Ryokan Tawaraya: this hotel is somewhat of an urban myth. Difficult to reserve, notoriously booked, it's the most popular luxury ryokan in Kyoto. The traditional design and expert hospitality are long-known amongst the finest examples in Japan (the hotel has been in operation for 300 years) so you earn major bragging rights if you can snag a stay here.
Ryokan Genhouin: if you're looking to stay in a traditional Japanese inn but can't book Tawaraya, this is a lovely lesser-known luxe ryokan option. The pretty guesthouse features surprisingly comfortable tatami beds (actually mats on the floor), a shoji-screened living room, a chic communal library/dining room, manicured gardens, and classic omotenashi (Japanese hospitality). When you're not hanging out in your yukata (Japanese robe) you're just a stone's throw away from the Philosopher's Path to explore the quieter side of Kyoto.
Hoshinoya Kyoto: for those who want to experience a ryokan-setting with the comforts of a hotel. This resort is set in a historic inn along the river and only reachable by boat. A wonderful oasis amongst the forests for rest and relaxation.
Celestine Gion: this hotel has all your modern amenities, a sleek design marrying the contemporary and old-world, and the perfect central Gion location. Upscale without being too pricey.
Monk: this is one of those meals you remember your whole life. Chef Yoshihiro Imai is a young, talented, and warm genius cooking up to the beat of his own drum. His tasting menu features foraged plants alongside farm- or sea-to-table proteins, but the hero here is his take on Neapolitan-style pizza. Topped with handmade Japanese cheese and finds from hikes in the countryside. Artistically plated dishes are served on chic ceramics in a modern dining room for a special few. Imai worked at Noma, and no doubt he's on his way to Redzepi-star status. Housed along the Philosopher's Path, the setting is cozy nirvana; this restaurant is more home than establishment; Imai's wife runs a yoga studio upstairs. Don't miss coming here!!!
Yamamoto Menzou: this place has a cult-following for fans of thick, rich udon. A two-hour wait is the norm, so come early at opening time, or prepare to catch up on the news or your instagram feed while waiting for a plate of foodie medal-worthy noodles.
Okakita: tried going to Yamamoto Menzou but the line is too long? Let the tasty soba here satisfy your noodle cravings. Just next door to the udon empire.
Ippudo: it's all about the spicy ramen. Ippudo is a dependable chain of ramen joints throughout Japan, and the Kyoto downtown location doesn't disappoint. Make sure to order the gyoza to start before diving into your bowl of noodles.
Kyoto Brewing Company: a hipster taproom for Japanese craft beers. The trio of men who created this company are producing artisan brews that stand up to the culinary excellence of this foodie city. You can also order KBC beer at Monk to go with your pizza.
Before9 Brew Pub: a cool and casual pub located downtown with minimalist design.
Kyoto Modern Terrace: come for the architecture, stay for refined drinks or dinner. This sophisticated restaurant is built within an amazing modernist building. Inside you'll find serious design-inspo from the mid-century modern decor, or go outside to enjoy the terrace over Okazaki Park.
Yukei Salon de The: can't stay at Tawaraya but want to experience some of their famous hospitality? Drop by this teahouse run by the owners of the renowned ryokan for an elegant snack.
Kisakiya: a teeny, hipster bakery selling exquisitely packaged cookies and treats. Adorable and miniature, it's is a nice stop if you're in the area (northern Kyoto) when visiting Stardust (see SHOP).
%Arabica Coffee: the story behind this small coffee chain is heart-warming. Owner Kenneth Shoji's passion for the simple pleasures of life led him to buy a coffee farm and convince an award-winning latte artist to join him. Today you can enjoy an excellent cup of joe and know you're supporting a greater cause.
Oryori Hayashi: the kaiseki options in Kyoto are abundant, but this one stands out. Come for the 20-course menu of exquisitely presented Michelin-starred cuisine in the most revered tradition of Kyoto, and remember no pictures!
Kanga-an: an imperial Buddhist temple serving fucha ryori, a fancy vegan cuisine. The meals are multi-course affairs set in a majestic palace ambience, and if you're lucky you'll find (or be invited to) the hidden bar.
Kyoto has an overwhelming amount of sights to see. While it's population only accounts for around 1% of the country, this city has an incredible 20% of the national treasures. With nearly two dozen Unesco World Heritage sights, hundreds of temples and shrines, and the finest food in Japan, it can be difficult to narrow down your options. Accept that you won't see everything, and choose a few key must-see sights to tackle, balancing the rest of your time exploring the cool, off-the-beaten-path places this ancient yet modern city has to offer.
Fushimi Inari Shrine: home of the fox kami (god) known as the spirit of rice and business. You can understand its importance in Japan! The walk up through the over 10,000 orange torii (gates) can take a couple hours, but it’s worth hiking up a bit as the crowds dwindle and you can get a better sense of this spiritual destination. Earliest structures date back over a thousand years, though the main shrine dates back to 1499.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest: a magical walk through this Bamboo Forest is calming and stress-relieving. In fact, the Japanese believe in the medicinal properties of a walk in the park, hence the ritual of forest-bathing or shinrin-yoku.
Ginkaku-Ji: the Temple of the Silver Pavilion as it’s confusingly called (it’s actually a brown wooden building) is hidden amongst the forest. The grounds alone make the visit worth your time, and it’s decidedly less busy than some of the other sights for a more personal experience. The Japanese maples tower above with delicate, perfectly formed leaves, and carpets of moss cover the ground dotted by stones.
Kinkaku-Ji: the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, known for it’s dazzling reflection on the pond where it resides. This shining structure is the main attraction, and bus loads of visitors come to take their photo. The sea of people dominates the experience, so come early and get it over with.
Ryoan-Ji: a zen garden, that as remarkable as it is, does not feel so zen. You’ll also be overrun with tourists here, try to enjoy the peace found in staring at the stones and lines drawn in the sand to make the most of your pilgrimage. It’s located near the Kinkaku-Ji so combine the trips.
Nishiki Market: this 400-year old market sells more than just fish. There are over 100 stalls, with sellers showcasing the ocean's bounty alongside Japanese delicacies and kitchen goods. The Yamasho stall (#48) has a stunning display of seafood jewels, while Mochitsukiya's stall (#99) has freshly pounded mochi.
Gion District: narrow lanes of row-houses featuring intricate wooden lattices set the stage for the few-remaining Geishas shuffling by in their beautiful kimonos. This area is known for it's well-preserved buildings, teahouses, small restaurants, and also has a small canal that runs through the Shirakawa area creating a romantic setting for night walks. Early evening is also the perfect time to spot Geisha's on the way to their appointment, just make sure to follow respectful etiquette when photographing them.
Philosopher's Path: known in Japanese as the Tetsugaku-no-michi, this pedestrian path stretches from the Ginkaku-Ji to Nanzen-Ji temples. The path follows a small tree-lined canal, and is a lovely place to stroll year-round...though be prepared for crowds during hanami (floral viewing) season when the path's spectacular line up of sakura (cherry blossom) trees explodes into a dazzling pink splendor. It's a delightful half-hour walk from one end to the other, and be sure to stop by Monk (see EAT section) for one of the best meals in your life!
Pass the Baton: take a detour from your Geisha stalking in Gion and pop into this fabulous concept store set inside a historic machiya house. Cross the little bridge over the Shirakawa canal to discover antique ceramics, vintage Chanel bags and luxe second-hand kimonos. There's a tea and sake room here, called Tasuki that's also worth the pause.
Stardust: this tiny concept shop is wabi-sabi perfection (yes an oxymoron). Uneven plastered walls, reclaimed wood, slivers of sunlight filtering in through linen drapes, imperfect pottery, and vintage tea sets provide instagram bait all around. The vegan cafe serves a delicious tea time, and lunch is available by reservation. This is your answer to a special souvenir, choosing from the acutely curated selection of ceramics, homewares, candles, jewelry, and ready-to-wear. Kana, the owner, also sells chef Yoshihiro Imai's book, Circle, so pick up a copy and have him sign it when you go to Monk for dinner.
Three Star: a cool vintage boutique with more casual offering than Pass the Baton. The interior is unique with fun, unexpected decor and a great selection of second-hand streetwear from the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s.
Omo: get your Geisha on with traditional, custom-made pieces - from the kimono robe to the obi sashes, sandals and all.
Harajuku Chicago: more vintage, including second-hand kimonos. A great way to take a piece of Kyoto home without having to splurge on a tailor-made creation.