It’s impossible to not fall in love with Japan. Kyoto, in particular, is beautiful. It’s a place where modernity mixes with traditional culture.
Tokyo has long been on my travel list, and after seeing photos of Kyoto from friends who’ve travelled there recently, I knew I had to spend a few days there.
Everything in Kyoto seems picture perfect. Japan’s former capital may be much smaller and quieter than Kyoto, but many of the historical attractions have thankfully been preserved, making it a truly enchanting place to visit.
We spent two days in Kyoto, which was just enough time to fall in love with the city.
If you’re short on time in Kyoto, I’d recommend staying somewhere central- we stayed in the Higashiyama district, near Maruyama Park, which I can’t recommend enough. Several of the things we wanted to do were walking distance from where we stayed, and for those which weren’t, we took buses or the subway.
Staying near Maruyama Park meant we were were close to several bus lines, making it easy to get around on a budget. The subway in Kyoto only has two lines, one runs north-south and the other runs east-west. Unfortunately, service is limited and you’ll find it’s easier to take buses even though they take a bit longer. We avoided taking taxis whenever possible in Japan because we found it expensive in both Tokyo and Kyoto- think $50 USD for a 15-20 minute ride.
Regardless of how much time you have in Kyoto, these five things are must-sees, easy enough to accomplish in two days or able to be stretched out over the course of a few days for a less rushed visit.
5 Things You Must Do in Kyoto
Walk Through the Torii at Fushimi Inari Taisha
Situated on the side of the Inari Mountain, there are thousands of crimson torii gates leading to the temple. At the top, the shrine is dedicated to the Shinto god of rice.
Each torii was donated by a business. Walking through the gates felt kind of magical.
If you visit and there are a bunch of people in the lower region, just keep walking for a bit- it gets less crowded as you go further up the mountain.
One other thing to know: Fushimi Inari Taisha is open 24 hours a day, so it’s a good place to visit early morning or early evening before/after other main attractions are open/closed for the day.
Admire the Golden Temple
Even if you’ve never heard of Kyoto, chances are you’ve heard of Kinkaku-ji, the golden temple. It’s so beautiful, it feels surreal. The outer walls of the temple are completely covered in gold, and the temple itself is surrounded by traditional Japanese gardens and ponds.
You can’t go inside the temple, but you can walk around the outer gardens. The temple becomes quite busy during the day, I’d recommend going early or right before it closes. We went ~45 minutes before closing time and although there were a few dozen people mingling about, it didn’t feel too crowded.
Stroll through the Bamboo Grove
Before I’d even started planning my trip to Japan, the bamboo grove had been on my list of places to venture to at some point in life.
A perfectly tailored bamboo forest, standing amid the stalks of bamboo is like being in another world. On a day with light wind, you can hear the stalks push against each other, crackling.
The bamboo grove is outside of the main attractions in Kyoto, but easy to get to and worth the trip. And, there’s more to Arashiyama than just the grove- there are a few small temples, and monkey park nearby.
If you’re going to visit and want time alone in the grove, you need to go early- like super early. We arrived at 7:20 and had a half hour in the grove before other people started showing up. Come mid-day, the grove becomes extremely crowded with visitors.
To get to the grove, take the JR Sagano line to the Saga Arashiyama station. Then, walk ~10 minutes to get to the entrance of the grove. Location wise, it’s past the Tenryu-ji Temple, and to the left. You’ll reach a path with a few bamboo trees before you get to the grove- keep going. The first part of the path is pretty sparse, and you may think, this is a waste of time. Promise the trees get much denser as you keep going into the grove.
Explore the Gion District
The Gion district is a must visit if you want to see the atmosphere of ancient Japan. With preserved backstreets full of boutiques, it’s an area you don’t want to miss. In particular, Sannen-zaka and Ninnen-zaka are two of Kyoto’s most beautiful streets.
Famed for its geishas, Gion is an area packed with bars, restaurants and teahouses. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a geisha in a back alley on her way to work right before the teahouses open for the evening.
If you’re staying near the Gion district, go for a morning walk in Maruyama Park, and grab a latte at % Arabica- great iced lattes
Stay at a Ryokan
While in Kyoto, you should definitely sleep at least one night in a traditional Ryokan. Ryokan aren’t hotels, but instead, elaborate guesthouses.
In Japan, people often travel long distances solely for the purpose of relaxing in a hot spring bath and enjoying a traditional multi-course dinner. Ryokan rooms typically have woven-straw flooring and futon beds. Food is usually served inside the room, and many ryokans are famous for the food they offer. Gion Hatanaka is a bit pricey, but gorgeous. Worth it if you’re able to split the cost with fellow travelers.
Bonus: Favorite Places to Eat & Drink
There are many places to eat and drink in Kyoto, some more touristy than others. These were my favorite of the ones we visited, places I’d go back to on a return trip to Kyoto.
- Hello Dolly: Beautiful, old timey whiskey jazz bar
- L’Esca Moteur: Superb cocktails, the smoked Old Fashioned is delicious
- Bar Rocking Chair: Good cocktails off the beaten path. There isn’t a drink menu- instead, you tell the bartenders what kind of flavors you like
- % Arabica: The best coffee in Kyoto, and one of the top five lattes I’ve ever had. We ended up coming here three times during our stay- that’s how much we loved the drinks
- Nishiki Market: A dream for foodies housed in an alleyway with a beautiful glass roof. You’ll find plenty of traditional food here to try- pickled vegetables, Asian spices, tempura, seafood, sushi and plenty of soft serve
- Also, don’t miss the cute animal donuts at Floresta (just outside the market)
- Eat Soft Serve: There’s no specific location you should come for this, just make sure you have a cone of soft serve while in Kyoto, it’s particularly required. I really liked the soft serve stand in Maruyama Park, and the one outside of Kinkaku-ji, where you can get a green tea & vanilla swirl with gold flakes
- Mister Donut: A Boston-bred chain with locations all over Japan. This only makes the list because cake donuts aren’t a thing in the U.K., and gosh, I miss them. The cake donuts at the Kyoto Station location were so good, we came back twice #NoRegrets
- Okinawa: Great for vegetarians
- Awomb: Good sushi, beautiful presentation
On My Next Visit
I’ve heard the entire Kansai region of Japan offers beautiful day trips. On a future trip, I’d like to spend a full week in/near Kyoto, exploring nearby towns in addition to seeing more of Kyoto.
Things that’ll be at the top of my list-
- Attend a tea ceremony
- Spend more time in Arashiyama, making time to see the monkey mountain park
- Head to Osaka for a day trip
- Visit Nijo-jo Castle
- See Byodo-in Temple
- Check out Kinkaku-ji’s brother, Ginkaku-ji (the silver temple). Originally, this temple was meant to be covered in silver, but the silver was never added
Extra Know Before You Go Info
- Language: Japanese. We found more people in Kyoto spoke some English than in Tokyo, but overall relied heavily on Google Translate to read menus/signs, and were really patient when trying to have conversations
- Currency: Japanese Yen. Currently, the exchange rate is set at ~110 Yen to $1 USD
- Getting there: We came directly from Tokyo and took the Shinkansen (bullet train) Nozomi
- The fastest Shinkansen, costs ¥13,710 one-way and can get you from Tokyo Station to Kyoto Station in about 2 hours and 20 minutes. It’s not cheap, but it’s quick. I’d recommend bringing your own snacks for the train- there is a food cart, but the options aren’t great, and can sell out if your train is packed. You don’t need to worry about buying tickets in advance- trains run several times an hour and it’s easy to purchase tickets when you arrive at the main stations
- Wifi: We rented a TEP device for our trip, but most restaurants and hotels seemed to have wifi available for use
- Getting around: I mentioned this above, but we took buses and the subway to save money. Taxis are quicker, but will add up, so keep that in mind