Kyoto, home to more than 1,600 Buddhist temples, 400 Shinto shrines and a staggering 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, is Japan’s pulsating cultural heart.
Prayer chants echo across manicured Zen gardens; clouds of incense waft from temple complexes; geishas scuttle along narrow streets to their next appointment. Kyoto is a feast for all of the senses.
Kyoto is a destination that rewards long stays and repeat visits. But how should you plan your visit to Kyoto if your time is limited? You will need to make some tough choices.
But don’t worry; I’ve got you covered. Based on my experiences as a two-time visitor to Japan’s second-biggest city, I have created a 2-day Kyoto itinerary to help you make the most of your time there.
At the end of this article, I’ve included all you need to know about planning your two days in Kyoto. This includes how to get to Kyoto, how to get around, what to eat in Kyoto, hotel recommendations and suggested reading.
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Are Two Days in Kyoto Enough?
Two days in Kyoto is just about enough time to get a flavour of the place.
This Kyoto itinerary will allow you to explore the main sightseeing districts of the city as a first-time visitor in two days, albeit at a fast pace.
That said, if you are able to spend three days in Kyoto (or more!), so much the better.
Best Things to See in Kyoto in Two Days
A 2-Day Kyoto Itinerary
This itinerary will allow you to see the best things in Kyoto in two days. You will cover a lot of ground so prepare yourself for long days to maximise your time in the city.
You will visit the temples of Higashiyama whilst also taking in must-see sights of Kinkaku-ji, Fushimi Inari and the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. By necessity, most of Central Kyoto has been sacrificed on the altar of time.
Early starts are essential, not only to make the most of your two days in Kyoto but also to give you the best chance of avoiding crowds at a few of the busier attractions.
Ultimately, how much you cover is entirely up to you. Of course, there’s no need to slavishly stick to this itinerary; think of it as a framework to structure your two days in Kyoto. There are hundreds of temples and shrines that aren’t included in this itinerary and a huge part of the joy of exploring Kyoto is to stumble across these lesser-visited treasures.
Kyoto Itinerary Day 1: Shrine and Temple Hopping in Higashiyama & Geisha Spotting in Gion
Much of your first day in Kyoto itinerary is spent shrine and temple-hopping in Higashiyama, before spending the evening in the famed geisha district of Gion. As the day will involve a lot of walking – around 5 miles in total – including the famous Path of Philosophy, wear your most comfortable shoes!
The first stop on your tour is Ginkaku-ji in Northern Higashiyama, also known as the Silver Pavilion. To reach Ginkaku-ji, catch Raku Bus 100 or 102, or city bus 5 or 17, from Kyoto Station.
To help you on your way, here’s a map to help you navigate between these Kyoto must-see sights (click on image for an interactive map).
Ginkaku-ji, also known as the Higashiyama Jisho-ji, was once the home of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436 – 1490). It owes its other name, The Silver Pavillion, to the silver leaf encasing its roof of overlapping blocks hewn from native cypress trees, held in place with bamboo nails.
As striking as this graceful temple is, I love Ginkaku-ji’s beautiful garden design: white sand cones, designed to reflect the moonlight, surrounded by lush moss gardens.
To view Ginkaku-ji’s buildings, ponds and gardens you follow a prescribed circular walking route around its grounds. Don’t miss the footpath, starting in the northeastern corner of the garden, that leads to a viewpoint over Kyoto.
After visiting Ginkaku-ji, walk about 100 meters to the Path of Philosophy (Tetsugaku-no-Michi).
The Path of Philosophy
The Path of Philosophy (Tetsugaku no Michi) is an ancient stone path running alongside the Lake Biwa Canal, connecting Ginkaku-ji to Nanzen-ji. Without stops, it takes 30 – 40 minutes to walk its 1.8km length.
This is one of the most rewarding and peaceful walks in Kyoto at any time of year. But in sakura season, when the banks of the canal are an explosion of white and pink blossoms, the Path of Philosophy is spectacular
The path is dotted with craft shops and places to stop for a drink or snack, and there are plenty of benches on which to take a rest.
Time permitting, stop at lovely Honen-in, founded in 1680 to honour the priest Honen.
This secluded and serene temple, featuring raked sand gardens, is a ten-minute walk from the start of the Path of Philosophy and is a welcome refuge from the crowds that descend on the more well-known temples.
One of the things that I love about Kyoto is that there is every chance that you’ll stumble upon hidden gems. The Otoyo Shrine, a minor detour from the Philosopher’s Path, is one of these.
This guardian shrine for local people is famous for its symbolic trees and features sub- shrines with animal statues, including mice, monkeys and kites.
Omit Eikan-do from your 2-day Kyoto itinerary at your peril. Because of its relatively steep entrance fee, I thought twice about visiting Eikan-do, but I was so glad that I parted with those yen.
What makes Eikan-do special is its varied architecture, gardens and works of art. Follow wooden walkways on a prescribed route around the temple’s buildings, which are home to elaborate gold leaf silk screens from the Edo and Momoyama periods and to painted sliding doors.
But the highlight of Eikan-do is the famous Amida Statue, with his face turned to look over his shoulder
Eikan-Do is reportedly spectacular in autumn, but also spectacularly rammed with fall foliage spotters!
Your next temple of the day, Nanzen-ji, is a few minutes’ walk south of Eikan-do.
Nazen-ji is one of the most impressive temples in Kyoto. This complex of Zen temples and sub-temples has it all.
A scenic location at the base of the Higashiyama mountains, surrounded by soaring pine trees. An imposing two-storey entrance gate (Sanmon Gate). A beautiful zen garden (Hojo Garden). A magnificent main hall and serene and secluded sub-temples.
And if that’s not enough, Nanzen-ji is also home to a red-brick aqueduct, built in 1890.
But, for me, the highlight of Nanzen-ji is Nanzen-ji Oku-no-in. To reach this small shrine, set in a forested hollow, follow the road that runs parallel to the aqueduct up into the hills. Walk past Kōtoku-an, a small sub-temple on your left, and continue up the steps until you reach a waterfall in an idyllic mountain glen.
It’s a 20-minute walk from Nanzen-ji to Chion-in, the next stop on our Kyoto itinerary. Although city bus #5 will also take you between these two temples, don’t expect this to save you any time.
Sometimes called ‘the Vatican of Pure Land Buddhism’, Chion-in was founded in 1234 and is the headquarters of the Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhism.
When I visited in 2020, the major restoration of the temple’s main hall, the Miedo Hall, was still underway and it was closed to the public. That said, in my view, Chion-in is still a must-see.
At 24 meters tall and 50 meters wide, the temple’s 17th Century Sanmon Gate is the largest wooden gate in Japan.
Chion-in’s bell, the largest in Japan, is so immense that 17 monks are needed to ring it at New Year.
From Chion-in, it’s a pleasant 25-minute walk across Maruyama Park – a great spot for cherry blossoms! – to the final temple of the day, Kiyomizu-dera.
One of the most celebrated temples in Japan, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Kiyomizu-dera, or ‘Pure water temple’, was founded at the end of the 8th Century. Although it was associated with the Hosso sect of Japanese Buddhism, it formed its own Kita Hosso sect in 1965.
Occupying a commanding position overlooking Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera is best known for its immense wooden veranda, jutting out over the hillside from the temple’s main hall.
The sacred waters of the Otowa-no-taki spring, located at the base of the main hall, are said to bestow long life, success at school and success in love is, determined by which of the three streams you drink from. Take your pick.
As night falls, Gion beckons.
From Kiyomizu-dera, it’s a 20-minute walk to the Gion district. Gion is located in and around Shijo Avenue, flanked by the Yasaka Shrine to the east and the Kamo River to the west. The most scenic sections are Shimbashi district, starting at Tatsumi-bashi bridge, and Hanami-koji Street.
Gion is synonymous with Kyoto itself.
This famous geisha district started life as home to the teahouses catering to visitors to the Yasaka Shrine. By the mid-18th Century, Gion grew to be Kyoto’s prime entertainment district and capital of the geisha world.
With its wooden-fronted teahouses, understated townhouses, temples and shrines, Gion oozes old-world Japan charm. Gion is best explored after the sun goes down when its narrow streets take on an ethereal, dimly illuminated beauty. This is also the best time of day to spot a geisha scurrying to her next engagement.
As Gion is home to some of the best restaurants in town, this is the perfect end to the first day of your Kyoto itinerary.
Kyoto Itinerary Day 2: Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Golden Pavilion and Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine
The second day of our 2-day Kyoto itinerary starts at the sublime Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, before moving on to Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion, and the iconic Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine. Your day ends in the bars and restaurants of the evocative Pontocho Alley.
Compared with day one of this itinerary, there is less walking involved, But as these attractions are scattered across Kyoto, you will need to rely more on public transport or taxis to get around and to factor in travel time.
As with day one, here’s a map to help you on your way:
To reach the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove from Kyoto Station take the JR San-In Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station, from where it is a ten-minute walk.
To avoid crowds at the bamboo grove, and the JR San-In Line at its busiest time of day, aim to get there as early as possible. The bamboo grove is open 24/7.
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is one of my favourite places in Japan. However, it is one of the most popular and most photographed spots in Kyoto and can be selfie stick hell.
The good news is that even the most ardent Instagrammers cannot detract from the beauty and serenity of this place. Walking between the soaring bamboo stalks, casting shadows from the morning light, is an eerie, almost mystical, experience.
If you are looking for that special someone, you’ve come to the right place. People flock to the small Nonomiya Shrine within the bamboo forest, seeking luck in love and marriage.
At the top of the main path through the grove, is the Okochi-Sanso Villa, formerly the home of the actor Okochi Denjiro (1898-1962). A steep admission fee (1,000 yen in 2021) buys you a tour of this villa plus a Japanese sweet and a cup of hot matcha tea.
To get to Kinkaku-ji from the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, your easiest option is to take a taxi. If traffic is not too heavy, the journey should take you 10 – 15 minutes.
If you are making the journey on public transport, take the JR Sagano line to Nijo and, from there, bus 101 to Kinkaku Temple. But as Kinkaku-ji is one of the most popular things to see in Kyoto, expect the bus to be crowded.
Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion
The shimmering reflection of Kinkaku-ji in a large pond, fringed by pine and cherry blossom trees, with a lush bamboo forest as a backdrop, is an unforgettable sight.
Formally known as Rokuonji, the temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, becoming a Zen temple upon his death in 1408. It has been rebuilt on many occasions since then and the present building dates from 1955.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site owes its sheen to the gold leaf covering the top two floors of the building. Each floor of the temple has a distinct architectural style and it is topped with a Golden Phoenix on the roof.
A path takes you on a prescribed path around the temple and its grounds. On my last visit, I spent around 30 minutes at Kinkaku-ji, but you can easily spend more time there if you want to relax and take lots of photos.
Near the exit, you can stop for some matcha tea and Japanese sweets at Sekkatei Teahouse, added to Kinkaku-ji during the Edo Period. Outside the exit, Fudo Hall is home to a statue of Fudo Myoo, one of the Five Wisdom Kings and protector of Buddhism.
To get to Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine from Kinkaku-ji, your easiest option is to take a taxi. If traffic is not too heavy, the journey should take you around 15 minutes.
Alternatively, bus #101 operates between the two attractions.
Gracing many Japan tourist brochures, the iconic Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine is Kyoto’s show-stopper. This shrine is tourist nectar; as such, it can get busy. Very busy.
To avoid the worst of the crowds, aim to visit Fushimi Inari later in the day – as in this Kyoto itinerary – or early in the morning. The light is also at its best later in the afternoon. The shrine is open 24/7.
Dedicated to the Shinto God of Rice, Inari, the complex comprises five shrines scattered across the thickly wooded slopes of Mount Inari. Hundreds of vermillion torii (Shinto shrine gates) line the 4km pathway winding its way to the summit of the sacred mountain from the main shrine.
Allow yourself enough time at Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine to relax and explore its natural beauty. Despite the shrine’s popularity, in my experience, finding a quiet spot to sit, reflect and relax was not difficult.
Walk for as long as you wish and then circle back. Depending on your pace, the full pilgrimage route to the top of the mountain and back takes 2-3 hours. Bring water and snacks with you.
To reach Pontocho Alley, the final stop of our 2-day Kyoto itinerary, take the Keihan line from Fushimiinari to Gion-Shijo.
The pedestrian-only street of Pontocho Alley is hard to beat when it comes to a slice of old-world Kyoto.
Running from Sanjo-dori to Shijo-dori, one block west of Kamo-gawa (Kamo River), Pontocho Alley is most alluring at night when vibrant lanterns illuminate its narrow walkway.
Lined with a huge selection of restaurants that feature traditional wooden exteriors, it’s the perfect end to your second day in Kyoto.
Guided Tours in Kyoto
This 2-day Kyoto itinerary has been designed to allow you experience the best that the city has to offer independently in a few days. However, if you want someone else to take care of the arrangements for you, or are looking for a cultural – or fun! – experience, it makes sense to explore the packaged activities available.
GetYourGuide is my go-to platform for booking organised activities. It offers a broad selection of activities with generous cancellation options, allowing you to book in advance with zero risk.
There are a ton of activities in Kyoto from which to choose, but here are a few related to the attractions included in this itinerary.
This comprehensive tour includes Kiyomizu-dera, Fushimi Inari Taisha, Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and Kinkaku-ji
You too can be a geisha for the day. Rent a formal kimono for the day, and stroll around Kyoto in style.
Learn all about the Japanese tea ceremony as you are served high quality matcha tea and fresh Japanese sweets after a traditional dinner
Places to Visit Near Kyoto
Perhaps you have more than two days in Kyoto and want to take a day trip to a nearby city? Or maybe you are looking for other destinations to add to your Japan itinerary?
If so, here are some other places to check out.
Visit Himeji to see Japan’s most magnificent surviving feudal castle, and to sample different varieties of local sake!
Spend a day in Osaka to experience its vibrant cultural scene and to eat some of the best food of your life, including okonomiyaki, a sublime savoury pancake.
Nara, Japan’s first permanent capital, is stuffed full of historic treasures, is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, some of Japan’s oldest temples and the world’s friendliest deer.
Hiroshima & Miyajima
As the site of the world’s first atomic bomb, Hiroshima needs little introduction. Miyajima, a small island less than an hour from Hiroshima, is famous for its giant torii gate that appears to float on the water at high tide.
Planning Your Two Days in Kyoto
When is the best time to visit Kyoto?
Kyoto can be visited year-round. However, my preference is late spring or autumn.
Visit in April and May for temperate weather and to welcome the cherry blossom. In Autumn, Kyoto’s foliage is a kaleidoscope of dazzling colours, from the deep russet of the city’s maple trees through to vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows.
The timing of these natural spectacles is not a given. However, you can check the Japan Meteorological Corporation’s cherry blossom forecasts from the start of the year. Fall foliage forecasts are also available.
If you are visiting Kyoto in May, try to time your visit with the Aoi Matsuri Festival. Also known as the Hollyhock Festival, this takes place each year on 15th May and is one of Kyoto’s biggest and most important events.
How to get to Kyoto
Kyoto is well served by air and train.
How to get to Kyoto by air
Kyoto is within easy reach of Kansai International Airport and Osaka International Airport (Itami Airport). Despite its name, Itami Airport caters to domestic flights.
Getting to Kyoto from Kansai Airport
The Limited Express Haruka train operates between Kansai Airport and Kyoto. The journey takes around 75 minutes and is covered by the JR Pass.
Alternatively, you can catch the limousine bus that makes the same journey in 90 minutes.
Getting to Kyoto from Osaka Airport
To get to Kyoto from Osaka Airport, catch the limousine bus. The journey time is around an hour.
How to get to Kyoto by train
The Hikari shinkansen (bullet train) travels to Kyoto from either Tokyo Station or Shinagawa Station in central Tokyo in 2 hours and 40 minutes.
Two other trains run along this line: the Nozomi and Kodama. However, I don’t recommend them. Nozomi trains are not included in the Japan Rail Pass and the Kodoma takes longer to travel between Tokyo and Kyoto.
Kyoto is a mere 12 minutes from Osaka on the shinkansen.
It is considerably cheaper to buy your JR Pass before leaving home.
How to get around Kyoto
As the attractions included in this 2-day Kyoto itinerary are scattered in different areas of the city, you will need to tackle the city’s public transport system at some point.
There are two subway lines. However, these are of limited use to access the places that you will want to see as a visitor. More often, buses or taxis are your best option. I used a combination of buses, subway, trains and taxis to get around.
How to use buses in Kyoto
The good news is Kyoto has an extensive and efficient large bus network. The bad news is that queues for buses can be long, especially at Kyoto Station.
You board Kyoto city buses from the rear and exit from the front. When you are approaching your stop, press the button to let the driver know that you want to get off (there is often an indicator at the front of the bus displaying the next bus stop).
Like most buses in Japan, you pay as you get off the bus with cash, a travel pass or a rechargeable IC card. Kyoto has both flat-fare routes (within the city) and non-flat-fare routes.
In 2021, this flat fare is 230 yen. If you are paying with cash, deposit the exact fare into a machine by the driver’s seat. If you don’t have the exact fare, there is a change machine at the front of the bus.
If you are travelling outside of the flat fare zone, take a numbered ticket when you enter the bus. When you are about to disembark, a screen at the front of the bus will show your number and fare.
Although it may sound complicated, in fact, it’s pretty simple.
Travel passes are a convenient alternative to cash fares.
However, do the maths to make sure that a travel card will represent good value. Much of the time it’s quicker to walk between Kyoto’s tourist sights and you may not use public transport as much as you might think.
These passes are available from any Kyoto Tourist Information Centre (there’s a convenient one on the second floor of the Kyoto Station building), Kyoto subway stations, the Bus Information Office outside the main entrance of Kyoto Station and the Kitaoji Bus Terminal.
In addition to the standard city buses, there are also three Raku sightseeing buses that charge the same flat fare of 230 yen.
These brightly coloured buses are very user-friendly for tourists. They stop only at key sightseeing locations, and unlike the city buses, announcements are made in English and other languages as well as in Japanese.
How to use Kyoto’s subway system
Kyoto’s subway lines run from north to south (Karasuma Subway Line), and from east to west (Tozai Subway Line).
In 2021, single fares for adults range from 210-350 yen, depending on the distance travelled.
You will need to buy your ticket from a ticket machine. If the machine does not have English instructions, take a look at the route map above the machine to determine your fare. Then, press the button corresponding to that fare.
The Kyoto Subway & Bus Pass offers unlimited travel on the subway as well as the city bus routes.
There is also a Kyoto Municipal Subway One-day Pass(600 yen).
How to use Kyoto’s train system
Kyoto has six train lines, which can be used to get around the city as well as for journeys further afield. The JR Sagano Line, connecting Nijo, Uzumasa and Saga-Arashiyama with Kyoto Station is particularly useful (and free for JR Pass holders).
The private Keihan Line can also be a useful option.
Taxis in Kyoto
Traffic permitting, taking a taxi in Kyoto is often be a speedier way of getting from A to B.
Expect to pay around 600 yen for the first 2 km, and then an additional 80 yen every 400 meters. Most taxis charge a 20% surcharge between 23:00 and 5:00 am.
As taxi drivers in Kyoto are generally honest and will turn the meter on, you shouldn’t worry about being ripped off. Do not tip; simply pay the fare shown on the meter.
It will help the driver to have a map available or the address of your destination written in Japanese.
Where to stay in Kyoto
I recommend staying near Kyoto Station or in the downtown area.
On my first visit to Kyoto, I stayed close to the main train station. Not only is Kyoto Station is the city’s main transport hubs, but I was also using Kyoto as a base for day trips further afield. The disadvantage of staying near the train station is that this area is not brimming with good restaurants.
The second time around, I stayed in the downtown area, two blocks from the restaurants of Pontocho Alley, and on many of the main bus routes. Although I would choose to stay in this area on a return visit, I wouldn’t think twice about staying near Kyoto Station again.
I can recommend all of these hotels in which I have stayed. They will suit a traveller on a mid to high-end budget (accommodation in Kyoto is not cheap).
Kyoto Station area
Hotel Granvia Kyoto
This 5-star hotel was my base during my first trip to Kyoto.
Located within the railway station, Hotel Granvia allows you to travel with ease within the city and to take the train on day trips out of town.
Rooms are spacious, service is top-notch and it has an indoor swimming pool.
Kyoto downtown area
Cross Hotel Kyoto
This superb hotel was my base on my second visit to Kyoto.
The Cross Hotel is in a perfect location. Hankyu Kawaramachi Station, Sanjo Station, Kyoto Shiyakusho-mae Station and Sanjo Keihan Station are all less than six minutes on foot, frequent buses pass nearby and the restaurants of Pontocho Alley and Gion are within easy walking distance.
In terms of luxury, the hotel punches well above its 4-star rating with stylish and comfortable interiors and stellar service.
Hotel Gracery Kyoto Sanjo
As the Cross Hotel wasn’t available for my final night in Kyoto, I relocated to this 4-star hotel in the same area.
Whilst not as luxurious as the Cross Hotel, this is a great choice of comfortable accommodation in the same convenient area at a lower price. Free coffee is available in the guest lounge.
Where to eat in Kyoto
Whichever way you judge it – atmosphere, service or quality of food – Kyoto is one of the world’s great foodie destinations.
Here are few places that I tried that I can recommend
An excellent yakitori restaurant in Pontocho Alley.
199-1 Shimokorikicho, Kyoto
Super-friendly, cheap and busy gyoza joint near Pontocho Alley
Apple gyoza with ice cream anyone?
117 Ishiyacho, Kyoto
The main branch of this chain of hallowed tonakatsu restaurants in an alley just off the Sanjo Shopping Arcade.
What’s so cool about this place – apart from the super tender pork – is that blend your own dipping sauce at the table by grinding sesame seeds before adding the sauce of your choice.
16 Ishibashi-cho, Kyoto
Is Kyoto Safe for Female Solo Travellers?
Safety as a solo traveller is a particular concern of women travelling alone. Japan is one of the safest solo travel destinations in Asia, if not the world. This is a country that takes pride in its safety, uniformity and order, and has a very low crime rate.
Whilst you shouldn’t be complacent, you don’t have to be concerned about pickpocketing or walking alone at night as much as you would in other countries. If you use your common sense, watch your belongings, drink alcohol in moderation and share your itinerary with someone back home, your trip to Kyoto should be trouble-free.
However, women in Japan have been the recipients of unwelcome male attention when riding the subways. Chikan, or public groping, has been a dark cloud hovering over the country in recent years. This has led to railway companies introducing designated women-only cars. In Kyoto, there are cars reserved for women on commuter trains.
Japan: Suggested Reading
Do you want to learn a little bit more about Japan? Here’s my pick of books to read either before travelling to Japan or whilst you are there.
One of my favourite books ever, Hiromi Kawakami’s gentle novel sets three national obsessions – dining out at izakaya, hanami (flower viewing) parties during cherry blossom season and discussing baseball – against the growing relationship between a thirtysomething woman and a much older man. The literary equivalent of being wrapped in a warm blanket.
There had to be at least one Murakami book on this list and this is my current favourite. In this tale of love, friendship, and loss, the main protagonist tries to make sense of being abandoned by his closest friends. Unforgettable and heartbreaking.
Ever since reading The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro has been one of my favourite authors. This excellent novel set in post-war Japan features an artist who uses his skills promote the military government’s imperialist ambitions
Why You Should Visit Kyoto
Kyoto is a non-negotiable part of any Japan itinerary and a destination that rewards repeat visits.
The vermillion torii of Fushimi-Inari, the shimmering Golden Temple and the majestic Arashiyama Bamboo Grove are all unforgettable. However, it will be the hidden gems tucked away on side streets, that you stumble upon when walking between the main attractions, that will capture your heart.