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Updated September 2023

Even after a second time in this city, Kyoto never loses its magic. Writing this ultimate guide to Kyoto, I was reminded why it is so special — every one of its 1,600 temples, its small izakayas and cafes, and those forest-lined hills.

Guide to Kyoto

Kyoto, unlike its larger counterpart Tokyo, feels like a small city. The Gion District lights up at night and visitors post out to catch a glimpse of a Geiko or Meiko (geishas) crossing through to an appointment. The city is surrounded by dense, lush mountains where many flock to see the sights, like Arashiyama or Fushimi Inari Shrine.

Kyoto River

It’s a city built on tradition. With a longstanding history as Japan’s former capital, it still holds the arts to a high degree. From kaiseki dinners to tea ceremonies, those looking to taste and see Japan’s traditions should look no further. With an admiration for things created well and a life lived with passion and dedication, Kyoto exudes an energy unlike most cities in the world.

Short on Time? Here Are My Top Picks for the Best Hotels in Kyoto:

  1. The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto, for the best downtown Kyoto hotel
  2. The Junei Hotel Kyoto Imperial Palace West, for the best central Kyoto hotel
  3. Four Seasons Kyoto, for the best Southern Higashiyama hotel
  4. Ryokan Inn Yoshida-sanso, for the best Northern Higashiyama hotel
  5. Hotel Kanra, for the best Kyoto Station hotel
  6. Suiran, for the best Arashiyama hotel

Travel Tip: Be sure to get your JR Rail Pass prior to arrival in Japan!

If you’re planning a trip to Kyoto, don’t miss my guides to the best hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, and things to do!

The Ultimate Guide to Kyoto


What to Know Before Visiting Kyoto

Transportation

The city does not require a car. Everything is easily reached by foot, train, or bus. The bus network is incredibly reliable, so don’t be afraid to take a local bus.

The Suica card is helpful for using the bus and local train. You can get one at the main stations and, with a small deposit, have access to reload this card. If you have a JR Rail Pass, this is also applicable for certain lines in Kyoto.

Travel Tip: Be sure to apply and purchase your JR Rail Pass prior to arrival in Japan!

Carry Cash

Japan, even though it is incredibly modern, is still a primarily cash-only country. Carry Yen on you at all times to cover meals, shopping, and transportation. The best place to withdraw cash is at Seven Eleven.

Arrive Early to Beat the Crowds

For all sights, if you’re looking for those “no crowd” photos, be sure to arrive no later than 7:30/8 am. The top attractions will get incredibly busy and it is worth it to get up a bit earlier.

Reserve Restaurants in Advance

The best way to handle any restaurant reservation is to have your hotel concierge call and reserve. Most restaurants need reservations far in advance. There were quite a few where we couldn’t get one almost two weeks in advance.


Where to Stay in Kyoto

Whether you’re looking for luxurious resorts or quaint bed and breakfasts, Kyoto has it all. To make the most of your trip, my primary recommendation is to pick a neighborhood first, then choose a hotel.

Below, I’ve listed a few of my favorite hotels in Kyoto that span a range of locations, styles, and budgets. Read my guide to Kyoto’s neighborhoods and best hotels, for a more comprehensive overview of where to stay.

The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto (Downtown)

Ritz Carlton Kyoto

Perfectly located along the banks of the Yamo River, the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto sits within footsteps of the heart of the city. The quiet neighborhood makes for a peaceful stay. Be sure to book a river-facing room for a stunning view. This is the place to book if you’re looking to experience luxury service and comfortable rooms with modern amenities. Book the best rates here.

The Junei Hotel Kyoto Imperial Palace West (Central Kyoto)

The Junei Hotel Kyoto Imperial Palace West
Image via Booking.com

The Junei Hotel Kyoto Imperial Palace West is a great centrally-located option for those looking for an elevated boutique stay. With only 8 rooms, the intimate vibe and clean and minimal design make it a neighborhood favorite. Book the best rates here.

Four Seasons Kyoto (Southern Higashiyama)

Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto
Image via Booking.com

Located on the east side of the river, Four Seasons Kyoto is without a doubt one of the best stays in town. The hotel and surrounding gardens and koi pond are beautiful and paired with exceptional service and dining. Book the best rates here.

Ryokan Inn Yoshida-sanso (Northern Higashiyama, Adults-Only)

Ryokan Yoshida-sanso
Image via Expedia.com

If you’re looking for a traditional Japanese experience, Ryokan Inn Yoshida-sanso is the top ryokan in this entire area. The rooms feature classic Japanese design, tatami mats, and separate dining areas. A range of room categories from house rooms with shared bathrooms to a fully-private cottage make this a great option. Book the best rates here.

Hotel Kanra (Kyoto Station)

Hotel Kanra
Image via Booking.com

Located a few blocks from Kyoto Station, Hotel Kanra is an elevated boutique hotel with Western amenities and Japanese minimalist design. The hotel and rooms are beautiful, and the location makes it a good option for those training to Kyoto for a night or two. Book the best rates here.

Suiran (Arashiyama)

Suiran
Image via Booking.com

One of the newer luxury hotels to open in the Arashiyama neighborhood, Suiran is a quiet retreat from the city. Well known for its location along the banks of the Katsura River, the Japanese modern design paired with the beautiful surroundings make this standout stay. Book the best rates here.


Where to Eat in Kyoto

Kyoto boasts a diverse array of dining options. The restaurants listed below are just a glimpse of what the city offers. Japanese food’s vast variety means there’s always something new to try and Kyoto’s restaurants beautifully elevate Japanese cuisine. Hidden gems are scattered across the city, even near Kyoto Station. Our fondest memories of Kyoto often revolve around the food. So, whether you’re drawn to Kyoto for its sights or arts, the food will undoubtedly captivate you.

For a more expansive guide to where to eat in Kyoto, read my rundown of the best restaurants in Kyoto!

Monk

A simple, 12-seat restaurant serving an incredible menu. A top five in the city. Be sure to book in advance.

Honke Daiichi-Asahi

If you want hole-in-the-wall ramen, this is the spot where you will be the only tourist.

Kaiseki Mizuki

For an upscale kaiseki meal, the restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton is the perfect spot. Fresh ingredients and beautiful plating make this a meal to remember in Kyoto.

Stardust

A vegan cafe that serves lunch. Reservations required.

Beer Komachi

Nestled in an alley, this joint serves craft local beers with small bites.

Vermillion Café

A great spot for coffee and pastries.

Ichiran Ramen

The iconic vending machine ramen, where individual stalls serve up steaming noodle soup.

Saryo Tsujiri

Come here for matcha everything. Their soft serve is to die for.

Chao Chao Sanjo Kiyamachi

The best gyoza in town where the lines may seem endless, but it’s completely worth it. Try the chicken cheese and their house pork gyoza.

Manmaru no Tsuki

The spot to go to for okonomiyaki.

Omen Noodle House

If you want to try udon, look no further than here.

Wife & Husband

A quaint spot where you can enjoy toast and coffee or take a picnic down to the river.

Coffee Shops

Get caffeinated at:

Coffee in Kyoto

What to Do in Kyoto

Walk the Gion Historic District

Explore the traditional architecture. Be sure to come around 4:30/5 pm for your best chance to see a geisha.

Eat Your Way Through Nishiki Market

If you want to buy a traditional Japanese knife, head to Aritsuga where you can have it engraved.

See Kiyomizu-dera Temple

One of the best views over the city and beautiful gardens.

Grab a Bite in Pontocho Alley

There are plenty of restaurants, just pop your head into one and see if you like the menu!

Walk around in Higashiyama (The Historic District)

A beautiful neighborhood to visit – be sure to stop by Yasaka Shrine.

Stroll the Philosopher’s Path

There are tons of shops, like pottery and paper boutiques, perfect for gift shopping.

Walk Through the Gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine

Visit a Historic Bamboo Grove at Arashiyama

Meditate in Honen-in Temple

Near Philosopher’s Walk, this was our favorite temple as it was the most serene.

Explore Ishibe Alley

A great alley with old wooden houses and tons of shopping.

Sit and Stare at the Zen Gardens at Tofuku-ji Temple

See the Iconic Kinkaku-ji (Golden Temple)

Grab soft serve ice cream here with gold flakes!


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Guide to Kyoto

PS — Are You Booking a Trip Soon? Use My Booking Checklist!

These are the sites I use most to book my own trips. Using the links below is a great way to support Bon Traveler’s travel journalism at no extra cost to you. If you need help organizing your itinerary, get my free travel itinerary template here.

1. Book Your Flights

Use Skyscanner to find the best flights. It searches 100s of airlines and websites across the globe to ensure you’re not missing out on any route options or deals.

2. Book Your Accommodations

Use Booking.com for hotels and guest houses. They have the biggest inventory and consistently offer the best rates.

3. Book Your Tours & Experiences

Use Viator or Get Your Guide to find the best tours and experiences. They are my favorite tour search engines. I always check both as their inventory varies depending on the destination.

4. Book Your Car

Use Discover Cars or Rentalcars.com to find the best car rental deals. I recommend comparing rental agency reviews on Google to ensure you are booking with the best company in that destination, as the reviews are often more accurate than the car rental search engines.

5. Don’t Forget Airport Lounge Access

Get a Priority Pass membership to gain access to 1,400+ VIP lounges and airport experiences worldwide. The Priority Pass app is the first thing I check when I have a layover. I’ve been a member for over a decade, and having a comfortable place to relax before and between flights makes air travel so much more enjoyable.

6. Don’t Forget Travel Insurance

I never leave the country without travel insurance. It provides comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong (ie. illness, injury, theft, and cancelations, etc.). I use it frequently for my travels to stay protected.

My favorite companies that offer the best coverage and rates are:


Xx,
Jessica

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