First Timer’s Guide in Kyoto, Japan

Advisor - Jaime Felix
Curated By

Jaime Felix

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  • Kyoto

  • Japan

  • City Travel

  • Active Travel

  • Nightlife

  • Foodie

  • Entertainment

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Curator’s statement

Kyoto, Japan is a wonderful city to travel to and is known for traditional Japanese buildings, beautiful scenery and cultural immersive experiences. There are so many places to see and the best way to enjoy Japan is slowly, so I recommend 2-3 destinations per day. Famous spots in Kyoto include, but are not limited to, Gion District/Yasaka Shrine, Fushimi Inari Shrine, Nijo Castle and Arashiyama. For my first trip to Japan, I enjoyed traveling to different cities, but Kyoto just slightly edges out the rest as my favorite city. The scenery and slow walk through the neighborhoods were some of the most memorable experiences. This guide highlights some popular sights and food destinations to make the most of your first time in Kyoto.

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Where to stay in Kyoto, Japan

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Serene property with relaxed rooms only accessible by boat via the Katsura River.

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OMO5 Kyoto Gion by Hoshino Resorts

A modern and stylish hotel in the heart of Kyoto's Gion district, offering a blend of contemporary design and traditional Japanese charm.

OMO5 Kyoto Sanjo by Hoshino Resorts

A trendy and conveniently located hotel in Kyoto's Sanjo area, providing a comfortable and lively atmosphere for exploring the city.

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Things to do in Kyoto, Japan


Summer Events

My recent trip to Kyoto was in the summer. Many people would advise against traveling to Japan in summer due to the heat. However, there are many events that can be seen only in summer, like the Gion Matsuri (festival) and famous fireworks festivals.

Top Sights in Kyoto

The destinations popularized in Kyoto by social media include Gion District, Fushimi Inari, Kiyomizu-Dera Temple and the Arashiyama bamboo groves. I highly recommend going to Fushimi Inari/Kiyomizu-Dera and Arashiyama on separate days. Gion District and the famous Yasaka shrine are enjoyed either in the early morning with fewer people or at night with glowing lights.

Fushimi Inari requires a lot of walking on steps to see the views at the top. There are vending machines to stay hydrated while hiking to the top, as well as small shops along the way. The walk up through the vermilion torii gates is a grand experience and worth the visit, enjoyed either in the morning or night when it’s cooler. You can also stop halfway or whenever if you don’t feel like making the trek to the top.

In Arashiyama, enjoy the bamboo grove, feed macaques at the top of Iwatayama Monkey Park and stroll along the Togetsukyo Bridge to see the Katsura River. At the Katsura river, see beautiful views of the sunset and streams, then head over to boat tours on the Katsura river during the day and watch Cormorant Fishing (Ukai) demonstrations at night. There is also a famous open air onsen called FuFu no Yu to experience a traditional Japanese spa.

Temples and Shrines

There are truly many fascinating temples in Kyoto, so it will take multiple trips or a longer stay in Kyoto to see them all. Some include the famous Golden Temple Kinkaku-Ji, Kiyomizu-dera for the wondrous city views and shops, and Nanzen-Ji, where one can experience serenity while walking through the zen gardens and hiking paths to catch a glimpse of the waterfalls behind the temple.

Heian Jingu shrine is also another spot worth seeing. There is a humongous torii gate nearby that you can’t miss. Entrance is free, but there is a small fee in order to enter the garden behind the shrine. In Kyoto, there is no shortage of walking. Relaxing in this garden was worth it to experience needed R&R in nature. Have a seat near the wind chimes and feed the turtles.

Shopping in Kyoto

There are plenty of places to shop in Kyoto, such as Nishiki Market for traditional Japanese souvenirs and Kawaramachi for staples like Uniqlo and Muji.

Day Trips

There are many day trip ideas from Kyoto, like to Ine Village, Osaka and Nara. Kyoto can serve has a home base, while enjoying day trips to different cities through the efficient train systems in Japan.

Places to eat & drink in Kyoto, Japan

Street full of cafes and their sign boards

In Japan, you can find good food at any corner and convenience store, so there’s not always a need to plan every meal. However, for the popular locations, it is necessary to queue up or reserve a table ahead of time (sometimes weeks in advance).

Yudofu Sagano: Yudofu (tofu in kombu stock) is famous in Kyoto. Enjoy a multi-course kaiseki menu, famous in Kyoto while viewing a zen garden.

Arashiyama Yoshimura: Delicious house-made soba noodles made with local buckwheat in a tasty broth.

Nishiki Market: The taste of unagi is different in Kyoto and there are plenty of side stalls to try unagi here. Other grilled seafood, meat, sweet treats, delicious small bites and souvenirs can be found at this market too.

Chikujō Sō: Have a rest here and enjoy tranquility with a garden view at this teahouse after going to Fushimi Inari. Here they have private rooms to enjoy tea and dessert, set meals in peace and quiet.

Goka Go: Try high-quality matcha drinks, and they will make your drink in front of you. A memorable drink was the matcha soda.

Sizuya: There are multiple locations of this bakery — must try the set meals for breakfast or lunch and Hokkaido Melon Pan (bread) here. I was hooked.

Kichi Kichi Omurice: Requires reservation through the online booking system. Come here to try the internet-famous service and delicious omurice.

Need to Know

For more travel tips, check out my guide to Tokyo: Best Hotels, Restaurants & Things to Do in Tokyo, Japan.

Advisor - Jaime Felix

Travel Advisor

Jaime Felix

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This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to Japan.