Kyoto is a quaint and traditional city with so much to see. Here’s our ultimate guide to my favorite Japanese city!
Kyoto, the former capital of Japan, was my favorite city to visit on our trip. With about 1,600 temples, small izakyas and cafes, surrounded by breathtaking mountains – Kyoto is filled with magic. This ancient city is definitely a must-visit for any traveler looking to see a more traditional side of the country. Here’s your guide to Kyoto!
Due to its historical value, Kyoto was not targeted in World War II, meaning that the temples and shrines survived. Kyoto is home to about 1.5 million people and is one of the ten largest cities in Japan.
Compared to Tokyo, Kyoto has a smaller, more intimate feeling to it. The city is built on tradition – maintaining arts and culture is a priority. You can find many Japanese traditions including kaiseki dinners (a traditional multi-course dinner) to tea ceremonies. If you’re lucky, you may be able to spot a real geisha in the Gion district. You can easily reach Kyoto from Tokyo using the JR Pass. Learn how to use the JR Pass here.
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Travel tip: If you do see a real geisha, please be sure to ASK for a picture. Many places in Kyoto now require permission to take pictures. Aside from that, it’s also rude.
How to get to and around Kyoto
The easiest way to get to Kyoto is via the Shinkansen. The Shinkansen from Tokyo is a little over 2 hours and is completely covered by the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass). If you don’t have the JR Pass, then it costs about 13,080 Yen or $120 USD. Kyoto station is in the heart of the city and is near public transportation.
You do not need a car in Kyoto. Everything is reachable by foot, train, or bus. The bus is very reliable, unlike most US cities, so don’t be afraid to use it. Some trains do accept the JR Pass as well, but the Suica card is more helpful in Kyoto for the bus and train.
For a more eco-friendly option, you can rent a bike in Kyoto. The city itself is mostly flat and there are bike parking areas around the city.
Since Kyoto is overflowing with history and things to do, finding good accommodation is important. We only had two nights in Kyoto and we wanted to make sure our time was not wasted getting to and from our hotel. We chose to stay in the Gion district due to my fascination with geisha culture – I figured this would be the best place to increase my odds to see a geisha (turns out I was right).
The Glanz Kei Gion Shinomonzen was perfect for us and would probably be for most people. The apartment allowed for late check-in through a locker in the front lobby. There were security measures that helped us feel safe. The apartment had a washing machine, kitchenette, couch with coffee table, two double beds (we put them together to make a queen-size bed) and a TV. We were provided a tide pod for each day we were there (3 days, 3 pods). Once the laundry was clean, there was a fold-able hanger so you can hang the clothes in the bathroom. The bathroom had a setting to dry the clothes. I was a bit skeptical but by morning, even our jeans were dry!
The apartment was a 7-minute walk to Maruyama Park and Chion-in Shrine and a ten-minute walk to the subway, making it very easy to get around the city!
The other neighborhoods in Kyoto are:
Higashiyama – the historic district featuring Yasaka Shrine
Downtown Kyoto – the best area for shopping streets
Kyoto Station – easy to get to Kyoto and around the city
Central Kyoto – the largest selection of hotels
Northern Higashiyama – plenty of nature and shrines in this area
Arashiyama – near the bamboo grove
Kurama & Kibune – for an escape from the city
Fushimi – near the Fushimi Inari Shrine
Where to eat:
Honke Daiichiasahi: Hole-in-the-wall, locals-only ramen. You’re almost guaranteed to be the only tourist in this restaurant.
Omen Noodle House: Stop in for some amazing udon!
Chao Chao Sanjo Kimyamachi: They have delectable fresh gyoza (dumplings) in traditional pork, shrimp, crab, and mozzarella!
Rai Rei Tei: A ramen restaurant recommended by our front desk for local ramen!
What to skip: Fire Ramen restaurant. They don’t take reservations, the line was out the door for this 10 person restaurant, and there wasn’t a local in sight. Remember to eat where YOU want to eat – not where Instagram tells you to. Sure it’d be cool to see ramen on fire, but for that 10 seconds of excitement, it wasn’t worth the hour wait on my trip.
What to do in Kyoto:
Nishiki Market: Easily my favorite thing in Kyoto. We took a cooking class with Cooking Sun and our instructor gave us a tour while she picked up the ingredients we needed. There are small bowls around many of the shops that you can try foods. This was the first time in my life that I tried food with no expectation of what it would taste like – crunchy, slimy, sweet, spicy, – no idea.
You can find so many different types of food here – including sashimi, mochi, doughnuts, candy, and plenty of fermented foods. It “only” runs for 6 blocks, but it feels a lot longer, especially when it’s full swing around 10:30 am.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple: For a birds eye view of the city, this temple is the place to go. It also has beautiful gardens.
Gion Historic District: Since our apartment was in Gion, we got to explore this area a lot. The best time to see a geisha is around sunset. There are many people who dress up in kimonos but geishas will have their face painted and hair done in a traditional style. Many of the streets of the Gion district have been preserved to keep their historic look. If you don’t get to see a geisha walking around, here are 8 ways to experience Geisha culture while visiting Japan.
Travel Tip: Read about geisha culture with the book: Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha who Bewitched the West.
Fushimi Inari Temple: This temple is more than just a picture – it’s an experience. There are over 10,000 tori gates winding up Mt. Fushimi dedicated to the god of rice. Wear your comfortable shoes – our Fitbit said we climbed over 45 floors (and we didn’t even make it to the top). Make your way past the crowds trying to get a good picture and take in the serenity of the temple.
Walk the Philosopher’s Path: This path is filled with shops with handmade objects such as pottery and paper crafts – perfect for souvenir shopping. The other side of the path is along a canal lined with trees. The path is also near the Honen-in temple which is worth a visit!
Nijo-jo Castle: One of the most well-preseved castles in Kyoto is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The castle has a moat, huge stone walls, and ornate decor. The castle was the residence of the Tokugawa shoguns (military warlords) during the Edo period.
Read about how Instagram almost ruined Japan for us here.
Walking through the Bamboo Grove
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove & Okochi Sanso Garden: Make your way through the bamboo grove to the top of another mountain to the Okochi Sanso Garden. Most of the bamboo in the grove is 5 to 10 m high and it’s a nice escape from the city. However, I will not call it a forest. You will again struggle to find a photo without crowds – even in the morning, it’s busy. I wouldn’t recommend doing this on the same day as Inari temple as it is A LOT of walking.
Golden Temple, Kyoto. Photo Credit: Second-Half Travels
Kinkakuji Golden Temple: We ran out of time to see the temple up close, unfortunately. There never seems to be enough time in the day for everything. The golden temple is an icon of the city. The shimmering gold reflects beautifully off of the lake! I really wish we got to see this in person.
Maruyama Park: This park has six shrines, a temple, and a cemetery. We were up early one day (thanks jet lag), and decided to walk around this park before things opened. We were able to see birds, cats, and fish in the ponds.
Some of the shrines and temples in Maruyama Park.
Ryoan-ji Zen Buddhist Temple: This temple is famous for its rock garden and is worth the hype. The entrance is 500 yen or $4.50 USD.
Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavilion): Not really silver, but I guess it is the second most well known temple in Kyoto (after the Golden Pavilion). You walk through a garden trail that leads to a viewpoint of the temple.
Pontocho Alley: I’m not sure I’d call it an alley since some of it is riverside – but we’ll go with it. The alley is filled with restaurants with open-air dining. If you’re out at night, this is the place to go. However, do not take offense if you are not allowed in a restaurant or club, some of them forbid foreigners without the right connections – some of those connections going back generations.
Geisha performance: Unfortunately our trip did not allow for this based on scheduling, so if you want to see this, be sure to plan ahead accordingly. There are a number of performances ranging from affordable to exorbitant prices.
We absolutely LOVED our tour with Cooking Sun. Nyo was very friendly and knowledgeable. She taught us some Japanese, gave us a tour of Nishiki market, and taught us how to cook! There were three meals that we got to choose from based on our preference. There were only FOUR of us in the class (us and another couple) which was ideal. We learned about traditional kitchen utensils and what they were used for. I seriously cannot recommend Cooking Sun enough.
For information on events and festivals in Kyoto, visit the official Tourism office.
If you have more time in the city, why not take a day trip to Himeji Castle.
What we skipped in Kyoto:
I really wanted to see the snow monkeys in Japan. It’s something that I saw and they just seem so at peace. However, we traveled in October, so I had to do some more digging into the snow monkeys to see if it would be worth the time. If you’re going in the winter, typically there isn’t an issue since the monkeys like to be warm. Upon digging a little deeper, I read a number of disturbing articles regarding how the monkeys are treated later in the day. The monkeys are wild and are “free” to come and go as they please. However, with the rise of tourism to this part of Kyoto, the park employees have been seen trying to keep monkeys in the park for tourists later in the day. This is especially true during the off months. There were a few people who mentioned that employees would try to scare the monkey back down the hills so the tourists who visited would be able to see them. Since I didn’t consider this ethical treatment, we decided to skip the monkey park.