Kyoto doesn’t flaunt its wares: temples, pebble gardens and imperial palaces stand concealed among office blocks. Though it may have been usurped by Tokyo as capital in 1869, it is still Japan’s cultural heartland – one of the last places to see wooden town houses lining the streets and where you can catch a glimpse of a geisha.

A sprawling complex of temples amid immaculately kept gardens and meandering lanes, Daitoku-ji is a good introduction to Japanese Zen Buddhism. Most visitors make for the eponymous central temple. The 24 sub-temples are also well worth a look – Daisen-in and Juko-in in particular. (00 81 075 491 0019; Daitoku-ji-cho 53; free entry to temple precincts).

The Tetsugaku no Michi (Path of Philosophy) is a canal-side stroll through a cherry-tree corridor and earned its name as 20th-century philosopher Nishida Kitaro’s favourite place to saunter. Don’t miss the Ginkaku-ji and Nanzen-ji temples (£4 each) at either end.

The lavish 17th-century castle Nijo-jo is proof that not everything in Japan is about restraint. To ward his people away from treachery the shogun (force commander) installed chambers from which his bodyguards could spring out (00 81 075 841 0096; Nijo-dori; £5).

Gion is the district of Kyoto most known for geishas, although they are fast disappearing. Fortunately, the area’s 17th-century wooden teahouses and restaurants come alive when night falls, and Gion’s guardian shrine Yasaka-jinja is also worth a visit (00 81 075 561 6155; Gion-machi; free).

Opened in 2006, and housing the world’s largest collection of Japanese comics, the Kyoto International Manga Museum charters its evolution since the 19th century (00 81 075 254 7414;; Karasuma-Oike; closed Wed; £7).

Eat and drink
Honyarado is something of a city institution. Once a rallying point for hippies, this restaurantcum- café has an eccentric streak. The lunchtime stew set-menu is particularly good value (0081 075 222 1574;; Kamigyo-ku, Imadegawa, Teramachi Nishi-iru; lunch £6).

Housed in a traditional Japanese building, noodle shop Omen is named after the signature thick white noodles that come served in a hot broth with a selection of fresh vegetables. There’s also an accomplished tori sansho yaki – chicken cooked with Japanese mountain spice (0081 771 8994;; Jo do-ji, Ishibashi-cho Sakyo-ku, 74; closed Thu; pike eel and mushroom noodle soup £13).

Ichi-Ban is a classic yakitori-ya (restaurant specialising in chicken skewers) with smoking charcoal grills, old beer posters on the walls and oden (winter stew) bubbling away on the counter. There’s an also English menu and a friendly owner (00 81 075 751 1459; Higashiyama-ku, Sanjo Ohashi Higashi iru; closed Sun; dinner £25).

Charming Ozawa offers excellent tempura. Sit at the counter to watch chefs prepare it (00 81 561 2052; Shirakawa Nawate Higashi iru, Higashiyamaku; closed Thu; dinner £30).

City landmark Ikumatsu is an old ‘ryori ryokan’ (culinary inn). Come here to try a traditional, seasonal kyo kaiseki meal but be sure to book in advance (00 81 231 1234; Nakagyo-ku, Kiyamachi-dori, Oike agaru; lunch from £44).

Casa de Natsu is a cosy guesthouse in northern Kyoto near the botanical gardens, ideal for escaping the hubbub. There’s a charming little garden and two traditionally styled rooms with calligraphy decorating the walls (00 81 075 491 2549;; Koyamamotomachi Kita-ku; from £80).

Yonbanchi B&B is housed in a building from the Edo period (1603-1867), once owned by a samurai who guarded the temple next door. There are just two rooms and guests get to sleep on traditional futons – the upstairs room has views of the peaceful garden (; Sakyo-ku, Shinnyo-cho 4; from £80).

Arashiyama Benkei Ryokan is an elegant ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) by the Hozu-gawa river. All rooms have views, the kitchen serves delicious multicourse dinners and the place is scented with incense (00 81 075 872 3355;; Ukyo-ku, Saga Tenryu-ji, Susukinobaba-cho 34; from £170, including meals).

Ryokan Motonago may have the best location of any in the city, a short distance from the busy thoroughfares of Gion. Inside, it hits all the right notes: classically understated Japanese decor, kimono-clad staff and big communal bathtubs (00 81 075 561 2087;; Higashiyama-ku, Kodaiji-michi, Washio-cho 511; from £195).

Located on top of Kyoto Station, guests at the Hotel Granvia Kyoto can step out of bed and straight onto the bullet train. The rooms are spacious and elegant with deep bathtubs, and there are decent on-site restaurants with views over the city (00 81 075 344 8888;; Shimogyo-ku, Karasuma-dori, Shiokoji Sagaru, from £195).

Getting around
Kyoto is served by an efficient transport system, with two subway lines running north-south and east-west (from £1.70; city. and a vast network of inner-city buses (£1.70). Taxis are plentiful but not cheap with fares starting at £5 for the first 2km.

When to go
The cherry blossom season in late March and early April is popular. Go in July for Gion Matsuri: intended to appease the gods after Kyoto was ravaged by plague, this month-long festival concludes with a float parade.

How to go
Osaka’s Kansai International airport is just over an hour by train from Kyoto. Fly from Heathrow via Paris or Amsterdam on Air France (from £550). From Kansai, catch the speedy JR ‘Haruka’ airport train to Kyoto (from £25; – 2.25 hours from Tokyo by regular bullet train (from £115;

The article 'Mini guide to Kyoto, Japan' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.