Best Things to Do

Your Guide to Japan's Historic City

By Phoebe Yu

Once the capital of Japan, Kyoto remains a destination where it's easy to imagine imperial rule at the center of the many shrines, temples and 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. If Tokyo is the city of bright lights and Harajuku the center of style and nightlife, then Kyoto is its genteel counterpart with majestic landmarks, serene landscapes and refined architecture.

A visit to Kyoto is your chance to immerse yourself in this historic city of 1.5 million people. The sensations of this place are singular: the bells of Buddhist temples ring, carried to your ears by the breeze, followed by the otherworldly chanting of monks. Romantically lit streets set a backdrop out of the 18th century. Consider staying at a ryokan (Japanese-style inn), soaking in an onsen (hot spring), indulging in a relaxing treatment at Riraku Spa in Kyoto and enjoying a multi-course kaiseki meal and authentic geisha entertainment to fully appreciate this city that is steeped in the oldest of Japanese traditions.

Kyoto is also virtually unique among large Japanese cities in that it was spared bombing in World War II. Many of the city's temples, shrines and one-time palaces trace their histories back 12 centuries. Yet these ancient structures are sprinkled around a very modern downtown with cutting edge buildings and shops, hotels and restaurants that show that Kyoto — like the nation it represents — is also looking, clear-eyed, toward the future.

For help finding accommodations during your stay in Kyoto, take a look at GAYOT's hotel reviews.