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Top Five Must-See Attractions in Kyoto

Top Five Must-See Attractions in Kyoto, Japan

Welcome to Kyoto, a city where ancient traditions harmonize with modern life, offering a captivating journey through Japan's cultural capital. In this blog post, we will delve into the top five must-see attractions in Kyoto that define the city's timeless charm and allure. Nestled amidst serene landscapes and steeped in centuries of history, Kyoto stands as a testament to Japan's enduring legacy. Whether you're a seasoned traveler or embarking on your first trip to Japan, Kyoto promises an unforgettable experience that lingers in the heart long after your journey ends.

Nishiki Market

Only one place in Kyoto had us coming back again and again - Nishiki Market. While Osaka may hold the title of Japan's Kitchen, Kyoto offers its own delectable array of culinary delights. Nishiki Market, also known as Nishiki Ichiba or Kyoto's Kitchen, is a vibrant and historic marketplace located in the heart of Kyoto. Dating back over 400 years, Nishiki Market has earned its reputation as a culinary haven.

Flower Stall at Nishiski Market
The market spans a narrow, covered street lined with over a hundred shops, stalls, and eateries, each offering a diverse range of fresh produce, beautiful flowers (as pictured above), traditional Japanese foods, snacks, sweets, and kitchenware. Locals refer to Nishiki Market as "Kyoto's Pantry" due to the wide array of local and seasonal ingredients available, including fresh seafood, colorful vegetables, pickles, dried goods, tea, and spices.

What makes Nishiki Market especially fascinating is its fusion of traditional and modern culinary offerings. While you can find classic Kyoto delicacies like wagashi (Japanese sweets), the market also features trendy food items such as matcha-flavored treats, sushi rolls, grilled skewers, and more. Many vendors sell small portions, allowing visitors to taste and discover new flavors along the way.

Nishiki Market Food Vendor
Aside from food, Nishiki Market is home to vendors selling traditional Japanese knives, ceramics, kitchen utensils, and local crafts that make for unique gifts or keepsakes from your Kyoto visit. If you do not happen to see what you are looking for inside Nishiki Market itself, there are tons of additional shops catering to these items - and much more - in the Teramachi and Shinkyogoku Shopping Arcades nearby.

Navigating Nishiki Market is an adventure in itself, with thick crowds, enticing aromas, and a lively atmosphere that reflects the dynamic food culture of Kyoto. It's a must-visit destination for food lovers, cultural enthusiasts, and anyone looking to experience the authentic flavors of Japan.

Nishiki Market_Seafood

Jetset Seeker Pro Tip: Nishiki Market gets absolutely PACKED at lunchtime. So much so, it can be near impossible to move through the market. We recommend going for a late lunch or snack, around 2:30/3:00 in the afternoon, or even visiting the market for an early dinner.

The official hours of Nishiki Market are 9:00AM to 5:00PM, however, the hours of each individual stall varies. While not all of the vendors remain open come dinner time, some are and the market itself is quiet. We enjoyed a really fantastic seafood meal in Nishiki Market on our first evening in Japan. We were treated to fresh oysters, crab legs, and grilled scallops, along with sake and melon Fanta. The meal was amazing, affordable, and we felt truly emerged in the culture as we were completely surrounded by locals. We also got to sit on stools and use tables made from Sapporo beer crates. While it was by no means fine dining, it was a fantastic meal and provided a great opportunity to get a taste of Nishiki Market when it was not so crowded! 

Dinner_Nishiki Market

We loved our dinner at Nishiki Market so much that we opted to visit again during our time in Kyoto for a late lunch in-between sightseeing. This time we opted to try foods from a number of different vendors - enjoying everything from wagyu beef skewers, to sweet potato-filled taiyaki, plum wine beer, amazing gyozas, and more. The options are truly endless, so be sure to come hungry!

Taiyaki_Nishiki Market_Kyoto

Looking to have a food tour of Nishiki Market? While we wandered - and ate - our way through Nishiki Market on our own, a food tour is a great way to be introduced to new foods that you might not otherwise try on your own and meet fellow travelers. GetYourGuide has a number of food tour options of Nishiki Market, but if we were to do one on our next trip to Kyoto, we'd select this Nishiki Market Food Tour. The tour has fantastic reviews and provides the opportunity to visit approximately 10 stalls during your tour, and includes food and drinks. If you book an experience or tour through our GetYourGuide affiliate link, we may earn a small commission. 

Nishiki Market_Plum Wine Beer_Kyoto

Nishiki Market is open seven days a week, with most vendors open between 9:00AM and 5:00PM, but as previously stated the hours of each individual stall varies. Some vendors are closed on Wednesdays and Sundays. If you visit Nishiki Market, remember to not walk and eat as it is considered rude or impolite in Japanese culture to do so. With that being said, and since the market can get busy, try to eat or drink your purchase in front or inside of the shop from which you purchased it. A list of all of the vendors at Nishiki Market can be found on the Nishiki Market website.

Kinkaku-ji Temple (Golden Pavilion) 

Kinkaku-ji Temple, famously known as the Golden Pavilion, is a dazzling Zen Buddhist temple located in Kyoto, Japan. What sets Kinkaku-ji apart is its stunning exterior covered in shimmering gold leaf, creating a breathtaking spectacle that reflects in the surrounding Mirror Pond. This UNESCO World Heritage site attracts visitors from around the globe who are drawn to its beauty, tranquility, and historical significance.

Kinkaku-ji Temple_Kyoto

Kinkaku-ji was originally built as a retirement villa for Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, a powerful shōgun in Kyoto during the Muromachi period (1336-1573). After Ashikaga Yoshimitsu's death in 1408, Kinkaku-ji was converted into a Zen Buddhist temple, affiliated with the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, as outlined in his will. From then forward, Kinkaku-ji served as a place for meditation and spiritual practice. The serene environment and scenic beauty of Kinkaku-ji continues to attract visitors seeking tranquility and contemplation.Over the years, Kinkaku-ji has encountered numerous obstacles, from destructive fires to the ravages of war. The original structure was destroyed by a fire in 1950 by a deranged monk, but was meticulously reconstructed to preserve its historical and cultural significance. Today, the Golden Pavilion stands as a symbol of resilience and preservation of Japan's architectural heritage. 

Looking to learn more about the history of Kinkaku-ji Temple? Check out this article by

Kinkaku-ji Temple_LB

Upon arriving at Kinkaku-ji, visitors are greeted by meticulously landscaped gardens, lush greenery, and tranquil pathways that lead to the main attraction—the Golden Pavilion itself. While you cannot enter the Golden Pavilion, you can view it from the exterior. The architecture of Kinkaku-ji reflects a unique blend of Japanese Zen Buddhism and traditional Chinese influences. The upper two floors of the pavilion are covered in gold leaf, symbolizing the opulence and wealth of the era. The temple's design incorporates elements of the samurai culture and the elegance of traditional Japanese gardens.

Jetset Seeker Pro Tip: Kinkaku-ji Temple is an insanely busy and popular tourist attraction in Kyoto. In order to avoid the crowds, we recommend visiting approximately an hour before closing at 4:00PM. (Kinkaku-ji Temple is open daily from 9:00AM to 5:00PM.) The last admission is at 4:30PM. When we visited in January, we arrived just after 4:00PM and practically had the place to ourselves. It was quiet, peaceful, and really allowed us to enjoy the temple and the beautiful gardens. 

One more thing to note about Kinkaku-ji Temple is that it is not easily accessible by train or subway. While Kyoto's subway system is typically an efficient way to get around Kyoto and many of its iconic attractions, reaching Kinkaku-ji is best reached by city bus. There are several bus routes that connect various parts of the city to Kinkaku-ji, making it a convenient journey. We relied on Google Maps to provide us with directions to Kinkaku-ji via bus and plenty of locals were around to help ensure we, in fact, got on the right bus to head in the right direction. The journey was easy enough and incredibly inexpensive. You can pay for the bus with your IC cards.

Kinkauku-ji Temple is open daily from 9:00AM to 5:00PM. The last admission is at 4:30PM. Additional information about Kinkaku-ji Temple, including bus routes and admission costs, can be found on the Temple's website.

Fushimi Inari Taisha 

Fushimi Inari Taisha is a prominent Shinto shrine located in the Fushimi ward in Kyoto. It is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates that form a mesmerizing pathway leading up Mount Inari. Fushimi Inari Taisha pays homage to the revered Shinto deity Inari Ōkami, known as the patron of rice, fertility, agriculture, general prosperity, and worldly success. Inari is one of the most revered deities in Japan, and the shrine attracts numerous visitors seeking blessings related to wealth, success, and good fortune.

Fushimi Inari_Tori Gates

The main shrine complex is located at the base of Mt. Inari and where you will start your journey through the thousands of torii gates. Here, you can visit the prayer hall and pay your respects by giving a small offering (a coin or two is sufficient), buy amulets (called omamori in Japanese), say prayers, and more. Just remember to keep Japanese etiquette rules in mind when visiting any shrines throughout your travels. Check out this article from Matcha on how to properly pay your respects when visiting a shrine like Fushimi Inari Taisha during your trip to Japan.  

The shrine's iconic torii gates, donated by individuals, families, and businesses, create a winding trail that leads visitors through the forested slopes of Mt. Inari. Companies and individuals pay thousands of dollars to donate these torii gates as they are believed to bring prosperity to business. The torii gates also contribute to a serene and enchanting ambiance, harmoniously blending the beauty of nature with Japanese culture.

Fushimi Inari_Torii Gates_Kyoto

As you walk through Fushimi Inari Taisha's iconic torii gates, the crowds will thin as the path continues. The entire footpath at Fushimi Inari Taisha, leading to the summit of Mt. Inari, is approximately 2.5 miles (4 kilometers). Few tourists walk the entire path, and although it offers a scenic and peaceful walk, it typically takes about two to three hours to complete. Therefore, if you find yourself short on time during your sightseeing agenda and cannot complete the full trail, that is perfectly fine - you are not missing much! We recommend going at least part way (about 30 minutes down the path) as the crowds thin and you will be able to really enjoy Fushimi Inari Taisha and all it has to offer.

Fushimi Inari Taisha is open 24-hours per day, seven days a week and admission is free. If you do choose to visit Fushimi Inari Taisha at night or in the very early hours of the morning, bring a flashlight with you as the majority of the walking path is not well lit. If you can get an early start, we recommend visiting Fushimi Inari Taisha first thing in the morning (between 7:00-8:00AM) as it starts to get crowded around 9:00AM and will remain crowded until the late afternoon. The shrine's shops and food stalls are typically open 9:00AM to 5:00PM. For more information on visiting Fushimi Inari Taisha, including upcoming festivals and nearby train stations, be sure to check the shrine's website.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Third on our list of the top five must-see attractions in Kyoto is Kiyomizu-dera Temple, located in eastern Kyoto. Kiyomizu-dera Temple is a historic Buddhist temple that dates back to the 8th century. Its name, which translates to "Pure Water Temple," is derived from the Otowa Waterfall within the temple complex, known for its clear and pure water believed to have healing properties, as well as bring love, success, and longevity to those who drink from it.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple_Kiyomizu Stage_Kyoto

The temple is renowned for its beautiful wooden architecture, particularly the main hall (hondo) and the famous Kiyomizu Stage. The stage, supported by wooden pillars and overlooking a panoramic view of Kyoto (in our opinion, the best place for a scenic view of Kyoto), is a symbol of the temple and offers breathtaking sights during cherry blossom season in spring and vibrant foliage in autumn.

Kiyomizu-dera is affiliated with the Hosso sect of Buddhism and is dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. Visitors to the temple can partake in various rituals, such as drinking from the three streams of the Otowa Waterfall.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Kiyomizu-dera Temple opens daily at 6:00AM. Closing time is dependent on the season. Paid admission is required to access the main hall and Kiyomizu Stage. Tickets can be purchased on-site. More information about Kiyomizu-dera, including opening hours, can be found on the temple's website.

Higashiyama District

Surrounding Kiyomizu-dera Temple is the charming Higashiyama district, a historic neighborhood known for its preserved traditional atmosphere. The streets are lined with wooden machiya houses, small shops selling souvenirs, crafts, and local delicacies, as well as quaint tea houses offering matcha tea and traditional sweets. There is also a large number of kimono rental boutiques which provide the opportunity for tourists to dress in traditional Japanese clothing, complete with wooden sandals and tabi socks. 

Higashiyama District_Kyoto

Exploring the Higashiyama district is like stepping back in time, with cobblestone pathways, narrow alleys, and traditional lanterns adding to its nostalgic charm. Visitors can wander through the streets, visit other nearby temples and shrines like Yasaka Shrine and Kodai-ji Temple, and experience the rich cultural heritage of Kyoto's past.

Explore Gion 

Nestled in the heart of Kyoto, the Gion District beckons travelers with its allure of tradition, elegance, and cultural richness. This historic neighborhood offers a rare glimpse into the world of geisha culture. Gion is renowned as one of the last bastions where geiko and maiko practice their traditional arts, from mesmerizing dance performances to captivating conversations steeped in etiquette and grace. Gion is also home to a number of tea houses and restaurants that showcase traditional Japanese cuisine. The district's streets are lined with beautifully preserved machiya houses that echo Kyoto's architectural charm from centuries past. Lantern-lit alleys and cobblestone pathways create an enchanting ambiance, inviting visitors to immerse themselves in a bygone era of refinement and sophistication. 

Gion District_Kyoto_Landscape

A crucial point to remember when exploring Gion is that it is and remains a residential area. It is important to stick to the main streets and avoid venturing down small alleys or taking photos of private residences. While Gion may seem like a setting straight out of a fairytale, it is a living, breathing neighborhood where many locals reside. It is essential to treat it and its residents with the respect and reverence it deserves.


Hanamachi Culture 

What makes Gion truly unique is its hanamachi culture, where geisha and maiko reside and work. Geisha are highly skilled entertainers who excel in traditional Japanese arts such as dance, music, poetry, and conversation. They embody elegance, grace, and sophistication, captivating audiences with their performances and engaging social skills. Maiko, on the other hand, are apprentice geisha, often times teenagers, who undergo rigorous training in the arts, etiquette, and cultural practices under the guidance of experienced geisha. In Gion, geisha and maiko play integral roles in preserving Japan's cultural heritage. They partake in tea ceremonies, entertain guests at exclusive gatherings known as ozashiki, and participate in seasonal festivals.

Statue of Izumo no Okuni_Kyoto

The hanamachi culture in Gion (and Japan as a whole) is often regarded as a dying tradition, struggling to adapt to contemporary realities while preserving its authenticity. The traditional apprenticeship system for maiko is rigorous and time-consuming, leading to a decline in the number of young women entering the profession. Additionally, societal shifts and modernization have led to changes in entertainment preferences, with fewer patrons seeking out traditional geisha entertainment. Efforts are being made to promote awareness and appreciation for geisha and maiko arts, including cultural events, performances, and educational initiatives aimed at fostering a deeper understanding of this cherished cultural tradition.

If you happen to be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a geisha or maiko as you wander through Gion, be sure to show them the utmost respect by giving them space and honoring their privacy. These individuals are professionals on their way to or from work, not mere spectacles for tourists. Should you wish to capture their beauty in a photo, always remember to kindly ask for their permission first.

Yasaka (Gion) Shrine

At the heart of Gion lies Yasaka Shrine, also known as the Gion Shrine due to its close proximity to the Gion District. Yasaka Shrine is a prominent Shinto shrine with a history dating back over 1,350 years and holds significant cultural and spiritual importance in Kyoto.

Yasaka Shrine is dedicated to the Shinto deity Susanoo-no-Mikoto, who is revered as the god of storms and sea. Over time, the shrine's significance expanded, and it became associated with various aspects of life, including prosperity, health, and protection against misfortune.

Gion Shrine

Yasaka Shrine is also known for its vibrant festivals and cultural events throughout the year. The most famous festival held at the shrine is the Gion Matsuri, which takes place in July and is one of Kyoto's largest and most spectacular festivals. The festivities include colorful processions, traditional performances, and the display of massive wooden floats adorned with intricate decorations.

Whether you're captivated by Japan's traditional arts, intrigued by its historical legacy, or simply seeking a glimpse into a world of timeless elegance, Gion promises an unforgettable experience that embodies the spirit of Kyoto's history.

Other Popular Attractions in Kyoto

Kyoto boasts a number of other popular tourist attractions that enchant visitors from around the world. The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, located in the city's western outskirts, offers a mesmerizing natural spectacle with its towering bamboo stalks creating a serene pathway for exploration. Nijo Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site, beckons with its stunning architecture and historical significance as the former residence of Tokugawa shōguns. Nearby, the Philosopher's Path provides a scenic walking trail along a canal in the Higashiyama district, especially renowned for its enchanting cherry blossom views in spring. Meanwhile, the Kyoto Imperial Palace, once the home of the Imperial family, showcases traditional Japanese architecture and expansive gardens, providing a glimpse into Japan's imperial history and cultural heritage.

Kyoto Sign

In Summary: The Top Five Must-See Attractions in Kyoto

As you plan your journey to Kyoto, a city steeped in historical significance and cultural splendor, you will undoubtedly find yourself enchanted by its timeless allure. Kyoto is a city with much to offer and we hope that our list of our favorite sites in Kyoto helps you plan the trip of a lifetime to this incredible city. From the lively energy of Nishiki Market, where culinary wonders and local flavors leave you quite literally hungry for more, to the serene tranquility of Kinkaku-ji Temple, enveloped in glistening gold leaf, each stop leaves a lasting impression on your journey through Kyoto.

The iconic Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, with its thousands of vermilion torii gates leading into a realm of myth and reverence, invites contemplation and spiritual connection. Meanwhile, Kiyomizu-dera Temple, perched atop a hill, offers panoramic views of Kyoto and serene gardens, embodying Kyoto's spiritual heritage.

Kimono Girls Kyoto

Lastly, the Gion District, a timeless enclave where geisha culture thrives amidst historic streets and teahouses, beckons with its elegance. Together, these five must-see attractions encapsulate Kyoto's essence—a blend of ancient traditions, architectural marvels, natural beauty, and cultural vibrancy that captivates the heart and soul of every traveler. Kyoto's timeless charm awaits, inviting you to immerse yourself in its treasures and discover the magic that makes it a cultural gem.

Looking for more information on Japan and Kyoto? Check out our Kyoto Travel Guide for more popular attractions, incredible restaurants, and general information about Japan's former capital! Looking for general information on Japan before embarking on your trip? From money matters, to etiquette, train information, and more - we have it all in our Japan Travel Guide

Have you visited Kyoto? We would love to hear from you!