The capital of Japan until 1868, Kyoto is steeped in cultural heritage. As a result of its prominence in the Japanese Empire between 794 and 1868, the city has an abundance of temples, shrines and ancient monuments which, unlike in many other Japanese cities, escaped the bombings during the Second World War.
Kyoto is the perfect place to discover both the old and new Japan. Its large city status means it has all the modern amenities expected by the international traveller, yet it has not lost its traditional and cultural heritage. For example, the city has 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and 1,600 Buddhist Temples, as well as all the most stereotypical aspects of Japanese culture such as Geisha, cherry blossom trees and bamboo groves.
However, the city has a reputation for guarding these ancient cultural treasures for locals and those who know the city well. It is true that upon first glance, first time travellers may see just another modern, industrial Japanese city. It is therefore advisable to do your research before you go - definitely making time for a visit to the Higashiyama District and Nij?-jin'ya.
The Golden Pavillion is, admittedly, one of Kyoto's most famous and therefore busiest attractions but it is worth battling through the crowds to see this magnificent temple. First built in 1397 by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu as a residence for him and his family, the Pavillion had to be rebuilt in 1955 after it was burned down by a monk. The exterior is entirely covered in gold leaf making it an impressive sight even from a distance. The structure is surrounded by gardens and a lake, meaning you can make a day of your trip. There are also some nice souvenir shops on site. The Golden Pavillion gets pretty busy at weekends so if possible it is best to go during the week - the earlier in the day, the better.
As well as visiting as many temples and palaces as you can, you should also try to squeeze in a trip to the Gion district. This is one of the only true geisha districts left in Japan. If you get chance to spend the day here, you will see geishas wandering the streets with their perfectly applied make-up, parasols and silk kimonos. The area is also notable for its old style architecture, traditional Japanese teahouses and authentic restaurants.
Instead of choosing the safe option of an international hotel chain, why not be adventurous and sample one of Japan's own traditional-style options for accommodation. Ryokan are Japanese inns with a zen layout offering an authentic Japanese experience. The rooms are usually basic but comfortable and clean, and two daily meals are often included in the price of your stay. This option is fairly expensive but it is worth it for those who want to stay in a relaxing and friendly atmosphere whilst learning a thing or two about the Japanese way of life. For those on a budget, why not try a Minshuku - a no frills option for those who are happy to share bathrooms, eat with their host family and make their own bed. Whilst this won't appeal to everyone, it is a cheap accommodation option and it allows you to ease yourself into the Japanese lifestyle as the owners of the Minshuku are known for their great hospitality.
Renting a bike to see Kyoto's temples and shrines is a great idea but do be careful when planning your route as the city authorities are rather particular about where they let you cycle. Cycling is forbidden on Kawaramachi Dori between Oike Dori and Bukkoji Dori; on Shijo Dori between Higashi Oji Dori and Karasuma Dori; and on Sanjo Dori between Kiyamachi and Kawaramachi. The city centre is very crowded and bike riding on the narrow streets there is often more stressful than enjoyable so should be avoided. If you do want to explore these areas on a bike, it is advisable to do so early in the morning when there are fewer tourists and therefore roads are easier to navigate.
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Japanese cuisine is - for most people at least - sushi. Kyoto, like any other large Japanese city, has a wealth of sushi restaurants to choose from. If staying in Kyoto for winter, you should try nabe, a kind of hot pot stew often served with seasonal vegetables and meat. The favorite Japanese meat to serve with nabe is suppon - turtle meat. Another delicacy to be sampled is yatsuhashi, a sweet cinnamon flavoured dessert. These are available either raw or baked - the latter being the best option for presents to take back home with you as they last longer.
Kyoto is an unusual city in that you will find small handicraft shops right next to large department stores - which is no bad thing. In these small stores, you can find a wide range of traditional Japanese products to bring back for family and friends. For example Kyoto dolls are well known across Japan for being of a very high standard and they are one of the few to wear real nishjin silk kimonos. Alternatively, products dyed using the yuzen dyeing process form an essential part of Japanese culture as this is the process used to decorate kimono silks, handkerchiefs and shirts - any of which would make nice presents for those back home.