Before Tokyo was Tokyo, Kyoto was the capital city of Japan – today it’s a large, modern city scattered with reminders of that period in the form of castles, a palace and – especially – temples. If you’re interested in history it, along with nearby Nara, are an essential stop on any trip through the Kansai region. I visited in late 2011.
There’s enough to see in Kyoto to occupy a couple of weeks, but having limited funds I was able to stay just two nights. If you’re similarly restricted, I’d recommend checking out the Kinkaku-Ji and Kyomizu-dera temples, the Nijo-Jo castle, and maybe some of the museums. And, if you have the time, the Fushimi Inari-taisha is just outside town.

The Kinkaku-Ji and Kyomizu-Dera

You can’t walk a few blocks in Kyoto without hitting a gorgeous-looking temple, but the really impressive ones are spread out around town. Probably the best known is the golden pavilion, Kinkaku-Ji. It’s a bus ride from Kyoto JR, or a nice walk from the nearby Kitaoji subway stop, passing a huge complex of Buddhist temples en-route. I arrived early, just after 9am, and it was already packed – walking down the approach all I could hear were cries of ‘suggeeeeeeiii!’ (roughly, ‘wow’) from schoolkids rounding the corner ahead. And it is, indeed, one hell of a view.
Most of the other temples lie over the other side of town to the East, and you could easily spend a week checking them all out. I stopped by the Sanjyu-San – a huge, ancient, Buddhist complex containing a frankly unfeasible number of many-armed statues, plus a Buddah in the middle. No photos are allowed, but to be honest you couldn’t capture it anyhow – it’s remarkable.
The Kyoto National Museum is just across the way from there (see below), but I walked to the unfeasibly beautiful Kyomizu-dera temple up on the hill to the East. It’s possible to approach via two souvenir-shop-packed streets, but check a map for the path up through the huge cemetery below – it’s a climb, but the views are amazing. As was seeing the sun set behind the pagoda from the top of the temple.

The Nijo-Jo

As well as all the temples, it’s worth checking out the famous Nijō Jō castle. It’s impressive from the outside, with elaborately carved gates, but take the tour to see the inner quarters and walk on the squeaking nightingale-floors. Also, don’t miss the inner room decorations: these are housed in a separate museum inside the castle walls (look for the modern building). Photos are forbidden inside.

The Museums

Kyoto is home to the Kyoto National Museum, with a huge collection of art and historic artefacts. When I visited in 2011 it was closed for major renovation, due to end in 2014 – so it should now be open for visitors again. I hope to see for myself in the near future.
Another, much smaller, museum of note is the International Manga Museum. Housed in an old school building, it contains an absolutely enormous collection of manga (Japanese comics), arranged partly by decade – everything is available to read. Even if you can’t make out a word, though, the exhibits concerning the history of the school are interesting and worth some time.

The Fushimi Inari-taisha

Finally, it’s not quite in Kyoto, but the nearby Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine complex is an amazing place to spend half a day. To get there take a train go JR Inari station, exit and look for the red Torii gate. Then look for another gate, further up the hill. Then look for a couple of thousand of them lining the mountain path. It’s stunning.
The path leads on and on, past dozens of shrines and some scenic views. It’s steep in places, and not something to undertake with luggage or nearing dusk. The route is signed, badly, and even with maps everywhere it can be a little baffling, but nonetheless I managed a scenic circuit taking in the very top in a couple of hours.

Food, Hotels and Travel

From JR Kyoto the subway line runs directly north, then another crosses it at Karasuma-Oike station, running East-West. The rest of the city is served by buses. Both cost <200Y for most trips, but Suica or Pasmo cards won’t work (there is a local IC card). As it’s on a grid layout, walking is easy, and there are a couple of large covered shopping arcades should you need coffee, a pharmacy etc.
I stayed in the Hearton Hotel Kyoto, which is tucked away about a block from Karasuma-Oike – it’s on the sidestreet behind the big sporting goods shop. It’s a little worn (well, actually pretty knackered in places), but good value for the £55 or so it costs per night, and the location’s good for the subway. I’d recommend it.
For cheap eats there are the usual combini and fast food outlets, plus department store basement food halls on the main Shijo-Dori parade running East-West (check out the posh coffee shop that turns into a cheap curry counter by night!) and some decent ramen places for 15Y or so.