Updated: November 9, 2017
Where Should I Stay in Kyoto?
Serving as Japan’s capital and home to the imperial court for more than 1,000 years, Kyoto is Japan’s number-one must-see city. With an astonishing 2,000 temples and shrines, traditional machiya wooden homes, a shogun’s castle, imperial castle and villas, and 17 historic structures and sites that make up the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kyoto and its environs can easily fill three or more days of sightseeing. Add Japan’s greatest concentration of artisan and craft shops and Kyoto’s own Kyo-ryori cuisine that includes kaiseki and Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, and it’s easy to see why Kyoto is consistently listed as one of the world’s top destinations.
Home to 1.4 million residents, Kyoto is divided into 11 wards. Most attractions fan northward from futuristic-looking Kyoto Station, located in Shimogyu-ku ward. Just north of Shimogyu-ku is downtown central Kyoto (Nakagyo-ku), filled with shops, department stores and restaurants, as well as residential neighborhoods, while to the east is the eastern hilly ward, Higashiyama-ku, packed with temples and restaurants specializing in tofu vegetarian dishes. To the northwest is Ukyo-ku ward, home to more famous temples and the delightful Arashiyama neighborhood.
Contrary to the confusing winding streets typical of most Japanese cities, Kyoto is laid out in a grid pattern and many of its streets are named. It’s very pedestrian friendly, with many signs in English pointing the way. For farther distances, public transportation is via two subway lines, the most important of which is the Karasuma Line running from Kyoto Station north through Nagagyo-ku, and the city’s many public buses, which either run point to point or make loops around the city. Because much of central Kyoto is flat, some visitors rent bicycles, but note that in the congested downtown area street parking is prohibited (there are public bike parking lots) and areas outside central Kyoto are generally hilly.
Best Places To Stay in Kyoto
- Best Neighborhood to Stay for Sightseeing: Shimogyo-ku, North of Kyoto Station
Shimogyo-ku is very convenient for sightseeing even though there’s not much see directly in the neighborhood – unless you count Kyoto Station with its department store, restaurants and interesting public spaces that include a rooftop park. But what makes this area good for sightseeing is that buses just outside the station’s Central north exit depart for just about anywhere you’d like to go, while the Karasuma subway line connects to downtown Kyoto. Departing from Kyoto Station are also trains to Arashiyama, Fushimi Inari Shrine and Nara. There are many hotels surrounding the station, most of them modestly priced.
- Best Neighborhood for Families: Northwestern Kyoto (Ukyo-ku)
Northwestern Kyoto is largely residential but also has some of the city’s most famous sights, including Ryoanji Temple with its famous Zen rock garden and the pretty district of Arashiyama (see below), but it’s probably Toei Kyoto Studio Park with its Edo-era film studios that appeals to kids. Among places to stay, unique, reasonably priced standouts include the resort-like Kyoto Utano Youth Hostel offering lots of activities and Shunko-in Temple and Guesthouse with its meditation class that teenagers might enjoy.
- Best Neighborhood for a Local Vibe: Central Kyoto (Nakagyo-ku)
Home to Nijo Castle, covered shopping arcades (including famous Nishiki Food Market), department stores, the city’s greatest concentration of shops and restaurants, and hotels and ryokan (Japanese inns) in various price categories, central Kyoto is both dynamic and surprisingly livable. Its many residential neighborhoods, some lined with machiya townhomes, seem like small villages. Whether this is your first time in Kyoto or your tenth, Nakagyo-ku is a great choice for experiencing the essence of Kyoto.
- Best Neighborhood for Walkers: Eastern Kyoto (Higashiyama & Sakyo Wards)
Kyoto is a great city for exploring on foot, especially the eastern wards of Higashiyama-ku and Sakyo-ku. In fact, some streets and sights are accessible only by foot or private taxi, due to pedestrian lanes and hills that make travel by bus impossible. Furthermore, one of Kyoto’s most delightful hikes is from Kiyomizu to Ginkakuji, passing many temples, shrines, parks, teahouses and the famous Philosopher’s Pathway on the way. Staying here allows you to explore at leisure.
- Most Romantic Neighborhood: Arashiyama Area
Serving as playground for aristocracy and the imperial court during the Heian Period (794-1192), Arashimaya is an ancient tourist town still much beloved for its spring cherry blossoms, autumn maple leaves, famous bamboo grove and many temples, including World Heritage site Tenryu-ji. Fun activities include taking the Sagano Scenic Railway 25 minutes to Kameoka, with the return journey on a traditional flat-bottomed boat down the Hozu River. For the ultimate romantic splurge, stay in Hoshinoya Kyoto right on the river, reached by the property’s own ferry.
- Best Neighborhood for nightlife: Pontocho
Kyoto’s most picturesque nightlife is in the former geisha enclave of Pontocho, a narrow pedestrian alley now lined with bars and restaurants; those on the east side erect platforms in summer extending over the Kamo River, making for romantic outdoor dining. Just west of Pontocho is Kiyamachi alongside a canal, with bars popular among Kyoto’s many university students. On the other side of the Kamo River is Gion, with bars and restaurants to the north of Shijo Dori street and geisha houses to the south, where you might see a geisha on her way to an evening appointment.