Kyoto is an invitation to escape from the fast pace and the fleeting nature of the day-to-day. This sacred city invites you to take things slow, to appreciate the timeless and the simple.
As one of the last stops on our trip, we were feeling pretty tuckered out when our train rolled into Kyoto. But in no time at all, this city had us feeling refreshed, inspired, and sublimely zen.
Home to countless Budhhist temples, tranquil gardens, and tucked-away ryokans, Kyoto feels like a retreat from it all. But this is no sleeper city – it’s teeming with innovative cuisine, eclectic vintage stores, and modern decor inspiration around every corner.
We could go on and on about this incredible city, but for now, we'll leave you with our little guide for taking it all in...
TO DO & SEE
We set out bright and early (around 6 AM) for a day of traipsing around the city – we wanted to see it all. After a brisk hike through the Kameyama Park and a stop at the observation deck, we followed the signs down to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. We came in through the back entrance, and as we turned the corner to the endless rows of bamboo soaring to the sky, we all just went silent. You can’t help but feel a sense of wonder as you walk along that single pathway, following the seafoam green bamboo stalks up to sliver of sunlight breaking through. It's pretty magical.
After sauntering through the bamboo grove, we made our way to the entrance of the Tenryuji Temple. The main highlight of this temple is definitely the garden. Designed by the famous designer Muso Soseki, Tenryuji features a pond surrounded by rocks, hydrangeas, and tree-lined pathways - all set against the backdrop of the Arashiyama mountains. Even though we went right at the 8:30 AM opening, it was pretty crowded, but the gardens are expansive enough to wander undisturbed.
A small, off-the-beaten-path temple, Honen-in is a true gem. From the stillness of towering oaks to the slight ripples of the carp pond, there’s a serenity about this place that invites you to slow down and take a deep exhale. Unlike most temples, Honen-in opens at 6 AM so we were able to visit early in the morning – the only people there at the time, we felt like we had uncovered the best kept secret.
Walk down the road from Honen-in Temple, and you’ll find Philosopher’s Path. Along this enchanting, tree-lined canal, you’ll find a few shops, galleries, and restaurants
About a 15 minute walk from Fushimi Inari-Taisha, this famous temple is nestled right in the hub of Kyoto’s city center. We spent hours exploring the grounds, and by the end, it felt like we had only scratched the surface. Be sure to visit the Hojo residence – here, you’ll find a collection of the most incredible rock gardens. From a sea of perfectly raked sand and rock structures to a checkerboard of moss and stone, each garden leaves you feeling inspired. Another highlight is the valley of maple trees surrounding Tsutenkyo Bridge – you walk down into the valley, look up, and see thousands of airy maple leaves outlined against the sky. Tough to beat that view.
Commonly known as “Kyoto’s kitchen”, the Nishiki Market is the city’s largest food market. With over 100 stalls lining the covered street, you’ll find pretty much all of Kyoto’s famed cuisine herer. Our favorites? You can’t miss the sesame dumplings, mochi, and Tsukemono (pickled vegetables).
Complete with a communal kitchen and a library chock full of guidebooks, this hotel made for the perfect home base during our stay in Kyoto. Each room features a soothing palette of blues, greys, and natural wood – i.e. a modern minimalist’s dream come true. With a mix of common suites and individual rooms, Rakuro is the perfect spot for traveling with groups.
It didn’t take long to feel right at home at Nazuna. Ten minutes in, and our team had settled in on the lobby’s emerald green couch and structural arm chairs, flipping through modern design and travel books. A 7-room modern Ryokan spanning 2 townhouses adjoined by a Japanese garden courtyard, this hotel is wabi-sabi decor at its finest. Once a lumber storage house, you can trace its roots throughout the vaulted ceilings, wood beams, and earthen walls.
Located on the fringes of Kyoto, the only way to reach Hoshinoya is by taking a slow, dreamy boat cruise up the Ôi river. Once you set foot the dock, you’ll never want to leave this mountainside oasis. Surrounded by lush trees, waterfalls, moss covered stones, this hotel gives zen a whole new meaning.
TO EAT & DRINK
From its serene riverside view to its wood inlays and earthen countertops, % Arabica is quite possibly the most beautifully designed coffee shop. And, with an award-winning barista at the helm, the coffee itself is simply perfect. We stopped at the Arashimaya location (right after our visit to the bamboo forest and Tenryuji temple), but there are 2 other locations throughout the city.
Stop at this cafe for a coffee and a light breakfast (with a side of matcha cake) before you set out sightseeing. Located right below the Fushimi Shrine, this spot is a bit of a tourist mecca, so heads up, you’ll likely bump into some fellow travelers here.
Hands down, the best sushi experience. One rainy afternoon, we ducked into this basement restaurant and were greeted by a conveyor belt full of sushi, sashimi, nigiri, edamame… delicious bites going ‘round and ‘round. While we did pull a few dishes straight from the belt, you can also place your order with the interactive menu at your table. Trust us, it sounds a little off-putting, but it was some of the freshest, most unique sushi we had all trip.
Right in the heart of the Gion District, this cozy ramen shop makes for a great, low-key dinner option. We opted for the spicy ramen and fried rice, but it was the gyoza that stole our hearts.
From the Victorian wallpaper to its vintage turntable, this jazz spot lives up to its motto of “Things ain’t what they used to be…” Located on a nondescript side street, it felt like we stumbled into another era upon walking into this cozy spot.
GENERAL TRAVEL TIPS
Getting Around: Be sure to map out the key spots, and then plan your days based on location/neighborhood so you can walk in between sights. We took taxis or Uber for getting around the city, but most hotels offer bike rentals if you want to explore on your own.
Scheduling your Trip: The most popular times to visit Kyoto are October and November or March, April, and May. These are the key seasons for the fall foliage and cherry blossoms. We went in June during the rainy season, and while it did rain from time to time, it was still a beautiful time of year to visit – and bonus, there were less crowds.
Avoiding the Crowds: Kyoto has become a top tourist destination, so you'll find a lot of crowds at the key spots. We recommend starting your days early (around 6 or 7 AM) if you want to take in the sights without the hubbub.