5 Must-See Places in Kyoto

Morning walk around Gion area

When I started this blog, I had so many ideas in mind. There are actually so many things that I’d like to share about my experiences and all the places I visited, and picking which one to start with can be very hard.

But since my sister recently came to visit me and we traveled together to Kyoto, that’s when the idea hit me: starting off my blog talking about one of the cities I love the most and where I had the privilege of spending about 6 months of my life seemed like the right way to go.
But again, there’s an infinite number of things I could say about Kyoto and so many places worth visiting that I could write pages over pages! Of course, I don’t want to write a novel, so I decided to pick my TOP 5 favorites and share them with all of you!

Before starting out my list, allow me an emotional and nostalgic moment.

Kyoto is a magical city, where you can breathe secular traditions along with that spice that modernity offers. The fusion between these two opposites is never disturbing or annoying. In contrast, everything appears to follow the unspoken rule of harmony (after all, we are in Japan, whose culture is indeed based on the concept of harmony). I could feel this the first time I set foot there, I could feel it in my daily life during the 6 months I spent there, I could still feel it 4 years later when I went back as a tourist!

Anyhow, let’s go back to what you all came here for.

My TOP 5 Places to see in Kyoto!

1. Gion:

Gion area, walk around in kimono

First on the list comes Gion, the heart of Kyoto and the place where Japanese arts and traditions have been preciously treasured for so long.
Walking around the famously known “Geisha District”, it’s not uncommon, especially at night, to run into a Maiko or a Geisha on their way to work. After all, these guardians of the finest Japanese ancient arts still perform and entertain their clients in the teahouses and restaurants of the area. These delightful encounters will undoubtedly make you feel like time never passed in Gion and, all of a sudden, you find yourself back to the old days of the Edo period.

What’s the best time to visit Gion? Definitely at night, when this iconic district offers tourists its best spectacle: light contrasts from enchanting lanterns, elegantly designed Noren (traditional fabric dividers hung at the front entrance of shops and restaurants), and so much more, any single detail harmoniously combined together with its surroundings, creating an almost surreal scene.
Are you an early morning person? Then, why not stroll through Gion alleys before shops open and crowds of tourists pack into the narrow roads? This might be a good option if you want to take pictures quietly.

Best of the best: Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka. I highly recommend walking through this pair of famous lanes, which connect Kiyomizu Temple with the more central part of Gion. Whether you walk up the lanes on your way to Kiyomizudera or down after enjoying your visit to the temple, it doesn’t matter. What counts is that you pass through. Along this suggestive path, you’ll find traditional shop-houses selling all sorts of souvenirs, Japanese sweets and street-food. Why not wander around and get some inspiration for gifts and souvenirs to bring back home? And if you’re planning on trying on a kimono, this beautifully preserved area is definitely the right spot to take some captivating and memorable pictures.

2. Jishu Shrine:

Jishu Shrine, the Cupid of Japan

Now that you’ve reached the top of Ninnenzaka/Sannenzaka (if you decided to walk up the lanes) you’ll find yourself in front of the famous Kiyomizu Temple, behind which hides my second MUST-SEE recommendation: Jishu Shrine, also known as “The Cupid of Japan”. Since you’re probably going to stop by the popular Kiyomizu Temple, why not include a quick visit to this smaller but very interesting shrine?

Part of the World Heritage Sites, Jishu shrine is dedicated to the gods of love and relationships, and its main attraction is the so-called “Koiuranai-no-Ishi”, the 2 love fortune stones. Facing each other at a distance of about 10 meters, the 2 stones are believed to bring good luck in love: if you can walk safely from one stone to the other keeping your eyes closed, your love wishes will be granted. So, what are you waiting for? Take up the challenge and be lucky in love for the rest of your life!

3. Heian Jingu Gardens:

Bridge of Peace at Heian Jingu gardens.

Third on my list is the absolutely gorgeous gardens at Heian Jingu. Often forgotten by many tourists, who only visit the free of charge shrine premises, the gardens (¥600) are a precious jewel.
I read several articles that were recommending visiting them only during the cherry blossom season. I couldn’t disagree more! I’ve been there twice (none of these times was actually spring), but I still LOVED them! I’ve no doubt cherry blossoms would create a magical atmosphere, but the gardens are absolutely magnificent any time of the year, especially if it’s a nice sunny day.

The good thing is that, since most visitors opt for stopping by only to admire the refreshing view of sakura (Japanese term for cherry blossom), the gardens are pretty quiet and peaceful for the rest of the year, meaning that you can have the chance to experience the true purpose of a Japanese garden: capturing the beauty of nature and, at the same time, easing meditation.
My favorite part? The wooden bridge (the Bridge of Peace) crossing the lovely pond. No doubt it reminded me of some fairy-tale settings. Go and see it for yourself and let me know if you’re disappointed!

4. Nishiki Market:

Kyoto's authentic street-food at Nishiki Market.

Are you a food lover who enjoys tasting new flavors? Then Nishiki market is the place for you!
An explosion of scents and sounds, this lively market is the best way to explore Kyoto’s culinary specialties.
From Japanese sweets and matcha tea (green tea) to dried seafood, senbei (a type of Japanese rice cracker), pickles and sushi, this market brings you all the variety of Kyoto’s best cuisine in just one place.

Despite being often very busy, navigating from one shop to the other, trying out all the samples of delicacies, is not only fun but also an exquisite sensorial experience! And if you’re lucky enough to visit Kyoto in different seasons, you’ll witness how Nishiki market products are actually displayed according to the 4 seasons!
Many shops also sell takeaway snacks for a couple hundred yen, which means you can satisfy your cravings without having to empty your wallet.

5. Kamo Riverbank:

Walk along the Kamo River.

Last but not least, a nice walk along the Kamo riverbank.
The best timing is probably early in the morning or at dusk, especially if you’re visiting Kyoto during the hot humid summer. If you aren’t a big fan of walking, you can always rent a bike for the day and cycle along the idyllic banks of the river, but, even if it’s probably going to take longer, I would suggest taking a walk. Along the way, you’ll come across some stepping stones crossing the river in multiple locations, where people enjoy hopping from one side to the other. How about trying it out?

The Kamo river is also a good location to observe how locals spend their free time. Probably the most popular social space in Kyoto, the Kamo riverbanks turn into a romantic date spot for lovebirds, as well as a drinking hub for groups of friends to gather at night. Are you travelling solo and would like to make some new friends? Then this is the right area to hang out. Kansai people are very well known for their hospitality and friendliness and I’m pretty sure they would enjoy a nice talk with a traveler while chilling on their favorite riverbank!

These are my 5 MUST-SEE places in Kyoto!

Of course, I’ve got to mention that there are so many other beautiful areas I’d love to recommend, including the more mainstream Golden Pavilion, Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama (the bamboo grove). I admit I’m totally in love with these places too (and for future reference, I will cover them in posts to come), but I’m also pretty sure that, famous as they are, they are already part of your itinerary. (The same could be said about Gion, THOUGH I have a special personal attachment to it and not ranking it among my top list would have broken my heart!)
That’s the reason why for my TOP 5 I decided to pick these locations which are still absolutely worth a visit.

Now it’s time for you to go and see all these beautiful places for yourself! I hope you found this article useful and if so, don’t forget to share it! 🙂

Wish you all a great time in Kyoto!