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Best things to do & places to stay:

Last updated: 17 November, 2022
Expert travel writer: Rob Goss

No longer Japan’s capital, but still very much the country’s traditional heart, Kyoto wears its past with pride.

More than 1,000 years as Japan’s political, spiritual and cultural centre have left an incredible legacy of World Heritage temples, shrines and palaces.

Shop for traditional crafts, splurge on the most sublime Japanese cuisine, stroll in pristinely-manicured gardens and spend the night at a historic inn. You might even spot an enigmatic geisha or two. Kyoto is where old Japan still lives and breathes.

Orientation

The central transport hub, in the southern half of the city, is Kyoto Station.

North of there, the main downtown area is centred on Shjio-dori avenue – full of places to shop, eat and drink, and within easy reach of many of the top sights.

East, on the other side of the Kamo River, is Higashiyama, a sprawling area packed with historic sights. All these areas are well connected.

The northwest is a bit of a slog, but is home to several of Kyoto’s star temples, while out west, Arashiyama is another major sightseeing area, most famous for its bamboo grove.

The bucket list experiences our writer says you must do in this destination

Bullet Train

Japan

Reaching speeds of up to 320 km/h, Japan’s iconic bullet train revolutionised high speed train travel when it first launched in 1964, only eclipsed in 2002 by new maglev trains. For locals, it’s a fast, convenient and safe means to travel between Japan’s major cities. For everyone else, it’s a must do.

Best for ages: 4+ | £90 | 2+ hours

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Geishas in Gion

Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Kyoto’s historic Gion quarter is the place to see Japan’s mysterious and enigmatic geisha. Dressed in colourful kimonos, complimented by elaborate hairstyles and oshiroi make-up, they’ve been entertaining Japan’s wealthy and well-connected for centuries.

Best for ages: 10+ | Free

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Cherry blossom in Kyoto

Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

The blossoms of ornamental cherry trees – Japan’s national flower – beguile and dazzle, both visitor and local alike – when the spring wave turns Japan pink.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free | 2 months

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Kaiseki-ryori dinners in Kyoto

Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

The pinnacle of Japanese cuisine, this traditional dinner features a succession of up to 12 dishes, artfully presented and culinarily sublime. Tastes range from the familiar to the wonderfully indecipherable.

Best for ages: 18+ | £100 | 3-4 hours

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Other worthwhile experiences in this destination if you have the time or the interest

Sunrise on tempe between trees
Experience

Kenninji Temple

Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Established in 1202, this temple at the southern end of Hanami-koji has traditional Zen gardens and incredible ceiling murals of dragons (added in 2002). It claims to be the oldest temple in Kyoto.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Busy covered market
Experience

Nishiki Market

Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Stretching along five shop-lined blocks, Kyoto’s oldest food market immerses visitors in Kyoto’s culinary heritage. Over 100 stalls and restaurants offer all and anything food related.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Trees in garden clearing
Experience

Saihoji Temple

Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

A Buddhist Zen temple and UNESCO World Heritage Site best known for its unusual, atmospheric moss garden that circles a symbolically-shaped golden pond. Just getting in is an experience – you’re given a written sutra to copy it out onto another piece of paper to ensure you are pure enough to enter!

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Our writer’s picks of the best places to stay in this destination

Hiiragiya Ryokan

Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Indulge in luxury the authentic Japanese way at this 200-year-old ryokan in the heart of Kyoto that ticks all the traditional boxes. The price includes a 12-course kaiseki-ryori dinner.

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Miru Kyoto Nishiki

Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Old-Kyoto meets contemporary Japan at this centrally located boutique hotel geared to budget-conscious travelers.

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BnA Alter Museum

Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

One for art aficionados – a minimalist boutique that’s a living art gallery. All rooms are created by local artists.

Official star rating:

Celestine Kyoto Gion

Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

An affordable hotel offering modern Japanese simplicity and hospitality in the historic Gion geisha district. A great base for sightseeing.

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When to go

The New Year (Dec 28-Jan 4), Golden Week (April 29-May 5) and Obon (Aug 13-15) holidays are all worth avoiding – things either close, get packed out, or suddenly cost significantly more.

Instead, think of spring or autumn. Late March to early April sees the cherry blossoms, which means more visitors, but it’s a beautiful time to see the city and the weather remains generally warm and sunny in April and May.

Likewise, October and November have great weather for being out and about. If possible, avoid July and August – the heat and humidity are brutal.

Getting there and away

The nearest major international airport is Kansai International Airport (KIX), which is a bit of a trek – 80 minutes on the Haruka Kansai-Airport Express train.

If, however, you transfer at Narita (serving Toyo) or elsewhere, you might arrive at Osaka International Airport (Itami). Take a 50-minute limousine bus from there to Kyoto.

If coming after staying in Tokyo, the shinkansen (bullet train) is by far the best option.

Getting around

Kyoto has an extensive public transportation network, with trains and subways being the best way to get around quickly.

If somewhere isn’t close to a station, it will be close to a bus stop, and with a day pass buses are a very cheap way to get about, if you don’t mind the slow-moving traffic.

If you are in a group, taxis can be as wallet-friendly as the buses, and can be found near most major sights. Then there’s cycling – it’s fairly safe and easy to get around on a bike, and there are plenty of rental shops.

Where to stay

The area around Kyoto Station, the main transport hub, is great for accessing central and further away areas, but it does feel rather sterile.

The downtown area around Shoji-dori is also super convenient for the sights and wining and dining.

Southern Higashiyama has lovely old areas like Gion to stay in and explore, while also being very close to downtown and having many major sights.

In the west, Arashiyama is too far removed to be a practical sightseeing base for all of Kyoto, but it can be great if you fancy a couple of days closer to nature.

Where to eat or drink

There are good restaurants all over Kyoto, but some areas are especially good hunting grounds.

North of Shijo-dori, Pontocho is an atmospheric alley parallel to the Kamo River that’s packed with restaurants and bars.

A short walk away, Kiyamachi-dori is similarly pretty, with dozens of bars and restaurants, at various price points, running alongside a small canal.

The old Gion area is known for excellent kaiseki-ryori restaurants.

Where to shop

The area around and under Kyoto Station has all sorts of stores, from tacky souvenir vendors to home electronics megastores.

Shijo-dori and the downtown area has major department stores and the wonderful Nishiki food market – not just good for food, but for teas, handcrafted knives and kitchenware.

For textiles, head to the Nishijin neighbourhood. If you’re after ceramics, the streets leading to Kiyomizu Temple are excellent.

For a vast range of crafts in one place, Kyoto Handicraft Center near Heian Shrine is superb. Shinmonzen and Furumonzen streets in Gion.

Our writer’s recommended itineraries for this destination