There’s no denying that Kyoto is one special place. Few world cities beguile travellers more than Japan’s cultural capital. 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 itinerary.
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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Got only one day in Kyoto? Maximize your time with this 1-day Kyoto 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…
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.
TIP: Wandering aimlessly in Japan can get confusing! Keep yourself connected and get all the maps & information you need for this Kyoto itinerary with one of these pocket WiFi rentals for tourists in Japan.
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 Shijo-Dori, one of the best food streets in Kyoto!
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.
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-jji 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, one of the best times to visit 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 maiko experience. Maiko (geisha in training) are perfect hostesses, entertaining guests over lunch or dinner with traditional Japanese performances and light-hearted conversation.
Want a cheap alternative to the geisha experience? Book a Traditional Maiko Performance before you arrive in Kyoto. Includes a bento box lunch or matcha & Japanese sweets.
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.
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?)
Not keen on street food? The Gion and Kamogawa Evening Food Tour celebrates the city’s best food, ending with Kyoto’s haute gastronomic specialty, a 10-course Kaiseki meal.
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.
Where to Stay 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.
Want to see more in your first 24 hours in Kyoto? Apply these 1-day Kyoto itinerary 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, slip into the suburbs to take in the otherworldly Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and Arashiyama Monkey Park.