Of all the places we visited during our trip to Japan, Kyoto is the place that I recommend to do the most research up front. The major sites are very spread out, so you’ll want to plan your itinerary of what you want to see which days before you go. I also would recommend to book your dinners beforehand, as restaurants fill up quickly and have odd opening hours in many cases.
We stayed the first few nights at the Minato Hotel, which is about a 5 minute walk from the Nishiki Market. It’s a clean, airy modern hotel which I can heartedly recommend. This market is a pretty good first stop in Kyoto if you want to have a bite to eat, or get some interesting souvenirs, like super realistic sushi candy or skull sake!
Gion is the area where you may catch a glimpse of a geisha, and it is a stunning bit of old Kyoto. I would highly suggest not to go on a Saturday or Sunday, but try to use a weekday to walk around this area. It’s lovely to see but best without hoards of tourists! Also in Gion, be sure to see a tea ceremony demonstration! We went to this one which was such a relaxing experience, but get there early as it’s a bit difficult to find the location.
One place near Gion where you can escape the crowds is in Maruyama Park and the Yasaka Shrine. It’s a pretty extensive park with lots of pretty gardens to explore and many ladies walking around in kimonos! Also on a hot day it’s a great place to enjoy a sesame or green tea ice cream cone…
Quick tip- carry your own mini bottle of soap in Japan! Especially outside of Tokyo I noticed most public bathrooms have no soap, particularly around temples.
One place that needs to be seen in Kyoto is the Arashiyama Monkey Park. It’s an hour ride on the train to get there from central Kyoto, but really worth the trip. As you near the park, the city has a beautiful village feel with the Katsura River running through.
The monkey park itself is great- after a small 15 min hike up you can see the monkeys running around freely, and you can even pay to feed them! You also get a fantastic view of Kyoto from up here, and afterwards can visit the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, which sadly we missed.
On the way home from Arashiyama it’s easy to get to the Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine; this is the place with thousands of orange torii gates (it’s this scene in Memoirs of a Geisha featuring these)! We arrived here around 5pm, which was perfect timing as the crowds had thinned out. The further you hike up the hill, the fewer people around you and the more magical it all feels. This was by far my favorite site in Kyoto!
There is also a small bamboo forest on the trail!
Try not to feel the need to see every site there on your first trip- there's just too much and it's easy to get burned out on temples. Also keep in mind, Kyoto is a great base for exploring other cities, like Nara & Osaka which are both only about 35 min away on the train!