When you’re a first-timer visiting Japan, you probably have Kyoto on your radar. With temples and shrines on every corner, geishas and tourists donning kimonos down Gion, bamboo forests, and ryokans to sleep in, visiting Kyoto will take you on a time-travel machine back to Medieval Japan. It’s the total opposite of ultra-modern, skyscraper-laden Tokyo…except Asakusa. I call Asakusa the Kyoto of Tokyo 🙂
Cecilio and I came back from an 11-night trip to Japan, with 5 nights in Tokyo, 2 nights in Kyoto, and 4 nights in Osaka (including a day trip to Nara). While I honestly think you should stay in Kyoto for at least 3 nights, I understand that not everyone has the time to squeeze an extra day into their schedule. You probably have other priorities, and other cities in Japan you want to visit more.
We crammed a ton of things during our stay in Kyoto, so I slightly adjusted our itinerary for you, so you could see as much as you can in a limited amount of time without feeling super rushed.
But this requires you to arrive in Kyoto early morning, from wherever you are. I’m not a morning person, and Cecilio was figuring out how to transport our luggage from Tokyo to Kyoto (Yes, this is actually a thing in Japan where you can get your luggage transported anywhere in the country, and it was a huge life-saver), and we had to transfer multiple trains to the Shinkansen (bullet train). The distance between Tokyo and Kyoto is about 2–3 hours through the Shinkansen, and we arrived in Kyoto at 3 pm. So yeah, our itinerary was pretty jam-packed.
Without further ado, here’s your 2-day Kyoto itinerary!
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Your 2-Day Kyoto Itinerary
This little indoor marketplace is Kyoto’s version of Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market. While they do sell some fish, they specialize in snacks, street foods, desserts, and kitchenware. Nishiki Market is over 400 years old but didn’t get its official trademarked name until 2005. I recommend visiting early for lunch, since most shops and stalls close early…like as early as 7 pm.
If you are a Peanuts fan, you have to check out Snoopy Cha-ya, a cute Peanuts-themed cafe serving Snoopy and Woodstock curry and bento boxes, along with souvenirs!
At the end of Nishiki Market is the small Shinto shrine Nishiki Tenmangu, a Shinto Shrine dedicated to learning and academia. The shrine pays homage to Sugawara no Michizane, a scholar, poet, and politician during the Heian Period. He became regarded as the God of Learning, and many students visit this shrine to pray or receive luck before taking exams.
Window shopping and dinner at Shinkyogoku and Teramachi Shopping Street
For more leisurely strolls, head over to Shinkyogoku and Teramachi Shopping Streets, both of which intersect Nishiki Market. Both are lined with souvenir shops, cafes, sit-down restaurants, and izakayas. These two shopping streets can get pretty crowded throughout the day as they are popular hangout spots for teens and younger adults.
While a lot of eateries close pretty early on both shopping streets, Cecilio and I were still able to get dinner at 8:30 pm. I can’t for the life of me remember the name of the restaurant, and I checked EVERYWHERE. But we had delicious shrimp, beef, and squid skewers, and I had a to-die-for salmon sashimi rice bowl with roe (so it was almost like a Hawaiian poke bowl).
Visit Fushimi Inari at night
No trip to Kyoto is complete without walking through Fushimi Inari-taisha, the famous shrine lined with thousands of vermillion-painted torii (traditional Japanese Shinto gates) leading to Mt. Inari, which is 764 feet above sea level. I recommend going at night since it’s a lot less crowded. There are still a decent amount of people, but I’ve heard it gets packed like sardines during the day.
Visiting Fushimi Inari at night is a little bit eerie, but that’s also what makes it special. It’s peaceful and mysterious. You probably won’t be able to hike to Mt. Inari unless you have a headlamp, since it’s a 2–3 hour trek. But Fushimi Inari lights up at night with its soft, warm glow thanks to the lanterns, and there are a few shrines in between that break up the rows of torii.
Fushimi Inari is free and is open 24/7.
Hope you get a good rest and breakfast. Buckle up, this is going to be the more jam-packed part of your 2-day Kyoto itinerary!
Gion is Kyoto’s most famous street, known as the geisha district. The geishas work in and around the teahouses in Gion, performing dances, singing, games, and tea ceremonies. Contrary to popular belief, geishas are not prostitutes. That would be the oiran during the Edo Period, but the profession died out as prostitution in Japan became illegal.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to spot a geisha walking around Gion. We didn’t 🙁 Just know that you must not take photos of their faces.
Be sure to check out Yasaka Shrine, nestled at the heart of town where geisha also perform throughout the year. Yasaka Shrine hosts the annual Gion Festival every July, a tradition that dates back to 869. The cherry blossoms bloom nearby during the springtime too!
This Buddhist temple is located a few blocks away from Gion, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Kyoto.
It cost 600 yen (approx. $4 USD) to enter.
Kodai-ji Temple was founded in 1606 by Kodai-in (the namesake), a Buddhist nun and widow of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a famous samurai from the Sengoku Period, known for unifying Japan politically. There is a gorgeous garden that has red autumnal leaves (we went to Japan in October, but I’ve heard that there’s more fall foliage in November). Its most famous building is Kangetsudai, which has a roofed bridge and was used for moon viewing. There are two teahouses, Kasatei and Shiguretei.
There are a steep number of steps that you can climb, and it leads you to a mini forest lined with bamboo trees, almost like Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. From there, you walk downhill and exit through the gift shop!
Have you seen photos of this hilly cobblestoned street in Kyoto lined with shops and eateries in Japanese-style buildings and buzzing with tourists? That is Ninenkaza, located in Higashiyama District in Eastern Kyoto. It houses the Yasaka-no-to Pagoda and the most beautiful 2-story Starbucks in the world with bamboo interiors and elevated tatami-style floors to lounge on (with shoes off, of course).
While Ninenkaza is busy throughout the day, I imagine that it’s peaceful during sunrise with that gorgeous golden hour. It looks like you stepped into a fairytale.
Don’t miss the Studio Ghilbi Shop, with a Peter Rabbit shop/cafe next door. Ninenkaza is the place to rent a kimono in Kyoto, and you’ll see tourists strolling the streets wearing them. There are kimono rental shops on every corner of Ninenkaza.
If you’re hungry, you’ll find dozens of sit-down restaurants, sushi shops, cafes, and izakayas to whet your appetite. Cecilio ordered a bucket of chicken karaage (fried chicken skewers) from a stall, while I ordered a latte from Arabica Coffee down the street.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
While it’s a little out of the way, there is still time to visit Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and it’s totally worth it. Even when it’s packed with tourists, strolling through the forest makes you feel serene and calm. The forest is lined with moso bamboo, and it’s so gorgeous in person that it almost feels fake (and I mean that in the best possible way). When you’re walking on the way to the forest (from the station and shopping center), you’ll walk by the Hozu River and see people rowing boats. You can rent a boat, which costs 4,100 yen ($27.03) for adults and 2,700 yen ($17.80) for children ages 4–12.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is one of Japan’s most popular forests, and Kyoto’s most popular attractions (along with Fushimi Inari). If you’re up to it, you can go further to see the Iwatayama Monkey Park, but we didn’t do that because monkeys creep me out.
Once you exit the forest, you should scope out the shops and eateries around town. There are also even more kimono-wearing visitors and rickshaw riders for the tired and sore.
While Cecilio and I were waiting for the bus to go back to town, we got some ice cream. Also, how cute is it that the shops outside have a bamboo motif going on?!
Dinner at Ichiran
Most places close early in Kyoto, even for dinner. But there’s one place that closes later, and that’s Ichiran, the popular ramen chain restaurant. Before you enter, you have to select the type of ramen you want through the machine and pay it in yen. Then you wait in line before you can get seated because the area is really small and you’re basically eating bar-style at a counter with a stool.
Once you get seated, a server will give you a sheet of paper where you circle your ramen preferences, such as how soft or chewy you want the noodles, the richness of the broth, the amount of garlic and green onions, and the spice level. Once you are done, you give it to your server and the soup is ready for you in minutes.
Oh, and each seat at the counter is separated by a divider. It wasn’t a problem for Cecilio and me, since we were still able to talk (although we got so focused on our delicious ramen).
I ordered tonkotsu pork ramen with the noodles and broth just right, Goldilocks style, but I asked for extra garlic and a dash of extra spice. Thinking of the perfect blend of salty, umami, and spicy flavors is making my mouth water as I’m back home in the States writing about it.
If you want to stay an extra night…
Or swap out any of the attractions listed about, you can visit:
- Kinkaku-ji Temple
- Kiyomizudera Temple
- Nijo Castle
- Kyoto Imperial Palace
- Philosopher’s Walk
- Kyoto International Manga Museum
Where to Stay in Kyoto
For an authentic experience, I recommend staying in a ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese inn with tatami-style flooring and futon beds or mattresses. A ryokan will often serve a traditional Japanese dinner and/or breakfast. Bonus points if there’s an onsen (hot springs bath).
- Luxury: Yuzuya Ryokan
- Mid-range: Ryokan Sakura Urushitei (this is where we stayed)
- Budget: Hifumi Ryokan
Frequently Asked Questions
Is 2 days in Kyoto enough?
Ideally, I would spend at least 3 nights in Kyoto, so that you can see more attractions and temples without feeling rushed. However, most people spend a night or two in Kyoto (some take a day trip from Tokyo or Osaka!), especially coming from the US when we don’t really have a lot of vacation time. I think 2 days in Kyoto is sufficient, even though I could always stay an extra night anywhere. I’ve curated this guide so that you can see the best of Kyoto in 2 nights, and you can swap out attractions as needed.
What is Kyoto best known for?
Kyoto is best known for its UNESCO sites, charming streets, temples, and Japan’s traditional architecture from centuries ago. Kyoto is also most famous for Gion, the geisha district.
To Wrap it Up
This 2-day Kyoto itinerary helps you see the city’s ancient charm fused with modern allure. From the iconic Fushimi Inari Shrine to the historic streets of Gion to the lush greenery of Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, each attraction captures Japan’s essence back in time. Safe travels, and may your time in Kyoto be filled with wonder and lasting memories!
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Hannah is a travel writer, graphic designer, and the founder/editor of Hannah on Horizon. She is based in Sacramento, California, living with her husband and two adorable dogs. She shares tips on how to experience luxury travel on any budget, and how to maximize time at each trip or destination, no matter what your budget or amount of vacation time at work. She enjoys making you feel like you have visited each destination with her through her storytelling and informative writing style.