No travel destination in the world strikes like Kyoto. The former imperial capital of Japan is surreal in its cultural & historical beauty. Kyoto is not just a must-see for any trip to Asia, but a must-visit in your life.
It sounds dramatic, but also indisputable. Kyoto is one of the world’s best places to visit. Period. While every inch may not inspire, you can’t leave Kyoto without a renewed lust for travel. Kyoto reminds of the beauty awaiting elsewhere.
Explore temples reflect golden hues into ponds surrounded by Japanese gardens. Get entranced by mystical bamboo groves. Enjoy some of Japan’s finest cuisine. Whatever you’re looking to do in Kyoto, maximize your trip with this complete Kyoto travel guide…
When to visit Kyoto
Like much of a Japan, Kyoto is a true four-season destination in every sense. Summers fall into the typical Japanese/Asian pattern of unrelenting heat & humidity. Winters, on the other hand, are cooler than throughout most of the continent.
The best time to visit Kyoto is in the spring or the fall. In each of these seasons, you’ll experience milder and drier weather than in the height of the hot & wet summer.
The end of March and early April is a beautiful time to go to Kyoto. In spring, the city becomes blanketed with the soft hues of pink & white cherry blossoms (sakura).
November is also a spectacular time to visit with Kyoto. The fall colours in Kyoto hit their peak around the middle of the month.
What to do in Kyoto
One thing I can guarantee for any visit to Kyoto: You’ll never get bored. You can spend your days spotting geisha in Gion or hunting down Kyoto’s best temples & shrines. Or take a day out of the city to baskin the natural glories of Arashiyama.
Not sure where to start? Here are some of the top things to do in Kyoto:
Once you’ve seen it, it’s impossible to shake the image of Kyoto’s most famous temple reflecting its golden façade into the pond below. For an extra special scene, visit Kinkaku-ji in autumn. You’ll catch the temple under the shade of orange, yellow, and red leaves.
Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine
Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine is one of Kyoto’s most spectacular sites. This early-16th century shrine beguiles visitors with its famous set of over 10,000 vermillion gates. If you want to escape the crowds, venture beyond the gates onto the slopes of Mt. Inari-san. You’ll find some of the best hiking trails in Kyoto here.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Bustle of Kyoto too much to handle? Escape the city to the quiet district of Arashiyama. The town is home to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, one of Japan’s most iconic scenes. Walking though this otherworldly bamboo forest is a must while visiting Kyoto.
Kiyomizu-dera peers over the historical Higashiyama district. This famous temple dispenses Kyoto’s most famous city & mountain views. If possible, visit Kiyomizu-dera in the evening. You’ll catch the temple at its most breathtaking. It’s also stunning under the spell of fall foliage and during cherry blossom season.
Since this is Japan we’re talking about, don’t leave Kyoto without munching on the city’s top delights in the historical Nishiki Market. The market is most famous with local for its desserts. But don’t miss out on trying its savoury Kansai favourites. The takoyaki (fried octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes) here are top-notch.
What to eat in Kyoto
Like most Japanese cities, Kyoto is a foodie destination through and through. Although it lacks the culinary reputation of nearby Osaka, you’ll find plenty to snack on in here.
Need ideas for where to start? Here are a few must-try foods in Kyoto:
Kaiseki is a multi-course Japanese haute cuisine originating in Kyoto. In kaiseki cuisine, each dish is painstakingly crafted by experienced chefs. Only the freshest of ingredients are used.
Nishin Soba is a unique take on soba (buckwheat noodles). Nishin Soba relies on herring as its protein source rather more common ingredients like pork, duck or tempura.
It might seem odd to suggest eating sushi in a landlocked city. And that’s why its a must-try in Kyoto! Over the years, Kyoto’s location meant fish mongers had to get creative. They developed innovative ways to keep seafood from spoiling, such as using salt & vinegar. One of the most famous in Kyoto is saba sushi. It features mackerel salted and marinated in vinegar.
Although it didn’t originate in Kyoto, Tonkostu Ramen is a must-try. The ramen noodles are cooked up a rich pork-based broth. They’re topped off with tonkotsu pork slices. The dish is delight—in any city in Japan.
Obanzai are small servings of food, often vegetables, served as a starter. They’re a local Kyoto innovation. Popular obanzai dishes include daikon radish, eggplant, turnips, and carrots.
Green Tea Desserts
Wherever you roam in Kyoto, you’ll find sweets fashioned from various green tea products. Have your pick from ice cream to shaved ice to donuts.
Where to stay in Kyoto
As the city is one of the most popular destinations in Japan, there are plenty of options for where to stay in Kyoto. Accommodation prices, as you might expect, are on the higher end of Japanese standards.
Even so, I’d recommend staying as close to the city centre as you can. There’ll be plenty to do & see within walking distance (or a quick train ride) at all times. It’ll allow you to have the best experience possible in Kyoto.
The best areas to stay in Kyoto for first-time travellers include:
- Gion is a central district famous for its geisha culture. Gion District also hosts some spectacular scenery. Visit Shirakawa Minami-dori in spring. Catching the street under a blanket of spring cherry blossoms is one of the best experiences you’ll ever enjoy.
- Higashiyama is a hilly district south of Gion. It’s among Kyoto’s most atmospheric historical areas. The streets of Higashiyami hide teahouses, parks, and izakaya (traditional Japanese pubs). You’ll also stumble upon several temples here including Kiyomizu-dera, Kennin-ji, and Kodai-ji.
- Nakagyo is the geographic centre of Kyoto. Nakagyo is close to some of Kyoto’s top-rated attractions, including Nishiki Market, Nijo Castle, and Pontocho. It’s the best area in Kyoto for foodies.
- Shimogyo is the southern part of Kyoto’s centre. Shimogyo is home to Kyoto Station, the city’s main transport hub. There’s a handful of great places to visit here from temples to gardens. The real reason to stay here is for quick access to the best day trips in Kyoto.
Transportation in Kyoto
Kyoto is served by Kansai International Airport (KIX) and Osaka International Airport (ITM). Most international flights arrive via KIX. Flights from within Japan will often use ITM.
The most popular airlines flying to Kansai Int’l Airport from destinations abroad include:
- All Nippon Airways
- Japan Airlines
Already in Japan? There’s no better way to get to Kyoto than by train. If you’re planning to take a couple train journeys in Japan, you’ll often save a ton of money by buying a Japan Rail Pass.
Sample destinations, times and fares include:
- Tokyo (3h32m, ¥4,100)
- Osaka (1h30m; ¥410)
- Nara (45m; ¥710)
- Hiroshima (2h41m; ¥11,650)
Although travellers will often spend much of their time exploring by foot, learning how to get around Kyoto is a cinch. The transportation system in Kyoto is both easy to navigate and efficient.
Like in most cities in Japan, the easiest way to get around Kyoto is by subway. There are two subway lines, running roughly north-south (Karasuma Line) and east-west (Tozai Line). Most of the top things to see in Kyoto are within walking distance of stations on these lines.
The extensive Kyoto bus system will get you anywhere you want in the city. They are, however, less user-friendly to navigate for non-Japanese speakers than the subway system. If must take a bus, be sure to know exactly which one to take and where to get off.
With the city’s flat terrain and extensive network of bike paths, cycling in Kyoto is a pleasant way of scooting around town. Many hotels & guesthouses in Kyoto can hook you up with bike rentals.