Kyoto is often talked about as a favorite city, and we quickly understood why. With it’s many charming neighborhoods, endless cozy restaurants tucked away within tiny side streets, traditional architecture, and the friendliest of people, it warmly invites you in to become a part of it all.
- Tiger Gyoza Hall. Famous for their homemade gyoza (dumplings). We’d recommend getting the pork and vegetable – and try to get a seat at the counter looking into the open kitchen so you can watch your dumplings being made first hand.
- Kitchi Kitchi. Renowned first for the magic that happens in the kitchen, and second, for their plating presentation. We’d recommend getting their famous rice dish Omurice, and also the specialty beef stew. Insider tip: Reservations are suggested, but you may be lucky to squeeze into one of their 20-30 minute slots if you don’t get the chance to reserve a seat.
- Manten. Found in the historic Gion district on Pontocho Street, Manten is a treat for reasonably priced and incredibly delicious yakatori. If you can’t choose between all the tempting options on the menu, we’d suggest you try one of their sample plates. We’d also recommend not to miss the Chinese cheese with chives.
- Cafe Elk. You haven’t eaten pancakes until you’ve eaten Elk’s. They are thick, yet moist, and fluffy, yet dense. A difficult combination to master. Whether you order sweet or savory, each bite is just as good, if not better than the last, with a combination of flavors and textures. We’d suggest ordering the shrimp and avacado pancakes, as well as the strawberry pancakes with fresh whipped cream to get a sample of both types. It’s a bit on the pricy side, but well worth it.
- Kamanza. Set in one one of Kyoto’s oldest districts, this is an authentic Japanese restaurant, specializing in namafu, yuba, and tofu,
- Noryo Yuka. This is a seasonal event, held between May and September, that takes place on the Kamo River between Nijo-dori and Gojo-dori in the Gion district. Over 100 riverside-facing restaurants and bars erect large wooden platforms (called Yuka) for you to dine and/or drink on outdoors. It’s a highlight of Kyoto’s summer, stemming from a tradition dating back to the 16th century. Insider tip: We found the food options to be a bit over-priced for the food being offered, and the table fees were higher than average to sit on the outdoor patio (Yuka), so chose instead to have drinks at one of the establishments along the way, and went elsewhere for dinner.
*Do keep in mind, many restaurants and bars charge a table fee (which you can think of as a service fee) of 300 yen – 500 yen / person. You aren’t expected to tip in Japan, so this fee seemingly serves as your tip.
Sakagura (sake) tasting. Japanese Sake is said to be it’s best in Fushii City, Kyoto because of it’s water, which is said to be the purest in all of Japan. We visited Fujioka Shuzo Sakagura Bar at the recommendation of a friend, and enjoyed a flight of sweet, bitter, cloudy and clear sakes, along with small bites of miso-seasoned tofu, and smoked duck, all while sitting on comfortable cushions on the floor.
Suggestion cred: Nana U
- Cattleya. This is a charming coffee shop in the Gion district. What’s fascinating about this shop is it’s been built upon a shrine, and the water used to brew the coffee comes from the well once used by the shrine. It’s the perfect place to rest your feet and recharge. Insider tip: They have free wifi, and still allow smoking.
- Excelsior Cafe. This is a chain, found in various locations throughout the city. Mentioning here as they have a delicious macha tea latte. If you aren’t keen on macha, they also have a number of other signature beverages, namely a maple latte.
Nishiki Market. You’ll find here, endless shops and food stalls selling everything from designer clothes to fresh fish and sesame rice cakes.
Bring your appetite as there are numerous treats to sample along the way.
If vintage clothes are your thing, you should check out Flamingo. They have a variety of clothes and accessories ranging from the 60’s through the early 90’s and all laid out in a hipster designed basement, lit with Einstein lights and electric candelabras. Do take note of the stage with the empty Victorian chair in the center, surrounded by flamingos on either side. You’ll also find many local shrines and Japanese Buddhist cemeteries discretely tucked away in quiet alleyways beside some stores.
Kyoto is an incredible city to see on a bike. We’d highly recommend hiring a bike if you’re comfortable riding, to discover Kyoto’s quiet charm of hidden streets, untraveled temples, and unknown neighborhoods, at your own pace.
- Nara. You’ll likely read about Nara in many places before you reach Kyoto, but it is worth a visit if you have time. Known for it’s semi-wild deer, many travelers and Japanese students alike head there to have their moment to feed them. For 150 yen, you can buy a package of deer crackers and head to Nara-Koen Park, where you’ll have a slew of instant furry friends, looking for a handout. We found the deer to be quite cute, but enjoyed Nara for a few other notable sights:
- Naramachi. This is Nara’s historic district, south of the Kintetsu Nara Station. A quintessential Japanese neighborhood with shops, restaurants and tea houses, as well as a Koshino-Ie- a traditional Japanese house that you can walk through. Insider tip: Do keep in mind that the restaurants operate at lunch time only, and close from the hours of 2pm – 5pm. The Koshino-Ie closes at 5pm.
- Yoshikien Garden. This is said to be Nara’s secret gem, and rightfully so. It has a secluded yet inviting feel, with it’s small stream, stone walking bridges and cobblestone paths. There is a traditional thatched roof tea house (for viewing only) and Japan’s flora and fauna throughout. It’s quite peaceful as it’s not a main attraction of Nara, so you can get lost in thought, or simply appreciate the beauty of it as you stroll through. Insider tip: It’s free for tourists!
- Kasuga-Taisha Shrine. This is said to be Nara’s most important shrine. It’s a mysterious world of forest, with a maze of trails lined with stone lanterns throughout. The magic of this place comes from strolling along the many pathways, and stopping at one of the many sub-shrines along the way. Insider tip: It’s free for visitors.
- Todaiji Temple. Said to be not only one of Nara’s must see’s, but one of Japan’s. This is the home to the Hall of the Great Buddah, and is truly an awe-inspiring landmark to see. We chose to slowly take in the expansive grounds from afar, making our way only through the first gate, but it’s more than common to instead pay to go through, and explore the Temple’s many Halls and Gates.
*There are many things to do in Nara outside of what we’ve mentioned, which you can read more about here.
- Bamboo Forest. This is a photographer’s haven- even on a rainy day. It’s also featured as one of Japan’s beloved 100 Soundscapes, so do take a minute as you’re passing through to listen for the wind passing through the trees.
- Fushimi Inari Shrine (Red Gates Shrine). Travelers come from all over the world to see this impressive collection of red torii gates, formed to create an elaborate tunnel with shrines scattered throughout. Do plan to take time to explore the hidden trails and paths off the main walkway. You’ll be surprised to find perhaps a stunning view of the Kyoto skyline, a hidden bamboo forest, or a sweet Japanese couple honoring the gods at one of the many Shinto shrines.
- Higashiyama. One of Kyoto’s most well preserved historic neighborhoods, you can get lost in it’s charm as you browse through the many boutiques and food shops that line the streets. You’ll likely find many tourists flocking around the main entrance as the neighborhood is neatly found between the Kiyomizudera and Yasaka Shrine, but you’ll find the wooden buildings, merchant shops and small restaurants once you walk down the famous Ninenzaka steps below.
There are multiple events that happen throughout the year in Kyoto, so it’s good to check Inside Kyoto and the Kyoto page on Japan-Guide.com before your trip to see what will be taking place while you’re there.