When you close your eyes and think of Japan, you’re probably picturing Kyoto: sublime Zen gardens, mysterious Buddhist temples, colorful Shinto shrines, graceful geisha. The fact is, Kyoto is the most rewarding city in Japan and a place all travelers should visit at least once in their lives.
Why Kyoto? What Is So Special About Kyoto?
Kyoto is Japan in a nutshell. It’s the cultural and historical heart of the country. It’s the best place in all Japan to experience traditional temples, shrines, gardens, geisha, shops, restaurants and festivals. In short, Kyoto is the most rewarding destination in all of Japan and it should be at the top of any Japan travel itinerary. Indeed, I may be biased, but I’d go so far as to say that Kyoto is the most rewarding single city in all of Asia.
How Much Time Should I Spend In Kyoto?
The simple answer is: As much time as possible. Indeed, I know of many people who visit only Kyoto when they come to Japan – and they never regret the decision. But, most people will want to see other parts of Japan. If you’ve got about a week in Japan, I’d consider spending three days in Tokyo and four in Kyoto. If you’ve got a few more days, consider adding a third destination to the Kyoto-Tokyo combo. Good options include Takayama, Hiroshima/Miyajima or Nara. No matter how much time you have in the city, my Kyoto itineraries are designed to help you make the best of your time.
What Should I See In Kyoto? What Are Kyoto’s Must-See Attractions?
I’m personally not a big fan of travel checklists and “must-see” tourism. Still, there’s no denying that Kyoto has a bunch of attractions that every visitor to the city should check out. Here are some things I consider must-see attractions and activities in Kyoto: Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, Japanese gardens, a night in a ryokan, Japan’s exquisite traditional accommodation, a meal in a Japanese restaurant, whether gourmet or hole in the wall, an evening stroll through the Gion entertainment district, a traditional festival, and some great old Kyoto shops. If you have limited time, check out my 1 Day Must-See Kyoto Itinerary.
Is Kyoto Expensive? What Is A Reasonable Kyoto Budget?
Japan suffers from a reputation as an expensive country. The surprising fact is, Japan is the cheapest country in the developed world, especially now that the yen has plummeted in value against almost every other world currency. You probably think I’m making this up in hopes of luring you to Japan, but I’ve done some real research to back this up. Check out my article Japan: It’s Cheaper Than You Think on my ChrisRowthornTours.com company site to see some actual figures and cost comparisons.
Sample Daily Kyoto Budgets (Per Person)
Budget Kyoto Trip Pricing
- Guesthouse accommodation (per person): Y3000
- Two simple restaurant meals: Y1800
- Public transport: Y1500
- One average temple admission: Y500
- Sundry purchases: Y1000
- Total: Y7800 (about US$75, €54)
Mid-Range Kyoto Trip Pricing
- Moderate hotel accommodation (per person/twin occupancy): Y7000
- Two moderate restaurant meals: Y4000
- Public transport plus one taxi ride: Y2500
- Two average temple admissions: Y1000
- Sundry purchases: Y2000
- Total: Y16,500 (about US$157, €114)
Where Should I Stay In Kyoto?
Kyoto is home to some of the country’s best Ryokan (traditional Japanese inns). I often recommend that people spend their first night in a good ryokan: it’s the quintessential Japanese experience. In addition to ryokan, Kyoto has a wide range of excellent hotels, from international brands like the Hyatt to beautiful boutique hotels like Mume. Renting a lovingly restored machiya (traditional Kyoto townhouse) is a great way to experience traditional Kyoto living. Another good option for families and those who want their own, self-catering space is a Kyoto vacation rental, especially the exquisitely refurbished townhouses known as machiya, giving you the feel of living in your own apartment. There are also numerous backpacker hostels and guesthouses for the budget conscious – plus of course the famous capsule hotels.
When’s The Best Time Of Year To Visit Kyoto?
You can visit Kyoto at any time of year – it’s never too hot, too rainy or too cold to visit. The summers (from late June to early September) can be hot and humid, but not impossibly so. The winters (from early December to late March) can be cold, but not freezing. Spring and fall are obviously the ideal times to visit, with warm to cool temps and generally sunny skies.
The late March/early April cherry blossom season is very popular, for obvious reasons, but it’s also very crowded. The November and early December fall foliage season is also great and not quite as crowded as the cherry blossom season. For more details on the best seasons to visit, check out my When’s The Best Time to Visit Kyoto page and my Kyoto Annual Events page.
Is It Easy To Get Around Kyoto?
Kyoto is a relatively small city with an excellent public transport system. It’s VERY easy to get around. Indeed, unless you come from a city with a freakishly good public transport system, I bet it’s easier to get around Kyoto than it is to get around your hometown. For information on Kyoto’s public transport, check out my Kyoto Buses, Kyoto Taxis, and Special Kyoto Bus, Train and Subway Passes pages. Kyoto is also a great city to explore by bicycle. For details, check out my Kyoto by Bicycle page.
Is It Easy To Travel Around Kyoto With Kids?
I have two small children, so I know what it’s like getting around Kyoto with children and keeping them entertained. Thus, I can say with authority that Kyoto is a GREAT place to travel with children. First, you don’t have to worry about food safety or crime. More importantly, there are plenty of green spaces, family-friendly hotels and child-friendly attractions. For more tips on traveling in Kyoto with your kids, check out my Kyoto With Children page. And for some advice about what to see and do, see my Kyoto Itinerary for Travelers with Children.
What Should I Pack For A Trip To Kyoto?
For a comprehensive rundown of suggestions about what to bring on a trip to Kyoto – and indeed Japan in general – see our Packing List For Japan page.
Is It Easy To Get Money Out Of ATMs In Kyoto?
ATMs that work with international bank and credit cards are not as common in Japan as they are in many other countries. But, you can get money out of postal ATMs and ATMs at convenience stores like 7-11. For more on getting money in Kyoto, see my Getting Money in Kyoto Page.
Should I Have A Tour Guide For Kyoto?
You don’t need a guide to enjoy Kyoto, but having a guide will add a lot of depth to your understanding of the city. A guide will also free you from having to think about the logistics of getting around and making the most efficient use of your time. Finally, a guide can help you enjoy local restaurants without any communication difficulties.
Hiring a guide for a six-hour tour on your first day will give you the confidence to explore on following days on your own and a guide can give you some advice about what to see later in your trip. If you’d like to hire a guide, please visit my guided tours site ChrisRowthorn.com
How Do I Meet A Geisha In Kyoto?
While you might be lucky enough to spot a geisha scurrying to or from an appointment somewhere in Gion, if you really want to experience the world of the geisha, it’s best to arrange for private geisha entertainment. It’s almost impossible to arrange private geisha entertainment on your own. Indeed, it would be impossible for most Japanese people. Luckily, private geisha entertainment can be arranged by private tour companies like my own.
Can I See Sumo Wrestling In Kyoto?
Sumo tournaments are not held in Kyoto, but they are held in cities that can easily be visited as daytrips from Kyoto. For details, see Sumo in Kyoto.
Is Kyoto Safe For Travellers?
Japan is well known as a safe place. The crime rate is absurdly low. People are honest. And, there is no political instability. Of course, you should use normal common sense and female travelers should take the usual precautions (ie, don’t hitchhike alone and don’t walk alone at night in an area that seems dodgy). One thing all travellers should have wherever they go, and Kyoto is no exception, is travel insurance. It’s important to protect yourself against accidents and losing vital items like passports etc. It’s quick and easy to book travel insurance online. See Why You Need Travel Insurance For Japan for more info.
Can I Visit Kyoto By Myself?
Kyoto is a great place for solo travelers. It’s safe, easy and fun to visit by yourself. You’ll have no problem meeting other travelers and local Japanese people. For more information on solo travel in Kyoto, visit our Solo Travel in Kyoto page. For information on traveling as a solo woman in Kyoto, visit our Solo Female Travel in Kyoto page.
OK, I Want To Visit! So How Do I Get To Kyoto?
Kyoto doesn’t have a major international airport, but it’s very close to Osaka’s Kansai International Airport (KIX), Nagoya’s Chubu Centrair International Airport (NGO), and it’s 3.5 hours by fast express trains from Tokyo’s Narita International Airport (NRT). If you’re coming from other parts of Japan, Kyoto is very close to Osaka’s domestic Itami Airport (ITM) and it’s well served by the bullet train (shinkansen).
You can check Kyoto flight prices and times on Skyscanner, which lets you quickly compare prices and flight timings across multiple airlines.
If you are going to be travelling through Japan rather than just visiting Kyoto, you will want to invest in a Japan Rail Pass. It will save you a LOT of money. See my page Japan Rail Pass: Is It Worth It? for the full details or buy it directly online.
Books, Movies And Videos To Get You Ready For Japan
There’s nothing like a good book or movie to get you in the mood for Japan. And a good book to read on the road will really deepen your experience of the country. For some book recommendations, visit our Chris Rowthorn’s Favorite Books on Japan page. For some movie and video recommendations, visit our Chris Rowthorn’s Favorite Movies, TV Shows and Documentaries on Japan page.
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability on Booking.com – usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Kyoto
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, save a ton of money with a Japan Rail Pass – here's my explanation of why it's worth it
- A prepaid Icoca card makes travelling around Kyoto easy – here's how
- Get travel insurance for Japan - World Nomads is well-regarded (and here's why)