Eat curry, ramen, and donburi – Curry bowls were as cheap as $3 USD per plate. Donburi, bowls of meat and rice, are around $4-5 USD. Ramen is never more than $7 USD. The main train station has a lot of these kinds of restaurants.
Get the temple pass – For $12 USD, you can get a one day pass that gives you a discount on many of the temples and gives you free public transportation. If you plan on seeing multiple temples (some of which are very far apart), get this pass. The city is too big to walk around, so you’ll to learn the bus.
Stick to sushi trains – The sushi in Kyoto is very expensive. If you need a fix, stick to the sushi trains around the city. The train station has a very good one that won’t cost you the $50 USD that most of the restaurants will cost you, although there usually is a long wait.
Top Things to See and Do
Visit Gion – Gion is the city’s most famous geisha district and is full of history and entertainment. Walk along the main street and see ochayas (tea houses where geishas entertain), shops and restaurants. The restaurants can be expensive, so it’s best to walk around, admire the scenery, then go elsewhere for food.
Tour the Nijo Castle – The palace building was created in 1603 and became famous for its distinct architecture. Now it is a popular tourist attraction, so it’s best to arrive early in the morning before the crowds. It’s a beautiful castle, and a worthwhile destination for a few hours. The entrance fee is $6 USD.
Check out Heian Shrine – Dedicated to the first and last emperors that reigned in Kyoto, the shrine can be reached by bus for $0.10-$1 USD and a short walk after that. It has a beautiful garden filled with cherry blossom trees. The Shrine is free but the garden has an entrance fee of $5 USD.
Visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace Park – The palace is where the Imperial family and court nobles once resided. It’s located in the center of the city and admission is free.
Explore the Kyoto National Museum – The National Museum is buzzing with artifacts, ceramics and fine arts. Spend the day here, because it offers over 200 pieces of art which are considered national treasures. The cost to enter varies depending on the exhibition, but on average expect to pay $10 USD.
Walk around Higashiyama – Spend an afternoon on the east side of the Kamo River and walk along its historical streets and neighborhoods. Be sure to visit the Yasaka shrine and a teahouse or two.
Visit Ryoan-ji Temple – It’s hard not to be in Kyoto without seeing a zen garden, and this is one of the best with its unusual rock garden. Get here early before the crowds, and try to decipher the message of the rock formations.
Wander among the cherry blossoms – Cherry blossoms are a big part of Japanese culture and Kyoto has some of the best trees in the world. Come during the cherry blossom festival – it’s beautiful.
Take a trip to Nara – The capital of Japan from 710-784, Nara was the center of Japanese culture, arts, and crafts. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s 45 minutes from Kyoto.
Meditate – If you have trouble putting your mind to rest, sleeping at night, or suffer from frequent headaches, meditation might be the solution for you. Meditation is a major tradition among the Japanese, specifically among Buddhists. Trying their time-tested techniques can give you a greater understanding of the people here, as well as possibly bring you to a place of Zen.
See the Kyoto International Manga Museum – For the nerd and art enthusiast in all of us, this museum is home to a collection of over 300,000 manga. There are a number of exhibits highlighting the evolution of the art of manga over the years, as well as how-to workshops, with manga-portrait, caricaturists on hand.
Eat at Nishiki Market – Almost every major city in the world has a local market, and Kyoto is no exception. The Nishiki Ichiba is host to an amazing selection of locally-grown fruits and veggies, as well as all of the more ‘unknown ingredients’ found in Japanese cooking. The street food here is delicious and there are plenty of places to sit down and people watch.
Go hiking – The hills of Kyoto are a wonderful place to go hiking — perfect for escaping into nature and spending some time outside of a city atmosphere. There are a number of Buddhist temples and complexes throughout the hills, which make for some great exploring.