There are simply too many Must-See spots in Kyoto, one must come to the city for at least three days. The more the better of course, but three days is what I would consider the absolute minimum.
The beautifully done site “Inside Kyoto” suggests an itinerary of must-see spots in Kyoto in one day! Check it out and good luck!
More than suggesting some itineraries, I prefer to just mention a series of names of place or other suggestions that should enable you to visit and experience the most interesting places of Kyoto. But as we are all different with different interests, I recommend to use these pointers to do your own homework and decide your own visit using the web sites mentioned on the Introduction to Kyoto page. Also, do not forget that I am a firm believer that one should visit Kyoto at least four times, at each season. I will therefore try to emphasize some seasonal differences as well.
Almost any time is a good time to visit Kyoto, but there are some favorites. First and foremost, the Hanami Season (花見) at the end of March and April — the Cherry Blossom season is simply unforgettable. Then, the period going from the end of October, November, to early December, the season called Kouyou (紅葉) or Autumn Colors. The Summer is of course the time of hot days, festival and vacations. And the Winter, while pretty cold, is always very clear and offers another aspect of the city that I personally like very much.
Here are some suggestions to help you form your own strategy to visit and enjoy the city. From the area of your machiya (lower Higashi Yama or East Mountain), I would roughly split the city into three or four zones.
First, the Southern part, the area located south of the train track, south of the Kyoto Station. This is where you’ll find the famous Fushimi Inari Taisa shrine, (the No.1 2014 and 2015 foreign tourist attraction according to TripAdvisor), the To-Ji Temple, and the Tofuku-Ji temple (if you are visiting during the Autumn.) Visiting these two-three spots should take about half a day. These places are about 10-15 minutes away from the houses by bicycle, direct bus or taxi, or train. Refer to the page “Visiting Kyoto from…” specific to your machiya.
The Higashi Yama District
The main touristic area of the city is of course the Higashi Yama district, or Eastern Mountain (North of the train track). The bottom of the mountain along the east part of the city is lined up with temples and gardens. From the house, you’ll easily go to Sanjusangendo and the National Museum. Then, you’ll find Kiyomizu-Dera, Yasaka-no-To, Maruyama Park (following the Ninen Zaka and Sannen Zaka streets and neighborhood), Yasaka Shrine, and then much further north, all the way to Ginkaku-Ji Temple (Silver Pavilion) and the Path of Philosophy. And depending on the season, once you’re up there, you can visit one of my favorite spot, Honen-In (particularly beautiful in Autumn) next to the grave of Tanizaki (the writter). I would suggest trying to visit all these places in two days (don’t forget that many temples close their door at 16:30 or 17:00), and alternating with other visits such as the Nijo Castle, Heian Jingu or the Nisshiki Market.
The North Western Part of the City
Another very touristic area featuring several must-see places is the North Western part of the city. This is where you’ll see the famous Kinkaku-Ji (Golden Pavilion), Ryoan-Ji (and it’s Zen Stone Garden), and Ninna-Ji, offering spectacular view of its late blooming cherry flowers in April and a beautiful garden view in Autumn. A bit further south on the Western part of the city, you’ll reach Tenryu-Ji (don’t miss the impressive Bamboo Forest) and the Arashiyama area. These four temples are all Unesco World Heritage sites. If you have a bit more time and still some energy for more discovery, I would suggest getting into a cab and visiting the Otagi Nembutsu-Ji temple and its surprising collection of small statues, the Rankans.
Another suggestion if you are visiting during the Autumn, is to take a taxi from Kinkaku-Ji and to go down to Daitoku-ji Temple to visit Koto-In Temple, a subtemple offering us one of the most beautiful garden in Kyoto, full of mapple red leaves.
Then, there are a few other places not to be missed, such as Heian Jingu Shrine (specially beautiful for the cherry blossom), the Nijo Castle (the evening light-up in April or Autumn is spectacular), the imperial garden, etc.
– In the city, don’t miss the Nishiki Market (Kyoto’s finest food market) and maybe a food floor at one of the nearby Department Stores (always surprising and fun).
– In the evening, some of our favorites are:
- Walk around Gion, Hanami Koji, ShiraKawa area, Shimbashi in Gion. Lots of restaurants, bars, shops, and always a chance to spot a geisha or a maiko if you’re there at the right time.
- A stroll on Pontocho Alley or further south is always pleasant.