Last Updated on September 6, 2020 by queenie mak
Located in the Kansai region of Japan, Kyoto was once the capital city of Japan and was home to several emperors. As one of the largest cities, Kyoto has an abundance of historical temples, shrines and zen gardens. While all the historical monuments are well-preserved, modern buildings are popping up everywhere.
Kyoto’s zen and beauty has captured my heart. I can’t help but want to share everything I know about one of my favourite cities in Japan.
Follow my Kyoto 2 day itinerary and see all the best sights in the old capital and be captivated too!
Related Post – One month in Japan: from Tokyo to Hiroshima
What you need to know before spending 2 days in Kyoto
Before you start your Kyoto itinerary, take a look at my post on everything you need to know before going to Japan. I included a lot of information including how to get around Japan and other travel tips.
Here are additional travel tips that you may find useful when you are planning your Kyoto 2 days itinerary:
- ICOCA is the prepaid IC card for Kansai Region. It is a rechargeable smartcard where you can take public transportation including buses and trains (Hankyu, Keifuku, Keihan, Eizan and Kintetsu). It is useful to have especially if you are taking day trips to Nara, Uji and other destinations.
- Taking the bus and train can save time and energy during your 2 days in Kyoto
- Pick up a Kyoto City Bus two-day Pass at Kyoto Station so you can quickly hop into any of the subway and bus and visit all the sites for both days in Kyoto
- Kyoto is a safe city for solo female travellers
- Events and festivals in Kyoto:
- Monthly flea market at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine – every 25th of each month
- Cherry blossom viewing at Maruyama Park, Kamogawa River, Philosopher’s Path, Kiyomizudera Temple – late March to early April
- Gion Matsuri at Yasaka Shrine – July
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How to get to Kyoto
If you are flying to Kyoto, you will arrive at Kansai International Airport (KIX), which is 95km southwest of Kyoto. There are two direct ways of getting from the airport to the city: Airport Haruka Express Train and Airport Limousine Bus.
And if you are already in Japan and will be coming from the west (Osaka, Kobe, Hiroshima) or coming from the east (Nagoya, Tokyo), you will be arriving in Kyoto Station. Below are some train options from Osaka and Tokyo.
Airport Haruka Express Train from Kansai Airport to Kyoto
- Kansai Airport Express “Haruka” Train: from Kansai Airport to Kyoto Station
- Time: 1 hour 25 minutes
- Cost: ¥1,910
- Check for schedule and fare
Airport Limousine Bus from Kansai Airport to Kyoto
- Airport Limousine Bus: from Kansai Airport to Kyoto Station (and other locations in Kyoto)
- Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
- Cost: about ¥2,600
- Check for schedule, fare and other bus stop locations in Kyoto
Train from Osaka to Kyoto
Depending on where you are staying in Kyoto, you may want to take Japan Railway or Shinkansen to Kyoto Station. Otherwise, taking Hankyu Railways to Karasuma Station is an option too. For all the train options below, you can check Hyperdia for schedule and cost.
- JR Kyoto Line: from Shin-Osaka Station to Kyoto Station
- Time: 24 minutes (rapid service)
- Cost: ¥570 (covered by JR Pass)
- JR Shinkansen: from Shin-Osaka Station to Kyoto Station
- Time: 14 mins
- Cost: ¥1,440 (covered by JR Pass except for Nozomi and Mizuho trains)
- Hankyu Railways: from Umeda Station to Karasuma Station
- Time: 41 minutes
- Cost: ¥400
Train from Tokyo to Kyoto:
The best train option is to take the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Kyoto Station. Regular JR trains can also take you to Kyoto but the cost is the same and it will take more than 8 hours.
- JR Tokaido Shinkansen: from Tokyo Station to Kyoto Station
- Time: 2 hours 39 minutes
- Cost: ¥14,050 (covered by JR Pass except for Nozomi and Mizuho trains)
Where to stay in Kyoto
Kyoto has a variety of accommodations. You can find modern and clean hostel beds for a cheap price tag or luxurious high-end Japanese Ryokan type of accommodations as well.
If you are only spending 2 days in Kyoto, it would be ideal to stay near Gion or Nishiki Market. Alternatively, accommodations near Kyoto Station is another great option. Here are some budget and high-end options:
- The Millennials Kyoto in Japan ($) – A modern hostel that is super close to Pontocho Alley. The upscale hostel has mixed dorms where you sleep in a modern “smart pod” and store your belongings underneath.
- Check prices & reviews: Agoda
- Sotetsu Fresa Inn Kyoto Hachijoguchi ($$) – Located just south of Kyoto Station, the modern hotel has everything you need. A standard room is compact and has a Japanese washroom.
- Check prices & reviews: Agoda
- Granbell Hotel ($$$) – Situated on the east side of Kamo-gawa River, the high-end boutique hotel has traditional Japanese design with modern touches. The Japanese bedroom is spacious and minimal in design aesthetics.
- Check prices & reviews: Agoda
- Cost: up to ¥4,000 per day
- If you are slow travelling through Japan, Kyoto is a great spot to settle for a while
- I stayed at an Airbnb apartment near Saiin Station and another near Nishioji Station. Both apartments have either a bed or futon mats, compact Japanese washroom, small kitchenette, a dining/working area and laundry facilities
- Airbnbs in Gion area will cost more, but you are paying for convenience and proximity to many attractions and dining options
- And if you are not part of Airbnb yet, please use this code to claim your $35 Airbnb discount.
Related Post – How to save money by booking Airbnb accommodations
Kyoto Itinerary: 2 days in the old capital city for first time solo travellers
There are so many things you can see in Kyoto. To pick the best of the best is quite a task. At a bare minimum, you will need at least two days in Kyoto to see all the best attractions in the old capital city.
I spent over four weeks in the city scouting for the best things to do in Kyoto and here is my recommendation for the most comprehensive 2 day Kyoto itinerary. All the attractions mentioned are pinned in the interactive map. You can find more information about each attraction by clicking on the individual pin.
Day 1 in Kyoto (orange pins)
1. Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion)
Your Kyoto 2 days itinerary starts at the most famous attraction in Kyoto: The Golden Pavilion.
Also known as Kinkakuji, the pavilion was once a retirement villa for a commander-in-chief and it became a Buddhist temple after his death. Due to many fires, the temples had to be rebuilt many times.
In 1955, the final rebuilt was completed where each of the three floors has a distinct architectural style. The ground floor has wood structures and white plaster walls that are characteristics of Shinden style. While the upper floors are both covered in gold leaf, the second floor was built in the Bukke Style (similar to samurai houses), and the third floor is in the style of Chinese Zen Hall.
When you enter the temple premise, turn left and you will immediately be in front of a large pond with Kinkakuji in the background. This is where all the tourists take photos of the golden temple and the mirrored reflection from the pond.
Then follow the guided path that tours around the premise including seeing Kinkakuji from different angles, different gardens, Ryumon-taki waterfall, Sekkatei Teahouse, and souvenir shops.
Kinkakuji is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the most visited attraction in Kyoto. Try to arrive at the golden pavilion at 9:00 am as the temple opens its doors. The entrance fee is ¥400.
2. Kitano Tenmangu Shrine
Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is one of many shrines that is dedicated to Sugawara Michizane, a scholar from Kyoto who was associated with the Shinto god of learning. Similar to the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine in Dazaifu on Kyushu Island, many students visit the shrine to pray for luck on their studies. The shrine is especially busy during exam time.
The best time to visit Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is during autumn when many trees in the garden turn into different hues of red and orange. Plus, you can see many Ume (plum) trees in Kitano Tenmangu as it is Michizane’s favourite tree.
And if you are in Kyoto on the 25th of any month, you visit the monthly flea market where you can find nostalgic Japanese pottery, antiques, and crafts.
3, 4, & 5. Arashiyama – Bamboo Grove, Monkey Park and Tenryuji Temple
As the second most visited place in Kyoto, you can easily spend a few hours in Arashiyama and sample their tofu cuisine.
First, check out Tenryuji Temple which is not far away from Keifuku Arashiyama Station. The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most important temple in Arashiyama. Visit the buildings in the temple complex that were spared by fires and the manicured zen garden.
Next, visit Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, a guided path with thousands of bamboo flanking both sides of the narrow path. And the bamboo grove is especially pretty when sunlight shines through from the top. It is the perfect spot to take an Instagram photo!
Then cross Togetsukyo Bridge to the south side and follow the signs for a ten-minute hike up to Arashiyama Monkey Park. While you are walking uphill, you may be approached by a monkey or two. But the majority of them are at the top, where you can buy food and feed them. And don’t forget to catch a glimpse of the view of Arashiyma from the top; the panoramic view is quite breath-taking.
For those of you who are coffee lovers, don’t miss % Arabica Coffee, a popular Japanese coffee brand has a little coffee shop facing the Katsura River.
Arashiyama is known for silky tofu. You’d be surprised to know how many different ways they can serve tofu. Have lunch at one of the many restaurants near Tenryuji Temple before you make your way to the next destination.
6. Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion)
There are many temples and shrines along the eastern mountains in Kyoto. You don’t have to see all of them but you should see Ginkakuji, also known as the Silver Pavilion and it is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Modelled after Kinkakuji, the silver temple has two floors built in different architectural styles. But unlike the gold temple, the silver temple is not covered in silver leaf.
But what is interesting to know is that Ginkakuji was the centre of Higashiyama Bunka, a contemporary culture that had influences on culture and traditions in Japan. Traditions like the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, garden design and architecture were all refined during this period.
But the highlight of Ginkakuji is the elaborate dry stone garden, also known as the “Sea of Silver Sand“. It includes a giant cone called the “Moon Viewing Platform” and perfectly raked white sand which created patterns and texture that compliments the landscape.
The entrance fee is ¥500.
7. Tetsugaku-no-michi (Philosopher’s Path)
Tetsugaku-no-michi aka Philosopher’s Path is a 2km stone path along a stream in the same neighbourhood as Ginkakuji. The path is named after Kitaro Nishida, a philosopher who enjoyed his meditative walks along the stream.
Philosopher’s Path has become quite a popular tourist attraction, especially during cherry blossom season when the quiet residential neighbourhood fills up with tourists.
But even without the blooming pink flowers (like the photos above), walking on the stone path is quite lovely.
A visit to Kyoto must include strolling around Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. Teahouses, restaurants and shops are behind the facades of the traditional houses which line the streets of Gion.
Many tourists visit Gion to hopefully spot a geisha, or rent a kimono or yukata for a few hours and take photos. You can even hire a photographer and take pictures of you as you roam around Gion and other scenic areas in Kyoto.
9. Teramachi Street
Teramachi Street is a covered shopping street located in the middle of downtown Kyoto. There are many coffee shops, cafes, and restaurants along the main avenue and also on the side streets.
By now you must be famished and ready to eat your first dinner in Kyoto. Here are some options that you might want to try:
- Ramen Sen No Kaze ($) – a favourite ramen noodle shop in Kyoto! Don’t be afraid of the long line-up; it is worth the wait!
- Tendon Makino Kyoto Teramachi ($$) – a restaurant on the main shopping street serving delicious tempura shrimp and vegetables over rice.
- Taka ($$$) – a fantastic restaurant that serves delicious izakaya (small Japanese dish or snack). Even though it is standing room only, you won’t even know that you are standing the entire time. The atmosphere is cozy, and the food is mind-blowing! Try the raw chicken sashimi!
Day 2 in Kyoto (purple pins)
1. Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi Inari Shrine is one of the most important Shinto shrines in Kyoto. While some people visit the shrine to pray for bountiful harvest and success in business, many others really want to see the Senbon Torii, which means thousands of torii gates.
When you arrive at Inari Station, you will be greeted by a giant orange torii gate. Beyond the gate is the main hall, many fox statues (Inari’s messengers) the entrance to the torii gate hiking trail.
Halfway up Mount Inari, there is a spot where you can take in the panoramic view of the area. And the further you go up, the further you are away from others i.e. no one photobombing your photos! The whole journey will take about two hours or so.
It is completely free to visit Fushimi Inari Shrine. Stop by Vermillion afterwards and grab an espresso and take a short rest at the cute coffee shop before moving onto your next destination.
Sanjusangendo is a Buddhist temple that is known for two things: Japan’s longest wooden structure and 1001 golden statues of Kannon (Goddess of mercy).
The name Sanjusangendo means 33 intervals or bays. The name comes from the number of intervals or bays between the building’s supporting column beams, which is the traditional way of measuring a building.
In the center of the hall stands is a wooden 1000-armed Kannon statue. And on each side of the big statue is 500 human-size 1000-armed Kannon statues. Each of these thousand statues is made of Japanese cypress and cover in gold leaf. Collectively, it makes quite an impressive sight! But unfortunately, you can’t take photos inside.
It is worth paying a ¥600 entrance fee to Sanjusangendo. Don’t leave the temple without seeing the adjacent garden as well.
3. Kiyomizudera Temple
Kiyomizudera Temple means “Pure Water Temple” and it is my favourite temple to visit in Kyoto. It costs ¥400 to see the UNESCO World Heritage site.
First, walk through Nio-mon, the main entrance, and visit Sai-mon (West Gate) and Zuigu-do Hall before you enter Hondo (Main Hall). The main hall is the largest building on the premise and it has a large wooden stage overhanging the steep hill. The scenery around the main hall is especially stunning during spring when cherry blossoms are in full bloom and in the fall when the leafs are in different hues of orange and red.
In the main hall, you can participate in omikuji, which is a tradition at the temple where you shake thin sticks out of a cylinder box to get your fortune. Each stick has a number and the person behind the counter will give you the corresponding paper with the meaning. If you get a lucky fortune, bring it home with you. But if you didn’t, tie your paper to a designated area and leave your bad luck behind. Even though the fortune is in Japanese, there is a simple legend in English indicating whether you receive a good fortune or not.
Continue on and visit Okuno-in Hall, where you can take a stunning photo of the main hall. Then catch water with a ladle from the three streams of water at Otowa no Taki (Ottawa Waterfall). It is said that water can prolong life and is suitable for purification.
% Arabica Coffee has another coffee shop near Kiyomizudera Temple. But if you already had their coffee the day before, visit Starbucks Kyoto Ninenzaka Yasaka Chaya. The interior resembles a traditional Japanese home. You can enjoy your usual Starbucks coffee on one of their tatami seats.
4, 5, & 6. Maruyama Park, Chion-in Temple & Yasaka Shrine
As the oldest park in Kyoto, Maruyama Park attracts many visitors to see pretty pink cherry blossoms bloom during the spring. Over 680 cherry blossom trees are in the park and the central weeping cherry blossom is the highlight.
At the north end of Maruyama Park, visit Chionin Temple, also known as Monastery of Gratitude. The headquarters of Jodo-shu (a branch of Japanese Buddhism) has many impressive highlights including Sanmon Gate, a massive entrance gate, and the largest bell in Japan. It is free to visit Chionin Temple.
Yasaka Shrine, also known as Gion Shrine, is a Shinto shrine near the entrance of Maruyama Park. The shrine combines the inner sanctuary and the offering hall into one. And in front of the shrine, it has a dance stage with many lanterns. Besides the vibrant vermillion architecture, Yasaka Shrine is particularly beautiful at night as all the lanterns are lit.
lots of summer festival including Gion Matsuri, the most famous festival in Japan, involves a procession with massive floats and hundreds of participants. in July
And if you are visiting Kyoto in July, don’t miss Japan’s most famous festival, Gion Matsuri, at Yasaka Shrine. There are massive floats and hundreds of people participating in this summer festival and is a sight to be seen!
7. Nishiki Market
Nishiki Market is a food market in a long narrow street. Over a hundred vendors sell all types of Japanese food and Kyoto specialties (Japanese sweets, pickled vegetables, etc.). And many of them give free samples! Yum!
I tried the Japanese fish cakes and even had mini donuts. There are too many good treats to choose from. Even though the covered market is busy most of the time but it is still worth visiting.
The market closes at 5:30 pm so give yourself at least half an hour to walk through the entire street.
8. Kamogawa River
After a quick snack at Nishiki Market, take the scenic route along Kamogawa River before you go for dinner. There are pedestrian pathways on both sides of the Kamo River. On the walkway on the east side is quieter but it can be busy during the cherry blossom season.
And onthe west side of the riverbank, the path is next to the backends of restaurants along Pontocho Alley. During the warmer months, the restaurant balconies are open for business. The alfresco tables tend to fill up quickly especially when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.
9. Pontocho Alley
Pontocho Alley is a narrow alley with many traditional restaurants and is parallel to Kamogawa River. The alley has budget restaurants but the majority of them are mid to high-end as the area is known for kaiseki ryori (Japanese haute cuisine).
Browse through the alley and around the area. The small narrow alleys are quite interesting and I promise you, you won’t get lost in the maze. And while you are meandering around the small streets, choose a restaurant in Pontocho Alley that appeals to you. Maybe one facing the Kamo River?
After dinner, go back to Kamogawa River and enjoy the scenery at night. And if you haven’t bought your souvenirs yet, head back to Teramachi Street.
Spending more than 2 days in Kyoto? Check out some of these tours:
Day trips from Kyoto
Kyoto is an excellent city for day trips. If you are spending more than 2 days in Kyoto, you can visit many different places as a half-day excursion or full-day trips. There are many awesome day trips from Kyoto and here are some of them.
Kurama to Kibune in Mount Kurama
Located in north Kyoto in Mount Kurama are two small towns: Kurama and Kibune. The half-day hike starts with a visit to Kurama, a town known for Japanese onsen. Then the hike continues through Kurama-dera Temple, a Buddhist temple in the forest. Then continue onwards through the lush forest and complete the hike at Kibune where you can visit Kibnue Shrine.
It takes about two to three hours to complete and it is an easy trail that anyone can do.
Take the train from Gion-Shijo Station to Demachiyanagi Station, change trains and take it to Kurama Station (43 minutes, ¥650). On the way back, hop on the train at Kibuneguchi Station to Demachiyanagi Station, change trains and take it back to Gion-Shijo Station (41 minutes, ¥650).
Uji is a small town known for matcha green tea production and UNESCO World Heritage site Byōdō-in Temple, which is also the same temple on the ¥10 coin.
A day trip to Uji starts a visit to Byōdō-in Temple. Then cross the Uji-gawa River where you can start your hike up the hill until you reach Daikichiyama Observation Deck. On the way back down, see several more temples before you head back to the main street for some matcha green tea treats.
And if you have time in the afternoon, you can even stop by Fushimi Sake District, a small town part of the sake brewery district. As an important town that produces Japanese rice wine, you can sample all 17 local sake in a sample flight. Sake sampling is a serious business! And while you are there, check out Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum as well.
Getting to Uji is quite easy. From Kyoto Station, take the train to Uji Station (25 minutes, ¥240). If you want to visit Fushimi Sake District, take the train from Uji Station to Momoyama Station (14 minutes, ¥200) and walk 14 minutes.
Nara is the most popular day trip from Kyoto. Spend the day roaming the Nara Park, getting lost in Old Nara City‘s small streets and snacking on traditional Japanese food. And if you want an up-close and personal photo with a deer, buy some crackers and feed them the yummy treats. And check out the famous Tōdai-ji Temple as it is one of the most important Buddhist temples in Japan.
A day trip to Nara from Kyoto is easy peasy. The train from Kyoto Station to Nara Station takes only 57 minutes and costs ¥720.
Himeji is known for the spectacular Himeji Castle, also known as the White Heron Castle. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, the castle certainly does not disappoint. And make sure to visit Engyoji Temple in Mount Shosha. Both are worth visiting during your day trip to Himeji.
The fastest way is to take the Shinkansen from Kyoto Station to Himeji (43 minutes, ¥5,890). Otherwise, take regular Japan Railway via Osaka (94 minutes, ¥2,310).
Are you booking a trip to Japan and following my 2 day Kyoto itinerary?
Kyoto is a must-see place city especially if it’s your first time travelling to Japan. The vibe of the city is so different from other big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. But it is definitely one of my favourite cities in Japan.
And for those of you on a budget, there are many free things to do in Kyoto. Don’t let budget be the reason for you not to visit Japan because there are many affordable (i.e. free) things to do!
Hope you liked my Kyoto 2 day itinerary and if you have any questions, leave a comment below.