See also: Best Things to Do in Kyoto
Kyoto, a former capital of Japan, remains to be one of the most important cultural centres of the Kansai region and with good reason! Be it the city's long association with such distinctive artforms as geisha, or the city's renowned cuisine, or the abundance of majestic age-old Buddhist temples and shinto shrines, Kyoto implodes with the sort of cultural capital that few other cities across the globe can compete with. The development of a tourism industry curated around these very peculiar charms (with the obvious addition of a slew of modern entertainment districts) has only helped in elevating Kyoto to the status of a traveller's paradise.
The city is rather compact in its construction. Commuting within Kyoto is hassle free owing to the extensive road network and the efficient subway lines. Each neighborhood, however, has developed a unique vibe of its own over time and offers a unique experience altogether. It is then important to choose the right area to base yourself in during your vacation. And that's precisely where we step in. Here, we have listed some of the best neighbourhoods of Kyoto and what they might have in store for you, traveller!
Nakagyo-ku (Downtown Kyoto)
The central part of the city, although ultramodern in its outlook, works nicely as a microcosm for the larger vibe that Kyoto offers. The most obvious entertainment options in the neighborhood are shopping and dining, as vast shopping districts and market streets dominate the cityscape. And none of them are really extensive in terms of area covered, so you can explore every single nook and cranny without having to waste long hours travelling. The Teremachi street and Daimaru market are among the top choices for shopaholics and food lover's respective. However, the ventral draw remains to be the Nishiki market, which offers great dining options ranging from top restaurants to sushi bars, while also packing in quite a few merchandise stores.
Nakagyo-ku also has a whole list of offbeat entertainment options waiting to be explored. For starters, the riverside district is home to the famed Nijō Castle, a wooden complex which was the residence of a shogun back in the 17th century. The beautiful castle sits in the middle of a lush setting and offers a quick escape from the bustling streets of downtown Kyoto. Also, the riverside food street, Pontochô Kaburenjô is a great place to explore the gourmet delights of the region. But what truly sets it apart is the traditional setting featuring home grown eateries and bars, lit up with distinctive lanterns and the beautiful waterfront. All of that combines to make it one of the most photographed parts of all of Kyoto. As a central district, Nakagyo-ku also boasts of the most modern nightlife options in the city.
Nakagyo-ku is the hub for transportation in the city; the subway lines starting from the area make travel to other parts of Kyoto hassle free. It is also in close proximity of the Kyoto train station, which in turn also simplifies intra-city travel. The neighborhood can however be on the pricier side when it comes to hotels and accommodation options.
Kyoto has been known for its vast cultural capital heritage that the city has accumulated over the past decades. Well, the northeastern riverside neighborhood of Gion is where you want to be to best experience the same. The largely wooden complexes and buildings house the most charming ochayas (teahouses), restaurants serving the traditional full course meals kaiseki ryori, sake bars and izakayas all in a compact space making for a wholesome gourmet experience. The serene willow tree-heavy waterfront district of Shirakawa is just the perfect place to enjoy relaxing walks and fine dining experiences. It's also fairly close to Shijo Dori, an upscale shopping street where you can find some of the best souvenirs to take back home.
Gion has been dubbed as the geisha district of Kyoto, and remains the best part of the city to experience the traditional artform. High end teahouses and establishments around the very picturesque Hanami Lane hosts the kimono-clad performers; the street is also the venue for several art galleries and kimono stores that will draw you towards their stunning exhibits and distinctive merchandise. Gion's appeal doesn't end there as the neighborhood hasamy of Kyoto's famous Shinto shrines and temples, the most frequented of which is the majestic Yasaka Shrine. The vibrant red facade of the gate is sight to behold against the night sky. The neighborhood as a whole is transformed after sundown and you will regret missing out on a late evening walk in the vicinity.
The major train stations in Gion are the Gion-Shijo Station on the Keihan Line and Kyoto-Kawaramachi Station on the Hankyu Line. The neighborhood also has an eponymous bus station, making it accessible through road as well. Hotels and homestays in the neighborhood are cheaper compared to those of the central parts of Kyoto. As an aside: Gion hosts several temples and traditional festivals, so time your visit accordingly if you wish to be in attendance.
The bigger eastern ward of Higashiyama, much like it's neighbour Gion, has a flair for showcasing the city's best years. Such is the neighborhood's cultural capital that it has given rise to a whole new term: Higashiyama bunka (culture), all of which centred around the neighborhood's old quarters. Wooden buildings line up the narrow alleys of the Higashiyama's old quarters and comprise the quintessential Kyoto highlights, ranging from traditional pottery shops to serene teahouses. A walking tour of the area will surely transport you to simpler times. Visit the iconic Five storey Yasaka-no-Tou pagoda not only to explore the stunning 6th century Hokan-ji temple complex (the larger venue of the pagoda), but also for sweeping views of the city.
In addition to all that, Higashiyama-ku is also a great neighborhood for an outdoorsy vacation. The proximity to Mount Inari (situated in the southern part of the neighborhood) offers some exciting prospects; you can take a nice afternoon stroll in the lush surroundings or plan a more challenging hike up the hill. Several shrines dot the hillock, with the Fushimi Inari Taisha being one of the most picturesque. The path leading up to the shrine is made up of a series of radiant torii gates and is reason enough to visit. Viewing points and small lakes and water sources around the hill only add to the appeal. Also, Maruyama Park up north offers the obvious favourite cherry blossoms. A family picnic to the park is probably the best way to cap off your stay in this laid back neighboring
The neighborhood is serviceable through the main subway lines. Several buses also connect the major sights in the area to the central wards and Kyoto station. You will not have too many difficulties in finding a nice hotel in this part of the town.
Heading back over to the central part of Kyoto, the next neighborhood on the list is Shimogyo-ku. The urban core and transportation hub of the city (owing to the presence of Kyoto station), it is the best choice for travellers looking to stay at the centre of all activity. As expected, it is ultra modern in its outlook and provides a wide range of entertainment options. The shopping mall and top-notch eateries of the main Kyoto station make for popular stops for in-transit travellers and the ones residing in Shimogyo-ku. Besides, underground shopping districts and malls dominate the surrounding areas and offer an endless list of prospects. Go on a shopping spree or simply roam around discovering some great noodle and sushi variants that will keep you coming back for more.
Just north of the train station lies the city's iconic landmark, the Kyoto Tower. Travellers visit the observation deck for aerial views of the city and the popular food court housed in the massive tower. One is bound to spot through their binoculars a few peculiar structures in close proximity; the pagoda of the To-ji Temple is amongst the first that catch the eye and you wouldn't regret making the short trip to this beautiful Buddhist temple. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the To-ji Temple hosts some great events in its lush park including a monthly flea market. The Shosei-en Garden is another great green space in Shimogyo-ku and is great for a picnic by the side of a creek under a cherry blossom tree!
As mentioned before, Shimogyo-ku is the venue of the Kyoto station thus giving you one of the most straightforward access to intra and inter-city travel. Hotels are in plenty and offer a nice variety in terms of budget range, starting from hostels going all the way up to the biggest names in the hospitality business.
Another historically significant landmark, the Kyoto Imperial Palace is the central draw of the northern Kamigyo-ku. But this quiet northern ward has so much more to offer. The palace itself makes for a nice day trip as you can tour the complex, marvel at the architecture of the palace walls and the beautiful gates or host a picnic or small get-together in the spacious outdoor gardens. Moving onto the other possible activities, you can choose to shop for kimonos and other local handmade crafts at the nearby Nishijin subdistrict, or visit an art gallery or museum such as the Orinasukan to further delve into the art history of the region.
The famous Kamishichiken Kabukai theater is one of the best places to witness a geisha performance in all of Kyoto. Arrive early at the theatre and wander around the narrow lantern-lit streets to discover some great dining options that the area has to offer. Kamigyo-ku has also a healthy number of Gen-Z settlers owing to the presence of university campuses. The younger crowds throng the neighborhood's many traditional noodle bars and the ever increasing number of casual cafes and western bars. The presence of all these varied establishments, all within a small area surrounding the theatre and university campuses, have lended an alternative appeal to the district. Be it your craving for ramen or an evening coffee with desserts, you will find just the place for you here!
That's all from our side, traveller! Choose the neighborhood that best suits your vacation idea and get packing for your visit to Japan's thousand year capital!