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.
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.
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. An admiration for things created well and a life lived with passion and dedication, Kyoto exudes an energy unlike most cities in the world.
The Ultimate Guide to Kyoto
What to Know Before Visiting Kyoto
- 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. Be sure to apply and purchase your JR Rail Pass prior to arrival in Japan.
- 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 a Seven Eleven.
- 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.
- 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
- The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto: Perfectly located along the banks of the Yamo River, it 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.
Where to Eat 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 Daiichiasahi: 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.
- Rakusho: A Japanese sweets restaurant with beautiful koi ponds and gardens.
- 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.
- Pass the Baton: A magical teahouse along a canal serving artisanal shaved ice.
- 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.
- Get caffeinated at: %Arabica (multiple locations), Sentido, Drip & Drop Coffee, Weekenders, Cafe Bibliotic Hello!, and Clamp Coffee.
What to Do in Kyoto
- Walk the Gion Historic District for 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.
- See the iconic Kinkakuji Golden temple. Grab soft serve ice cream here with gold flakes!