I love everything about this East Asian country but some of the things I miss the most are sushi and traditional Japanese food. Japanese food is my absolute favorite cuisine in the world and one of the biggest reasons why we love visiting Japan.
Another thing we miss dearly are the Japanese snacks. At the end of each day in Japan, we always stop by a konbini (convenience store) before heading back to our hotel. We buy a bunch of Japanese snacks and sweets to enjoy for dessert that night and for breakfast the following morning. We do this on every trip to Japan.
Enjoying Japanese snacks is something we look forward to on every trip, but thanks to the Sakuraco box, we can now do it once a month from the comfort of our own home.
In this detailed Sakuraco review, I’ll describe what you can expect from your Japanese snack box every month, and what makes Sakuraco different from all the other Japanese subscription boxes out on the market today.
If you’re already familiar with Sakuraco and want to place an order, then you can do so through this link. Otherwise, keep reading this Sakuraco box review to see what makes this Japanese subscription box an ideal gift for people who love Japanese snacks and culture.
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SAKURACO REVIEW TABLE OF CONTENTS
If you enjoy watching videos, then be sure to check out our unboxing video to give you a better sense of what type of Japanese snacks to expect from your Sakuraco box every month.
What is Sakuraco?
Who would enjoy a Sakuraco Box?
How does the Sakuraco subscription work?
What’s inside a Sakuraco box?
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Final Thoughts on the Sakuraco box
WHAT IS SAKURACO?
Sakuraco is a Japan-based subscription service that delivers a box of Japanese sweets, snacks, and treats right to your door once a month. No matter where you are in the world, subscribers will get a box filled with authentic Japanese snacks and goodies that are carefully curated based on a monthly theme.
Japanese subscription box services are nothing new, but what sets Sakuraco apart are the type and quality of snacks contained in every box. Other Japanese snack boxes contain fun treats and candy like Kit Kat and Pocky, but Sakuraco boxes are filled with harder-to-find artisanal products made by small businesses from different parts of Japan.
Open up your Sakuraco box and you’ll find a collection of Japanese sweets, cakes, crackers, and confections, the type of treats you’d normally associate with tea. It’s like having the Japanese tea drinking experience delivered to you every month!
Sakuraco is the sister company of TokyoTreat. They’re one of the most well-known subscription box services from Japan. While TokyoTreat focuses on sending you the trendiest Japanese candy and snacks, Sakuraco aims to show you the more traditional side of snack-making in Japan.
If you enjoy Kyoto and its tea drinking culture, then you’re going to love Sakuraco. It’s like getting the Japanese tea experience at home, minus the kimono (and geisha).
As soon as I opened our box, I was greeted by this message – “Nice to meet you. Let’s have tea.”
As I’ll describe in more detail later in this Sakuraco box review, each box contains a total of twenty (20) tea-related items like snacks, cakes, crackers, and tableware. There’s also a beautifully designed and printed booklet explaining the month’s theme and all the snacks contained in the box.
WHO WOULD ENJOY A SAKURACO BOX?
The Sakuraco box makes for a unique and interesting gift for anyone who loves Japanese sweets and culture.
As described in the previous section, many Japanese subscription boxes bring you the trendiest and most popular candy and snacks. What sets Sakuraco apart is that it focuses on lesser known artisanal sweets, the kind of products that you can’t just find at any konbini. The fact that it contains harder-to-find regional treats makes it a great gift even for people who are already familiar with Japanese snacks and culture.
Anime and pop culture fans who want trendier Japanese sweets and candy may want to get a TokyoTreat box instead. But if you want something more traditional and unique, something that encapsulates the Japanese tea ceremony in a box, then Sakuraco is definitely for you.
HOW DOES THE SAKURACO SUBSCRIPTION WORK?
Sakuraco is a subscription-based service so you’ll receive a box every month as long as you’re subscribed. There are four subscription plans to choose from. The longer your subscription, the cheaper each box will be.
Keep in mind is that you need to be subscribed to a plan at the end of each month to get the following month’s box. For example, to get September’s box, you’ll need to be subscribed by the end of August.
Ready to order? Get your Sakuraco box today!
Please note that shipping is not included in the prices quoted above. Depending on where you are, shipping charges will run you an additional USD 10.50 or USD 12.50 per box. You can refer to the FAQs section of this Sakuraco box review for more information.
Sakuraco sent us the August 2021 box. The month’s theme was “Exploring Okinawa”. I’ll describe the theme and the box’s contents in more detail in the next section of this Sakuraco box review.
Sakuraco describes the contents of each upcoming box in their website. The theme for September 2021 is “Tokyo Matsuri”. You can also check their website for a description of past boxes.
WHAT’S INSIDE A SAKURACO BOX?
As described, the theme for the August 2021 box is “Explore Okinawa”. It casts a spotlight on Okinawa by featuring locally sourced artisanal products made with key Okinawa ingredients like brown sugar and the beautiful beni imo purple sweet potato.
Every box will contain a total of twenty (20) items, each falling under one of these categories:
Japanese Tea:Matcha, hojicha, and seasonal teas
Japanese Cakes:Different types of traditional cakes like castella and taiyaki
Mochi, Manju, & Yokan:Traditional Japanese sweets
Seasonal Japanese Treats:Seasonal goodies like sakura, momiji, and more
Sakuraco Exclusives:Exclusive items made by local artisans
Japanese Home Goods:Ceramics, chopsticks, furoshiki, and more
I’ve included pictures and a description of each product in this section but you may want to watch this quick unboxing video as well.
Every box comes with a greeting from the company’s founder and a beautifully printed booklet explaining the month’s theme and its contents. In this month’s booklet, it talks briefly about Okinawa, its festivals, and the local artisans responsible for making the products featured in the box.
I was blown away by the quality and amount of information in this booklet. It isn’t just some cheap one-page flyer listing the box’s contents. It’s a 24-page glossy booklet with beautiful pictures and loads of information.
The snacks are interesting enough on their own but to be able to learn more about them and the month’s theme was a huge plus. Bravo Sakuraco!
One of Renée’s favorite Japanese drinks is Suntory’s Strong Zero made with shikuwasa, so her eyes lit up when she saw this shikuwasa jelly. As it turns out, the shikuwasa citrus fruit (Citrus depressa) is one of Okinawa’s most iconic flavors. It’s grown primarily in southwest Japan, in the northern region of Okinawa’s main island.
Monaka refers to a type of Japanese sweet made with bean paste sandwiched between two crisp mochi wafers. A type of wagashi (Japanese confection) traditionally served with tea, it’s typically made with azuki bean but this yuzu monaka from Fukuoka is made with yuzu citrus and white bean paste.
Kogane Shikuwasa Manju
Manju refers to a traditional type of Japanese confection. It typically consists of anko or red bean paste stuffed inside a light and airy coating made from flour, rice powder, kudzu, and buckwheat.
Popular throughout Japan, manju comes in many varieties. This kogane shikuwasa manju is made with sweet red bean paste infused with the flavors of Okinawan shikuwasa.
Apple and Mango Melange Jelly
Unlike most parts of the country, southwest Japan enjoys a tropical climate so fruits like mango, pineapple, star fruit, and dragon fruit thrive in Okinawa. This interesting jelly dessert is rife with the flavors of mango and apple.
Sanpincha tea is a type of jasmine-flavored oolong tea that’s been enjoyed in Okinawa for centuries. It’s a blend of Chinese and Japanese tea that was introduced to Okinawa during the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Sanpin means “jasmine” while cha means “tea”.
Sanpincha tea is rich in antioxidants and minerals and is said to be effective in the prevention of cancer and arteriosclerosis. It’s also touted as a hangover cure.
Beni Imo Tart
One of Okinawa’s best-known agricultural products is the beni imo potato. Originally from China, it’s known for its purple flesh that has the same molecular structure as purple cabbage and blueberries. Its lovely color makes it a favorite ingredient in many Okinawan desserts like ice cream, brownies, tarts, and other pastries.
This beni imo tart is one of three desserts in the Explore Okinawa box made with beni imo potatoes. It features a light dough base topped with a creamy mixture of red bean paste and beni imo.
Beni imo is cultivated throughout southwest Japan but it’s particularly associated with the town of Yomitan on the western coast of Okinawa’s main island. This purple potato is so important to the town that they hold a “Miss Beni Imo” beauty contest every year.
Sata Andagi Beni Imo Doughnuts
Sata andagi refers to deep-fried balls of dough similar to doughnuts. Made with flour, sugar, and eggs shaped into balls and then deep-fried, they’re originally from southern China but have become an important part of Okinawa’s regional cuisine as well.
Spheres are considered auspicious in many Asian cultures so sata andagi are traditionally eaten at special occasions and celebrations like weddings. These beni imo doughnuts are packed with sweet potato flavor.
Beni Imo Pie
These small beni imo pies are made with a crispy puff pastry stuffed with a red bean and sweet potato filling. The deep purple color you see below is 100% natural.
Brown Sugar Shisa Candy
In Okinawan mythology, a shisa is a traditional Ryukyuan artifact resembling a cross between a lion and a dog. They’re wards derived from Chinese guardian lions that are believed to bring in good spirits and protect people from evil.
These shisa-shaped hard shell candies with a soft center will put you in good spirits with their burst of brown sugar sweetness. Like beni imo, brown sugar derived from locally grown sugarcane is a specialty in Okinawa.
Brown Sugar Manju
This version of manju is filled with the earthy sweetness of brown sugar. Like the kogane shikuwasa manju, be sure to savor its aroma before eating it. It smells and tastes wonderful.
Senbei refers to a family of Japanese rice crackers. They’re traditionally baked or grilled over charcoal and brushed with a glaze made from soy sauce and mirin. They can be savory or sweet and come in various shapes, sizes, and flavors.
These crackingly crisp issa senbei crackers from Fukuoka are made with Japanese rice and dusted with finely chopped seaweed.
Snow Salt Chinsuko
Chinsuko refers to a traditional Japanese sweet from Okinawa. Popular since the times of the Ryukyu Kingdom, you can think of them as a type of mildly sweet shortbread or biscuit made with lard and flour.
Chinsuko is one of the most popular souvenir food items from Okinawa. This version is lightly salted to bring out the sweetness of the cookie.
Mini Salted Tofu Chips
These salted chips are made with shimadofu, a type of locally grown tofu often used in Okinawan cuisine. You can enjoy them as a snack on their own or added to salads to give it some crunch.
The tofu chips in this picture are sitting in the owan bowl that came in the Explore Okinawa box. It has a lovely sakura pattern on its sides that you can appreciate more in the next picture.
Here’s a screenshot of the owan bowl from our unboxing video. Isn’t it beautiful?
Every box will come with one piece of Japanese tableware. It can be anything from a bowl, plate, spoon, cup, or pair of chopsticks.
Lightly Salted Red Bean Manju
This version of manju has a chewier texture than the two previous types. It’s made with red bean paste and Okinawan sea salt.
Kombu Arare Crackers
This interesting Japanese snack mix is made with kombu and arare. Kombu refers to edible kelp while arare is a type of Japanese cracker made with glutinous rice flavored with soy sauce. It’s very similar in taste and texture to senbei but differs in its shape and size.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS (FAQs)
How much is shipping?
As of August 2021, Sakuraco will ship your box via Express or Priority shipping. You don’t get to choose because the shipping method will be based on your country. Both shipping methods come with a tracking number.
Express shipping costs USD 10.50 or USD 12.50 per box and will get to you in 2-5 days. Priority shipping also costs USD 10.50 or USD 12.50 and will arrive in 14-28 days.
From what I understand, free international shipping would normally be an option but these are extraordinary times so they need to use a more reliable method. When travel restrictions ease, then they may offer free shipping again. You can check this link for more information and the latest announcements on shipping options.
Will my Sakuraco subscription automatically renew?
Yes, it will. If you get a 3-month subscription for example, then it will automatically renew at the end of the third month. If you no longer want to receive additional boxes after you receive the last one, then it’s important to cancel your subscription so you don’t get automatically billed for another cycle.
Should I get the Sakuraco box or the Tokyo Treat box?
That depends. If you like fun and trendy Japanese snacks and candy, then TokyoTreat is for you. If you prefer tea and more traditional artisanal Japanese sweets, then you should definitely get a Sakuraco box. Both are awesome so it all depends on what you’re into.
Is the Sakuraco subscription box worth it?
Yes definitely, based on the contents alone. But the additional shipping charges do give us pause. It costs us an extra USD 10.50 per box which makes us a but hesitant to pull the trigger. As previously described, these are extraordinary times so I do understand the extra shipping charges, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make us think twice.
With that said, Renée loved the Sakuraco box so much that she immediately ordered a 3-month subscription using her own money. With lesser shipping charges, then she may have gotten a longer subscription.
Will my box be delivered by a geisha?
No, but that would be awesome.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE SAKURACO BOX
As you can probably tell from the tone of this article, we were super impressed with our Sakuraco box. It contains exactly the types of products that we love.
I’m not big on souvenirs but one of my most treasured purchases from Japan is a set of artisanal candles from Hida Furukawa. They were made by the oldest candle makers in Japan, a small family-run shop that’s been in business for 7-8 generations! If you enjoy those types of cultural products, then you’re going to love Sakuraco.
I showed Renée the contents of next month’s box (Tokyo Matsuri) on their website and she immediately got her own subscription. As described, the additional shipping charges did give her some pause but obviously not enough.
Thanks for getting through this lengthy post but I hope this Sakuraco review convinces you to get your own subscription. If you love Japan like we do, then I’ve got a good feeling you’re going to appreciate these boxes. Arigato gozaimasu!
Ready to order? Get your Sakuraco box today!
Sakuraco sent us the Explore Okinawa box in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts, words, and opinions expressed in this article are mine and mine alone.
Some of the links in this Sakuraco review are affiliate links, meaning we’ll earn a small commission if you order a subscription at no added cost to you. As always, we only recommend products and services that we use ourselves and firmly believe in. We really appreciate your support as it helps us make more of these free travel and food guides. Thank you!
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was written by Traveleater Sep Simborio and verified by Andrea Albizures, a Guatemalan food expert and student at Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala City.
Nature-loving food lovers who are thinking of their next travel destination may want to shift their attention to this relatively small Central American country of Guatemala. The name comes from the Nahuatl word Quuahtlemallan, which translates to “place of many trees” or “land of trees.” It perfectly describes the country’s heavily forested regions and several mountain ranges, making it worth visiting by the outdoorsy tourist.
Guatemala is also recognized for its ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity with its 25 ethnicities, 25 languages, and four cultures (Ladina, Xinca, Garifuna, and Mayan). Combining the country’s rich history, diverse people, and geographic location has created a heterogeneous mixture that makes for an exciting cuisine.
GUATEMALAN FOOD QUICK LINKS
If you’re planning a trip to Guatemala and want to learn more about the cuisine, then you may be interested in going on a food or drinking tour.
Food Tours: Food and Wine/Drinking Tours in Guatemala
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WHAT IS TRADITIONAL GUATEMALAN FOOD?
Traditional Guatemalan food is generally described as based on Mayan cuisine with Spanish influences. Dishes prominently include beans, chilies, and corn, which are abundantly cultivated along with a wide variety of agricultural products due to the country’s tropical setting, fertile volcanic soil, high rainfall, and warm temperatures. This ideal setting has helped make the country the birthplace of chocolate and home to the popular Hass avocado.
When it comes to meats, beef, chicken, pork, and to a lesser extent turkey are frequently used as ingredients and often accompanied by rice and beans. They’re stewed, grilled, or fried, with some dishes having creamy sauces that work well with vegetables. As a result, Guatemala arguably has the most delicious cuisine among its neighbors in Central America.
THE BEST FOOD IN GUATEMALA
Never leave Central America without sampling all the Guatemalan dishes on this list to have a deeper understanding of the country’s Mayan roots and Spanish colonial influence.
Tostadas Guatemaltecas or Guatemalan tostadas are snacks made with deep-fried or oven-toasted corn tortillas as the base. They’re often served as a quick snack or appetizer, usually before lunch or when celebrating holiday festivities with family. They’re also commonly sold as street food in Guatemala.
Tostadas can be topped with various ingredients but traditional Guatemalan tostadas are usually topped with guacamole, tomato salsa, or refried black beans. Recipes vary but other ingredients may include onions, sweet peppers, chopped meat, adobo seasoning, herbs, and spices to give the tostadas that extra kick of flavor.
Photo by Andrea Albizures
Tamales are a traditional Mesoamerican dish that dates back to 8,000 to 5,000 B.C. They’re made with either corn masa or rice flour and steamed in fresh plantain leaves (or corn husks) to give them a rich flavor and aroma. They can be filled with various meats, cheeses, fruits, corn, tomatoes, bell peppers, roasted chilies, or any other ingredient.
While tamales are common in many Latin American countries like Mexico, Belize, Peru, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic, Guatemala has four main versions of the dish – tamale colorado (red tamales), tamale negro, chuchito, and tamalito.
Of the four, tamal colorado are the most popular (pictured below). They’re typically eaten every Saturday by many Guatemalans. They’re made with a dark red savory sauce with green olives and meat, usually chicken or pork.
Anamix257, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Tamales negros are a type of Christmas tamale made with a sweet mole sauce, raisins, and meats like turkey, chicken, or pork. Chuchitos (pictured below) are made with thicker masa and wrapped in corn husks. A popular street food in Guatemala, they’re filled with a simple tomato sauce and chicken. Lastly, tamalitos are small tamales often served with meals. They’re eaten like bread and used as a vessel to dip into soups and salads.
Guatemalan tamales come in various sizes, with the bigger ones having more ingredients that could be more than enough for a full meal. Tamales recipes may involve simple ingredients but the dish itself is labor-intensive to prepare, so it could take most of the day to create them.
Photo by xhico
3. Caldo de Res
If each country has its own soup dish that stands to represent its culture and cuisine, Guatemala has caldo de res. Often called cocido or “cooked” in Antigua, this beef broth is one of the most consumed dishes in Guatemala. As a result, it’s a regular offering in menus of Guatemalan restaurants and other dining establishments.
Its roots can be traced back to a similar dish of Andalucian origin – a peasant soup called puchero that was prepared during colonial times in Latin America and the Philippines. It has taken many names in countries where it’s popular, and Guatemala has its own version of it in the form of caldo de res.
This Guatemalan dish is made by first preparing the broth using the meat and bones before adding the vegetables, including carrots, corn, potatoes, and chayote squash. Finally, it’s served with rice, freshly made corn tortillas, or avocado slices.
Photo by Salmonnegro
4. Jocon de Pollo
Jocon is another traditional Guatemalan dish that hails from Huehuetenango, a city and municipality in the country’s western highlands. It’s popular among the Mayan population since the dish itself is heavily influenced by its people.
Also known as jocon de pollo, the recipe uses chicken stewed in a green sauce made with cilantro and tomatillos. It’s then thickened with ground pumpkin and sesame seeds and served with corn tortillas, rice, and avocado slices.
Photo by Salmonnegro
5. Pepian de Indio
Being recognized as one of the national dishes of Guatemala is huge, earning pepian de indio its rightful spot on this list. This chicken stew is also said to be the ultimate Guatemalan comfort food. With its tender cuts of chicken cooked in a lightly-spiced tomato sauce and mixed with toasted pumpkin seeds and chili sauce, it’s hard to argue with that.
Its origins date to pre-colonial times when the Mayans grew crops such as corn, beans, chilies, squash, and tomatoes, which are the basis of their cuisine. But the key to the delicious nutty flavor of pepian de indio is the pan-roasted pumpkin and sesame seeds that are ground into a fine powder and mixed in the sauce to give it that smooth velvety texture. It’s simply mouthwatering.
Photo by Salmonnegro
Kak’ik is one of the most popular Mayan dishes in Guatemala and is also recognized as one of the country’s dishes of intangible cultural heritage. It’s a type of turkey soup cooked in a lightly spiced red broth.
The name of the dish was derived from a Mayan Q’echi’ tradition during pre-colonial times. This popular Guatemalan turkey soup is traditionally prepared by using native turkeys, tomatoes, cilantro, chilies, and achiote that gives the soup its vibrant color.
Photo by lenyvavsha
With almost 300 years of colonial rule (1540 to 1821), Spain had a massive influence on the country, particularly on its cuisine. One of its delicious gifts is hilachas or the Guatemala version of shredded beef stew, which features shredded beef simmered in a lightly spiced velvety sauce with cuts of tender potatoes. The name hilachas literally translates to “threads,” describing the appearance of the beef that’s been shredded into thin strips.
Since hilachas have roots in colonial Spain, it’s quite similar to the Cuban dish ropa vieja. Also made of shredded beef with vegetables, ropa vieja appears like a pile of colorful rags, which is where the translation “old clothes” came from.
Like most traditional dishes in Guatemala, hilachas has evolved to have popular variations with recipes that include carrots, chayote squash, cloves, cinnamon, fresh green beans, and tomatillos.
Photo by Salmonnegro
If there’s one dish served during a specific holiday in Guatemala, that would be fiambre. Widely regarded as a Guatemalan national dish, fiambre is a unique salad prepared and consumed yearly for All Saints Day (Dia de Todos Santos) and the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos).
Fiambre was believed to have started when families tending their dearly departed’s graves would bring food – usually what their loved ones enjoyed when they were still alive – and share a meal. They believe this reignites their connection with them. With Guatemalans known for being warm and friendly, they eventually share what they have with other neighboring families visiting their gravesite, creating fiambre in the process.
Fiambre translates to “cold meat” or “cold cuts” in Spanish. It’s an assembly of various ingredients in one big plate and served cold. A fiambre recipe involves an assortment of meats, cheeses, pickled relishes, and vegetables, which totals an average of around forty ingredients, making it worthy of being the mother of all salads.
Photo by fernanda07
9. Mole de Platano
Being the birthplace of chocolate, you’ve probably been waiting for a chocolate dish to be represented in this guide on Guatemalan cuisine. This is where mole de platano makes its grand appearance.
Mole de platano is a traditional Guatemalan dessert that’s perfect for chocolate lovers. It’s made of mole, a chocolate sauce mixed with fried plantains, cinnamon, chili, and bell peppers sprinkled with sesame seeds.
The dish has been deemed so important in the country’s culinary heritage that it was given Intangible Cultural Heritage status in 2007 by the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture and Sport.
Photo by Salmonnegro
As described, Guatemala is considered the birthplace of chocolate. The ancient Mayans worshipped the cacao tree and its beans to the point that they referred to it as the “food of the gods”. Ixcacao was the goddess of chocolate and was often called upon to provide bountiful harvests.
During the Mayan era, chocolate was consumed mostly as a bitter and spicy drink. To prepare, they would grind the cacao beans by hand and mix it with water, vanilla, honey, corn, and chili. Typically reserved for the elite, chocolate was regarded as a valuable commodity that was used as an aphrodisiac and a form of currency.
Photo by fernanda07
10. Atol de Elote
Atol de elote is a sweet and creamy corn drink that’s commonly sold in markets. Served warm and often seasoned with cinnamon or vanilla, atol de elote tastes similar to arroz con leche and could be described as a cross between horchata and corn chowder.
Creating the silky rich texture is traditionally done by grinding corn using a grinding stone or metate. Milk, sugar, and spices are mixed in a giant pot where the sweet concoction is heated before being served in cups.
Photo by AntonioGravante
GUATEMALAN FOOD TOURS
Needless to say, no one knows Guatemalan food better than a local, so what better way to experience Guatemalan cuisine than by joining a food tour? A food-obsessed local will take you the city’s best markets, restaurants, and street food stalls and explain all the dishes to you in more detail. Check out Get Your Guide for a list of Guatemalan food tours in Antigua and other cities in the country.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON GUATEMALAN CUISINE
Traveleaters are in for a treat when visiting Guatemala. Not only will they get to experience the gorgeous landscape of the country, they’ll also get to have a taste of history through the wonderful Guatemalan dishes on this list. How fascinating would it be to know that the best of Guatemalan food has been passed on for generations by its Mayan ancestors? That’s a mouthful of rich ancient history right there.
Some of the links in this article on Guatemalan cuisine are affiliate links. If you make a booking, then we’ll earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, we only recommend products and services that we use ourselves and firmly believe in. We really appreciate your support as it helps us make more of these free travel and food guides. ¡Gracias!
Even if you’ve never been to Beirut, chances are you have some familiarity with Lebanese food. Hummus and falafel are well-known internationally while shawarma is widely regarded to be one of the world’s most iconic street foods. In fact, so famous is shawarma that it was even featured in an Avengers post-credit scene.
As cliched as this may sound, but Lebanese cuisine truly is a delight to the senses. From the earthy aroma of cumin and tahini to the refreshing pop of sumac, pomegranate, and lemon, Lebanese food takes you on a journey. A journey that starts with the colors, aromas, and textures of mezze and ends with the fragrance of desserts flavored with rose water and honey.
Shawarma and hummus may the most well-known but as this Lebanese food guide will show you, there’s so much more to love about Lebanese cuisine.
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Photo by bhofack2
WHAT IS TRADITIONAL LEBANESE FOOD?
Lebanese cuisine has a long history spanning several millennia. Many Lebanese dishes can be traced all the way back to the eras of Greek, Roman, Persian, and Phoenician rule. In the last half century, it’s been influenced by foreign countries that have held power in Lebanon, most notably Turkey and France.
Whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and seafood figure prominently in the Lebanese diet. Chickpeas and parsley are staple ingredients while garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice are frequently used to flavor dishes. Often, Lebanese foods are grilled, baked, or just lightly cooked in olive oil. Lamb and goat are common proteins though poultry is consumed more often than red meat.
Similar to Spanish tapas, Italian aperitivos, or Korean banchan, mezze forms an important part of Lebanese cuisine. It refers to a series of small dishes served at the start of a meal. When dining at home, mezze platters typically consist of just three or four dishes but at restaurants, it isn’t uncommon to see 20 to 60 different dishes served as mezze.
Mezze can be hot or cold and usually eaten with flatbread like pita. Common mezze dishes include hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, kibbeh, kafta, and sambousek, all of which are described in more detail in this Lebanese food guide.
THE BEST OF LEBANESE CUISINE
This Lebanese food guide has been organized by category to make it easier to digest. Click on a link to jump to any section of the guide.
Dessert / Drinks
Pita (or pitta) is the most widely used type of bread in Lebanese cuisine. It refers to a circular leavened wheat flour flatbread that’s common in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. In Greek cuisine, it’s used as a wrap to make gyros and souvlaki.
Also known as Lebanese bread, Arabic bread, or Syrian bread, pita can range in size and thickness and usually contains an interior pocket. It’s usually baked at high temperatures (450–475°F (232–246°C)), turning the water in the dough to steam which causes the pita to puff up and form a pocket. Even after it cools and deflates, the layers remain separated which allows the pita to hold ingredients like a sandwich.
Pita is a versatile bread that can be used in many ways. In Lebanese cuisine, it’s often used as a scoop for dips like hummus and baba ganoush. It can be used as a wrap to make shawarmas or as a pocket to hold falafel. Even leftover pita scraps are fried and repurposed in dishes like fattoush.
Photo by motorolka
Manaqish (or manakish) refers to a Levantine dish made with flatbread topped with different ingredients. You can think of it as an Arabic version of pizza. The name manaqish is rooted in the Arabic verb naqasha which means “to sculpt” or “to carve out”. This is in reference to how indentations are made into the flattened dough for the toppings to sit in.
Manaqish is traditionally made with one of three ingredients – minced lamb, cheese (usually akkawi or kashkaval), or za’atar. The version below is made with za’atar, which is a spice mixture consisting of ground dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, toasted sesame seeds, sumac, salt, and other spices. It’s the most popular form of manaqish and often enjoyed for breakfast, as mezze, or as a snack with feta cheese or labneh (yogurt cheese).
Photo by karammiri
Pictured below is manaqish made with minced lamb, also known as sfiha (or sfeeha, lahmajun, lahmajin). Unlike za’atar manaqish that’s more a breakfast dish or snack, sfiha is a heavier dish that’s typically eaten for lunch.
Photo by sablinstanislav
No self-respecting article on Lebanese food can be complete without hummus, one of the most popular dishes in Lebanese cuisine. It refers to a Middle Eastern dip made with cooked mashed chickpeas, tahini, garlic, and lemon juice. It’s usually served with pita bread and various garnishes like olive oil, whole chickpeas, olives, chopped tomatoes, sumac, or parsley.
Hummus is a staple dish that’s eaten throughout the Middle East, either for breakfast, as mezze, or as an accompaniment to other dishes like falafel, kibbeh, or tabbouleh. It’s become popular in many parts of the world as well and is often the first dish that comes to mind when people think of Middle Eastern cuisine.
Interestingly, Lebanon and Israel have been engaged in a competition to produce the world’s biggest serving of hummus. Both countries regard hummus as a vital symbol of their national identity so winning that title, in their eyes, establishes some measure of ownership over the dish.
The current Guinness World Record is held by Lebanon with their gargantuan serving of hummus weighing in at 10,452 kg (23,042 lbs 12 oz). It was made by around 300 cooks using eight tons of chickpeas, two tons of tahini, two tons of lemon juice, and 70 kilograms (150 lb) of olive oil. It was served on a ceramic plate measuring 7.17 meters (23.5 ft) in diameter.
Photo by fudio
4. Baba Ganoush
Baba ganoush (or baba ghanouj) is another Lebanese dip that’s popular throughout the Middle East and beyond. It consists of mashed cooked eggplant mixed with tahini, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and different seasonings. Like hummus, it’s typically served as part of a mezze platter with pita bread or as a side dish to larger meals.
Baba ganoush has a wonderful smokey flavor derived from roasted eggplant. To prepare, the eggplant is broiled or roasted over an open flame before being peeled and blended together with the rest of the ingredients.
When eating Lebanese food, you may come across another dip called moutabal. I used to think that moutabal and baba ganoush were completely different dishes but they’re both made from roasted eggplant. Moutabal is basically the spicier version of baba ganoush, made with the addition of pomegranate (anar) seeds.
The name baba ghanoush literally means “spoiled daddy” or “pampered daddy”, though it’s unclear whether this refers to the eggplant itself or an actual person indulged by the dish.
Photo by fanfon
Tabbouleh (or tabouli, taboulah) refers to a Levantine salad of finely chopped parsley mixed with mint, tomatoes, onions, bulgur, olive oil, and lemon juice. Originally from the mountains of Lebanon and Syria, it’s become one of the most popular salads in Middle Eastern cuisine.
Like hummus and baba ganoush, tabbouleh is often served as part of mezze platters. It’s widely consumed throughout the region and is one of the most well-known Arabic dishes outside of the Middle East. In Lebanon, it’s considered by many to be a national dish.
A common misconception with tabbouleh is that bulgur is the principal component of the dish. It isn’t. It’s just a supporting ingredient with the real star being the finely chopped parsley. Tabbouleh is sometimes served with lettuce leaves that can used as a scoop for the salad.
Photo by karammiri
Fattoush refers to a Levantine salad made with fried pieces of khubz (Arabic bread) – usually leftover scraps of pita – mixed with different types of greens and other vegetables. It’s a type of fatteh (or fatta) dish – a family of Middle Eastern dishes made with leftover pita and other ingredients that are repurposed to create a new meal.
Fattoush is said to have originated in northern Lebanon. Farmers would fry leftover pita scraps in olive oil and mix them with whatever vegetables and herbs were available. For that reason, fattoush recipes vary but the salad can be made with whatever vegetables are in season. It’s dressed simply, with vinaigrette made with sumac.
Aside from the fried pita, ground sumac is perhaps the most important ingredient in fattoush as it gives the salad its characteristic tart flavor.
Photo by lenyvavsha
Falafel refers to a Middle Eastern dish of deep-fried balls or patties made from ground chickpeas (or fava beans), herbs, and spices. Popular throughout the Middle East, they can be enjoyed on their own, as part of mezze platters, or served in pita sandwiches with salad, pickled vegetables, and tahini-based sauces.
Falafel is believed to have been invented in Egypt, as a replacement for meat during times of fasting. It’s a common street food dish and sometimes part of meals that breaks the daily fast during Ramadan (iftar). It’s so popular in Egypt that you can enjoy a McFalafel for breakfast at any McDonald’s in the country.
Egyptian falafel is made strictly with fava beans while falafel in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel is usually made with chickpeas. Falafel has become a popular vegan dish outside the Middle East as well, particularly in North America where it’s now commonly sold as street food.
Photo by bhofack2
Mujadara is an Arabic dish made with lentils, rice (or bulgur), and caramelized onions. It’s popular throughout the Middle East where it goes by different names like majadra, megadarra, or mudardara.
Mujadara can be prepared in different ways but it’s usually made with brown or green lentils, rice, onions cumin, and olive oil. In some parts of Lebanon, there seems to be a distinction made between versions of the dish containing rice or bulgur. Variations made with lentils and rice are known as mudardara while versions made with lentils and bulgur are known as mujadara.
Mujadara can be served hot or cold, often with yogurt, vegetables, and other side dishes. It was traditionally regarded as peasant food because of how cheap and easy it is to make.
Photo by fanfon
9. Warak Enab
Warak enab means “grape leaves” in Arabic and refers to the Lebanese version of dolma (or sarma) – a family of dishes popular in Greece, Georgia, Turkey, and Armenia and in many other countries throughout the Levant, the Balkans, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia.
Warak enab consists of brined grape leaves wrapped around a filling made with short-grain rice, garlic, onion, parsley, and spices like Lebanese seven spice and cinnamon. They can be vegetarian or mixed with a ground meat filling like beef or lamb. Often served as part of mezze platters, vegetarian warak enab are commonly eaten cold while versions made with meat are served hot.
Photo by diplomedia
10. Kousa Mahshi
Similar to warak enab, kousa mahshi refers to another type of stuffed Lebanese dish. Instead of being wrapped in vine leaves, it’s made with squash or zucchini that’s been hollowed out and filled with a stuffing of rice or meat. Vegetarian versions are typically served at room temperature while variations made with meat are served hot as a main course, usually in a garlicky tomato sauce with dried mint.
As described, these stuffed vegetable dishes are popular throughout the Levant, the Balkans, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia where they’re often described collectively as dolma. In some countries, a distinction is made between dishes that are wrapped (sarma) and dishes that are stuffed (dolma).
Photo by fanfon
If you like meatballs or croquettes, then you’re probably going to enjoy kibbeh, a Lebanese national dish. It’s like a hybrid meatball-croquette dish made with spiced ground meat, onions, pine nuts, and bulgur wheat. The name kibbeh stems from the Arabic word kubbah, meaning “ball”.
There are many varieties and recipes for kibbeh but it’s usually made by pounding bulgur wheat with meat – usually lamb or beef – into a fine paste. The mixture is then formed into football-shaped orbs with toasted pine nuts and spices like ground cinnamon and allspice before being deep-fried or baked. They’re typically served as part of mezze platters or as a side dish, often with a tahini-based sauce.
Kibbeh is an important dish in Lebanese cuisine, something that many women learn how to make at an early age. Football-shaped kibbeh are some of the most recognizable but they can be formed into balls or patties as well. Some are even eaten raw (kibbeh nayyeh) like steak tartare or incorporated into soups.
Kibbeh is a Levantine dish but it’s become popular throughout Latin America and in parts of North America as well. Thanks to Middle Eastern immigrants, kibbeh has found its way into the cuisines of countries like Brazil, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic.
Photo by lenyvavsha
If you like Indian samosas or Latin American empanadas, then you’re going to love sambousek. It’s a small Lebanese meat pie or turnover that’s widely consumed throughout the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Africa. It exists in many forms and goes by different names like sambosa, sambusak, sambuseh, and samsa.
In Lebanon, sambousek is traditionally filled with either pre-cooked ground beef or lamb or some type of cheese like feta or kashkaval. When made with cheese, it often contains spinach as well. The filling is wrapped inside dough that’s folded and pinched shut into a crescent shape before being deep-fried or baked. Commonly served as mezze, sambousek is especially popular during the holy month of Ramadan.
Sambousek has a long history that dates back to the 10th century Middle East. It’s earliest mention was in an Iranian history book where it was referred to as “sambosa”. This early version is generally considered to be the predecessor of similar savory pastries like the samosa, empanada, and Italian calzone.
Photo by nito103
Lebanese sambousek is often crescent-shaped, like an empanada, but it can be made into other forms as well depending on where it’s from and the type of dough used to make it.
Photo by fermate
Shawarma is one of the most internationally well-known Lebanese foods. Commonly sold as street food throughout the Middle East and beyond, it refers to a Levantine dish made with heavily-marinated meat – usually chicken, beef, lamb, or mutton – cooked on a vertical rotisserie.
Like Greek gyros and Mexican tacos al pastor, the Lebanese shawarma is a descendant of the Turkish doner kebab. To make it, thin slices of marinated meat are pierced and stacked onto a skewer. As the stack gets taller, larger pieces of meat are layered to create a cone-like shape measuring about 60 cm (20 in) high. A motorized spit then slowly turns the cone to roast the outer layer against a vertical heating element.
Once cooked, thin slices of meat are shaved off and served in a pita sandwich or wrap with tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, french fries, and tahini-based sauces. Shawarma was traditionally made with lamb, mutton, or chicken but it can now be made with other types of meat as well like beef or turkey.
Like hummus and falafel, shawarma has become one of the most popular Lebanese foods in the world. Personally, it’s one of my favorite comfort foods, on par with pizzas and burgers.
Photo by chirapbogdan
Kafta (or kofta, kufta) is a type of Lebanese kebab or meatball made with ground meat, onions, parsley, and spices. It’s popular in many countries throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, the Balkans, the South Caucasus, and the Indian subcontinent.
Recipes for kafta vary but it’s typically made with ground meat – usually beef or lamb – mixed with finely chopped parsley, onions, black pepper, salt, and seven spice. The mixture is then formed into patties or shaped over skewers before being grilled over charcoal with tomatoes, onions, and potatoes. It’s typically eaten with rice or pita bread and often served with hummus, fattoush, or tabbouleh.
Lebanese kafta is most commonly grilled but it can be prepared in other ways as well. It can be sautéed, cooked in stews, used as a filling for pitas (arayes), or even eaten raw.
Photo by karammiri
15. Shish Taouk
Shish taouk (or shish tawook) refers to a type of chicken shish kebab. It’s originally a Turkish dish that’s become popular in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East. In Turkish, shish means “skewers” while taouk is derived from tavuk, meaning “chicken”.
To prepare, cubes of chicken are marinated in garlic, lemon juice, yogurt, and spices before being skewered and grilled with onions and tomatoes. It can be served on a platter with rice and salad or in sandwich form wrapped with vegetables in pita. No matter how you have it, it’s almost always seved with toum or Lebanese garlic sauce.
As much as I love hummus and shawarma, shish taouk in sandwich form may be my Lebanese GOAT dish (Greatest Of All Time). It’s disgustingly delicious.
Photo by [email protected]
DESSERT / DRINKS
Maamoul is a type of Lebanese shortbread cookie. It’s traditionally filled with dates but it can be made with nuts like almonds, walnuts, or pistachios as well. They can be shaped simply by hand or molded into more intricate patterns using special molds carved into wood.
Maamoul cookies are typically made around Eid or Easter. It’s unclear why they’ve become associated with the holidays, but it’s been suggested they may be a symbolic sweet treat or reward to celebrate the end of a difficult fast.
Photo by dieasaob
No, that isn’t a typo. Baklawa (or batlawa) is the Lebanese version of the more commonly spelled baklava, a popular dessert made with many layers of filo pastry, chopped nuts, butter, and syrup.
Other than the spelling, Middle Eastern baklawa differs from the Greek version in the type of syrup used. Instead of a honey-based syrup, it’s made with a rose water / orange blossom sugar syrup called atter. It’s lighter and isn’t as syrupy sweet as baklava.
No matter how it’s made, this filo pastry dessert is widely consumed in many countries throughout the Mediterranean, the Balkans, the Middle East, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia. It’s exact origins are unclear though its present version may have been invented in the kitchens of the Ottoman Empire.
Photo by Bernashafo
Kanafeh is a popular Middle Eastern dessert made with shredded filo dough soaked in sweet syrup and layered with cheese. Depending on where it’s from, it can be topped with additional ingredients like pistachio nuts or clotted cream.
Kanafeh is popular throughout the Middle East, the Balkans, the Mediterranean, and the South Caucasus where it goes by different names like kunefe, kataifi, knafeh, and konafa. Like baklawa, it’s exact origins are unclear and often the subject of debate.
No matter where it’s from or what it’s called, one thing is clear, you absolutely need to try kanafeh. It’s served piping hot so the cheese comes away in delicious gooey strings. It’s fantastic and one of my favorite desserts from any culture.
Jallab is a Lebanese drink made with grape molasses, dates, and rose water. The mixture is diluted in water and served in a glass with crushed ice, pine nuts, and golden raisins. It’s a refreshing brew that’s a favorite drink to cool off with in the summer.
Photo by ElianeHaykal
Arak (or araq) is Lebanon’s national drink. It refers to a distilled spirit made with just two ingredients – grapes and aniseed. Known for its cloudy appearance and licorice flavor, it’s a popular unsweetened spirit that’s often enjoyed at Lebanese social gatherings and celebrations.
Arak is strong – about 40-63% ABV – so it’s often mixed with water and ice to dilute it. It’s potency and milky white appearance have earned it the nickname “the milk of lions” in the Middle East.
Photo by [email protected]
FINAL THOUGHTS ON LEBANESE FOOD
Nothing beats having Lebanese food in Lebanon. But thanks to globalization and the Lebanese diaspora, many people can enjoy the wonders of Lebanese cuisine in the comforts of their own city. Like Italian or Japanese food, the fact that it’s become so widely accepted internationally speaks volumes about how special Lebanese food really is.
Cover photo by bhofack2. Stock images via Depositphotos.
This beloved Indonesian national dish of skewered and seasoned meat is perhaps the only dish people new to the cuisine need to eat to fall in love with Indonesian food. It’s so incredibly delicious.
In fact, so delicious is sate that it’s taken root in the cuisines of neighboring countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines. And thanks to their shared colonial history, it’s even become an integral part of Dutch cuisine.
But as delicious and popular as sate is, it’s hardly the only dish that’ll make you take an interest in Indonesian food. Nasi goreng, bakso, babi guling, and mie goreng are just a few other Indonesian dishes that’ll have you hankering for a cuisine that’s about as diverse and varied as the archipelago itself.
To be clear, there are literally thousands of traditional Indonesian recipes so this list of 30 is a mere snapshot of all that Indonesian food has to offer. It would take a lifetime to fully explore Indonesian cuisine so this list represents only the best dishes we’ve tried so far from our trips to Java and Bali.
INDONESIAN FOOD QUICK LINKS
If you’re planning a trip to Indonesia and want to really dive into the cuisine, then you may be interested in going on a food tour or taking a cooking class.
Food Tours: Food and Market Tours in Indonesia
Cooking Classes: Cooking Classes in Indonesia
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WHAT IS TRADITIONAL INDONESIAN CUISINE?
Indonesian cuisine represents the food, recipes, and culinary heritage of the world’s largest archipelago. Indonesia is comprised of 17,508 islands (around 6,000 of which are inhabited) and over 600 ethnic groups, many of which boast their own regional cuisines and culinary traditions.
In all, Indonesian cuisine has about 5,350 traditional recipes. They vary greatly from region to region and exhibit many foreign influences.
In Sumatra for example, you’ll find curried meat and vegetables dishes shaped by Indian and Middle Eastern influences. Eastern Indonesian cuisine is similar to Polynesian and Melanesian cuisines while Javanese food remains mostly indigenous with just hints of Chinese influence.
This confluence of culinary influences is a direct result of Indonesia’s long history as a conduit for trade in Southeast Asia. It’s cuisine was greatly influenced by the cuisines of India, China, the Middle East, Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands.
Because of its vast regional diversity, it’s difficult to characterize Indonesian cuisine, though like many of its Southeast Asian neighbors, Indonesian food can best be described as rich and complex, and intensely flavorful.
WHAT IS A WARUNG?
You’ll probably come across this word often when exploring the food of Indonesia.
Traditionally speaking, a warung refers to a small family-run convenience store selling sundries, snacks, and other small grocery items. It’s typically attached to the front of a family’s home, much like a Filipino sari-sari store.
Today, the term has evolved to refer to modest Indonesian restaurants and cafes. Traveling through the country, you’ll find the term attached to many of these small Indonesian restaurants which are usually named after the main dishes they sell.
A warung roti bakar for example, sells grilled bread while a warung indomie sells mostly instant noodles.
If you intend to explore traditional Indonesian food, especially away from the bigger cities, then you’ll probably be spending a lot of time in these warungs.
THE BEST INDONESIAN DISHES
I’ve organized this Indonesian food guide by category to make it easier to digest. Click on a link to jump to any section.
Soups / Salads / Starters
Meat / Poultry / Seafood
Rice / Noodles
Indonesian Food Tours
Indonesian Cooking Classes
As described, Indonesian food varies greatly from region to region. National dishes are representative of a culture as a whole so if you’d like to experience Indonesian cuisine in broad strokes, then you should start with these six dishes.
As described, sate is one of the most popular and beloved dishes in Indonesian cuisine. It refers to a dish of seasoned, skewered, and grilled meat served with a sauce.
Sate is typically made with small pieces of chicken, beef, pork, mutton, fish, or seafood, but it can be made with many other types of meat and vegetables as well. They’re skewered on bamboo sticks and grilled over charcoal before being served with a variety of sauces, most often a combination of peanut sauce and kecap manis.
Sate is such a popular dish that it’s become a staple food in many other cuisines as well. It’s believed to have been developed by Javanese street food sellers who were trying to replicate Indian kebabs.
From Java, sate spread throughout the Malay archipelago, into countries like Malaysia where it’s become recognized as a national dish.
Sate is ubiquitous in almost every region of Indonesia and is equally popular at street food stalls as it is at warungs and more upscale Indonesian restaurants. It’s one of three Indonesian dishes that made it to CNN Travel’s reader’s poll on the World’s 50 Best Dishes.
2. Nasi Goreng
Nasi goreng literally means “fried rice“. It’s an Indonesian fried rice dish made with kecap manis, shrimp paste, garlic, shallots, tamarind, and chili. I’ll talk about it more later in this guide but kecap manis is a thick sweetened soy sauce often used in Indonesian cuisine. It’s what gives nasi goreng its signature brown color.
Aside from the basic ingredients, nasi goreng can be made with a host of other ingredients like meat, seafood, egg, vegetables, and krupuk (traditional crackers). Pictured below is the delicious nasi goreng kambing (goat fried rice) we enjoyed at the legendary Kebon Sirih stall in Jakarta.
Like sate, nasi goreng made it to CNN Travel’s reader’s list of the World’s 50 Best Dishes.
Sate and nasi goreng may be more well-known to foreigners but tumpeng is the most important Indonesian dish on this list. In fact, until 2018, it was the only dish regarded as an Indonesian national dish by the Ministry of Tourism.
Tumpeng refers to a Javanese cone-shaped rice dish served with a multitude of sides on a banana-leaf covered tampah (woven bamboo tray). It can be made with plain steamed rice, uduk rice (with coconut milk), or yellow rice that’s fashioned into the shape of a perfect mountain using a cone-shaped woven bamboo container.
Tumpeng is an important dish in Indonesian culture because it’s regarded as a symbol of gratitude, a dish that’s often enjoyed to celebrate important events like festivals and birthdays. The cone-shaped rice is meant to symbolize the holy mountain while the many side dishes surrounding it carry meaning as well.
For example, spinach is regarded as a symbol of prosperity in Javanese culture. Catfish represents the importance of good preparation and humility while anchovies symbolize togetherness. It’s a highly symbolic dish and hailed as the one dish that binds the diversity of Indonesia’s various culinary traditions.
If you’re ever at an Indonesian gathering and someone serves you the top of the tumpeng, then consider it a huge honor. In Indonesian gratitude ceremonies called slametan, the top of the tumpeng is cut and typically given to the most important person in the group.
miss_yasmina, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
Rendang refers to an Indonesian meat dish that’s originally from the Minangkabau region in West Sumatra. It’s a curry-like dish that’s believed to have been influenced by north Indian curry.
Like tumpeng, rendang is an important Indonesian cultural food that’s often served at ceremonial gatherings like weddings and birthdays. It’s traditionally made with beef though it can be made with other animal proteins as well like chicken, duck, mutton, or water buffalo. The beef is slow-cooked for several hours in coconut milk and spices until it becomes tender.
Like many of the dishes on this list, rendang has become popular in other Southeast Asian countries as well like Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. It’s the only Indonesian dish that made it to CNN Travel’s list of the World’s 50 Best Foods.
GeeJo, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
Soto refers to a family of traditional Indonesian soups made with meat and vegetables. It’s most commonly made with chicken or beef though it can be made with other types of meat as well like mutton or buffalo.
Soto is widely consumed in many forms throughout Indonesia. It’s usually named after the region where it’s from or the main ingredient used to make it. Examples include soto bandung from Bandung (pictured below) and soto ayam which is chicken soup. Ayam means “chicken”.
Interestingly, there exists another family of soups in Indonesia called sop which are considered different from soto. Soto refers to traditional Indonesian soups while sop refers to soups that have foreign influences.
Gado-gado refers to an Indonesian salad made with slightly boiled, blanched, or steamed vegetables served with a peanut sauce dressing. It’s name literally means “mix-mix” and is in reference to the host of ingredients used to make it like hard-boiled eggs, potatoes, bean sprouts, tofu, tempeh, and krupuk.
Like soto, there exist several variations of gado-gado which are usually named after the region where they’re from. Examples include gado-gado padang, gado-gado betawi, and gado-gado sidoarjo.
Pictured below is a dish called lotek, which if I understand correctly, is a type of Javanese or Sundanese gado-gado.
SOUPS / SALADS / STARTERS
As described, soto refers to traditional Indonesian soups while sop describes soups that have foreign influences. I can’t find any other information to differentiate the two but that appears to be the only distinction.
One of the most popular types of sop is sop buntut. It’s a delicious and hearty oxtail soup in a clear beef broth made with a host of ingredients like carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, celery, leeks, and fried shallots.
Rujak is a traditional Javanese fruit and vegetable salad dish. It exists in many forms throughout Indonesia and is one of the earliest historically identified foods of ancient Java.
Rujak is typically made with sliced fresh fruits and vegetables served with a spicy sugar palm dressing. Unlike western fruit salads, rujak tastes tangy, sweet, and spicy thanks to the dressing made from ground chilli, palm sugar, shrimp paste, and peanuts.
Commonly sold at warungs and markets and from pushcarts, rujak is widely available throughout Indonesia and has become popular in other Southeast Asian countries as well like Singapore and Malaysia.
Sofiah Budiastuti, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
Bakso refers to an Indonesian meatball made from beef surimi. It’s springier than your typical meatball and is closer in texture to a Chinese fish ball.
Unlike regular meatballs made with ground meat, bakso is usually made with much more finely ground beef mixed with a small amount of tapioca flour and salt. Beef is the most common though it can be made with other proteins as well like chicken or fish, even pork.
Bakso has a dense and much more even texture throughout. It can be served in noodle soup dishes or on its own as a soup. You’ll find bakso sold everywhere in Indonesia, from street food carts to warungs to more upscale restaurants.
10. Siomay / Batagor
Siomay and batagor are Indonesian fish dumplings served with a peanut sauce. They’re both derivatives of Chinese shumai with the main difference being that siomay is steamed while batagor is fried.
To prepare, fish paste is stuffed into wonton skins and then either steamed or deep-fried. They’re typically made from tenggiri or Spanish mackerel though they can be made from other seafood proteins as well like tuna or prawn. As you’d expect, batagor tastes like a crispy version of siomay.
Originally from Bandung, siomay and batagor have become widely available throughout Indonesia and are often enjoyed as a snack. They’re typically served with peanut sauce along with condiments like kecap manis, sambal, and lime juice.
Pempek is a type of fishcake originally from Palembang in South Sumatra. Like batagor, it’s a Chinese-influenced dish commonly made with deep-fried tenggiri fish meat.
Pempek is made with boneless ground fish meat mixed with water, salt, and sago flour. The dough is boiled or steamed before being deep-fried and served with a sweet and sour sauce made from palm sugar, chili, garlic, vinegar, and salt.
Pempek is typically cut into bite-sized portions and often served with yellow noodles or rice vermicelli, sliced cucumber, and krupuk. Pempek fish dough is always used though many variants exist based on shape and additional ingredients used.
Midori, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
12. Sate Padang
Sate padang is an interesting type of sate from Padang in West Sumatra. It’s so unique that I felt it deserved its own spot in this food guide.
Sate padang is a type of beef satay served with a thick yellow-brown sauce. What makes sate padang special is the sauce. It’s made from rice flour mixed with beef and offal broth and a host of spices and other ingredients like turmeric, ginger, garlic, coriander, galangal, cumin, and curry powder.
Sate padang is typically made with beef though it can be made with other proteins as well like chicken, goat, lamb, and mutton. It’s often served on a banana leaf with ketupat (rice cake) and sprinkled with crispy fried shallots.
MEAT / POULTRY / SEAFOOD
13. Iga Babi Bali
Iga babi bali refers to Balinese barbecued pork ribs covered in a sticky kecap manis glaze. Like babi guling, it’s delicious and one of the most popular pork dishes you can have in Bali.
Unlike the rest of Indonesia, Bali is predominantly Hindu which is why pork is a common ingredient on the island. Aside from it’s natural beauty, I think this is one of the reasons why Bali is such a popular tourist destination – fewer restrictions on food and drink.
We had this delicious slab of iga babi at Naughty Nuri’s in Seminyak, one of the most famous restaurants in Bali. They became famous internationally after being featured on the Bali episode of No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain.
14. Bebek (Goreng / Bakar)
Bebek is the Indonesian word for “duck”. Like any animal protein, it can be prepared in any number of ways, though two of the most popular recipes in Indonesian cuisine are bebek goreng and bebek bakar which are fried duck and grilled duck respectively.
Bebek goreng is made with ducks that are boiled or steamed before being coated in spices and deep-fried till crispy. It’s usually served with steamed rice, vegetables, lime, and sambal.
Pictured below is the plate of bebek goreng I had in Bali. It’s crispy and delicious and one of my favorite dishes to eat in Indonesia.
Pictured below is bebek bakar or grilled duck. The process is similar to bebek goreng except the duck is brushed with honey, sugar, and margarine before being grilled over charcoal. It’s sweet and smokey and every bit as enjoyable as bebek goreng.
15. Bebek Betutu
Bebek betutu is perhaps one of the most interesting dishes you can have in Bali. It refers to an intensely seasoned Balinese dish of steamed or roasted duck cooked in a betutu spice mixture.
Bebek betutu gets its name from a Balinese spice mixture made with a host of spices and ingredients like garlic, ginger, galangal, turmeric, candle nuts, chili, and shrimp paste. They’re ground into a fine paste using a mortar and pestle and sauteed with coconut oil before being stuffed into the duck and cooked.
Bebek betutu is a ceremonial Balinese dish. It’s time-consuming to prepare so you’ll typically need to order it at least a day in advance. Unlike bebek goreng or bebek bakar which are firmer in texture, the meat in bebek betutu practically slides off the bone.
Because it’s made with so many spices, bebek betutu is incredibly fragrant and aromatic, to the point of being almost perfume-y. It’s an interesting dish and a must-try in Bali.
16. Ayam (Goreng / Bakar)
Ayam means “chicken” so ayam goreng and ayam bakar refer to fried and grilled chicken respectively.
Unlike American-style fried chicken, ayam goreng isn’t coated in batter or flour. Instead, it’s rubbed in a spice mixture made from a multitude of ingredients like garlic, shallots, turmeric, lemongrass, bay leaves, and galangal before being deep-fried.
True to the diversity of Indonesian food, even fried chicken has many recipes and varieties. Pictured below is ayam goreng kremes, a type of Indonesian fried chicken topped with crispy bits of deep-fried flour.
Midori, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
Ayam bakar or Indonesian grilled chicken can vary from region to region but the spice mixture used to make it typically consists of the same set of ingredients like garlic, chili, shallots, coriander, turmeric, galangal, and tamarind juice.
The chicken pieces are often partially cooked in the spice mixture before being charcoal-grilled to imbue them with as much flavor as possible. The rest of the spice mixture is then applied to the chicken as it grills.
In Java, ayam bakar tends to be sweeter because the chicken is basted with kecap manis and coconut oil while grilling.
17. Ikan (Goreng / Bakar)
Ikan means “fish” so ikan goreng and ikan bakar refer to Indonesian fried fish and grilled fish respectively.
Recipes vary but ikan goreng is typically made by marinating fish like carp, gourami, or milkfish in a spice paste similar to the mixture used for ayam goreng. It’s then deep-fried in extremely hot coconut oil until it turns golden brown and the bones become crispy and edible.
Ikan bakar is marinated in a similar spice mixture before being quickly grilled over a hot charcoal fire. Methods vary from region to region but most ikan bakar tend to be on the sweet side thanks to the generous amount of kecap manis used either as a glaze or as a dipping sauce.
Both ikan goreng and ikan bakar are usually eaten with steamed white rice and sambal.
Tempeh isn’t meat, poultry, or seafood but it’s often used as a meat substitute so I’ve added it here. It refers to a Javanese food product made from fermented soybeans bound into cake form. Like tofu, it’s made from soybeans but the production process is different.
Tofu is made from curdled soy milk that’s been pressed into solid white blocks. Tempeh, on the other hand, is made from whole soybeans that are cooked, fermented, and molded into a block.
Fermented soybean is the main ingredient in tempeh but it’s made with other ingredients as well like brown rice, quinoa, flax seed, and spices. It’s firmer in texture and tastes earthier and nuttier than tofu which is more neutral in flavor. It also contains more protein, fiber, and nutrients and is generally considered to be the superior superfood between the two.
Tempeh is commonly deep-fried or stir-fried and used in many Indonesian dishes like soups, salads, sandwiches, and stews.
Sakurai Midori, CC BY-SA 2.1 JP, via Wikimedia Commons / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
RICE / NOODLES
19. Nasi Campur
Nasi campur refers to a type of rice meal enjoyed throughout Indonesia. You may find them called by different names depending on the region but they’re basically meals served with steamed white rice and a variety of different meat, seafood, and vegetable side dishes.
To be honest, I have trouble understanding the exact distinction between these types of rice meals. They exist in other Southeast Asian countries as well where they have different names like nasi kandar and nasi ambeng. To the untrained eye, they all look the same. Nasi means “rice”.
If I understand correctly, nasi campur is the general term used to describe these types of rice meals in Indonesia. There exist regional sub-varieties that can have specific components and go by a different name – like nasi padang from West Sumatra, nasi rames from Java, and nasi ingkung from Yogyakarta – but they can all be considered nasi campur.
Pictured below is a type of nasi campur from Bali called nasi bali. Typical side dishes include beef cubes, grilled tuna, tempe, tofu, cucumber, spinach, vegetable curry, corn, and sambal.
20. Nasi Padang
As described, nasi padang refers to a specific type of nasi campur from Padang in West Sumatra. It’s considered one of the most important Indonesian dishes to come from the island of Sumatra so I’ve listed it on its own in this guide.
Nasi padang consists of steamed white rice served with any variation of about 40 different types of meat, poultry, seafood, vegetable, and sambal dishes. Popular side dishes include boiled cassava leaves, unripe jackfruit curry, beef curries, duck curry, grilled chicken, fried seafood, and fried stink beans.
Nasi padang meals are served in one of two ways – pesan and hidang. Smaller restaurants typically employ the pesan method, meaning customers point at the side dishes they want and the server brings them to you stacked on a plate with rice (similar to Filipino turo-turo).
Larger restaurants will usually employ the hidang method where they bring rice and at least a dozen dishes to your table. You’re free to choose whatever dishes you want and only pay for what you eat.
ProjectManhattan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
21. Nasi Brongkos
I don’t think nasi brongkos can be considered a type of nasi campur since it seems to be a more specific type of rice meal. It’s a specialty of Yogyakarta and resembles a stew with rice more than your typical Indonesian rice meal.
Nasi brongkos refers to a meal of steamed white rice served with a coconut-milk-based stew made with diced meat (usually beef, goat, or mutton), hard-boiled egg, tofu, beans, and chayote. What makes it special is the stew which is made with a variety of spices.
Brongkos stew is typically made with ingredients like black kluwek, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, bay leaves, palm sugar, and a spice paste mixture consisting of galangal, ginger, coriander, shallots, roasted candlenut, and whole bird’s eye chilis.
Like gudeg, nasi brongkos is considered a true Javanese dish that’s largely associated with the city of Yogyakarta.
Gudeg, like nasi brongkos, is considered one of the most important Javanese dishes. It’s such an important dish that it was pretty much all I had on our most recent trip to Yogyakarta.
Gudeg consists of young unripe jackfruit that’s stewed for many hours with palm sugar, coconut milk, and a host of spices like garlic, shallots, galangal, coriander seed, candlenut, and teak leaves. It’s available in wet or dry versions and is typically served with steamed white rice, chicken, hard-boiled egg, tofu, tempeh, and a spicy stew made with crisp beef skin.
23. Babi Guling
Babi guling is one of the best and most delicious dishes you can have in Bali. It refers to a roasted pork dish made with suckling pig stuffed with a spice mixture called basa gede.
Babi guling refers specifically to roast suckling pig but it’s always served with steamed white rice, sambal, and a few side dishes like vegetables, pork satay, blood sausage, and a crispy shard of pork skin. I guess you can say that it’s a specific type of nasi campur?
In any case, the babi guling below was from Ibu Oka in Ubud, the warung made famous by Anthony Bourdain and No Reservations. It’s pretty good though definitely not the best babi guling in Bali.
24. Mie Goreng
Mie goreng refers to a spicy type of Indonesian fried noodles. It’s one of the most popular dishes on this list, made even more famous by the hugely successful instant noodle brand Indomie.
Mie goreng is made with thin yellow noodles stir-fried with garlic, onion, chili, cabbage, tomato, egg, and other vegetables. It’s typically made with some type of meat like prawn, chicken, beef, or sliced bakso.
Like nasi goreng, mie goreng is an ubiquitous Indonesian dish that you can have pretty much anywhere in the country, from street food carts to warungs and high-end Indonesian restaurants. Thanks to Indomie, it’s something we can easily have even when we’re not in Indonesia.
Gunawan Kartapranata, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
As you may have noticed, I’ve mentioned sambal numerous times in this article. It’s a critical part of many Indonesian meals and deserves its own spot in this Indonesian food guide.
Sambal refers to an Indonesian chili sauce or paste made from a variety of chili peppers and any number of secondary ingredients like shrimp paste, garlic, shallots, scallions, ginger, palm sugar, and lime juice. You’ll find it served with many Indonesian dishes like ayam goreng, ikan bakar, nasi campur, babi guling, and more.
Like a few of the dishes on this list, sambal exists in many forms. There are an estimated 200-300 variations of sambal in Indonesia, most of them originating from Java. Depending on where it’s from, sambal can vary in heat level from being intensely hot to mildly spicy to spicy and sweet.
26. Kecap Manis
Kecap manis is another condiment I’ve mentioned quite often in this Indonesian food guide. It refers to a sweetened aromatic soy sauce often used in Indonesian cuisine, either as a cooking ingredient or as a dipping sauce.
Unlike regular soy sauce, kecap manis has a darker color and is thicker in consistency thanks to the addition of palm sugar. It tastes similar to molasses and is a frequently used ingredient in many Indonesian food favorites like sate, nasi goreng, bebek bakar, and other grilled dishes.
Jdmtdktdht, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
Ronde or wedang ronde refers to a traditional Javanese dessert of glutinous rice balls (ronde) served in a hot ginger syrup (wedang). Indonesians like to refer to it as a drink which they often consume to warm up during the cooler winter months.
The rice balls are made in a variety of colors and come in different sizes, with the larger ones containing a filling made with ground peanuts and sugar. The syrup is made with loads of ginger so it tastes sweet, hot, and spicy. If you aren’t used to ginger, then you might find the taste to be a bit strong at first.
We enjoyed this bowl of ronde in the cooler climate of Bandung and it really does a good job of warming you up. You’ll feel a hot zingy sensation inside your throat as you drink the ginger syrup.
Martabak refers to a family of stuffed pancakes or pan-fried breads commonly found in the Arabian Peninsula and in some parts of Southeast Asia. It’s believed to have originated from Yemen and has become a popular street food dish in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Martabak can be made in sweet or savory versions that look quite different from each other. Savory martabak look like large stuffed crepes while sweet versions (martabak manis) resemble thick pancakes topped with a variety of ingredients.
Visit any martabak stall and you’ll find them made with a limitless variety of ingredients. Common savory ingredients include egg, ground meat, green onions, herbs, and potatoes, while martabak manis can be topped with anything sweet like chocolate, Nutella, taro, bananas, candy sprinkles, and peanut butter.
Surabi or serabi refers to a type of Indonesian pancake made from rice flour cooked in a clay pot over charcoal. It’s similar to Thai khanom krok and is believed to have originated from Java.
Like martabak, surabi is made in sweet or savory versions. Sweet versions are traditionally served with a sauce made from coconut milk and palm sugar, but these days, they can be topped with any number of ingredients like banana, jackfruit, chocolate syrup, strawberries, and durian.
Aside from oncom, we haven’t tried savory surabi but I read that they can be made with ingredients like corned beef, cheese, shredded chicken, and sausage.
Kelepon refers to traditional Javanese rice cakes filled with liquid palm sugar and coated with fresh grated coconut. They’re bright green in color and considered a type of kueh, which is a family of bite-sized snacks or desserts popular in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei.
Kelepon dough is made with glutinous rice flour mixed with tapioca. It gets its green color from a paste made from pandan leaves.
To make, small pieces of solid palm sugar are inserted into the glutinous rice dough before they’re formed into balls and boiled. This turns the palm sugar into a liquid which bursts into your mouth when you take a bite of the kelepon. It’s so good.
INDONESIAN FOOD TOURS
When it comes to Indonesian food, no one knows better than a local. What better way to experience Indonesian cuisine than by going on a food tour? A knowledgeable local will take you to the city’s best spots to try some of the tastiest examples of the local food. If you’re visiting Indonesia, then check out Get Your Guide for a list of food tours in different destinations throughout the archipelago.
INDONESIAN COOKING CLASSES
Aside from food tours, we love taking cooking classes on trips. On our most recent trip, we took a cooking class in Bali and learned to make Indonesian dishes like sate, gado-gado, and kare ayam. It was loads of fun and for me, one of the best ways to learn about the local cuisine. If you’re visiting Indonesia, then check out Cookly for a list of cooking classes in different cities throughout the country.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON INDONESIAN FOOD
As described at the top of this article, Indonesian food is incredibly diverse. The world’s largest archipelago has around 6,000 inhabited islands and almost as many traditional recipes so this list of 30 barely scratches the surface.
As with all our food guides, it’s something we plan on expanding and improving upon after every return trip to Indonesia. The islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi are of particular interest.
But if you’re interested mainly in traditional Indonesian food, then this list should be a good start. It includes some of the best dishes in Java, which based on what I’ve read, is still mostly indigenous. I’m not an expert but to me, that sounds like Javanese food represents some of the purest forms of Indonesian cuisine in the country.
In any case, I hope you enjoyed reading this guide and it helps lead you to some of the best food in Indonesia. Have a great trip!
Some of the links in this Indonesian food guide are affiliate links. We’ll get a small commission if you make a purchase at no additional cost to you. We only recommend products and services that we use ourselves and firmly believe in. We really appreciate your support as it helps us make more of these free travel guides. Thank you!
In my opinion, Spain is one of the world’s best countries for food. It’s home to an influential cuisine that’s given birth to globally appealing dishes like paella, tapas, and churros.
Having grown up in the Philippines, Spanish food is very familiar to us. Many Filipino dishes were either introduced by Spain or adapted from Spanish cuisine like arroz caldo, pochero, afritada, and ensaymadas.
On our most recent trip to Europe, we dedicated over half our time to Spain so we could really sink our teeth into Spanish cuisine and try as many traditional Spanish dishes as we could.
We visited prominent Spanish food cities like Barcelona, Madrid, Granada, and San Sebastian, along with lesser known but equally delicious destinations like Logroño and Oviedo to come up with this Spanish food guide with 45 must-try dishes in Spain.
If you’re planning a trip to the Iberian peninsula and looking for the best food in Spain, then this Spanish food guide will give you plenty to look forward to.
SPANISH FOOD QUICK LINKS
If you’re planning a trip to Spain and want to really learn about the cuisine, then you may be interested in going on a food tour or taking a cooking class.
Food Tours: Food and Wine/Drinking Tours in Spain
Cooking Classes: Cooking Classes in Spain
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WHAT IS TRADITIONAL SPANISH FOOD?
Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world. It favors heavily in Spanish cuisine and is used as the base in many sofritos or vegetable sauces.
Garlic is a universal ingredient in Spanish cooking while some of the most essential herbs and spices include saffron, pimenton, oregano, rosemary, and parsley. Chicken and pork are most common though different types of poultry, meat, and seafood are consumed on a regular basis in Spain.
More than Spanish food itself, what I found most fascinating were the people’s eating habits. Spanish people eat dinner late, around 9-10PM, because they have lengthy lunches that take anywhere between 2-3 hours.
Lunches in Spain typically start at around 2PM so it’s customary for businesses to close for several hours during the day. Lunches only take about an hour but Spanish people like to partake in sobremesas. This refers to the practice of staying at the table and socializing after a heavy meal.
From sobremesas to pintxos bar hopping to aperitivo time, this social component is what largely defines Spanish food culture. It’s a trait that many former Spanish colonies understand very well.
We got it after all, from Spain.
MUST-TRY TRADITIONAL SPANISH FOOD
To help organize this Spanish food guide, I’ve divided the 45 dishes by category. Click on a link to jump to any section.
Tapas / Pintxos
Breads / Sandwiches
Spanish Food Tours
Spanish Cooking Classes
TAPAS / PINTXOS
Tapas refers to a family of appetizers or snacks popular in Spanish cuisine. They’re one of the most well-known Spanish foods so over half this guide consists of these small dishes that you can enjoy all throughout Spain.
Pintxos refers to a type of tapas popular in northern Spanish regions like the Basque Country, La Rioja, Cantabria, Asturias, and Navarra. They’re typically skewered onto a piece of white bread with a toothpick to hold the ingredients in place.
As described, Spain is the biggest producer of olive oil in the world so it only follows that aceitunas or olives are one of the most common tapas. They’re typically served pickled and can be stuffed with a filling of anchovies or red bell peppers.
2. Tortilla Española
Tortilla española or tortilla de patatas is one of the most well-known Spanish foods. It refers to a Spanish omelette traditionally made with eggs, potatoes, and olive oil.
Tortilla española is often served as tapas or as a side dish. It can be made with onions, though the addition of onions is often met with controversy. Sincebollistas (without-onionists) believe that onions have no place in an authentic Spanish tortilla.
3. Patatas Bravas
Patatas bravas or papas bravas is a popular Spanish tapa or side dish made with white potatoes cut into irregular chunks or cubes. They’re deep-fried in olive oil and served with salsa brava and mayonnaise or aioli. Salsa brava refers to a mildly spicy Spanish tomato sauce made with paprika.
Patatas bravas are originally from Madrid though it’s become one of the most popular tapas dishes throughout Spain.
A calcot is a variety of scallion popular in Spanish Catalan cuisine. They’re similar to leeks and are larger and milder in flavor than a typical green onion.
In Spain, calcots are harvested between November and April and are best consumed during the calcotada season, which happens around February and March. We visited Barcelona in late April and were lucky enough to catch the tail end of the season which is often extended due to its popularity.
Calcots are typically grilled over an open fire and wrapped in newspaper to keep them tender. They’re served on warm terra cotta tiles and eaten with a salvitxada sauce made with almond, tomato, garlic, pepper, vinegar, and olive oil.
The calcots I had below were deep-fried in batter, presumably after being grilled, and served with a mildly spicy salsa brava.
5. Padron Peppers
Padron peppers are a type of Spanish pepper that grow in the municipality of Padron in Galicia. Protected by EU law, they’re a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) food product under the name Pimiento de Herbón.
Padron peppers are small, about 5 cm (2 inches) in length, and typically bright green to yellow green in color, though they can also be red. What makes them interesting is that about 10-25% of padron peppers are naturally hot while the rest are mild.
Whether a padron pepper matures to be hot or mild is linked to how much water and sunlight it receives as it grows. Until you eat it, there’s no way of knowing if a particular pepper will be mild or hot.
Padron peppers are customarily fried in olive oil until the skin blisters and the pepper collapses. They’re sprinkled with coarse salt and often eaten with bread as tapas.
6. Pintxos de Txampis
There are many delicious types of pintxos in San Sebastian but pintxos de txampis or mushroom pintxos is one of our favorites. It refers to a type of pintxo made with a stack of two or three cremini mushroom caps stuffed with shrimp.
You can find pintxos de txampis at some bars in San Sebastian but the best are made in Logroño. A couple of Spanish locals told us that Logroño has really mastered this dish and they weren’t kidding. Dripping in garlic and butter, they’re absolutely delicious and one of the best tapas or pintxos we had in Spain.
Logroño is the capital of La Rioja province and located about two hours south of San Sebastian. If you’re comfortable renting a car, then I highly recommend spending an afternoon there. You can check our Logroño pintxos guide for suggestions on what and where to eat.
7. Queso de Cabrales
Queso de Cabrales is a type of Spanish blue cheese made by rural dairy farmers in Asturias. It can be made with pure unpasteurized cow’s milk, or blended with goat’s and/or sheep’s milk to give the cheese a stronger, spicier taste.
Aside from its flavor, what makes Queso de Cabrales interesting is how it’s produced. It’s made exclusively with milk from herds raised in the Picos de Europa mountain range.
After being left to cure and harden in cylindrical molds for about two weeks, the cheese is aged for an additional two to five months in natural limestone caves.
The high humidity (90%) and cool temperature (7–13°C / 45–55°F) promote the growth of penicillium molds which causes blue-green veins to form throughout the cheese. This is what gives the cheese its characteristic flavor.
Like Roquefort and Gorgonzola, Queso de Cabrales is a famous European blue cheese that enjoys Protected Designation of Origin status.
8. Anchoas / Boquerones
Anchoas and boquerones are popular Spanish foods that you can enjoy throughout Spain. They both refer to Spanish tapas dishes made with anchovies.
If I understand correctly, anchoas refers to salt-cured anchovies while boquerones refers to fresh or uncured anchovies. The darker fillets below are the anchoas while the lighter ones are the boquerones, or more specifically, boquerones en vinagre (marinated in vinegar). The deep-fried version of boquerones is called boquerones fritos.
9. Gambas al Ajillo
Gambas al ajillo is one of the most popular Spanish foods. It’s well-known even outside of Spain and refers to a popular Spanish dish of prawns sauteed with loads of garlic and olive oil. The term gambas al ajillo translates to “shrimp with garlic” or “garlic shrimp”.
Gambas al ajillo is often served with a loaf of Spanish crusty bread which you can use to mop up the garlicky olive oil.
10. Chipirones Fritos
Chipirones fritos may not be as well-known as gambas al ajillo but they’re equally delicious. It refers to a Spanish tapas dish of battered and deep-fried baby squid or small cuttlefish. They’re served with a wedge of lemon and are especially popular in the southern regions of Spain.
Mejillones is the Spanish word for mussels. It’s a popular ingredient for tapas and can be prepared in a number of ways, like mejillones en escabeche (marinated), mejillones al vapor (steamed), mejillones a la marinera (marinera sauce), and mejillones rellenos (stuffed).
Navajas is the Spanish word for razor clams. In Spain, they’re typically served “a la plancha” which means they’re grilled on a flat metal plate. They’re cooked with olive oil, garlic, and fresh parsley and served with a wedge of lemon.
Bacalao is one of the most popular Portuguese foods but it’s widely consumed in Spain as well. It refers to salted cod that can be prepared in a number of ways, some of the most popular being bacalao con tomate (tomato sauce), bacalao a la Vizcaina (stewed), and bacalao al pil pil (with garlic and olive oil).
At tapas bars, we’ve had bacalao served in croquetas, as fritters, or topped over pieces of bread. Pictured below are hefty chunks of bacalao pintxos from a bar in Logroño.
14. Pulpo a la Gallega
Pulpo a la gallega (or polbo a feira) refers to a traditional Galician-style dish of boiled octopus served with a generous amount of paprika.
To make pulpo a la gallega, the octopus is boiled in a copper cauldron for 40-90 minutes until it achieves a texture that’s neither rubbery nor overcooked, similar to al dente pasta. It’s then trimmed into bite-sized pieces with scissors and sprinkled with coarse salt, sweet and spicy paprika, and drizzled with olive oil.
This popular Spanish dish is traditionally served on a wooden plate with bread and enjoyed with red wine.
These odd, claw-like creatures are called percebes or gooseneck barnacles. Like pulpo a la gallega, they’re a delicacy in Galicia and along the Portuguese coast.
Percebes are nicknamed “Lucifer’s Fingers” because of their devilish appearance and the fact that they’re notoriously difficult to harvest. They grow on craggy rocks in the ocean’s intertidal zone where crashing waves feed them a steady diet of plankton. They’re impossible to farm so percebes divers have to risk life and limb to harvest them.
We had percebes several times in Spain and Portugal and they were always prepared the same way – boiled in seawater and served as is. To eat, you squeeze the barnacle at the bottom so the flesh pops out from the top. They taste like the ocean and have a meaty, firm texture similar to sea snails.
16. Jamon Iberico de Bellota
Jamon iberico refers to a type of dry-cured Spanish ham made from Iberico or Black Iberian pigs. It’s one of the best and most sought after cured hams in the world, famous for its smooth texture and rich savory-sweet taste.
The finest grade of jamon iberico is known as jamon iberico de bellota. It’s made from Iberico pigs that freely roam the oak forests of Spain and Portugal and feed almost exclusively on a diet of acorns.
Jamon iberico de bellota is cured for 36 months and can be made from pure bred or non-pure bred Iberico pigs. Black label jamon iberico is made from 100% pure-bred pigs and is considered the finest type of Spanish jamon.
Like paella, jamon iberico is one of the most well-known and sought-after Spanish foods. It’s a dish that you absolutely must try in Spain.
Chorizo refers to a fermented and cured smoked sausage popular in Spanish cuisine. It’s typically made from coarsely chopped pork and pork fat seasoned with garlic, pimenton, and salt.
There are hundreds of varieties of Spanish chorizo, though they’re generally classified as either spicy (picante) or sweet (dulce) depending on the type of pimenton used. They can be either short or long, hard or soft, and can be eaten as tapas or used as an ingredient in other Spanish dishes.
Albondigas refers to Spanish meatballs. They’re believed to be a Berber or Arabic dish that was introduced to Spain during the period of Muslim rule. The term albondigas is derived from the Arabic word “al-bunduq” which means hazelnut or small round object.
Spanish albondigas are typically made from pork or beef and served in a tomato sauce, either as tapas or as the main course.
The croqueta is one of the most popular tapas dishes in Spanish cuisine. It refers to a Spanish croquette typically made with a thick bechamel sauce that’s breaded and deep-fried.
Croquetas are usually filled with jamon, chicken, or bacalao but they can be stuffed with any number of ingredients. You can find less traditional croquetas made with various ingredients like mushroom, blood sausage (morcilla), tuna, and cuttlefish cooked in its own ink.
We’re used to eating croquettes made with mashed potato but this was the first time we’ve tried them with bechamel sauce. Bechamel croquettes have a taste and texture that’s quite different from croquettes made with potato.
20. La Bomba
La bomba refers to a type of Spanish croquette made with mashed potato and meat. It can be found throughout Spain but it’s largely associated with Barcelona where it was invented.
La bomba was created in the mid-1950s by La Cova Fumada. It’s an iconic Spanish tapas bar in the former fishing neighborhood of La Barceloneta. Meaning “the bomb” in Spanish, la bomba got its name from a customer who exclaimed – “Wow! This is a bomb!” – after tasting the spicy sauce on top.
La bomba is filled with beef and/or pork and topped with aioli and this legendary sauce. At La Cova Fumada, you can have the sauce either spicy or very spicy.
La bomba is available at many Spanish tapas bars throughout Barcelona but you may want to have it at La Cova Fumada where it was invented.
21. Pinchos Morunos
Pinchos morunos or pinchitos are kebab-like skewers of meat. They’re a traditional Spanish dish of Moorish origin and typically made with pork or chicken.
To prepare, small cubes of lean diced pork or chicken are marinated in olive oil and a spice blend known as ras el hanout. Recipes vary but this spice blend can be made with up to forty different spices like cumin, oregano, thyme, coriander, turmeric, paprika, nutmeg, and cinnamon.
The seasoned meat is threaded onto skewers and traditionally cooked over charcoal. They’re often served with pieces of bread, wedges of lemon, and wine.
Morcilla is the Spanish word for blood sausuage. It can be found in many cultures throughout the world, including Spanish cuisine where it exists in many variants.
One of the most popular types of Spanish blood sausage is morcilla de Burgos. It’s made primarily with pork blood and fat, rice, onions, and salt. Other varieties include morcilla patatera made with roughly mashed potatoes and morcilla dulce which is a sweeter type of blood sausage.
Morcilla is typically fried, grilled, stewed, or roasted and is used as an ingredient in many Spanish dishes like croquetas, omelettes, and puff pastries.
Pictured below are the delicious morcilla tapas we enjoyed at a Spanish tapas bar in Granada. It was served over soft white bread and topped with pine nuts.
23. Pintxos with Foie Gras
I don’t know if there’s a formal name for this type of pintxo but you’ll find them at many pintxos bars in San Sebastian. It’s a type of warm pintxo made with foie gras served over a piece of crusty Spanish bread.
In the foreground below is foie a la plancha and behind it is solomillo con foie. Foie a la plancha is made with just grilled foie gras while solomillo con foie includes hefty chunks of sirloin. Both are sensational and something you should eat as often as you can while in San Sebastian.
24. Oreja a la Plancha
Oreja a la plancha refers to a Spanish tapas dish made with pork ears. Popular in Madrid, pig’s ears are chopped into slices or cubes then grilled in olive oil with different spices and seasonings. It’s typically served with bread in a salsa brava or spicy tomato sauce.
In Madrid, oreja a la plancha is often served with mushroom, bacon, and wedges of lemon. In the Basque Region, it’s served with salsa vizcaina which is a sauce made with onions, garlic, and red peppers.
BREADS / SANDWICHES
25. Pa Amb Tomaquet
Pa amb tomaquet or pan con tomate is one of the most well-known Spanish foods. It’s especially popular in Catalonia where it’s considered a staple Spanish food.
Pa amb tomaquet is a traditional Spanish food classic of toasted or untoasted white bread rubbed over with fresh tomato and (sometimes) garlic, and seasoned with olive oil and salt. It’s served at many Spanish restaurants and bars, either as tapas or as a side dish to accompany any meal from breakfast to dinner.
We enjoyed pa amb tomaquet at nearly every meal in Barcelona. Some Spanish restaurants will serve the bread already brushed with the tomato mixture while others will let you do it yourself.
26. Bocadillo de Jamon
Bocadillo de jamon refers to a sandwich made with a Spanish-style baguette layered with slices of ham like jamon serrano or jamon iberico.
At its most basic, it can be made with just white bread and jamon but it can also be filled with other ingredients like manchego cheese, tomato, roasted piquillo peppers, and black olives. To make it even more flavorful, the bread is often brushed with olive oil, tomato, and garlic ala pa amb tomaquet.
You can find bocadillo de jamon pretty much anywhere in Spain. Personally, I find it hard walking into a jamoneria and not walking out munching on one of these simple but delicious sandwiches.
27. Bocadillo de Calamares
Bocadillo de calamares refers to a Spanish squid sandwich popular in Madrid. You can find it at many Spanish bars and shops throughout the capital, especially around Plaza Mayor.
To prepare, squid is cut into one-centimeter thick rings and battered in flour before being deep-fried in olive oil. It can be served on its own in a Spanish-style baguette or topped with a mildly spicy sauce made with tomato, mayonnaise, and garlic.
Paella is one of the most famous dishes in Spanish cuisine. This hugely popular rice dish is available throughout Spain and is considered by many to be a Spanish national dish, though it has its roots in Valencia.
Paella refers to a traditional Spanish rice dish made with round grain rice, saffron, olive oil, meat, seafood, beans, and green vegetables. It gets its name from the wide shallow pan with two side handles used to cook the dish, traditionally over an open fire.
Paella has become one of the most popular Spanish dishes outside of Spain. It’s made with any number of ingredients though to the Valencian, there are only two authentic versions of paella – paella valenciana and paella de marisco (seafood paella).
You can read more about this hugely popular Spanish rice dish in my article about paella.
Fideua refers to the lesser known cousin of paella. Originally from the coast of Valencia, it’s almost identical to seafood paella except its made with noodles instead of rice.
Fideua is typically made with a variety of seafood and thin, chopped up noodles similar to spaghettini or angel hair pasta. It isn’t as filling as traditional seafood paella which some people may prefer.
Pictured below is the delicious fideua negra I enjoyed in Barcelona. It’s made with squid ink which turns the entire dish (and your teeth) black.
Callos is another popular Spanish dish. It’s a stewed tripe dish available throughout Spain, though it’s typically associated with Madrid where it’s known as callos a la madrileña.
In Madrid, callos is traditionally made with beef or pork tripe, pork snout and trotters, chorizo, serrano ham, morcilla, pimenton, and soup vegetables like carrot and onion. It’s cooked slowly until the tripe is tender and the broth becomes rich in gelatin from the pork bones and cartilage.
Callos is one of my favorite Spanish foods and something we enjoy often in the Philippines. The Philippine version is made with chickpeas which they don’t seem to use in Spain, at least not in Madrid.
31. Fabada Asturiana
Fabada asturiana refers to a Spanish bean stew made with fabes de la granja, a type of large white bean from Spain. Fabada is originally from Asturias in northwestern Spain but it’s widely available throughout the country, even at Spanish supermarkets where it’s sold in cans.
Fabada is a rich and filling traditional Spanish dish that’s most commonly eaten in winter. It can be served as a starter or main course and is made with a variety of meats like asturian chorizo, lacon gallego (Galician dried ham), bacon, and morcilla.
We enjoyed this hearty bowl at La Corte de Pelayo, a popular restaurant in Oviedo that was a finalist in the 2018 Fabada World Championships.
32. Cap i Pota
Cap i pota refers to a classic Catalan stew made with slow-cooked beef head and leg. Cap means “head” and pota means “leg”.
During the postwar period in Spain, chicken and steak were luxuries so Spanish people improvised and created dishes using less desirable animal parts like the head, offal, and sweetbreads.
From what I understand, Spanish dishes like cap i pota have become less fashionable in modern times. It’s considered rustic “grandmother food” but we were fortunate to experience it on an excellent Barcelona food and wine tour.
33. Rabo de Toro
Rabo de toro refers to a traditional Spanish dish of braised oxtail. From what I understand, it was originally made with bull tail though it’s now more commonly prepared with oxtail or cow tail.
Rabo de toro is originally from the Andalusian region of Spain where it was traditionally made after bull fights. It’s become popular throughout Spain, especially in Madrid where bullfighting is apparently still a thing.
Oxtail is extremely bony and tough so it needs to be slow-cooked for several hours over a low flame. Once softened, it becomes fatty and gelatinous and practically dissolves in your mouth. Personally, it’s one of my favorite cuts of meat.
34. Botifarra amb Mongetes
Botifarra amb mongetes means “sausage with beans” and refers to a classic sausage and bean stew from Catalonia. It’s made with Iberian white kidney beans and Catalan sausage made from pork and spices.
Botifarra is typically made from lean cuts of pork thigh and shoulder, bacon, coarse ground black pepper, and sea salt. Depending on the butcher, they can be made with other ingredients as well, giving rise to variations like black botifarra (with boiled pork blood), botifarra d’arros (with boiled rice), bisbe (with tripe), and botifarra d’ou (with egg).
Unlike fabada asturiana where the beans are boiled, the beans in botifarra amb mongetes are fried and garnished with chopper garlic and parsley.
Like fabada, cachopo is a popular Spanish dish in the Asturias region of Spain. It consists of two breaded and fried veal fillets layered with ham and cheese and served with a side of fried potatoes.
Cachopo is traditionally made with veal though it can be made with other proteins as well like fish, chicken, and pork. They can be stuffed with a variety of ingredients like mushroom, pepper, and foie gras.
I grew up in an era where veal was considered inhumane but apparently, that no longer seems to be the case. Housing calves in tiny crates was outlawed in the UK in 1990 and the rest of Europe in 2007, with an increasing number of farmers hoping to change public perception by producing ethically-raised veal.
Be sure to check out our article on Spanish desserts for more suggestions on what delicious sweet treats to look for in Spain.
36. Churros con chocolate
The churro is one of the most popular and beloved pastries in Spanish cuisine. It’s popular in Spain and Portugal and in former Spanish and Portuguese colonies like the Philippines and Latin America.
Churros are Spanish fried-dough pastries that are typically eaten for breakfast or as a snack with hot chocolate or cafe con leche. They’re fried till crunchy and maintain a ridged surface after being piped through a churrera – a syringe-like tool with a star-shaped nozzle.
Churros are among the most popular Spanish foods and can be enjoyed pretty much anywhere, from pastry shops to street food carts.
The plate of churros con chocolate below was from the iconic Chocolateria San Gines, one of the most famous chocolaterias in Madrid. They can be served curled, straight, or in spiral form.
37. Basque Burnt Cheesecake
As its name suggests, Basque burnt cheesecake is a type of Spanish cheesecake from the Basque region. It’s a crustless cheesecake with a burnt top that was invented by the La Viña bar in San Sebastian.
New York cheesecake has long been one of my favorite desserts in the world but Basque burnt cheesecake is even better. Unlike a typical baked cheesecake that’s firm throughout, Basque burnt cheesecake is soft and fluffy around the edges and gooey and more molten towards the center. It’s absolutely delicious.
38. Crema Catalana
Crema catalana is basically the Spanish version of creme brulee. While creme brulee is made with cream and aromatized with vanilla, crema catalana is made with milk and aromatized with cinnamon and lemon zest. As its name suggests, it’s a Spanish dessert popular in Catalan cuisine.
Photo by asimojet
39. Mel i Mato
Mel i mato is another Spanish dessert popular in Catalan cuisine. It consists of honey and mato which is a subtly sweet fresh cheese made from goat, sheep, or cow’s milk.
A chunk of mato is served on a plate and drizzled with a generous amount of honey. It can be presented on its own or served with nuts, jam, and dry or fresh fruit.
Carbayon is a type of Spanish almond puff pastry popular in Oviedo. It’s filled with a mixture of egg, ground almonds, cognac, and sugar which is then covered with a crusty layer made with lemon juice, syrup, and cinnamon.
This almond pastry is so beloved in Oviedo that it’s considered a cultural symbol of the city.
Pionono is a type of Spanish pastry from the Andalusia region. It’s originally from Santa Fe which is a small town about 12.5 km (7.8 miles) west of Granada.
The pastry consists of two parts – a bottom layer of rolled pastry drenched with syrup and a crown of toasted cream. It’s soft, sweet, and spongey and typically consumed in just a few bites.
Photo by Jimenezar via Shutterstock
Vermut is the Spanish word for vermouth. It refers to an aromatized fortified wine flavored with various botanicals like roots, barks, flowers, seeds, herbs, and spices.
Vermut is hugely popular in Spain where it’s enjoyed as an aperitif. Over the weekends, Spanish people will often go to bodegas or vermuterias to have vermut and tapas before proceeding to lunch.
You can enjoy vermut on its own or spritzed with a bit of carbonated water using a sifon. It’s quite sweet and goes very well with the acidity of aceitunas.
43. Sherry Wine
Sherry or vino de jerez is a type of Spanish fortified wine made primarily from palomino grapes grown in the Jerez-Xeres-Sherry region of Andalusia. It’s fortified with destilado and can range in color from light to dark.
Sherry is a DOP wine, meaning a bottle must be produced within the Sherry Triangle and adhere to a specific set of regulations to carry the “Sherry” label.
44. Basque Cider
Basque cider or sagardoa is an alcoholic apple cider drink popular in the Basque region. Spanish apples are put through a natural fermentation process to produce a sharp-tasting drink that’s somewhat earthy and straw-like in flavor.
The best time to try Basque cider is during the txotx season which goes from around mid-January until April or May. Txotx refers to the act of pouring cider directly from the barrel and pairing it with a traditional Spanish menu of cod, steak, cheese, apple jelly, and walnuts.
Carajillo refers to a hot Spanish coffee drink spiked with brandy, whisky, or anisette. At its most basic, it’s made by pouring brandy into a freshly brewed glass of coffee, but more elaborate versions exist that call for the partial burning of the alcohol with sugar, cinnamon, coffee beans, and lemon rind.
According to our Spanish tour guide in Barcelona, the name carajillo stems from the word coraje which means “courage” in Spanish. It dates back to the time when Cuba was a Spanish province and troops would spike their coffee with rum to give them a boost of courage.
SPANISH FOOD TOURS
No one knows Spanish food better than a local so what better way to experience Spanish cuisine than by going on a food tour? A food-obsessed local will take you to the city’s best spots and explain every dish to you in more detail.
We went on a Spanish food tour in Barcelona and it turned out to be one of our favorite days in Spain. Check out Get Your Guide for a list of food and drinking tours in Barcelona and in other cities throughout the country.
SPANISH COOKING CLASSES
Aside from food tours, taking cooking classes is one of our favorite things to do on trips. Eating Spanish food is one thing but learning how to make it is another. For me, taking a cooking class is one of the best ways to learn about an unfamiliar cuisine. Check out Cookly for a list of cooking classes in Barcelona and in other cities throughout Spain.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON TRADITIONAL SPANISH FOOD
As with all our food guides, this Spanish food list is by no means a finished product but I do hope it leads you to some terrific food in Spain.
Because of our affinity to Spanish food and culture, we’re already planning a return trip to Spain. And when that trip happens, we’ll stay for no less than three months.
We want to immerse ourselves in the culture and really sink our teeth into Spanish cuisine. With so much good food in Spain, we want to discover and experience as many traditional Spanish dishes as we can. This first edition of our Spanish food guide is a good start but it’s only just beginning to scratch the surface of Spanish cuisine.
Thanks for reading and we hope you have a wonderful time eating all this delicious food in Spain. If you have recommendations on other must-try Spanish foods, then please let us know in the comments below. Salud!
Some of the links in this Spanish food guide are affiliate links, meaning we’ll earn a small commission if you make a booking at no added expense to you. We only recommend products and services that we use ourselves and firmly believe in. We really appreciate your support as this helps us make more of these free travel guides. Gracias!
EDITOR’S NOTE: Traveleater BJ Young has been living in Shanghai for over 15 years and spills the beans on what dishes to eat on your next visit to Shanghai.
After many years living in Shanghai, there are now very few culinary delights that I’m not able to track down in my adopted city. This is because all manner of chefs and cooks from the farthest corners of China and the world come to Shanghai, to open or work at restaurants or try to make it big feeding the world’s most populous city.
But despite having so much choice, there are a few dishes that I find myself returning to time and time again, even after 15 years. With the help of my Shanghainese colleagues, I’ve compiled a list of 25 things to eat in Shanghai that we love, for food pilgrims to experience what eating is like in our city.
FOOD IN SHANGHAI QUICK LINKS
Eating at local restaurants is great, but so is going on a food tour. Check out some of the most popular food-related tours and activities in Shanghai.
Food Tour: 3-Hour Local Food Tasting Tour
Tea and Dessert Tasting: Shanghai 3-Hour Afternoon Tea Tasting and Dessert Tour
Save This on Pinterest!
No time to read this Shanghai food guide now? Click on the save button and pin it for later!
WHAT IS SHANGHAI CUISINE?
Shanghai cuisine is a popular style of Chinese food. In the strictest sense, it refers to what’s known as Benbang cuisine – a style of cooking that originated in Shanghai – but it can also refer to the styles of cooking of the surrounding Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.
Traditional Shanghai cuisine makes use of various cooking methods and condiments to create dishes that are lighter, mellower, and a little sweeter compared to other regional Chinese cuisines. Sugar and soy sauce are important ingredients while sweet and sour is a typical Shanghai taste. Seafood is abundant and rice is generally preferred over noodles.
With increased globalization, foreign influences have made their way into Shanghai Chinese food and given rise to a curious style of fusion cooking known as Haipai cuisine. It combines regional Chinese and Western cooking traditions to create unique dishes like Shanghai-style borscht, fried pork chops, and potato salad.
THE BEST FOOD IN SHANGHAI
To make it easier to digest, I’ve categorized this Shanghai food guide and included the dish names in Chinese characters as well as in pinyin for easier ordering. Click on a link to jump to that section.
If you are unsure of the Chinese tones, perhaps try saying the pinyin really really fast (like I do when I try out unfamiliar Chinese words), and half the time the food vendor will figure it out.
Street Food & Snacks
Restaurant Small Dishes
Where to Eat in Shanghai
Shanghai Food Tours
Shanghai Cooking Classes
MUST-TRY SHANGHAI DISHES
These first three dishes are the heavy hitters that appear on every must-eat Shanghai food list. So let’s get these out of the way:
1. Shanghai Soup Dumplings (xiaolongbao 小笼包 or tang bao 汤包)
These paper-thin dumplings are filled with meat and piping hot soup lying in wait to scald the uninitiated. They’re best dipped in vinegar and julienned ginger, and seriously good.
Shanghai soup dumplings are available in most Shanghai restaurants, but many head to one of the branches of Din Tai Fung for its consistent quality.
A word of caution, learn how to properly eat xiaolongbao lest you don’t mind burning the inside of your mouth. Many Shanghai restaurants like Din Tai Fung will teach you proper technique.
This is another dish that no self-respecting Shanghai restaurant menu could ever be without. Tender pork belly cubes are doused in a sweet and sticky sauce – a mixture of vinegar, soy, and sugar that come together in a vibrant red color, hence the Chinese character “hong” (红) in the name.
Hong shao rou perfectly showcases the Shanghainese fondness for mixing savory or sour with blasts of sweet.
“Hong Shao Rou” by Ruocaled, used under CC BY 2.0 / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
3. Steamed Hairy Crab (qing zheng da zha xie 清蒸大闸蟹)
Come late September/early October, the entire city of Shanghai will be in a tizzy with the arrival of this scarce delicacy from nearby Yangcheng Lake, especially the prized crab roe.
Tedious to de-bone (or is it de-clawed?) and definitely not wallet-friendly, having this dish for dinner is nonetheless a big event that Shanghainese look forward to every autumn. For the O.G. of hairy crab Shanghai restaurants, head to Wang Bao He on Fuzhou Road (福州路603号).
J. Patrick Fischer / CC BY-SA / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
SHANGHAI CHINESE BREAKFAST
Breakfast time is an absolute bonanza for Shanghai street food carts. With droves of worker drones in need of quick sustenance, nearly every downtown street will be buzzing with humble mobile carts, and restaurants will open to the street with breakfast options to grab and go. For serious Shanghai street food lovers, 8-10AM is the optimal time for foraging.
4. Shanghai Shao Mai (烧卖)
Less well-known than its Cantonese cousin – the dim sum mainstay shumai – Shanghai’s version is filled with sticky rice and shaped like a bell, with a small neck and a big, round bottom.
Fillings may include pork, bamboo shoots, shrimp and lamb, but my favorite is the one stuffed with a cooked egg yolk and threads of crab. I grab this at the convenience store in the mornings, but my local colleagues never fail to scoff that the only acceptable shao mai are the ones at Baiyulan 白玉兰on Tianyaoqiao Road 天钥桥路98号.
5. Deep-Fried Dough (youtiao 油条)
Often served with rice congee, youtiao is basically a savory version of a churro, if the churro were bigger and airier. Its name literally translates to “oil strip”, but the Cantonese have an even better name which translates to “oil-fried devil”. Enough said.
6. Egg Pancake (dan bing 鸡蛋饼)
Originally from Nanjing, this is a breakfast burrito, Chinese style. The wrap is made of egg mixed with a little water, flour and cornstarch, grilled until a bit crispy on the outside but still chewy on the inside.
In goes a tangy hoisin-flavored sauce and a choose-your-own-adventure spread of fillings, from the wonderful to the weird: chicken, back bacon, hotdogs, potato slivers, tofu skin, seaweed, scallions and wickedly spicy sauce.
The queues are always long for this, the ultimate Chinese breakfast! Thankfully, there’s a dan bing stall on practically every street.
7. Shandong Pancake (shan dong jian bing 山东煎饼)
If dan bing were a burrito, then Shandong pancake would be a crepe. Just like a crepe, the Shandong jian bing is paper-thin and cooked till crispy on a custom flat round grill. No oil is added to the grill, so it’s less greasy than its Chinese burrito cousins – unless, of course, you opt to add a youtiao fried dough stick in the middle.
Other common fillings are egg (cracked then spread over the entire surface of the crepe while it’s cooking), chicken, scallions and lettuce leaves, with a slather of hoisin sauce. This is often sold by the same street food stalls offering egg pancakes.
8. Scallion Pancake (cong you bing 葱油饼)
Unlike the dan bing and the Shandong jian bing, which originated somewhere else in China, the scallion pancake is pure Shanghai. The dough is coiled then flattened like a cinnamon roll, with maximum layers to ensure flakiness.
Two pancakes are slapped together with a generous filling of scallions and a not-so-secret ingredient, pork fat, in the middle. The oily-fried-devilishness of this type of Chinese pancake is probably why fewer street food stalls in Shanghai sell them these days.
9. Soy Milk (doujiang 豆漿)
Together with shao mai, fried dough sticks and pancake anything, soy milk is the final member of Shanghai’s undisputed Four Kings of Chinese Breakfast. This milky extraction of soybean is as ubiquitous in Chinese breakfast tables as cow’s milk is in western households.
Available cold or hot (the hot version being far superior), doujiang is mildly sweet and surprisingly very filling as a standalone breakfast. It’s usually sold by the same street food stalls offering pancakes or steamed buns.
10. Steamed Buns (baozi 包子)
Baozi refers to a family of steamed buns made with a variety of fillings. Minced pork is the most common ingredient, but do try the vegetable version and the red bean paste.
Baozi are cheap and cheerful and found in many small Shanghai street food stalls. Just look out for the huge bamboo steamers.
SHANGHAI STREET FOOD & SNACKS
Many of the Chinese breakfast dishes mentioned above can also be categorized as Shanghai street food. Here are a few more that aren’t typically eaten for breakfast.
11. Crab Shell Pie (xie ke huang 蟹壳黄)
The “poor man’s hairy crab” that is not a crab at all, these savory or sweet pies get their name from their resemblance to a cooked crab shell.
Oven baked and golden brown and about the size of a hockey puck, the outer layer is flaky and sprinkled with toasted sesame. Common fillings include sugar or onion or a vegetable I have yet to identify whose name translates to “taste of moss.”
True-blue Shanghainese will line up for hours at Wang Jia Sha Dimsum Shop 王家沙点心店 on 805 West Nanjing Road 南京西路805号, but I cheat and buy them online through their TMall store.
12. Pan-Fried Pork Buns (sheng jian bao 生煎包)
This is another one of those deceptively simple-looking dishes that packs a powerful taste punch in a cheap, cheap price tag. The sheng jian bao is the pan-fried version of the soupy xialongbao, with succulent pork and scalding broth inside a chewy, thick-walled bun with a fried, crispy and golden brown bottom.
I reckon the best-value lunch to be had in Shanghai is a standard order of four pieces of sheng jian bao at Yang’s Fry Dumplings (many locations throughout the city).
13. Xinjiang Lamb Skewers (yang rou chuan 羊肉串) and Uighur Flatbread (nang bing 馕饼)
Tender, juicy cubes of lamb kebab, coated with cumin and paprika, paired with flatbread hot out of a tandoor oven. This is probably one of the most popular snack foods to come out of the Turkic ethnic group from the far northwest.
These are harder and harder to find as rapid development pushes away small street food vendors in Shanghai, but you can certainly find them every Friday at the Muslim Market, where a foodie paradise materializes outside Huxi Mosque after Friday prayers. Just go to 1328 Changde Road near Aomen Road (1328常德路近澳门路).
SHANGHAI RESTAURANT SMALL DISHES
The next two categories describe dishes that can typically be found at Shanghai Chinese restaurants.
14. Braised Wheat Gluten with Mushrooms (kao fu 烤麸)
It sounds weird, it looks weird, and it has a seemingly unappetizing mix of parts – tofu-like wheat gluten, fermented black beans, boiled peanuts and wood ear mushrooms – that may make you say “Thank You, Next!”
But honestly, it’s delicious, and this is one of the few no-meat dishes that don’t leave me wanting.
Memm / CC BY-SA / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
15. Dates Stuffed with Glutinous Rice (xin tai luan 心太軟)
Xin tai luan (which literally translates to “the heart is too soft”) are pitted dates softened in water then stuffed with sticky rice, served warm. Although this dish is sweet, it is always served as an appetizer. This is a Shanghai food classic.
“Dates stuffed with sweet rice flour” by Kent Wang, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
16. Ma Lan Tou Spiced Tofu (ma lan tou xiang gan 马兰头香干)
This is a quintessentially Shanghai cold appetizer which I’ve never seen anywhere else. A fragrant vegetable with an herb-like taste, ma lan tou is combined with dry spiced tofu, chopped into small cubes.
It’s often served fancy-like by packing into a small bowl then inverting the molded contents onto a plate. This is another dish that I never fail to order because it’s both very tasty and elusive outside of Shanghai.
“Ma Lan Tou at Gourmet Noodle House” by Gary Stevens, used under CC BY 2.0 / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
17. Stir-Fried Pea Shoots (dou miao 豆苗)
Dou miao is my number one favorite green leafy vegetable of all time. It is most commonly prepared very quickly sauteed with garlic, because when something is so good to begin with, you don’t mess with it.
Dou miao is only available during the winter months, so when it shows up on Shanghai restaurant menus again, it’s always incredibly fresh. YUM!
stu_spivack / CC BY / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
18. Crispy Fried Eel (su jian shan yu 酥煎鳝鱼)
Popular during the Qing Dynasty, this dish has been around for over a century. Twice-fried, extra-crispy boneless strips of eel with a thick and sticky brown glaze – crunchy and salty-sweet, it’s the very definition of more-ish.
SHANGHAI RESTAURANT MAINS
19. Stir-Fried River Shrimp (qing chao he xia 清炒河虾)
This is a very delicate Chinese dish that goes by the more appropriate name Crystal Shrimp. These river shrimp are smaller, sweeter, and juicier than any shrimp I’ve ever tasted. Minimal ingredients are added to highlight their freshness, but a light dip in vinegar adds just the right flavor punch.
Admittedly, this is not my favorite fish dish in China; I prefer the squirrel-shaped mandarin fish. But the Shanghainese absolutely love yellow croaker!
It stays juicy and tender no matter how long it’s cooked. In this dish, chunks of yellow croaker sit atop a bed of springy noodles in a creamy, yellow-gold broth with a hint of sourness from vinegar.
If you are doing the tourist thing at Xintiandi, grab a bowl at Xie Huang Yu 蟹黄鱼 (太仓路200号) but avoid peak lunch or dinner hours.
21. Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish (song shu gui yu 松鼠桂鱼)
Originating from nearby Suzhou City, to call this a mere sweet and sour fish does injustice to its artful presentation.
The body of a Mandarin fish is carefully scored before deep-frying so that it stands straight out to resemble what is described as a “squirrel” shape (which I honestly don’t see, but who cares, it’s so pretty) before being covered with sweet-sour tomato sauce and pine nuts.
The scoring makes it extra crispy and good-looking that it has earned a permanent place in every fancy Shanghai Chinese restaurant.
Charles Haynes from Hobart, Australia / CC BY-SA / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
22. Old Jesse’s Clay Pot Rice with Crab (xie huang lao fan 蟹黄捞饭)
For this particular dish, don’t go anywhere else except to the famous Shanghai restaurant, Old Jesse or Lao Ji Shi (老吉士). This hole-in-the-wall is always cramped, it’s always busy, and the staff alternate between ignoring you and rushing you to make room for the queue.
Many say it’s way overrated. But Old Jesse is the home of a Chinese dish that I think is mind-blowingly delicious: a pot of rice in a sizzling clay pot, the bottom bits charred and crispy, and the top generously smothered with picked crab meat and roe, finished with a little vinegar and ginger. It’s a flavor and texture bomb that will never disappoint. Go to the original restaurant on Tianping Road (天平路41号).
23. Old Jesse’s Crab Anything Dishes
While we’re at it, anything with crab at Old Jesse is a crowd pleaser, even outside peak crab season. There’s crab with bean curd, crab with vermicelli noodles, crab soup, drunken crab, yada yada.
You can probably order all the appetizers and mains on this list while you are there, and Old Jesse’s version can compete with the best. Just be sure to reserve well in advance; there are only two seatings, at 6:30PM and at 8:30PM.
And lastly, just a couple of desserts to try in Shanghai, one classic Chinese and the other not so much.
24. Glutinous Rice Balls (tang yuan 汤圆)
Translating as “soup balls”, this dessert of pillow-y soft sticky rice balls stuffed with black sesame paste is basically mochi swimming in a bowl of ginger and osmanthus soup.
Each bite brings out a burst of fragrant black sesame, whose warmth and sweetness pairs perfectly with the cold and slightly tangy soup. Hot and cold, slightly sweet and slightly tangy, this is hands down my favorite Chinese dessert.
“Tang Yuan 汤圆” by Alpha, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
25. Mr. & Mrs. Bund’s Lemon Tart
Okay, this is not a Chinese dish, and it didn’t even originate in China. The French chef who created this lemon tart – Paul Pairet, the very same one of Ultraviolet fame, a.k.a. the most expensive restaurant meal – sorry, I mean “sensory dining experience” in Shanghai – purportedly created this somewhere in France before he became a celebrity chef at one of the best restaurants in Shanghai.
Those who detest deconstructed and molecular anything (me) might even say it’s too pretentious. But DAMN! This lemon tart is exceptionally good. It’s also surprising, it’s clever, it’s photogenic. It is Everything.
Paul Pairet has taken a lemon, candied it in water for three days, hollowed it out then stuffed it (with the rind still unbroken, say what?) with a sour lemon sorbet, lemon curd and vanilla Chantilly.
The tart and sweet filing oozes out with the lightest piercing by a dessert fork, which is wonderful with a bite of the sweet lemon sable that accompanies the tart. It is in my opinion, the best dessert in Shanghai.
WHERE TO EAT IN SHANGHAI
Throughout this food guide are my recommendations on the best restaurants in Shanghai to try a few of these dishes. I’ve listed them below for easy reference.
DIN TAI FUNG Shanghai Soup Dumplings (xiaolongbao 小笼包 or tang bao 汤包) Restaurant details
WANG BAO HE Steamed Hairy Crab (qing zheng da zha xie 清蒸大闸蟹) Restaurant details
BAIYULAN 白玉兰 Shanghai Shao Mai (烧卖) Restaurant details
WANG JIA SHA DIMSUM SHOP 王家沙点心店 Crab Shell Pie (xie ke huang 蟹壳黄) Restaurant details
OLD JESSE (LAO JI SHI, 老吉士) Old Jesse’s Clay Pot Rice with Crab (xie huang lao fan 蟹黄捞饭) Anything with crab Restaurant details
PAUL PAIRET Mr. & Mrs. Bund’s Lemon Tart Restaurant details
SHANGHAI FOOD TOURS
As demonstrated by this guide, no one knows the food in Shanghai better than a local. What better way to experience Shanghainese food than by going on a food tour?
A food-obsessed local will take you to the best restaurants and street food stalls in Shanghai so you don’t have to do the research, plus they’ll explain all the dishes to you in more detail. Check out Get Your Guide for a list of food tours in Shanghai.
SHANGHAI COOKING CLASSES
Aside from food tours, we also enjoy taking cooking classes when we travel. It’s a hands-on way of learning more about the local cuisine. If you enjoy cooking and would like to make Shanghainese food, then check out Cookly for a list of cooking classes in Shanghai.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE FOOD IN SHANGHAI
by JB & Renée
It may seem odd that we haven’t been to Shanghai or China despite my sister living there for close to two decades. After all, China is one of the world’s best countries for food.
We have our reasons for putting it off, one of them being that a trip to China just seems so daunting. It’s such a vast country with so many interesting regional cuisines that we don’t know how to begin. To truly explore the cuisine, I think a trip to China merits a minimum stay of six months.
I don’t know as much yet about China’s regional cuisines but based on what I’ve read, Yunnan and Shanxi provinces are of interest, as are Shanghai and Beijing. Among many others, Peking duck in Beijing is something we absolutely need to experience.
With so much good food to be had in China, it’s only a matter of time before we finally make that trip. And with my sister living in China’s economic capital for close to twenty years, I’m sure a good chunk of that time will be spent exploring the food in Shanghai.
As you can probably tell from this delicious article, we already have the best guide.
Some of the links in this Shanghai food guide are affiliate links, meaning we’ll make a small commission if you make a booking at no added cost to you. We only recommend products and services that we use ourselves and firmly believe in. We really appreciate your support as this helps us make more of these free travel guides. Thank you!
Kyoto is my favorite city in Japan. It always has been. I’ve visited many cities and prefectures through the years but Kyoto remains my favorite destination in the country.
Tokyo and Osaka are more exciting but Kyoto has everything I love about this fascinating country. Slower and more deliberate in pace, it’s an atmospheric city that makes you feel like you were in a different time in Japan.
Kyoto is a city of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, of geishas and landscaped gardens far removed from the sensory overload of Harajuku and Akihabara. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy video games and otaru culture too. But when I imagine all the things I love most about Japan – atmosphere, tradition, culture, and food – I see Kyoto.
There is so much to see and experience in this city long regarded as the historical and cultural heart of Japan. If you’re visiting Kyoto for the first time, then I hope this travel guide helps you fall in love with this city as much as I have.
VISIT KYOTO QUICK LINKS
This travel guide to Kyoto is long. For your convenience, I’ve compiled links to hotels, tours, and other services here.
Top-rated hotels in Higashiyama, one of the best areas to stay for first-time visitors to Kyoto.
Market Tour: Kyoto Nishiki Market Tour with 7 Course Lunch
Travel Insurance with COVID cover (WFFF readers get 5% off)
Kansai Thru Pass
Japan Rail Pass
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GUIDE TABLE OF CONTENTS
Kyoto Travel Restrictions
Kyoto at a Glance
Best Time To Visit Kyoto
Traveling to Kyoto
Where to Exchange Currency
Best Area to Stay in Kyoto
Places to Visit in Kyoto
Things to Do in Kyoto
Day Trips from Kyoto
Japanese Food Guide
Where to Eat in Kyoto
Points of Interest in Kyoto (Map)
How to Get Around in Kyoto
How Many Days to Stay / Kyoto Itinerary
Kyoto Travel Tips
KYOTO TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS
Because of the current global situation, Kyoto travel guidelines seem to change on a daily basis. Our friends at Booking.com created a website that lists detailed information on travel restrictions around the globe.
Before planning a trip to Kyoto, be sure to check Booking.com for information on travel restrictions to Japan. If you do decide to visit Kyoto, then you may want to seriously consider getting travel insurance with COVID coverage.
You may need a visa and other requirements to visit Japan depending on your passport. Check out iVisa.com to learn about the requirements and to apply for a visa (if necessary).
If you’re a Philippine passport holder living in Manila, then check out our guide on how to apply for a Japan tourist visa for a step-by-step process.
KYOTO AT A GLANCE
When people think of Japan, two cities usually come to mind – Tokyo and Kyoto. Tokyo may be Japan’s present-day capital but Kyoto held that distinction for over a thousand years – from 794 to 1868 – before control of Japan moved from the Shogun to the Emperor.
In spite of this shift in influence, many today still regard Kyoto as Japan’s cultural and historical center, home to over a thousand temples and gardens that have earned it a reputation for being the country’s most beautiful city.
We’ve visited many prefectures and cities in Japan through the years, but Kyoto remains one of the most special. It is without a doubt the heart and soul of traditional Japan.
BEST TIME TO VISIT KYOTO
The most popular times to visit Kyoto are during the Spring (March-May) and Fall (October-November) months when the weather is ideal and the landscape is at its most striking.
Both seasons are characterized by a dramatic change in color – Spring for its cherry blossom pinks and whites, and Autumn for its fiery reds, oranges, and yellows. Unlike its cold winters and hot summers, the weather is mild in Spring and Fall so either season would be the perfect time to visit.
If you’re interested in Kyoto’s festivals, then you can click on the link for a list of Kyoto’s annual festivals and events. It’ll give you a monthly breakdown of its weather as well.
DEC-FEB: This is the coldest time of the year in Kyoto. Unless you want to experience snow, then this probably isn’t the best time to go. I heard it snows a few times a year though the snow doesn’t stick.
MAR-MAY: This is one of the most popular times of the year to visit Kyoto. The weather is ideal. The cherry trees begin to blossom in late March and they’re usually in full bloom by the first week of April. Unsurprisingly, it’s also the busiest time of the year so expect larger crowds and steeper hotel prices. The same goes for the first week of May which is the Golden Week holiday for local Japanese.
JUN-AUG: This is summer in Kyoto. Crowds are thinner but it’s hotter and more humid, so it may not be the best time to go. It’s usually hottest in August and rainiest from June to July.
SEPT-NOV: Like spring, autumn is one of the best times to visit Kyoto. The weather is ideal and the autumn foliage is striking. We visited Arashiyama in late November and the fall colors were stunning.
Climate: Annual Monthly Weather in Kyoto
Check out holiday-weather.com for more on Kyoto’s weather. For your convenience, I’ve created the average temperature and annual rainfall graphs below. Suggested months to visit are indicated in orange.
TRAVELING TO KYOTO
There are many ways to get to Kyoto depending on where you are. You can check Bookaway or use the widget below to find route options available to you.
If you’re flying into Japan, then chances are you’ll be arriving at Kansai International Airport (KIX). Located in Osaka, it’s the main access hub to the Kansai area. Here’s how you can get to Kyoto from KIX.
BY TRAIN: The Limited Express Haruka Train is the only rail service from KIX to Kyoto station. It takes about 80 minutes. You can purchase tickets at the station but it looks like you can get a considerable discount if you buy them in advance through Klook.
It’s worth noting that some transportation passes are valid for travel between KIX and Kyoto. Jump to the HOW TO GET AROUND section of this guide for more information.
BY BUS: You can travel from KIX to Kyoto station by limousine bus as well. They operate on a 24-hr schedule so this may be the better option if you’re arriving at off-hours. The journey takes about 100 minutes. You can refer to the Kansai Airport transportation website for a timetable. Tickets can be purchased at the airport or you can get them in advance through Klook.
BY SHUTTLE: There’s a convenient door-to-door shuttle service that takes you from KIX to your hotel in Kyoto in about 2-2.5 hrs. You can make reservations on the Yasaka Taxi website. Advanced bookings are required.
BY TAXI: If you have a lot of luggage, then going by taxi is the most convenient option, but it’s also the most expensive. Expect to pay no less than JPY 30,000 each way.
BY PRIVATE TRANSFER: If you’d like to arrange for a private transfer, then you can do so through Klook.
From Other Parts of Japan
Japan’s railway system is so efficient and extensive that it’s easy to travel to Kyoto by train from other parts of the country. You can check hyperdia.com for train routes and schedules.
If you’ll be visiting multiple cities in Japan, then you might want to get a JR Pass. It’ll give you unlimited use of all JR national trains in Japan – including the Kansai Airport Express Haruka, Shinkansen bullet trains, and the Narita Express – for a consecutive number of days. JR Passes are available in 7-, 14-, or 21-day variants and can be purchased from Klook or Japan Rail Pass.
WHERE TO EXCHANGE CURRENCY
The unit of currency in Japan is the Japanese Yen (JPY).
BANKS / POST OFFICES: Banks and post offices are among the most reliable places to exchange foreign currency in Japan. However, the process is slow. I’ve exchanged currency at banks in different cities and there’s always paperwork to be filled out. The process can take time, up to 30 minutes in some cases.
KINKEN SHOPS: Kinken shops are small stores that buy and sell unused event tickets. Some of them also exchange currency. You can find kinken shops in major Japanese cities, usually near large metro stations. I exchanged currency at a kinken shop in Shinjuku and got great rates. In Kyoto, I read that the best kinken shop to exchange currency is the Tokai Discount Ticket Shop.
CURRENCY EXCHANGE MACHINES: I haven’t seen these too often but I did exchange currency through a machine in Nagasaki once. It resembles an ATM but you can use it to exchange currency. Just insert your foreign currency and out comes the JPY equivalent. So easy. I haven’t seen one in Kyoto but they may have them in popular tourist and shopping areas.
ATM MACHINES: This is our preferred way of getting JPY. Rates are often comparable and it saves us from the trouble of having to bring a thick wad of foreign currency to Japan. Just be sure to advise your bank that you plan on using your ATM card abroad so they don’t block any transactions. In my experience, my card works best at convenience store and post office ATMs in Japan.
TIP: Some ATM machines will ask you if you’d like to proceed “with or without conversion”. Always choose WITHOUT conversion. Proceeding “with conversion” allows the foreign bank running the ATM machine to do the conversion, usually at terrible rates. According to this article, the difference can be as high as 10%.
BEST AREAS TO STAY IN KYOTO
The downtown area and Higashiyama are the best areas to stay in Kyoto. They put you close to many restaurants, shops, and tourist attractions. Both of the city’s subway lines run through these areas, making it easy to get around.
To help you understand where all these recommended areas are, I’ve created the color-coded map below. Click on the link for a live version of the map. (Please note that marked areas are approximations only)
BLUE – Downtown / Central RED – Around Kyoto Station YELLOW – Northern Higashiyama ORANGE – Southern Higashiyama GREEN – Arashiyama
As described, the downtown area is a great place to stay in Kyoto. It’s conveniently located with plenty of hotels, shops, restaurants, bars, and convenience stores.
Toyoko Inn is one of the biggest and most popular business hotel chains in Japan. Like all Japanese business hotels, the rooms are small but well-amenitized. You can book a room here on Agoda.
If you want to stay in downtown/central area but don’t feel this is the right hotel for you, then you can check for alternate listings on Booking.com or Agoda. Check out some of the top-rated hotels in downtown Kyoto:
Luxury: Kyoto Shijo Takakura Hotel Grandereverie
Midrange: Miru Kyoto Nishiki
Budget: Guesthouse Yululu
AROUND KYOTO STATION
The area around Kyoto Station is another great place to stay in Kyoto. Kyoto station is the city’s main transportation hub so staying in this area will give you easy access to transportation around the city and to other parts of Japan. There are plenty of shops and restaurants here as well. Check these sites for listings around Kyoto station: Booking.com | Agoda. Here are some of the top-rated hotels in the area:
Luxury: The Thousand Kyoto
Midrange: Yamadaya Ryokan
Budget: Kyoto Hana Hostel
Across the Kamo River from central/downtown Kyoto is Higashiyama Ward. Divided into north and south, this area is home to some of Kyoto’s most popular attractions like Kiyomizu-dera, Yasaka Shrine, and Ninnen-zaka / Sannen-zaka streets.
Both Northern and Southern Higashiyama make great bases from which to explore Kyoto, though it’s best to stay as close as possible to the Gion district. I stayed at Shiki Shiki Higashiyama which is right at the border of north and south. It’s a clean and comfortable boutique inn in a quiet neighborhood in Higashiyama.
I paid about USD 30 a night for a 3-person private room with a shower. That’s USD 30 a night for the entire room! It may have been a little tight for three people, especially with all your luggage, but it’s perfect for two.
You can book a room at Shiki Shiki Higashiyama on Booking.com or Agoda. If you don’t think this is the right place for you, then you can check these sites for alternate listings: Booking.com | Agoda. Check out some of the top-rated hotels in Higashiyama:
Arashiyama is farther away from central Kyoto but it’s such a lovely area that it’s worth considering. It’s where you’ll find those iconic bamboo groves that people often post on social media.
Unlike the previous areas which are more densely populated, Arashiyama is quieter and closer to nature. It’s home to quaint shops and a few temples, most notably Tenryu-ji.
When searching for accommodations, I suggest looking for a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) as this is the perfect environment for it: Booking.com | Agoda. Check out some of the top-rated hotels in the area:
Luxury: Suiran, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Kyoto
Budget: Mulan Hostel
You can also book hotels and home stays in Kyoto using the handy map below.
PLACES TO VISIT IN KYOTO
There is a LOT to see in Kyoto. You could spend an entire week there and still not see everything. Listed below are some of the city’s most popular attractions.
You can explore Kyoto on your own with a transportation card and lots of energy, but if you’d like to go with a guide and have transportation arranged for you, then you can choose from one of many Kyoto tours on Klook or Get Your Guide.
1. Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
Kinkaku-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the city’s most memorable attractions. Covered in gold leaf, it’s easily Kyoto’s most striking temple. In fact, so stunning is Kinkaku-ji that it was once burned down by a schizophrenic monk who felt that it was “too beautiful”.
Check out my article on Kinkaku-ji for more pictures and information. We visited the Golden Pavilion on our own, but you may want to check out this guided tour. It takes you to Kinkaku-ji and other popular attractions in Kyoto.
Suggested Length of Visit: About 1 hr Admission: JPY 500
2. Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi Inari Taisha is a Shinto shrine and one of Kyoto’s most recognizable landmarks. It’s known for it’s thousands of orange torii gates arching over a scenic, 2-3 hour-long hiking trail up sacred Mount Inari.
If you get hungry during your hike, then be sure to stop and enjoy a bowl of kitsune udon and some inari sushi. Both are local specialties associated with Fushimi Inari Shrine.
Check out my article on Fushimi Inari Taisha for more pictures and information. If you’d like to explore the shrine with a guide, then you can book a tour through Klook, Get Your Guide, or Magical Trip.
Suggested Length of Visit: About 2-3 hrs Admission: FREE
3. Arashiyama Bamboo Groves
The Arashiyama District’s bamboo groves is one of the most popular and photographed areas in Kyoto. Famous for its towering stalks of bamboo, it’s a magical place that’s reminiscent of that iconic scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Apart from these bamboo groves, the entire Arashiyama area is dotted with picturesque temples, gardens, quaint shops, and restaurants. It’s a great place to spend the day wearing a kimono and taking pictures.
Check out my article on Arashiyama Bamboo Groves for more pictures and information. A hand-pulled rickshaw ride through the bamboo forest is a popular activity in Arashiyama. You can book a rickshaw ride and other Arashiyama tours on Klook, Get Your Guide, or Magical Trip.
Suggested Length of Visit: At least half a day Admission: FREE
Tenryu-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered the most important temple in Arashiyama. It’s located right next to the bamboo groves and is home to landscaped Japanese gardens featuring a central pond with the forested Arashiyama mountains as its backdrop.
We were at the temple in late November and as you can see below, the colors of autumn were on full display. It was incredibly beautiful and one of many reasons why Arashiyama is my favorite area in Kyoto.
Suggested Length of Visit: About 1 hour Admission: JPY 500
Ryoan-ji is a picturesque Buddhist temple in a heavily wooded area east of Arashiyama. It features a large pond, well-maintained Japanese gardens, and the most famous rock garden in Japan.
As celebrated as it is, the history and meaning of Ryoan-ji’s rock garden is unclear. It features a rectangular plot of pebbles with fifteen rocks laid out on patches of moss that resemble islands.
It’s easy to visit Ryoan-ji on your own, but it may be nice to go on a guided tour with a local who can shed more light on the mysteries of its rock garden.
Suggested Length of Visit: About 1-2 hrs Admission: JPY 500
Kiyomizu-dera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most famous temples in Kyoto. It’s known as a temple for making wishes and features a large wooden stage built without the use of a singe nail.
Meaning “Pure Water Temple”, Kiyomizu-dera is built on the site of the sacred Otowa Waterfall. It features three separate streams of water that visitors are free to drink from. It’s believed that drinking from these streams grant people’s wishes for longevity, success at school, and a prosperous love life.
Check out my article on Kiyomizu-dera for more pictures and information. It’s an interesting temple with plenty to see and do. If you’d like to go on a guided tour, then you can book one through Klook or Get Your Guide.
Before or after visiting Kiyomizu-dera, be sure to explore charming Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka streets. On both sides of these gently sloping roads are traditional wooden houses, many of which have been converted into shops, cafes, restaurants, and teahouses. It’s one of the most well-preserved and atmospheric areas in Kyoto.
Suggested Length of Visit: About 2 hrs Admission: JPY 400
7. Yasaka Shrine
Located just a few minutes from Kiyomizu-dera is Yasaka Shrine, one of Kyoto’s most famous Shinto shrines. It’s best known for its summer festival held every July called the Gion Matsuri.
The Gion Matsuri is arguably Japan’s most famous festival. It dates back over a thousand years and features massive floats measuring up to 25 meters (82 ft) in height.
If you’re traveling to Kyoto in late March or early April, then you may want to check out Maruyama Park. Located right next to Yasaka Shrine, it’s a public park with dozens of cherry trees. It’s one of the most popular spots in Kyoto to view the cherry blossoms during the first half of April.
Photo by Sean Pavone via Shutterstock
Suggested Length of Visit: About 1 hr Admission: FREE
8. Nijo Castle
Nijo Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the former castle residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Japan’s first Edo Period shogun. It’s famous for its landscaped gardens, cherry trees, and an ingenious alarm system known as the nightingale floors.
With every step, flooring nails beneath the floorboards rub against a jacket or clamp to produce low creaks reminiscent of chirping sounds, hence the name “nightingale floors”. It was a warning system designed to alert the shogun and his bodyguards of any impending ninja attacks.
Check out my article on Nijo Castle in Kyoto for more pictures and information. You can purchase admission tickets at the gate or in advance through Klook. If you’d like to explore the castle with a guide, then you can book a tour through Get Your Guide.
Suggested Length of Visit: About 1-2 hrs Admission: JPY 800
Ginkaku-ji or the Silver Pavilion is a Zen Buddhist temple that was patterned after the similarly named Kinkaku-ji. It was the retirement villa of the grandson of Kinkaku-ji’s former owner, hence the similarities.
In spite of its name, Ginkaku-ji isn’t covered in silver. It’s a beautiful temple nonetheless that’s one of the stops on the Philosopher’s Path – a stone path along a canal lined with hundreds of cherry trees.
If you’d like to explore Ginkaku-ji and the Philosopher’s Path with a guide, then you can book a tour through Get Your Guide.
Photo by vichie81 via Shutterstock
Suggested Length of Visit: About 1-2 hrs Admission: JPY 500
10. Kyoto Tower
Kyoto Tower is the tallest structure in the city. Its observation deck is perched 100 meters (328 ft) above the ground and offers 360° views of downtown Kyoto.
The tower is located just across the street from Kyoto station so you can make a quick trip to the top on your way in or out of the city. You can purchase entry tickets at the gate or in advance through Klook.
Suggested Length of Visit: About 1 hr Admission: JPY 800
THINGS TO DO IN KYOTO
1. Rent a Kimono
I know that renting a kimono in Japan sounds touristy and cliched, but who cares? It’s fun and makes for great Instagram photos. Plus, there’s no better backdrop for it than Kyoto, the country’s center for culture and the arts.
There are kimono rental shops throughout the city. We were lucky to rent one on the spot in Arashiyama but according to my Japanese friend, they often run out during busy periods like cherry blossom season.
To be safe, you may want to reserve one in advance through Klook or Get Your Guide (Option 1 | Option 2). Just be sure to check the address of the rental shop to make sure its location is convenient for you.
2. Eat Your Way Through Nishiki Market
Nicknamed “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, Nishiki Market is a long and narrow shopping street with over a hundred food shops and restaurants. It’s similar to Kuromon Ichiba Market in Osaka, which appropriately, is nicknamed “Osaka’s Kitchen”.
If you’d like to sample Kyoto’s myriad local delicacies, then you need to pay a visit to Nishiki Market. It’s about a 5-minute walk from Shijo subway station. You can also book a guided Nishiki Market food tour through Get Your Guide, byFood, or Magical Trip.
3. Explore a Geisha District
Exploring a geisha district is one of my favorite things to do in Kyoto. They’re atmospheric neighborhoods characterized by a network of wooden machiya shophouses. If you’re lucky, then you may even spot a geiko (geisha in the Kyoto dialect) and maiko (geisha apprentice) walking between teahouses.
There are five geisha districts in Kyoto but the legendary Gion District is the most famous with the highest number of active geikos. The area is actually comprised of two geisha districts – Gion Kobu and Gion Higahsi. Gion Kobu is the larger of the two and encompasses most of the district.
If you’re into street photography, then the Gion District is where you’ll want to be. It’s also a great place to rent a kimono for Instagram pictures. I explored Gion on my own but you can also go on a guided tour (Klook | Get Your Guide).
Another geisha district you can visit is Pontocho Alley. It’s a strip of restaurants and izakayas that runs parallel to the Kamo River on the opposite side of the Gion District. It’s much smaller than Gion but just as interesting.
Pontocho Alley is lovely at any time of the day but it’s best experienced at night. If you’d like to have a guide take you to its best spots, then you can book a food or bar hopping tour through Get Your Guide, byFood, or Magical Trip.
If you’ll be in Kyoto for sakura season, then you may be interested in catching the Miyako Odori. It’s a geiko and maiko performance held at Gion Kobu’s Kaburen-jo Theater near Yasaka Shrine.
Miyako Odori is considered one of the four great geisha spring shows in Kyoto. If you’d like to see it, then you’re advised to book your tickets well in advance. You can check the Miyako Odori website for more information.
Photo by Pavel Rumme via Shutterstock
4. Enjoy a Tea Ceremony
Tea has been a part of Japanese culture for over a millennia but it wasn’t until the 16th century that it developed into the highly ritualized art form that it is today. Enjoyed by the nobility, it became defined by a set of rules and etiquette that went beyond the simple act of drinking tea.
Tea ceremonies can be enjoyed throughout Japan but none better perhaps than in Kyoto where the custom originated from. Kyoto remains the heart of Japan’s tea culture and is the ideal place for foreigners to experience a formal tea ceremony.
I’ve only experienced informal tea ceremonies which are much more relaxed. As rigid as they sound, I’d love to try the real thing on our next trip to Japan. You can book a tea ceremony experience in Kyoto through Klook, Get Your Guide, or byFood.
5. Go Sake Tasting in Fushimi District
If you like sake, then you need to visit the Fushimi Sake District. It’s a traditional sake brewing district along the Horikawa River in southern Kyoto. It’s home to nearly forty breweries and is the second largest sake district in Japan, behind only Nada in Kobe.
I went on a sake tasting tour in Fushimi District that really turned me on to sake. Seeing how it’s made and learning to pair it with the right food gave me a much better appreciation for it.
There are a few breweries and museums you can visit but if you’d like to really learn about sake, then I highly recommend going on a sake tasting tour. You can book one through Klook, Get Your Guide, byFood, or Magical Trip.
Sake is nice on its own but learning to pair it with the right food makes all the difference.
6. Ride the Sagano Romantic Train
The Sagano Romantic Train is a sightseeing train that runs along the Hozugawa River between Arashiyama and Kameoka. It features vintage trains with wooden benches that wind their way slowly through western Kyoto, offering tourists a spectacular view of the river and mountain scenery.
The train ride is lovely at any time of the year but especially in the spring and fall when the landscape bursts with color. It’s extremely popular during that time so you’re advised to reserve tickets in advance. You can book tickets to the Sagano Romantic Train on Klook.
Photo by Somjade Srimahachota via Shutterstock
7. Play Samurais and Ninjas at Toei Kyoto Studio Park
Toei Uzumasa Eigamura is an active movie studio and theme park in western Kyoto. It features a recreated Edo period town that’s used as a backdrop for period films and television dramas.
Park attendants are dressed in historical costumes so it really does feel like you’ve been transported to Edo-period Kyoto. When we were there in 2014, they were shooting scenes for a movie or TV show. It’s an active studio where an estimated 200 period films are shot every year.
Aside from the movie sets, the studio park also features samurai- and ninja-themed attractions like mystery houses and mazes, even a haunted house. It makes for a fun couple of hours if you’re traveling with kids or have a fondness for samurais and ninjas. There’s an anime museum there as well.
Check out my article on Toei Kyoto Studio Park for more pictures and information.
It goes without saying that local knowledge is key to having authentic experiences, especially when it comes to food. Some of the best food experiences we’ve had on our travels often come from local recommendations – either from a friend or tour guide, even from a Grab or Uber driver.
If you want to have a Kyoto experience that goes beyond the usual temples and shrines, then I suggest checking out byFood and Magical Trip. They’re both fun Japanese boutique tour companies that offer small group experiences led by locals.
We’ve been on two Magical Trip tours so far – a Shinjuku food tour in Tokyo and a food tour in Kyoto’s Gion district. Both were excellent. You can click on the links for more pictures and information.
Visitors to Kyoto can book the same Gion food tour or check out this bar hopping tour in Pontocho Alley. There’s a lot of interesting food to be discovered in Gion so it really helps to go with a knowledgeable local.
Photo by Benze Ponsak via Shutterstock
9. Take a Cooking Class
Ren’s a great cook so we enjoy taking cooking classes whenever we travel. So far, we’ve taken classes in Hoi An, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Bali, and Tokyo. Simply put, there’s no better way to learn about local food than by taking a cooking class.
If you’re interested in taking a cooking class in Kyoto, then I suggest searching for one on Cookly. They’re online booking platforms that offer cooking classes in Japan and in many other cities around the world.
Photo by kazoka via Shutterstock
DAY TRIPS FROM KYOTO
If you’re spending enough time in Kyoto, then you may want to go and explore beyond the city. Listed below are five of the most popular and interesting day trips you can make from Kyoto. Be sure to check out our article on day trips from Kyoto for more recommendations.
1. Kifune Shrine
Kifune Shrine is located just beyond the city in northern Kyoto but it’s far enough away to list as a day trip. It’s in Kibune, a small town that was built around the shrine.
Kifune Shrine is dedicated to the god of water and rain and is believed to be the protector of those traveling by sea. It’s a popular summer retreat though it’s perhaps best visited in autumn when the surrounding forest explodes with color.
The shrine is well-known for its stone steps with red lanterns on either side. There are a few ryokans and restaurants in Kibune and a hiking trail that takes you to Kurama-dera temple and Kurama Onsen which is believed to be one of the best hot springs in Kyoto.
Photo by zzz555zzz via Shutterstock
Travelers who love to eat can’t visit Kyoto without spending time in Osaka. If you’ll be flying in to Japan, then chances are you’ll be landing at KIX anyway which is just outside Osaka.
Less than half an hour from Kyoto, Osaka is often referred to as the “nation’s kitchen” and regarded by many as one of the best food cities in Japan. Like Kyoto, we absolutely love Osaka. Check out our Osaka travel guide to help you plan your trip.
Nara is one of the “big three” most popular cities to visit in the Kansai region. It has the second most number of temples and shrines in Japan, behind only Kyoto. If you haven’t had your fill of temples in Kyoto, then you may want to spend a day in Nara.
Aside from its temples, Nara’s biggest draw is the small army of tame Sika deer that freely roam its parks. You can feed them sika senbei or “deer crackers”. Bow to the deer, and some will bow back to you.
Check out our day tripper’s travel guide to Nara to help you plan your trip. If you’d prefer to visit on a guided tour, then you can book one through Klook or Get Your Guide.
4. Kinosaki Onsen
I loved this place. Small onsen towns like Kinosaki and Kurokawa Onsen are some of the coolest places we’ve visited in Japan.
If you’d like to go onsen-hopping in a traditional hot spring town, then Kinosaki Onsen is one of the best places you can reach from Kyoto. It has seven soto-yus or public hot spring baths, all of which you can visit for JPY 1,300. You can check my article on Kinosaki Onsen for more pictures and information.
Amanohashidate is one of the three most scenic views in Japan. It’s a long and slender pine-covered sandbar that spans Miyazu Bay in northern Kyoto prefecture.
Measuring just 20 meters (66 ft) wide at its narrowest point, Amanohashidate is home to nearly 8,000 pine trees. There’s a walking trail on the sandbar that you can use to go from one side of the bay to the other, either on foot or by bicycle.
The sandbar is the main draw but there are plenty of temples, shops, restaurants, and cafes on either side of the bay to make this an interesting day trip. You can check my post on Amanohashidate for more pictures and information.
Amamnohashidate is about two hours north of Kyoto City. It’s possible to visit on a day trip but if you’d rather go on a guided tour, then you can book one through Klook.
JAPANESE FOOD GUIDE
Japanese food is my absolute favorite cuisine in the world and a big reason why we love visiting this country. If you enjoy Japanese food and Japanese desserts as much as we do, then you might want to check out our Japanese Food Guide. It features popular dishes throughout Japan, including regional specialties by prefecture.
WHERE TO EAT IN KYOTO
Kyoto is home to the second most number of Michelin Stars in Japan, behind only Tokyo. There are plenty of great restaurants in Kyoto to have classic Japanese dishes like ramen, sushi, tempura, and more.
If you’re searching for the best places to eat, then check out our article on 14 of the best restaurants in Kyoto.
Fourteen may be too many for most travelers so I’ve listed five of our favorites below. Be sure to click through to the complete food guide for more pictures and information.
1. Wajouryoumen Sugari
Wajouryoumen Sugari gave me one of the best bowls of ramen I’ve ever had in Japan. I had the motsu tsukemen which is sort of like a deconstructed ramen served with offal.
Tsukemen refers to a type of ramen where the noodles and broth are served separately. This is done to keep the noodles nice and firm throughout your meal. To eat, you dip the noodles into the broth which is more intensely flavorful than typical ramen broth.
Motsu refers to offal like beef intestine or pork tripe. It’s the same type of organ meat used in motsunabe. If you like offal, then you absolutely need to try the motsu tsukemen at Wajouryoumen Sugari. I don’t know how common it is but this is the only place I’ve seen it so far in Japan.
2. Hachidaime Gihey
Kyoto is considered the birthplace of kaiseki, which is a multi-course Japanese dinner consisting of small artfully prepared dishes. You can think of it as the Japanese version of western haute cuisine.
Hachidaime Gihey is known for serving good kaiseki dinners at reasonable prices. However, I was there for lunch to try one of their equally popular lunch sets. I asked my server for recommendations and she suggested I get the chicken karaage set. It came with an unlimited amount of rice which I believe is standard for all their lunch sets.
After you finish your rice, your server will ask if you’d like a refill. Say yes and you’ll get a second serving topped with a small portion of toasted rice seasoned with sesame and salt. It’s similar to the scorched socarrat rice in paella. Hachidaime Gihey is known for their different preparations of rice which you can enjoy in their kaiseki meals.
3. Unagi Hirokawa
We’ve eaten a lot of great food in Japan, but the one experience we were dying to have was unagi or grilled freshwater eel at an unagi kabayaki restaurant. We got to do that at Hirokawa, a former Michelin-starred unagi restaurant in Arashiyama. It was some of the best unagi we’ve ever had.
When we had lunch at Hirokawa, they were the proud owners of one Michelin Star but they seem to have lost it since then. They did close for many months to renovate so that may have something to do with it.
Whatever the reason, they’re still one of the best unagi restaurants in Kyoto. They’re immensely popular so advanced reservations are highly recommended.
4. Gion Kappa Restaurant
Nestled in the heart of the Gion District, Gion Kappa is an izakaya and a local favorite. It was highly recommended to us for two reasons: 1) they serve good Japanese food; and 2) almost everything on the menu goes for just JPY 390.
Check out my article on Gion Kappa Restaurant for more pictures and information.
I wanted to find a good sake bar where we could unwind after a day of exploration in Kyoto and my research led us to Wadachi, an izakaya in the Gion District known for serving many different types of sake and bar food at affordable prices. If you enjoy sake, then Wadachi is a great choice for an evening out in Kyoto.
POINTS OF INTEREST IN KYOTO
To make it easier for you to visualize where everything is, I’ve pinned most of the places recommended in this guide on a map. Click on the link for a live version of the map.
HOW TO GET AROUND IN KYOTO
Kyoto has a great public transportation system. You can get pretty much anywhere you want using the subway or bus. Be sure to bookmark hyperdia.com as it’ll help you navigate Japan’s efficient but often confusing rail system.
Personally, I prefer using the subway when we travel because I find buses to be more confusing. But in Kyoto, it may be best to use a combination of both. This is because some attractions aren’t that near a subway station.
For example, the nearest MRT station to Kinkaku-ji is Kita-oji, but it’s still over 3 km from the temple. Another example is Kiyomizu-dera. Kiyomizu-Gojo is the closest MRT station but it’s still about a 20-minute walk from the temple. If you only have a couple of days in Kyoto, then you’ll be wasting a lot of time walking if you try to get around exclusively by train.
To maximize your time in Kyoto, then it may be a good idea to get a transportation pass. There are a lot to choose from so I’ve narrowed it down to the most pertinent ones below to hopefully make it less confusing.
Kansai Thru Pass
If you’ll be traveling a lot by train around the Kansai region, then you may want to get a Kansai Thru Pass. It’s available in 2- or 3-day variants and gives you unlimited train and bus rides in cities throughout the Kansai area. Unlike JR Passes, you don’t have to use it on consecutive days. It isn’t valid for travel on JR trains but you can use it to go from KIX to Kyoto, as long as you ride only on non-JR trains. You can purchase the Kansai Thru Pass on Klook.
JR Kansai Area Pass
JR Kansai Area Passes are similar to Kansai Thru Passes except they’re for use on JR trains (including the Kansai Airport Express Haruka) and need to be used on consecutive days. However, I read that there are very few JR lines in Kyoto so this pass may not be your best option if you plan on spending most of your time in Kyoto. But if you plan on exploring more of the Kansai region, then this may be a good option. You can purchase the JR Kansai Area Pass on Klook.
ICOCA IC Card
Another transportation pass you can get is the ICOCA IC Card. It won’t entitle you to unlimited rides but it’ll give you discounts on JR trains (including the Kansai Airport Express Haruka), the subway, private railways, and buses. It’s rechargeable so you can think of it as a stored value card similar to Hong Kong’s Octopus Card. Click on the link for more information on Japan’s IC Cards.
If you’re doing a countrywide tour of Japan, then a JR Pass may be a worthwhile investment. It’ll give you unlimited rides on all JR national trains in Japan – including the Kansai Airport Express Haruka, Shinkansen bullet trains, and the Narita Express – for a consecutive number of days. It’s available in 7-, 14-, or 21-day variants and can be purchased through Klook or Japan Rail Pass.
HOW MANY DAYS TO STAY / KYOTO ITINERARY
As described, there is a lot to see and do in Kyoto. It’s a such a beautiful and peaceful city that it isn’t the kind of place you’ll just want to breeze through. If you have a whole week to spend there, then that’s great. But if not, then you should be able to see the major sights in about three days.
Here’s a quick 3D/3N Kyoto itinerary to help you plan your trip. Be sure to click through to our full 3-day Kyoto itinerary for more details.
DAY ONE • Kiyomizu-dera • Sannen-zaka / Ninen-zaka • Yasaka Shrine • Gion District • Kamo River • Nishiki Market
DAY TWO • Arashiyama Bamboo Grove • Tenryu-ji • Ryoan-ji • Kinkaku-ji • Pontocho Alley
DAY THREE • Fushimi Inari Taisha • Nijo-jo • Ginkaku-ji • Gion District
KYOTO TRAVEL TIPS
1. Plan your Trip with Sygic Travel
If you like creating your own travel itineraries, then you’re going to love Sygic Travel. I’ve been using this free trip planning app for several years now. It allows me to pin all points of interest on a map then group them together by location so I can create an efficient itinerary. It’s available for free on iOS and Android.
2. Stay Connected
Having a steady wifi connection is a must when traveling these days, especially in a country like Japan where there’s a significant language barrier.
The rail system is incredibly efficient but it can also be very confusing, which is why it’s so important to have uninterrupted access to the internet. You’ll need it to use Hyperdia which is essential to making sense of Japan’s rail system.
You can get access to the internet by renting a pocket wifi device or buying a sim card. We prefer pocket wifi devices because we find them simpler to use, but either is fine. You can arrange for them through Klook (pocket wifi | sim card) or Get Your Guide.
3. Bookmark Hyperdia or Get the App on your Mobile Device
I can’t stress how helpful Hyperdia is when navigating through Japan’s efficient but confounding railway system. Not only will it give you precise train arrival and departure times, but it’ll tell you exactly how to go from one station to the next. It makes it so much easier so be sure to download the app or bookmark the website on your mobile device. It’ll be you new best friend in Japan.
4. Check for Kyoto Travel Deals
I buy discount vouchers from many websites, but for Japan, my favorites are Klook and Get Your Guide. They often offer the widest selection at the best prices.
If you want to find deals on tours, airport transfers, pocket wifi rental, etc, then you can check what’s available on Klook and Get Your Guide. I often find cool activities that I wouldn’t think of myself so it’s always worth a look.
5. Get Travel Insurance
People have differing opinions when it comes to travel insurance. Many don’t think they need it but for me, it depends on where you’re going and what you’ll be doing.
If we plan on doing anything physical like riding bikes or skiing, then I’ll definitely get it. I don’t want to break my leg on a mountain and not have insurance!
But if all we’ll be doing is eating and visiting temples for a few days like we did in Kyoto, then I probably won’t get it. The decision is yours.
When we do feel the need for it, we get insurance from SafetyWing or Heymondo. They’re travel insurance providers frequently used by many long-term travelers. You can click on the links to get a free quote from SafetyWing or Heymondo. Get 5% off on Heymondo when using our link.
6. Get Comfortable Shoes
This may seem self-explanatory but you’ll be doing a lot of walking in Kyoto so comfortable shoes are a must. Many of the sites are vast and spread out, so comfort and support for your feet are paramount. For convenience, I suggest wearing slip-ons as well because you’ll be taking them off frequently at temples.
7. Bring the Right Power Adapter
Japan has Type A or Type B electrical outlets so be sure to bring the right power adapters for your devices. Electrical voltage is 100V and the standard frequency is 50/60Hz.
8. Learn Basic Japanese Etiquette
Japan is a country of many unwritten rules. It’s easy to commit a cultural faux pas here so it’s best to familiarize yourself with the basics. Before your trip, I suggest checking out this good overview on Japanese etiquette for tourists.
I’m definitely not an expert on Kyoto but I do hope that this guide helps you plan your trip. I’m only sharing some of the things that I’ve learned from our visits there. If you have any questions or suggestions, then please leave them in the comment section below. You’re welcome to join our Facebook Travel Group as well.
Thanks for stopping by and have a great time exploring the beauty of Kyoto!
These are some of the things we brought with us to Kyoto. For more on our travel gear, take a look inside our backpack. (NOTE: The following links are Amazon and other affiliate links.)
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Japan is my favorite country in the world and Kyoto my favorite city in Japan. It has everything I love about this fascinating country.
Kyoto has long been regarded as Japan’s historical and cultural center. Unlike fast-paced Tokyo, it’s an atmospheric city with an even pace. It’s home to over a thousand temples and shrines and some of the most interesting and delicious food in Japan.
I’ve been to Kyoto four times in six years but every trip still feels like the first. We enjoy it so much that we plan on staying there for a full month on our next trip to Japan. We want to slow down, take our time, and experience the city more like locals.
Not everyone has a month to spare so I’ve come up with a more practical 3-day Kyoto itinerary for first-time visitors. If you have limited time, then this detailed itinerary will show you how to maximize your stay with just 3 days in Kyoto.
KYOTO ITINERARY QUICK LINKS
To help you plan your trip to Kyoto, we’ve compiled links to popular hotels, tours, and other travel-related services here.
Recommended hotels in Higashiyama, one of the best areas to stay for first-time visitors to Kyoto.
Food Tour: Kyoto: All-Inclusive 3-Hour Food and Culture Tour in Gion
Bar Hopping Tour: Kyoto Bar Hopping Nightlife Tour in Pontocho
Market Tour: Kyoto Food Tour of Nishiki Market, Gion, and Fushimi Inari
Japanese Tea Ceremony: Kyoto Tea Ceremony and Sweets Experience
Sake Tasting: Kyoto Sake Brewery Tour in Fushimi Sake District
Travel Insurance (with COVID cover)
Transportation and Discount Card
Japan Rail Pass
KYOTO TRAVEL GUIDE
If you’re visiting Kyoto for the first time, then be sure to check out our detailed Kyoto travel guide. It’ll tell you all you need to know – like when to go, where to stay, which attractions to visit, etc. – to help you plan your trip.
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WHAT TO DO WITH 3 DAYS IN KYOTO
Listed below are Kyoto’s top tourist attractions and a few recommended restaurants that you can easily visit with 3 days in Kyoto. You can jump to the location map at the bottom of this article to see exactly where they are in the city.
Attractions in Kyoto are spread out so it’s a good idea to get a transportation pass. If you follow this Kyoto itinerary, then I suggest getting a 2-day Kansai Thru Pass or an ICOCA IC Card.
This article assumes you’ll be exploring Kyoto on your own, but if you’d prefer to go on a guided tour, then there are plenty to choose from on Klook or Get Your Guide.
KYOTO ITINERARY QUICK GLANCE
DAY ONE • Kiyomizu-dera • Sannen-zaka / Ninen-zaka • Hokan-ji • Yasaka Koshindo • Kodai-ji • Yasaka Shrine • Hachidaime Gihey • Gion District • Kamo River • Pontocho Alley • Nishiki Market • Gion Kappa
DAY TWO • Arashiyama Bamboo Grove • Tenryu-ji • Unagi Hirokawa • Togetsukyo Bridge • Ninna-ji • Ryoan-ji • Kinkaku-ji • Kura Sushi • Pontocho Alley
DAY THREE • Fushimi Sake District • Fushimi Inari Taisha • Menya Inoichi Hanare • Nijo-jo • Ginkaku-ji • Wadachi
KYOTO ITINERARY: DAY 1
The first day of this 3-day Kyoto itinerary will take you around the city’s historic Higashiyama Ward and Gion District. You’ll be visiting a lot of temples and shrines, all within minutes of each other, so you can get around without using a transportation card.
Nearly every attraction in Kyoto is postcard-perfect. If you’d really like to spruce up your Instagram feed, then you may want to rent a kimono. You can do so through Klook or Get Your Guide (Option 1 | Option 2).
You’ll start at Kiyomizu-dera, one of the most famous Buddhist temples not just in Kyoto, but in all of Japan. Founded in 780, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its large wooden stage built without the use of a single nail.
There is much to see and do at Kiyomizu-dera Temple so it’s best to get an early start, ideally around 8AM if you can. If you like taking pictures, then it’s better to arrive even earlier (it opens at 6AM) because the temple does get crowded.
Aside from the wooden stage, another key point of interest is Otowa Waterfall. It’s a sacred waterfall from where the temple gets its name. Kiyomizu-dera means “Pure Water Temple”. Visitors are allowed to drink from three separate streams, with each stream providing a different benefit.
Other notable structures at Kiyomizu-dera include Jishu Shrine, Okunoin Hall, and Koyasu Pagoda. Like Otowa Waterfall, they’re steeped in folklore and are believed to bring good fortune to those who visit.
Kiyomizu-dera is surrounded by foliage and is one of the most dramatic places in Kyoto to see the cherry blossoms in spring and the leaves turning color in autumn. Illumination events are held there from late March till mid-April and from mid-November till early December.
It’s easy enough to explore Kiyomizu-dera on your own, but if you’d like to have a guide explain everything to you, then you can book a Higashiyama guided tour on Klook or Get Your Guide (Option 1 | Option 2).
Operating Hours: 6AM-6PM, daily Admission: JPY 400 Estimated Time to Spend: About 2 hrs How to Get There: You can use the Google Map app (iOS | Android) for directions on how to get to Kiyomizu-dera from your hotel in Kyoto. The nearest metro station is about 1.7 km (1 mile) away so it’s easiest to take the bus to either Gojo-zaka or Kiyomizu-michi bus stop. From there, it’s about a 15-minute walk uphill to the temple.
Sannen-zaka / Ninen-zaka
From Kiyomizu-dera, make your way down to Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka streets. These twin pedestrian roads are characterized by traditional Japanese houses on either side. It’s an historic district known for being one of the most atmospheric and well-preserved areas in Kyoto.
Many of the houses along Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka have been converted into shops, teahouses, cafes, and restaurants. Like Kiyomizu-dera, it can get pretty crowded so it’s best to go early in the morning.
If you’re hungry, then feel free to try as many Japanese snacks and sweets as you can. You’ll find all kinds of goodies on sale here like matcha soft serve, senbei crackers, baumkuchen cakes, and Japanese sweets. You have a few more stops to make before lunch so it’s best to munch on something to stave off the hunger.
Estimated Time to Spend: About 1 – 1.5 hrs
Hokan-ji or Yasaka Pagoda is a five-storied pagoda just a couple hundred meters from Ninen-zaka. It’s a symbol of Kyoto and one of the most recognizable structures in Higashiyama.
Hokan-ji was closed when I was there but I read that it does open to tourists on occasion, which is a rarity. Most pagodas can only be viewed from the outside.
Operating Hours: 10AM-3PM (irregular schedule) Admission: JPY 400 Estimated Time to Spend: About 30 mins
Around the corner from Hokan-ji is Yasaka Koshindo, the most colorful temple in Kyoto. I found it by chance when I was looking for the best angle to photograph Hokan-ji. It’s so eye-catching that you can’t help but notice it.
What look like colorful little balls hanging throughout the temple are actually little monkey figures called kukuri-zaru. Their hands and feet are tied together so they resemble round, ball-shaped talismans made of cloth.
Followers of Koshin-shinko, a folk faith in Japan, believe that desires are what keep wishes from coming true. It’s believed that sacrificing and leaving one’s desires tied up with kukuri-zaru will lead to the fulfillment of wishes and the betterment of the person.
“RY1_7634” by Ryosuke Yagi, used under CC BY 2.0 / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
Admission: FREE Estimated Time to Spend: About 30 mins
About a 5-minute walk from Yasaka Koshindo is Kodai-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple built in memory of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of Japan’s most important historical figures. He was a Japanese feudal lord who was regarded as the second “Great Unifier” of Japan.
Aside from the mausoleum housing Hideyoshi and his wife Nene, Kodai-ji is known for its beautiful Zen gardens, its halls with richly decorated interiors, and a small museum featuring lacquerware, paintings, and other artwork and manuscripts.
“DP1M1830” by bethom33, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
Operating Hours: 9AM-5:30PM, daily Admission: JPY 600 (Kodai-ji and Sho Museum), JPY 900 (Kodai-ji, Sho Museum, and Entokuin) Estimated Time to Spend: About 1-2 hrs
About an 8-10 minute walk from Kodai-ji is Yasaka Shrine, one of Kyoto’s most famous Shinto shrines. Also known as Gion Shrine, it’s situated on the border between the Higashiyama and Gion districts.
Yasaka Shrine is best known for the Gion Matsuri, a summer festival held every July. It dates back over a thousand years and features a procession with massive floats measuring up to 25 meters (82 ft) in height. It’s arguably the most popular festival in Japan and a great reason to visit Kyoto in July.
NOTE: If you visit Kyoto in spring, then you may want to check out Maruyama Park which is located right next to Yasaka Shrine. It’s a public park and one of the most popular spots to visit during cherry blossom season.
Operating Hours: 24 hrs Admission: FREE Estimated Time to Spend: About 1 hr
You’re probably starving after several hours of temple hopping in Higashiyama. Thankfully, lunch is just across the street from Yasaka Shrine, at Hachidaime Gihey.
Hachidaime Gihey is a popular restaurant known for serving kaiseki meals for dinner and inexpensive set meals for lunch. For around JPY 1,500-2,500, you can have a set lunch with meat or seafood, rice, miso soup, and an assortment of pickled vegetables. I had the chicken karaage set for JPY 1,650.
When you finish your bowl of rice, the server will ask if you’d like a refill. Say yes. Hachidaime Gihey is known for their rice and they’ll give you a second bowl topped with a small portion of toasted rice seasoned with sesame and salt. It’s similar to socarrat paella rice and very tasty.
Address: Japan, 〒605-0073 Kyoto, Higashiyama Ward, Gionmachi Kitagawa, 296 衹園 Operating Hours: 11AM-2:30PM, 5-7:30PM, daily Expect to Pay: About JPY 1,700 for a lunch set
After refueling with lunch, you can explore Kyoto’s iconic Gion District. It’s the area around Shijo Avenue between Yasaka Shrine and the Kamo River. It’s arguably the most famous geisha district in Japan and one of Kyoto’s most atmospheric and alluring neighborhoods.
The Gion District consists of a labyrinth of traditional wooden machiya houses. It was originally established to accommodate the needs of visitors to Yasaka Shrine before evolving into one of the most exclusive geisha districts in Japan.
Gion has the highest number of geishas so it isn’t uncommon to see geikos (geisha in the Kyoto dialect) and maikos (geisha apprentice) walking from ochaya to ochaya (teahouse). From what I understand, they’re very secretive and try to draw as little attention as possible.
I explored the Gion District on my own during the day and again on this evening Kyoto food tour with Magical Trip. If you enjoy street photography, then this is a great area to get lost in for an hour or two.
If you’d prefer to explore Gion on a guided tour, then you can book one through Klook or Get Your Guide. A few will take you to both the Gion and Higashiyama districts.
Estimated Time to Spend: About 1-2 hrs
Exploring the Gion District will ultimately lead you to the Kamo River. It’s a peaceful area and a popular walking spot for locals. You’ll often find people jogging or walking their dogs by the river.
You can get off the main road and take a stroll along the river’s edge. Personally, I enjoy buying coffee from a nearby konbini (convenience store) and drinking it by the side of the river.
Estimated Time to Spend: About 30 mins – 1 hr
Cross the short bridge to the other side of the Kamo River and make the first right into a narrow pedestrian alleyway. This is Pontocho Alley. It’s another geisha district that runs parallel to the Kamo River.
Pontocho Alley stretches for about 700 meters and is filled on either side with restaurants and izakayas ranging from the moderately priced to the exclusive. Like the Gion District, it’s an atmospheric area that makes you feel like you’re in a different era in Japan.
Pontocho Alley is lovely during the day but it’s best experienced in the evening. I suggest coming back here for a drink on your second night in Kyoto. More on that later.
Estimated Time to Spend: About 30 mins
From Pontocho Alley, walk about 10 minutes west to Nishiki Market, one of the most popular market streets in downtown Kyoto. Nicknamed “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, it consists of five blocks with over a hundred stalls selling cooked Japanese food, produce, pickled vegetables, and kitchenware.
If you’re getting hungry again at this point, then Nishiki Market is a great place to snack on local delicacies like tako tamago, rice crackers, amazake, and anything made with matcha.
It’s easy enough to grab anything that looks good, but if you’d like to eat your way through Nishiki Market with a local guide, then you can book a food tour with Get Your Guide, byFood, or Magical Trip.
Operating Hours: 9AM-6PM, daily
If you check out our Kyoto food guide, you’ll see that there are plenty of good restaurants between Nishiki Market and Gion. They’re all excellent choices but I suggest ending your day with dinner and drinks at Gion Kappa restaurant, a popular izakaya in the Gion District.
One of my closest friends is Japanese and Gion Kappa was recommended to him by a colleague from Kyoto. Frequented by both locals and tourists, it’s a well-known izakaya known for serving small servings of bar food for just JPY 390 a plate. It’s a great place to unwind with kushiyaki and beer after a full day of sightseeing in Kyoto.
Address: Japan, 〒605-0085 Kyoto, Higashiyama Ward, Sueyoshicho, 77 Operating Hours: 6PM-2:30AM, Tue-Sat / 5PM-12MN, Sun (closed Mondays) Expect to Pay: About JPY 390 per dish
KYOTO ITINERARY: DAY 2
The second day on this Kyoto itinerary will take you to the western outskirts of Kyoto, to Arashiyama District and its famous bamboo forest. It’s one of the most popular and photographed areas in the city.
Arashiyama is rife with picture-taking opportunities. If you’re considering renting a kimono, then this is a great place to do it. We rented one to take pictures at the bamboo groves and Tenryu-ji and came out with some of our most memorable photos in Kyoto. You’ll find a few kimono rental shops in the Arashiyama area.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
The entire Arashiyama area is beautiful but its bamboo groves are without question its most well-known attraction. It features a walking path that cuts through a picturesque natural forest of bamboo.
The bamboo groves are always open so you’re free to go whenever you like. Being one of the most photographed areas in Kyoto, it often attracts a sea of people so it’s a good idea to go as early as you can.
Riding a hand-pulled rickshaw through the bamboo groves is a popular activity in Arashiyama. You can book a rickshaw ride and other Arashiyama tours on Klook, Get Your Guide, or Magical Trip.
Estimated Time to Spend: About 1 hr How to Get There: There are many ways to get to Arashiyama depending on where you’re staying in central Kyoto. I’ve gone there by train and by bus. You can use the handy Google Map app (iOS | Android) to find route options most convenient for you.
Located right next to the bamboo groves, Tenryu-ji is the most important Buddhist temple in Arashiyama. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and ranks first among Kyoto’s five great Zen temples.
Tenryu-ji’s buildings have been destroyed by fire and rebuilt over the centuries but its garden remains in its original form. It’s one of the most beautiful landscaped gardens in Kyoto.
Operating Hours: 8:30AM-5:30PM, daily Admission: JPY 500 Estimated Time to Spend: About 1 hr
After you’ve had your fill taking photographs at Tenryu-ji and the bamboo groves, it’s time to fill up on a beloved Japanese delicacy – unagi. Personally, it’s one of my favorite Japanese dishes.
About a minute down the road from Tenryu-ji is Hirokawa, a former Michelin-starred restaurant that specializes in unagi or barbecued eel. My Japanese friend took us here on a previous trip to Kyoto.
When we had lunch at Hirokawa, the restaurant had one Michelin Star but they seem to have lost it since then. They did close for many months to renovate so that may have something to do with it.
Whatever the reason, Hirokawa remains one of the best places to have unagi in Kyoto. It’s as popular as ever so it’s strongly recommended to make reservations in advance. Otherwise, you may have to wait over an hour for a table.
Address: 44-1 Sagatenryuji Kitatsukurimichicho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, 616-8374, Japan Operating Hours: 11AM-2:30PM, 5-8PM, Tue-Sun (closed Mondays) Expect to Pay: Starts at around JPY 3,100 for unagi donburi
The bamboo groves and Tenryu-ji are the most popular but there’s a lot more to Arashiyama than just those two attractions. It’s a nationally designated Historic Site and Place of Scenic Beauty.
Pictured below is Togetsukyo Bridge, a well-known landmark in Arashiyama. There are plenty of shops, restaurants, and cafes to explore on either side of the bridge, not to mention a few temples, an art museum, even a monkey park. You can refer to this Arashiyama guide for more information.
The area is surrounded by foliage which makes it especially picturesque in spring and fall. You’ll be visiting fewer attractions on the second day of this Kyoto itinerary so I recommend spending at least half a day exploring and soaking up the atmosphere in Arashiyama.
We’ve been meaning to do this with more time but I think renting bikes would be a great way of exploring the area. There are a few bike rental shops in Arashiyama. Alternatively, you can book a bike tour through Magical Trip.
Estimated Time to Spend: About 2-3 hrs
After exploring Arashiyama, you can catch a train to Ninna-ji, the second of four major temples on the second day of this Kyoto itinerary. Like Tenryu-ji, it’s an important Buddhist temple and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ninna-ji is known for the Goten, a palatial building that served as the residence of the temple’s head priest who was also a member of the Imperial Family. It’s surrounded by beautiful rock and pond gardens and a grove of Omuro Cherry trees.
Omuro trees are known to bloom late, typically around mid-April, making Ninna-ji a great place to catch the cherry blossoms during the latter half of sakura season.
“Ninnaji” by Kim Ahlstrom, used under CC BY 2.0 / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
Operating Hours: 9AM-5PM, daily Admission: JPY 800 (Goten palace buildings) Estimated Time to Spend: About 1 hr How to Get There: The easiest way to get to Ninna-ji from Arashiyama station is by Keifuku Randen train. You’ll need to transfer once, at Katabiranotsuji, to get to Omuro-Ninnaji station. From there, it’s about a 3-minute walk to the temple.
After Ninna-ji, you can walk to nearby Ryoan-ji, another Buddhist temple and site of Japan’s most famous rock garden.
Before reaching the rock garden, you’ll be greeted by a large pond with manicured trees and benches along its edges. It’s a beautiful, tranquil area and a great place to just sit and enjoy the view. There’s even a small shrine on a tiny island that you can go to by bridge.
Ryoan-ji is in a heavily wooded area with lovely walking trails that take you around the temple grounds. They lead to the Hojo or head priest’s former residence where you can view the rock garden. It consists of a rectangular plot of pebbles with fifteen rocks laid out on patches of moss that resemble islands.
To be honest, I don’t understand what makes this particular rock garden better than others but it’s obviously held in high regard. I asked my Japanese friends as well and they don’t seem to know either.
I visited Ryoan-ji on my own but if you’d like to have a guide explain the rock garden to you, then you may be interested in this guided tour. It takes you to Ninna-ji, Ryoan-ji, and Kinkaku-ji.
Operating Hours: 8AM-5PM (Mar-Nov), 8:30AM-4:30PM (Dec-Feb) Admission: JPY 500 Estimated Time to Spend: About 1-2 hrs How to Get There: Ryoan-ji is about a 15-minute walk from Ninna-ji. If you’d rather not walk, then you can catch Bus 59 from Omuro Ninnaji to Ryoanji mae bus stop.
Kinkaku-ji is the last temple on today’s itinerary in Kyoto and the most striking. Known as the Golden Pavilion, it’s a Zen Buddhist temple that’s completely covered in gold leaf.
Sitting at the edge of a large pond, Kinkaku-ji Temple was the retirement villa of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Upon his wishes, it was converted into a Zen temple after his death.
Shimmering in gold and reflected perfectly on the pond’s surface, it’s one of the most eye-catching and unique-looking temples in Kyoto. In fact, there’s an interesting story about how the temple was burned down by a fanatical monk who deemed it “too beautiful”.
I left Kinkaku-ji for last so you can be there around sunset when the temple is at its most spectacular. Kinkaku-ji served as the inspiration for the similarly named Ginkaku-ji or Silver Pavilion which you’ll be visiting on the third day of this Kyoto itinerary.
Operating Hours: 8:30AM-5:30PM, daily Admission: JPY 500 Estimated Time to Spend: About 1 hr How to Get There: Kinkaku-ji is about 1.5 km (0.9 miles) from Ryoan-ji so you can get there on foot in about 20-25 minutes. If you’d rather not walk, then you can catch Bus 59 or 12 from Ryoanji mae to Kinkakujimichi bus stop.
From Kinkaku-ji, you can proceed to Kura Sushi for dinner. It’s a famous kaiten-zushi chain with hundreds of locations in Japan, Taiwan, and the US. Luckily, they have a branch just a 10-minute walk south from Kinkaku-ji.
We’ve been to a few kaiten-zushi chains in Japan but Kura is easily our favorite. Not only do they serve good sushi, but nearly every plate costs just JPY 100 (about USD 1).
Kaiten-zushi refers to conveyor belt sushi restaurants. Instead of ordering from a server, plates of sushi go around the restaurant on a conveyor belt so you’re free to grab whatever catches your eye. It’s a fun and inexpensive way of enjoying sushi in Japan.
Address: 4 Hirano Miyashikicho, Kita Ward, Kyoto, 603-8365, Japan Operating Hours: 11AM-12MN, daily Expect to Pay: About JPY 100 per plate of sushi
If you aren’t ready to call it a night after dinner at Kura Sushi, then you can catch a bus back to Pontocho Alley for a nightcap.
We haven’t eaten or gone drinking at Pontocho Alley so I unfortunately don’t have any places I can recommend from experience. If you’d like to have a local take you to the best drinking spots, then you can book a bar hopping tour on Get Your Guide or Magical Trip.
How to Get There: Sakuragicho bus stop is about a 2-minute walk from Kura Sushi. Catch Bus 15 to Shijokawaramachi bus stop. There are nineteen stops so the ride will take a little over half an hour. From there, it’s a 2-minute walk to Pontocho Alley.
KYOTO ITINERARY: DAY 3
The first day on this Kyoto itinerary took you to the Higashiyama and Gion areas. The second day brought you to the western outskirts of Kyoto.
On the last day of your 3 days in Kyoto, you’ll be exploring popular tourist attractions scattered throughout different parts of the city.
Fushimi Sake District
Visiting the Fushimi District opened my eyes to sake. I went on a sake tasting tour with A Chef’s Tour and the experience gave me a much better understanding and appreciation for sake.
The Fushimi sake district is a traditional sake brewing district in southern Kyoto. It’s home to nearly forty breweries, making it the second largest sake district in Japan behind only Nada in Kobe. What makes the sake produced in Fushimi so special is the soft water that flows freely from the area’s underground springs.
There are a few breweries and museums open to the public so you’re free to explore the area on your own. But if you’d really like to learn about sake, then it’s best to book a guided tour.
I went with A Chef’s Tour but you can also book a sake tasting through Klook, Get Your Guide, byFood, or Magical Trip. I’ve had sake many times before but learning to pair it with the right food made all the difference.
Estimated Time to Spend: About 1-3 hrs How to Get There: Take a train to Momoyamagoryo-Mae station in the Fushimi District.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
After your sake lesson, stumble and catch a train to Fushimi Inari Taisha, a well-known Shinto shrine known for its thousands of orange torii gates. Like Arashiyama’s bamboo groves, it’s one of the most popular and photographed locations in Kyoto.
The shrine’s torii gates lead visitors through a heavily wooded trail up Mount Inari. The hike to the summit takes around 2-3 hours but you’re free to stop and turn back whenever you like.
It’s easy enough visit Fushimi Inari Shrine on your own, but if you’d like to go with a guide, then you can book a hiking tour with Klook, Get Your Guide, or Magical Trip.
Operating Hours: 24 hrs Admission: FREE Estimated Time to Spend: About 2-3 hrs How to Get There: Take a train from Fushimi-Momoyama station to Fushimi-Inari Station. From there, it’s about a 5-minute walk to the shrine.
Menya Inoichi Hanare
You’re probably starving after hiking up Mount Inari so catch a train and head over to Menya Inoichi Hanare for a bowl of Michelin-starred ramen.
Menya Inoichi Hanare is a Michelin Bib Gourmand ramen shop near Nishiki Market. They’re known for making well-crafted bowls of ramen using only premium ingredients. I read that they put a lot of time and effort into creating their bowls of ramen, and it shows.
I had this beautiful bowl of shoyu ramen served with a side of hand-torched A4 wagyu beef. It was absolutely delicious and one of the most memorable and refined bowls of ramen I’ve had in Japan.
Address: Japan, 〒600-8076 Kyoto, Shimogyo Ward, Senshojicho, 463 ルネ丸高 1F Operating Hours: 11AM-2:30PM, 6-9PM, daily Expect to Pay: About 1,200 per bowl of ramen How to Get There: Take a train from Fushimi-Inari Station to Kiyomizu-Gozo Station. From there, it’s about a 10-15 minute walk to the restaurant.
Nijo-jo was the castle residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun during Japan’s Edo Period. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site with beautiful landscaped gardens and a residential palace that features an interesting alarm system.
The Ninomaru Palace is Nijo-jo’s main attraction. It served as the home and office of the shogun and is known for its nightingale floors which squeak when stepped on. This was to alert the shogun and his bodyguards of any potential intruders.
The nightingale floors are fun but what I enjoyed most about Nijo-jo were its gardens. It features a traditional Japanese garden, a plum orchard, and about 400 cherry trees planted throughout the castle grounds. They’re of different varieties so you can find cherry trees blooming at Nijo-jo from late March until the end of April.
You can purchase admission tickets at the gate or in advance through Klook. If you’d like to explore Nijo-jo with a guide, then you can book a tour through Get Your Guide.
Operating Hours: 8:45AM-5PM (Oct-Jun), 8AM-6PM (Jul-Aug), 8AM-5PM (Sep) Admission: JPY 620 (additional JPY 410 for Ninomaru Palace) Estimated Time to Spend: About 1-2 hrs How to Get There: The quickest and easiest way to get to Nijo-jo from Menya Inoichi Hanare is by bus. From the restaurant, walk to Shijo Takakura stop and catch Bus 12 to Horikawa Oike stop. From there, it’s a 2-minute walk to the castle.
Ginkaku-ji or the Silver Pavilion is the last temple you’ll be visiting on this 3-day Kyoto itinerary. As described, it was patterned after Kinkaku-ji and built as the retirement villa of Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the grandson of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Like his grandfather, he asked that it be converted into a Zen Buddhist temple after his passing.
Despite its name, Ginkaku-ji Temple isn’t covered in silver. It has a relatively modest appearance compared to the more striking Kinkaku-ji. Like the Golden Pavilion, it’s situated along the edge of a pond and next to a walking path that leads you through the temple’s meticulously maintained Japanese gardens.
Located in northern Higashiyama, the Silver Pavilion is part of the Philosopher’s Path which follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. You can explore the area on your own or on a guided tour.
Photo by vichie81 via Shutterstock
Operating Hours: 8:30AM-5PM, daily Admission: JPY 500 Estimated Time to Spend: About 1 hr How to Get There: The quickest and easiest way to get to Ginkaku-ji from Nijo-jo is by bus. From the castle, walk to Horikawa Marutamachi stop and catch Bus 204 to Ginkakuji-michi stop. From there, it’a about an 8-10 minute walk to the temple.
For your final dinner in Kyoto, hop on a bus and head back to the Gion District and Wadachi, a gaijin-friendly bar that serves different types of sake and izakaya food at reasonable prices.
Every order of sake comes in a glass tokkuri (flask) and goes for just JPY 500 (plus tax). They offer an extensive menu with simple but delicious dishes like edamame, chicken karaage, deep-fried tofu, and a number of local Kyoto specialties.
Gion is an important part of the Kyoto experience so it’s only fitting that you spend your last night in the city here. You started your day with sake, so why not end it with more sake right? Kampai!
Address: Japan, 〒605-0077 Kyoto, 京都市東山区Higashiyama Ward, 廿一軒町２２７ 岩橋ビル1F Operating Hours: 4PM-12MN, daily Expect to Pay: About 1,200 per bowl of ramen How to Get There: The easiest way to go to the Gion District from Ginkaku-ji is by bus. From the temple, walk to Ginkakuji-michi stop and catch Bus 5 to Shijokawaramachi stop. It’s a 5-minute walk to Wadachi from there.
KYOTO LOCATION MAP
To help you better understand this itinerary for Kyoto, I’ve pinned all the attractions and restaurants recommended in this guide on a map. Click on the link to open the interactive map in a new window.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON THIS KYOTO ITINERARY
As described at the top of this 3-day Kyoto itinerary, Kyoto is one of the most fascinating destinations in Japan. You could easily spend a week here and not get bored. I recommend staying as long as you can but if you have limited time, then 3 days in Kyoto is the absolute minimum. Any less and you may feel rushed or unfulfilled.
We learned that the hard way on our very first trip to Kyoto. We stayed just 2 days in the city and spent a good portion of that time in transit running from one attraction to the next. It wasn’t a pleasant experience and not something I’d recommend to first-time visitors.
If you were scouring the internet wondering what to do in Kyoto in 3 days, then I hope this guide has given you plenty of ideas to craft your own itinerary for Kyoto. Thanks for reading guys and have an amazing time in Kyoto!
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When you think of Santiago de Compostela, the first thing that comes to mind is the camino. It’s the final destination in the Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James, a network of routes all leading to the city’s massive cathedral.
Completing the full camino is one of the few things left on my travel bucket list. Until then, I’m not qualified to offer any advice on it, so this guide is more for people wanting to visit Santiago de Compostela as non-pilgrims. (Personally, we went for the percebes.)
Aside from being the end point of the camino, there are other things to enjoy about this holy city that we felt was one of the most atmospheric and architecturally impressive cities we visited in Spain.
VISIT SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA QUICK LINKS
This travel guide to Santiago de Compostela is long. For your convenience, I’ve compiled links to hotels, tours, and other services here.
Luxury: Parador de Santiago – Hostal Reis Catolicos
Midrange: Hotel San Miguel
Budget: Albergue Monterrey
Sightseeing Tour: Cathedral and Museum Guided Tour
Day Trip: Rías Baixas: Boat Trip, Mussels, Wine, and Winery Visit Tour
Travel Insurance with COVID cover (WFFF readers get 5% off)
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GUIDE TABLE OF CONTENTS
Santiago de Compostela Travel Restrictions
Santiago de Compostela at a Glance
Best Time to Visit Santiago de Compostela
Traveling to Santiago de Compostela
Where to Exchange Currency
Best Areas to Stay in Santiago de Compostela
Places to Visit in Santiago de Compostela
Day Trips from Santiago de Compostela
Spanish Food Guide
Where to Eat in Santiago de Compostela
Points of Interest in Santiago de Compostela (Map)
How to Get Around in Santiago de Compostela
How Many Days to Stay / Santiago de Compostela Itinerary
Santiago de Compostela Travel Tips
SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS
Because of the current global situation, Santiago de Compostela travel guidelines change almost on a daily basis. Our friends at Booking.com created a website that lists detailed information on travel restrictions around the globe.
Before planning a trip to Santiago de Compostela, be sure to check Booking.com for information on travel restrictions to Spain. If you do decide to visit Santiago de Compostela, then you may want to seriously consider getting travel insurance with COVID coverage.
Depending on your passport, you may need a visa and other requirements to visit Spain. Check out iVisa.com to learn about the requirements and to apply for a visa (if necessary).
If you’re a Philippine passport holder living in Manila, then check out our article on how to apply for a Schengen visa through the Embassy of Spain.
SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA AT A GLANCE
Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galicia and its most visited city. It’s one of the most sacred places in Catholicism because it’s believed to be the final resting place of St. James, one of the twelve apostles of Christ.
It’s believed that St. James preached the gospel in present-day Galicia. He returned to Jerusalem only to be beheaded by King Herod in 44AD. His devotees returned his remains to Galicia where they remained undiscovered until 813.
News of the discovery reached Alfonso II, the king of Asturias, who immediately made the journey to Compostela. His pilgrimage to Santiago is recognized as the camino’s first, and it became the blueprint for the route known today as the Camino Primitivo (Primitive Way).
This led to the construction of a religious monument and marked the beginning of Santiago de Compostela and the Camino de Santiago. Today, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims do some version of the camino every year.
BEST TIME TO VISIT SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA
The vast majority of pilgrimages take place between April and October when the weather is ideal. If you aren’t doing the camino, then it matters less when you go but it’s still best to visit when the weather is nice.
We were in Santiago de Compostela in early May and the city was starting to receive a good number of pilgrims and tourists, but it wasn’t unpleasant. June till August are the most popular camino months so I think it’s best to go in Apr-May or Sept-Oct.
DEC-FEB: Winters in Galicia are relatively mild but it can get also get fairly cloudy, rainy, and windy. Weather-wise, this isn’t the best time to go.
MAR-MAY: It can still be cool and rainy in March but April and May are among the best times to be in Santiago de Compostela.
JUN-AUG: The summer is peak season and the hottest time of the year. If you’d like to avoid the crowds and the heat, then it’s best to go immediately before or after summer.
SEPT-NOV: Like spring, autumn is another great time to be in Santiago de Compostela. Personally, I plan on doing the Camino Frances in September 2022.
Climate: Annual Monthly Weather in Santiago de Compostela
For more on Santiago de Compostela’s weather, check out these climate graphs from climate-data.org. I’ve also created the average temperature and annual rainfall graphs below with the most ideal months to visit marked in orange.
TRAVELING TO SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA
We drove from San Sebastian to Santiago de Compostela but there are many ways to get there depending on where you are.
BY PLANE: People flying in to Santiago de Compostela will arrive at Santiago–Rosalia de Castro Airport (SCQ). It’s about 15 km (9.3 miles) east of the city so you can either take a taxi or a bus to the city center.
BY TRAIN: If you’re in a city relatively near Santiago de Compostela, then traveling by train may be the better option. You can check for train routes and buy tickets on Trainline. The Santiago de Compostela railway station is only about 1.5 km (0.9 miles) from the city center so it’s possible to walk to your hotel. Otherwise, you can take a taxi.
BY BUS: Traveling by bus is another good option. You can check for bus routes on Alsa. We took an Alsa bus from Santiago de Compostela to Porto. The bus station is located fairly close to the city center, about 1.5 km away, so it’s possible to walk (we did). Otherwise, you can take a taxi to your hotel.
BY CAR: Traveling by car is perhaps the best way of experiencing Spain and many parts of Europe. As described, we drove from San Sebastian to Santiago de Compostela. Unlike public transportation, it gave us the freedom to stop wherever and whenever we wanted. If you’d like to rent a car, then you can do so on Rentalcars.com.
WHERE TO EXCHANGE CURRENCY
The unit of currency in Spain is the Euro (EUR).
I withdrew EUR from an ATM so I didn’t have to exchange currency in Santiago de Compostela. This seems to be the norm in many parts of Europe these days. ATM rates are competitive and you don’t have to bring as much foreign currency with you.
If you plan on using your ATM card abroad, then it’s best to inform your bank beforehand. That way they don’t flag any transactions made in Europe. In my experience, my ATM card works in most machines but not in others. I didn’t have any problems in Spain.
NOTE: Some ATMs may ask if you’d like to proceed “with or without conversion”. Always proceed WITHOUT conversion. Proceeding with conversion authorizes the foreign bank operating the ATM to do the conversion for you, usually at unfavorable rates.
BEST AREAS TO STAY IN SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA
If it’s your first time in Santiago de Compostela, then it’s best to stay in the Old Town.
It’s a relatively small area that’s closed off to vehicular traffic so it’s easy to get around on foot. Most of the city’s top attractions and restaurants are located in the Old Town.
We stayed at Hospederia Tarela, a lovely boutique inn about a 5-minute walk from the cathedral. Rooms and bathrooms are spacious and clean there’s a cafe on the first floor with indoor and outdoor seating.
You can book a room at Hospederia Tarela on Booking.com or Agoda. If you don’t feel this is the right hotel for you, then you can click on the links for alternate listings in Santiago de Compostela: Booking.com | Agoda. Check out some of the top-rated hotels in Santiago de Compostela:
Luxury: Parador de Santiago – Hostal Reis Catolicos
Midrange: Hotel San Miguel
Budget: Albergue Monterrey
You can also book hotels and home stays in Santiago de Compostela using the handy map below.
PLACES TO VISIT IN SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA
The Old Town is compact so it’s easy to explore on your own. But if you’d like to have a guide explain everything to you, then you may be interested in booking a walking tour (Option 1 | Option 2).
Another option is to get a Compostela Pass Plus. It’s a tourist card that offers a number of perks like a guided tour of the Old Town, free entrance to the Cathedral’s museum, discounts to restaurants and day trips, and more.
1. Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is a breathtaking sight. It’s one of the most spectacular churches I’ve ever seen in my life and we visited quite a few in Spain alone. Walking onto Praza do Obradoiro and looking up at the massive cathedral for the first time will leave you breathless.
The tomb beneath the cathedral’s main altar is the reputed burial site of St. James. It’s the final destination of all caminos and is just one of three known churches built over the remains of an apostle. The other two are St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City and St. Thomas Cathedral Basilica in Chennai, India.
Praza do Obradoiro is where pilgrims celebrate the end of their camino. Caminos vary in length from 120 km (Camino Ingles) to 1,000 km (Via de la Plata) or longer. The sight of this magnificent monument at the end of such a long journey is a cause for celebration indeed.
Inside the cathedral is a long queue of pilgrims waiting to hug a statue of St. James. I fell in line without knowing what it was for until it was my turn to hug the statue. There’s an excellent museum inside the cathedral as well.
The monastery of San Martiño Pinario is a 16th century Benedictine monastery located right next to Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. It’s the second largest monastery in Spain after the Monastery of El Escorial outside Madrid.
Interestingly, part of the monastery has been converted into a hotel. You can book a room at Hospederia San Martin Pinario through Booking.com or Agoda. There’s a museum of religious art located inside the monastery as well.
The Monastery and Church of San Pelayo de Antealtares is an 11th century Benedictine monastery founded by Alfonso II. It was originally occupied by twelve monks who were tasked to look after the recently discovered tomb of St. James.
After the monks left the monastery in 1499, it was occupied by cloistered nuns who dedicated the convent to St. Pelayo, a Galician child martyred in Cordoba.
The nuns still live in the monastery and sell a variety of baked goods, including the city’s famed Tarta de Santiago. There’s a museum of religious art inside the monastery as well.
It looks empty now but this picture was taken from Praza da Quintana, one of the many busy but pleasant squares in the Old Town. The building with the large cross on its side is the monastery.
The Convento de San Francisco de Santiago is a former convent that used to house Franciscan monks in the 18th century. The monks have since been moved to a more modern facility while the old convent has been converted into a 4-star hotel and restaurant.
It’s a beautiful building with an interesting museum, chapel, and a restaurant serving a pilgrim’s menu of typical convent or monastery dishes.
The Old Town isn’t that big but it has a good number of town squares that offer places to sit and do little more than while away the time. Praza do Obradoiro and Plaza de la Quintana are much larger but I enjoyed Praza das Praterias the most.
It’s a small square with a fountain in the middle and surrounded on all sides by awe-inspiring structures, none more magnificent perhaps than the Cathedral’s Torre da Berenguela.
Praza das Praterias means “Square of the Silversmiths”. It got its name from all the silversmiths who’d set up shop at this square hundreds of years ago.
DAY TRIPS FROM SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA
1. Finisterre & Muxia
Finisterre and Muxia are coastal towns on the west coast of Galicia. They’re often the final destination of pilgrims who’ve reached the cathedral and completed the camino.
Finisterre or Fisterra is a fishing port well-known throughout Spain. It’s famous for its port area with cafe bars serving some of the freshest seafood in Galicia. Other points of interest include the Castle of San Carlos and the Farro de Fisterra (pictured below). After the cathedral, the lighthouse is described as the second most visited tourist destination in Galicia.
Interestingly, Finisterre means “end of the earth” or “land’s end”. It was once thought to be the westernmost point of continental Europe, though Cabo Touriñan and Cabo da Roca in Portugal are farther west.
Muxia is a similarly small and peaceful fishing village about 30 km (18.6 miles) north of Finisterre. It’s best known for the Nosa Señora da Barca, a stone church housing an image of the Virgin Mary. Legend has it that the image was given to St. James by the Virgin Mary after appearing to him in a vision.
Finisterre and Muxia are half an hour apart by car so they’re often visited on the same guided tour from Santiago de Compostela (Option 1 | Option 2 | Option 3).
“Faro de Finisterre, A Coruña” by Gregorio Puga Bailon, used under CC BY 2.0 / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
2. Rias Baixas
Rias Baixas is one of Galicia’s most popular holiday destinations. It’s famous for its long sandy beaches and exceptional seafood, not to mention its wines. A Spanish Denominacion de Origen (DO) for wines, Rias Baixas is famous for its fragrant and fruity white wines made from Albariño grapes.
You can visit Rias Baixas by rental car or on a full-day guided tour from Santiago de Compostela (Option 1 | Option 2 | Option 3).
“Rias Baixas – Pontevedra” by Volkswagen España, used under CC BY 2.0 / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
3. Ribeira Sacra
Meaning “Sacred Shore”, Ribeira Sacra refers to an inland area in Galicia that borders the confluence of the Sil and Miño rivers. It’s famous for its medieval monasteries and spectacular gorge scenery with terraced vineyards perched precariously on the sides of steep slopes.
Like Rias Baixas, Riberia Sacra is a Spanish Denominacion de Origen (DO) for wines. It’s known for producing three wine varietals – red Mencia, white Albariño, and white Godello. It’s best explored by rental car or on a guided tour.
“Ermida sobre a Ribeira Sacra” by Óscar (xindilo/fotosderianxo), used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
We made a stop in Lugo on our way to Santiago de Compostela from San Sebastian. It’s known for being the only city in the world surrounded by completely intact Roman walls.
Lugo’s walls date back to the 3rd century and are inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They measure between 10-15 meters (32.8-49.2 ft) in height and stretch for about 2,117 meters (6,946 ft). You can walk around the top of the walls in a complete circuit.
Lugo can be reached by bus from Santiago de Compostela in about 2.5 hrs. You can check Trainline or Alsa for tickets. Alternatively, you can rent a car and drive on your own or go on a guided tour.
SPANISH FOOD GUIDE
In my opinion, Spain is one of the world’s best countries for food. It’s home to many delicious dishes like paella, tapas, callos, and churros.
If you’re wondering what to eat in Santiago de Compostela, then check out our Spanish food guide for a list of 45 of the most delicious dishes in Spain. If you have an obsession with tapas like we do, then you’ll definitely want to check out our Spanish tapas guide as well.
Spanish savory dishes are delicious but so are Spanish desserts. You’ve probably heard of churros con chocolate but check out our article on Spanish desserts for more sweet suggestions in Spain.
WHERE TO EAT IN SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA
1. O Gato Negro
This was one of the main reasons why we visited Santiago de Compostela, to try percebes. Percebes are gooseneck barnacles often referred to as “Lucifer’s Fingers”.
A delicacy along the Galician and southern Portuguese coasts, percebes are ominously nicknamed not just because of their devilish appearance, but because they’re notoriously difficult to harvest. They thrive on craggy rocks in the ocean’s intertidal zone where crashing waves feed them a steady diet of plankton. Farming is impossible so divers have to risk life and limb to harvest them.
Percebes are delicious. Boiled in seawater, they’re similar to sea snails except they’re brinier and with a firmer texture. If you enjoy seafood, then you have to try percebes in Galicia. It’s an unusual regional food that you can’t have just anywhere.
Pictured below is pulpo gallego, another specialty of Galicia. Also known as polbo a feira, it refers to Galician-style octopus boiled to the perfect texture, like al dente pasta.
When ready, it’s chopped up into bite-sized pieces and sprinkled with coarse salt and both sweet and spicy paprika before being drizzled with olive oil. Like percebes, it’s absolutely delicious and a must in Galicia.
Many restaurants in the Old Town serve percebes and polbo a feira but if you like very local restaurants, then I suggest trying it here at O Gato Negro. It’s a hugely popular restaurant known for serving great Galician seafood.
The restaurant is tucked away in an alley with no clear signage. It’s easy to miss so look out for the crowded tavern with the green door and this hanging black cat (pictured below). The place is very popular with limited seating so it’s a good idea to come early if you can.
We had other tasty dishes as well like mussels in vinegar and baby squid cooked in its own ink. Most of our meals were delicious but this was easily my favorite restaurant in Santiago de Compostela.
2. A Taberna do Bispo
Like O Gato Negro, A Taberna do Bispo is one of the most popular restaurants we visited in Santiago de Compostela. But unlike O Gato Negro which is more like an informal tavern, A Taberna do Bispo is a slightly more upscale restaurant serving different types of tapas and montaditos (similar to pintxos).
Pictured in the foreground below are montaditos with chistorra sausages and padron peppers. Both are must-try regional ingredients. Padron peppers are from Galicia while the chistorra is a fast-cure sausage associated with Aragon, the Basque Country, and Navarre. Muy delicioso!
We asked our server for recommendations and he suggested these grilled scallops with shrimp and pesto. Another winner!
We ordered other dishes as well like grilled razor clams and deep-fried battered shrimp. You really can’t go wrong with the seafood in Galicia.
Located in a busy part of the Old Town, A Taberna do Bispo is a Certificate of Excellence awardee with a commendable 4-star rating on TripAdvisor.
Every time I walk by a jamon shop with stacks of bocadillos in their window, I wind up getting one to go. I can’t resist them, even when I’m not hungry. They’re just so incredibly delicious.
Spanish jamon or dry-cured ham is the best. It’s nutty, sweet, salty, fatty, earthy, and just all around delicious, especially when sandwiched between two halves of a crusty, chewy Spanish-style baguette. To me, this sandwich is perfect. It doesn’t need anything else.
This delicious beast of a sandwich isn’t just a bocadillo de jamon. It’s a bocadillo de jamon iberico de bellota which is the finest grade of Spanish dry-cured ham.
If you’re too full to have a bocadillo, then you can enjoy these cones of jamon instead. Jamon iberico de bellota is made from free-range pigs that roam the oak forests along the Spain-Portugal border.
In their final days, they’re fed a diet of mostly acorns which leads to an incredibly delicious jamon with a smooth texture and high fat content.
We walked by Buenjamon by chance but I’m glad we found it. Their bocadillo de jamon was fantastic. The majority of Spanish reviewers on TripAdvisor give them an “Excellent” rating.
4. Colmado Delicious
Colmado Delicious was another place we found by chance. It’s sort of like an artisanal Spanish deli that makes unique sweet and savory pastries.
Pictured below is an interesting stuffed bread dish that’s reminiscent of a muffuletta, except the fillings are already baked into the bread. If you scroll to the Pinterest image near the top of this article, then you’ll see that it came in the form of a giant loaf stuffed with ingredients like ham, olives, tomatoes, etc.
According to one TripAdvisor reviewer, he asked the owner what it was and he said that it doesn’t really have a name. It’s a recipe that his mother has been perfecting for many years. Whatever it is, it’s absolutely delicious and something we’d love to have again.
This was another beautiful and incredibly tasty dish we had at Colmado Delicious. I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s basically a stuffed pastry filled with creamy savory ingredients, like a creamy chicken pot pie.
I don’t remember exactly what was in it but I think it had cream, shrimp, mushroom, carrots, and maybe chicken. Again, whatever it is, it’s absolutely delicious.
Colmado Delicious has to be one of the more unique eateries in the Old Town. Don’t miss it.
POINTS OF INTEREST IN SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA
To help you navigate, I’ve pinned the places recommended in this guide on a map. Click on the link to open the live map in a new window.
HOW TO GET AROUND IN SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA
The Old Town is compact and largely closed off to vehicular traffic so you’ll be exploring it on foot. Unless you’re going on a day trip or beyond the Old Town, then you won’t need any form of public transportation.
To help you navigate, I suggest downloading the Google Maps app (iOS | Android) if you haven’t already. It’ll tell you all the different ways to get from point A to point B, either on foot or using any city’s public transportation system. It’s accurate and reliable and something we can’t travel without.
HOW MANY DAYS TO STAY / SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA ITINERARY
Most if not all of Santiago de Compostela’s top tourist attractions are located in the Old Town. It’s compact so you’ll need no more than a day to fully explore it.
I suggest spending one day exploring the Old Town and another day going on a day trip to Finisterre and Muxia. Here’s a sample 2D/3N Santiago de Compostela itinerary to help you plan your trip.
DAY ONE • Praza de Cervantes • Mosteiro de San Paio de Antealtares • Praza da Quintana • Praza das Praterias • Praza do Obradoiro • Santiago de Compostela Cathedral & Museum • Monastery of San Martiño Pinario • Convento de San Francisco de Santiago
DAY TWO • Finisterre • Muxia
SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA TRAVEL TIPS
1. Plan your Trip with Sygic Travel
If you enjoy travel planning like I do, then you’ll appreciate the Sygic Travel app. It’s a free travel planning app that allows me to create detailed trip itineraries. You can download it for free on iOS or Android.
2. Rent a Pocket Wifi Device
Having a reliable connection to the internet is a must these days, especially when traveling. You’ll need it to navigate, translate signs, and stay connected on social media. Having access to Google Maps alone justifies the cost.
We own Pokefi pocket wifi devices so we didn’t need to rent one in Europe. But if you do need a device that works in Spain, then you can rent one through Get Your Guide. You can have it shipped to your hotel in Barcelona or Madrid.
3. Bring Home Tarta de Santiago
We don’t usually buy souvenirs, unless they’re edible. The Tarta de Santiago is a Galician almond cake made with a base of ground almonds, eggs, and sugar. Depending on the baker, additional ingredients can be used like lemon zest, dessert wine, brandy, and grape marc. It’s a recipe that dates back to the Middle Ages.
As you can see below, the top of the cake is dusted with powdered sugar and decorated with an imprint of the Cross of Saint James (cruz de Santiago), hence the name Tarta de Santiago. It’s a moist and delicious cake and the best food souvenir you can buy in Santiago de Compostela.
4. Check for Santiago de Compostela Travel Deals
There are many ecommerce websites that sell vouchers to tours and other travel-related services. Among the ones I use, the site that offers the most tours in Santiago de Compostela is Get Your Guide. It’s my preferred platform to look for travel deals in Europe.
5. Rent a Car
Renting a car is one of the best ways to explore Europe. As described, we rented a car to go from San Sebastian to Santiago de Compostela and it was one of the most enjoyable legs of our trip.
If you’re considering renting a car in Spain or anywhere else in Europe, then you can do so through Rentalcars.com.
6. Get Travel Insurance
We don’t always get travel insurance. It depends on where we’re going, what we’ll be doing, and how long we’ll be away for. If we plan on doing any physical activities that could land us in the hospital, then we’ll definitely pick up a policy.
When we do feel the need for insurance, we get it from SafetyWing or Heymondo. They’re travel insurance companies often used by many digital nomads. You can follow the links to get a free quote from SafetyWing or Heymondo. Will Fly for Food readers get 5% off on Heymondo when purchasing a policy through our link.
7. Bring the Right Power Adapter
Spain has Type C or Type F electrical outlets so be sure to bring the right power adapters for your devices. Electrical voltage is 230V and the standard frequency is 50Hz.
I’m by no means an expert on Spain but I do hope that you find this guide helpful. I’m only sharing some of the things I learned from our trips. If you have any comments or suggestions, then please let us know below. You’re welcome to join our Facebook Travel Group as well.
Thanks for reading and have a wonderful time in Santiago do Compostela!
These are some of the things we brought with us to Porto. See what’s in our backpack for a complete list of our gear. (NOTE: The following links are Amazon and other affiliate links.)
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Tokyo is one of the most exciting cities not just in Japan, but in the world. It is an absolutely massive metropolis with a never-ending list of fun and interesting things to do.
Writing a travel guide to Tokyo is something I’ve been wanting to do for some time now. I’ve been putting it off because of how daunting a task I knew it would be.
With so many things to see, to do, to eat, and to experience in Tokyo, I wanted to write a Tokyo travel guide that would do this incredible city justice, something that would make any first-time visitor’s stay as memorable and as fun-filled as possible.
If it’s your first time visiting Japan’s capital, then I hope this travel guide helps you make the most of your time in Tokyo.
VISIT TOKYO QUICK LINKS
This travel guide to Tokyo is long. For your convenience, I’ve compiled links to hotels, tours, and other services here.
Top-rated hotels in Shinjuku, one of the best areas to stay for first-time visitors to Tokyo.
Luxury: Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo
Midrange: Hundred Stay Tokyo Shinjuku
Budget: Oyado Cocochi
Sightseeing Tour: Classic Asakusa Walking Tour with Japanese Experience
Kimono Rental: Tokyo Kimono Experience with Japanese Hairstyling
Food Tour: Shinjuku: Golden Gai Food Tour
Izakaya Tour: Shinjuku After Dark Izakaya Tour
Travel Insurance with COVID cover (WFFF readers get 5% off)
No time to read this Tokyo travel guide now? Click on the save button and pin it for later!
GUIDE TABLE OF CONTENTS
Tokyo Travel Restrictions
Tokyo at a Glance
Best Time to Visit Tokyo
Traveling to Tokyo
Where to Exchange Currency
Best Areas to Stay in Tokyo
Places to Visit in Tokyo
Things to Do in Tokyo
Day Trips from Tokyo
Japanese Food Guide
Where to Eat in Tokyo
Points of Interest in Tokyo (Map)
How to Get Around in Tokyo
How Many Days to Stay / Tokyo Itinerary
Tokyo Travel Tips
TOKYO TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS
Because of the current global situation, Tokyo travel guidelines have been changing on a regular basis. Our friends at Booking.com created a website that lists detailed information on travel restrictions around the globe.
Before planning a trip to Tokyo, be sure to check Booking.com for information on travel restrictions to Japan. If you do decide to visit Tokyo, then you may want to seriously consider getting travel insurance with COVID coverage.
You may need a visa and other requirements to travel to Japan depending on your passport. Visit iVisa.com to learn about the requirements and to apply for a visa (if necessary).
If you’re a Philippine passport holder living in Manila, then check out our guide on how to apply for a Japan tourist visa for a step-by-step process.
TOKYO AT A GLANCE
Tokyo is the capital of Japan. It’s the world’s largest city with an urban population of over 38.5 million people. It’s one of Japan’s 47 prefectures and is part of the Kanto region on the southeastern side of Honshu, Japan’s main island.
Tokyo started off as a humble fishing village called Edo before becoming a prominent political center and castle town in the 17th century. In 1868, Empreror Meiji moved the imperial seat from Kyoto to Edo, renaming the city Tokyo meaning “Eastern Capital”.
Today, Tokyo is a major financial, technological, and cultural hub. It’s a global leader in the arts, media, fashion, and entertainment industries.
It has many excellent museums, temples, and gardens, and its extensive rail system makes day trips to neighboring prefectures a possibility.
But perhaps best of all, is its food.
Known for its many delicious dishes like sushi, ramen, and monjayaki, Tokyo is the world’s standard bearer for gastronomy, boasting over twice as many Michelin Stars as its closest rival Paris.
In fact, some people claim that the world’s best pizza isn’t in Italy, but here in Tokyo.
BEST TIME TO VISIT TOKYO
You may come across articles claiming that Tokyo is a year-round destination. While that may be true, some months are definitely better than others.
Spring and Fall are typically the best times to visit Tokyo. The weather is ideal and it gives you the opportunity to experience the cherry blossoms in spring and the colorful foliage of fall.
SEPT-NOV: Autumn is generally one of the most beautiful times of the year to visit Japan. Personally, it’s my favorite. I love the colors of fall and the weather is perfect. Leaves start turning color at the end of October so the optimal time to see the fall colors is in November. You can enjoy them at Tokyo’s parks like Koishikawa Korakuen but they’re best appreciated on day trips to less urban areas like Hakone or Kamakura.
DEC-FEB: Winter isn’t the best time to visit Tokyo but I wouldn’t necessarily call it bad either. I was there in January and February on my last trip and while it did get cold on some days, it wasn’t unbearable. If you want to go skiing or snowboarding in Japan, then winter is obviously the best time to go. There are a few ski resorts you can visit on a day trip from Tokyo, but serious skiers may want to continue north to Sapporo in Hokkaido, home of the best powder in Japan.
MAR-MAY: Spring, like autumn, is one of the best times to visit Japan. The weather is ideal and flowers are in bloom. If you’re visiting Tokyo for the cherry blossoms, then early to mid-April is when you should go. Just know that this is high season and one of the busiest times to visit Japan. Plan your trip well in advance. Weather-wise, May is great too but Golden Week is peak season for domestic travel in Japan.
JUN-AUG: Summer is high season in Japan and among its hottest and rainiest months. It’ll be warmer, more humid, and more crowded, and perhaps not the most comfortable time to go.
Climate: Annual Monthly Weather in Tokyo
For more on Tokyo’s weather, check out these climate graphs from holiday-weather.com. I’ve also created average temperature and annual rainfall graphs with the most ideal months to visit marked in orange.
TRAVELING TO TOKYO
There are many ways to travel to Tokyo from wherever you are. You can go to Bookaway or use the widget below to find route options available to you.
Tokyo’s Haneda Airport (HND) and Narita International Airport (NRT) are the busiest airports in Japan. While some international flights do go through Haneda, it’s primarily a domestic airport so the majority of international travelers will be arriving via Narita.
You’ll need to arrange for transfers to your hotel from either Narita or Haneda airports. Narita is about 65 km east of central Tokyo while Haneda is about 17 km south.
By metro is generally our preferred means of airport transfer because it’s cheap, efficient, and often the fastest, but listed below are the different ways you can get to your hotel from either airport.
FROM NARITA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (NRT)
Narita terminals 1 and 2 have metro stations in their respective basements. If you arrive at Terminal 3, then you can walk to Terminal 2 or catch a free shuttle bus between terminals to ride the metro.
JR NARITA EXPRESS: This is the fastest way to get to Tokyo Station from Narita. It’s a direct train that takes about an hour. From Tokyo Station, you can then take a connecting train to your hotel. The JR Narita Express is fully covered by the JR Pass so if you’re planning on getting one, then this will be one of your best options. You can purchase a JR Pass through Klook or Japan Rail Pass.
JR SOBU LINE: The JR Sobu Line (Rapid) is slower but much cheaper than the JR Narita Express. It takes about 90 minutes to get to Tokyo Station.
KEISEI SKYLINER: The Keisei Skyliner will get you to Nippori Station in about 40 minutes. From there, you can catch a connecting train to your hotel. You can purchase Keisei Skyliner tickets in advance through Klook. You can also get it bundled with a Tokyo Subway Ticket. I’ll talk more about the Tokyo Subway Ticket in the HOW TO GET AROUND section of this guide.
KEISEI LIMITED EXPRESS: This is the slower but much cheaper alternative to the Keisei Skyliner. It can get you to Nippori Station in about 75 minutes.
LIMOUSINE BUS: You can catch a direct limousine bus to Tokyo Station or to several major hotels in central Tokyo. To check if your hotel is part of the serviced route, you can click on the link for a list of service areas. You can book limousine bus tickets in advance through Klook.
DISCOUNT BUS: You can take the “Airport Bus TYO-NRT” from Narita Airport to either Tokyo Station or Ginza Station. The trip takes about 90 minutes.
PRIVATE/SHARED TRANSFER: This is the most convenient way of getting to your hotel from Narita Airport but it’s also one of the most expensive. Klook and Get Your Guide offer airport transfers from Narita to your hotel in downtown Tokyo.
TAXI: This will be the most expensive option. It’ll cost you at least JPY 30,000 to get to your hotel in central Tokyo.
FROM HANEDA AIRPORT (HND)
TOKYO MONORAIL: You can take the Tokyo Monorail from Haneda Airport to Hamamatsucho Station. The journey takes about 20 minutes. From there, you can catch a connecting train to your hotel.
KEIKYU RAILWAYS: Take the Keikyu Airport Line to Shinagawa Station. The trip takes about 20 minutes. You can then catch a connecting train to your hotel.
LIMOUSINE BUS: The same limousine bus that services Narita also services Haneda. You can check this list to see if your hotel is serviced by this route. You can purchase tickets in advance through Klook.
PRIVATE/SHARED TRANSFER: Klook and Get Your Guide offer airport transfers to central Tokyo from Haneda.
TAXI: A taxi ride to central Tokyo will cost you anywhere between JPY 6,000-12,000, depending on the destination and time of day.
FROM OTHER PARTS OF JAPAN
If you’re arriving in Japan via a different city (ie Osaka, Fukuoka, Nagoya, etc), then one of the best ways to get to Tokyo is by train. Japan is very much a train society with an extensive and highly efficient railway system.
You can do a search on Hyperdia to find the different ways you can get to Tokyo by train from wherever you are in Japan. It’s accurate and very reliable.
If you plan on doing a lot of intercity travel in Japan, then a JR Pass may be a good investment. It’ll give you unlimited travel on JR trains for the duration of your pass.
Visit Klook or Japan Rail Pass for more information and to purchase a JR Pass.
WHERE TO EXCHANGE CURRENCY
The unit of currency in Japan is the Japanese Yen (JPY).
BANKS / POST OFFICES: Banks and post offices are among the most reliable places to exchange foreign currency in Japan. However, they aren’t the fastest. I’ve exchanged currency at a few banks and there’s always some paperwork involved so the process may take some time (around 15-30 minutes).
LICENSED MONEY CHANGERS: I’ve never exchanged currency at a licensed money changer in Japan, but I read that they’re reliable and rates are competitive. You can refer to this guide for a list of recommended money changers in Tokyo.
KINKEN SHOPS: Kinken shops are small stores that buy and sell unused event tickets. Some of them also exchange currency. I bought discounted DisneySea tickets and exchanged currency at this kinken shop in Shinjuku. I got good rates and didn’t have any problems but I’ve read that the the biggest and perhaps most reliable kinken shop chain in Tokyo is Daikokuya.
CURRENCY EXCHANGE MACHINES: I haven’t seen these too often but I did exchange currency at a currency exchange machine in Nagasaki once. They’re like ATMs but they exchange currency. Just insert your foreign currency and out comes the JPY equivalent. They’re super easy to use and can be found in popular tourist areas like shopping arcades and large train stations.
ATM MACHINES: This is our preferred way of acquiring JPY in Japan. Rates are often competitive and it saves us the trouble of having to carry too much foreign currency. Just be sure to let your local bank know that you intend to use your ATM card abroad so you don’t run into any problems. In my experience, my ATM card works in some machines but not in others. In Japan, I have the best luck using 7-Eleven and post office ATMs.
Please note that some ATMs may ask if you’d like to proceed “with or without conversion”. Always choose WITHOUT conversion so your local bank does the conversion. Proceeding with conversion authorizes the foreign bank operating the ATM to do the conversion, usually at terrible rates. According to this article, the difference in rates can be as high as 10%.
BEST AREAS TO STAY IN TOKYO
In spite of its size, Tokyo’s extensive metro system makes it possible to stay in many different areas. Getting around won’t be a problem in Tokyo.
Do a search for the best areas to stay in Tokyo and the majority of people will point you to Shinjuku. I would agree. Shinjuku is a lively area with lots of shops and restaurants, making it one of the most convenient areas to stay in Tokyo.
Listed below are some of the best places to stay in Tokyo, along with a color-coded map to help you better understand where each of these areas are. Click on the link for a live version of the map. (Please note that marked areas are approximations only)
RED – Shinjuku PURPLE – Shibuya / Harajuku YELLOW – Ginza BROWN – Tokyo Station LIGHT BLUE – Akihabara ORANGE – Ueno GREEN – Asakusa PINK – Sumida DARK BLUE – Roppongi GRAY – Odaiba
As described, Shinjuku is the best place to stay in Tolkyo. It’s a major transportation hub with thousands of restaurants, bars, and shops. It’s great during the day but it gets even better at night when all its neon signs are lit up.
You could honestly stay in Shinjuku the entire time in Tokyo and never leave. There is so much to see and do there. Check out the neighborhood section of this guide for more on Shinjuku.
You can search for accommodations in Shinjuku on Booking.com or Agoda. If you can find one that suits you, then I suggest booking a hotel close to Shinjuku Station. Check out some of the top-rated hotels in the area:
Luxury: Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo
Midrange: Hundred Stay Tokyo Shinjuku
Budget: Oyado Cocochi
SHIBUYA / HARAJUKU
Shibuya is another great shopping area in Tokyo that’s similar in feel to Shinjuku, though perhaps with a younger crowd. It’s also a major transportation hub with plenty of shops, restaurants, and cafes.
There’s lots to see and do in Shibuya though it doesn’t quite have the same vibe and energy as Shinjuku, especially at night. You can jump to the neighborhood section for more on Shibuya.
You can search for accommodations in the Shibuya area on Booking.com or Agoda. If you can, try to find a hotel near Shibuya Station.
Harajuku is a neighborhood within Shibuya Ward. It refers specifically to the area around Harajuku Station, between the Shibuya and Shinjuku areas. It’s famous for being the heart of kawaii (cute) culture and extreme teenage fashion in Tokyo. You can read more about Harajuku in our neighborhood guide.
If you’d like to stay in Harajuku, then you can search for accommodations on Booking.com. Finding a hotel near Harajuku Station gives you easy access to the Shinjuku and Shibuya areas. We actually walked to Harajuku from Shibuya Station. Check out some of the top-rated hotels in Shibuya:
Luxury: Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel, A Pan Pacific Partner Hotel
Midrange: Shibuya Stream Excel Hotel Tokyu
Budget: Hotel Wing International Premium Shibuya
You can think of the Ginza District as Tokyo’s equivalent to Fifth Avenue in New York City. It’s a posh neighborhood that’s home to luxury hotels, big name brands, and high-end restaurants. You can refer to our neighborhood guide for more on the Ginza District.
If you’d like to stay in Ginza, then you can search for accommodations on Booking.com or Agoda. Within walking distance from the Ginza area is Tokyo’s most famous fish market – Tsukiji Market. Check out some of the top-rated hotels in Ginza:
Luxury: Imperial Hotel Tokyo
Midrange: TSUKI Tokyo
Budget: KOKO HOTEL Ginza-1chome
Just north of Ginza is Tokyo Station which is the city’s main transportation hub. If you’re planning on taking the Shinkansen to Nagoya, Kyoto, or Osaka, then this is a convenient area for you to stay.
Ginza, the Imperial Palace, and MOMAT are within walking distance and there are plenty of restaurants to choose from. You can search for accommodations around Tokyo Station on Booking.com or Agoda. Check out some of the top-rated hotels in the area:
Luxury: Palace Hotel Tokyo
Midrange: Hotel Ryumeikan Tokyo
Budget: karaksa hotel TOKYO STATION
Akihabara is another famous area in Tokyo. It’s considered the heart of otaku (diehard fan) culture and where you’ll find building after building filled with arcades games, electronics, maid cafes, and anime shops.
Check out our neighborhood guide for more on Akihabara. You can search for accommodations there on Booking.com or Agoda. Here are some of the top-rated hotels in the area:
Luxury: MONday Apart Premium AKIHABARA
Midrange: ICI HOTEL Asakusabashi
Budget: Grids Tokyo Asakusa-bashi Hotel＆Hostel
If you’d like to stay in a more traditional part of Tokyo, then Ueno may be for you. It isn’t as exciting an area as Harajuku, Akihabara, or Shinjuku, but it puts you close to some of Tokyo’s top cultural attractions like Tokyo National Museum and Ueno Park. Plus, accommodations in Ueno are generally cheaper.
I didn’t spend too much time in Ueno but I did explore the park and Ameyoko, a lively market street with lots of inexpensive dining options. You can search for accommodations in Ueno on Booking.com or Agoda. Check out some of the top-rated hotels in the area:
Luxury: MIMARU TOKYO UENO EAST
Midrange: The Hideout Tokyo
Budget: Uno Ueno
Directly to the east of Ueno is Asakusa, a similarly traditional area known for its temples and other historical attractions. It’s where you’ll find Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple and one of its most visited.
Asakusa is similar to Ueno so if you’re searching for cheaper accommodations in Tokyo, then this is a good place to look. You can search for accommodations in Asakusa on Booking.com or Agoda. Check out some of the top-rated hotels in the area:
Luxury: MIMARU TOKYO ASAKUSA STATION
Midrange: Onyado Nono Asakusa Natural Hot Spring
Budget: Khaosan Tokyo Kabuki
This was where we stayed on our most recent trip to Tokyo. It’s a quieter area situated to the east of Asakusa, across the Sumida River. It’s perhaps the least most visited area on this list, but it is home to a few attractions like Tokyo Skytree, Edo-Tokyo Museum, and the Ryogoku sumo district. Accommodations are generally cheaper here as well.
We stayed at Oak Hostel Sakura which is an inexpensive but comfortable hostel near Tokyo Skytree. I actually had two stints at this hostel. I arrived in Tokyo first so I stayed in one of their dorm rooms. When Ren arrived, we moved to a private room. Both rooms were clean and well-maintained and pretty much what you’d expect from a modern Japanese hostel.
You can book a room at Oak Hostel Sakura on Booking.com or Agoda. If you’d like to stay in Sumida but don’t feel this is the right hotel for you, then you can do a search on Booking.com for alternate listings. Check out some of the top-rated hotels in the area:
Luxury: MOXY Tokyo Kinshicho by Marriott
Midrange: KAIKA TOKYO by THE SHARE HOTELS
Roppongi is another well-known area that’s considered one of the best places to stay in Tokyo. It’s a more upscale multinational area with great museums, restaurants, shopping centers, and bars.
Ren and I had dinner in Roppongi one night and you could feel from walking around that it is indeed a wealthier, more cosmopolitan part of town. Similar to Ginza, but less commercial. You can read more about Roppongi in the neighborhood section of this guide.
Visit Booking.com or Agoda to search for accommodations in Roppongi. Here are some of the top-rated hotels in the area:
Luxury: The Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo
Midrange: Candeo Hotels Tokyo Roppongi
Budget: Sotetsu Fresa Inn Tokyo Roppongi
Odaiba is one of the strangest areas in Tokyo. It’s strange in the sense that it doesn’t feel like a real neighborhood, which in some ways, it isn’t.
Odaiba is a popular shopping and entertainment district built on a man-made island in Tokyo Bay. The buildings here are some of the most futuristic-looking in Tokyo. It’s home to many family-oriented attractions, including the popular teamLab Borderless digital museum. You can jump to our neighborhood guide for more on Odaiba.
Being in Odaiba makes you feel a bit detached from the rest of Tokyo, but if you’re traveling with young kids, then this is probably one of the best areas to stay. You can search for accommodations in Odaiba on Booking.com or Agoda. Check out some of the top-rated hotels in the area:
Luxury: Hilton Tokyo Odaiba
Midrange: Daiwa Roynet Hotel Tokyo Ariake
Budget: Hotel Trusty Tokyo Bayside
You can also book hotels and home stays in Tokyo using the handy map below.
INTERESTING NEIGHBORHOODS IN TOKYO
Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s 23 wards but the name is more often used to refer to the large entertainment, shopping, and dining area around Shinjuku Station, the world’s busiest train station.
We loved Shinjuku because there are literally thousands of restaurants to be discovered here, ranging from fine dining establishments to tiny hole-in-the-walls. Had it not been for my need to cover as much of Tokyo as possible, then we could have stayed the entire time in Shinjuku and been completely content.
There are countless bars and restaurants you can visit in Shinjuku, but two areas you definitely shouldn’t miss are Omoide Yokocho and Golden Gai. They’re small pockets within the Shinjuku area comprised of interesting bars, restaurants, and izakayas.
We went on a local-led food tour as well that took us to a few great restaurants in Shinjuku. We were interested primarily in food but there’s a lot to be discovered in Shinjuku.
You can refer to this Shinjuku guide for more information. You can check out Klook and Get Your Guide as well for a list of tours and restaurant deals in Shinjuku.
Closest Subway Station: Shinjuku Station
Like Shinjuku, Shibuya is one of Tokyo’s 23 wards but the name is often used to refer to the popular commercial area around Shibuya Station. It’s a vibrant high-energy area that’s similar in feel to Shinjuku.
Just outside Shibuya Station is Shibuya Crossing, a crosswalk that’s often referred to as the world’s busiest intersection. On the plaza next to the crossing is a statue of one of the world’s most famous dogs – Hachiko.
Shibuya is regarded as a center for youth fashion and culture in Tokyo. There are dozens of department stores here with hundreds of shops, so if you’re goal is to go shopping in Tokyo, then Shibuya is where you want to be.
You can refer to this Shibuya guide for a list of the area’s most popular shopping centers and department stores. You can also check out Klook and Get Your Guide for a list of attraction and restaurant deals in Shibuya.
Closest Subway Station: Shibuya Station
Located between Shibuya and Shinjuku Stations along Tokyo’s Yamanote Line, Harajuku refers to the area immediately around Harajuku Station. It’s the heart of Tokyo’s kawaii culture, famous for its quirky fashion boutiques, trendy restaurants, and Japanese teenagers dressed in outlandish outfits.
Popular areas to visit in Harajuku include Takeshita Dori and Omotesando. Takeshita Dori is where you’ll find this culture of cuteness while Omotesando is a tree-lined boulevard that’s often referred to as the Champs-Elysees of Tokyo. It’s filled with higher-end shops and boutiques that cater to a more adult crowd.
Right next to Harajuku Station are Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine. Yoyogi Park is a quiet public park with lots of trees while Meiji Shrine is a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.
Geographically, Harajuku is part of Shibuya Ward. It’s about a 20-minute walk from Shibuya Station but you can ride the metro if you like. It’s just one stop away.
You can easily explore Harajuku on your own, but if you’d like a local taking you to some of its most interesting spots, then you may be interested in a guided walking tour (Option 1 | Option 2).
Closest Subway Station: Harajuku Station
If you’re into arcade games, electronics, anime, or manga, then Akihabara needs little introduction. It’s the epicenter of Otaku culture in Tokyo.
I was blown away by Akihabara. Like Shinjuku and Shibuya, it’s an energetic neon-lit area that’s great to explore at night. The sheer number of electronics shops and arcades was mind-numbing. You literally had entire buildings filled with just arcade games.
I’m a bit of a toy geek myself so I enjoyed perusing all the anime shops in Akihabara. It’s where you’ll find many of Tokyo’s maid cafes as well.
You can refer to this Akihabara guide for a list of its major electronics shops and otaku attractions. You can also check out Klook, Get Your Guide, and Magical-Trip for vouchers to maid cafes and other otaku experiences in Akihabara.
Closest Subway Station: Akihabara Station
Ginza is Tokyo’s premier shopping district. It’s where you’ll find many of Tokyo’s high-end department stores, luxury boutiques, and fine dining restaurants.
We’re fans of the UNIQLO brand so we went to Ginza to go shopping at its 12-floor flagship store, its biggest one to date. Tsukiji Outer Market, Tokyo’s famed fish and seafood market, is about a 15-minute walk from here.
If you’d like to have lunch or dinner in Ginza, then you can check out Klook for a list of restaurant deals.
Closest Subway Station: Ginza Station
Odaiba is the futuristic entertainment district of Tokyo. It’s built on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay and known for its many family-friendly attractions like interactive museums, digital exhibits, and shopping centers.
We visited two popular attractions in Odaiba – the teamLab Borderless digital museum and the towering Unicorn Gundam robot outside Divercity Tokyo Plaza. They’re just two of the many fun things you can do on the island.
If you’re visiting Tokyo with young children, then Odaiba is one of the best areas for you to stay. It puts you closer to the Tokyo Dinsey Resort as well. You can refer to this Odaiba guide for more information.
Closest Subway Station: Tokyo Teleport Station
Roppongi is a more upscale district in Tokyo that’s popular with foreigners and expats. We had dinner at the original Savoy in Roppongi one night and we enjoyed the area’s contemporary vibe. It felt quieter and less commercial than Ginza.
The area is home to Roppongi Hills, a modern entertainment complex featuring dozens of shops and restaurants. At its center is Mori Tower, one of Tokyo’s tallest buildings and where you’ll find the Tokyo City View observation deck and Mori Art Museum.
According to our food tour guide, Mori Art Museum is one of the city’s best museums while Tokyo City View is one of its best observation decks. You can get discounted tickets to both on Klook.
Follow the link for more attraction and restaurant deals in Roppongi.
Closest Subway Station: Roppongi Station
PLACES TO VISIT IN TOKYO
The attractions listed below were some of my favorites to visit in Tokyo. It’s just a fraction of all the places you can visit so if you’d like more suggestions, then you can refer to our 5-day Tokyo itinerary.
1. Meiji Shrine
Meiji Jingu or Meiji Shrine is one of Japan’s most important shrines. In the first days of the new year, over 3 million devotees visit the shrine to say the year’s first prayer.
Meiji Shrine is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken. It was built in 1920, eight years after the passing of Emperor Meiji who was the first emperor of modern Japan.
The shrine is located deep within a 70-hectare forested park next to Yoyogi Park and Harajuku Station. It’s easy to visit on your own, but if you’d like to go on a guided tour, then you can book one through Klook or Get Your Guide. They offer several tours that feature Meiji Shrine.
Closest Subway Station: Harajuku Station Admission: FREE Estimated Time to Spend: About 1 – 1.5 hrs
Like Meiji Shrine, Senso-ji is one of Tokyo’s most popular religious landmarks. Built in 645, it’s Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple and dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy, Kannon.
Senso-ji is located in Asakusa, about a minute away from Asakusa Station. It’s known for its outer gate Kaminarimon which is recognized as a symbol of both Asakusa and the city of Tokyo. Between Kaminarimon and Senso-ji is a fun stretch of shops selling different types of snacks and souvenirs.
You can visit Senso-ji on your own or go on a guided tour. Check out Klook and Get Your Guide for a list of tours and activities in Senso-ji and Asakusa.
Closest Subway Station: Asakusa Station Admission: FREE Estimated Time to Spend: About 30 mins – 1 hr
3. Koishikawa Korakuen
Koishikawa Korakuen is one Tokyo’s oldest and most beautiful landscaped gardens. Built during the Edo Period (1600-1867), it features meandering walking trails through trees, ponds, streams, and rock formations.
Koishikawa Korakuen is lovely at any time of the year though it’s perhaps at its most beautiful in spring or autumn. It’s a great place to spend a few quiet moments and get away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
Closest Subway Station: Iidabashi or Suidobashi Station Admission: JPY 300 Estimated Time to Spend: About 1 – 1.5 hrs
4. Tsukiji Outer Market
Tsukiji Outer Market is the most famous fish market in Tokyo and one of its most popular attractions. Located about a 15-minute walk from Ginza Station, it became famous for the tuna auctions formerly held in its inner market.
The tuna auctions have been moved to Toyosu Market but Tsukiji’s outer market is still open and as busy as ever. It’s a great place to experience Japan’s market atmosphere while feasting on a delicious array of seafood and Japanese street food.
You can eat your way through Tsukiji Outer Market on your own, or you can go on a market tour. Check out Klook, Get Your Guide, byFood, and Magical-Trip for a list of Tsukiji Market tours.
Closest Subway Station: Tsukiji or Tsukijishijo Station Admission: FREE Estimated Time to Spend: About 1 hr
5. teamLab Planets
It’s no longer open but Borderless was a multimedia exhibit by the teamLab art collective. Located in Odaiba, it’s comprised of multiple rooms with interactive digital displays spread out over a 100,000 square meter space.
teamLab offers another multimedia exhibit near Toyosu Market called Planets. It’s similar to Borderless with one key difference being an exhibit that requires visitors to wade in knee-deep water. You can get tickets to Planets on Klook or Get Your Guide.
Closest Subway Station: Shin-Toyosu Station Admission: JPY 3,200 Estimated Time to Spend: About 2-3 hrs
MOMAT is short for the National Museum of Modern Art. As its name suggests, it’s a modern art museum dedicated to the work of Japanese artists from the Meiji period onwards.
Comprised of four floors, it’s a good-sized museum showcasing an interesting body of work. Before my visit, I was mostly familiar with traditional Japanese art so it was nice to see work inspired by western genres like cubism and surrealism.
Closest Subway Station: Takebashi Station Admission: JPY 500 Estimated Time to Spend: About 1.5 – 2 hrs
7. Yayoi Kusama Museum
Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese contemporary artist known for her large-scale sculptures and installations covered in polka dots. She dabbles in other creative disciplines as well like painting and film but she’s best known for her sculptures.
I was really looking forward to visiting this museum. Unfortunately, we found out only when we got there that purchasing advanced tickets online is a must. They only let in a certain number of visitors at a time so you need to choose a specific time slot.
The Yayoi Kusama Museum is popular so tickets are known to sell out. Be sure to reserve your slot weeks in advance. You can do so through the Yayoi Kusama Museum website.
Closest Subway Station: Ushigome-Yanagicho Station Admission: JPY 1,100 Estimated Time to Spend: Maximum of 1.5 hrs
8. Tokyo Skytree
We stayed in Sumida so we’d walk by Tokyo Skytree everyday. It’s a television broadcasting tower that’s currently the tallest structure in Japan.
Measuring 634 meters in height, Tokyo Skytree has two observation decks (at 350 and 450 meters) offering spectacular views of Tokyo. You can purchase tickets to the observation decks at the gate or get them in advance through Klook.
Closest Subway Station: Oshiage Station Admission: Ticketing information Estimated Time to Spend: About 1 hr
THINGS TO DO IN TOKYO
1. Get a Drink at Omoide Yokocho or Golden Gai
Omoide Yokocho and Golden Gai are two of the most interesting “micro-neighborhoods” we visited in Tokyo. Both are clusters of tiny restaurants and izakayas in Shinjuku.
Omoide Yokocho literally means “Memory Lane” but it’s more often referred to as “Piss Alley”. This monicker dates back to the 1940s when Omoide Yokocho didn’t have public restrooms, leaving inebriated patrons little choice but to relieve themselves in the alley.
Facilities have greatly improved since then, making Piss Alley one of the most popular places to get a drink in Shinjuku. Located just outside Shinjuku Station, Omoide Yokocho is packed with tiny izakayas serving drinks and bar food like yakitori, ramen, and nikomi.
If you’d like to experience Omoide Yokocho with a guide, then you can book a tour through byFood.
About a 10-minute walk from Omoide Yokocho is Golden Gai, an equally interesting network of six narrow alleyways with over 200 tiny bars and restaurants. Comprised of 2-storey structures, it’s said to provide a glimpse into what Tokyo used to look like not too long ago.
According to our food tour guide, Golden Gai is a favorite hangout among Tokyo’s creatives like artists, photographers, film directors, and writers. Like Omoide Yokocho, it’s teeming with character and a great place to get a drink. Check out Get Your Guide for a list of tours that take you to Golden Gai.
2. Go on a Food or Bar Hopping Tour
We love going on food or bar hopping tours because they often lead us to local hole-in-the-walls that we may not find ourselves. Research can get us pretty far but sometimes, we need the help of locals to find the most obscure places.
In Tokyo, we went on this fun Shinjuku food tour with Magical-Trip. Our guide Nori took us to three restaurants and walked us through some of Shinjuku’s most interesting spots like Omoide Yokocho and Golden Gai.
You can check out my article on this Shinjuku Tokyo food tour for more pictures and information. If it interests you, then you can book a Tokyo food or bar hopping tour on byFood or Magical-Trip.
3. Rent a Kimono
People love exploring Tokyo in kimonos. It’s a great way of experiencing the city and coming away with some amazing photos. We haven’t done it in Tokyo but we did it in Kyoto, and we wound up with some of the best pictures we’ve ever taken in Japan.
If you’d like to rent a kimono in Tokyo to spruce up your Instagram feed, then you can do so on Klook.
Photo by FOTOGRIN via Shutterstock
4. Go to a Maid Cafe
Maid Cafes are a type of cosplay restaurant popular in Tokyo. Waitresses dress up in maid costumes and act like servants while treating cafe customers like their masters and mistresses.
Maid Cafes have become quite popular and can be found in different parts of Tokyo (and Japan), but most are still clustered in Akihabara where the trend began.
You can refer to this article for some of the best Maid Cafes in Akihabara. Klook offers vouchers to Maidreamin, the first Maid Cafe recommended on that list.
Photo by WPixz via Shutterstock
5. Take a Cooking Class
Going on food tours is great for finding obscure hole-in-the-walls, but if you’d like to learn more about a cuisine, then taking a cooking class is one of the best things you can do. It’s like looking under the cuisine’s hood.
I took this fun cooking class in Tokyo where I learned to make classic Japanese dishes like udon, tempura, and tamagoyaki. You can search for cooking classes in Tokyo on Cookly or byFood. There are hundreds to choose from.
6. Go Cruising in a Go-Kart
This is one of the wackiest things you can do in Tokyo. For 1-3 hours, you can wear cosplay costumes and cruise around downtown Tokyo in go karts. It looks hilarious and a lot of fun.
Ren and I wanted to do this but we didn’t have time to get international driver’s permits before our trip. If you’re looking for something fun and unique to do in Tokyo, then it doesn’t get much better than this. It’s so Japan!
You can book your go karting experience in Tokyo on Klook or Get Your Guide.
Photo by kazuhiro via Shutterstock
7. Watch Sumo
Watching a sumo tournament or practice is something I’ve been wanting to do in Japan. My brother and sister-in-law experienced a sumo practice in Tokyo and said it was one of the best things they did in Japan.
Ryogoku District in Sumida Ward is known as Tokyo’s Sumo Town. It’s home to the sumo stadium (Ryogoku Kokugikan), sumo stables, and many chanko restaurants. Chanko nabe is the hot pot dish that wrestlers eat to maintain their massive bulk.
Sumo wrestling matches are held every January, May, and September. If you’ll be in Tokyo during those months, then maybe you’d like to catch a tournament.
Otherwise, there are other sumo-related experiences you can do like attending a sumo practice, eating a chanko nabe lunch, and more. You can check Klook, Get Your Guide, or Magical-Trip for a list of sumo-related activities in Tokyo.
Photo by Dr. Gilad Fiskus via Shutterstock
DAY TRIPS FROM TOKYO
If you’re spending enough time in Tokyo, then you may want to take a day trip (or two). Because of Tokyo’s ultra-efficient railway system, there are multiple day trips you can make from the city.
Listed below are five of the most popular but be sure to click through to our list of the best day trips from Tokyo for more suggestions. It’ll have more information about the following day trips as well.
1. Tokyo Disney Resort
They may have “Tokyo” in their names but Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea aren’t actually in Tokyo. They’re in Urayasu city in neighboring Chiba prefecture, about an hour east of central Tokyo.
If you’re visiting Japan with kids, then going to either Disney resort may already be on your agenda. But even if you aren’t, it’s a fun way of spending the day in Tokyo. Tokyo Disney Resort is the most unique in the franchise because it’s the only one that The Walt Disney Company doesn’t have an ownership stake in.
Ren and I spent the day at Tokyo DisneySea and loved it. It truly is a unique experience and unlike any other Disney theme park we’ve ever visited. I suggest going to Tokyo DisneySea (instead of Tokyo Disneyland) as it’s the only one of its kind in the world.
Visit the Tokyo Disney Resort website for ticketing information. You can also check out Klook for a list of Disney-related travel deals, and jump to the TRAVEL TIPS section of this guide for tips on how to save on Tokyo Disney Resort tickets.
How to Get There: By train or bus Average Travel Time: About 55 mins
Kawagoe is an atmospheric castle town in Saitama prefecture, less than an hour northwest of Tokyo. Nicknamed “Little Edo”, it’s famous for its many well-preserved warehouses and traditional buildings that evoke an historic Edo-period feel.
Many of the old buildings along the town’s main Kurazukuri Street have been converted into restaurants, shops, and teahouses, so one of the best things you can do in Kawagoe is to eat street food and soak in the town’s atmosphere.
Be sure to seek out Kashiya Yokocho as well. It’s a narrow alley with a cluster of small shops selling a selection of traditional Japanese sweets and candy.
It’s easy to visit Kawagoe on your own but you may want to check out Klook for a list of travel deals to Kawagoe.
How to Get There: Commute by train to Kawagoe Station. Catch a local bus to Kurazukuri Street. Average Travel Time: About 50 mins
Located in Kanagawa prefecture, Kamakura is one of the most popular day trips you can make from Tokyo. It’s nicknamed the “Kyoto of eastern Japan” because of its impressive collection of cultural attractions.
There are many interesting temples and shrines in Kamakura, but it’s biggest draw is the Great Buddha of Kamakura. It’s an 11.4-meter tall bronze statue of the Buddha located on the grounds of Kotokuin Temple.
Aside from its many temples and shrines, Kamakura in also known for its hiking trails so you can appreciate both culture and nature at once. You can spend the day in Kamakura on your own or join a guided tour (Klook | Get Your Guide).
Photo by Studio Hito via Shutterstock
How to Get There: Commute by train to Kamakura Station. Average Travel Time: About 1 hr
4. Lake Kawaguchiko
Lake Kawaguchiko is the easiest of the Fuji Five Lakes to visit on a day trip from Tokyo. Located in Yamanashi prefecture, it’s an onsen town that offers some of the most breathtaking views of Mt. Fuji.
There are quite a few things you can do around Lake Kawaguchiko, making it ideal for a full day trip. You can ride the Mt. Fuji Panoramic Ropeway, bathe in an onsen, or visit the Fuji-Q Highland amusement park. Check out Klook or Get Your Guide for a list of tours and travel deals to Lake Kawaguchiko.
Photo by Milosz Maslanka via Shutterstock
How to Get There: Catch a highway bus from Shinjuku bus terminal to Kawaguchiko station. Average Travel Time: About 1 hr 45 mins
A trip to Hakone in Kanagawa prefecture is perhaps one of the best day trips you can make from Tokyo. Like Lake Kawaguchiko, it’s an onsen town that offers spectacular views of Mt. Fuji.
Located about two hours southwest of Tokyo, Hakone is known for its many onsen resorts, temples, shrines, hiking trails, and art museums. There’s quite a lot to see and do there so an early start is a must.
Among the most popular activities in Hakone include soaking in an onsen, riding a pirate ship across Lake Ashinoko, and riding the ropeway to Owakudani – an area with volcanically active geysers.
If you want to prettify your Instagram feed, then you can pose for pictures in front of Hakone Shrine’s orange torii gate. Check out Get Your Guide for more ideas on what you can do in Hakone.
Photo by Pasu Ratprasert via Shutterstock
How to Get There: Commute by train to Hakone-Yumoto station. Average Travel Time: About 2 hrs
JAPANESE FOOD GUIDE
Japanese is my absolute favorite cuisine in the world and a big reason why we visit Japan often, at least once a year if we can. If you love Japanese food and Japanese desserts as much as we do, then you may want to check out Japanese food guide. It includes popular dishes in Japan as well as regional specialties by prefecture, including Tokyo.
WHERE TO EAT IN TOKYO
Food is why we travel so it was important for me to come up with as complete a Tokyo food guide as possible. I didn’t want to just find the city’s best sushi bars or its best ramen restaurants. I wanted to explore Tokyo’s regional food so I could create as well-rounded a food guide as I could.
The result is this Tokyo food guide with 18 must-try restaurants. If you’re wondering where to eat in Tokyo, then I hope this list of eighteen can lead you to some great meals.
Eighteen may be too many for most people so I’ve listed six of our favorites below to give you as well-rounded a Tokyo food experience as possible. Do check out our full Tokyo food guide for more pictures and information about each of these restaurants.
This was one of our best meals in Tokyo. The ramen at this neighborhood restaurant is unbelievable.
麺処いのこ平和台店 was recommended to us by a Japanese local who was reluctant to tell us about it at first. He was fine with us going there, but he didn’t want me to share the information publicly because according to him, lines were long enough.
Thankfully, they have three branches so he let me post the address of the branch he doesn’t go to. Ha! You can refer to our full Tokyo travel guide to see where it is.
This crab miso ramen was delicious but what really blew us away was the ebi miso tsukemen. Made with shrimp heads, it was redolent with that umami-laden flavor you can only get from sucking on shrimp heads. It was so damn good and one of the best bowls of ramen we’ve ever tasted.
2. Sushi Katsura
Excluding kaiten-zushi restaurants, cheap good sushi isn’t as easy to come by in an expensive city like Tokyo. Thankfully, we found Sushi Katsura.
Located just off Tsukiji Outer Market, one reviewer described Sushi Katsura as a serious contender for cheapest good sushi in Tokyo. This lunch sushi set with nine pieces of nigiri, six pieces of maki, and one tamago set me back just JPY 1,280.
Sushi Katsura sources their fish from nearby Tsukiji so you know it’s of the highest quality.
When my Japanese friend was giving me restaurant recommendations in Tokyo, he told me that I couldn’t talk about Tokyo food without talking about monjayaki. It’s considered quintessential Tokyo food.
Made with pan-fried batter, monjayaki is a dish similar to okonomiyaki. Dashi or water is added to the batter which makes it runnier. When cooked, monjayaki doesn’t quite solidify into pancake form the way okonomiyaki does. It stays soft and gooey, like melted cheese.
The Tsukushima area is one of the best places in Tokyo to have monjayaki. My friend recommended I try it here at 好美家.
Another dish that’s considered core Tokyo food is fukagawa meshi. It’s a dish of clam and long onion cooked in miso and topped over rice.
Like monjayaki, you need to go to a specific part of Tokyo to try the best versions of fukagawa meshi. The most delicious fukagawa meshi can be found in the area where it originated from – Fukagawa.
Fukagawa is a former fishing town where people earned a living by catching fish, gathering clams, or harvesting laver. Fukagawa meshi was invented at that time as a humble working class dish. It’s still enjoyed to this day, at specialty restaurants in Fukagawa like Miyako.
5. Kisaburo Nojo
Kisaburo Nojo specializes in tamago kake gohan, a popular Japanese comfort food of steamed rice topped with raw egg and soy sauce. According to my Japanese friend, it’s like the Japanese equivalent of the American PB&J.
Kisaburo Nojo offers an all-you-can-eat tamago kake gohan buffet featuring premium eggs sourced from different farms in Japan.
I wasn’t in the mood for just raw eggs and rice so I ordered the tamago kake gohan set with chicken. It was clean-tasting and delicious, like eating oyakodon made with raw instead of cooked egg.
It may seem odd to add a pizzeria to a Japanese food guide, but as mentioned earlier in this article, Tokyo makes incredible Neapolitan-style pizzas that rival those in Italy.
If you’re a fan of the Ugly Delicious series with David Chang, then you may recognize Savoy as one one of the places featured on the pizza episode of the show.
They serve just two types of pizza at Savoy – margherita and marinara. We haven’t been to Italy yet so we can’t compare, but these were easily the best pizzas we’ve ever had in our lives. They were simple but perfect.
As one reviewer wrote in his review of Savoy: “The best pizza isn’t in Italy, it’s in Tokyo!”
There’s more than one Savoy outlet in Tokyo so be sure you go to the original branch in Azabu-juban.
POINTS OF INTEREST IN TOKYO
There are a LOT of places recommended in this guide. To help you understand where everything is, I’ve pinned them all on this map. Click on the link for a live version of the map.
HOW TO GET AROUND IN TOKYO
Tokyo is massive but it has such an extensive and efficient metro system that getting around was never a problem. I used mostly the subway and I never had to walk too far to get from any metro station to my destination.
If you plan on following this guide, then you’ll be riding the trains a lot so it’s a good idea to get a transportation card. I used a combination of two in Tokyo – a 72-hr Tokyo Subway Ticket and a Suica IC Card.
Tokyo Subway Ticket
If you plan on using Tokyo’s local metro a lot (ie several times a day) then a Tokyo Subway Ticket will be very useful to you. It’ll give you unlimited rides on the Toei and Tokyo Metro Lines for 24 hrs, 48 hrs, or 72 hrs. I was in Tokyo for over a week so I got two 72-hr tickets.
You can refer to this Tokyo subway map to see which lines you can use it for. The Toei and Tokyo Metro Lines should get you anywhere you need to go within the city limits.
If you’re not sure if it’s worth it for you, then you can get an estimate on subway fares using Hyperdia or Google Maps. In my case, it was worth it on most days but not all so I made sure to start using my 72-hr tickets on consecutive days when I knew I’d be commuting a lot.
You can buy Tokyo Subway Tickets at the airpot (Narita and Haneda) or at metro stations, but you can sometimes get a discount if you purchase it in advance through Klook or Get Your Guide.
If you’ll only be traveling within Tokyo’s city limits, then the Tokyo Subway Ticket should be enough. But if you plan on taking day trips outside the city or eventually moving on to another city in Japan, then you should get an IC Card as well.
Suica / Pasmo IC Card
An IC Card is basically a stored value card similar to Seoul’s T-money Card or Hong Kong’s Octopus Card. It won’t save you on fares but it’ll save you from the hassle of having to buy single journey tickets every time.
For trips on the Toei and Tokyo Metro Lines, I used the Tokyo Subway Ticket. For anything else like bus rides and trips beyond the city limits, I used the Suica IC Card.
After Tokyo, I spent four more weeks traveling through Japan and the Suica IC Card worked everywhere – on trains, buses, ferries, and trams – from Tokyo to Fukuoka. You can even use it to pay for things at convenience stores.
When your balance runs low, you can top it up at machines found in every subway station. It is so incredibly convenient and a must when using public transportation in major cities in Japan.
The Pasmo IC Card is pretty much the same thing as the Suica IC Card. The only real difference is the companies that offer them. The Suica IC Card is owned by Toei and Tokyo Metro while the Pasmo IC Card is operated by JR, but they both give you the same benefits. Getting either card is fine. Click on the link for more information on Japan’s IC Cards.
If you’d like to purchase a Suica IC Card, then you can do so in advance through Klook.
HOW MANY DAYS TO STAY / TOKYO ITINERARY
Tokyo is such a big city with much to see and do so I was surprised to find people saying that you can experience its highlights in just two days. That sounded ludicrous to me.
Sure, it’s possible to visit one attraction, snap a quick selfie, then rush to the next one, but how much of Tokyo are you really experiencing? For a fulfilling Tokyo experience, I’d say four days is a minimum, but five is ideal.
There are so many interesting day trips you can make from Tokyo so I think five days is the perfect amount of time for any first-time visitor. Listed below is a synopsis but be sure to click through to our 5-day Tokyo itinerary for the full version.
DAY ONE • Meiji Shrine • Yoyogi Park • Harajuku • Shibuya
DAY TWO • Ginza • Tsukiji Outer Market • Odaiba • Shinjuku
DAY THREE • Yayoi Kusama Museum • Koishikawa Korakuen • MOMAT • Tokyo Imperial Palace • Akihabara
DAY FOUR • Senso-ji • Tokyo Skytree • Edo-Tokyo Museum • Hie Shrine • Tokyo Tower • Zozo-ji
DAY FIVE • Day Trip
TOKYO TRAVEL TIPS
1. Plan your Trip with Sygic Travel
If you enjoy planning every detail of your trips like I do, then you may find Sygic Travel useful. It’s a free trip planning app that allows you to create efficient itineraries by pinning points of interest on a map then grouping them together by location. I’ve been using it for several years now to create all our itineraries. It’s available for free on iOS and Android.
2. Stay Connected
Having a reliable wifi connection is important anywhere, but especially in a huge megacity like Japan where there’s a language barrier. You’ll need it to translate signs, convert currencies, and navigate the very efficient but also very confusing metro system.
You can connect to the internet in Japan using a sim card or a pocket wifi device. Personally, we prefer connecting via pocket wifi devices because it’s simpler, but it’s really up to you.
Follow the links to purchase a 4G sim card or rent a 4G pocket wifi device through Klook or Get Your Guide. Be sure to reserve it at least a week prior to your trip.
3. Use Hyperdia
As described, you’ll be riding trains a lot in Tokyo (and Japan in general) so this free commuter app will be very useful to you. It’ll help you decipher the often confusing railway system.
Hyperdia is accurate and reliable but I don’t find it as user-friendly as Google Maps so I typically use it just for intercity travel. If I need to figure out the local transportation system, then I use Google Maps.
4. Navigate with Google Maps
As mentioned above, Hyperdia is great for intercity travel but there’s no better navigation app than Google Maps. It’ll tell you exactly how to get from point A to point B either by walking or using any city’s local transportation system. It’s super reliable and something I never travel without.
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5. Get a Discount on Disney Tickets at a Kinken Shop
Disney Resort tickets are expensive. They’re even more expensive now but at the time of our trip, a one-day passport cost JPY 7,500 for adults. Thankfully, we were able to save a little on the cost by buying them from a kinken shop.
A kinken shop is a ticket resale store found throughout Japan, usually near train stations or in shopping arcades. They buy and sell unused train passes, vouchers, and tickets to different events like concerts, sporting games, and amusement parks.
Prices vary but we got our one-day passports for JPY 7,200 apiece from a kinken shop near Shinjuku station. It wasn’t a huge discount but in a city as expensive as Tokyo, every little bit counts.
Kinken shops are legitimate businesses but be sure to read the terms of the ticket you’re buying. The one-day passports we bought were expiring in about three months, which was fine in our case. You can check out this article on kinken shops for more information.
6. Plan for Long Commutes
This was the one thing I didn’t take into account when planning our itinerary. Tokyo is huge so it can often take time to get from one destination to the next.
When creating your itinerary, don’t cram too many activities in one day. It makes everything so much more stressful and less enjoyable when you find yourself having to rush from one place to the next.
Take your time and enjoy yourself. Travel isn’t a race.
7. Look for Tokyo Travel Deals
There are many websites that offer discounts on tours and other travel-related services. For Tokyo, I suggest going through Klook, Get Your Guide, byFood, and Magical-Trip. They’re all leading travel ecommerce sites that offer a wide range of activities in different cities around the world, including Tokyo.
8. Get Travel Insurance
Whether or not to get travel insurance is something we deliberate on before every trip. It usually depends on three factors – where we’re going, how long we’ll be away for, and what we’ll be doing. I was in Japan for over a month so I definitely felt the need for insurance.
When we need insurance, we buy it from SafetyWing or Heymondo. They’re travel insurance providers often used by many long-term travelers. Click on the links to get a free quote from SafetyWing or Heymondo. Get 5% off on Heymondo by using our link.
9. Bring the Right Power Adapter
Japan has Type A or Type B electrical outlets so be sure to bring the right power adapters for your devices. Electrical voltage is 100V and the standard frequency is 50/60Hz.
10. Learn Basic Japanese Etiquette
Mindfulness and etiquette are of the utmost importance in Japan. As a foreigner, we aren’t expected to know all the rules but it would be good to familiarize ourselves with the basics. Check out this great overview on Japanese etiquette for travelers.
I’m not an expert on Tokyo but I do hope you find this travel guide useful. I’m only sharing the things I learned from our trips. If you have any questions or comments, then please feel free to leave them in the comment section below. You’re welcome to join our Facebook Travel Group as well.
Arigato gozaimasu and have an amazing time getting lost in translation in Tokyo!
These are some of the things we brought with us to Tokyo. For more of our gear, have a look inside our backpack. (NOTE: The following links are Amazon and other affiliate links.)
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