Oh Kyoto! Everyone always told me I’d love Kyoto the best out of all the main cities in Tokyo and how right they all were! Kyoto, Japan’s original capital city, has this romantic old school charm to it which really makes you feel like you’ve been taken back in time to an older era of Japan. Wandering down the little streets and walking past the quaint little shop fronts is like walking through a Japanese story book. I totally recommend everyone add Kyoto to their Japan itinerary, even if you are flying in and out of Tokyo.
How many days should I stay in Kyoto?
One of the most common questions I get asked is how many nights to spend in a certain city. For us, we enjoy taking our time when travelling and if you are travelers like us, then I would recommend you spend the absolute minimum 4 nights in Kyoto but really, I would say 5-6 nights. For us, we did five nights in Kyoto on a three week itinerary and even still, there were so many more things I wanted to go back and see and do.
What area should I stay in Kyoto?
When it comes to finding accomodation in Kyoto, I would say there are two main areas to choose from.
The first option is to stay around Kyoto Station, which is the main station that gets you in and out of Kyoto as it services all the bullet train lines, as well as all JR lines and local train lines. Nearby to Kyoto Station is also Staying here makes trips to Osaka, day trips and just travelling in general extremely convenient. Also nearby to Kyoto Station is a Keihan Railway Station and this is where Japanese transport gets confusing – Keihan is another train company here and so they have their own stations. Whilst it is extremely convenient to get around if you stay here, the down side is that there is not much else here so when it comes to visiting the bustling Gion District, you’ll be needing to catch a train down.
The second option is to stay where all the action is on your doorstep. By that I would mean choosing somewhere in the Gion district and by that I would mean, near Gion-Shijo station and Shijo-dori, the main shopping street in central Kyoto. During our travels in Kyoto, we found this area to be the main tourism area in Kyoto, with Nishiki market close by, lots of shops, restaurants, cafes as well as the famous Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka streets.
For us, we chose to stay in Kyoto station this time round. As a first time traveller to Japan, we thought it would be convenient to be near the station to be able to get to all our day trip locations easier as well as for it to be easier to lug our luggage around. However, for my next trip to Japan, I would definitely choose to stay in the Gion area, as I would love to also experience that. If I had to choose one spot to stay however, I would say both have their pros and cons but to try and select based on your itinerary. If you need better accessibility, go for a spot near Kyoto station. If you want to stay mainly in Kyoto and be in and amongst the old school ambiance, then choose Gion. Note, if you do stay near Kyoto Station, the Gion area is also not that far away (maybe 10 minutes on the train, or you can follow the river and stroll down) and plus, I would recommend you hire a bike because Kyoto is extremely flat so super easy to get around!
You’ve got your dates sorted, you’ve chosen where to stay. What will you fill up your itinerary with in Kyoto? Here’s my guide to 10 things to seriously consider doing in Kyoto and if you do check any of these out, I can assure you that you will have so much fun!
– THE ULTIMATE KYOTO ITINERARY GUIDE –
Ten things to add to your Kyoto Itinerary
1. Eat your way through Nishiki Market
My first Kyoto recommendation is to visit Nishiki market. Nishiki Market is the main food market in the city and over here they sell both groceries as well as ready-to-eat food. It is a convenient place to visit as it is super central and close to Gion-Shijo station. If you are into food, then you will want to give this place some stomach space. The market here opens around 9am but it doesn’t get into full swing until after 10am. I would recommend visiting around 10:30am and having brunch here, trying all the yummy foods on offer. Here, you can find delicious sashimi (including fatty tuna and fatty salmon, my favourite), lots of mochi, ice-cream, doughnuts, Japanese candy, a Snoopy cafe, lots of fermented foods as well as Japanese pickles. The market itself is not too big, it runs for about 6 blocks (400 metres) parallel to Shijo-dori (the major shopping street in central Kyoto). On the eastern end of the market, there is a beautiful shrine with lots of lanterns out the front – do check this out as well. Overall, I would recommend about 1.5 hours here.
2. Indulge in some green tea desserts!
Kyoto is certainly the home of green tea and matcha so it is only fitting to stuff yourself with all things green when you are in this city! Along Shijo-Dori and all throughout Kyoto, there are heaps of opportunities to try matcha flavoured desserts and you totally should. I had some of the best matcha desserts in Kyoto and am dying to go back more. One place I really recommend is this small shop front on Shijo-Dori (first and second picture above). I can’t remember its name but from memory, it was a few shops west from Zara on Shijo-Dori. Do try out their mochi like dessert, it was absolutely delicious. Also, this ice-cream shop near Hokanji temple had the best matcha ice-cream I’ve had!
3. See the cherry blossoms, if they are in season!
If you are in Kyoto during cherry blossom season, I’m sure you’ll have this on your list. Definitely check out the cherry blossoms in Kyoto because coupled by the old-school vibes of the city, the blooming flowers give Kyoto a whole new level of magic. We didn’t catch the much raved about cherry blossoms in Kyoto, however we did catch a later bloom of a different type of blossom which was equally as exciting for us.
4. Spend an afternoon wandering the Gion District
Around the Gion-Shijo station is a heap of streets that have been preserved to keep their historic look. This is the old town of Kyoto, and is especially beautiful to walk around and check out. I would recommend spending an afternoon exploring the area. Towards 6pm, you will start to notice lots of geishas walking down the street in this area! Also, there are so many shrines here, with notable ones being the Kiyomizudera and Yasaka Shrines but one of my personal favourites was Hokanji temple (last picture), which looks stunning at night time. It was here that we met up with Savi and Vid of Bruised Passports – two of my favourite humans. I’m so glad to have met them when we filmed Fun Taiwan together last year.
5. Whilst in the area, you must check out Ninen-zaka & Sannen-zaka
Within the old city of Kyoto are two very famous streets, Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka and you absolutely must fit this into your Kyoto itinerary! These two streets are a pair of gently sloping lanes that kind of remind me of my visit to Jiufen in Taiwan, where the streets of Spirited Away were inspired by. They are sure picturesque and all the tourists know it so expect it to be extremely crowded when you visit! A late afternoon stroll is recommended, there are heaps of little shops selling all sorts of things from incense, diffusers, mochi, tea, tango, baumkuchen (layered sponge cake), matcha desserts and more. We even spotted a small shop selling Studio Ghibli goods nearby! If you want to pick up a souvenir, you’ll definitely find something here.
6. Rent a Kimono and snap some happy snaps!
After visiting Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, renting a kimono in Kyoto just seems to make the most sense with its historic look and romantic vibes. In contrast, Osaka and Tokyo are very modern and don’t seem to suit the kimono look as well so if you are trying to choose a city to rent them in, I would suggest Kyoto or any small town that has more of a traditional Japanese feel. There are heaps of kimono rental shops in Kyoto – simply stroll around the Gion area to find one that suits your budgets and needs! We rented ours from a store near Gion-Shijo station called WARGO and had some fun holiday snaps done by SweetEscape.
7. Spend a day feeding deer at Nara Park
A day trip to Nara is a common activity for those visiting Kyoto. It’s about 45 minutes from Kyoto Station on the JR Nara Line Rapid Service. Once at Nara, I would highly recommend hiring a bike to get around. From memory, the road from Nara station to Nara Park was quite flat and small, so there wasn’t too much traffic to confront for those who are nervous about riding in a foreign country. I did it and I’m barely any good! We rented our bike from a bike rental place next to Nara Station. It’s a little hard to find however if you head to the Tourism information office, a well signposted building next to Nara Station, they can provide you with maps and point you in the right direction for bike rental.
8. Spend a morning exploring Fushimi Inari Shrine
You can read my full post on Fushimi Inari Shrine here. We loved this place so much and would definitely recommend spending the morning here. Walk through the thousand torii gates first, then come back out and explore the shrine area and the food stalls outside.
9. Wander through Arashiyama bamboo forest on a quiet early morning
Again, this place got its own post because it’s just so beautiful. I would recommend visiting early in the morning because the peace is so worth the early wake up call. You can read my full post on Arashiyama Bamboo Forest here.
10. Looking for an adventurous day trip out of the city? Try Nabana No Sato
It really is a flower park like no other! Again, there was too much to share on this place so I dedicated a full post to Nabana No Sato here. I would recommend visiting in the afternoon if there are winter illuminations on, because then you can stay for that!
Photography: Tom Debono, myself and Vid – thanks for helping snap the pic of Tom & I and Savi & I :-)