Kyoto is one of the oldest cities in Japan, and was the country's capital for more than 1,000 years, leaving behind a fascinating historical legacy. In fact, the city's culture was saved when it was removed from the atomic bomb target list at the end of the Second World War, leaving it one of the best preserved cities in Japan.
The city is home to around 2,000 religious places (1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines), and is where the famous Japanese tea ceremony, a ritualised performance of the preparation and presentation of matcha (powdered green tea), originated. These traditions give Kyoto the reputation of a calm counterpart to Tokyo and Osaka, making it a distinctive Japanese destination.
A large chunk of Kyoto's heritage lies in its many temples and shrines, and it's hard to avoid these beautiful oases during a visit to the city. With so many options, it's difficult to know where to start in choosing which should be on your itinerary; however we think it's good to go for a mix of the most famous with some more secluded spots. Remember, even if religious buildings don't float your boat, Japanese temples and shrines often come with amazing gardens, making them well worth a visit.
A few of the most famous and unmissable:
More secluded temples:
When you begin feeling templed out (if that's even possible), there are plenty of other things to do in Kyoto.
Visit the Gion district, Kyoto's famous geisha quarter and the top entertainment area of the city. The best time to visit is in the evening when you can enjoy the street's traditional restaurants and tea houses lit up with lanterns. If you're on the lookout for a geisha, be warned that lots of tourists pay to dress up in this traditional outfit for the day, so be wary of who's authentic and who isn't!
For food, head to the Nishiki Market in the centre of town to sample some traditional Kyoto cuisine. Wandering through, you'll find all kinds of food-related products from snacks like yakitori (grilled chicken) skewers, to wasabi salt, to state-of-the-art kitchen knives.
Another place to visit is the Bamboo Forest (also known as Arashiyama Bamboo Grove or Sagano Bamboo Forest), one of the most photographed sights in Kyoto, and for good reason. A walk within the towering bamboo is a unique and serene experience that would be hard to match in any other city.
Kyoto doesn't have its own airport, so most international visitors fly to nearby Kansai International Airport in Osaka before travelling to Kyoto. The airport is around 75 minutes away from Kyoto via the direct JR Haruka airport express train, with the cheapest way to use this service being through buying a JR West Kansai Area Pass (costing 2300 yen) which is valid for unreserved seats. Or, for the cheaper price of 1750 yen, take the Kansai airport express to Osaka station and take the regular train to Kyoto.
Alternatively, there is a Kansai International Airport Limousine Bus that frequently runs between the airport and the city. The service takes about an hour and a half and departs from right outside the airport.
It's also possible to fly to Narita International Airport in Tokyo and take the Narita Airport Express to Tokyo Station and change trains to travel on to Kyoto. This journey takes three to four hours and costs 14,000 yen, however flights to Tokyo are often cheaper than to Osaka so this can be more economical at times.