Kyoto, Japan - Travel

Kyoto, Japan - Travel

Attractions and Things to Do in Kyoto

Kyoto Travel Guide

Kyoto, Japan's former capital for over a millennium, showcases the finest achievements of Japanese art, culture, religion, and philosophy. Amidst tranquil ponds, pavilions with gracefully curved roofs reflect their beauty, while pine trees seem to sprout seamlessly from rocks. With its wealth of attractions, Kyoto presents various experiences for travelers.

There's a lot to see and do in Kyoto, so we’ve put together this travel guide to help you plan your trip. It provides all the basic information you need for a fulfilling and enriching experience.

Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital from 794 to 1868, is a city imbued with history and culture. It covers 827.9 square kilometers and is home to approximately 1.5 million people.

Kyoto and Nara are two of Japan's most important cultural and historical centers, drawing visitors worldwide. These cities are renowned for their Shinto shrines and Buddhist monasteries.

The metropolis is strategically placed in the heart of the Kansai region in central Honshu, surrounded by mountains on three sides. Wisemen, familiar with Daoist practices, carefully chose the location.

Kyoto is approximately 500 kilometers from Tokyo. The bullet train connects the two cities, allowing the journey in about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

History of Kyoto

Kyoto's founding dates back to 794 CE when Emperor Kammu relocated the capital to this peaceful settlement. He named this new capital Heian-Kyo, which translates to "City of Peace and Tranquility." The location of the capital and imperial palace was based on feng-shui - Chinese geomancy.

Lake Ogura lay to the south, with mountains encircling the area from the north, west, and east, providing natural protection. The rivers flowed east and west and served as transportation channels to the Inland Sea. Lake Biwa to the north offered access to the Japan Sea via boats, while land routes connected the area to the eastern provinces. The site's strategic advantages were further enhanced by nearby mountains and water bodies, making it a secure place “once and for all from the curse of the former capital.” (Sourced from “Kyoto: A Cultural History” by John Dougill)

The layout of the city and palace was inspired by the Chinese capital Chang'an (now Xian). The capital acquired its name, "Kyoto," around the 11th century.

It was a leading religious, political, and cultural center of Japan until the Edo or Tokugawa period. However, the city was almost destroyed in the 16th century, taking it several decades to recover.

Over the years, economic and political power slowly shifted to Edo, the capital of the Shogunate. In 1868, the Emperor Mutsuhito moved from Kyoto to Edo, naming it "Tokyo" (Eastern capital). Some locals called the throne city "Sai-Kyo" (Western capital) to distinguish it from the new capital.

Fortunately, Kyoto was spared from the bombings of World War II, and today, the city stands out by its stunning Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, with 17 designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Landmarks and Attractions in Kyoto

Kyoto boasts hundreds of attractions, from vibrant gardens to peaceful sanctuaries and pagodas, a geisha district, and fascinating markets with delicious food. So many great experiences that it’s almost impossible to confine them to a single list. But you can choose the attractions in Kyoto we suggest. These are the upper crust of things to do in Kyoto that you shouldn’t miss.

Top 5 Buddhist Temples in Kyoto

Kyoto, Japan - Travel

From the famous Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) to the peaceful Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion), Kyoto's Buddhist temples are like living proof of how important Buddhism has been in Japan for a long time. Both devout Buddhists seeking spiritual growth and curious travelers will find cultural richness when sightseeing Kyoto's famed Buddhist temples.


Among 17 historical monuments of ancient Kyoto, protected by UNESCO, the magnificent Gold Pavilion, or Kinkaku-ji, commands attention. In the medieval era, it was just a mansion owned by a wealthy noble. But in 1397, a shogun named Ashikaga Yoshimitsu acquired the villa and turned it into an extensive complex, with the Golden Pavilion as the major attraction. When the shogun died, it became a Zen Buddhist temple called Rokuon-ji. The top two floors of the pavilion are covered in shiny gold leaf, which looks incredible. And to make it even better, a beautiful garden from the 14th century surrounds the temple.


Kyoto, Japan - Travel

Standing tall on the slopes of Mount Kyomizu, Kyomizu-dera is another revered Buddhist temple in Kyoto. Legend has it that the temple was initially built in the late 8th century AD near the Otawa waterfall, dedicated to the goddess Kannon. The temple gained prominence when a monk's prayers miraculously cured the shogun's wife and aided his victory over enemies. Throughout its 1,200-year existence, Kyomizu-dera has faced destruction and fire, but each time, it has been restored to its former glory. The current structures were erected during the 17th century under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate.


A beautiful carpet of thick, velvety moss covers the ground of the Saiho-ji temple. The landscape is adorned with over a hundred distinct varieties of moss, creating a radiant palette of green and golden hues. The original temple, dating back to the 7th century, fell victim to the ravages of time. The one we see now is from 1339.


Kyoto, Japan - Travel

The temple To-ji, meaning "Eastern Temple", was constructed at the end of the 8th century at the same time as Sai-ji ("Western Temple"). The two temples were meant to protect the entrance to the city when Kyoto became the capital. While Sai-ji and its main gate have not survived, To-ji has stood the test of time. The unique feature of To-ji is its representation of different periods of Japanese history, like Kamakura, Muromachi, Momoyama, and Edo.


While Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) and Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) sound like twins, they are quite different. Kinkaku served as the model for Ginkaku's construction. Yet, unlike its golden sibling, Ginkaku does not have silver walls. Despite this, the beautiful gardens that surround Ginkaku make it a worthwhile destination.

Top 5 Shinto Shrines

Kyoto, Japan - Travel

Shinto is Japan's most revered religion, closely followed in reverence by Buddhism. Plenty of Shinto shrines are scattered across the country where Shinto religious rituals occur. Kyoto alone is home to 400 Shinto shrines, and telling them apart from Buddhist sanctuaries can be challenging. However, there is a simple way to figure out the difference. If you spot a Torii gate, which marks the boundary between the divine territory and the mundane world, it is a Shinto shrine. So, which Shinto shrines in Kyoto should you visit?

Heian Shrine

Built to celebrate Kyoto's 1100th anniversary, the Heian shrine is only 129 years old. Conveniently located in the heart of East Kyoto, it is easily accessible. Walking up to the shrine, you'll be greeted by a giant torii gate. Its stunning garden, featuring stepping stones across a pond and surrounded by hundreds of trees, is all about a tranquil ambiance, an ideal spot for capturing beautiful photographs.

Imamiya Shrine

If you're looking for a shrine that's a little off the beaten path, consider Imamiya in Kita Ward, Kyoto. This historic Shinto shrine is set against a captivating natural backdrop, complete with two traditional dessert cafes, Ichiwa and Kazatiya, known for their unique treats. They've got this unique dish called Aburi-mochi, which are roasted rice cakes. Also, include the Daitoku-ji temple complex in your itinerary, just a short 10–15-minute walk from the shrine.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Kyoto, Japan - Travel

The Fushimi Inari Shrine is the principal Japanese sanctuary dedicated to the goddess of harvest and success, Inari. The arch of seemingly endless orange torii gates ascending the mountainside offers an awe-inspiring vista from the top. Try to plan your visit early in the morning to avoid big crowds of tourists and appreciate nature's serenity and calming sounds.

Yasaka Shrine

Located in Gion's entertainment district near Maruyama Park, Yasaka Shrine is a must-visit. Although a little busier and more crowded than those hidden in the forest, Yasaka is a good spot to stop by while you walk through the kimono-dressed tourists. Besides, Yasaka is close to the imposing Chion-in temple.

Kamigamo Shrine

Founded in 678, the Kamigamo Shrine was burnt but rebuilt in later years. The site is quite spacious and very colorful during the autumn foliage. It’s an important Shinto sanctuary on the banks of the Kamo River and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

3 Must-Go Neighborhoods in Kyoto

Kyoto, Japan - Travel

Kyoto’s ancient temples and shrines are just as appealing, from picturesque Zen gardens and parks to cute narrow streets with traditional eateries. Here are 3 top neighborhoods for tourists in Kyoto.


Gion is the top spot for tourists in the southern Higashiyama district. It's well-known for its geisha strolling around the narrow streets and Shinshabashi-dori street nearby, which is said to be the prettiest in all of Japan.

The Kyoto travel itinerary in the southern Higashiyama district generally includes the Kyoto National Museum, Kiyomizu-dera, and the lofty Yasaka Pagoda.

For a taste of old-timey Kyoto, take a stroll along the cobblestone lanes of Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka. Find charming old shops, traditional restaurants, and tea houses galore.

While there are luxury hotels like the Hyatt Regency Kyoto and the Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto, visitors can also find affordable and comfortable hotels, ryokans, and guest houses. Just don't anticipate finding very cheap accommodation in this part of the city.

One thing to keep in mind is that there have been some issues with tourists getting too close to the maiko and geiko, touching their expensive kimonos, and even trespassing on private property. So, Kyoto officials have had to restrict access to certain picturesque alleys and private streets.


Kyoto, Japan - Travel

The Arashiyama neighborhood is located in western Kyoto. Most tourists head to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, a peaceful and tranquil place despite crowds and people wanting to take photos all the time. Another prized landmark is Monkey Park. Taking a ride on the Sagano train along the Hozu River and Hozu Valley in autumn can be a real family adventure.

One of the best sites in western Kyoto to enjoy Sakura trees in full bloom in spring and the beauty of autumn leaves is Kameyama-koen Park. Admire the beautiful Zen park and mountaintop views when visiting the Tenryu-ji temple. A 155-meter Togetsukyo Bridge over the Katsura River prides itself on fantastic views. As an option, you can take a paddle boat along the river to enjoy nature’s vistas.

The district is well-known for its traditional restaurants that specialize in Buddhist cuisine and tofu dishes.


Kyoto, Japan - Travel

Downtown Kyoto is home to the renowned Pontocho district, known for its vibrant nightlife and traditional dining. The Pontocho Alley along the Kamo River is particularly beautiful at night when lit up by hundreds of lanterns. When the sun goes down, it becomes one of Kyoto’s best neighborhoods for nightlife. The alley is filled with many restaurants and bars where you can sample the best of the district’s eats. Besides, Pontocho houses one of the Hanamachi where the geisha and maiko live.

Go to the Kyoto International Manga Museum for a window into Japanese comics history. Stroll around the ancient imperial palace, also recognized as Gosho. It served as a residence to the 28 generations of Japanese monarchs. Also, visit the Nijo Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Nishijin Textile Center, selling hand-made kimonos and other textile goods.

Kyoto Museums

Kyoto, Japan - Travel

You'll find many awesome museums in Kyoto. They cater to everything, from Japanese and Asian art to samurai and ninja history. Check out galleries of local and international artists if you're more into contemporary art. And take note of specialty museums covering all kinds of unique topics if you're looking for something different. For example, how about the Kaleidoscope Museum of Kyoto? For anyone wishing to get a deep dive into Japanese culture and history, visiting Kyoto's museums is a must!

  • Samurai and Ninja Museum is one of the best museums in Kyoto, especially for the whole family. Visitors can try on samurai costumes, learn to throw shuriken (ninja stars), and enjoy many other fun activities.
  • Although Kyoto Railway Museum is mostly in Japanese, train enthusiasts will still enjoy learning about train technology. You can walk under locomotives and even have lunch in one of the train cars. The museum has lots of interactive exhibits predominantly aimed at children.
  • At the Kyoto National Museum, foreign visitors can learn about the history of Japan through the lens of the history of arts and crafts. Most displays reveal the period when Kyoto was the capital.
  • Art enjoyers will love the Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art's beautiful collections of paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries. Plus, the museum has English explanations.
  • If you are looking for a sake adventure, add the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum to your Kyoto itinerary.

Entertainment, Parks and Shopping in Kyoto

Kyoto Gardens and Parks

Kyoto, Japan - Travel

The Kyoto Botanical Garden, or the Kyoto Prefectural Botanical Garden, is next to the Kamo River. It's renowned for its enormous greenhouse with over 4,500 different species of plants. The garden opened in 1924 but went through a decline in 1946 and had to close. The botanical garden reopened in 1961, displaying an impressive collection of approximately 120,000 plants today.

Other notable gardens in Kyoto are the Japanese garden around the Ginkaku-ji Buddhist temple, the rock garden of Ryoan-ji, and the Katsura Imperial Villa garden, considered a masterpiece of Japanese landscape gardening.

Kyoto is a beloved cherry blossom viewing destination with countless cherry trees. The top hanami spots are Maruyama Park, where you can see a weeping cherry tree lit up at night, and the park at the former Imperial Palace.

For those looking for something a little different, there's the Iwatayama Monkey Park, inhabited by around 120 Japanese macaques.

If you want to experience the Japanese world of cinema, head to the Toei Kyoto Studio Park. You’ll even get to see live filming if you're lucky enough.

Shopping in Kyoto

Kyoto, Japan - Travel

The streets of Kyoto are packed with traditional shops that can take you back to ancient times when Kyoto was the capital. At the same time, you can easily find shopping malls and other modern stores to buy souvenirs and high-end goods.

  • Apart from being the central train junction, the Kyoto Station Building is a massive mall with hundreds of shops and restaurants. One of the highlights is the observation deck, with a stunning view over the city from the top.
  • Kyomizu Zaka Street is the old shopping street in Kyoto leading to the Keyomizu-dera temple. It has many arts and crafts shops, kimono rentals, restaurants, souvenir stores, delicacies, and desserts.
  • Shinkyogoku Shopping District is another covered shopping arcade with plenty of shops for gifts and food. This street runs parallel to Teramachi-dori, a historical street in Kyoto where you can get some unique gifts too.
  • After visiting Buddhist temples and shrines, spend some time at the AEON Mall. It has great food courts and sit-down restaurants, entertainment, and shopping; the place is also near the Kyoto Station.
  • Buy a Ninja lesson at the Ninja Dojo and Store and engage in various ninja-themed activities. They also have a store selling all the ninja items.

Food in Kyoto

Kyoto, Japan - Travel

According to Hisashi Kashiwai, a native of Kyoto and author of the book “Kyoto Power: The true nature of the power that fascinates people”, the key to delicious Kyoto cuisine is water. Many Tokyoites say that the coffee taste in the Inoda Coffee Shop in Kyoto starkly differs from its Inoda branch in Tokyo. Although the beans, milk, and roasting are the same, the water is different, so it doesn’t taste the same as in Kyoto.

Follow us further to learn about Japanese dishes you must try on your next visit to Kyoto, Japan.


One of the staple dishes in Kyoto is Yudofu, a boiled tofu. It’s a shojin ryori food, which will suit vegetarians and anyone wishing to diversify their diet with plant-based products.

Where to try: Yudofu must be sampled at the Okutan Kyomizu (3-340 Kyomizu, Higashiyma-Ku), a tofu restaurant with a history of over 350 years near the Kyomizu-dera temple. This old eatery boasts pleasant views. It’s also worth checking out the Nanzen-ji and Arashiyama districts for tofu cuisine.

Kaiseki Ryori

Kaiseki is not a single dish but a set of several dishes. This traditional Japanese meal is considered the most expensive cuisine in the world. Kaiseki heavily depends on seasonal ingredients, and every dish in the designated order of the course is a chef's masterpiece.

Where to try: To experience kaiseki ryori, you will want to visit the Izusen restaurant near the Daotoku-zi complex (4 Daitokujicho, Murasakino, Kita-Ku), Gyon Karyo (570-235 Gionmachi Minamigawa), or Kodaiji Wakuden (512 Washiocho, Higashiyama Ward). Traditional Japanese hotels, ryokan, also offer a kaiseki menu included in the accommodation cost.


You can’t visit Kyoto and not try obanzai. The term first appeared in 1967 in a newspaper article describing traditional home cooking in Kyoto. Obanzai ingredients, mainly simple Kyoto traditional vegetables and seafood, are typically seasonal. For the meal to be considered obanzai, at least 50% of its components should be grown or processed in Kyoto.

Where to try: Obanzai ryori can be found in many areas of Kyoto. One spot to add to your list is Kyosaimi Namura (224 Hashibenkeicho Takoyakushidori arasuma Nishi Iru, Najagyo-ku).

Kyoto, Japan - Travel


Kyotoites have invented a unique way to escape the scorching summer heat called kawakado ("riverbed"). When temperatures soar, the locals like dining out in the open air along the river and enjoying the refreshing breeze. Wooden decks, or yuka in Japanese, are constructed over the river canal.

Where to try: Many Kawayuka or Kawakado restaurants stretch along the Kamogawa River between the streets of Nijo-dori and Gojo-dori. Another beloved place for dining in the Kawayuka style is Kibune, a small village north of central Kyoto.

Kyoto egg sandwiches

Egg sandwiches are widespread all over Japan, but they are a beloved delight enjoyed by locals and visitors alike in Kyoto. Imagine two fluffy slices of bread with a thick omelet sandwiched in between, known as Tamagoyaki (Japanese omelet).

Where to try: Head to Smart Coffee in the Teramachi Shopping Street. Alternatively, check out Smart La Madrague’s famous Corona Sandwich.

Kyoto delicacies at the Nishiki Market

Located in the center of Kyoto, Nishiki Market is a great place to savor Kyoto delicacies like mackerel sushi, pickled Kyoto vegetables, sweet dashimaki tamago, and green tea from Uji. You can also buy the best-quality tableware here, including kyo ware decorated with beautiful floral patterns.

Important: eating on the go or while walking is considered bad manners.

Public Transport in Kyoto

Kyoto, Japan - Travel

Kyoto is a pretty compact town with a decent transportation network. Getting around is a breeze, whether you are exploring the heart of the city or venturing to the surrounding areas.

The fare

When you're in Kyoto, you'll have several ways to pay for transportation: cash, tickets or passes, and pre-paid cards. However, the prices can vary depending on the line used.

For example, train tickets cost different amounts based on whether you're riding a train operated by Japan Railways (JR) or a private company. Besides, some private lines don't accept the JR Pass.

To help you navigate Kyoto conveniently and comfortably, we recommend exploring the most suitable transportation options.

Kansai Thru Pass

The Kansai Thru Pass is a special tourist pass for the Kansai Region, covering venerable cities like Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara. It provides unlimited rides on buses, trains, and subways for a specific period. The pass is available as a two or three-day option, and children commonly receive a 50% discount. Just keep in mind that the pass is not valid for the JR lines. For more detailed information on how to use this pass, please visit this website.

Kansai One Pass

The Kansai One Pass is another travel pass specifically designed for foreign tourists in the Kansai region. Unlike the Kansai Thru Pass, it's a pre-paid card that can be topped up with a refundable 500 yen deposit. To find out more about how this card can save you money and where to get it, check out the official website.

Pre-paid cards

Kyoto brags about an incredibly convenient option for transportation - IC cards or smart cards. Out of all of them, Icoca is the most favored one in Kyoto. Icoca works not just in Kyoto but all over Japan, just like Tokyo's PASMO Passport and Welcome Suica cards. With an IC card, you can zip around Kyoto on the subway, bus, and train.

Kyoto Subway

Kyoto's subway has two lines—the Karasuma Line and the Tozai Line. The Karasuma line is green and spans the city from north to south, with 15 stations. You can use this line to get to places like the Kyoto International Manga Museum, the Imperial Gosho Palace, and the Kyoto Botanical Garden.

On the other hand, the Tozai line is orange and runs east to west with 17 stations. The line will take you to temples like Nijo and Daigo-ji and the geisha districts of Pontocho and Gion.


Various intracity and intercity trains run through Kyoto. These are convenient options for reaching locations not served by subway lines and provide an alternative to buses and subways.


The Randen (Keifuku) Line, run by the Keifuku Electric Railroad, is the sole tram line in Kyoto. The primary branch, the Randen Arashiyama Line, goes from the Shijo-Omiya station in the Shimogyo-ki ward, the city center, to the Arashiyama Station in the Ukyo-ku ward. If you want to ride the Sagano Scenic Railway, get off at the Randen-Saga Station and walk to the Torokko Saga Station.

The other tram line, the Randen Kitano Line, operates from Kitano-Hakubacho in the Kita-ku ward to Katabiranotsuji in Ukyo-ku, where passengers can transfer to the Arashiyama Line.

You can buy tram tickets at stations or on the trams. You can also use the Kansai Thru Pass to pay. Enter the tram through the rear door and pay when exiting through the front. If paying with cash, bring the exact amount, as no change will be given.


Kyoto has an extensive bus network that covers all areas of the city. Here is the essential information you need to know.

  • The Kyoto City Bus, identified by its green color, operates in the central region.
  • Most buses run from 6:00 AM to 10:00 PM with intervals ranging from 7 to 10 minutes.
  • Rush hours often occur from 7:00 AM to 9:00 AM, as well as from 6:00 PM to 7:00 PM.
  • Using these buses, you can conveniently reach the most visited landmarks within Kyoto City limits without having to pay extra.
  • Tourists particularly like express buses No.100 and No.200.


Getting a taxi in Kyoto is convenient. You can hail one on the street or find them in parking lots near train and bus stations, malls, and touristy spots. If you don't speak Japanese, write down where you're headed and show it to the driver. You can also hand them a business card from your hotel. The hotel, cafe, or restaurant staff can also call a taxi for you. The easiest way is to use a mobile app like Go, DIDI, or Uber.

And for our foreign friends, Kyoto has a Foreign Friendly Taxi network with drivers who speak English and Chinese.

How the right bottom corner of the windshield is lit indicates if a taxi is available or already has a passenger. If lit in green, the vehicle is occupied. If lit in red, it is available. Before getting in the taxi, don’t forget that a driver opens and closes the rear door remotely. You don’t have to do it yourself.

You will be charged by a meter, which counts both time and distance, and tipping is not customary.

Renting a bike in Kyoto

Kyoto is one of Asia's top cities for cycling enthusiasts. There are many spots where you can rent a bike, even electric ones. Make sure to check out the online resource created by the Kyoto City Hall. To ensure a smooth cycling experience, remember that cars and bikes drive on the left side here. And when you're out exploring the sights, be sure to park your bike in a designated zone, or it might get confiscated and taken to a special depot. You'll have to pay a fine to get it back.

Some companies provide online booking services for bicycle rentals, with delivery options to hotels. You can also rent one at Kyoto Station with Kyoto Eco Trip or Kyoto Cycling Tour Project.