KYOTO, NICKNAMED JAPAN’S “Eternal City,” is the undisputed guardian of Japanese tradition. Japan’s ancient capital from 795 A.D. to 1868, the city was modeled after the elegant Chinese Tang dynasty capital Chang’an (now called Xian) and today remains awash in mossy Buddhist temples, secret Shinto shrines, and family-owned heritage businesses, some dating back to the eighth-century Heian era when the city was founded.
While Kyoto’s ancient sites remain firmly planted, a modern city has sprouted up around them. Many visitors keen on ticking off temples are surprised by the glassy towers, mega train stations, blocky malls, and contemporary landscape of this city, Japan’s ninth largest. Its population of 1.5 million is downright microscopic for a nation where heavyweight populations like Tokyo and Osaka reach a whopping 13 million and 2.7 million residents respectively. By comparison, Kyoto is tiny, but its magnificence and auspiciousness are not to be underestimated.
While it takes very little effort to find and access Old Kyoto — the Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion, Kokedera Moss Temple, and Arashiyama Bamboo Forest to name a few — visitors would be remiss to tackle them without a game plan. During the last 20 years, Kyoto has become a sort of antidote to Tokyo’s crowds and Osaka’s lightning pace, emerging as one of the most tourist-heavy cities in Japan and, ironically, the least likely place in Japan to experience authentic Japan. Getting off Kyoto’s very beaten path, making reservations in advance, and timing your visits to avoid crowds is essential. If you only temple hop, you’re not doing it right. Don’t skip the temples but opt for weekday morning or late-evening visits. Seek out lesser-known sights in outlying neighborhoods, and casual restaurants. And don’t be afraid to venture further afield — Kyoto’s riches sprawl far and wide.
Where to StayOmotenashi (Japanese hospitality) reaches its zenith in Kyoto, where sixth-generation ryokan live harmoniously alongside uber-exclusive hotels. The city added dozens of new properties just before, during, and after the pandemic, so a new flock of luxury properties awaits.
HiiragiyaThe ultimate heritage ryokan experience.
Aman KyotoExclusive and meditative forest sanctuary.
Park Hyatt KyotoA love letter to Japanese architecture and design.
Where to EatWith the third most Michelin stars in the world (trailing only Tokyo and Paris), Kyoto delivers superb cuisine, much of it kaiseki, Japan’s signature multicourse meal. But eating kaiseki two nights in a row is a chore. Follow locals to more casual spots and micro counters. Kyoto is surprisingly famed for its ramen (kotteri-style, made with chicken bone stock), not to mention its tofu, tsukemono (pickles), and Kyoyasai — Kyoto’s heirloom fruit and vegetables, like Kujo green onions, Kintoki carrots, and Shishigatani squash. Reservations in Kyoto are a must.
Yoshikawa TempuraSecret micro tempura joint with seasonal offerings.
MenbakaichidaiShowy ramen joint where bowls are set aflame.
IsoyaConvivial vegetable-forward izakaya.
What to DoKyoto is brimming with temples, but they get unbearably crowded on weekends and during high seasons in autumn and spring. Take a spin around Kyoto’s outlying neighborhoods to experience some tranquil lesser-known sites that pack just as much spirited Japanese heritage and poetry.
Yamazaki Whisky DistilleryLeafy distillery where Japanese whisky got its start.
Fukuda Art MuseumA museum highlighting Kyoto artists.
AMERICAN EXPRESS® CARD MEMBER ACCESS
Fine Hotels + Resorts®
Aman Kyoto and Park Hyatt Kyoto are both Fine Hotels + Resorts properties. When you book with American Express Travel, you’ll receive an exclusive suite of benefits including daily breakfast for two, a $100 experience credit that varies by property, guaranteed 4pm check-out, and more. Plus, book on AmexTravel.com and you can earn 5X Membership Rewards® points, or use Pay with Points, on prepaid stays. Terms apply. Learn more here.
Adam H. Graham Writer
Adam H. Graham is an American food and travel journalist based in Zurich, Switzerland. He’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Afar, and more. He typically spends a few months every year in Japan, and recently spent several weeks visiting Japanese vineyards in several different prefectures.