Kyoto Guide: Planning Your Trip

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Once the imperial capital of Japan, Kyoto is a stunning, tranquil city that's loaded with a unique mix of history and modern conveniences. While Kyoto is still a reasonably large city, boasting a population of more than a million people, it feels much smaller, making it easy to explore over just a few days.

Sample unique Kyoto dishes at Nishiki Market, stroll through the whistling bamboo at Arashiyama's famous groves, walk through the burnt-orange torii gates at Fushimi Inari, or take a day trip to nearby Nara, home to 1,000 sacred (and mostly friendly) deer.

Read on for more about planning your trip to Kyoto, including how to get there, where to stay, what to do, and more.

Planning Your Trip

Best Time to Visit: Kyoto is at its best during the spring and the fall. In October and November, temperatures are mild and the fall foliage surrounding the city is seriously impressive. In the spring months, visitors flock to see the famous cherry blossoms.

Language: Japanese. English is not common, but most people will try to help you out despite the language barrier.

Currency: Japanese yen, at a conversion of around 100 yen to $1.

Getting Around: Kyoto's city center is easily walkable, but the city also has a highly modernize and easily navigable public transit system. There are two subway lines, running north-south and east-west, and many bus lines. Busses are easy to use, with announcements made in English and Japanese, and there's a flat fare of just 230 yen (about $2). Kyoto is also connected to Japan's high-speed rail network, making it easy to get to other cities.

Travel Tip: Kyoto's most famous landmarks—Fushimi Inari, Arashiyama's bamboo forest, or Kiyomizudera Temple—are predictably mobbed with people. If you want to beat the crowds in Kyoto, visit these worthy landmarks early in the morning (before 8 a.m.) or late at night.

Things to Do

Formerly Japan's imperial capital, Kyoto is loaded with history. In addition to temples and shrines, visitors can explore the imperial palace and castles, as well as plenty of modern landmarks like Kyoto Tower and Kyoto Station. Half the fun of exploring Kyoto is getting lost down the tiny side streets and alleys, where you'll uncover hidden record stores, vintage clothing stores, and kissaten (a Japanese tearoom that also serves coffee) for a quick caffeine jolt.

  • Among Kyoto's most popular landmarks, Fushimi Inari is an 8th-century landmark that you've almost certainly seen on Instagram. Visitors flock to see the orange torii gates that are built into the side of a mountain. The entire path is less than two miles, so it's easy to hike its length.
  • Food lovers and those with interest in Japanese culture must visit Kyoto's Nishiki Market. This assemblage of shops and food stalls dates back to the 14th century, with some vendors—like Aritsugu, a knife shop—boasting royal lineage. Snacking on the go is typically a faux pas in Japan, but not at Nishiki. Grab a takotomago (baby octopus stuffed with a boiled quail egg) or a black sesame soft serve and take in the sights, sounds, and tastes of this ancient landmark.
  • One of the most picturesque spots in Kyoto is the famous bamboo forest in Arashiyama. A quick train ride or bus will get you there, and you can spend the day exploring the forest, as well as surrounding attractions like the stunning Tenryuji Temple.

Looking for more things to do in Kyoto? Check out our guides to Kyoto's best temples and shrines, day trips from Kyoto, and how to see a maiko show in Kyoto.

What to Eat and Drink

Kyoto's imperial history means that the city played a tremendous role in the development of Japanese cuisine. Many of the most well-known Japanese dishes originated here, but there are also likely some you've never heard of—and would be remiss not to try.

Kyoto-style sushi is one popular dish. Given that Kyoto is landlocked, this famous dish consists of preserved fish and rice wrapped in kombu (kelp), rather than regular seaweed. Kyoto is also renowned for yudofu, a rich tofu dish where the curd is simmered with kelp for flavor; yuba, a soybean-based dish made from tofu skin; and kaiseki, a large, set-course meal often served in ryokans.

While Kyoto is not as sprawling as Tokyo, the city has its own lively bar scene, with individual hangouts specializing in everything from Japanese whiskey and craft beer to sake and bespoke cocktails. Start your night on Kiyamachi Street, and you'll find plenty of places to explore. Afterward, tuck into an izakaya for a late-night snack of grilled skewers.

Explore our articles about the top restaurants in Kyoto, 10 must-try foods in Kyoto, and where to find Kyoto's best nightlife.

Where to Stay

Kyoto is small, but each of the city's neighborhoods has its own unique vibe, making deciding where to stay a challenge. But depending on what you're looking for, Kyoto truly has something to offer everyone.

If you're seeking a traditional ryokan experience, look toward Higashiyama. Alternatively, Shimogyo, near the train station, boasts a number of five-star, luxury hotels, on par with any major city. Shimogyo's convenience to shopping, restaurants, and transportations makes it a popular spot for travelers.

Explore Kyoto's different neighborhoods and check out of our recommendations for Kyoto's best hotels.

Getting There

Visitors who want to start their trip in Kyoto will likely fly into Osaka International Airport, an hour outside of Kyoto. The airport serves all of Japan's Kansai region and is serviced by most major carriers, but you'll often have a connection elsewhere in Asia.

Alternatively, for travelers who are already in Japan and looking to visit Kyoto, the easiest way to reach the city is by shinkansen, or bullet train. These astoundingly fast trains run with regular service from most of Japan's major cities, making the trip from Tokyo in less than three hours. 

Culture and Customs

Manners are very important in Japan and are largely different than many American customs. However, don't worry if you get something wrong—just being aware of some basic Japanese courtesies and etiquette tips will make your trip all the more enjoyable.

For starts, a simple bow is a common and respectful greeting. Shaking hands is not common. Additionally, attaching the suffix of "-san" to someone's name is a sign of respect.

Tipping is not necessary, and this includes everything from restaurants to taxis. In many instances, tipping can be seen as insulting or, at the very least, confusing. Instead, at mealtime, tell your server or the chef, "gochisosama deshita," or "thank you for the meal." For others, a simple "arigatou gozaimasu," or "thank you very much," will suffice.

Money-Saving Tips

  • Japan is still very much a cash-based society, and ATM fees can add up quickly, so it's wise to take out the maximum amount of cash you think you'll need.
  • Japanese convenient store food is fast, inexpensive, and surprisingly enjoyable! Grab an onigiri or an egg salad sandwich for a quick and tasty meal on the go.
  • Many of Kyoto's most popular attractions, like Fushimi Inari, are entirely free to visit.
  • Taxis in Kyoto (and much of Japan) are shockingly expensive, and there are no ride-share services like Uber or Lyft. Stick to public transit, which is fast, convenient, and much cheaper.
  • If you're traveling elsewhere in the country, purchase a Japan Rail pass. The initial investment might seem spendy—around $225 for a week—but the pass gets you unlimited rides on JR trains, including some shinkansen.
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