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Kyoto is one of the most charming cities in the world. For more than a millennium — until 1868 — it was the imperial seat of Japan, and all that power was a magnet for opulence, artists and artisans, and religion. Today, the city remains at the heart of the country’s cultural traditions, with thousands of palaces, temples, and shrines, not to mention its famous geisha districts.
Wandering through Kyoto can mean stopping at every turn, delighted by the curve of a rooftop or the ancient timbers framing a shop. Despite 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the gilded Kinkakuji (Gold Pavilion), and districts like Higashiyama, whose streets could double as the set for a historical epic, Kyoto is not a living museum. With more than 1.5 million residents, the city boasts countless cocktail bars, chic restaurants, and street-food stalls, and a thriving music scene.
Kyoto doesn’t have an airport, but it’s easy to get here. The nearest airports are Osaka International Airport (Itami, ITM), 50 minutes away by shuttle or bus, and Kansai International Airport (KIX), a 75-minute train ride from the city on the JR Haruka Airport Express. If you’re flying into the country, your arrival point may be Narita International Airport (NRT) in Tokyo. From there, you can take the Narita Express train into Tokyo and then transfer to a shinkansen (bullet train).
Once you’re in town, you could rent a car, but why? Kyoto’s public transportation network is extraordinary. The subways and trains will take you from one point to the next with speed and efficiency, and the buses go where trains can’t. Central Kyoto is flat and easy for pedestrians to navigate — the Kyoto Tourist Information Center also produces wheelchair accessibility guides — and you can find bicycle rental shops across the city.
If there’s a peak time to visit Kyoto, it may be late March through early May, when the temperatures are comfortable, the monsoons have yet to start, and the city seduces the eye with cherry blossoms (peak time: early April). Crisp, dry autumns also make for wonderful strolls around the city. Exploring Kyoto during the extremes of winter and summer will take a little more effort — and good rain gear. The heat and humidity peak June through August, when the temperatures stay in the 80s and 90s Fahrenheit and tropical rainstorms regularly sweep through the area. That doesn’t stop the city from turning out for the Gion Matsuri in mid-to-late July for parades, traditional dress, and street food. In winter, it rarely freezes or snows here, but the constant drizzle can make the cold feel colder. That said, the city entrances visitors even in the coldest months. During late December, thousands of paper lanterns line Arashiyama’s bridges and lanes, and in early January, New Year crowds throng many of the shrines.
Visiting this five-block-long covered food market in central Kyoto, which is open from midmorning to early evening, is a must for food lovers. Picture barrels of pickles and dried vegetables, display cases of exquisite wagashi (sweets), and heaps of frilly dried fish. You can snack on meat skewers or crackly senbei as you wander through the market, or pore over the shelves of cooking implements and jarred preserves, looking for gifts to bring home. Afterward, peek in at the nearby Tenmangu Shrine or wander over to the Gion, the city’s most famous geisha district.
On the west side of Kyoto, just as the dense inner city gives way to the slopes of the surrounding mountains, this charming district thrums with tourists — with pockets of serenity nearby. Wander along the wide, shady paths that snake through the famous bamboo grove. Visit a host of temples, from the tiny thatch-roofed Gio-ji through the expansive Tenryu-ji, with its showstopper garden and majestic views of the mountain peaks. Spend a few hours at the Fukuda Art Museum admiring paintings from the Edo Period.
This mile-long path, located in the northern part of the Higashiyama district, leads between two of Kyoto’s best-known sites — Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion) and the neighborhood surrounding Nanzenji Temple — and the journey is just as rewarding as either destination. The paved walkway traces the route of a narrow canal, shaded by thousands of cherry trees, and offers plenty of reasons to detour in the form of temples, cafes, and boutiques.