How to Spend a Weekend in Kyoto: An Efficient Two-Day Itinerary

With its deep, rich history and thousands of temples and shrines, a visit to Kyoto is equal parts exciting and overwhelming. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the city over five times and each time I go, I always make amazing new discoveries.
So with this in mind, what’s the best way to experience a city with nearly unlimited attractions? Whether it’s your first or 10th time visiting Kyoto, read on to learn how you can enjoy some of Kyoto’s most important and fascinating places—even if you can only spare a weekend to do so.

Set your expectations

The first thing to do when planning your trip to Kyoto is to set realistic expectations. Sure, it’s tempting to plan a mad dash from temple to temple, pushing yourself to see how much ground you can cover in a day. However, this approach will just wear you out and leave no room for appreciating the historic wonders that the city has to offer.

You also need to ensure that you’ll have enough breathing room in your schedule to savor delicious meals (especially okonomiyaki) and enjoy any random adventures that may occur during your journey.

 All that being said, plan on making it to two or three major temples, shrines, or other attractions each day. Of course, this depends on the location of your hotel and how much time you devote to each location.

For the following itinerary (and in general), I recommend staying in a hotel or ryokan near Kyoto Station. It’s the city’s major transportation hub and staying nearby will ensure that you have the most options for easily getting to where you want to go.

Keep in mind that this plan is not comprehensive. It simply represents one of the more efficient itineraries that I’ve experienced. You may want to swap out some of the locations below with other attractions that match your interests. For example, if you are a fan of castles, then Nijo Castle (Nijo-jo) should certainly be on your list.

Day 1: Kiyomizudera, Ginkakuji and Nanzenji

Kiyomizudera offers amazing panoramic views of Kyoto.

Kiyomizudera, and the shopping street that leads to it, can be incredibly crowded, so it’s best to beat the masses with an early start. The temple typically opens as early as 6 a.m. However, the food and souvenir shops lining the local streets won’t open until regular business hours, so you may want to plan your departure time so that you can check them out as you leave the temple.

 After enjoying panoramic views of the city from the famous wooden decks of Kiyomizudera, catch a cab at the base of the shopping street and head to Ginkakuji Temple. Proceed inside to gaze upon its famous sand garden and exquisite traditional landscaping.

The famous sand garden of Ginkakuji. The cone-shaped mound is said to symbolize Mt. Fuji.

After that, spend the early afternoon strolling down the tranquil Philosopher’s Path. Head south as you take in the scenery, check out cafes along the canal, and pick up some unique souvenirs from local shops and artists.

The Philosopher’s Path.

After about 30 minutes (depending on your pace) you should reach Nanzenji Temple, the final destination for day one. This is where the itinerary is at its most flexible. The temple grounds are sprawling and there are several things to do and see, including a historic, Roman-style aqueduct.

A tranquil scene from underneath the Nanzenji Sanmon, one of Japan’s three largest temple gates.

If you have extra time, explore the surrounding neighborhood. Calm and quiet, it’s a truly beautiful part of Kyoto and the perfect place to soak in the atmosphere as the evening sun bathes the city in golden rays of light. It’s also home to one of the best tofu restaurants that I’ve ever been to—the perfect spot for dinner.

Day 2: Saihoji, Arashiyama and Kyoto Station

The moss garden of Saihoji Temple.

No trip to Kyoto is complete without a visit to Saihoji, one of the most historic temples in the region. You’ll need to book your visit in advance, and you can find out how to do that here.

After partaking in a Zen experience like no other, head to the nearby bus stop and hop on the next bus bound for Arashiyama, which is conveniently only 15 minutes away. Arashiyama is a part of town known for its picturesque bamboo grove that shows up in everything from commercials to video games.

The Arashiyama bamboo grove.

How much time you spend here will depend on what you’d like to see and do. You can take a serene boat ride down the Katsura River, do some more shopping, or check out the ever-popular Arashiyama Monkey Park. If you are into classic trains, be sure to stop by the easily overlooked 19th Century Hall SL & Piano Museum (SL stands for steam locomotive), which is part of Torokko Saga Station. When you’ve had your fill of 19th century nostalgia, head to the adjacent JR Saga-Arashiyama Station and catch one of several trains bound for Kyoto Station, the final stop for day two.

At first glance, it’s easy to write off Kyoto Station. However, its massive size and futuristic architecture is a hint that there’s more to do here than hop on a bullet train. If time allows, work your way up to the top of the Isetan department store, which is literally built into the side of the station complex. Once there, you’ll find yourself on the roof of the station with a superb view of the city and its surroundings. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Osaka!

Explore Kyoto Station at night, and you’ll be treated to a grand light show.

Next, drop down two floors and proceed through the ramen food court. If you can resist the sweet and savory aroma of freshly cooked ramen, you’ll find a skyway that leads you through the glass and steel ceiling of the station where you’ll discover even more scenic viewpoints.

Time to head home

If all went well, you should now be sitting comfortably in your shinkansen seat, reviewing all of the photos you took from your two-day whirlwind tour of Kyoto. Don’t fret if you couldn’t experience as much as you had planned. With so many things to see and do, you can always come back and experience Kyoto anew, time and time again.

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How to Spend a Weekend in Kyoto: An Efficient Two-Day Itinerary

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Writer / Translator

Originally from Riverside, California, I've been living, working, and writing in Japan since 2009. Japan has become my second home, and I'm especially fond of Shinjuku, Tokyo. That being said, I also love getting out into the countryside and exploring the entire country. Through Tadaima Japan, I hope to share the wonders of Japan with a wider, international audience. Check out my articles if you enjoy exploring on foot, convenient cafes, and affordable dining.


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