senses are enhanced while walking the path early in the day. The birds chirp louder, the flowers and blossoms are more fragrant, the natural scenery looks more vibrant, and the weird soda from nearby vending machines tastes extra-sugary. 😉 Any time of year this path is serene and contemplative, but it’s especially pretty during fall foliage or spring sakura seasons! Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Philosopher’s Path.
3. Honen-in Temple – A nice diversion about halfway through the Path of Philosophers, Honen-in Temple is a gem of Kyoto that’s hiding in plain site. It packs a powerful punch in a relatively small space, too. There are two beautifully-manicured sand mounds, a moss garden, bridges, small buildings, and the main hut. In a way, Honen-in Temple is like a series of picture-perfect vignettes. It’s also one of the few spiritual respites that’s not really even off the beaten path.
From a purely substantive perspective, Honen-in Temple is probably one that we could label as skippable. However, it’s a free temple that takes almost no time to tack on to your itinerary, and is so peaceful and serene that we’d recommend not skipping it. Even the approach, with the walkway’s thick canopy of trees and rolling hillside leading to a moss covered gate, is delightful, and feels almost as if you’re stepping back in time. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Honen-in Temple.
4. Nanzenji Temple – After returning to Philosopher’s Path, you’ll stroll south, with the walk terminating near Eikando Temple. It’s not a temple we recommend visiting with limited time, except perhaps during the fall. Nanzenji Temple is just a short walk from there, and is an exquisite temple with free public areas.
Nanzenji features some an impressive range of diverse features: a Sanmon gate, main hall, shrines, rock gardens, tea rooms, pond gardens, fusuma, and an aqueduct. That aqueduct is the unequivocal highlight, and we’d recommend walking around and under it, tracing it up hillside to reveal a treasure trove of other details at Nanzenji Temple. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Nanzenji Temple.
5. Chionin Temple – The next essential stop on the itinerary is Kiyomizudera Temple, with the goal of arriving there an hour before closing to see the sunset (season-depending). This makes the next two stops skippable if you’re short on time or want to grab something to eat beforehand. With no good public transportation options between Nanzenji and Kiyomizudera, you’re going to be walking between the two sites–and past the next two temples–regardless.
Chionin Temple is another large temple complex that stretches across a hillside. (The main hall is being refurbished until 2020, and a large warehouse has been built around it–construction can be loud during the day.) It’s a temple you can’t miss, with a large Sanmon Gate coming out of nowhere as you’re walking past along the street. If you do visit Chionin, I recommend going all the way up the steps (yes, there are a lot of them), and visiting the far back corners of the temple, both of which are lovely and offer reprieves from the crowds.
6. Kodaiji Temple – Next, you’ll walk through Maruyama Park, which is a beautiful public park that comes alive during spring and fall. Some people will recommend a stop at Shorenin, and while I really love that intimate temple, I think a stop at Kodaiji is the better option. (If you have a surplus of time, consider both.) Just south of Maruyama Park, you’ll find Kodaiji Temple. This is also a good time to stop for lunch, as you’ll find a diverse range of options between Maruyama and Kiyomizudera.
Kodaiji has a beautifully-designed main hall, and rock garden representing the vastness of the ocean, but the highlights are its tsukiyama style garden featuring a perpetually-placid pond and a modestly-sized bamboo forest through which you can walk. Kodaiji is arguably the coolest temple during fall illuminations, too. Out the back exit, you’ll have a bird’s eye view of Yasaka Pagoda, which is the direction you’ll head upon leaving.
7. Kiyomizudera Temple – From the approach to the grounds that offer various layers to peel back, there’s something truly special about Kiyomizudera. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the second-most important stop on this itinerary, and while it’s a place pretty much everyone who goes to Kyoto visits, it’s wonderful.
Kiyomizudera is an exemplar of Kyoto’s temples, featuring some of the most iconic buildings and scenes in the city: the large main hall standing tall on a stage (unfortunately, under refurbishment until Spring 2020), pagoda, shrines, waterfall, plus stunning views of the city and mountains. Kiyomizudera is a place that lives up to the hype, and one we revisit with regularity despite the crowds. It takes on an ethereal glow when kissed by the setting sun, which is why we recommend visiting it at the end of the operating day as opposed to the beginning. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kiyomizudera Temple.
8. Explore “Old Kyoto” in the Higashiyama District – You’ll walk through these streets on your way to Kiyomizudera, but at that hour, there’s a decent chance the only impression they’ll leave on you is “crowded.” Once the sun sets, most of the gift shops on Kiyomizu-zaka close, and the crowds start to dissipate. Then, the streets of the Higashiyama District come alive…with a sense of tranquility.
One of my favorite experiences in Kyoto is walking through the Higashiyama District at dusk. The warm glow of the interior lights with the waning deep blue color of daylight makes for a beautiful scene. With the streets largely devoid of people, each little detail of these historic buildings stands out. You gain a greater appreciation for the simple beauty of these quintessentially “Kyoto” area.
9. Dinner OR Snack – After wandering through Higashiyama, you’ll have a ~15 minute walk to Kiyomizu-Gojo Station, which will take you directly to the next stop via the Keihan Main Line. If you’re especially hungry at this point, stop in Higashiyama at Kiyomizu Gojozaka for expertly-prepared gyukatsu (deep-fried breaded beef cutlet). Alternatively, you can power on, stopping at the Lawson’s 100 Yen convenience store across from Kiyomizu-Gojo Station for some energy-rich snacks to eat on the go.
If you choose to power on, you’re going to eat after Fushimi Inari at one of our favorite ramen shops in Kyoto: Ramen Hiwamatanboru. This is a heavy tonkotsu ramen with broth made of pork and chicken bone, and the end result is something rich, delicious, and ramen coma-inducing. With a side of fried chicken, this is the perfect way to crash after a long day of touring Kyoto.
10. Fushimi Inari – We love Fushimi Inari so much that we rented an apartment in Kyoto for a month that was 5 minutes from this sprawling shrine. During that time, we visited regularly during the peak fall colors season and the lows of off-season. Our biggest lesson from that experience is that Fushimi Inari is now busy all the time. Well, almost.
If you go arrive before 8 a.m. or an hour after sunset, you will experience significantly lower crowds, with the opportunity for a tranquil experience depending upon how early or late you visit. Walking through Fushimi Inari without the tour bus hordes is a powerful, spiritual activity, and infinitely more enjoyable than shuffling along with a group stopping every 5 seconds for selfies. Even if crowds were no issue, this is when we’d recommend visiting Fushimi Inari, since it’s one of the only spots on this itinerary that has no closing time.
Fushimi Inari is our favorite place in all of Japan, and is an absolute must-do. If you fear being too tired for Fushimi Inari at the end of day 2, either move it to the morning of your departure day or move it forward into day 1. If you do literally only one thing in Kyoto, Fushimi Inari should be it. Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Fushimi Inari.
Whew. Just reading all of that was probably exhausting (I didn’t intend for this to be so verbose–I’ll make future Kyoto itineraries more concise). Now imagine actually doing all of that over the course of 2 days! It’s definitely an aggressive itinerary, but it will allow you to see most of Kyoto’s highlights while also pausing for some tranquil stops along the way, and give you a greater appreciation for what makes Kyoto such a special place.
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
If you’ve been to Kyoto, do you have any feedback on this itinerary? 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 this? We know it’s a lot to digest, so if you have additional questions, we’ll do our best to answer! 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!