Kyoto is one of the most gorgeous places in all of Japan. Surrounded by mountains, it boasts countless Zen gardens, Buddhist temples, and historic statues, as well as endless shopping and some seriously tasty food. I loved wandering around, popping into temple after temple, admiring the wide array of gardens, and walking through the bamboo forest.
Honestly, I could live here, I loved it that much.
Visiting Kyoto is on everyone’s to-do list so expect lots of crowds, especially during peak season. You can try to get up early to avoid them but, really, there’s no avoiding them. Be prepared and try to go off-season.
This travel guide to Kyoto can help you plan your trip and avoid the crowds — and save some money while you’re here too!
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Kyoto
1. Visit Gion
Gion is the city’s famous geisha district. Take a stroll along the main street and see ochayas (tea houses where geishas entertain), the small local shops, and the many restaurants that line the district. Take a walking tour of Gion to learn even more about this historic district and geisha culture. (Note that you can’t take photos on the narrow private streets in Gion due to too many tourists gawking at and bothering geishas as they went about their business.)
2. Check out Heian Shrine
This Shinto shrine is one of the most popular and prized in the country. There is a massive torii gate at the entrance and the shrine has a rather bright and ornate exterior that makes it stand out from the lush trees and gardens that surround it. The shrine is free but the garden has an entrance fee of 600 JPY.
3. Day trip to Nara
Nara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to hundreds of “wild” deer that freely roam Nara Park. The Japanese consider them messengers of the gods, and there are places selling deer crackers all around the park so you can feed them by hand. Be sure to also visit the world’s largest wooden building, Todai-ji, which dates to the 8th century and was reconstructed in the 1700s. Note: keep an eye on your things while in the park as the deer will not hesitate to eat anything in your hands (including your own food, paper maps, etc.).
4. Visit Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion)
Officially known as Rokuon-ji, this is a Zen Buddhist temple that is part of Kyoto’s collective UNESCO World Heritage Site. There has been a temple here since the late 14th century, but it has burned down and been rebuilt several times, first in the mid-15th century and then again in the mid-20th century. The current version dates to the 1950s and the top two floors are entirely covered in gold leaf (hence its name, the Golden Pavilion). It’s one of the most-visited destinations in the country. Admission is 400 JPY.
5. Visit Arashiyama (The Bamboo Forest)
For a relaxing break, take a stroll along the forest trails and let the calm swaying of the forest envelope you. Located near the famous Tenryu-ji temple, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the entire country. It’s a hugely popular spot so be sure to arrive early if you want to enjoy it without the crowds. It’s free to enter.
Other Things to See and Do in Kyoto
1. Tour Nijo Castle
One of the 17 Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Nijo Castle was built in 1603 for Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period. It later became an imperial palace before opening to the public. The castle spans 170 acres and is home to serene Zen gardens, intricate interior artwork, and a defensive moat. It is a popular tourist attraction so it’s best to arrive early in the morning before the crowds. The entrance fee is 800 JPY, plus an additional 500 yen to enter Ninomaru Palace, one of the two palaces within the castle. English audio guides (which I recommend) are 500 JPY.
2. Visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace Park
Kyoto Gyoen (Imperial Palace Park) is where the Imperial family and court nobles resided until 1868 when the capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. The current palace dates to 1855 and while you can’t enter any of the buildings, you’re free to look around and explore as much as you want (which is rare as guided tours here used to be mandatory).
3. Walk around Higashiyama
This is one of the oldest and best-preserved sections of the city. Spend an afternoon on the east side of the Kamo River and walk along its historic streets and neighborhoods. The narrow streets are lined with small shops selling local specialties such as Kiyomizu-yaki pottery, okashi (candy), pickled foods, handicrafts, and other local souvenirs.
4. Visit Ryoan-ji Temple
This was my favorite of all the temples that I visited in Kyoto. Built in the 15th century, the temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to a mausoleum that houses the remains of seven different emperors throughout Japan’s history. The traditional rock and sand garden, considered one of the best in the country, is immaculately kept and is a stunning display of Buddhist art and philosophy. Admission is 500 JPY per person.
5. Wander among the plum blossoms
If you happen to be visiting Kyoto between mid-February and mid-March, you’ll have the opportunity to view the plum blossoms. During this time, the plum trees erupt in blooms of bright white and dark pink flowers, similar to Japan’s famous cherry blossoms. Two places you can find them are Kitano Tenmangu and the Kyoto Botanical Gardens, both of which are located in northern Kyoto. Admission to the Kitano Tenmangu shrine is free (though the Plum Grove is 1,000 JPY) while admission to the botanical gardens is 200 JPY.
6. Explore the Kyoto National Museum
Opened in 1897, the Kyoto National Museum is brimming with artifacts, ceramics, and fine art. It’s one of the top-rated museums in Japan and home to over 12,000 items, focusing on pre-modern Japanese and Asian art. Admission is 700 JPY for the permanent exhibit, 1,600-1,800 JPY for temporary collections, and 300 JPY for the museum gardens.
7. Kyoto International Manga Museum
For the nerd and art enthusiast in all of us, this museum is home to a massive collection of over 300,000 manga. Opened in 2006, 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 artists. There are also vintage antique manga here dating back to the 1860s and 1880s. Admission is 900 JPY.
8. Relax in an onsen
There are over 140 bathhouses (known as onsen) in Kyoto, supporting a tradition that dates all the way back to the early Middle Ages. Separated by gender, bathhouses are a great way to relax and soak in some of the more unique aspects of Japanese culture. Just be aware that some onsen don’t allow visitors with tattoos/force you to cover them so be sure to check before you arrive. Expect to pay around 1,000 JPY for the budget bathhouses. Tenzan-no-yu Onsen is the best in the city.
9. Eat at Nishiki Market
The Nishiki Ichiba is an indoor market and host to an amazing selection of locally-grown fruits and veggies, fresh seafood, and other local specialties. While here, try yuba, which is basically the “skin” on the surface of soymilk vats. When it’s dried, it’s crispy and delicious (but you can also try it in the form of soymilk doughnuts and ice cream). The market is located on Nishikikoji Street and opening hours depend on the shop (but typically from 9am to 6pm). To dive deeper into Japanese food culture, you can take a food tour of the market that includes tastings at Nishiki and matcha and desserts in nearby Gion.
10. Go hiking
The hills of Kyoto are an ideal place to go hiking. There are a number of Buddhist temples and other religious sites (like Zen gardens) throughout the hills. Try the nearby Mount Atago. It’s a moderate 4-6-hour hike that offers scenic views over the city and surrounding hills, as well as lots of wildlife (there are lots of deer here). For a longer hike, walk the Takao to Hozukyo trail, which is moderately difficult and takes just over 6 hours.
11. Experience a tea ceremony
While tea has been an important aspect of Japanese culture for over a millennium, the traditional Japanese tea ceremony was born in Kyoto in the 16th century as elites tried to impress each other. The city remains the heart of tea culture in Japan and the best place in the country to learn about this unique art form. You can enjoy a tea ceremony at one of the city’s temples or take a workshop where you’ll learn from a tea master how to perform the ceremony yourself.
12. Take a cooking class
Japanese food is renowned around the world, so why not take some culinary skills home with you? Kyoto has a few different options for cooking classes, from spending an afternoon cooking in an izakaya (a casual bar/restaurant) to learning how to make your own bento boxes!
For more information on specific cities in Japan, check out these guides:
Kyoto Travel Costs
Hostel prices – Most hostels in Kyoto charge 2,400-3,500 JPY per night for a dorm room of any size. For a private room with a twin or double bed, expect to pay 7,500-10,000 JPY per night. Prices are about the same year-round. Free Wi-Fi and lockers are standard, and most hostels have self-catering facilities if you want to cook your own meals. None of the hostels have free breakfast.
Budget hotel prices – If you’re looking for a budget hotel, expect to pay at least 4,000-6,000 JPY for a double bed at a two-star hotel while capsule hotels start at 2,500-2,800 JPY for a tiny pod that is essentially just a bed. It’s not fancy, but it’s a unique (and very Japanese) experience.
Airbnb is tightly regulated in Japan, so it’s often difficult to find accommodations, they’re rarely in the center of town, and they’re expensive. Private apartments/homes on Airbnb usually start around 10,000-20,000 JPY per night. For a single room, expect to pay at least 7,500 JPY.
Food – Japanese cuisine is world-renowned and has even earned a spot on UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage List. While each region has its own specialties, rice, noodles, seafood, and fresh, seasonal produce all feature heavily no matter where you are. In Kyoto, tofu is a local specialty, due to the plethora of Buddhist monasteries (whose monks eat a vegetarian diet). Tea, including matcha, are also a specialty of the area and should be experienced via a tea ceremony if you have the time/money. You’ll also find lots of mochi candy here, which is made from pounded rice and usually stuffed with something (often a sweetened bean paste). It tastes much better than it sounds though!
Basic food options like curry and donburi (bowls of meat and rice) cost around 500-700 JPY. Ramen is usually less than 1,200 JPY. Fast food (think McDonald’s or KFC) is around 750 JPY for a basic combo meal.
You’ll find the cheapest places far from the busy tourist areas so walk a few blocks from the main temples if you want to save some money. Street food like green tea sweets and sashimi sticks cost about 300 JPY. Filling Japanese pancakes are even cheaper, at 200 JPY.
You can also find plenty of cheap meals and pre-packaged items at 7-Eleven — and even the locals eat them! Pre-set meals of noodles, rice balls, tofu, and pre-packed sushi are all available for under 500 JPY, making for cheap lunches. (Supermarkets have many set meals at similar prices too).
Mid-range restaurants (think three-course meals) cost around 2,500-3,000 JPY per person.
Kaiseki Ryori is a style of high-end, multi-course Japanese dining that originated in Kyoto. It costs about 8,000-10,000 JPY for a set menu of seven courses, covering everything from chicken to sushi. A wagyu steak course (served with rice, seafood, salad, dessert, etc.) starts at 10,000 JPY.
Domestic beer is around 450-550 JPY and sake is around 800 JPY per glass. A latte/cappuccino is 500-600 JPY and a bottle of water is 150 JPY.
Buying groceries costs 4,000-5,500 JPY per week for basic staples like rice, vegetables, and fish. Just be sure to wash all your produce well. Japan uses a lot of chemicals on their produce as there is not much arable land in the country and agricultural practices rely on peak productivity (hence pesticides).
Backpacking Kyoto Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking Kyoto, plan to budget around 7,000 JPY per day. This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel dorm, cooking most of your meals, eating at the cheap 100 yen shops, limiting your drinking, visiting free museums and temples, and using public transportation to get around.
On a more mid-range budget of 16,000 JPY per day, you can stay in a private hostel or Airbnb room, eat out for most meals, indulge in some drinks, visit more paid attractions, taki the occasional taxi, and just have some more breathing room in your travels.
On “luxury” budget, expect to spend 26,000 JPY per day or more. You’ll be able to stay in a budget hotel, eat at nice restaurants, enjoy more drinks, take paid tours like food tours or cooking classes, and overall just have a more comfortable trip. But this is just the ground floor for luxury — the sky is the limit!
Kyoto Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
While the above prices might seem like a lot, there are many ways to lower your costs and save money in Kyoto. Here are some quick tips to help you save money while you visit Kyoto:
- The Subway & Bus One-Day Pass – If you plan on riding public transportation a lot, consider getting this card. One-day passes are 1,100 JPY for adults (550 JPY for kids) and provide unlimited travel on both the subway and city buses.
- The Traffica Kyoto Card – This prepaid card offers a 10% discount on public transportation (bus and subway) within the city. You can load it with 1,000 or 3,000 JPY, however, if you don’t use all the money on the card you can’t get it back so only get a card if you know you’ll spend it all.
- Shop at the 100 Yen stores – There are many 100 Yen shops in Kyoto with set meals, groceries, drinks, toiletries, and household items. Store names vary by region, so ask your hotel/hostel reception where the nearest “Hyaku En” shop is.
- Eat at 7-Eleven – A 7-Eleven, Family Mart, and other convenience stores in Kyoto have a lot of pre-set meals (including sandwiches, soups, fruit, and more traditional Japanese options) that make for a cheap lunch option. Additionally, supermarkets also have many set meals at similar prices.
- Cook your food – Almost every hostel here has a kitchen where you can cook your own food and cut your food expenses. Combining this with shopping at the 100 Yen stores can drastically cut your food costs.
- Eat curry, ramen, and donburi – I essentially lived off these three foods during my three weeks in Japan — and you can do the same in Kyoto. These are the best ways to eat cheap, filling meals in Kyoto when eating out.
- Work for your room – Many hostels in Japan often let you work for your room. You’ll spend a few hours in the morning cleaning in exchange for free accommodation. This is a great way to save money if you want to stay in the same area for a while.
- STay with a local – Using hospitality sites like Couchsurfing that allow you to stay with locals not only gets you a free place to stay but lets you interact with locals while you learn about local life. Make sure you send your request early though – the response rate is slow! Try asking expats as well as they tend to be more active on the platform.
- Buy food at night – After 8pm, most supermarkets discount their fresh food/prepared food as they have to get rid of it. If you buy your food after 8pm, you can save up to 50% on almost everything fresh.
- Get a JR Pass – Chances are you’ll be arriving in Kyoto by train. If that’s the case, consider buying a JR Pass. These passes allow you unlimited train travel and will save you a ton of money if you’re going to be visiting other cities in addition to Kyoto. It comes in 7, 14, and 21-day tickets. Keep mind it can only be purchased outside of the country, so be sure to plan ahead!
- Rent a bicycle – There are plenty of places to rent a bike in Kyoto, including many hostels. It’s a cheap and easy way to explore the city and you’ll get a much better feel of the city, too. Many hostels rent bikes, and there are plenty of rental companies, too. Expect to pay around 800-1,000 JPY per day for a standard bicycle or 1,700-2,000 JPY per day for an e-bike.
- Bring a water bottle – The tap water here is safe to drink so bring a reusable water bottle to save money and reduce your plastic use. Lifestraw makes reusable bottles with a built-in filter so you always know your water is clean and safe.
Where to Stay in Kyoto
Kyoto has a bunch of hostels and they’re all quite comfortable and sociable. These are my recommended places to stay in Kyoto:
How to Get Around Kyoto
Public transportation – It’s very easy to get around using public transportation here. Kyoto has an extensive bus network made up of multiple bus companies. The buses are clean and reliable with single-fare tickets starting at 230 JPY. Prices go up based on how far you ride. You’ll need exact change to pay when you get off, which you can get from the machine at the front of the bus near the driver (you pay when you disembark).
Kyoto has a metro system composed of two lines with just over 30 stations. Single fares are based on distance and cost between 210-350 JPY per person.
If you’re going to be riding public transportation a lot here, it might be worth getting either of the reloadable cards that the city offers. The Traffica Kyoto Card is a prepaid card that offers a 10% discount on public transportation (bus and subway) within the city. You can load it with 1,000 or 3,000 JPY (but if you don’t use it all, you can’t get it back). Alternatively, you can get a one-day pass for 1,100 JPY that’s good on both the bus and subways.
Taxi – While it’s super easy to hail a taxi in Kyoto, taxis aren’t cheap here so I would avoid them as much as possible. Rates start at 600 JPY and go up by 465 JPY per kilometer. Stick to public transportation if you can.
Ridesharing – Didi is the main ridesharing app here (Uber also exists here), but prices are similar to taxis so you won’t really save any money using them.
Bicycle – The city is quite easy to get around by bicycle and you can rent a standard bike for the day for around 800-1,000 JPY (1,700-2,000 JPY for an e-bike). It’s a popular way to explore so either reserve a bike in advance or get up early to ensure you can get one (this is really only for the summer months). Also, keep in mind the traffic here flows on the left.
Car rental – If you have an International Driving Permit (IDP) you can rent a car in Kyoto though you really don’t need one. Expect to pay around 7,500 JPY per day. Just keep in mind you’ll be driving on the left here and that you’ll need to get your IDP before you arrive in Japan. Unless you have a specific need for a car, I would stick to public transportation and trains (the trains here are usually much faster than cars).
For the best car rental prices, use Discover Cars.
Train Consider purchasing a Japan Rail Pass if you will be visiting other cities in Japan during your trip (including nearby Nara, which you can reach via in just under an hour). JR passes come as 1, 2, or 3-week passes and give you free travel on all JR lines. If you plan to do a whirlwind trip, this is the best way to save some money.
When to Go to Kyoto
The most popular time to visit Kyoto is in the summer, however, it can get quite warm during this time. Temperatures in June-August are over 32°C (89°F) and will be rather humid. Even September is quite warm as well. You’ll also have larger crowds as Kyoto is one of the most visited cities in the country, especially since Instagram photography featuring the bamboo forest has made this place super popular. If you visit during the summer, make sure you’re up early to beat the crowds and that you’ve booked your accommodation in advance.
The shoulder seasons are the best time to visit Kyoto. April-May and October-November see cooler temperatures and only a little bit of rain. Keep in mind that late March to early April is cherry blossom season so expect massive crowds during that time. If you plan to visit then, be sure to book ahead!
While the winter in Kyoto is cold it is hardly unbearable. Temperatures usually sit around 10°C (50°F) during the day and drop down to around 1°C (34°F) during the night. The city is much quieter during this time as well. Snow is common, but it usually melts not long after it falls. Rain is common during this time as well so make sure you’re dressed for wet, brisk weather.
Additionally, keep in mind that typhoon season occurs from May to October. Japan is well-equipped to handle all types of typhoons, but be sure to purchase travel insurance in advance just in case.
How to Stay Safe in Kyoto
Japan is a very safe country. Even in a large city like Kyoto there’s virtually zero chance you’re going to get robbed, scammed, or hurt. You’re going to be super safe here. That said, it never hurts to stay vigilant and always keep your valuables secure just to be safe.
Solo female travelers should generally feel safe here, however, the standard precautions apply (never leave your drink unattended at the bar, never walk home alone intoxicated, etc.). You also may have to watch out for lewd behavior here and there. Some female travelers have reported inappropriate behavior, such as men asking personal questions or catcalling. It’s rare, but it does occur from time to time.
If you’re traveling outside the city, most train companies now have “women only” cars during rush hour. You’ll see pink signs directing where women should board.
Scams here are rare, however, if you’re worried about getting ripped off you can read about common travel scams to avoid here.
Your only real risk here is from mother nature. Earthquakes and typhoons are common, so always make sure you know where your exits are when you arrive at your accommodation. Download offline maps to your phone as well in case you need to navigate the city in an emergency.
Japan’s emergency number is 110, or you can call the Japan Helpline at 0570-000-911 should you need assistance.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance protects you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
Kyoto Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel. They consistently have the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the companies I use the most and are always the starting point in my search for travel deals.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Agoda – Other than Hostelworld, Agoda is the best hotel accommodation site for Asia.
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Get Your Guide – Get Your Guide is a huge online marketplace for tours and excursions. They have tons of tour options available in cities all around the world, including everything from cooking classes, walking tours, street art lessons, and more!
- SafetyWing – Safety Wing offers convenient and affordable plans tailored to digital nomads and long-term travelers. They have cheap monthly plans, great customer service, and an easy-to-use claims process that makes it perfect for those on the road.
- LifeStraw – My go-to company for reusable water bottles with built-in filters so you can ensure your drinking water is always clean and safe.
- Unbound Merino – They make lightweight, durable, easy-to-clean travel clothing.
- Japan Rail Pass – This is a flexible transportation pass used for navigating Japan. Similar to the Eurail pass in Europe, it turns expensive bullet trains into budget-friendly modes of transportation. You honestly can’t visit Japan without one.
Kyoto Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling Japan and continue planning your trip: