Tokyo may have the neon lights, soaring buildings, and frenetic urban energy, but Kyoto’s where you go when you want a taste of traditional culture. The former capital of Japan has thousands of temples and shrines to explore, and its uncanny ability to change colors with the seasons (thanks to the pockets of nature sprinkled throughout the city) makes it a perennially worthwhile destination.
We’ve pared Kyoto down to the essentials—the top places to see, eat, and explore—so that you arrive equipped with a primer of the city and never at a loss for what to do next.
Kyoto’s Must-See Sights
All that glitters is not gold, but that adage certainly doesn’t apply to Kinkaku-ji, a Zen temple with a facade covered almost entirely in gold leaf. Though one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks, the temple itself is small and off-limits to visitors—most people take their photos from across the lake—so fill out your morning by taking the 20-minute walk to Ryoan-ji, a temple famous for its rock garden.
When autumn paints the maple trees crimson, the viewing platform at Kiyomizu-dera is one of the best places in the city to see the foliage. The temple is notable for being built entirely without nails, despite protruding over a cliff. At the base of the temple is a waterfall that splits into three springs; queue up to drink from one of them to boost your longevity, success, or love life.
This iconic shrine sits at the eastern end of Shijo Dori, one of the most trafficked streets in Kyoto. Yasaka Shrine plays host to Gion Matsuri, the most famous festival in Japan, throughout the month of July; if you’re in town, see if you can catch one of the processions. In spring, the surrounding Maruyama Park, which stretches east of the shrine, is one of the most popular places for cherry blossom viewings in the city.
Those pictures of your friends standing in front of layer after layer of bright vermillion torii gates? This is where to take them. Founded in 711, Fushimi Inari-taisha sits at the base of Inari mountain, just south of the city center. The farther up you climb, the fewer visitors you’re likely to encounter, so aim high if you want your pictures to be free of photobombs.
Shrines and temples dominate Kyoto, but the ancient capital also features a prominent fortress in the form of Nijo Castle. Built in 1603, the wooden castle consists of two circles of fortifications and the interstitial gardens, all surrounded by stone walls and moat.
Kyoto’s Must-Eat Food And Drink
This beloved restaurant is as famous for its soba noodles as it is for its view; arrive before 11:00 to grab a table by the window. There are additional locations near Gojo and Kitayama Stations, if you’re looking for soba closer to the city center.
Try izakaya-style dining at Menami, where guests are seated on tatami mats. The food you get is traditional Kyoto cooking—not as fancy as high-end kaiseki, but with an equal emphasis on local produce and seasonality. No English menu is available, so ask the waitstaff for help or just point at any of the fresh food on display.
Japanese tea ceremonies are, for the most part, arcane rituals inaccessible to foreigners, but at Camellia, you’ll be able to experience the real deal: preparing, presenting, and consuming your own matfcha tea. The house is close to Kiyomizu-dera, so make a stop before or after your ceremony.
Tofu takes center stage at this picturesque restaurant in Arashiyama, reachable only after a short walk through the forest. Three set menus are available, but opt for the most expensive to taste unusual creations like tofu gratin, as well as premium ingredients like wagyu beef.
Sake Bar Asakura
If you’re picky about your wines or craft beers, you’ll appreciate the attention to detail at Asakura, where a wide range of fine sakes is available as part of a tasting flight. Though sake is native to Japan, bars are more likely to offer selections of beers and whiskeys, making Asakura a rare find.
Kyoto’s Must-Visit Neighborhoods
The clusters of narrow wooden machiya storefronts, network of wide, pedestrian-friendly boulevards, and moody nighttime lighting make Gion one of the most atmospheric neighborhoods to explore in Kyoto. This is also the place where you’re most likely to run across a geisha or maiko (geisha apprentice) scurrying between appointments. Most visitors gather around Hanami-koji Street in hopes of spying one, though if you do, remember to remain at a distance and be respectful with your photography.
Gion is home to plenty of ultra-high-end restaurants, including three-Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurant Chihana, but for a casual meal, eat ramen at Musoshin or sushi at Izujuu. After dinner, grab a nightcap at hidden cocktail bar Gion Niti.
On the western edge of Kyoto is the tranquil district of Arashiyama, which bursts with color during the ever-popular spring cherry blossom and autumn foliage seasons. After a cup of caffeine at the wildly popular % Arabica cafe chain, which originated in Kyoto, you’ll want to amble through the magical bamboo groves and stop in the expansive Tenryuji Temple. For the young at heart, Iwatayama Monkey Park offers a chance to get up close to the baby-faced macaque monkeys that live on the mountain. Hanana, famous for its raw sea bream served with green tea, is the ideal option for lunch, though you’ll need to arrive early to beat the crowds.
There’s no question you’re visiting Kyoto for the historical culture, but it’s important to remember that with a population of 1.5 million, the city is a thriving cosmopolitan center as well. Central Kyoto, with its trendy restaurants and fashionable department stores, gives you all the accoutrements of modern urbanity on afternoons when you just want the comfort of city life.
Get your retail fill at Nishiki Market, where you can buy exceptional knives at Aritsugu. For lunch, try the udon noodles and fresh mochi at Mochitsukiya. At night, wander lantern-illuminated Pontocho Alley before heading to Mishima-tei for traditional Japanese beef dishes and Bar K-ya for sophisticated cocktails.