Kyoto Tips: Where to Stay, Eat and What to See
Kyoto is one of my favorite cities not only in Japan but in the entire world. Although I live in Tokyo (for work related reasons), Kyoto is registered in my weather app – always there reminding me that a quick trip on a sunny weekend is always a possibility.
If you are currently planing your first trip to Japan and considering whether Kyoto should be in the list, you may have came across many derogatory descriptions: “Kyoto is overrated, over-touristy, it feels like a circus”. I can ensure you that none of that comes from this blog (and I even recently wrote a separate post on why you should visit Kyoto). Kyoto is a wonderful city and deserves a place in every first trip to Japan itinerary.
So in case you could resist all the online discouragement and still decided to visit Kyoto, these are some of my Kyoto recommendations – where to stay, where to eat and what to see in Kyoto.
Where to stay in Kyoto?
One of the things that I like about traveling in Japan, as explained in my Japan travel tips post, is the availability of single rooms at a reduced rate. And there are number of options in Kyoto offering comfortable rooms at reasonable rates to solo travelers.
Hotel Anteroom, my Kyoto home
As I very often travel solo, Hotel Anteroom in Kyoto which features single rooms is my go-to choice whenever I am in Kyoto. I like the compactness of the rooms (that still feature all the necessary amenities (including a desk space)) and the spacious and stylish lounge area.
Located in the southern part of the city, Hotel Anteroom also gives me the chance to explore the less visited parts of Kyoto. If you book well in advance, you can often book a single room for 5,000-6,000 Yen/night. They also offer a carefully put together breakfast buffet for 1,500 Yen.
Recently renovated Hotel She Kyoto
Another hotel – located one minute walking distance from Anteroom – falling under the similar price range with Anteroom is Hotel She Kyoto. The hotels offers larger rooms than Anteroom but has a much smaller lounge area. I recently stayed at She for a night during a recent trip to Kyoto and I was very satisfied with the experience.
Hotel Tsugu by Share Hotels
While in a higher price range (15,000-20,000 Yen/night), Hotel Tsugu located near Nishiki Market is another favorite of mine. The location is wonderful if you are short on time and want to be close to some of the major sites. The hotel belongs to the Share Hotels Group that you can always count on for minimalistic and stylish design in Japan. (I also love their Kanazawa hotel.)
Where to eat in Kyoto? Cafes, comfort food and wine bars
While I do love eating, I am definitely not a foody. However, I very much enjoy the cafe scene in Kyoto. There are many cafes occupying traditional style Kyoto town houses. They all offer a very serene atmosphere and serve as sanctuary in the middle of often busy day of sightseeing.
As for dining, (since I live in Japan) I am not always on the lookout for Japanese cuisine when visiting Kyoto. So some of my suggestions here offer a break from – often delicious but sometimes demanding -Japanese cuisine with menus featuring a fine selection of sophisticatedly cooked comfort food.
Cafe Marble, tasty lunch, dinner and drink sets in a traditional Kyoto town house
My favorite cafe in Kyoto is Cafe Marble (their branch located in central Kyoto close to Nishiki Market) that offers great lunch sets in an atmosphere so soothing that one can easily extend their lunch break to 2-3 hours. During a recent visit, I ordered their risotto lunch and it was delicious.
Marble also offers take-outs and you can even pay by credit card, not an easy find in Kyoto!
Cafe Bibliotic Hello, insta-famous Kyoto establishment
Cafe Bibliotic Hello!, a famous Kyoto establishment enjoying a more spacious space is another venue that is good for both lunch and dinner. It is also a great place to get a quick drink in the afternoon before dinner. In addition to table sitting, they also have comfortable sofas.
While the place is quite popular and relatively insta-famous thanks to its photogenicness, it still feels very peaceful inside. Just keep in mind that Cafe Bibliotic Hello only accepts cash payments.
Yakitori dining in Gion, watch the master in action
For a dinner, if you are a yakitori fan (chicken skewers) like me, I always enjoy a dinner at Yakitori Tarokichi located in Gion district for the atmosphere, friendly host and the tasty food. The store occupies two floors but if there is room, I prefer sitting at the counter and watch the master at work.
Cafe & Wine Bar Knuckles, wonderful hosts and tasty food
Knuckles ran by a lovely family is a recent find for me in Kyoto. Great wine selection, very serene atmosphere but more importantly amazingly welcoming hosts.
The menu is also fairly comprehensive offering tasty gourmet sandwiches, salads and finger foods. Cafe & Wine Bar Knuckles, which is open all day on weekends and for lunch and dinner on weekdays, is also very close to one of my favorite places in Kyoto – Kyoto Gyoen National Garden.
Bistrot Bleeker, wonderful chef and a trendy setting
Bistrot Bleeker opened by a very welcoming women chef with 20 years of experience in New York dining scene is a wonderful dinner option in Kyoto. The menu features a mixture of foods relying on quality Japanese ingredients, such as wagyu beef, and New York bistrot style comfort food such as jerk chicken.
I really enjoyed my two visit to Bistrot Bleeker where I got to chat with and watch the chef in action while sipping my glass of perfectly cold white wine.
Two atmospheric French bistrots
French cuisine is big in Japan. As a lover of France, French cuisine and the overall of atmosphere, I sure have no complaints.
A la Chalomont located next to Kyoto National Garden is a cozy little french bistrot offering wonderful set menus (around 1600 Yen) with many different options. Bistrot is run by a husband and wife duo who are exceptionally welcoming. Reservations are required for dinner time and they only accept cash payments.
Taste of Okinawa in Kyoto, Goya
One of the wonderful things about Kyoto and Japan in general is that most establishments manage to stay in business and survive for long long time. It maybe partly be due to governmental support, which was also admirably comprehensive during the Covid-19 pandemic but also community support where people do not give up on local shops quickly.
Located in Northern Higashiyama, Goya offers not only tasty cuisine but an exceptionally relaxing atmosphere with beautiful natural lighting and often very soothing music. I usually stop by Goya for lunch when I visit the sites located in Higashiyama region.
Sites to visit in and near Kyoto
Home to more than 2000 temples and shrines, it is impossible to run out of places to visit in Kyoto. Kiyomizu Dera, Golden Pavilion, Silver Pavilion, Nishiki Market, Nanzenji Temple are only few of the countless and world famous landmarks hosted by the city.
Instead of listing all these marvelous and well known-places that one should for sure visit, I will just list some of lesser known and/or lesser visited but rewarding sites.
Ruriko-in Temple, like a scene from a dream
My recent visit to Kyoto coincided with the limited summer period during which Ruriko-in Temple – located in the northern part of Kyoto at the foot of Mount Hiei (50-mn bus ride from the main train station) – was open to the public.
The temple opens its doors to the public only three times in a year and it is particularly popular during the autumn colors viewing (koyo) season. The entrance costs 2,000 Yen per person (noticeably more expensive compared to other landmarks in the city that costs 500 Yen) but the scenery waiting you on the second floor is worth both the coast and the trip. There is a large lacquered table that serves as a mirror reflecting the forest scenery surrounding the temple and creates a dream-like scenery.
Byodo-in Temple in Uji, beautiful temple and even a more beautiful museum
Only 20-minutes train ride away from Kyoto Station, Byodo-in Temple located in Uji is a site to see if you think you already had a share of your temple viewing.
A prime example of Buddhist Pure Land style architecture, the temple was originally built as a rural residence of one of the influential political figures of the time during the 10th century. While, like many other historical structures in Japan, Byodo-in had its share of fires and destructive events, the Phoenix Hall home to a giant Buddha statute had survived in its original form and can be visited for a little extra fee of 300 Yen.
The temple complex is also home to a museum, a treasure house, where artifacts from the temple are in display. It is honestly one of the most impressive museum settings that I have seen in Japan where the lighting and decor match the quality of the artifacts in display.
Kyoto Gyoen National Garden: not only for sakura
The gardens surrounding the Imperial Place is a very famous spot to visit during the sakura season when Kyoto – likely – draws the biggest number of visitors.
I however highly recommend a visit to the gardens even outside of the sakura season. It is a perfect place to do people watching, reading and taking a break from all the sight-seeing. I particularly enjoy the park during the autumn colors viewing season when the park is somehow always overlooked and hosts fraction of people visiting the temples for autumn colors viewing.
Plum blossom viewing in Kyoto
Overshadowed by the sakura, plum blossom is another wonderful opportunity to experience the beauty of the spring and the flowers with much less crowds.
To enjoy the plum flower blooming happening often in the later part of February, Kitano Tenmangu Shinto Shrine located in the northern part of the city and Jonan-gu Shrine located in the southern part of the city are two wonderful destinations. I prefer Jonan-gu over Kitano Tenmangu Shrine for the garden the greenery of which is beautifully contrasted with the pink petals of the plum flower.
Kennin-ji Temple, dragons in Kyoto`s oldest Zen temple
It took me almost more than ten visits to Kyoto to finally make time of Kennin-ji, a Zen temple located near Gion and I wish I visited sooner. The temple was built in 1202 and is beileved to be the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto.
While the dragon paintings decorating the ceiling and shoji doors is the main draw, I particularly enjoyed the interiors overlooking the beautiful garden. One can spend hours sitting there looking at the garden, and you are free and even encouraged to do so.
Countless sites but only one Kyoto
There are countless places to visit in Kyoto that are impossible to list in one post or cover in a single visit. But it may also be a good idea to set aside a day or two when visiting the city without any plans just to aimlessly enjoy its narrow streets that often lead to beautiful but somehow lesser known temples, shrines and gardens. I am a hopeless Kyoto fan and I really hope you enjoy this exquisite city as much as I enjoy it.