30 Best Things to do in Kyoto
Culture winds thick and heady throughout Kyoto, the city an open air menagerie of temples and shrines. Once the flowering capital of Japan, Kyoto’s historical significance is evident; it is marked by the architectures of bygone eras and more the beautiful for it. While one can hardly explore all the heritage sites in one sitting, you definitely don’t want to miss out on these significant sites:
Explore the trails of Fushimi Inari Shrine
Guarding the entrance to sacred Mount Inari is the venerated Shinto shrine: Fushimi Inari. Dedicated to the god of rice, statues of messenger foxes dot the premise; this foxy motif has influenced on-site eateries to serve similarly themed dishes of Inari sushi and Kitsune udon. Pay your respects at the main hall before embarking on the iconic Senbon torii hiking trails. Leading through the blanketed slopes to a breathtaking peak are densely packed torii gates donated by various parties, some of the most photographed sites in the world. While the summit takes 2 to 3 hours to reach, you can stop at the Yotsutsuji intersection before turning back.
Be charmed by Sanneizaka Shopping Street
If paved slopes and traditional wooden buildings are what you find charming, Sanneizaka Shopping Street will have you hooked. Running from Yasaka to Kiyomizu-dera Temple, this old-timey path is lined with souvenir shops, ceramic stores and restaurants serving traditional cuisine. You can buy anything from cute charms to green tea snacks, to wooden swords and personalized chopsticks. You can also rent kimonos before hopping up to Kiyomizu-dera for some blessing in love. A quaint, shopping heaven? You got it in one.
Admire the city from Kyoto Tower
Every city comes with an observatory tower and Kyoto is no different. Easily accessible and a towering rarity – because Kyoto isn’t one for skyscrapers – Kyoto Tower stands at 131 meters tall. Completed in 1964, it is a relatively modern construct in a nostalgic city; you can expect the typical souvenir shops, restaurants and commercial goods at its base. Visitors comparing Kyoto and neighboring Osaka should definitely step up to the circular viewing platform, as clear days may afford views across even Kyoto’s borders.
The famed geisha district: Gion
Hemmed in between Yasaka Shrine and Kamo River is the famous Gion district, home to geiko and maiko who train in traditional performance arts. Characterized by old-styled wooden merchant houses now transformed into shops and restaurants, Gion’s main Hanami-koji Street is lined with establishments serving local kaiseki meals. Keeping traditions of eras long past, teahouses persist in this district to entertain exclusive guests. For a quieter experience, the riverfront Shirakawa Area is home to similar high-class delights. Do be respectful towards any geiko or maiko you may come across; don’t try and grab them for photographs as they are most likely busy with their schedules.
Sampling Kyoto delicacies at Nishiki Market
If you have never been under one of Japan’s sheltered food streets, Nishiki Market is a delicious introduction to narrow blocks of shops packed neatly together. Locally produced, these shops have been passed down through families for generations, developing out of a fish wholesale district to a varied retail space. Tending to specialize in one food stuff, procured goods include pickles, dried seafood, local sweets and sushi. You can taste test free samples or quick bites, freshly prepped skewers offered alongside sit-down restaurants and ready-made food. Knives and cookware are also sold, hereby coining Nishiki Market as ‘Kyoto’s Kitchen’.
Dining at Pontocho Geisha District
Visit Pontocho for the ambiance, a narrow dining alley running parallel to Kamogawa River. Temporary platforms are built over flowing water for a unique open air dining experience, coined kawayuka; we recommend booking ahead for this river-facing seating. Retaining the traditional façade of what used to be a prominent geisha district, Pontocho now houses a myriad of traditional and modern Kyoto cuisine, from inexpensive grilled foods to expensive and exclusive establishments. If you time your trip right, you can catch the biannual performances at Pontocho Kaburenjo theatre featuring geiko and maikos.
Purify with Kiyomizu-dera Temple’s blessed water
Named after its central Otowa Waterfall, Kiyomizu-dera translates into ‘Pure Water Temple’. With roots in the Hosso sect of Japanese Buddhism, Kiyomizu-dera is one of the most celebrated temples of Japan since its founding in 780. While visitors take delight in the winding shopping street towards its main entrance and vermillion pagodas, its main hall takes centerpiece. With an elevated wooden stage jutting out over cherry and maple thickets, it offers unparalleled views of seasonal shifts across the city of Kyoto. Other notable structures include Jishu Shrine, which blesses love and matchmaking, the pure waters of Otowa Waterfall and Okunoin Hall.
Stunning silver accents of Ginkaku-ji
There might not actually be a silver coated pavilion at Ginkaku-ji’s Zen gardens, but this shogun retirement home turned temple is modeled after the golden plated Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion). East of Kyoto, this complex of temple buildings amid unique moss and sand garden emulates the refined nature of tea ceremonies, flower arrangement, Noh theatre and poetry of its cultural period. The circular walking path takes you through a deliberate landscape of bonsai trees, ponds, and dark wooden buildings. The Silver pavilion itself is a simple two-story structure whose exterior lightly shimmers under moonlight – painting a beautiful, poetic retreat.
Quiet history at Murin-an Villa
Murin-an proves that it doesn’t have to be big to be significant. Originally a private villa home to Yamagata Aritomo in the Taisho Period, this public site is now an open museum slash teahouse. History marks the western-style building where notable politicians came together to discuss policies before the Russo-Japanese war in 1903. History also lingers in the traditional juxtaposition of Murin-an’s strolling garden, grass plains soothed by intermittent maples and trickling stream. To complete the picture, a serene teahouse and waterfall invites you stay for a bit of tradition and a bit of experience, running a quick tea ceremony before flowing water.
Indulge in a kimono pictorial
Flesh out your heritage site visits with a period ensemble to whip up impromptu photoshoots! Whether you opt for a lighter, summer yukata or the full-set, embroidered kimono, the traditional dress completes your cultural immersion by emulating the way people used to live. Kimono rentals can be found near major attractions such as Kiyomizu-dera Temple, or downtown areas. There’s a comfortable price range to satisfy your budget, and you have choice of accessories as well. And you don’t have to worry about standing out as Kyoto actively embraces older practices; many locals go about their daily business in traditional wear.
Step onto royal grounds at Kyoto Imperial Park
Having witness over six decades of imperial residence before Tokyo became the capital; Kyoto’s Imperial Park is an impressive complex of walled-in halls, gardens and historical sites, including two palaces. Kyoto Imperial Palace was inhabited until 1868; the grounds are now open to the public, although the buildings themselves cannot be accessed. Sento Imperial Palace, home to past emperors and empresses, is a smaller but no less revered heritage. You will also find former residences of court nobles such as Kaninnomiya Mansion, located at the corner of this kilometer-long recreational space. The park is especially beautiful in spring, cherry trees and fall birches softening the broad gravel paths.
Day trip out to Arashiyama
Strike out of central Kyoto for the mountain-mired Arashiyama, a place of rich culture enclosed within oscillating valleys thick with autumn palettes. Monkey Mountain rises in front of the station, but it is moon-walking Togetsukyo Bridge that lures you in with open grace. Besides a small traditional town with handicraft shops and local delicacies, you will soon wander across countless temples and shrines. If Tenryuji Temple’s golden dragon isn’t riveting enough, trail through the refreshing and sun-dappled Bamboo Grove to reach Okochi-Sanso Villa. There’s nothing like kicking back with a cup of green tea, glorious view before you.
A historic Hozugawa River Boat Ride
The traditional flat bottomed boats and bamboo poles of the Hozugawa River Cruises cut a sleek figure through the ravine. In the two hour drift from Kameoka town to Arashiyama, you can bask in the untouched natural scenery of rural Kyoto, particularly vibrant in autumn. There is history behind this cruise too; from transporting logs to grain and firewood, Hozugawa River boats were crucial to the development of Kyoto and Osaka’s heritage sites. While trains eventually negated the needs for boats, tourism has revived the practice as both a cultural experience and sightseeing attraction.
Nijo Castle: a reminder of Edo strongholds
Track down Kyoto’s past as an imperial stronghold by starting with Nijo Castle. Built in 1603 for the first shogun of Edo Period, this castle complex was temporarily used as an imperial palace before taking up as a heritage site late 1990s. Its layered defenses start with Honmaru, where visitors step in under the impressive eaves of Karamon Gate to reach the secondary circle, Ninomaru. The shogun presided in the well-preserved Ninomaru Palace, where separate triangular-roofed buildings are linked by narrow corridors. Honmaru Palace and its five story castle keep suffered from natural disasters, leaving behind an incomplete complex that rarely invites in visitors. Still, you can enjoy a calming stroll around the gardens, which include cherry blossoms and maples primed for seasonal shifts.
Wander around Heian Shrine
Heian Shrine might not be centuries old, but it is a dedication to the emperors who have ruled from Kyoto. Recognizable by the gigantic torii gate at the entrance, the grounds of Heian Shrine loosely imitate that of the Imperial Palace, opening up to a wide court upon entry. Besides the main cluster of buildings, the garden full of weeping cherry trees makes it a coveted spring destination. Autumn doesn’t thrift on celebration either; Heian Shrine hosts the Jidai Festival every October, featuring a costumed parade that transition through Japan’s historical timeline.
Testugaku no Michi (The Philosopher’s Path)
Spring revelers will inevitably wind up along The Philosopher’s Path, trailing after hundreds of cherry blossom foliage. Tracing a canal that runs between Ginkakuji and Nanzenji neighborhood, the pastel-shaded stone path isn’t just scenic; it is also reflective. Extending out from this pleasant walk are eateries, cafes, small shrines and temples that add to the contemplative atmosphere. Want to avoid busy roads? This is the perfect alternative.
Introducing downtown Kyoto: Shijo-Kawaramachi intersection
The heart of downtown Kyoto perches at the intersecting Shijo and Kawaramachi Streets. A commercial center marked by Takashimaya and Marui Department Store, it neatly bisects shopping interests. Shijo Street proudly presents high-class brands, luxury goods and pricey boutiques; the epitome of a modern city. In contrast, Kawaramachi Street embraces a more humble tone in form of generational shops, local sweets and local specialties.
Join in a festival
Is it any wonder that Kyoto hosts Japan’s most famous festival? The Gion Matsuri headed by Yasaka Shrine is a month long affair in July, peaking with a grand procession of floats and night time festivities. Rooted in religious ceremony to appease the gods, the procession boasts its modern day practices; a divine messenger child cannot set foot on ground the few days he is paraded around town. Other festivals that celebrate bygone eras are the colorful, costumed parades of Aoi Matsuri and Jidai Matsuri. Meanwhile, Hanatoro festival is of more subtle flavor, a biannual illumination event where lanterns are strung up across popular areas.
Lay back and relax at Maruyama Park
Maruyama Park – one of Kyoto’s prime cherry blossom viewing destinations. Sitting next to Yasaka Shrine in spanning wide paths and squares peppered with trees, this public park is a popular weekend joint for families and relaxed wanderers. A special seating area is prepared early April, elevated platforms poised below fluttering flowers for the ultimate viewing experience.
Climbing the sacred Mount Hiei
Very few mountains are as culturally important as Mount Hiei, whose devoted caretakers include one of Japan’s most prominent Buddhist sects. Take the Sakamoto Cablecar to the summit for an eagle’s view of Otsu and Lake Biwa, and find your way to Enryakuji Temple. Once heading thousands of sub temples, its reduced power is still nothing to scoff at. Comprised of various areas, you can spend the entire day exploring this massive complex. Take the forested path from Todo to Saito area; atmospheric and tranquil, this trail encourages quiet contemplation.
Smell nature at Kyoto Botanical Gardens
If you wish for an all-year appreciation of flora and fauna, Kyoto Botanical Garden is exactly that. Home to over 10,000 plant species, it encompasses a Bamboo Garden, Bonsai Exhibit, Sakura trees, Lotus Pond, Ume Grove and other Japan-native families. Sunlight filters through comfortable avenues and benched rest areas guarantee exploration at your pace. The glass paneled conservatory is another enticing world of its own, insides wreathed with ferns, trellis plants, savannah plantation and more. Kyoto Botanical Garden is a place of nature worship.
Breaking barriers at Kyoto International Manga Museum
A modern museum that deserves to be celebrated alongside its historical predecessors, Kyoto International Manga Museum is proof of how integral manga is to present day Japanese culture. Its widespread appeal has long since crossed international borders, calling not only on readers but also artists. The museum’s main draw may be its massive spread of manga (in Japanese) and a smaller collection of translated works, but dedicated sections highlight how manga has developed overseas. Featuring works of international manga artists as well as hosting events with foreign artists, this tribute is no longer ‘in memory’ of classics; it is movement in developing this art form regardless of place.
Look back in time with Kyoto National Museum
What else can you expect from such a culturally rich city but a top-tier museum? Rivalling Tokyo National Museum and its Nara and Kyushu counterparts, Kyoto National Museum is one of the most dated and distinguished. Established in 1897, its permanent collections are rotating exhibitions of calligraphy, sculptures, archaeological artefacts, ceramics and other art mediums. These cultural properties extend far beyond the Meiji Period in which the buildings were constructed; but do spend some time admiring the red-bricked exterior as a historical architecture of its own merit. You may also enjoy temporary exhibitions that touch on more contemporary interests.
Before Daikaku-ji was a renowned Shingon Buddhist temple, it was Emperor Saga’s detached palace retreat. Built in early 800s, it witnessed the reign of retired emperors in following centuries, playing host to successful peace talks between the Northern and Southern Imperial Courts in the 12th century. There’s no palace that so deeply evokes the ambiance of ancient courts; elevated walkways and fusuma doors imbued with historical weight. Kept within the octagonal Heart Sutra Hall is the Heart Sutra of Daikaku-ji, believed to have worked miracles.
More of the temple’s treasured relics are displayed at nearby Reihokan Museum in spring and autumn. Other notable attractions on temple grounds include Osawa Pond, which was constructed for moon viewings, and beautiful Shingyo Pagoda.
Go on set at Toei Kyoto Studio Park
Actually travel back in time on this small town set. With replicas of Nihonbashi Bridge, a Meiji Period police box, renderings of Yoshiwara, Edo era houses and fleshed out street, Toei Kyoto Studio Park often hosts filming for historical dramas. Dress up as a citizen of Japan long past, and silently spectate movies in the making. The fun doesn’t end there – you can sneak your way through a ninja maze or catch a performance; maybe challenge the haunted house. You can also enjoy small exhibitions and specialized games, leaving with souvenirs to commemorate this immersive experience.
Explore Shugakuin Imperial Villa
On the outskirts of Kyoto is a vision of farmlands and gardens that make up Shugakuin Imperial Villa’s Upper, Middle and Lower Villa sectors. Designed with stone slab paths meandering through an aesthetic arrangement of trees and moss, the gardens reflect traditional landscaping in its dreamy composition. Like all Imperial properties, visitors aren’t allowed into buildings and the grounds are accessible through guided tours only. Nevertheless, it is worth the tour as it introduces the various buildings (sometimes left open for tourists to peek inside) and significant features. Neighboring temples include Manshuin Temple and Enkoji Temple, with Ginkakuji not too distant.
The mythical Byodoin
Even of Kyoto’s many temples, Byodoin is one of the most impressive. Surviving from Heian Period, the winged Phoenix Hall is so named for its pond-reflected appearance – like a bird in flight. The statue of Amida Buddha presides inside, face turned serenely forward in welcoming gesture. The burnished pillars, tipped roofs and elegant etchings earn silent expressions of awe and reverence.
Teramachi & Shinkyogoku Shopping Arcades
If you’ve never shopped at one of Japan’s undercover streets, Teramachi and Shinkyogoku are requisite introductions to this shopping-and-architectural highlight. Tacky souvenirs, bookshops, galleries, select shops and eateries make up only some of its tenants.
Dissect your ride at Kyoto Railway Museum
Train-spotters and regular train-takers alike will have a blast at this 30,000-square meter site; the Kyoto Railway Museum comprised of 53 trains on display. Curated by JR West, the exhibits feature steam locomotives to bullet trains, with some suspended and dissected for inner viewings. You can watch real time maintenance of steam locomotives at a 1914 roundhouse, or track one of Japan’s largest dioramas where multiple miniature trains run on an intricate landscape. Interactive exhibitions encourage visitors to try their hand at driving a train or acting as train conductor, putting you on the other side of the usual train experience. The old-style Nijo Station Building rounds off your museum tour with a nostalgic farewell to earlier locomotive days.
Catch a special show at GEAR Theatre
It is hardly surprising that Japan has created humanoid robots able to perform masterful, physical feats. GEAR Theatre offers non-verbal acts that stun; a combination of miming, acrobatics, illusions and special effects that create a unique form of storytelling. Its Art Deco-style exterior is a nod to steampunk genre, standing out among Kyoto’s traditional cityscape.