There’s no denying that Kyoto is one special place. Few world cities beguile travellers more than the cultural capital of Japan. When you wander around Kyoto it’s as if the entire history of a nation unfolds before your eyes. It’s no wonder that Kyoto’s a fixture on nearly every first-time Japan trip plan.
From mysterious temples and shrines hidden among misty forested mountains and traditional teahouses clinging to hilly cobbled roads, Kyoto is everything you’ve ever imagined in an ancient Asian city. And like most cities of its caliber, Kyoto begs you to explore.
A lifetime in Kyoto might not be enough to uncover all its complexities, but that shouldn’t stop you from giving it a try on a quick layover. Even if you only have one day in Kyoto, get started exploring with this complete 1-day Kyoto itinerary…
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What to do in Kyoto in 24 hours: A complete 1-day itinerary
As much as we’d love to tell you that one day in Kyoto is enough time to get your fill in the former imperial capital, it’s not. While you might feel (somewhat) satisfied after 24 hours in Osaka, there’s no chance you’ll leave Kyoto on a time-crunch without an overwhelming yearning to return.
24 hours in Kyoto simply isn’t enough time to do anything more than brush the surface of Japan’s most important urban cultural centre.
But if you’ve only got a quick layover in Kyoto and want to make the most of your visit, you’d be hard pressed to do much better than filling out your Kyoto itinerary with these activities…
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Embrace your jet lag and pull yourself out of bed early to catch the calm of Kiyomizu-dera Temple before the mega crowds descend. Slapped up on a hillside overlooking Higashiyama, Kiyomizu-dera is one of the best introductions you’ll ever find to the fascinating city of Kyoto.
Even in a city that’s hardly short on charms, Kiyomizu-dera is among the most magnificent temples in Kyoto. It’s nearly impossible to not find inspiration on the temple’s balcony, supported by massive 13-metre columns and serving up a stunning panorama of the city.
Besides visiting the main temple (currently under construction until early 2020) and the three secondary halls—Amida-do, Okuno-in, and Shaka-do—slink down to the Otowa Waterfall plunging into the streams below. Join locals and take a small sip of the water, supposedly endowed with special healing abilities.
If your travel schedule allows, find your way to Kiyomizu-dera in spring or autumn, two of the best times to visit Kyoto, to witness an eruption of cherry blossoms or autumn colours envelop the city from above.
Want to dig deeper into Kiyomizu-dera? Book yourself onto one of these recommended tours:
- Kyoto Full-Day UNESCO & Historical Sites Tour: Start your day off in Kiyomizu-dera before continuing on to some of Kyoto’s most exciting attractions including Kinkaku-ji, Sagano Bamboo Forest, and Fushimi Inari Taisha on this full-day tour. Includes transportation, entrance fees, and an optional traditional Japanese lunch.
- Highlights of Kyoto Tour: Fit some Kyoto’s top sites into a single day with this private full-day tour offering two different route options that both include Kiyomizu-dera and Gion District.
- Kyoto Cultural Forest, Shrine and Temple Tour: Skip the line and get to know Kyoto better with help from a professional guide on this comprehensive full-day tour. Highlights include Kiyomizu-dera, Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, Sagano Bamboo Forest, and Kinkaku-ji.
From Kiyomizu-dera, descend into the hilly streets of Higashiyama Ward, venturing north towards Maruyama Park. Beelined, it’s about a 20-minute walk, but take your time and wander at will. Higashiyama is full of traditional shops, restaurants, cafés, and teahouses in an atmospheric setting that’s everything you’d expect in an old Japanese city.
If you’re lucky enough to have planned your trip to Kyoto in spring, Maruyama Park is one of the most popular spots for hanami (cherry blossom viewing) in the city. Besides the unmistakable weeping cherry tree (shidarezakura) at the centre, hundreds of cherry trees and maples are scattered throughout the park among Japanese gardens, stone paths, ponds, bridges, and temples.
While you’re wandering in Maruyama Park, don’t miss out on Yasaka Shrine in the park’s western fringes. Dating back over a millennium, Yasaka Shrine is one of the most popular shrines in Kyoto. Among its most distinguishing features are its two-storey vermillion entrance torii (gate) and hundreds of paper lanterns sponsored by local worshippers looking for a dash of good fortune.
Hungry for a Japanese snack? Grab a quick bite somewhere along nearby Shijo-Dori, one of the best food streets in Kyoto, before continuing on to the next stop on your itinerary.
Want to get the most out of wandering around Higashiyama? Visit with a professional guide on one of these hand-picked tours:
- Kyoto Lanes & Lanterns Tour: Enjoy traditional Japanese snacks and see Kyoto at its finest on this small-group walking tour that trots through Gion and Yasaka Shrine. Food samples and a professional guide are included in the price.
- Kyoto Temple, Shrine, Geiko & Sake Tour: A small-group guided tour focused on the best offerings of Kyoto in the Gion & Higashiyama areas. Highlights include Nanzen-ji Temple, Kiyomizudera Temple, Yasaka Shrine, and sake tasting in Gion District.
- Kyoto Historical Walking Tour: A value-laden two-hour walking tour trotting the beautiful route between Marayuma Park, Yasaka Shrine and Kiyomizu-dera.
After wandering aimlessly through the gardens and temples of Maruyama Park, including Chion-in and Shoren-in, make your way to Nanzen-ji Temple in the forested hills of Higashiyama. This Zen Buddhist temple complex could while away several hours as you sift through temples, stone paths, and both rock and pond gardens that will leave you fully spirited.
Walking around the temple grounds at Nanzen-ji is free, but expect to pay to enter the individual halls and temples of the complex.
From Nanzen-ji, it’s a short 5- to 10-minute walk north to one of Kyoto’s most famous routes, the Philosopher’s Walk. This short stretch, running about two-kilometres long alongside a canal, is named in tribute to Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro who walked here to clear his head on his commute to work at Kyoto University.
As lovely as this route is at any time of year, the Philosopher’s Walk is at its best in spring when the cherry trees lining it are in full bloom. Time your visit properly, and you’ll enjoy one of Kyoto’s best hanami spots as you follow the path north to one of the top Kyoto attractions: Ginkaku-ji.
Looking for some company on The Philosopher’s Walk? Join in on this recommended tour:
- Kyoto Sightseeing Small-Group Bike Tour: Jam more into your day by taking to the trails on this action-packed 3- to 4-hour small-group tour. Highlights include Heian-Jingu Shrine, Nanzen-ji Temple, and the Philosopher’s Path.
If there’s one thing that everyone knows about Kyoto, it’s that the city is absolutely jam-packed with temples. With only one day in Kyoto though, you’ll be limited on how many you’ll be able to fit in.
Fortunately, we’ve got at least one more in the works.
Ginkaku-ji, translated as Silver Pavilion, is a temple that shouldn’t be missed while visiting Kyoto. Its history dates back to the late 15th century when shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa built Ginkaku-ji as a counterweight to the impressive Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion). And although its gilded brother is undoubtedly the handsomer of the two, Ginkaku-ji is a reasonable consolation prize for the time-crunched traveller.
Besides the beautiful vistas of the surprisingly-silverless main Silver Pavilion, Ginkaku-ji contains a handful of smaller buildings amid a host of ponds and gardens. Both the sand garden (known as the Sea of Silver Sand) and moss garden are worth checking out to get a glimpse of the intricacies of ancient Japanese landscape architecture.
From Ginkaku-ji, walk to the corner of Imadegawa-dori and Shirakawa-dori to catch a bus to Gion-Shijo Station. Around the station, you’ll find yourself in Gion District, Kyoto’s old entertainment district, an area that’s bound to mystify even the most hardened of travellers.
Like elsewhere in Higashiyama, Gion District harkens back to the spirit of old Japan. Traditional wooden Japanese architecture—hiding restaurants, houses, and teahouses—lines the district’s atmospheric streets.
The area’s most popular stretch runs along Hanamikoji-dori south of Shijo-dori to Kennin-ji Temple, but you’d do just as well simply letting Gion unfold while you wander aimlessly.
Whatever you do, don’t leave Gion without checking out Shirakawa-minami-dori. Much like the Philosopher’s Walk, Shirakawa-minami-dori is fringed by weeping cherry trees that are at their finest during hanami season, my top pick for when to go to Japan. Even at other times of the year, the riverside greenery mixed with traditional wooden architecture makes an excellent case for the most beautiful street in Kyoto.
Despite all of its outward beauty, what Gion is most famous for is its geisha. While many a traveller dreams of spotting geisha rustling through the alleyways, it’s unlikely you’ll catch one in action. Not at least without dropping down (more than) a few yen!
The full geisha entertainment experience doesn’t come cheap. Or easy. You’ll often need an introduction from a well-to-do local to even have the opportunity.
Far more common for travellers is to opt for a traditional maiko experience. Maiko (geisha in training) are perfect hostesses, entertaining guests over lunch or dinner with traditional Japanese performances and light-hearted conversation.
If you’re not interested in paying extra for a more intimate maiko experience, head to Gion Corner on Hanamikoji-dori for one of the nightly cultural shows. Sure, it’s kitschy and touristy but it will give you an excellent introduction to Japanese culture from tea ceremonies to traditional dramatic arts and dancing.
Looking to get the most out of your visit to Gion? Check out these recommended tours:
- Kyoto Walking Tour Adventure: A small-group walking tour packing in many of the highlights of Kyoto in just three hours. Stops include Tofuku-ji Temple, Fushimi Inari Shrine, and Gion District.
- Kyoto Night Food Tour: Combine a stroll around the beautiful Kamogawa, Pontocho, and Gion area with a 10-course kaiseki meal on this three-hour night tour.
- Nishiki Market and Gion Food & Drink Tour: Stuff your face with Japanese treats at Nishiki Market and in Gion on this 3-hour food tour. Tastings include yuba (tofu skin), hamo (Japanese pike conger eel), mochi (rice cake), matcha tea, and sake.
Whatever you do, don’t leave Kyoto without indulging in a meal at Nishiki Market. Only about 15 minutes by foot from Gion District, Nishiki Market is one of the best places to eat in Kyoto. In it, you’ll find everything from ramen and fresh seafood to matcha-infused desserts and tempura.
Browse through the selection of snacks, following your nose and the longest queues to find the best food that Nishiki Market has to offer.
Even if you haven’t worked up an appetite—although after an action-packed 24 hours in Kyoto, I’d find that hard to believe!—pick up some unique souvenirs here for your friends & family back home. (Perhaps some poorly-translated English stationary is in order?)
If street food isn’t your thing, exit Nishiki Market early to stroll along nearby Shijo-dori or Kiyamachi-dori where you’ll find some of the best restaurants in Kyoto to end your evening.
Ready to burrow into Nishiki Market? Hop onto one of these recommended tours:
- Nishiki Market Tour with 7-Course Lunch: Explore Nishiki to the fullest with your tastebuds on this ultimate food tour. Sample dishes like tako (octopus with quail egg), yuuba (sashimi tofu), and tsukemono (pickled vegetables).
- Nishiki Market Tour with Cooking Class: Take your first step in becoming a bonafide Japanese chef on this 3-hour market tour & cooking class combo. Shop for fresh ingredients at Nishiki Market before returning to a cooking studio for a lesson on how to make donburi (bowl meal). Yum!
- Nishiki Market and Gion Food & Drink Tour: Take on Nishiki Market & Gion with the help of a guide on this 3-hour food tasting tour. Sample dishes include yuba (tofu skin), hamo (Japanese pike conger eel), mochi (rice cake), matcha tea, and sake.
- Gion and Kamogawa Evening Food Tour: Not keen on the street food of Nishiki Market? This tour celebrates the city’s best food, ending with Kyoto’s haute gastronomic specialty, a 10-course Kaiseki meal.
Where to stay: The best hotels for 24 hours in Kyoto
No surprise here. Considering that the former imperial capital is one of the biggest and most popular cities in Japan, deciding where to stay in Kyoto is a bit of a challenge. Not only are accommodations spread out and plentiful, but compared to cities elsewhere in Asia, Kyoto can get a little pricey.
In any case, with only 24 hours in Kyoto you’ll want to stay close to the city centre to make the most of your Kyoto itinerary. Get your search started with a few of these best hotels in Kyoto:
- Guest House Oumi: A beautiful budget ryokan less than a kilometre from Nijo Castle. The relaxing outdoor terrace offers a zen-like calm amidst the bustle of Kyoto.
- Mugen: Another charming traditional ryokan in a quiet residential neighbourhood in Kamigyo Ward. Both standard hotel beds and Japanese-style rooms are available for guests.
- The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto: The ultimate Kyoto luxury hotel. Offers large elegant rooms that fuse modern sensibilities with traditional Japanese style. The luxurious garden suites are simply divine.
Recommended Kyoto day tours
Looking to squeeze more out of your Kyoto itinerary? Here are a few of the best day tours in Kyoto:
- Kyoto Full-Day Sightseeing Tour: Immerse yourself into the best of Kyoto in just one day with this action-packed full-day sightseeing tour. Visits Kyoto’s most important cultural sites including Nijo Castle, Kyoto Imperial Palace, Kinkaku-ji, and Kiyomizu-dera.
- Kyoto Morning Tour: If you’re short on time and want to get your sightseeing done right away, this 4.5-hour morning tour takes in top Kyoto sites like Nijo Castle, Kyoto Imperial Palace, and Kinkaku-ji. All transportation is included in the tour price including pick-up at select Kyoto hotels.
- Half-Day Small-Group Kyoto Cultural Tour: A 3.5-hour afternoon walking tour that explores the cultural side of Kyoto including the geisha district of Gion, the zen rock gardens of Tokufuji, and the famous vermillion gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine.
How to maximize your 1-day Kyoto itinerary: Tips & tweaks
Got a little more time or want to switch things up? Consider changing up your Kyoto itinerary with a few of these ideas:
- Need a more temples in your life? If you’re feeling extra vigorous, you might want to jam in Kinkaku-ji, the most iconic and impressive temple in Kyoto. It lies about 45 minutes from Nishiki Market by public transportation.
- All templed out? Skip out on Ginkaku-ji and find your way to Nijo Castle, just 30 minutes on foot from Nishiki Market.
- Want to escape the city? With a tad extra time, hop onto Kyoto public transportation and slip into the suburbs to take in the otherworldly Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and Arashiyama Monkey Park.
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