Kyoto often gets dwarfed by the fame of Japan’s bigger cities, like Tokyo and Osaka. But Kyoto’s charm doesn’t lie in its size. As one of the few cities that escaped bombing during World War II, Kyoto is one of the best places in Japan to see pre-war buildings like palaces and temples. Let’s take a quick overview of all the delights that Kyoto offers.
The Imperial Palaces are must-sees. Both the Imperial Palace and the Sento Imperial Palace are located in Central Kyoto. Take a walk through the two Imperial villas: Katsura in Western Kyoto and Shugakuin in Northern Kyoto. These palaces and villas are famous for their beautifully maintained gardens and teahouses. The most gorgeous time to visit is the spring when you can see the famous cherry blossoms. If you go in the fall, look for the color-changing leaves of the Japanese maples.
All of these places are open to the public for free. However, make sure you reserve a place on a tour—there is a quota on the number of visitors allowed per tour. There are English-language tours at the Imperial Palace but not the other three. However, English pamphlets are available for every tour.
For those that want to try an authentic Japanese Buddhist experience, head to Taizo-in and Shunko-in in Northern Kyoto. Both temples offer Zen meditation sessions along with explanations of the routine.
Try climbing up the mountains in Eastern Kyoto to Kiyomizu-dera Temple. It’s perched on the side of a mountain on top of 13-meter wooden columns, giving visitors an unparalleled view of Kyoto. Kiyomizu is a romantic spot for couples. There is a famous shrine said to help people find love—walk between the two stones alone, and you will find your true love. Make sure to bless your union by watching the sunset together, a tradition practiced by many Japanese couples.
After all this walking, head back into Central Kyoto to eat some of the specialties. Look for yu do-fu, a famous tofu dish where boiled, fresh tofu is dipped into a side sauce. Additionally, Kyoto has an abundance of vegetarian dishes called Shojin-ryori due to the plethora of practicing Buddhists.
Their most famous food is actually matcha green tea. You will find bags of matcha tea powder sold in shops in Kyoto, and the quality of most tea is superb. These make great sourvenirs to take home. Don’t just drink matcha however—also try the matcha ice cream, cookies and desserts.
The most famous Kyoto entertainers are Geishas. Kyoto has the highest concentration of Geisha and maiko (apprentice Geisha) in Japan, so make sure to watch a show. They entertain at teahouses by singing, dancing and playing traditional Japanese instruments. Even if you don’t catch a show, you can see them wandering the streets fully-garbed, almost like you stepped back 400 years in history.
If you want something special, go take in a Noh show. Noh is a form of classic Japanese musical performed by chanting men with orchestral background music. One form of Noh, Takigi-noh, takes place outdoors. There are piles of firewood at each corner of the stage that are lit on fire during the performance.
Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over a millennium, and it’s a city full of tradition, culture and history. While its no longer a major cosmopolitan center, it’s the perfect city for a lovely weekend trip from Tokyo to take in Japan.
About the author: Annie Wang is an avid traveler who loves to explore all aspects of a country. She can be found blogging at NerdWallet Travel, which aims to help travelers with all aspects of traveling, from destination tips to airline baggage fees.