David and I have undoubtedly fallen in love with Kyoto.
We’re pretty sure that we’re not the only people who are in this situation, and many more will be, because Kyoto is a wonderful place to witness.
Many of us seem to have Japan in our bucket lists, and almost every first trip to Japan includes a visit to the old historical capital. The first time I came here in 2009, I experienced it like many others. I was visiting for a couple of days, mapping out every highlight I’d seen from a guidebook. It was fun, but I knew in my heart there was way more to it.
Years later, when I came to Kyoto with David, our experience was vastly different, as we stayed longer. About 6 weeks at first, and then recently we returned for almost 2 entire months. Both times we really managed to live here like locals, and so we experienced many more subtle, authentic things that this city has to offer. We wandered in hidden streets, marvelled at unique sights, and took time to discover little coffeeshops, eateries and shops held by locals, that all have a very special vibe to them or something comforting to offer.
All of which I want to share with you, so that you too, can have a beautiful (and different) experience when you come here. This guide is something we put together for you lovely folks – and we made it super convenient too – all the links to spots we included are directly accessible to google maps so that you can easily “pin” & save these spots when you’re on the go!
It’s not hard at all to find good places to eat in Kyoto. There are so many little local eateries – my tip to any traveller would be: “don’t be intimidated to just go in there“. If you see a little eatery packed with locals, chances are it’s a foodie gem you have to try. And don’t be scared of the language barriers – many places to have an english menu if you request it. You can find just about anything, any type of food, for any budget. Udon restaurants, for example, are our go to when we want something yummy and affordable. There are many in the city which you can find just by walking around – most of them make their own noodles by hand. The great thing about Japan is that you’re never likely to be disappointed with the flavours of your food, as high quality just seems to be the standard everywhere you go.
Kyoto is also an excellent spot for people who have a sweet tooth. Wherever you go, you will find authentic little shops making japanese confectionary (such as yummy mochi) and serving the most delicate green tea. Don’t miss that!
We do have a few favourites and more specific spots we fell in love with, that we can only recommend you try.
KOUSAGISHA | East Kyoto
Gorgeous place designed by an architecture studio which sits right below it. That said, don’t miss what’s on the 2nd floor and head up the stairs to get to this beautiful eatery – it’s a little bit hard to spot at first! The food is absolutely delicious, so creative and happens to be vegetarian. At lunchtime they serve beautiful plates filled with lots of different tasty delicacies. Their homemade cake & icecream is incredible too. Just make sure to make a reservation ahead of time!
STARDUST | North Kyoto
Stardust is a place that’s out of the ordinary. The moment you will get in there you will feel it. Everything in there is pure serendipity. It is located in an old barn-like house with high ceilings with textured walls and an ethereal type of light beaming in, making you feel like time has stopped. Handcrafted ceramics and textiles carefully adorn every corner. The owner has a gracious presence, is kind-hearted and greets people with a slow, warm voice. You can have an exquisite tea there as well as a slice of homemade raw cake, served on handcrafted plates and vintage crockery. Upon reservation, Stardust’s owner also cooks homemade vegetarian food made of seasonal greens from her friend’s garden. Sheer, transformative perfection.
PREMARCHE PIZZERIA & GELATERIA | North Kyoto
Plant-based foodies rejoyce! This is your holy grail of delicious, generous eats. David and I have found that most vegetarian restaurants in Kyoto weren’t really up to our expectations (hello expensive small portions or boring taste combos!) but this place totally hits the spot. Especially if you crave a yummy veggie burger or pizza. Don’t forget to try their vegan gelato – so many flavours both japanese inspired (black sesame, yuzu or matcha plum, anyone?) and western classics like pistachio, my favourite. Certainly the most creamy, decadent vegan icecream we’ve ever had. We were truly amazed. Premarché has several locations around Kyoto, including another gelateria near Nijo castle.
AWOMB | Various Locations
Quite possibly one of the most creative and beautiful ways that you can enjoy sushi. On the main plate, you will find each and every ingredient carefully placed. On the side, you will get some nori sheets, a bowl of rice and a bamboo roll so that you can get creative with your own flavour combinations. Just a really cool experience. However – as much as it’s more instagrammable during the day (lol) I wouldn’t recommend you to go there at lunchtime – waiting lines are crazy. Just reserve a spot for dinner, it’s easier.
D&D Kyoto | Central Kyoto
Lovely eatery located in the grounds of a temple, serving yummy set meals that are traditional with a creative touch. Right next to it, you will find a design shop with lots of handcrafted objects made in Kyoto. If you’re hanging around Central Kyoto I can highly recommend it!
GYOZA CHAOCHAO | Central Kyoto
Is there anything more rewarding than gyozas + beer? For those of you who are not familiar, these are scrumptious japanese dumplings. Traditionally they are filled with pork and leek, but this place has tons of different varieties, including veggie-friendly ones. If you’re curious, give it a try!
CAFE FROSCH | Nishijin (NW Kyoto)
This is cozy café located inside a machiya (old weaving house), held by a lovely beret-wearing owner (Sumi, say hi to her from us!). We were living really close to it and loved to go there. They serve affordable and yummy breakfast and lunch options, and they make their own bread with koji (a japanese fermentation starter which is also used for making saké). Get the breakfast bread + jam set so you can try it out. It’s only 650Y and so tasty!
JAZZY SPORT | Gion
Super cool bar/eatery/vinyl shop where you can enjoy a drink while listening to some records. Located on the 5th floor of Y.Gion which is a multi-disciplinary creative building in the heart of Gion. Below it, you will find a gallery, and at the top, a rooftop where you can catch some awesome views of Kyoto’s kamogawa river! A special thank you to Sara for introducing us to this spot!
OMEN | Various Locations
I wasn’t going to add an udon place in this list, because I want to encourage you to try those around your neighbourhood (and find your own hidden gems!) but if you really need a really good reference, this place is amazing. Their handcrafted noodles are delicious.
Lovely Coffee Spots
Good coffee seems to be quite a thing in Kyoto and the café scene is ever-blooming. I’m pretty sure our coffeeshop repertoire will keep expanding every time we come here. Here are some of our favourite spots for a relaxing little break, or to have a little creative/brainstorming session like we’d usually do!
JAM JAR LOUNGE | Nishijin (NW Kyoto)
This beautiful lounge café is located in a renovated machiya (traditional japanese house). It’s held by a sassy Aussie guy called Danny and his japanese partner. The coffee is excellent, their pastries and jaffles (a sort of grilled toast) are scrumptious. Go there, sit by the window, sip a coffee or espresso martini, listen to the jazz music, read a book from the shelves, relax …and don’t forget to say Hi to Danny from us!
KNOT CAFE | Nishijin (NW Kyoto)
A beautiful coffeeshop with stunning interior design and many modern wooden accents. They are known for serving little buns with a huge chunk of tamago (japanese omelette) in them, but also for their excellent coffee. It’s more expensive than other places, but their brews are spectacular. A must for a coffee geek.
DONGREE | Gojo/Kiyomizu
This one is also a top spot for coffee geeks. There are many good independent coffeeshops in Kyoto (including the famous 100% Arabica), however, many of them are often crowded as a result of being overhyped. This one is sort of hidden and very small, so it feels quiet and intimate. Have a slow coffee sipping session there while sitting on the tatami mats. It’s magical.
SWISS COFFEE | West Kyoto
Such an adorable spot, and perfectly located if you’re exploring the philosopher’s path & Ginkaku-Ji. We discovered it right after a hike on mount Daimonjiyama. It’s small but bright, full of plants and little vintage curiosities, and the coffee is spot on!
MTRL | Gojo
This is actually not “just” a coffeeshop – it’s a coworking space as well. Basically you can head there for a drink and stay for 3 hours to work on your laptop if you like. The place is really awesome, casual and they even have a mini fab lab with equipment to make creative experiments come to life!
SOWGEN | Central Kyoto
Hidden at the back of an antique store (full of beautiful finds), this café is pure coziness. Love to hide in there when it’s raining and just enjoy a hot drink. They also serve hot sandwiches!
CLAMP COFFEE SARASA | Nijo
The location of this place is really beautiful, nestled in an alley full of greenery. It feels like a shed/workshop and it’s just so relaxing to have a coffee there on the large communal table. Try their cinnamon cake, it’s bomb! And make sure not to miss out the plant shop (cotoha) upstairs – I will mention it in the shop section below.
CAFE BIBLIOTIC HELLO | Central Kyoto
Quite a popular spot, but if you catch it when it’s quiet, it’s pretty blissful. Love sitting at the loft and looking down at all the yummy pastries!
MEMEME | East of Imperial Palace
We discovered this spot thanks to a friend we met here, and we’re so glad that she showed us. This spot has a rugged, vintage feel and plays retro music that sparks joy. It feels like a little happy hideaway. Their coffee is perfect and so is their breakfast sandwich!
KURASU | Central Kyoto
Kurasu is a japanese online shop dedicated to the best selection of coffee equipment. In this location you will find some of it, but also a coffee stand where you can pick up some incredible coffee to go, as well as some creative drinks like coffee matcha. If you’re in the area, make sure to stop by!
There are so many nice shops in Kyoto. And what’s very special about them is that they are usually very connected to the local craftsmanship. Take your time and lose yourself in little streets, you’ll likely find some exquisite handcrafted food, ceramics, textiles and more. These are some of our favourites.
PUREE | Nishijin (NW Kyoto)
Here, you’ll find an incredible collection of handmade ceramics and textiles, most of which are made in Kyoto and produced right in the back of the shop! Watch out for the hot tea kettle in the room – you’ll probably be served some delicious brew while you’re there, too.
HANAMIZUKI | Nishijin (NW Kyoto)
A beautiful little shop, located nearby the Kitano Tenmangu shrine. If you love unique vintage furniture & objects, be prepared to fall in love. Here are a few words from the curator: “I love the texture of old tools. I could make use of them in my daily life, placing antique objects in a room space just the way they are, and paying attention to the balance and color of each one.”
MUMOKUTEKI | Central Kyoto
This is an uber-cool, multi-concept place in the heart of Kyoto. At the top you will find a vegan café, on the ground floor you’ll find a lovely selection of handcrafted and sustainable decor, fashion & accessories (including many gorgeous indigo dyes!). And on the underground floor, a magical little area filled with a collection of retro finds such as old decorative suitcases, lamps and tools. Love it!
COTOHA | Nijo
This is an uber-cool, multi-concept place in the heart of Kyoto.
ANGERS | Kararamachi
This is an uber-cool, multi-concept place in the heart of Kyoto.
Favourite Things To Do
As the historical heart of Japan, Kyoto has a fair amount of stunning temples and famous sights, such as the Golden Pavillion (Kinkaku-Ji), the Arashiyama bamboo forest, or the super photographed Fushimi Inari Shrine. However, due to their enormous popularity, these are spots that are constantly flooded with tourists, which can make it feel like they lose their charm. Some particular areas, such as Gion are also constantly very crowded. Although we experienced these spots when we lived in Kyoto, those weren’t the ones that felt special enough to stay engraved in our memories. Instead, what we found magical and way more authentic happened just by taking time to get lost in Kyoto’s streets and alleys. That’s how we found the more hidden, unique temples and places were the locals go.
VISITING A ZEN GARDEN
The zen spirituality & teachings originated from Kyoto. One of the most important places of Zen is Daitoku-Ji, which we were lucky to live close to! I highly recommend visiting it, as well as its zen garden, Daisen-In. Every single thing you will see there has a very deep symbolic representation about life and its impermanence. When you will get there, you will receive a very informative pannel which will explain every single detail – nothing there is made without purpose, even the floors have a very specific role. Just so interesting to take time to walk around, read about it and absorb it all. On the weekends the temple also organizes “zanzen” (traditional zen meditation). Those are not your usual casual meditations but very strict seated ones according to zen teachings. If you’re feeling adventurous, give it a try!
Kyoto is home to an absolutely HUGE botanical garden. Oh my. We did not expect it to be so gigantic when we went there. You can easily spend a whole morning there just strolling through all the different gardens dedicated to specific plants/trees (roses, camelias, peonies, bamboo, bonsai) and for a little extra you can marvel at their incredible greenhouse. If you love all things plantlife & greenery, this will be your paradise. David took so many photos there for our botanical photography project!
CLIMBING A MOUNTAIN
Another great thing about Kyoto (which is not to be ignored) is its landscape. As it’s placed in a valley surrounded by mountains, it’s a wonderful opportunity to go hiking and explore that natural scenery, often associated with historical myths of spirits that protect the city. A rigorous but short climb is Mt. Daimonjiyama – it’s very popular with locals, who will politely greet you along the way (look out for the fierce Japanese grannies who are fitter than you, haha!). The view up there is stunning and panoramic. Another mountain which you can either climb in several hours or reach by cable car is the mighty Mt.Hiei. It’s the tallest mountains of them all. At the top, you will find a collection of temples and you might see some monks (some of which are famous for being “marathon monks” – mind blown). If you’re a nature lover and summit views shake your soul, don’t miss an opportunity to go hiking in Kyoto, there are so many incredible trails and mountains to explore.
HAVING A PICNIC BY THE RIVER
One of the simplest yet most authentic, truly “Kyoto”-like things you can do in Kyoto, is to get a bento and have a little picnic by the Kamogawa river. In spring, when the cherries are in blossom, the river sides are packed with locals who eat and drink together to celebrate the sakura. But even in more quiet times, it’s always a beautifully calming experience to just spend some time there, observe the locals who go for a jog or walking their dogs (often shibas!), parents and their kids, students or retired folks just having a relaxing time… And if you’re lucky, you’ll likely spot some wildlife. Majestic-looking packs of hawks often cirle the river looking for something to eat, as well as ducks and herons.
TAKING A SIDE-TRIP
To me, it’s not always necessary to get out of Kyoto because there is so much beauty to it (and so many things to see/do!) – but it would be a pity not to. Kyoto is close to many interesting cities and towns that are worth visiting as well. We took a daytrip to Nara, which I highly recommend as it’s one of the most fun experiences to have in Japan (read our post to see why!). Next time around I am thinking about going to Uji, as it is famous for the highest grade Japanese green tea.
Where to Stay
When visiting Kyoto, most people tend to stay around Central Kyoto and Gion in particular. Although I have nothing against these places and that I understand that it can be more convenient for a really short stay, I would say that if you want to experience the “real” Kyoto you must be open to head out a little further!
Nishijin is a neighborhood that was originally used for weaving workshops. These houses where workshops used to be are called machiyas and they’re very beautiful. Many of them are still preserved there and some of the coffeeshops I mentioned earlier are located in them. If you look for accommodation around this area, you’re quite likely to find a room in one of these!
The streets surrounding Nijo castle have a lovely local feel to them. Little streets in between larger avenues, family temples, playgrounds, grocery stores… Here you’d get to live like a local while still being quite central.
If you want to blend in with Kyoto’s youth, then you can sample staying on the North East end of Kyoto near the university. Not a partyzone (none of Kyoto really is), but it’s a lovely area that’s very green, full of cute coffeeshops and really close to some major temples and walks.
How to Get Around
Kyoto is not so big and it does have some reasonable public transport connections (as well as a few underground metro lines) but the best way to get around is definitely by… bicycle! As it’s rather flat, this city is very bike-friendly. So much, that the abundance of bicycles is more controlled than other places. In popular areas around the centre of Kyoto, it’s advisable to park your bike properly to avoid any issues. If you just keep this in mind, then cycling in Kyoto will be a breeze. It is so safe, so easy and you can easily get around everywhere!
You can easily find a bike rental shop anywhere around you. But if you intend to stay in Kyoto for longer than a week, then I would recommend you buy one. That’s what we did, and we just sold it when we left. This is a very easy thing to do as there are many online buy & sell communities as well as second hand shops which can help you out!
Best Time To Visit
Shoulder seasons, such as spring or autumn are the best time to be in Kyoto. Kyoto looks beautiful every season of the year, but summers are very warm and humid, and winters can be very harsh. In spring, the weather is lovely, the temperatures get warmer and of course, there’s a huge highlight which turns the whole city into a pink wonderland: the sakura! However, due to that, it’s also very crowded at that time of the year. It is manageable though, if you are happy to avoid tourist traps (like we did most of the time).
Autumn is less popular but just as beautiful and filled with seasonal delicacies. As I’ve mentioned in this post about the 5 things that inspire us about Japan, the Japanese are very connected to nature and seasonal changes – there’s always something special going on in the fashion, food or events in the city. Keep your eyes peeled when it comes to that!
I hope you guys found this post useful to plan a little trip to Kyoto (or a longer one)! If you’d like to read more about our personal experience living there for 2 months, make sure you have a look at this post as well. We hope it will inspire you even more. Let us know if you have any questions 🙂