Visiting Kyoto, Japan - Tourist Travel Guide & Things To Do

From the traditional teahouse lined streets to the bustling and modern downtown core, there's a satisfying variety of things to see and do. Kyoto has a unique signature and cultural significance that quickly becomes apparent from the moment that you step onto one of its many historic landmarks.

Visiting Kyoto, Japan - Tourist Travel Guide & Things To Do
© Nicklaus Walter

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If you've ever been curious about what it's like to visit Kyoto, you've likely seen seemingly perfect images of absolute serenity where nature meets historic temples and super saturated red torii gates on an empty path. This was certainly my perception of Kyoto prior to visiting, and I wanted to find out what the real city is actually like. Does it really offer the peace and tranquility that it's so strongly associated with? Well yes and no. As I've found, it all depends on your goals for the trip as well as the time of day that you choose to explore this fascinating city.

Continuing from my last article, my wife and I made our way to Kyoto via the train line from Osaka using our Suica cards. The commute took less than an hour and allowed us to get a fleeting glimpse of Japanese life as it quickly passed by our window. It's also possible to take the high speed shinkansen bullet train which reduces the travel time down to a mere 12 minutes for those who appreciate absolute efficiency. For our three day stay, we chose the lovely Hotel Grand Bach Kyoto Select, which is not only very affordable but also a pleasant experience. It's located in the heart of Kyoto at the intersection of Shijo and Kawaramachi. The room itself was a bit more spacious than the hotels in Osaka, and the service from the hotel staff was just as excellent.

© Nicklaus Walter

Aside from seeing all of the famous attractions that Kyoto has to offer, my wife was excited to wear a traditional Japanese kimono for an afternoon while we explored the city. Renting a kimono is incredibly popular with tourists from all cultural backgrounds and you can find rental shops throughout the city. We were able to find the perfect dress for a great price at Mirai Hayao Kimono Rental which came highly recommended and the shop owner treated us like longtime friends. They have a vast assortment of different colors, materials, and patterns to choose from at various price points. While there isn't English posted on the website, the staff at the shop are able to speak Japanese, Mandarin, and English fairly well.

On our first day out and about, we visited both the famous Gion Geisha district and the gorgeous Kiyomizu-dera temple in the afternoon. And to be honest, I was completely stunned and disappointed at how overrun both places were with tourists. It was a meta moment for sure. At some points, I wasn't even able to recognize the location that I was in because of the sheer volume of people next to me who were also trying to enjoy their trip. That said, I'm glad that this happened shortly into our visit, because it taught me a valuable lesson about enjoying Kyoto to its fullest. That is, if you want to truly enjoy the famous landmarks and temples, make sure that you leave your hotel just before sunrise and you'll have the best parts of the city nearly all to yourself. If you don't mind rubbing shoulders with large crowds then feel free to disregard this bit of advice, but getting up early is essential if you're looking to capture that perfect photo or experience the peaceful version of Kyoto that every travel writer raves about.

© Nicklaus Walter

Tourist Attractions

Kyoto is home to several breathtaking locations that each showcase their own distinct charm and cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Here are the noteworthy hotspots that we visited and loved:

  • Kiyomizu-dera: An iconic Buddhist temple with stunning views of the city as its backdrop. The site includes a few gorgeous red structures that will leave you awe inspired. The temple has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a must see destination. This temple is extremely popular with tourists so be sure to arrive as early as possible in the morning for an unobstructed view.
  • Ninenzaka / Sannenzaka: This is a super famous picturesque walking path with traditional shops, the classic three umbrellas along the street, and a perfect view of Yasaka Tower in the distance. This ancient stone paved pedestrian street becomes completely unrecognizable in the afternoon when foot traffic surges, so be sure to come here at sunrise if you're looking for a good experience.
  • Yasaka-jinja Shrine: Thankfully, not everything in Kyoto needs to be seen at the crack of dawn. This shrine is beautifully lit up in the evening, so it's best to visit at night. Located in the Gion district, it has stood for over 1,350 years and includes several beautiful structures to appreciate and take pictures of. The main hall has hundreds of lanterns lit up after dark and looks like something out of a movie!
  • Hanamikoji Street: Also located in the Gion district, this beautiful walking street is lined with traditional wooden merchant houses. This area is famous for restaurants and tea houses where geisha entertain, perform traditional dances, and serve drinks. This is another high traffic area for tourists, but it's a sight to behold nonetheless.
  • Fushimi Inari Shrine: This might be the most famous destination of all in Kyoto. No doubt you've seen images of the thousands of red tori gates along an empty path, and it's just as impressive in person as it is in photographs. This is another place you don't want to miss, but be warned that it was packed with tourists when we visited in the early afternoon. That said, the vast majority of visitors will only walk up the very first part of the path, so it quickly becomes enjoyable and a lot less congested once you hike a little bit higher up.
  • Kamo River: It's hard to miss this picture perfect river that runs throughout the city. Kamo River offers an inspirational view complete with lush mountains in the background and a lovely walking path along the water. Highly recommended if you need a break from the busyness of the city and just want a good walk.
  • Shijo Kawaramachi: The central shopping street in Kyoto, this area feels quite modern with plenty of great restaurants and shopping malls to choose from. This where our hotel was located for the duration of our stay and it was very convenient to go anywhere from here. It also looks great at night thanks to all the glowing signs and traffic. You'll be sure to want to spend some time here when not checking out the historic landmarks.
© Nicklaus Walter

Food & Restaurants

Discovering great places to eat and drink in Kyoto isn't particularly challenging, but it sure was rewarding when we found a standout restaurant that kept us talking about it for days afterwards. Here are the most unique and delicious places that we visited in Kyoto:

  • Kyoto Gion Saryo: We headed to this attractive minimalist teahouse for their delightful egg toast, grilled traditional Kyoto vegetables, and refreshing iced matcha green tea. This place was memorable for the thoughtful presentation of the food, as well as the warm and inviting attic that offered the perfect view for people watching while tourists are out and about in their kimonos.
  • Katsukura: My favorite meal while in Japan was definitely the breaded pork cutlet with curry over rice. I confess that I ate it several times on our trip, but by far the best one I tasted was at Katsukura. They've truly elevated the pork cutlet to delicacy status with their use of healthy oils to fry the meat, incredibly full flavored Tonkatsu sauce, and the bowl full of sesame seeds that you can grind into a fine paste and add to your meal. Although you can find locations for this restaurant throughout Japan, Katsukura is based in Kyoto so this is the one to go to.
  • Smart Coffee: A famous coffee shop that's earned its reputation for wonderful egg sandwiches, french toast, and pancakes. Smart Coffee has a unique take on classic Western breakfast food that you'll be willing to wait in line for.
  • Gosho Yakimusubi Onimaru Kyoto Shijo Kawaramachi: A special shop that offers the finest onigiri that I've ever tasted. Here you can find rice balls filled with egg, meat, fish roe, eel, vegetables and more. My favorite dish was their little sandwiches made of rice and seaweed, complete with egg and fatty fish on top. It's a fairly busy place but for good reason.
  • Vermillion Cafe: We stumbled upon this coffee shop unexpectedly while we were finishing up at the Fushimi Inari Shrine. I was pleasantly surprised that everyone working there spoke fluent English and I instantly felt comfortable. The shop itself is beautiful and inviting, and there's the most beautiful patio in the back where you can be surrounded by nature while enjoying your favorite beverage. The fact that they have one of the best Banh Mi sandwiches I've ever tried only seals the deal. Don't miss out on this one.
© Nicklaus Walter

Travel Essentials

As I mentioned in my Osaka article as well, you really only need a few key items when visiting Kyoto. First and foremost, the Suica card will easily get you to and from the city via one of the many train lines with a simple tap and go system. It's quite versatile as you can also pay for goods and services using the card at many shops too. Suica can be added to your Apple Pay digital wallet, or you can grab a physical card at JR EAST Travel Service Centers located in Narita Airport and Haneda Airport.

You'll also save yourself a number of headaches by having Google Translate and Google Maps installed on your phone. Navigating Kyoto becomes fairly straightforward using Google Maps, while Google Translate is perfect for bridging any language barrier gaps with the locals as well as for translating Japanese text into English using the camera function within the app. You'll definitely feel more confident navigating Kyoto with these two indispensable apps at your disposal.

Lastly, for payments anywhere abroad be sure to get the Wise Visa debit card before your trip. This card is a game changer for international travel because it allows you to be charged in the local currency of where you are, as well as withdraw funds at any ATM without a currency conversion fee. And because you'll be paying in the native currency when using the card, you'll avoid having to deal with any additional conversion fees that are typical with using a credit card while travelling. Additionally, the option to use a digital Wise card from your online account and / or add your physical card to Google Pay and Apple Pay immediately makes it a versatile travel solution for banking.

© Nicklaus Walter

I'm so glad that we chose to visit Kyoto during our trip to Japan. I've been to many temples and other historic sites in Asia, but the experience in Kyoto is really something different that can't be replicated elsewhere. From the traditional teahouse lined streets to the bustling and modern downtown core, there's a satisfying variety of things to see and activities to do. The city has a unique signature and cultural significance that quickly becomes apparent from the moment that you step onto one of its many historic landmarks. Yes, it can be overly crowded, but with careful planning and an early wake up time you'll surely discover that the city that you've been so intrigued by actually lives up to its renowned reputation.

© Nicklaus Walter