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Your Complete Kyoto Visitors Guide

This guide has all the information you will need to plan your visit to Kyoto, Japan. You’ll find complete destination guides, and tips on where to stay and how to get around. We’ll also cover the must-see attractions and tours, and the best places to eat.

Within the Kyoto visitors guide you will find 50+ comprehensive articles that are based on recent personal experience. You’ll have at your fingertips everything you need to know to plan your trip, stretch your budget and have an incredible experience in the city and surrounds.

There is a lot of information here so you may find the index below helpful to find exactly what you are looking for and bookmark the parts you want to refer back to.

Kyoto Visitors Guide c
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What are the top things to see and do in Kyoto?

Kyoto is the historic capital of Japan, many of the arts, festivals and ceremonies that are celebrated across the country originated here and cultural heritage is fundamental to the city’s overall character and vibe.

The city’s temples and shrines are central to experiencing Kyoto, not purely for the temple itself but the gardens links to arts including the tea ceremony and ikebana, national treasures and architecture.

Cherry blossom in Japan on Philosophers Path in Kyoto

While I do understand people saying they feel a bit ‘over temples and shrines at the end of a visit to Japan, they really are essential to immerse yourself in what Kyoto city is all about. If you feel you want to limit the number on your itinerary you can be selective and pick a couple that has a particular interest to you. Include those with a natural setting like on the hike from Kibune to Kurama, dramatic visual appeal like the Golden Pavilion and Fushimi Inari, or those that are stunning but set amongst a lot of other attractions like your find along the Philosophers path or Byodoin in Uji.

While accommodation and sometimes dining, can be more expensive in Kyoto the attractions being heavily focused around the temples, gardens, parks and seasonal events can be quite easy on the budget. We’ve also compiled a surprising list of things to do for free in Kyoto to help stretch the funds and balance out a few more spendy activities.

Looking for some more ideas of areas to explore in and around Kyoto? Click to read some of these articles:

Kyoto temples pinteret poster
Arashiyama pinterest poster

What and where to eat in Kyoto

Osaka might be frequently referenced as ‘Japan’s Kitchen’ but it’s hard to beat eating your way around Kyoto, it’s a culinary and cultural experience. Add in the elements of seasonality and you have a winning city for foodies.

You’ll want to get to Nishiki market in central Kyoto. It is one of our favourite produce markets in Japan and while it continues to cater principally to home cooks as it has since 1310 it is a fabulous example of a traditional shōtengai or shopping street. You can eat and taste your way through here quite happily, there are plenty of snack foods available for purchase and we have regularly been handed samples of pickles, yuba and other tasty bites as we look around.

There are many good restaurants in Kyoto but some can be a bit hard to find for the first-time visitor hidden away in the many narrow laneways and behind solid doors and narrow shop fronts. While we have discovered many on our own over the years if you are finding it hard to uncover somewhere more adventurous than a curry house or ramen shop I do recommend a food tour. We did this one eating and drinking through Gion in the evening and not only had a fabulous time but came away with the names of several other spots to dine on subsequent days.

A budget-saving tip we found in Kyoto is if you have somewhere more fine dining and spendy that you want to try, they will often have virtually the same menu available at lunchtime for a substantially lower price, often under half the cost. Not always convenient but worth checking out if you have somewhere on your wish list that might not otherwise be possible.

There is also a wide range of tasty and nutritious meal options available in an affordable range. Omen Restaurant is one we always enjoy at a good price with branches in Pontocho, near one of Kyoto’s geisha districts and another near Ginkakuji, the silver pavilion. Ootoya is a chain restaurant in Japan that specialises in Teishoku or meal sets, you pick what you want as the feature dish and it comes in a set with rice, miso soup and sides, there is one near Nishiki Market but you’ll find them across the country.

In department stores like Daimaru in central Kyoto, Kyoto station and shopping centres like Porto and the Cube you will find floors filled with restaurants at various price points.

In Kyoto, and much of Japan you usually need to wander off the main streets and look up and down from street level to find excellent places to eat. It’s a bit counterintuitive to those from Australia and the US where a prominent location is so important for the hospitality industry.

What is the best place to stay in Kyoto?

The main areas to stay in Kyoto are around Kyoto Station, Central Kyoto and Higashiyama. These spots are chosen for their convenience to attractions, restaurants and public transport. If you are visiting Kyoto for a week or less these will most likely suit you best.

Popular Kyoto neighbourhoods for visitors

Kyoto station (Shimogyo) can be a good choice if you are intending to use the city as a base for day trips, I also like it when arriving late in the evening. There are some great accommodations around here, restaurants, and shopping centres. It is the hub of all transport within the city so it is easy to find a bus or get on the subway to make your way to other parts of the city.

Attractions within walking distance include Kyoto Tower, Honganji, Sanjusangendo and Toji Temples.

Our top picks to stay around Kyoto Station are the Hotel Granvia Kyoto (splurge) or the Citidines Karasuma Gojo (mid-range) which is a 1km walk to the station but we like an aparthotel sometimes with kitchenette facilities in the room and a guest laundry.

Central Kyoto includes Nijo Castle and the Imperial Palace, this part of town would normally be considered to stretch south as far as Shijo Dori and east to the Kamo River. Other central attractions include Nishiki Market and the Museum of Kyoto. It includes some of the major shopping streets, Daimaru and many restaurants.

It is convenient for getting around with the Karasuma subway line running north through it and is well-serviced by buses.

The Gion and Southern Higashiyama District is another convenient spot. The Tozai subway line runs east-west through here and the Keihan private railway line runs north-south if you are arriving from or heading further away. Within the area, you will explore mostly on foot.

Many of the beautiful temples and shrines are in this area, the Geisha and heritage laneways of Gion, some fabulous restaurants, bars and izakaya, and Maruyama Park. My pick to stay in this area has recently been the Gozan hotel and Apartments but have my eye on the Stay Sakura Higashiyama Shirakawa on our next visit, reviews are great and I do like having a kitchenette and extra space.

Things to consider when deciding where to stay

Where you stay is impacted so much by personal preferences, budget and the deals available at the time that it is impossible to say where is the best place to stay in Kyoto. To be honest, most of the really splurgy international hotels in the city aren’t what I would choose even with unlimited funds but that is based on our selection criteria.

I would suggest you read reviews with a critical eye, not just the first one or two, investigate any personal recommendations that align with your general preferences and give some thought to what your most important criteria is.

  • Does ease of access to and from Kansai Airport matter for your trip? Since the reopening of borders in 2022 most Kyoto transfers come into Kyoto station. Taxis are plentiful and the easiest option to get to your central Kyoto or Higashiyama hotel with luggage. Taxi prices in Kyoto are comparable to Australian inner city prices, a little pricey against many other places.
  • Are you planning on doing many day trips out of the city by train, particularly those with early or late departures and arrivals, this can make the Kyoto station area quite beneficial.
  • For getting around generally what train subway stations are nearby?
  • Is there a variety of restaurants, cafes, bars and convenience stores within easy walking distance?
  • What facilities do you want or need? We find a guest laundry essential on a longer trip, others will prioritise breakfast being included, concierge service, pillow menus or English-speaking reception (which is common in hotels in Kyoto city and some smaller inns).
  • Price is usually an important consideration, in Kyoto, the price is related more to the property, brand, size of the room and available facilities rather than location so a bit of time researching and reading reviews is worthwhile.
  • If you have a primary purpose for being in the city or an attraction you want to be near that might help with the decision.
  • In Kyoto for us, it tends to come down to whether I want to feel like I am in the heart of Kyoto with early morning and evening walks along the river and through the laneways (Gion / Higashiyama) or the convenience of getting around more easily and quickly (Kyoto Station area). Both are good choices and give reasonably convenient access to the benefits of the other.

When to visit Kyoto

There is no bad time to visit Kyoto but individuals will have preferences based on the seasons, events and weather.

Most Japanese gardens and temples have natural interest all year around. During sakura the grass is brown and many other trees are bare but the blossoms are stunning. In winter the clear blue sky is ideal for views and while snow is rare it is stunning if it sits on the ground for a few hours. Summer is lush and green with flowers and fireworks but many find the humidity is difficult to walk and explore as far on foot as they might otherwise. Autumn leaves are dramatic and the timing is less critical than the cherry blossoms which may last only a few days in their prime.

I often use this long-range weather forecast as our trip approaches to help with packing and final planning. Weather can change suddenly so it’s not always accurate but we’ve found it pretty good. Keep in mind that Kyoto is well known for experiencing multiple seasons of weather in a single day so a small umbrella or light jacket that can roll up in your bag can be useful even in the summertime.

The end of winter brings the plum blossom (ume) and late March to early April is the cherry blossom (sakura) season. We’ve got a guide to telling the difference between these two beauties and another that includes some top spots to enjoy sakura in Kyoto.

Getting to, and around Kyoto

Airport to City

International visitors to Kyoto arriving by air will usually fly in and out of Kansai Airport. While it is in Osaka not Kyoto it is easy enough to access.

The fastest way and our preference is by train. The JR Haruka Limited Express takes 75 minutes to get from Kyoto station to the airport, it runs approximately every 30 minutes and has a dedicated luggage storage area. The ticket cost is Y3430 and is run by Japan Rail so it is covered under the JR Pass if you have one.

There are also Airport Limousine buses between Kyoto and the Airport. The trip costs around Y2800 and takes 90 – 100 minutes depending on the terminal. In April 2023 these were only stopping at Kyoto station, not other destinations around the city. Many services are ramping up gradually as visitor numbers improve.

A traditional taxi or private transfer is an expensive option for most with a fare over Y30,000.

Kyoto station

Visitors will almost certainly arrive in Kyoto via Kyoto station, whether that is a train or bus from the Kansai airport or on the Bullet Train from Tokyo or another part of Japan. Kyoto Station is a destination in itself but it is also the hub of all transport.

Inside is the train station and bullet train station, out the front is the bus depot and downstairs is the subway station. There is also pickup for many tours and services like the airport buses and overnight buses to Tokyo from here.

IC Cards

An extremely useful option is the stored value train cards or IC cards. There is a range of them across Japan but almost all can now be used interchangeably anywhere across the country. Visitors will most frequently see the SUICA and PASMO purchased in Tokyo and the ICOCA if purchased originally in Kansai.

You can quickly tap on and off local trains and buses, saving the time and complexity of buying individual tickets. The cards can also be used on some vending machines and in convenience stores.

A SUICA card can now also be added to your Apple Wallet (or Android alternative) on your phone and topped up there. This is something I will definitely use in future, it provides some additional functionality over a physical card by displaying the remaining balance and being able to use an international payment card to fund it. My understanding is you will still need to pick up a physical card initially from a machine or station office but this is a huge improvement for tourists wanting to use the card.

Japan Rail pass

If you are staying in Kyoto or only visiting nearby cities like Osaka and Nara you won’t get value from a Japan Rail Pass but I will mention it here as it can be the best Japan travel bargain on the right itinerary. We have an article that will help you decide whether the JR pass is good value for you and we strongly suggest you map out your planned itinerary before deciding.

Don’t get me wrong, we LOVE this pass and have used it on many of our Japan trips but for some itineraries and travel styles, it will work out roughly neutral or just not worth it.

For those who have asked, we buy our JR passes online before we get to Japan for the international discount. We have been happy purchasing our online passes here and now that Klook offers JR Passes through an Australian fulfilment centre we will also use that in future, we buy a lot of our other tickets there already. It is a significant purchase for most of us so be sure you need it and purchase through a supplier you are comfortable with.

Side trips out of Kyoto city

Collage Mt Misen view, Nagahama festival and Uji

Kyoto is a fabulous base for day trips or overnight trips to other cities and towns across Kansai and beyond. Many of our favourites can be found in this day trip guide and we suspect we’ll have one or two more to add to this list later in the year after our next trip.

The advantage of a day trip is you save the time of packing up, checking out and checking in to new accommodations or having to deal with luggage while you explore along the way. We would usually base out of a couple of prefectures on one trip but with Japan’s high speed, clean and efficient public transport it is easy to travel a good distance from a base in Kyoto.

Some of our day trips outside of the city are actually quite close by, Nara, Uji and Osaka are all good examples. At the other extreme is Amanohasidate on Kyoto prefecture’s northern coast and Hiroshima which is 2 hours on the bullet train. While we would normally suggest you spend more than the day in Hiroshima with so much to see but we have done it when a spring day dawned so stunningly clear and we had a spare day on the JR Pass and decided to climb Mt Misen on Miyajima Island for the views out over the inland sea.

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