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Best Things to Do in Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto is considered the cultural capital of Japan and a major tourist destination. It is home to numerous Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, palaces and gardens.

Even if you think you’ve seen it all, the best things to do in Kyoto will leave you speechless. Kyoto is not only one of the most popular tourist attractions in Japan, but also one of the best cities in the world to visit.

Whether you have one day in Kyoto or a week, when you consider things to do in Kyoto, it becomes evident why visiting Japan’s old imperial city is a must. There are over 400 shrines and over 1,600 temples tucked amid Kyoto’s biggest tourist sites, so the experiences are endless.

Do you need assistance arranging your vacation to Kyoto? Here’s a list of the top attractions and places to see in Kyoto.

Best Places in Kyoto

    • Kinkaku-ji
    • Ryoan-ji
    • Fushimi Inari-Taisha
    • Arashiyama
    • Yasaka Shrine
    • Nijo Castle
    • Ginkaku-ji
    • Gion District
    • Kyoto Imperial Palace
    • Nishiki Market
    • Kiyomizu-dera
    • Mount Hiei
    • Tofuku-ji
    • Philosopher’s Walk
    • Kyoto Tower
    • Katsura Imperial Villa
    • Pontocho Alley
    • Minami-za Theatre
    • Byodo-in
    • Chion-in
    • Nara

Marvel at the golden hues of Kinkaku-ji Temple

Looking for an outstanding sight to see while exploring Kyoto? Kinkaku-Ji Temple is the place to be. This striking 13-meter-tall multi-tiered temple lays out next to a calm pond surrounded by trees that seem miles away—although the city is practically on its doorstep!

Kyoto, Kinkaku-Ji Temple
Kinkaku-ji Temple

The temple’s upper two floors are covered in dazzling gold leaves, creating a stunning façade that is complemented by the wavy reflection in the pond below.

The golden reflections at this UNESCO World Heritage Site are a sight to see in the summer, but the image of snow caps amid the lush green backdrop in the winter is as enticing.

Because Kinkaku-Ji is one of Kyoto’s most popular attractions, try to arrive as early as possible to view it while it is least crowded.

Find your zen at Ryoan-Ji Temple

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Find your zen at Ryoan-Ji Temple

Ryoan-Ji Temple, also known as the Temple of the Peaceful Dragon, is located in northwestern Kyoto, not far from Kinkaku-Ji.

Ryoan-Ji Temple
Ryoan-ji Temple

The present edifice was built in 1488 after the old was destroyed during the 1467 Onin wars. Before you approach the monk quarters, the mirror-shaped Kyoyochi Pond, populated with countless water birds, greets you to the premises.

Karesansui, one of Japan’s most stunning Zen gardens, is also located at Ryoan-Ji.

The rock garden has 15 mystery stones that are arranged in such a manner that only 14 of them may be viewed at the same time. Surprisingly, the branches in the garden cast borrowed moss-filled shadows.

The patterns on the rocks never repeat themselves.

Improve your fortunes at Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine

Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine, which was built in 1500, is one of Kyoto’s oldest tourist attractions. It’s well-known for the approximately 10,000 torii gates that open into one another.

Kyoto Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine
Kyoto Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine

Walking inside the temple is an experience in and of itself, particularly if you explore beyond the major tourist area.

There are a few wonderful hiking paths in the vicinity, including the meandering trek up Mount Inari, which will take you around three hours to complete.

Smaller shrines with vendor stalls and spaces to rest are located along with the structure.

Many superstitious people think that visiting Fushimi Inari-Taisha would bring them economic prosperity. Try your luck by donating to the temple and having your name engraved on your vermillion gate.

Breathe in the mountain air at Arashiyama

Arashiyama Mountains, located in the extreme western region of Kyoto, are home to the well-known Arashiyama paths.

Kyoto Arashiyama
Arashiyama

Despite being just a short distance from downtown Kyoto, Arashiyama seems a world apart with its more relaxed smaller-town atmosphere. Even if you just have a weekend in Kyoto, you must explore this charming area.

For many, the centerpiece of the region is Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, a beautifully-trimmed bamboo forest that is one of Kyoto’s most renowned destinations to visit.

Even though it starts a bit unimpressive, keep traversing the pathways until you reach the deeper portion of the forest, where the denser, taller areas of bamboo grow.

Aside from the bamboo grove, there are a few more fascinating things to do in Arashiyama.

Monkeys freely delight you as you stare at the majestic Togetsu-Kyo Bridge below in Kameyama-Koen Park on the mountain summit.

Alternatively, the riverbank Iwataytama Monkey Park is an excellent site to see the sly little devils in action.

(However, don’t approach too near or stare them down since they might get hostile and take your possessions.)

Tenryu-Ji Temple and its gorgeous grounds are located nearby the bamboo grove.

Sneak inside Gio-Ji Temple for a night of traditional dance, or turn right towards Adashino Nenbutsu-Ji Temple and Otago Nenbutsu-Ji Temple with its thousand renowned stone sculptures.

A visit to the 9th-century Daikaku-Ji Temple or the Okochi Sanso Villa will leave you feeling similarly inspired.

Relax under the glow of lanterns at Yasaka Shrine

There’s a strong possibility you’ll come upon Yasaka Shrine when visiting Kyoto (also known as Gion Shrine).

This Shinto temple, which has a history reaching back around 1350 years, is a must-see for everyone traveling through.

Yasaka Shrine
Yasaka Shrine

In comparison to other grander shrines and temples in Kyoto, the little and somber Yasaka Shrine seems a little less striking.

Visit in the evening, when the shrine’s dance hall is illuminated with hundreds of lanterns given by local businesses hoping for a splash of good fortune.

It’s much better to go in July when the Gion Matsuri celebration is in full swing. It’s one of Japan’s most popular festivals, with a millennium-long history, and is notable for the parade of colorful floats on July 17 and July 24.

During Kyoto’s cherry blossom season, Yasaka Shrine is also an excellent place to visit. The nearby Maruyama Park is one of the best sites to watch the sakura in Kyoto.

Dive into Japanese history at Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle is the only sight in Kyoto that provides a greater peek into medieval Japanese history.

Nijo Castle 2022
Nijo Castle

The main tower was destroyed centuries ago, but the fortification walls and moats are still standing.

Nijo Castle, built-in 1601, is a massive assemblage of buildings that reflect the supremacy of the shogun warlords.

The five structures of Ninomaru Palace, the Tozamurai guardhouse, and the Ohiroma great hall are located inside the castle grounds.

The interiors include artistic panels as well as the remarkable nightingale flooring, which creak when intruders walk down. Except for a few days, the castle is open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.

Find bliss at Ginkaku-ji Temple

Ginkaku-Ji Temple, formerly known as Jisho-Ji and built in the 1480s by Ashikaga Yoshimasa, is a landmark monument that sits towards the top of most lists of things to see in Kyoto.

Although less magnificent than Kinkaku-Ji, both are must-sees when visiting Kyoto’s temples.

Ginkaku Ji Temple 2022
Ginkaku-ji Temple

Scholars think the original goal was to coat the temple with silver leaf, but the shogun ran out of money before the project could be completed.

Nonetheless, the silver-free Zen temple is a real depiction of Higashiyama culture as well as a vestige of the library style.

The surrounding garden is similarly impressive, with a Sea of Silver Sand and a moon platform that is said to reflect moonlight to the Silver Pavilion. The Ginkaku-Ji is open all year.

If you want some peace, go early in the morning before the throngs arrive.

Whisk yourself into the past at Gion District (Gion-Shinbashi)

Gion Area, which began in the 18th century as a teahouse district for visitors to the Yasaka-Jinja Shrine, has now evolved into a contemporary neighborhood in the center of Kyoto.

Nonetheless, Shinbashi-Dori, on Gion’s northern border, has fully retained medieval Japan’s beauty and traditions.

Gion District

Don’t pass up the chance to observe geisha creeping along the street before they magically vanish in a rustling of fabric.

Although a true geisha entertainment experience is often out of reach for most tourists, even getting a glance of them while strolling through Gion District in the evening bestows a particular impression.

Gion District Evening
Gion District evening

Close by lies the cherry-tree-lined Shirakawa Minami-Dori, probably Asia’s most beautiful street and one of Kyoto’s most striking sights.

In the evening, pay a visit to the nearby Shirakawa River for some serene minutes of solitary meditation in the geisha neighborhood.

Head south of Shijo-Dori to Yasaka Hall at Gion Corner for some intriguing Japanese cultural events.

There are seven various presentations to pick from (every day from 6 pm to 7 pm), including a tea ceremony, flower arranging, and maiko Kyo-mai dances (apprentice geisha).

The cost of admission to the shows is $3,150. More information, including shutdown dates, may be found on the Yasaka Hall website.

See the vestiges of the Japanese empire at the Imperial Palace

Stepping into the grounds of the Kyoto Imperial Palace reveals the city’s history as Japan’s previous imperial capital (also known as Gosho in Japanese).

Imperial Palace

This fortified complex, formerly home to Japan’s monarch, is a hodgepodge of gates, temples, gardens, and halls that recall its previous magnificence.

If you include the Kyoto Imperial Palace later in your schedule, you may be disappointed in comparison to the other more magnificent temples, gardens, and shrines in Kyoto.

Nonetheless, given that visitors may freely enter and tour the complex (but not the structure itself) without paying admission, it’s worth the short drive north to see for yourself.

Shop & chow down at Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market, which has been in operation for over 400 years, is not your standard Japanese street market.

Kyoto’s most renowned gourmet specialties and rarest seafood are constantly available at these markets.

Nishiki Market
Nishiki Market

The majority of the food stands are piled high with orange carrots, grilled squid, rice balls, sugared fruit, and omelets. The welcome sights and aromas of wonderful Japanese cuisine, as well as the vibrant talk of merchants yelling irasshaimase to entice you to get a good snack, can quickly overwhelm you as you travel through Nishiki.

To take a break from the food, visit one of Nishiki’s stationary stores and rummage through the never-ending varieties of Japanese paper printed with colorful patterns and if you’re fortunate, entertainingly awful English translations that can brighten anyone’s day.

Catch spiritual views from above at Kiyomizu-Dera

Even in Kyoto, where temples seem to grow from the ground at every turn, Kiyomizu-Dera will take your breath away.

You can’t help but be captivated by the temple’s entryway, which juts out of a mountain and is supported by 13-meter-high columns.

Kiyomizu-Dera
Kiyomizu-dera

The veranda of Kiyomizu-Dera Temple is so beautiful that the phrase “jumping from the balcony of Kiyomizu” refers to a dangerous adventure.

The Otowa Waterfall is located under the balcony. Take a drink of water, like the natives do, to put the common notion that they have healing properties to the test.

Amida-do, Okuno-in, and Shaka-do are three smaller halls next to the main hall. All three have strong religious origins that are linked to Buddha worship.

If you have the opportunity, visit Kiyomizu-Dera in the evening, when it takes on a magnificent glow, or in October, when you may see a panorama of Kyoto bursting in fall colors.

Escape the city at Mount Hiei

Looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city? Mount Hiei, situated approximately 1.5 hours northeast of Kyoto, is one of the top day outings from the city.

Whatever time of year you come, Mount Hiei has something unique to offer, from its breathtaking alpine landscape to its fauna and plants.

Mount Hiei Temple 2022
Mount Hiei temple

Mount Hiei (Hieizan) is home to Enryaku-Ji Temple as well as some of Kyoto’s best hiking routes. In 788, this UNESCO World Heritage Site gave rise to the Tendai sect of Buddhism.

The temple is divided into three sections (Todo, Saito, and Yokawa) and is set amid lovely old woodlands. Not unexpectedly, Enryaku-Ji is at its most attractive in the autumn, when the leaves turn vivid red, orange, and yellow.

Bask in fall colors at Tofuku-Ji Temple

Tofuku-Ji Temple, located between Kiyomizu-Dera and Fushimi Inari Taisha, is a must-see on any visit to Kyoto.

Tofuku-Ji Temple
Tofuku-ji Temple

This enormous Zen Buddhist monastery, established in 1236, is a favorite autumn visit with a carpet of fall colors.

The modest vermillion-colored Tsutenkyo Bridge, the 22-meter-high 15th-century Sanmon Gate, and the restored Hondo are among the most remarkable attractions here (Main Hall).

Don’t miss out on the exquisite Zen gardens in front of Kaisando Hall when visiting Tsutenkyo Bridge. The entrance fee is just 400.

Visit Philosopher's Walk to see the cherry blossoms.

To the north of Kyoto lies a lovely mile-long section known as Philosopher’s Walk, named for Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro.

Philosopher’s Walk
Philosopher’s Walk

The ever-jovial Lake Biwa Canal, which runs beside the route, is a sight to see. However, if you come in the spring, which is possibly the greatest season to visit Kyoto, it is the flowering cherry trees that will entice you the most.

In the spring, walking along this road will rejuvenate you as the wind blows flower petals about you. Reflect on life amid the tranquillity of the Philosopher’s Walk, or refresh yourself at one of the nearby cafés.

Enoyj in a kaiseki dinner.

Even if you’re not one to travel for food (hey, I do it all the time! ), a kaiseki supper is one of the nicest experiences you can have in Kyoto.

Kaiseki Meal
Kaiseki meal

Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese haute-cuisine supper that is presented in many courses. It’s especially popular in Kyoto, where many of the cooking and presentation traditions date back to the Muromachi and Higashiyama eras when the city was the imperial center of power.

The freshness of the ingredients, as well as their presentation, are given special consideration in kaiseki.

A kaiseki supper in Kyoto isn’t inexpensive, as you’d expect with such meticulousness and craftsmanship. (Especially when combined with some of the greatest sake, such as a high-end junmai daiginjo!)

If you don’t speak Japanese, it’s a good idea to reserve your kaiseki experience online to secure your reservation and prevent any complications.

Attend a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

Despite some uncomfortable moments after being cheated in Shanghai, attending a traditional Japanese tea ceremony is something that every tourist to Japan should have on their agenda.

And, as the country’s cultural center, there’s no better location to see this intricate ceremony in action than Kyoto.

Traditional Japanese Tea
Traditional Japanese tea

Walking around Higashiyama or Gion, you’ll come across an infinite number of teahouses where you may partake in a traditional tea ceremony.

However, booking a traditional Japanese tea ceremony online is much better.

Rather than walking up to a random teahouse, reserving the event ahead of time ensures that you will be greeted by an English-speaking tea master who will guide you through the experience.

See the city from above at Kyoto Tower

In a city overrun by shrines and temples, the contemporary (and not especially glamorous) Kyoto Tower stands out.

Kyoto Tower, at 131 meters in height, is the city’s tallest structure.

This tower, situated near Kyoto Station, is a must-see for visitors interested in sweeping bird’s-eye views of Kyoto.

View From Kyoto Tower
View from Kyoto Tower

Kyoto Tower’s observation deck is 100 meters above ground level. Under clear skies, it provides 360-degree views of Kyoto and the surrounding mountains, spanning as far as Osaka.

The entrance fee to the tower is 770. If you need to sweat off some sake, there’s a public bath in the basement (750).

Explore the grounds at Katsura Imperial Villa (Katsura Riky).

The gorgeous Katsura Imperial Villa, located beyond the major tourist district, isn’t technically one of the most-visited sights in Kyoto, but it’s surely one of the best. The house was erected in 1645 as a mansion for the Katsura dynasty, a family close to the imperial emperors.

The grounds are the true draw here, as spectacular as the house itself is.

Katsura Imperial Villa
Katsura Imperial Villa

The well-kept grounds of the Katsura Imperial Villa are one of the outstanding examples of Japanese gardening in the city. (And you know what it implies in Kyoto.)

Unlike many other sights in Kyoto, you must join a tour to explore the villa’s grounds.

Because there are only a few spaces available each day, make your reservation at the Imperial Household Agency website as soon as possible.

Grab a bite at Pontocho Alley

If the bustling traffic and contemporary retail malls of Sanjo-Dori have you second-guessing your stay, go to Pontocho Alley, a riverbank restaurant zone.

This ultra-narrow alley, which runs next to the Kamo River, is jam-packed with tiny restaurants and pubs serving both Japanese and foreign food, making it one of Kyoto’s trendiest hangouts.

Pontocho Alley
Pontocho Alley

Pontocho’s happiness includes more than just delicious meals. Pontocho, along with the surrounding Gion District, is one of the most interesting parts of downtown Kyoto to explore. The combination of the wooden building and the tiny lanterns in the alleyway is evocative, to say the least, and will have you pressing the shutter on your camera or bombarding your Instagram account with photos.

If you’re on a limited budget, you may want to stick to simply strolling. Pontocho is well-known for its out-of-the-ordinary food and beverage prices. (I’m sure you’re paying for the river views.)

There are even a few restaurants here that demand invites as well as reservations!

Visit the Minami-za Theatre to see a kabuki performance.

Although the geisha is the most well-known icon of Kyoto, another major Japanese cultural phenomenon flourished here: kabuki.

This unmistakably Japanese art genre blends brightly colored stage sets with exaggeratedly dramatic situations. As a consequence, you’re treated to a weird (but profoundly pleasurable) sight, unlike anything you’ve ever seen or experienced in your life.

Kyoto’s Minami-za Theatre is unquestionably one of the greatest settings in Japan to see a kabuki play.

Minami Za Theatre 2022
Minami-za Theatre

It is one of the country’s oldest kabuki theaters, having a rich history reaching back to the Edo Period. Even though the present theatre has only been in operation since 1929, it is an excellent Kyoto landmark in its own right that is worth seeing.

If you’re a first-time kabuki attendee, you’re in for a once-in-a-lifetime event. Even if you don’t speak Japanese, the theatrical performances are so over-the-top that you should be able to comprehend the sense of the plot.

It might be difficult to coincide your visit with a kabuki performance. For timetables and to order tickets online, visit the official Shochiku Kabuki website.

PRO HINT: Remember that a little kabuki may go a long way. Performances may last for many hours. All but the most ardent theatergoers are likely to be satisfied with only one or two acts.

Find your bliss at Byodo-in Temple

Have some additional time to see some of Kyoto’s most intriguing sights? Make your way south to Uji to see its most prized possession, the Byodo-in Temple.

Byodo-In Temple
Byodo-in Temple

In 998, the structure was established as a villa before being converted into a temple a few years later. Its architectural style is representative of Buddhist Pure Land (Jodo), a Mahayana Buddhist school that is widely followed in Japan.

The Phoenix Hall is without a doubt the most spectacular of all the structures of Byodoin Temple. This hall, which was built in 1053 and has two of the temple’s eponymous firebirds sitting on the top, is the sole original structure still standing on the temple grounds.

A guided tour of the inside of the beautiful Phoenix Hall (with its famed Amida Buddha statue) costs 300 yen. The tour, however, is only accessible in Japanese.

Catch your breath at Chion-in Temple

Chion-In Temple, located between Maruyama Park and the entrance to the Philosopher’s Path, is towards the top of the list of must-see temples in Kyoto, where competition is fierce. Chion-in is the major temple for Jodo Buddhists, and it has the items to establish its significance to this renowned Pure Land Buddhism sect.

Chion-In Temple
Chion-in Temple

The huge Sanmon Gate entry welcomes you into the extensive temple complex from the street level. It is the tallest of its type in Japan, standing 24 meters tall, and is worth the short walk from Maruyama Park to see.

The temple’s main structures and huge grounds are located beyond the gate and up a stairway.

There are a few high points here, including:

    • Miedo Hall: A massive structure that houses a venerable statue of Honen, the founder of Jodo.
    • Amidado Hall: Another hall with a statue of Amida Buddha, the most prominent Jodo Buddha.
    • Seishido Hall is the complex’s oldest structure, dating back to 1530.
    • Hojo Garden: A traditional Japanese garden designed in the middle of the 17th century by one of the resident monks.
    • Yuzen Garden: This is the first garden you’ll encounter after passing through the entry gate.  The interaction of the rocks, ponds, greenery and lay of the land is truly stunning.

NOTE: Some parts of the temple, particularly the Sanmon Gate and Miedo Hall, are still under development. The modifications are expected to be finished by 2020.

Frolic among the temples & deer of Nara

Okay, so it’s not really in Kyoto, but if you have some extra time, you should spend at least one day in Nara!

Nara, like Kyoto, was formerly the capital of Japan. As a result of this distinction, Kyoto has a plethora of cultural places that are well worth your time.

Deer Of Nara
Deer outside Nandaimon Gate of Todaiji Temple (UNESCO World Heritage Site), Nara, Kansai, Japan

The free-roaming deer of Nara Park is without a doubt the highlight of Nara (particularly for children and animal lovers!). As you walk between Nara’s biggest tourist destinations, you’ll see these adorable tiny critters almost everywhere.

Despite being wild creatures, they’re typically pretty tame—except when they become a bit too violent when they’re hungry.

Aside from frolicking with the holy deer in Nara Park, there are a few additional things to see and do:

    • Todai-Ji Temple: The world’s largest wooden temple, with the main hall, Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall), that holds a 15-meter-high bronzed Buddha statue, one of Japan’s largest.
    • Kasuga Taisha Shrine: Nara’s most significant shrine and one of the city’s most beautiful sights. The moss-covered stone lamps that line the path to the shrine are a sight to see.
    • Kofuku-Ji Temple: Another remarkable temple, with a 50-meter-high five-story wooden pagoda that is Japan’s second-largest.

Where to Stay in Kyoto: The Best Sightseeing Hotels

Do you want to see and do all there is to see and do in Kyoto? The location of your base will make all the difference!

Here are a handful of our top picks for the best places to stay in Kyoto.

Guest House Oumi is a low-cost ryokan located in the center of Nakagyo. It has a wonderful garden patio that takes you away from the hustle and bustle of life in Kyoto. Nijo Castle is less than a kilometer away.

Royal Park Hotel The Kyoto:  is a modern 4-star hotel in downtown Nakagyo with big comfortable rooms and a great on-site restaurant led by an award-winning chef.

Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto: One of Japan’s greatest 5-star hotels, mixing contemporary features with traditional Japanese sensibilities for a really Kyoto experience. Rooms with views of the central Shakusuien Japanese garden and pond are really beautiful.  

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