7 Must-Visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto

7 Must-Visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto

Next to Tokyo, Kyoto is the second most popular city for tourists to visit, and it should be. Kyoto is considered among the first capitals dating back to 794AD and today its become own Japan’s living cultural archives.

If you’ve come to see shrines and temples, you can’t go wrong visiting Kyoto. This city has more than 1600 Buddhist temples and over 400 Shinto shrines. Regardless of how you spend your time exploring, it would be impossible to leave Kyoto without running into one.

Many people who visit are interested in visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto, and for those who are, you won’t be disappointed as there are 17 of them. It would be impossible to see all of them given most people’s itineraries, and honestly you shouldn’t rush them because they are all beautiful in their own way and deserve ample time spent to appreciate them.

So instead of trying to fit in as many as possible, here are 7 of the must-visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto.

Kinkaku-ji

Kyoto - 2011

Kinkaku-ji is one of Kyoto’s most popular tourist attractions, as it’s well known across the world. Covered in gold leaf, the pavilion reflects brilliantly into the pond surrounding it.

Whether you visit during the fall when there are red momiji leaves contrasting the gold, winter when the gold is topped with pure white snow, or on a clear summer day allowing you to see the temple’s golden reflection– there is never a bad time to visit Kinkaku-ji.

The pavilion itself houses relics of Buddha and each floor features a different architectural style, but visitors are not allowed to enter the building. Even so, wandering the gardens and admiring the pavilion is worth the visit.

1 Kinkakuji-cho, Kita-ku, Kyoto City

Ginkaku-ji

The Silver Pavilion looks just like the Golden Pavilion, only… it’s silver. Or at least it was supposed to be. The plan was to cover the temple in silver foil, although that never came to fruition. Because of this, most people will say that when compared to Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji is nothing special, however, it’s the gardens that make this place special.

Possibly the best in Japan, in the garden you’ll find the “Sea of Silver Sand” and the “Moon Platform”. The sand garden is said to symbolize Mount Fuji and it is quite spectacular. The large pile of sand that represents Mount Fuji, or the “Moon Platform” is said to reflect the light of the moon and shine it onto the Silver Pavilion. Since this temple closes early evening onward, we may never know if this rumor is true.

2 Ginkakuji-cho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto City

Nijo-jo

It’s hard to miss this castle, as it’s located in the center of Kyoto. Surrounded by a huge moat, the inside castle grounds feature a beautiful garden with shrines located around the premises.

Constructed in 1603 Nijo Castle may not resemble your typical castle as it’s a single-story flatland castle, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not impressive. The rooms inside are all beautifully decorated with paintings and gold leaf, and feature traditional rice paper sliding doors and tatami mats.

541 Nijojo-cho, Horikawa-nishiiru, Nijo-dori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto City

Kiyomizu-dera

Kyoto - 2011

Located up on a mountain, Kiyomizu-dera is an impressive temple. The main hall is its biggest attraction as it was built solely out of wood without a single nail. It’s from the decks here that you can look out across much of Kyoto and as such is a popular sunset destination as it casts a romantic silhouette of all the buildings. Just be prepared for the crowds.

The veranda itself is supported by high pillars as it’s built hanging off of a cliff. Back in the Edo period people believed that whoever jumped from the 13m high cliff, and survived, would supposedly have their wish granted. Records have it that over 200 people have actually jumped and more than 85% survived. This practice is nowadays prohibited for obvious reasons.

1-chome, Kiyomizu, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto City

Ryoan-ji

The world famous rock garden at Ryoan-ji is what draws most people to visit this popular Zen temple. Also called the Temple of the Dragon Peace, people come sit and contemplate the rock garden from the porch– sometimes for hours.

If you don’t know much about Japanese rock gardens, do know that the rocks and sand are meticulously groomed to represent something greater, usually the cosmos.

The remaining space at Ryoan-ji is made up of a giant forest with a large lake. This area is peaceful and the lake is often covered with flowering waterlilies, although it is not frequently visited as most people only go to see the rocks.

13 Ryoanji, Goryonoshita-cho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto City

To-ji

In addition to the actual temple, which dates back to the Heian Period, To-ji, or Kyo-o-gokokuji, Temple contains buildings dating back to the 14th to 17th centuries. The Lecture Hall (Kodo) houses the oldest extant Esoteric Buddhist statues in all of Japan. Most people visit To-jo to see the five-tiered pagoda, which is considered a National Treasure, as it rises above the landscape as a symbol of Kyoto. With a height of 57 meters, it is the tallest pagoda in Japan.

1 Kujo-cho, Minami-ku, Kyoto City

Tenryu-ji

Kyoto - 2011

Tenryu-ji Temple is the first-ranked of the “Five Great Zen Temples” of Kyoto. It was established in 1339 by Shogun Ashikaga Takauji on the site of the Kameyama Detached Palace, for the purpose of consoling the spirit of Emperor Go-Daigo.

Behind the main hall is the Sogenchi Garden, which has been designated a Special Historic Site and a Special Historic Scenic Area. Enhanced by the surrounding landscapes of Mount Arashiyama and Kameyama, it is great example of aristocratic tradition blended seamlessly with Zen culture, displaying the beauty of the four seasons.

68 Susukinobaba-cho, Tenryuji, Saga, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto City

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Have you been to any of these sites? Which would you like to visit?

70 Comments

  • Thanks for sharing! Going back there soon :-) !

  • Angie says:

    I plan to go Kyoto with my husband and parents this coming September for 7 days trip. Any tips or itinerary to share?

  • Mommy Peach says:

    These place all look so pretty! I hope I can give them a visit one of these days!

  • Rebecca Swenor says:

    These are such amazing beautiful places to visit in Kyoto indeed. I would love to see any of them some day. The heritage of these places just fascinates me and my sons would so love to visit these place too. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Melanie says:

    Kyoto is on my list of must visit places. It looks so serene. All of your pics are so stunning and I have new places for my bucket list!

    • Beth Williams says:

      Kyoto is one of my favorite places in Japan! Serene doesn’t even begin to describe it ;)

  • Ok, I gotta admit I have never even heard of Kyoto before. I have heard of Tokyo

    • Beth Williams says:

      Glad I could introduce you to another side of Japan. Kyoto is Tokyo’s more traditional older sister. Such a beautiful place!

  • Bonnie @ wemake7 says:

    All these places look so beautiful and peaceful. I wish I could travel someday and see all the world offers.

  • All of the places sound wonderful and look so beautiful. I know my husband wants to travel around Asia. I’ve never been super excited about it, I would rather travel around places like London, Belfast, Dublin, Edinburgh and other European cities.

    • Beth Williams says:

      Both Europe and Asia are wonderful– but completely different. As I’m writing this I’m currently visiting Europe for the second time… but my heart will always be in Asia. :)

  • Digna D. says:

    These pictures are just stunning! I wish I could visit right now! My husband and I will be doing a lot of traveling in the near future. Can’t wait!

    • Beth Williams says:

      If you’ll be traveling in the future, do consider Kyoto! It’s an amazing part of Japan.

  • I love reading your travelling posts, they inspire me to visit Japan one day, the Kiyomizu-dera temple looks beautiful.

  • The well-laid out gardens in Japan and nearby countries like South Korea are beautiful. They are very ornate in everything. Does the syllable pr workd ji means temple?

    • Beth Williams says:

      I would love to visit South Korea as well! I agree that everything is very ornate. And yes “ji” means temple (Buddhist), where “jinja” means shrine (Shinto). :)

  • Lynndee says:

    I definitely would love to visit Japan someday. The Japanese architecture is just amazing, isn’t it? And their gardens are breathtaking, without a doubt!

  • What a beautiful place is Kyoto. I’d love to see all 7 of the must-visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto.

    • Beth Williams says:

      Thanks Terri! There are just so many UNESCO sites there it gets overwhelming, but I do think these are the 7 someone must absolutely try to see.

  • michele d says:

    It really does take your breath away looking at your pictures. The construction of the buildings and pavilions are absolutely beautiful.

    • Beth Williams says:

      The building construction is just incredible– especially taking into consideration that they’re hundreds of years old and still standing!

  • I had no idea there were so many beautiful places in Kyoto. I think I’m going to have to add this to my list of “must visit” places. Thanks so much for sharing the amazing photos!

    • Beth Williams says:

      Kyoto is such a beautiful city! Sadly most people only ever visit Tokyo when they go to Japan– not that I dislike Tokyo, but Kyoto is a completely different side of Japan that people should take the time to see.

  • Looks like I need to travel soon. I’ve never been there before but your article definitely makes me want to visit.

  • Kyoto looks so beautiful, I would love to visit there one day and see all the amazing historical sites!

    • Beth Williams says:

      Kyoto is an amazing place! It’ll keep you busy with all the things to do for sure.

  • Sarh S says:

    Looks like beautiful places to visit, how I would love to travel one day!

  • Such a beautiful place! Nice that you have shared a historical place with beautiful pictures. Temples are my most favorite places to just sit and meditate. I can totally see myself doing this here. Hope I get to visit Kyoto someday.

    • Beth Williams says:

      I love all of the temples and shrines across Japan. They’re so beautiful and peaceful!

  • I love it! Your photographs have transported me to Kyoto! Beautiful shots! I am definitely putting this place in my travel bucket list!

    • Beth Williams says:

      Glad I could help transport you there for now! Hoping someday you can actually visit :)

  • Elizabeth O. says:

    I’ll be in Japan next month. It’s too bad I won’t be dropping by Kyoto…

  • M says:

    Too bad they only listed 7 because Fushimi Inari, while not right in Kyoto, deserves a nod.

    • Beth Williams says:

      Yes! Absolutely. Fushimi Inari is probably my favorite shrine in all of Japan. However, unlike what most people think (or what many articles claim) it is NOT a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Though, it totally should be!)

  • These look beautiful! I visited Sigisoara Romania years ago, without knowing it was a UNESCO heritage site…it was stunning!

  • Liz Mays says:

    Oh my gosh I’m so in the dark when it comes to places like these. I really need to get out and visit them myself. They sound incredible.

  • Nina Say says:

    Such a gorgeous part of the world. There is so much color everywhere.

  • Robin (Masshole Mommy) says:

    Kyoto has such as interesting culture and people. I have always wanted to visit Kyoto!

  • Alli says:

    The gold leafed pavilion is gorgeous, as is all the sites pictured. I love the architecture. I’ve never been, but I sure do enjoy viewing your incredible photos. Thanks!

    • Beth Williams says:

      Yes, kinkakuji is one of my favorite places in all of Kyoto! It’s simply breathtaking in all seasons. <3

  • Cassie says:

    My husband has always wanted to visit Japan, but mostly for Tokyo. After seeing a post like this, I think I’ll urge him to visit Kyoto as well!

  • Thanks so much for this great article. I’ve always wanted to visit Japan. There culture and architecture is so incredible!

  • JLT says:

    Not sure why Kyoto is listed as the first capital when it wasn’t. By far. There were quite a few prior to Kyoto. It’s an easily verifiable bit of information. Also, I think the article should be clear that the Silver Pavilion is not, in fact, silver at all, whatever it’s name might be meant to evoke.

    • Beth Williams says:

      Thanks for your comment! Well, yes, technically the capital was where ever the emperor lived. Nara was one of the oldest capital’s as well, but many historians have decided to label Kyoto as the first “official” capital despite there being previous ones. The Silver Pavilion was originally supposed to be covered in silver foil, much like Kinkakuji is covered in gold foil, unfortunately that never happened. However, when visiting on a sunny day the building does still reflect silver in many photographs ;)

  • Cassandra says:

    These all look so lovely! This only moves Kyoto higher up the must-visit list.

  • zoomingjapan says:

    Hehe, I’ve been to all of these sights more than once. That’s the good thing about living in Kansai, I can easily go on a day trip to Kyoto whenever I feel like it. :)
    Although, I usually just go to re-visti when I take friends or family members nowadays. I love to explore new places whenever I can. ^__^

    • Beth Williams says:

      I often made day trips up to Kyoto as well and I loved it. I really miss living in Kansai!

  • I visited all of these sites last year and loved every minute of it. I agree with you that while the Golden Pavilion is pretty spectacular for the building itself, its gardens are very lackluster and the Silver Pavilion gardens are incredible. Kiyomizu-dera was another of my favourites because of the view and I really loved the street leading up to it and seeing all the young school kids enjoying themselves and practicing their English with us.

    • Beth Williams says:

      Those are definitely my favorite 3! You should try to make it back to Kiyomizu-dera when they have illumination nights, it’s even more beautiful then.

  • I have not been to Kyoto yet but I hope to get there soon to visit all of the places in this article. I especially love the view from the Kiyomizu-dera, it is stunning!

    • Beth Williams says:

      Go there! Now!
      Haha, no but really, Kyoto is such an amazing historical city. I hope more people will start to visit.

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