Welcome to a place where tradition and modernity dance harmoniously amidst enchanting cherry blossoms and ancient temples. Kyoto, Japan, is a destination that needs no introduction, for its allure is simply irresistible. Nestled in the heart of this captivating country, Kyoto beckons travelers from around the globe with its unique blend of culture, history, and natural beauty. I spent an entire month living in this fascinating city. In this Kyoto travel guide, you’ll learn everything from best things to do, where to stay, how to get around, day trip ideas and much more. So, grab your passport, for Kyoto awaits with open arms, ready to reveal its secrets and stories.
Table of Contents
The Complete Kyoto Japan Travel Guide
Why Visit Kyoto?
Nestled amidst the picturesque landscapes of Japan, Kyoto is a city that exudes an unparalleled charm, making it an absolute must-visit for anyone exploring this mesmerizing country.
Steeped in rich history dating back over a thousand years, Kyoto served as the imperial capital for centuries and retains its regal aura through its well-preserved temples, shrines, and historic districts. From the iconic Fushimi Inari Shrine with its thousands of vermilion torii gates to the serene beauty of Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion, Kyoto is a living museum of Japan’s cultural heritage.
But it’s not just its historical significance that makes Kyoto a top destination – it’s the seamless fusion of old and new that captivates travelers. Amidst the ancient traditions, you’ll find modernity gracefully intertwining, creating a cityscape that’s both vibrant and tranquil. During my travels through Japan, I found Kyoto to be the least intimidating city and the easiest to understand. If you only have time to visit one city in Japan, I would suggest Kyoto.
Best Things to Do in Kyoto
From visiting shrines and temples to tea ceremonies and sake houses to cultural experiences, Kyoto truly has something for everyone. For this Kyoto Travel Guide, these are my personal favorite things to do in Kyoto. Many of these items are always included in travel guides, but some are just personal favorites from my stay.
1. Wander the Streets of the Gion District
Visiting the Gion District in Kyoto is like stepping into a time capsule of Japan’s rich history and tradition. This iconic neighborhood is famed for its beautifully preserved machiya townhouses, cobbled streets, and, of course, its elusive geisha culture.
As you wander through Gion’s enchanting lanes, keep your eyes peeled for the graceful geiko and maiko who may pass by, adding a touch of elegance to your stroll. Discover charming tea houses, where you can experience the art of the tea ceremony, and savor the ambiance of old Japan in every nook and cranny. Gion is a place where the past gracefully mingles with the present, offering a glimpse into a bygone era and a truly magical Kyoto experience.
- Some of the highlights in the Gion district are:
- 1. Hanami-koji Street
- 2. Sanneizaka Street
- 3. Yasaka-jinja Shrine
- 4. Kennin-ji Temple
- 5. Endless Shops, Restaurants and Cafes
- 6. Starbucks Gion
- 7. Donguri Kyowakoku (Ghibli Store)
2. Explore Pontocho Area
Visiting the Pontocho District in Kyoto is a journey into a world of timeless charm and hidden surprises. This narrow alleyway, running parallel to the Kamo River, is a treasure trove of traditional tea houses, intimate bars, and exquisite restaurants. I was surprised to find that this area, while popular, is not overly touristy and has some pretty great restaurants and bars.
By day, you can explore the historic wooden buildings and perhaps catch a glimpse of maiko or geiko hurrying to their appointments. By night, Pontocho transforms into a lantern-lit haven of culinary delights and nightlife.
Stroll along the cobblestone streets, savoring the tantalizing aromas and vibrant atmosphere, and you’ll understand why Pontocho is a beloved gem in the heart of Kyoto, offering a taste of the city’s enduring grace and culture.
3. Visit all the Shrines and Temples
In Kyoto, a city steeped in spirituality and history, the exploration of temples and shrines is a soul-enriching journey through time. Each step through ancient gates and moss-covered pathways reveals a world of tranquility, where centuries of devotion are etched into every stone and whispered through the rustling leaves.
Temples, with their serene gardens and intricate wooden architecture, offer a space for meditation and reflection. On the other hand, shrines, marked by vibrant torii gates and sacred spaces, are dedicated to the kami, or Shinto spirits, embodying a connection to Japan’s indigenous beliefs.
Together, temples and shrines create a tapestry of spirituality and culture, where visitors can immerse themselves in the harmonious blend of Buddhism and Shintoism, leaving them with a profound sense of reverence and awe.
- My Favorite Shrines and Temples I visited in Kyoto
- 1. Higashiyama Jisho-ji
- 2. Honen-in Temple
- 3. Eikan-do Temple
- 4. Fushimi Inari
4. See Monkeys in Arashiyama and Spend the Day in Arashiyama
A visit to Arashiyama in Kyoto is like stepping into a storybook of natural wonders and enchanting experiences. This idyllic district is a tranquil retreat where lush bamboo groves sway in the breeze, and the rhythmic clatter of traditional rickshaws echoes through charming streets.
The ethereal beauty of the famous Bamboo Forest is just the beginning. Wander through serene gardens, cross iconic Togetsukyo Bridge, and don’t miss the opportunity to encounter the endearing Arashiyama monkeys, who reside atop the hill at the Monkey Park Iwatayama.
Here, you’ll not only witness the captivating connection between humans and these playful creatures but also enjoy breathtaking views of Kyoto’s picturesque landscape. Arashiyama is a place where nature’s majesty and cultural treasures converge, promising a journey of tranquility and awe.
5. Visit the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Wandering through the Bamboo Groves of Arashiyama in Kyoto is like stepping into a dreamy wonderland. As sunlight filters through the towering bamboo shoots, a tranquil hush envelops you, inviting you to take a peaceful stroll amidst nature’s beauty. I suggest coming as early as possible, because this is one of the most popular spots in Kyoto.
It’s a place where the world slows down, and the swaying bamboo creates a mesmerizing symphony. A visit here is a must for any traveler, offering an unforgettable experience that’s both calming and enchanting. Don’t forget your camera; this ethereal forest is a photographer’s paradise!
6. Walk the Philosopher’s Path and Visit all the Nearby Shrines and Temples
The Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto is a historical gem that beckons both contemplation and exploration. Named after philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who found inspiration on these serene waterside walks, the path winds along the Higashiyama district’s canal.
Here, you’ll discover a symphony of cherry blossoms in spring, enchanting temples and shrines that whisper tales of the past, and a delightful array of restaurants and cafes that offer scenic respites along the way. Meandering along this path is like taking a journey through time and thought, making it a must-visit for anyone seeking a blend of history, culture, and natural beauty in Kyoto.
My Airbnb was just a short walk to the Philosopher’s Path, so this is where I spent most of my time in Kyoto. Be sure to take your time wandering around this area, or you might miss something. Some of the best temples and shrines in all of Kyoto are in this area, and they are usually less crowded because less people know about them.
7. Wander around Nishiki Market
A visit to Nishiki Market in Kyoto is a sensory delight for food lovers and culture enthusiasts alike. Known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen,” this bustling market offers a tantalizing array of fresh produce, traditional snacks, and unique culinary treasures. As you wander through its narrow alleyways, the vibrant sights, sounds, and aromas will captivate your senses, making Nishiki Market a must-visit destination for an authentic taste of Kyoto’s culinary heritage.
8. Fushimi Inari
Visiting Fushimi Inari in Kyoto is an unforgettable journey into history and natural beauty. This iconic Shinto shrine, dedicated to the god of rice and prosperity, is renowned for its thousands of vibrant red torii gates that create mesmerizing pathways through the forested mountainside.
The hiking trails here offer a serene escape from the city. They lead you to breathtaking viewpoints and tranquil moments of reflection. To fully savor the enchantment and avoid crowds, it’s best to arrive early. While the crowds can get ridiculous here, if you keep walking through, you’ll be able to find some privacy. Most people only go to the front and then leave. So press forward and you’ll be rewarded with some quiet space and tranquility.
9. Enjoy Sake and Cocktails at the Many Amazing Local Drinkeries
Kyoto’s food and bar scene is a gastronomic journey waiting to be savored. In this ancient city, you’ll find a treasure trove of culinary delights. From traditional restaurants offering meticulously crafted multi-course meals to bustling street markets serving up delectable street food.
The bar scene is equally vibrant. With cocktail lounges that blend classic mixology with modern creativity, sake breweries where you can sample Japan’s famed rice wine, and cozy izakayas where the atmosphere is as delightful as the dishes.
10. Walk/Bike Ride Along the Kamo River
Walking or biking along the Kamo River in Kyoto is a serene and enjoyable way to experience the city. The river’s peaceful ambiance, lined with cherry trees and lush greenery, provides a calming escape from the city’s hustle and bustle.
Whether you’re taking a leisurely stroll or cycling along the well-maintained paths, you’ll have the opportunity to soak in the natural beauty and scenic views that make the Kamo River a favorite spot for both locals and visitors alike.
Where to Stay in Kyoto-Best Neighborhoods and Stay Options
Kyoto offers accommodation options for every budget and every kind of traveler. From budget hotels, capsule hotels, luxury rentals, traditional ryokans, and many more, you have a lot of options to choose from.
We spent a month in this absolutely beautiful, 100 year old ryokan(traditional Japanese style home) a little outside of the main city. The location of this Airbnb was fantastic, as we got to experience a local Kyoto neighborhood while still being easily accessible to the city.
If you are only visiting for a short period of time, I suggest to stay somewhere near the river. This will be the most centrally located spot, with easy access to many attractions on foot as well as the metro.
How to get around Kyoto
Navigating the enchanting streets of Kyoto is a joy in itself, and the city offers a plethora of delightful ways to explore its beauty. From the charming rickshaws that glide through historic neighborhoods to the modern efficiency of Japan’s impeccable public transportation system, getting around Kyoto is an adventure in itself.
You can opt for leisurely strolls along serene canals, pedaling through picturesque streets on bicycles, or even indulge in the city’s famed traditional tea ceremonies while pondering your next destination.
Kyoto’s well-connected network of buses and trains makes every corner of this magical city easily accessible, ensuring that your journey through its ancient wonders is seamless and filled with memorable experiences. So, embrace the myriad of transport options available, each offering a unique perspective on Kyoto’s timeless allure, and let the city’s charm unfold before you.
Tips for Visiting Kyoto
After living in Kyoto for an entire month, I definitely made my fair share of mistakes that I hope you all can learn from. Here are some additional tips and trips for planning your visit to Kyoto.
- Tips for Visiting Kyoto, Japan
- 1. Best Time of Year to Visit Kyoto– Avoid summer at all costs. The city is unbearably hot in the summer. The best seasons to visit Kyoto are the autumn and spring. In spring, you’ll see larger crowds due to the cherry blossom season but the weather will be more enjoyable. I would love to return in the autumn at some point to enjoy the cooler weather and see the changing of the seasons.
- 2. Book Ahead– Kyoto is an incredibly popular city, one of the most popular in all of Japan. For this reason, things book up well in advance. I suggest planning your trip many months in advance and getting those “can’t miss” reservations as soon as possible.
- 3. Get Plenty of Cash– Surprisingly, many places in Japan still only accept cash. I found this shocking since Japan is marketed as being so futuristic. But be sure to carry plenty of yen with you in case where you’re going doesn’t accept credit cards.
- 4. How Many Days Do You Need in Kyoto-I suggest a minimum of at least 4 days in order to be able to see everything in Kyoto. There are many amazing sights and attractions. Even with 4 days, you’d be going at a pretty fast pace to see it all.
- 5. Learn Some Japanese Words– English is not widely spoken in Japan, so be sure to learn some local phrases to make getting around easier. Japan can be a bit intimidating but the locals are all very friendly and willing to help.
- 6. Use Public Transit– Taxis and Ubers can get very expensive in Japan, so the best bet is to use the fantastic public transit system. It’s very clean, very safe, and very efficient.
Best Daytrips from Kyoto
When you find yourself in the enchanting city of Kyoto, get ready to embark on an adventure beyond its charming streets. Kyoto is not just a destination; it’s a gateway to a world of incredible day trips that will add even more magic to your Japan journey. Whether you’re seeking natural wonders, cultural immersion, or culinary delights, the possibilities are endless. Kyoto is a fantastic home base for exploring many parts of Japan, since many destinations are connected by train. Here’s just a few of the day trips I took while living in Kyoto:
- Best Day Trips from Kyoto
- 1. Koyasan-High in the mountains of Mt Koya, Koyasan is a cultural heritage area that is not to be missed. The birthplace of Shingon Buddhism, Koyasan is one of the most culturally significant places to visit in Japan.
- 2. Osaka-A simple 40 minute train ride will have you in one of Japan’s most vibrant and bustling cities, Osaka.
- 3. Nara-Also a very easy train ride away is the city of Nara. Famous for it’s free wandering, bowing deer, Nara is a fun and quick day trip.
My Top Recommendations for Restaurants, Bars, & Coffeeshops in Kyoto Japan
In Kyoto, a journey through the vibrant food scene is a delightful adventure for both the palate and the soul. From traditional teahouses serving matcha and wagashi to bustling markets showcasing an array of street food wonders, Kyoto’s culinary landscape is a true feast for the senses. In addition to the food scene, there are many amazing cocktails lounges, bars, cafes, coffeeshops and much more. Here’s my recommendations for my favorite in each category.
My Favorite Restaurants in Kyoto(Vegetarian Version)
- Vegan Ramen UZU Kyoto
- Vegetarian Cafe Ren Ginkakuji
- Ramen Towzen
- Yak & Yeti
Bars and Cocktail Lounges in Kyoto
- Kawa Bar
- Bighand Bros. Beer Teramachi
- Anywhere in Pontocho
Coffeeshops in Kyoto
- Drip & Drop Coffee Supply
- Brown Eyes Coffee
- AG Coffee
- Starbucks(Gion District)
Kyoto Travel Guide Conclusion
As we bid farewell to the mesmerizing city of Kyoto, it’s impossible not to feel a twinge of nostalgia. From uncovering the hidden gems of ancient temples, wandering through enchanting bamboo groves, and savoring the local life, Kyoto will always hold a special place in my heart.
I had the privilege of calling this amazing city home for a month and I’ll always cherish those memories. From the serene beauty of Arashiyama to the bustling streets of Gion, Kyoto’s magic is boundless.
Whether you came seeking history, culture, or simply an adventure of the heart, Kyoto has delivered in abundance. I hope that this Kyoto Travel Guide has given you inspiration for your trip and provided you with lots of information to make planning your trip easier. Thanks for visiting my travel blog.