Kyoto is one of the most iconic destinations in Japan, and the ancient capital city is much larger than most people assume. This, combined with a list of attractions and activities that is almost limitless, causes some people think you need to spend many days (or even a week) in Kyoto in order to acquaint yourself with Japan's former capital. In fact, just 48 hours in Kyoto is the perfect amount of time to get a taste of Kyoto. You'll be able to enjoy traditional culture and architecture, delicious food and drink, and even have an off-the-wall experience or two.
Day 1: Morning
9 a.m.: If you spent the previous night in Kyoto, enjoy a leisurely breakfast in your hotel or ryokan. If you stayed in a city hotel it will likely be a buffet with a mix of Japanese and Western options, while ryokan guest houses generally offer a Japanese option cooked fresh by your host. Use the remaining hours of the morning to take a walk around the neighborhood you're staying in—your afternoon and evening will be filled with specific attractions, not to worry. If you're staying in Shimogyo near Kyoto Station, Higashi Honganji temple is a great and underrated choice.
11 a.m.: If you're arrive in Kyoto today, transfer from Kyoto Station to your hotel. If you stay in Shimogyo, near the station, you can likely walk to your accommodation. Hotels in Higashiyama, Arashiyama, or Kyoto's northern wards will require some combination of bus and train (or, if money is no object, taxi). Drop your bags at your hotel, where you can return after 3 p.m. to complete check-in. Note that if you only have 48 hours in Kyoto, it might be worthwhile to stay between the neighborhoods of Higashiyama or Shimogyo, which are the two most convenient Kyoto wards for the majority of the sightseeing within this itinerary.
Day 1: Afternoon
12 p.m.: Enjoy lunch in Higashiyama, which will be the nucleus of your sightseeing this afternoon. Choose a kaiseki spot, such as Kikunoi, if you want a traditional Japanese dining experience, or focus on a particular Japanese dish such as tempura (at Kyoto Gatten) or sushi (Matsumoto). Walk off your lunch with a stroll through the Gion district's Nishiki Market, where you can buy traditional Japanese handicrafts (and not-so-traditional ones, such as Hello Kitty plush toys wearing kimono). Here, you can also sample Kansai-area street foods, including takoyaki octopus fritters and okonomiyaki pancakes (which originated in Hiroshima).
2 p.m.: Speaking of kimono, you can choose to outfit yourself in this iconic traditional Japanese garment before beginning your sightseeing in earnest. There are countless shops throughout Higashiyama where you can rent both the robe and, if you aren't afraid to walk in them, traditional geta sandals. Ride tourist bus #206 to Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion) and walk down the Philosopher's Path into the heart of Higashiyama. Be sure to stop at temples like Nanzen-ji, Eikan-do, Chion-in, and Kodai-ji (in that order!) before finishing in lush Maruyama Park, where you can have a rest before heading back to your hotel to complete check-in and freshen up. If you already stayed in Kyoto last night and don't need to check in, stay in Higashiyama and enjoy a traditional tea ceremony.
Day 1: Evening
5 p.m.: Depending upon what time of year it is, 5 or 6 p.m. is usually a good time to head to Kiyomizu-dera, an iconic temple with a towering pagoda, which is an excellent spot either to watch the sunset over Kyoto, or simply to take photos in the golden light. Kiyomizu-dera, which literally means "Clear Water Temple," is particularly beautiful amid the spring sakura or the colorful leaves of fall. After night falls, stroll northward toward the wooden Yasaka Pagoda, which looks particularly gorgeous as it lights up.
8 p.m.: If you want to make sure you see at least one geisha or maiko, you could book a multi-course geisha dinner (Enchanted Time With Maiko is a popular option). Otherwise, enjoy dinner in Higashiyama or Gion (Mikaku is a great choice for wagyu beef cooked teppanyaki style, while Muraji serves up sumptuous bowls of ramen) and walk the streets of Gion by yourself. Although never guaranteed, it's sometimes possible to see geisha walking through the small alleys that extend northward and southward from Shijo-dori shopping street. Optionally, take in a traditional Kabuki performance at Minami-za theater.
Day 2: Morning
9 a.m.: If you're an early riser, use an hour or two post-breakfast to walk over to Kyoto Imperial Palace. It's less famous than Tokyo's but is also more impressive. Stroll through its vast and verdant grounds or, if a tour slot is available, visit the walled-off Sento Gosho Gardens. Other underrated attractions in this part of Kyoto, just to the west of Higashiyama, include Hei-an Shrine and Nijo-jo—a castle built in the unique (and relatively rare) "flatland" style. Yet another option would be to visit the Kinkaku-ji "Golden Pavilion," though this requires a minimum time commitment of 2 hours: an hour round-trip to travel there by bus and an hour exploring its spacious square footage.
11 a.m.: Even if you didn't get a chance to tour Nijo-jo, make your way to Nijo Station, where you can ride the JR Sagano Line to Saga-Arashiyama station. From here make your way to Tenryu-ji, a temple and garden that is also the perfect entry point to Arashiyama's lush Sagano Bamboo Grove. Continue walking westward through the forest until you reach the private Okochi Sanso Villa, which was once owned by a famous Japanese actor, where you can enjoy a cup of matcha in a quiet garden. Otherwise, cross the Togetsu-kyo bridge over the Hozu River, and climb up to Iwatayama Monkey Park, where you can see one of the most beautiful panoramas of Kyoto.
Day 2: Afternoon
12 p.m.: Enjoy a tofu lunch at Yodofu Sagano, even if you're not generally a huge fan of the bean curd—Kyoto tofu is famous for a reason, and they definitely know what they're doing. Ride the JR Sagano Line back eastward, but this time take it all the way to Kyoto Station, a massive and decidedly modern building. Ascend to the 11th floor and sit or stand at the top of the massive staircase that descends down to track-level. Here, you'll get an awesome view of Kyoto's modern city center reflected in the glass wall of the station, including the iconic (but polarizing) Kyoto Tower, which was built in advance of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
2 p.m.: Descend into the basement of Kyoto Station and board a local departure of the JR Nara Line. (Note: It's essential that you don't board an express train, as these don't stop at the station you're bound for). Get off at Inari which and head to Fushimi Inari Shrine. You can walk under the famous orange gates, for a brief time, or go all the way to the top of the hill they snake up, which takes 90 minutes to 2 hours round trip. When you finish at Fushimi Inari Shrine, make your way to Fushimi Inari Station (which, notably, is a different station—though nearby—to Inari Station where you arrived).
Day 2: Evening
5 p.m.: Ride the Keihan Main Line to Fushimi-Momoyama Station. If you're interested in sake, embark upon the guided Kyoto Insider Sake Experience, which takes you to the Gekkeikan Sake Factory, one of the oldest producers of Nihon-shu in all of Japan; some tours even offer sake pairing sessions. You can alternatively walk through the picturesque sake-producing area on your own, and pay to enter breweries on an a la carte basis. A third option would be make your way to Fushimi Momoyama Castle, which has been re-built. It's not one of Japan's famous 12 original castles but is fascinating nonetheless.
8 p.m.: Head back to central Kyoto using one of two methods. If you are staying in Higashiyama, ride the Keihan Main Line all the way from Fushimi Momoyama to Gion-Shijo Station, where you can make a brief stop at Yasaka Shrine (not to be confused with Yasaka Pagoda) en route to any dinner restaurant of your choice. Otherwise, ride the Keihan Main Line back to Fushimi Inari, and walk to Inari Station to transfer to a Kyoto-bound JR Nara Line train. Make the short walk to Katsugyu, a delicious restaurant (but a popular one—be prepared to line up) where you can enjoy a rare beef filet served katsu style (fried and breaded).