Our 2022 Kyoto, Japan guide offers planning tips & tricks, hotel recommendations, best temples & shrines, transportation hacks, where to eat, crowd info, why we love the city, and more. Before we get to the basics, we’ll offer a brief note on travel to Kyoto later this year. (Updated January 9, 2022.)
It’s highly unlikely anyone reading this is already in Kyoto in the midst of a trip, requiring urgent advice on what to see or do. It’s also unlikely anyone is planning a trip to Japan in the immediate future. Given that this Ultimate Kyoto Planning Guide is in English, you’re most likely planning ahead to Spring 2022, at the earliest. That’s because the border is currently closed to foreign tourists. If you’re curious when you might be able to visit, read When Will Japan Reopen for Travel?
That attempts to answer the titular question, but we’ll warn you: there have been a lot of false starts. In fact, at this time last year, Japan was preparing to begin a trial reopening to test a new system that would be used ahead of the Olympics. Those plans were cancelled and abandoned. One year later, Japan is no closer to reopening–actually, the country is further away after locking back down due to the Omicron variant. On a positive note, it’ll take a while for tourism to fully recover once the border reopens, which should make it a great time to visit Kyoto later in 2022 or 2023. With that note about current events out of the way, let’s begin with the Kyoto planning guide in earnest!
Kyoto is our favorite city in the world, and a place we fell in love with the first time we visited. While we don’t live in Kyoto full-time, we have spent several months there over the course of the last several years. We now travel to Kyoto several times per year to keep our resources on this site current.
If you’re still debating whether you should visit Kyoto during a trip to Japan, read Why We Love Kyoto, Japan. That’s our love letter to the city. Our opinion that Kyoto is the greatest city in the world is hardly unique, but hopefully our perspective is. While we could be described as unofficial cheerleaders for the city, we strive to keep it real, covering both good & bad–what to do and what to avoid.
We also aim to provide planning advice beyond the superficial ‘best of’ lists. Although visiting popular temples is fun, Kyoto should not be treated as simply a highlight reel of temples. You’ll get so much more out of a visit to the city with a varied mix of major attractions and hidden gems–and encounter fewer crowds in the process.
If you’ve already made the very sage decision to visit Kyoto, our planning guide will help you fill in the details…
What’s New in Kyoto
Aside from the low crowds, the big news that concerns tourists is that last fall the popular Gion District is banning photography on private roads. Gion is one of Kyoto’s most famous historic districts, and is home to many geisha and maiko.
In our Guide to Gion, we have long cautioned against “geisha-stalking” or being an obnoxious paparazzi. In fact, we avoid Gion during peak tourist hours because it has gotten so bad recently. The district has had many rules for a while, but these are all at the behest of that same association, and it remains to be seen to what extent the fines issued are legally enforceable.
We hate to start this out with a lecture, but please be courteous and respectful of the locals while visiting Kyoto. This is a living, breathing city–and one that has seen an explosion of tourists in the last 5 years, many of whom are disrespectful. There’s an etiquette section below, but just remember: you are essentially an ambassador of your country–behave like you would in a colleague’s home or a museum, because Kyoto is essentially both a home and a museum.
For more thorough insight into what’s new and what has changed, we highly recommend reading our What’s New in Kyoto, Japan post series. A lot of renovations, new things, and redevelopments are occurring ahead of the Tokyo Summer Olympics (yes, even in Kyoto). That also covers crowd patterns, the new Airbnb law, and more.
Things to Do in Kyoto
If you’re planning on visiting Kyoto, hopefully you like temples, because that’s the main draw. With that said, there are plenty of other things to do. Although we don’t believe its museums measure up to Tokyo’s, Kyoto does have a fair number of them, and between its niche art museums and independent galleries, Kyoto has a thriving arts community.
Food is another thing. Few cities in the world have as many Michelin-starred restaurants as Kyoto. Great ramen, udon, tempura, and other inexpensive options also abound in Kyoto. The city is famous for tea ceremonies, but it’s the independent coffee scene that’s truly flourishing.
Wandering aimlessly (let’s call it “exploring” to sound more purpose-driven) is another thing to do. Kyoto is a beautiful, quirky city and discovering what makes it tick is part of the fun. That could be bizarre art featuring the human anatomy (which you’re sure to see when walking from Kiyomizudera to Yasaka Pagoda) or an antique shop down a narrow alley.
In our case, it’s petting or photographing feral cats and dogs, selfies with tanuki statues, marveling at meticulously handcrafted signage, and perusing 100 yen stores. The treasures you’ll discover when aimlessly wandering cannot be planned-for, and having your own unique experience is part of the fun.
Kyoto 1-Day to 1-Week Itineraries
If you’re looking for itineraries that combine a little of everything, we have several different itineraries in our 1-Day to 1-Week Kyoto, Japan Itineraries. These offer multi-day itineraries, including several not listed below that are season-specific, as well as single day options that you can combine to see different sides of the city that interest you the most. Here are some of the best ones:
Multi-Day Kyoto Itineraries
Single Day Itineraries:
- 1-Day ‘Best of’ Kyoto Itinerary
- 1-Day Eastern Kyoto Itinerary
- 1-Day Western Kyoto Itinerary
- 1-Day Central Kyoto Itinerary
- 1-Day “Cool Kyoto” (Northern) Itinerary
- 1-Day Kyoto, Kurama & Kibune Itinerary
- 1-Day Southwestern Kyoto Itinerary
If you have the Japan Rail Pass and are interested in venturing beyond Kyoto during your stay in Kansai, we recommend consulting our Japan Itineraries for Kyoto, Tokyo, and Beyond. Obviously, those cover Kyoto and Tokyo, but we also have ones for Nara, Kobe, Osaka, Nagoya, and more.
Debating other day trips from Kyoto? We cover our top recommendations of cities, big and mall, to visit in our Top 10 Kyoto Day Trips list.
These itineraries are heavy on temples (and walking!), but we feel they’re fairly balanced and offer a good sampling of Kyoto’s most interesting points of interest. Part of this is out of necessity (there are over 1,600 temples in Kyoto) and part of it is out of practicality. Temple fatigue is a real thing, and you should be careful to avoid scheduling too many temples into your itinerary because they’ll all start to blur together.
Unless you’re trying to join the high stakes game of temple blogging (it’s every bit as lucrative and glamorous as you’d expect–which is not at all) you should probably aim to visit around one dozen temples during your time in Kyoto. There’s absolutely no reason to see every single major temple in Kyoto. Take a less is more approach and savor your time at each so they make a distinct impression.
Best Temples & Shrines in Kyoto
As there’s an overwhelming number of temples, shrines, and other things to do in Kyoto, we’ve put together the list below of our top 25 options. If you do one of our multi-day itineraries above, you’ll visit many or most of these (depending upon how many days you have).
If you want to build your itinerary itinerary, this list is a good starting point. Choose about a dozen of those, plus a couple of wildcard temples and other things that appeal to you, you’re going to have a great trip.
For those who have more time in Kyoto, or just want something comprehensive, we have a “Top 100 Temples & Shrines in Kyoto, Japan.” Yes, really. We’ve visited over 200 temples and shrines in Kyoto, and the top 52 are all great. Any one of top 52 on that list could be your ‘surprise favorite’ temple or shrine in Kyoto.
If you’re on a tight budget, we have a list of the Best Free Temples & Shrines in Kyoto. If you’re visiting during a particularly busy time, our Hidden Gem Temples & Shrines in Kyoto is also a great resource for avoiding the crowds. This gives you plenty of choices for experiencing the true serenity of Kyoto, even if you visit during the busiest national holiday of the year! Both of these lists compile the best options that are in the top 52.
Below is a list of our top 25 things to do in Kyoto. It’s mostly temples and shrines, but you’ll notice a few museums and districts that are particularly noteworthy, too. Click on any of these names to open our posts about these points of interest in new windows, where you can see and learn more about them.
25. Eikando Temple
24. Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple
23. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
22. Kennin-ji Temple
21. Kodai-ji Temple
20. Okochi Sanso Villa
19. Daitokuji Temple
18. Sanjusangendo Temple
17. Ryoanji Temple
16. Ninnaji Temple
15. Kokedera Moss Temple
14. Daikakuji Temple