To me, Japan has two sides to it: massive, bustling metropolis and quiet, traditional reverence. When you visit, chances are you fly into either Tokyo or Osaka, thus providing you an immediate glimpse at the big city. If you’re looking to explore further afield, and want to find that old world charm for which Japan is famous, Kyoto definitely needs to be on your list of stops.
Kyoto was the country’s Imperial City for over 1000 years, until the emperors relocated to Tokyo in 1869, leaving a unique blend of modern and tradition. It’s a city that appeals to all the sensibilities – you can spend late nights discovering its booming food scene or spend quiet mornings roaming its numerous parks and public spaces. You can absorb local culture through its traditions, whether it’s a shrine, a noodle shop, or a tea house. There are plenty of tourist sites to visit, but you can just as easily spend your time wandering the streets, stumbling into whatever destination catches your eye.
DAY 1: 11:00am
Kyoto is a 2-hour journey on the bullet train from Tokyo and as short as a 15-minute train ride from Osaka. You’ll arrive at Kyoto Station, and once you come above ground, you’ll find yourself among Kyoto’s modern city, surrounded by tall buildings and loads of shopping. If you’re feeling hungry and adventurous, take a stroll through Nishiki Market, aka “Kyoto’s Kitchen,” for some true local fare.
The best way to get acquainted with a new city is on your feet, and I seek out free walking tours wherever I can—they’re available in most every urban destination I’ve ever visited. The Kyoto Free Walking Tour is a fantastic 2.5-hour journey through Gion, Kyoto’s famous geisha district. [Note: tour times vary, so be sure to check online for the most updated schedule.] Originally designed as a neighborhood to house pilgrims to the Yasaka-jinja Shrine, this area of narrow wooden merchant houses eventually blossomed into an entertainment district teeming with shops, restaurants, and traditional teahouses. The walking tour offers a thorough look at the neighborhood, its shrines, and the city at large, providing a good contextual foundation for your next two days of exploring. Just remember, free walking tours run on tips, so don’t forget to honor your guide’s time if you enjoyed the experience.
With the groundwork laid, spend the remainder of the afternoon wandering the surrounding area. Gion is the city’s most photogenic neighborhood, and if you can escape the likely afternoon crowds by wandering down the smaller side streets, you’ll be rewarded with a few moments of stolen tranquility. Spend the afternoon discovering the local shops at your own pace; immerse yourself in the city’s spiritual history by exploring the Yasaka Shrine and MANY nearby Buddhist temples. Japan celebrates a fascinating blend of Shintoism and Buddhism, with beliefs adapted and adjusted as needed, blending into more of an official cultural tradition than “religion.” Or, turn your afternoon into a learning experience by taking one of the many classes offered on local food, arts, and cultural tradition.
Wander back across the Kamo River (take the smaller bridge at Donguri-dori Street for a more picturesque view) and walk along the small tree-lined canal that runs directly between the Kamo and Takase Rivers. Make your way to Pontocho Alley, a narrow pedestrian-only street lined with traditional restaurants and shops that, after dark, is considered one of Kyoto’s most atmospheric. Research ahead of time the many restaurant options, or take your chances and let serendipity be your guide for dinner. If you’re destined for a late night, Pontocho Alley is the perfect spot to pub crawl.
Kyoto is the ideal place to experience a stay in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). You can find ones in all price ranges, from dorm-style to luxury. [We stayed in Gojo Guesthouse Annex, which has private western- and Japanese-style rooms, and is more budget-friendly.] I recommend staying in Gion, simply because the ambiance is unparalleled. Walking back to your accommodations late night, post-dinner, you’ll find deserted streets lit with the warm glow of lanterns. Be sure to stroll by the Yasaka Pagoda for a magical after-hours view of the neighborhood.
DAY 2: 8:00am
Fuel up for a day of exploring at one of Gion’s many small cafe/coffee shops. Find one with a breakfast/morning set (or menu) for a light but filling multi-course meal (many of these will be western-style fare). Maeda Coffee‘s Kodaiji-ten location, though part of a local chain, is pleasantly calm and fits the Gion vibe – they also have the most adorable coffee cups! If you want to opt for a traditional Japanese breakfast instead, try Kisin Kyoto or Cafe Roji Usagi.
Head south on the Keihan Main Line from Gion to the infamous Fushimi Inari Shrine. Dating back to the 700s, this Shinto shrine is tucked into a mountainside and features a 5km trail up the mountain, lined with the famous orange torii. Get there early to beat the crowds, and you may actually catch a photo through the gates that’s not littered with people—or stick with the trail further up the mountain and you’ll find the crowds thin out quite a bit. If you’re eager to get walking early, save your exploration of the shrine for once you’re down the mountain.
From the Inari station, hop on the JR line and head northwest to another popular destination on the western outskirts of Kyoto, Arashiyama (approx. 35 min to Saga-Arashiyama). The main street immediately outside the train station is deceptively tourism-heavy, but keep going to find the district’s quieter pockets. There are numerous shrines and temples to explore; the Iwatayama Monkey Park offers a panoramic view and monkey encounter; walk through the famed Bamboo Forest; or just stop and enjoy the view of boats passing by as you cross the Togetsu-kyo Bridge. You’ll find several restaurants along the main street that leads to the bridge; grab lunch as you arrive or a late one before you leave.
Don’t stop sightseeing before you visit Kinkaku-ji, the ‘Golden Pavilion’, one of the most famous buildings in all of Japan (also one of the 17 World Heritage Sites that comprise the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto). If you can navigate the local bus system to get here from Arashiyama, congratulations, you are truly an urban explorer! The site’s history dates back to the late 1300s, but the current pavilion has been standing only since 1955 when it was rebuilt after a fire. It is most renowned for its design, incorporating a different architectural design for each of its three floors. And for its distinctive gold-plated roof.
Head to downtown Kyoto for its food scene. For tempura, try Yosikawa Tempura; try Misoka-an Kawamichi-ya for soba and udon; Kane-yo is well-known for its unagi; try Menya Inoichi Hanare for Michelin-rated ramen; or opty for Kinbe for fresh sushi. After dinner, close out your night (or get it started) at Sake Bar Yoramu for an educational, personalized sake-tasting experience.
DAY 3: 8:00am
If you opted for a western breakfast yesterday, try a traditional Japanese one today (or vice versa). Then, for your last morning in Kyoto, head slightly southeast from Gion to the Higashiyami District. The narrow streets are at the foot of the mountains to the east of the city, and some of them get quite steep as they climb. The architecture has the same wooden, traditional feel as Gion, and the city has even renovated the area to remove telephone poles to make it even more photogenic.
Continue east to another of Kyoto’s most-visited temples, Kiyomizu-dera. It was founded in the 8th century on the site of a waterfall and boasts a large veranda, providing stunning views of the surrounding city and nature below. (The cherry blossoms and maple trees are gorgeous in their peak seasons.) You may be feeling temple- and shrined-out by now, but the view from this one is worth the trip and is the perfect way to close out your time in Kyoto.