Kyoto is one of the definitive must-visit destinations for international travelers to Japan. From ancient, historic temples, mouthwatering Kyoto cuisine, elegant accommodations, and more, Kyoto bursts with attractions offering a virtually limitless supply of sightseeing.
Here we’ll dive into the best of Kyoto, giving you everything you need for the ultimate Kyoto itinerary!
Top image: PIXTA
- Table of Contents
- 1. Quick facts about Kyoto
- 2. When is the best time to visit Kyoto?
- 3. Getting to Kyoto from Tokyo and transport within Kyoto
- 4. Accommodations: Where to stay in Kyoto
- 5. Dining out in Kyoto
- 6. Cultural things to see in Kyoto
- 7. Recommended activities and things to do in Kyoto
- 8. Shopping in Kyoto
- 9. Other sightseeing hotspots around Kyoto
1. Quick facts about Kyoto
Kyoto Prefecture and its capital of Kyoto City are located in the Kansai region near the center of Honshu, Japan's main island.
The north side of the prefecture faces the Sea of Japan; the east touches Shiga Prefecture; the south neighbors the ancient capital of Nara, along with the metropolis of Osaka; and the west is near the Port of Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture.
Kyoto City, the political and tourism heart of the area, can be found in the southern region of Kyoto Prefecture. The main transport hub here is Kyoto Station, which is connected to the Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train, JR lines, Kyoto Municipal Subway, the Kintetsu Railway, along with numerous bus and taxi hubs, allowing you to travel the city with ease.
Brief history of Kyoto
From 794 and lasting more than a thousand years, Kyoto was the capital city of Japan. During this period, wars and upheaval broke out countless times, requiring the city to be rebuilt again and again in lavish splendor.
Even after the capital of Japan was moved to Tokyo in 1868, Kyoto continued its development to become the modern city we see today.
The culture of Kyoto largely grew around the flourishing imperial court centered on the emperor. It consisted of architecture, handicrafts, kimono, and cuisine, much of which has been passed down and is still practiced today.
Why is Kyoto so important to Japan?
Kyoto boasts approximately 3,000 tangible and intangible cultural properties, including National Treasures, Important Cultural Properties, and City-Designated Registered Cultural Properties.
Surrounding the city on three sides is untouched mountainside nature along with hundreds of temples and shrines and the remains of historic townscapes showcasing Kyoto’s status as the ancient capital.
There are places worth seeing throughout Kyoto City, which are all supported by fantastic services to help international travelers with their trip.
Why is Kyoto so famous?
Alongside the abundance of historical temples and shrines, Kyoto is also host to a number of renowned traditional festivals like the Aoi Matsuri, Gion Matsuri, and Jidai Matsuri.
The city overflows with time-honored Japanese culture passed down the generations, seen at its peak through the arts of ikebana flower arrangement, tea ceremony, noh and kyogen theatre, traditional dance, and more.
In fact, many Japanese arts taught overseas have their leaders based in Kyoto. And, of course, perhaps the most famous of all are the beautiful maiko and geisha and the unique “hanamachi” nightlife culture.
Why is Kyoto such a popular sightseeing destination?
Japanese people love to relish the changing of the seasons through events and food. As a cultural heartland, the traditions of Japan can be felt more strongly in Kyoto than perhaps anywhere else in the country.
Renting and wearing kimono, partaking in tea and incense ceremonies, tasting Japanese cuisine and sweets, and more, Kyoto allows and encourages visitors to join the locals and experience their customs.
Despite being the ancient capital, Kyoto is also a modern city and boasts fantastic public transportation facilities alongside plenty of places to dine, shop, and stay.
There are also a number of universities in Kyoto, making it a popular destination for exchange students and creating an environment whereby both locals and international residents and travelers enjoy life together.
2. When is the best time to visit Kyoto?
We recommend visiting during spring or autumn when the weather is at its most agreeable. You can also relish the cherry blossom trees during spring, while autumn sees the entire region dyed with vivid fall foliage, making them trendy times to visit. While there are travelers in Kyoto throughout the year, the summers are scorching and the winters freezing.
However, with such agreeable weather and nature, many domestic travelers also flock to Kyoto during these periods, making the more famous destinations overcrowded.
When you do visit, it’s best to start your day early, go during a weekday, or find a time that allows you to sightsee leisurely and slowly. While midsummer and midwinter are extreme, there are also plenty of seasonal activities to enjoy during these times. Let’s take a look at the highlights of each season!
What to see in Kyoto during spring
Spring is the season of flowers, the height of which is the beloved “sakura” cherry blossom. The peak time for sakura is just one week from the end of March to the beginning of April, so don’t wait around!
One of the best ways to enjoy this natural phenomenon is to find a park at night and see the petals faintly illuminated by the gentle light of paper lanterns.
Some of the best places for cherry blossoms in Kyoto include the easy-to-access Maruyama Park, Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Arashiyama, Heian-jingu Shrine, Kyoto Botanical Gardens, and the Philosopher's Path.
What to see and do in Kyoto in summer
Even on the hottest days of summer, it’s easy to cool down and feel refreshed at one of Kyoto’s numerous forests and lakes/rivers.
Notable places to escape the heat of Kyoto include the high-altitude Kibune and Kurama areas, along with Shimogamo Shrine and the Tadasu-no-Mori Forest, which boasts an abundance of 200-year-old-plus trees.
It’s also a great time to check out the scores of stunning green bamboo at the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, spend time on the banks of the Kamo River or Kibune River, or take a boat ride through the Hozugawa River valley.
What to see and do in Kyoto in autumn
Once autumn really starts to take hold from late October to November, Kyoto is transformed into a marvelous sea of foliage. Many of the trees are colored red, yellow, and brown, making the surrounding mountains and shrine trees appear even more beautiful.
There are plenty of places to enjoy this, with some of the most notable being Nijo Castle, Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Eikan-do Temple, the Philosopher's Path, Kifune Shrine, Arashiyama, and Sagano.
What to see and do in Kyoto in winter
While snow doesn’t fall much in the city of Kyoto, enchanting snowy scenery can be enjoyed during midwinter at Kifune Shrine, which sits in the valley between Mt. Kibune and Mt. Kurama on the northeastern side of Kyoto City.
Meanwhile, the northern regions of Kyoto Prefecture boast fantastic snowfall, with some of the most enchanting wintery regions including Miyama Kayabuki No Sato, Amanohashidate, the “funaya” boat houses of Ine, and Fukuchiyama Castle.
3. Getting to Kyoto from Tokyo and transport within Kyoto
Getting to Kyoto from Tokyo and other major cities
・Shinkansen (Bullet Train)
Kyoto can be accessed from Tokyo via the “Nozomi” shinkansen bullet train, which takes around 2 hrs and 15 mins and costs 14,170 yen (reserved seat, regular period). While a relatively short, comfortable, and reliable journey, the price is on the higher end and you’ll have to book if you want a reserved seat. Depending on your itinerary, you may wish to consider purchasing a Japan Rail Pass, which may save you money on a round trip from Tokyo to Kyoto.
There are overnight highway busses running between Tokyo and Kyoto, with the JR busses having terminals in front of most major stations and taking around 8 hrs. While the journey is long, you won’t have to worry about transfers, making it easy to transport heavy luggage while also allowing you to sleep while traveling. The 4-row seater “Seishun Eco Dream” bus costs approximately 4,000 yen, making it significantly cheaper than the railway.
If you want to get to Kyoto fast, nothing beats traveling by airplane. It will take roughly 90 mins to get to Kansai International Airport or Osaka International Airport (Itami Airport) from Haneda Airport in Tokyo. The arrival airport will differ depending on the air carrier or flight, so do be careful before purchasing tickets. A one-way ticket will cost around 10,000 yen, however, this can change dramatically depending on the season, period, and airline, so it’s best to book well in advance. However, be aware that you likely won’t be able to cancel or change tickets on low-cost airlines.
Getting to Kyoto From Kansai International Airport
Getting from Kansai International Airport to Kyoto is straightforward via JR trains, limousine bus, and more. It takes roughly 71 mins to reach Osaka Station via the airport express line (Kanku Kaisoku), and an additional 29 mins after changing to the Shinkaisoku train on the Kyoto Line (passenger ticket: 1,910 yen). You can also get directly to Kyoto using the JR Kansai Airport Express Haruka train in around 80 mins (passenger ticket: 1,910 yen + unreserved seat ticket: 990 yen, or reserved seat ticket: 1,520 yen (regular season), 1,320 yen (off-season).
Limousine busses are available at the Kansai International Airport Terminal 1 (#8 platform) and can reach the Hachijoguchi side of Kyoto Station in approximately 85-90 mins. Boarding from Terminal 2 (#2 platform) will take approximately 100-105 mins. The fare for both is 2,600 yen. Along with a reasonable price, this bus service is ideal for those with large suitcases and other luggage.
Sightseeing around Kyoto using public transport
With private railway lines, JR lines, subways, and plenty of busses, getting around the city of Kyoto is a breeze! To make it even easier, we recommend getting a “free pass” which allows unlimited rides on many of Kyoto’s transportation facilities. Let’s take a closer look at the various free passes available.
Subway/Bus One-Day Free Pass
Without a doubt, busses are one of the easiest and most affordable ways to get around a city. The Subway/Bus One-Day Free Pass allows you to freely ride on the Kyoto Municipal Subway, Kyoto City Bus, Kyoto Bus (some lines excluded), and Keihan Bus (some lines excluded) for a whole day. There are even special designated services heading to places like Kodaiji Temple and Toei Kyoto Studio Park. Using the subway and bus combined, you'll be able to move more efficiently between destinations.
From October 1, 2021:
- One-Day Pass: 1,100 yen (adults), 550 yen (children)
- Two-Day Pass: No longer available
Kansai One-Day Pass
The Kansai One-Day Pass allows you to freely ride for one day on the regular, unreserved seats of the JR West regular trains (new rapid and rapid services included), the Osaka Aqualiner water-bus, Kojak Busses in the areas south of Katata Station, and the Lake Biwa Ohashi Line from Katata Station to Kotonaishi-mae (winter-limited). Encompassing Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Nara, and Shiga prefectures, the scope of this ticket is surprisingly large. You can also use it to rent a bicycle (one time only).
The Kansai One-Day Pass is also generally sold seasonally; for example, the 2021 “Autumn Kansai One-Day Pass” came with an exchange ticket for services to enter places like Mt. Hiei (Keihan), Mt. Koya (Nankai), Murouji, and Hasedera temples (Kintetsu), and Arima Onsen (Kobe Municipal Subway, Kobe Electric Railway). This ticket is handy for those who want to venture from Kyoto City to the north of Kyoto Prefecture or another area of Kansai.
- Adults: 3,600 yen
- Children: 1,800 yen
Please book at least one day before use.
JR-WEST Rail Pass
The JR-WEST Rail Pass is a special ticket aimed at foreign travelers coming to Japan for sightseeing. The 7-day pass is 33,610 yen, the 14-day is 52,960 yen, and the 21-day is 66,200 yen. If you’re only exploring Kyoto City, this ticket may be too expensive; however, if you plan to visit northern Kyoto Prefecture, Nara, Osaka, Kobe, or Hiroshima, it’s definitely worth the price (cannot be used on the Nozomi Shinkansen).
*JR-WEST Rail Pass is only available for those with a non-Japanese passport and a “Temporary Visitor” immigration status.
4. Accommodations: Where to stay in Kyoto
Kyoto is bursting with accommodation facilities, including quaint guesthouses, private townhouses, traditional ryokan inns, and luxury hotels.
As the facilities and prices differ significantly, it’s best to select your accommodation based on the sights you want to visit and the level of service you wish to enjoy.
Prices for solo travelers roughly range from a guesthouse bed for 3,000+ yen, a private townhouse for 6,000+ yen, a city hotel for 7,000+ yen, and a ryokan with meals for 9,000+ yen (will change depending on season and accommodation). As it can get busy, it’s best to research and book in advance before visiting Kyoto.
Staying Near Kyoto Station
As Kyoto Station is one of Japan’s major terminal stations, you’ll be able to easily traverse the city and get to your other destinations in Japan.
Numerous city hotels and ryokan suiting all kinds of budgets lie within walking distance from the Central Exit (north side), known for the eye-catching Kyoto Tower, and the Hachijoguchi Exit (south side), near the bullet train ticket gates.
If you stay 3 nights, you’ll be able to leisurely tour Kyoto City and perhaps even get time for a day trip out to Lake Biwa or Osaka.
Staying Around Arashiyama
Arashiyama is known as one of Kyoto’s most picturesque neighborhoods and is characterized by comparatively small-scale, cozy hotels and ryokan.
While a ryokan plan with dinner/breakfast may cost quite a bit extra, you’ll be able to fully relish peak Kyoto hospitality while feeling relaxed and content.
As there’s a lot to see around here too, including the famous Bamboo Forest and plenty of historical temples, we recommend staying at least two nights and seeing all of Arashiyama, Sagano, and Uzumasa by rental bike.
Staying in a Residential Area of Kyoto
Throughout the antique streets and alleys of Kyoto City are dozens of guesthouses often tucked away amongst local shops and homes.
Staying at one of these allows you to fully embrace the everyday Kyoto lifestyle, providing a more authentic look into the city’s character. Furthermore, guesthouse prices are generally cheap and offer kitchens and other facilities.
If you stay in the area between Shijo Kawaramachi, one of Kyoto’s most bustling business districts, and Shijo Karasuma, you’ll be surrounded by ample choices to relish the tastes of Kyoto fully.
Another style of accommodation recently gaining popularity is renting an entire traditional “machiya” townhouse. Here you can enjoy the utmost level of privacy and live like a true Kyoto resident.
As each area of Kyoto is quite large and spread out, we recommend staying at least three days to see as many sides of the city as possible.
5. Dining out in Kyoto
For the authentic taste of Kyoto, traditional “washoku” cuisine is the way to go. Seasonal ingredients like vegetables, meats, and fish are delicately flavored to enhance their character and create refined, mouthwatering dishes. In addition to washoku, there are loads of Michelin-starred restaurants in Kyoto plus other cuisines and restaurants to try, making it a paradise for foodies!
On the west side of the Kamo River are narrow streets like Pontocho and Kiyamachi Street, characterized by rows of tightly packed restaurants. Many have a menu board posted outside, allowing you to gauge the price range and cuisine beforehand.
While many of the fancy establishments serving “kaiseki ryori” prioritize advanced reservations, there are plenty that will accept you on the day without a booking. In addition to Japanese, there are Chinese, French, Italian, and more, allowing for a wide range of tastes with a Japanese twist.
On the eastern side of the Kamo River, near Yasaka Shrine, is Hanamikoji Street, which is known for its charming, rustic aura formed through the arrangement of ancient streets. Many of the restaurants here are a bit pricey and fancy, so it’s best to do some research in advance.
Frequented by locals since long ago, the Nishiki Market has recently begun undertaking projects to attract sightseers and shoppers to its vibrant arcades. The most common products here are ingredients, yakitori grilled chicken, tsukemono pickles, and various Japanese sweets. Along with dining at the market, you can pick up something to take home and enjoy in the privacy of your hotel room!
The restaurants and stores in the Arashiyama and Sagano neighborhoods become exceedingly busy at night, making it a better place to take lunch. The exceptional Kyoto cuisine on offer here is also surprisingly well-priced!
6. Cultural things to see in Kyoto
One of the highlights of a Kyoto trip is learning about and experiencing its world-renowned history, traditions, and culture. Before diving in, you can get an idea of just how large Kyoto is by visiting the 5F observation deck in Kyoto Tower, located just outside Kyoto Station. There are free observation telescopes set up here, allowing you to find famous spots like Kiyomizu-dera and Higashi Hongan-ji up close!
Getting personal with Kyoto culture
Being one of Kyoto's predominant traditional crafts, learning about Nishijin-ori fabric is a fantastic way to understand the culture of Kyoto. You can learn all about it at the Nishijin Textile Center in Nishijin, which presents an all-encompassing exhibition on its history along with the opportunity to witness demonstrations by master craftspeople.
If you’re a fan of Japanese manga, the Kyoto International Manga Museum in Karasuma is a must-visit! Housed inside an abandoned elementary school, the museum exhibits manga from its beginnings to the modern era. There are over 300,000 items to check out, with 50,000 manga books able to be handled and read freely! There are even some translated editions available, allowing almost anyone to enjoy this incredible artform thoroughly.
Visiting Shrines and Temples
As you’re likely aware, Kyoto is home to a seemingly countless array of temples and shrines. Each has its own unique history and associated belief, with many flaunting exquisite, impeccably crafted buildings and enchanting Japanese gardens. Surrounding many temples and shrines is also often an assortment of eateries and souvenir stores, making the time required to explore each complex far longer than you think!
Some of the most famous Kyoto temples and shrines include the thousands of dazzling vermilion torii gates of Fushimi Inari Taisha; the World Heritage Site of Kiyomizu-dera; the famous base of the Gion Festival, Yasaka Shrine; the World Heritage Site and home of the Tadasu-no-Mori Forest, Shimogamo Shrine; along with Matsunoo-Taisha Shrine, an ancient place of worship mentioned in the “Kojiki,” Japan’s oldest existing historical record.
7. Recommended activities and things to do in Kyoto
Kyoto is brimming with dozens of ancient crafts and traditions handed down the generations. Many of these can be easily experienced, including “wa,” meaning “Japanese style and aesthetic.” One of the most popular ways to experience wa in Kyoto is being fitted and dressed in kimono, a service offered at numerous sightseeing destinations. Fitted in a beautiful, stylish kimono, you can stroll the streets and tour all the famous spots while making unforgettable travel memories. Another popular cultural experience is joining a traditional Japanese “wagashi” sweet-making course, which is held by a number of Kyoto sweets shops and allows you to learn from a master!
The roughly 400m path through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove likewise offers a distinctly Japanese ambiance. If your feet are getting tired, hop on a rickshaw and allow the driver to take you through the forest’s hidden narrow lanes.
To see more of the area, board the Sagano Sight-Seeing Tram, which runs alongside the Hozugawa River between Sagano and Kameoka. This relaxing journey allows you to thoroughly absorb the gorgeous valley scenery whose beauty changes with each season.
8. Shopping in Kyoto
No matter where you are in Kyoto, there is almost guaranteed to be a souvenir store stocking high-quality local goods. If you really want to shop till you drop, the best shopping districts in Kyoto are around Kyoto Station and Kyoto-Kawaramachi Station.
In the underground shopping mall in Kyoto Station is an impressive collection of shops flaunting the latest fashion accompanied by plenty of kick-knacks and other high-quality goods. The “Omiyage Koji Kyotomachi” shopping street found immediately outside the Kyoto Station central ticket gates likewise boasts a stellar assortment of popular products from old-time Japanese sweet stores, adorable “kawaii” limited edition products, and more.
Nearby Kawaramachi Station is an arcade shopping street lined with stores offering the freshest trends in Japanese and international fashion. The nearby Kawaramachi-Dori Street is also packed with shops like KYOTO BAL and Kawaramachi OPA specializing in youth-orientated brands. There is also the Kyoto Shinkyogoku Shopping Street, which is renowned for hats, knick-knacks, and western-style clothing.
Many international travelers to Kyoto also love Shinpuhkan near Karasuma Station, which hosts a range of popular select shops and eateries offering special, limited-edition Kyoto goods that make amazing souvenirs.
9. Other sightseeing hotspots around Kyoto
JR Kyoto Station has several lines allowing you to reach the suburbs and outskirts of Kyoto smoothly. For example, Uji City, home to the World Heritage Site of Byodoin Temple, can be reached from central Kyoto City via JR trains in just 20 mins. Uji is also one of Japan’s most famous tea-producing regions, with plenty of stores and restaurants dotting the city offering incredible sweets and soba noodles made with tea.
For a little more adventure, the remote agricultural town of Miyama can be reached in roughly 2 hours via JR trains and the Nantan City Bus. Utterly enclosed by mountains, this tiny township is famed for its collection of traditional folk homes with straw-thatched roofs reminiscent of an ancient Japanese landscape.
To the east of Kyoto Prefecture is the neighboring prefecture of Shiga, home to Japan’s largest lake, Lake Biwa. You can use the JR Kosei Line to explore the western areas of the lake and the JR Biwako Line for the eastern side.
The information presented in this article is accurate as of September 2021.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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