How to spend a day in Kyoto, Japan's culture capital

Woodland shrines, street food and vintage jazz cafes are just some of the highlights of this 14-hour deep-dive into Honshu's most beautiful city.

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

8am: Breakfast at Roji Usagi

This cosy cafe in the Miyagawa-cho district is a lovely spot to plan out your day, not least because the owner is a helpful former tour guide and the walls are lined with books about Kyoto. The cafe is housed in a century-old machiya (townhouse) and set around a gorgeous rock garden. The menu is as traditional as the decor; feast on grilled fish, miso soup and pickled vegetables, or opt for the slightly more substantial Japanese curry. 

10am: Visit Kiyomizu-dera

Among Kyoto’s many splendid sights, the most impressive might well be Kyomizu-dera, a 1,200-year-old Buddhist temple that looms mightily on a forested hill in eastern Kyoto, a 15-minute walk from Roji Usagi. The main prayer hall stands on tall wooden columns, giving the illusion that it’s floating above the trees. The whole place, in fact, is something of an architectural marvel, with its structures having stood since the 1600s despite being built entirely from wood and without the use of a single nail. 

12pm: Lunch at Nishiki Market

Known fondly by locals as ‘Kyoto’s Kitchen’, the indoor Nishiki Market is a fantastic place to get a feel for the rhythms of daily life in the city, with vendors hawking fresh seafood and vegetables just as they have for 400 years. Ready-to-eat snacks are also on offer here for an unforgettable lunch: try tempura skewers of shrimp and conger eel, and don’t miss tako tamago — a baby octopus stuffed with a boiled quail’s egg, a delicacy that originated here in the market.

2pm: Experience a jazz kissa

The jazz kissa is a uniquely Japanese phenomenon: atmospheric cafes where the order of the day is to sit quietly and appreciate carefully curated jazz records. Originating in the 1920s, many have an atmosphere largely unchanged to this day. Jazz in Rokudenashi is one of the most famous, with dark-wood walls covered with vintage prints and magazines, and one of the finest collections of jazz in Kyoto. Spend a couple of hours here over a coffee or Japanese whisky.

4pm: Marvel at Fushimi Inari Taisha

No visit to Kyoto is complete without a trip to the city’s most famous Shinto shrine complex, Fushimi Inari Taisha. Thousands of vermilion-coloured torii gates unfold up a mountainside in sets, like fallen decks of cards; as you walk through them, stopping off at shrines on the way, you’ll notice they’re flanked by dozens of statues of sly foxes, which in Shinto mythology represent guardians of Inari, the deity of fertility, rice, sake and tea. In exchange for a small donation, you can receive a miniature torii gate of your own, to leave as an offering at one of the complex’s many shrines. 

6pm: Discover the world of Noh

Before exploring more of Kyoto’s modern music scene, pay homage to its classical arts at the Kanze Noh Theatre. Noh is a form of dance-drama that originated in the 14th century, which involves performers donning striking masks to act out folk tales, songs and comic skits. Although it’s one of the oldest theatrical forms still practised today, it’s far from a stuffy affair and the tales of ghosts, gods and monsters — as well as the gags — can transcend any language barrier.

8pm: Dinner and music at Obbli

Tacos might not be what you expect to find in Kyoto, but they do them superbly at cafe-bar Obbli, with classic Mexican dishes — carnitas (pulled pork), beef picadillo (a tomato-based dish), pico de gallo (a type of salsa) — presented with a Japanese eye for aesthetics (blue corn tortillas and bright pink pickled onions, for instance). Run by music obsessive Tani Haruya, Obbli has the feel of a cosy living room, lined with bookcases and plastered with vintage music posters, and there are regular live performances of folk, jazz, rock and more. 

10pm: Dive into Kyoto’s nightlife

Launched in 1990, Club Metro is said to be the oldest nightclub in Japan. Open every night of the week and featuring a rotating roster of DJs and live acts from Japan and beyond, it’s a fantastic place to begin your exploration of Kyoto’s nightlife. Erstwhile denizens include jazz crossover legends Kyoto Jazz Massive, American bassist Thundercat and French electronic duo Daft Punk, and the club remains a creative breeding ground for new and established acts alike. 

Getting there & around

British Airways, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways fly direct from London to Tokyo daily, from where it’s easy to connect to Kyoto by bullet train (2hrs 15mins). 

Average flight time: 14h.

It’s possible to explore Downtown Kyoto on foot, but for sights further afield it’s easy to get around using the city’s efficient subway system. The bus network is also very easy to use. The Kansai One pass, available at subway and train stations or convenience stores, gives unlimited travel on buses and trains in Kyoto and the wider Kansai region.

When to go

Spring is a beautiful time to visit Kyoto, with average temperatures of 14C in April and the city’s trees smothered in cherry blossom, but it’s also a very busy time of year. Summers are humid and average 33C in August, while autumn often has mild weather — highs of 23C in October — without the crowds of spring, and with gorgeous foliage colours. Winter is often cloudy, windy and rainy, with a January average temperature of 10C.

Where to stay

Hyatt Regency Kyoto, Sanjusangendomawari neighbourhood. Doubles from £220, B&B. 

Mercure Kyoto Station, Aburanokojicho neighbourhood. Doubles from £120, B&B.

Published in the May 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Sign up to our newsletter and follow us on social media:

Facebook | InstagramTwitter

Read This Next

How to plan a weekend in South Moravia, Czech wine country
A foodie guide to Barcelona
How to spend a day in Porto

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet