Due to the ongoing pandemic, we recommend checking with individual venues about current regulations and business hours prior to visiting.
Kyoto is Japan’s cultural capital—home to tradition, history, and authentic Japanese customs. Most people think of Geishas, tea houses, temples, and old-school architecture when they think of Kyoto. Few however, think of superb vintage shopping; basement speakeasies; sleek, industrial coffee shops; and craft breweries.
In Kyoto, both of these sides exist to create a city that is equal parts ancient and modern.
Wandering the streets of the city, it’s unlike any other place I’ve been, even throughout Japan. The streets are quiet, clean, and the air is fresh. It has a small town feel even though it’s not exactly small—the city is home to more than 1.5 million people who have a deep appreciation for nature, tranquility and each other. Geographically, the metropolis is split by the Kamo river, where you’ll see people walking, biking, and picnicking all day and night.
At first glance, Kyoto seems like a peaceful, picture perfect city lacking any real edge or diversity. All it takes is a deeper look to realize that’s just not true.
Maybe it’s the appreciation of history that inspires the hip side of Kyoto, led largely by the youth. Be it former bath houses turned coffee shops, ’20s-inspired speakeasies or punk-rock Izakaya restaurants, the trendiest spots in town spark nostalgia for a variety of eras.
While I definitely recommend exploring the more traditional side of the city—and perhaps even heading on a day trip out of Kyoto—I also recommend checking out the trendy wave of places that are bringing excitement and innovation to one of Japan’s oldest cities.
So minimalist they don’t even have furniture or a sign, Walden Woods is as aesthetically pleasing as it comes. An all-white, open-air industrial coffee shop, this is one of my favorite spots for great coffee.
They based their name and concept off of Thoreau’s search for freedom in the Walden Forest, which also inspired their clutter-free design. Here, you’ll find locally roasted espresso and fresh chai tea. But you cannot visit without trying the coffee jelly and soft serve.
Find it: 508-1 Sakaecho, Shimogyo Ward
A secret chocolate library cafe hidden under a chocolate shop? Sign me up.
Angel Library can be found next door to Cacao Market. To enter, you have to go into Cacao Market, tell them you’d like to visit the library and get an old fashioned brass key from them. A lady will then lead you to a doorway in an alleyway and you’ll descend down into a tiny, two-room cafe filled with books and delicious chocolate. It’s one of my favorite places for an afternoon treat and a good read, or a coffee date.
Find it: 165–2B1 Tokiwacho, Higashiyama Ward,
A discreet gin and cocktail lab just off the Kamo river and outside of the main nightlife, Nokishita is a speakeasy created by local cocktail legend Tomoiki Sekine.
The drinks here are unlike any I’ve ever had, with equal parts effort in taste and presentation. Most cocktails center around gin and local ingredients. You should absolutely prioritize this spot during your trip—it’s unlike any other bar in Kyoto.
Find it: 235 Sendocho, Shimogyo Ward
Located inside a renovated machiya (a typical Kyoto-style townhouse), Before 9 is particularly spectacular during the summer months. The two-storey, open-air locale is filled with local craft beers and artisanal sake, as well as some yummy, inventive eats to go with your drinks.
If you’re ever in Kyoto and looking to do something spontaneous, Before 9 is always hosting some hip and fun popup event, as well as hosting movie nights during the summer.
Find it: 545 Nijodencho, Nakagyo Ward
Set in the historic Gion district, a step inside this unassuming bar transports you into a bygone era. With a vintage twenties feel, and bartenders in white collared shirts with ties, Ixey is old school in every way—except for its innovative drinks.
They specialize in herbal liqueurs paired with a variety of herbs grown in their own garden to create truly one of a kind cocktails.
Find it: 153F Benzaitencho, Higashiyama Ward
Grunge meets traditional at Chikyuya, a tiny one-room restaurant with only three tables and traditional Zashiki-style seating. The walls are plastered with magazine covers and photos of punk rockers through the ages. The venue has a consistent buzz, with patrons drinking in large parties and smoking indoors while one to two cooks work it out in the kitchen.
Japanese bar food is the name of the game here. But there’s a surprising number of vegetarian options, and at a very affordable price. You will want to order at least two servings of the korokke (the best fried cheese you’ll ever have), and you also can’t eat here without having at least a beer or two.
Find it: 239-1 Ichinocho, Shimogyo Ward
One thing there’s no shortage of in Kyoto—and maybe surprisingly—is Mexican restaurants.
While Japanese/Mexican fusion is pretty delicious, few places create the type of magic that Maximo does. Here, at the end of a quiet alleyway behind an unassuming door, you’ll find delicious tacos, fantastic guacamole and incredibly stiff margaritas. Maximo only has one table and a bar, for a total of eight seats, which are almost always full.
The chef and owner prepares everything from scratch, by himself, on one burner behind the bar. It’s a unique experience that’s certainly not to be missed. But do plan to be there for at least two hours, as things move at a leisurely pace.
Find it: 446 Ebisucho, Nakagyo Ward
Hidden atop an uninviting-looking office building, with hardly any signage, you’d be forgiven for missing Mar Cafe when walking across Kyoto. But you’ll certainly be rewarded if you keep your wits about you.
One of the best rooftops in town, Mar offers sweeping views of the Kamo River, and Kiyomizu Temple. The great natural light, chic and inviting decor, and cosy library nook are complemented by an extensive menu filled with fresh, local ingredients that bring together traditional Japanese food and Western favorites.
Mar is most famous for their burgers and locally known for making some of the best in town. To add to the allure, only ten of their most popular, the “Mar burger,” are available each day. Not to worry if they run out though. The rest of their menu, and the view, is worth the trip.
Find it: 762 Nishihashizumecho, Shimogyo Ward
A former sento (public bath house) turned into a beautiful cafe, Nishijin is not to be missed.
A particularly photogenic café in the beloved local Sarasa chain, Nishijin also boasts a delicious lunch menu and dessert menu. It’s a great place to spend the day working, or to meet up with friends for a fun and casual lunch. The wood paneled exterior is as gorgeous as the tiled interior, and it’s location in Kita Ward will also introduce you to a less touristy part of town.
Find it: 11-1 Murasakino Higashifujinomoricho, Kita Ward
Finding quality vegetarian food, let alone vegan food, in Kyoto is not exactly easy. Which is why Mumokoteki was quite a surprise. Just outside of the central business district, Mumokoteki is located on a quiet street. Step inside, though, and you’ll find a feast for the senses.
The chic yet quirky decor invites you to make yourself at home, with plenty of natural light flooding in from the windows, indoor plants and large community tables. With a hip clientele and excellent food presentation, it’s the perfect place to spend an afternoon or a casual dinner.
Mumukoteki is not only a fantastic vegan restaurant, but it’s also attached to a high-end organic market, and positioned above a wonderful vintage shop. Enjoy your meal, then pick up some yummy snacks for later and some wonderful boutique items downstairs to take home with you.
Find it: 261 Shikibucho, Nakagyo Ward
Hand Craft Market
The Hand Craft Market, locally known as The Tezukuri-ichi happens on the 15th of each month at the Chionji Temple. You’ll find affordable, unique offerings from pottery, to clothing, to accessories and revamped Kimonos.
Although Kyoto is known for its strong traditions, the market breaks away from the usual goods sold throughout the city. Here, you’ll find a low key, bohemian—dare I even say—laid back vibe. Who knew hippies existed in Kyoto?
There are also local coffee stands and delicious eats. Roughly 450 artisans have stalls at the market, so your money goes straight to the source. This is a wonderful, unique shopping experience that is not to be missed in Kyoto.
Find it: 103 Tanaka Monzencho, Sakyo Ward
Three Star Kyoto
Kyoto has fantastic vintage and thrift shopping, and Three Star is one of my favorites. Centrally located, and near several other great options, this massive thrift shop has some of the best selections in town. You can find both vintage and new second hand items, all in fantastic condition.
The shop resembles an incredibly hip department store with wood paneled floors, funky mirrors and great displays. It’s definitely the prettiest thrift store I’ve ever been in, plus the finds are just as attractive.
Find it: 82 Shimotsutsumicho, Sakyo Ward
While Kyoto boasts a never ending list of watering holes, many of which I mentioned above, there are a few spots that you can particularly let loose in. Metro is one of them.
Recognized as the oldest nightclub in Japan, Metro first opened its doors in the ’90s and is the most locally beloved spot to dance the night away. But this is not your average nightclub—the venue is always ahead of the trends, with a high level of importance on the quality of both music and art.
You can find numerous events here, and they always feature both famous and up-and-coming Japanese artists as well as some international acts. Not to mention, they have a fantastic Drag Night, which is held on the last Friday of each month.
Find it: 52 Kawaramachi, Shimogyo Ward
The Millennials Kyoto
You can’t go to Japan and not experience the famous and kitsch capsule hotels.
A capsule hotel, or pod, is essentially a room just big enough to fit a bed, with no windows. It’s an affordable accommodation option in Japan and a very innovative use of space on their end. And you won’t find a capsule hotel more trendy than The Millennials.
Part hotel, part co-working space, this local boutique chain has three locations in Japan. The Kyoto location is as central as you can get. The co-working space looks like a hip, luxe hotel bar, complete with free beer, breakfast and coffee for guests. It’s a must for anyone requiring WiFi or looking to socialize with fellow young and hip travelers.
Find it: 235 Yamazakicho, Nakagyo Ward
Read our collection of articles about Japan to delve deeper into the fascinating history, art and culture of the Land of the Rising Sun.