Kyoto’s most exciting neighborhoods for history, culture and world-class food

Within Kyoto’s historically rich and compact confines, distinctive neighborhoods tell different tales about this storied city.

From the liquor-fueled alleys of nightlife haunt Ponto-chō and the ancient religious iconography of the rolling Higashiyama hills to the Edo-period flagstones and kimono-clad dancers of Gion, venturing through Kyoto is like embarking on a journey through the annals of Japanese history.

Here are the best neighborhoods in Kyoto to include on your itinerary.

1. Gion

Best neighborhood for Edo-period culture and traditional arts

Gion’s reputation as an entertainment hub stretches back to the Sengoku Warring States era (1467–1615). It was over the subsequent centuries that it evolved into a neighborhood of rambunctious tea houses where geisha (known locally as geiko, or “women of the arts”) performed for the ruling classes.

Trademarks of the Edo period (1603–1868), when geisha culture was in its prime with some 500 tea houses in operation, are stitched into the very fabric of Gion. Wood-latticed shop fronts and sudare (bamboo veranda screens) flank the roadsides. Kimono-clad geiko and maiko (geiko in training) clip-clop along the ancient, lantern-lit walkways. Centuries-old shrines still exude a magnetic appeal for travelers and wandering pilgrims alike. 

Part of the charm of Gion is simply walking around its atmospheric streets – though visitors should note that thrusting your camera toward the resident geisha unsolicited is a fineable offense.

Make sure to stop at the 7th-century Yasaka Shrine, a gleaming vermilion edifice dedicated to Susanoo, the younger brother of sun goddess Amaterasu. A visit to the riverside Minamiza kabuki theater is a wonderful introduction to traditional Japanese theater. If you want to take the cultural immersion one step further, you can rent period-style garments at Studio Shiki, which has a variety of options for men, women and children. 

Gion is also one of the best neighborhoods in Kyoto for lodging. Its location on the banks of the Kamo River puts it within walking distance of central Kyoto, the Higashiyama hills and Pontō-cho across the river. Gion has several chic Airbnb rental options down quiet side streets, some of which can accommodate larger group bookings.

Autumn tourists sightseeing and taking photos of Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, Japan
Kiyomizu-dera is perhaps Higashiyama’s most famous landmark © DoctorEgg / Getty Images

2. Higashiyama

Best neighborhood for strolling

Higashiyama, which means “eastern mountains,” sits in the foothills east of Kyoto’s city center. Mountain-top temple Kiyomizu-dera, whose name means “pure water,” is perhaps the most famous landmark in the neighborhood. One of 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the city, Kiyomizu-dera is a striking example of Edo-period religious architecture and the site of wish-granting spring waters from the nearby Otowa Waterfall.

From the main worship hall’s veranda, you’ll get some of the best views of the Kyoto cityscape and its undulating mountain backdrop, while the Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka alleyways leading up to the temple precinct are lined with shops selling traditional foodstuffs, like soba (buckwheat) noodles; zenzai, a hot and sweet soup of adzuki beans, sugar and mochi (pounded rice made into festive cakes); and yatsuhashi, a famous Kyoto snack made with rice flour, sugar and cinnamon.  

Head to the nearby Path of Philosophy for a poetic stroll along a gently coursing canal connecting the 13th-century temple Nanzen-ji with the well-kept gardens of Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion. The approximately 2km (1.25-mile) walk is best enjoyed during the spring hanami (blossom viewing) season, when thousands of pink petals drift across your path – a phenomenon that symbolizes the ephemerality of life itself. 

Sanjūsangen-dō, a Buddhist temple of the Tendai sect featuring 1001 statues of the Bodhisattva Kannon, also sits in the Higashiyama district. It’s recommended for travelers who want some reprieve from the busiest crowds of the city, as the no-photos rule helps to preserve an atmosphere of calm within its hallowed halls. 

If you want to stay in the Higashiyama neighborhood, try Hotel Material, a funky art hotel with a rooftop BBQ deck and beer garden. Given this is a walkers’ neighborhood, most accommodation options in Higashiyama will enable you to explore the area without having to rely on public transport.  

3. Ponto-chō

Best neighborhood for drinking and dining

Running along the banks of the Kamo River is Ponto-chō, a lively yokochō (alleyway) between the major downtown shopping thoroughfares Shiji-dōri and Sanjo-dōri. Pontō-cho comes to life after dark, when the quarter is suffused with the glow of paper lanterns and the raucous chatter of imbibers in its many drinking and dining establishments.

From May through November, riverfront restaurants erect temporary outdoor terraces called kawayuka that overlook the river and adjacent promenade. Everything from bang-for-your-buck yakitori (grilled chicken) skewers to extravagant kaiseki (multi-course seasonal cuisine) is on offer in Ponto-chō; Wagyu beef is also a top seller. Kyo-no-Yakiniku-Dokoro Hiro Ponto-chō is a great spot to sample DIY barbecue in a quintessentially Japanese setting.

Ponto-chō was once one of Kyoto’s geiko centers, and though today the performers are largely consigned to the other side of the river in Gion, the theme of late-night entertainment remains as strong as ever.

For classic cocktails and live jazz on weekends, head to the antique confines of Hello Dolly. The smooth Jazz in Rokudenashi (meaning “without ice”) has a fantastic selection of whiskies, both Japanese and international. Bar Alchemist has equally suave interior decor, leaning more in the direction of modern cocktail mixology (with English-speaking bar staff often in attendance).

Staying near Ponto-chō is handy, as it will allow you to wander from one of its late-night establishments straight into bed. You’ll also be within walking distance of Gion and some of the must-see sites in Higashiyama. Cross Hotel Kyoto is a nice midrange hotel, located a few minutes from the alleyway on foot, with Japanese- and Western-style rooms available. 

Some of the thousands of bright vermillion torii (gates) at Fushimi Inari-Taisha, Kyoto, Japan
Pilgrims have thousands of bright vermilion torii (gates) to follow at Fushimi Inari-Taisha © Pigprox / Shutterstock

4. Fushimi

Best neighborhood for Shinto history

In Kyoto’s Fushimi neighborhood, you’ll find its namesake shrine, Fushimi Inari-Taisha, renowned for the thousands of bright vermilion torii (gates) that funnel pilgrims through a forest of cedar and into the hills beyond. The most sacred of Japan’s 30,000-plus Inari shrines – which are dedicated to the Shinto god of rice, foxes and prosperity – Fushimi Inari-Taisha has existed since the Nara period (710–794 CE). 

More adventurous travelers can hike to Mt Inari’s 233m (765ft) summit, which traverses 5km (3.1 miles) of uphill terrain and usually takes between two to three hours, starting from Fushimi-Inari Station. Summitters will be rewarded with city views and a visit to the humble Kami-no-Yashiro shrine. The Fushimi shrine complex is one of the busiest sites in the city, so weekday mornings are the best time to visit.

Around 40 minutes on foot from Fushimi Inari, you’ll find another one of Kyoto’s most treasured monuments. Fushimi-momoyama Castle (whose sing-song name means “Hidden Waters, Peach Mountain”) was built in the late 16th century as a retirement residence for Japan’s “Great Unifier,” Toyotomi Hideyoshi; he died here in 1598.

Though it was demolished in 1623, a replica was built in 1964, and visitors are free to explore the surrounding castle grounds today. Its location in a quiet suburb of the city makes it a great spot for escaping the crowds, especially during hanami season.

A traditionally dressed vendor selling food at the Nishiki Market in Kyoto’s Nakagyo neighborhood
Nishiki Market is a culinary arcade affectionately known as Kyoto’s kitchen © Supachita Krerkkaiwan / Shutterstock

5. Nakagyo

Best neighborhood for foodies

Nakagyo ward in the heart of Kyoto is home to Nijō Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the former residence of the Tokugawa Shogun, the lineage of militaristic dictators who ruled Japan during the Edo period.

It is one of the best remaining examples of traditional castle architecture, thanks to its perimeter moat, Chinese-influenced Karamon Gate to the palace, preserved walls separating the Honmaru (main circle of defense) and Ninomaru (secondary circle of defense), and nightingale floors that squeaked to notify residents of potential intruders. Go on a self-guided tour of the remaining structures and pristine landscape garden using an English audio guide (rentable at the front kiosk).

Beyond Nijō Castle, Nakagyo is home to Nishiki Market, a culinary arcade known affectionately as Kyoto’s kitchen. You’ll find everything here, from fresh sushi and tsukemono (Japanese pickles) to Wagyu beef burgers and chef’s knives.

Once your appetite is piqued, Kyoto is also home to nearly 100 Michelin-starred restaurants, many of which are located in Nakagyo. Head to Tempura Mizuki for best-in-class battered shrimp and vegetables, Kentan Horibe for kaiseki cuisine, or Vena for Italian-Japanese fusion. Prebooking (through a hotel concierge, if possible) is highly recommended. 

Nakagyo’s modern urban aesthetic means it’s full of accommodation options, from middle-of-the-range chains to super-suave boutique hotels like Mogana and Matsui Honkan. While Nakagyo isn’t Kyoto’s prettiest neighborhood, its central location means it’s well connected to the rest of the city via bus routes.

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