The ancient capital city of Japan, Kyoto, finds itself on the bucket lists of millions of travelers every year. It was the capital city for over a thousand years before being replaced by Tokyo in 1868 and continues to be the cultural and spiritual hub of the island nation to this day.
Located in the Kansai region on the island of Honshu, it is a land of sublime temples and shrines, serene gardens, and historic religious architectural masterpieces. It is also a culinary extravaganza with everything from Michelin starred restaurants to sushi bars, chic pubs, and ramen joints dotting its streetscape. And while the rest of the country has embraced modernity with aplomb, Kyoto retains its characteristic old-world charm.
If you are wondering about what to do in Kyoto, we have put together a definitive list of things to do in Kyoto if you want an up-close and personal glimpse into the Japanese way of life and experience Japanese tradition and culture like never before.
The picturesque Zen Buddhist temple of Kinkaku-ji is an important historical landmark and one of the most famous Kyoto tourist attractions. Also referred to as the Golden Pavilion, the Kinkaku-ji temple is wrapped in gold leaf and surrounded by a placid lake and little islands of trees.
It is one of the most photographed shrines in Kyoto and rightly so. The reflections of its golden walls cast on the lake make for some of the most surreal sights.
Pro Tip: Avoid the crowd and visit Kinkaku-ji early in the morning to witness the sun casting a soft shimmer on the golden walls and the lake.
Address: 1 Kinkakujicho, Kita Ward, Kyoto, 603-8361, Japan | Timing: 09:00 am to 05:00 pm | Google Map Location: https://goo.gl/maps/knAmqEA5vrDJ8kPC8 | Phone: +81754610013
Walk under the Torii Gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha
A shrine of the Shinto god of rice, Inari, Fushimi Inari-Taisha is a Kyoto must see. The 10,000 unmissable and iconic vermillion torii gates of the Fushimi Inari-Taisha make it one of the most popular Kyoto tourist attractions.
The doable (steep only in some parts) hike through the forest, up to Fushimi Inari-Taisha in the mountains gets increasingly serene as you climb and affords breath-taking views of the city. Although the hike only takes up a couple of hours, you can spend your day exploring the many trails around the ornate shrines and early hours of the night marveling at the city lights in the distance.
Address: 68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, 612-0882, Japan | Timing: 24/7 | Google Map Location: https://goo.gl/maps/dZEiL7NKaQJEDEpW9 | Phone: +81756417331
Visit the UNESCO World Heritage Kiyomizu-dera
Tucked away on Mount Otawa in the Higashiyama mountain range of Kyoto is the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. Built in 778 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1944. This Buddhist temple is one of the oldest religious monuments of the country and should be on the top of your Kyoto sightseeing list!
Surrounded by nature’s abundance, Kiyomizu-dera completely transforms with every season. Alive with cherry blossoms in springtime, lush with greenery during summer, golden-hued in autumn, and snow-covered in winters. Only one thing never changes – its magnificence!
Address: 294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0862, Japan | Timing: The Temple opens at 06:00 am daily but the closing time changes according to the season. Visit http://www.kiyomizudera.or.jp/en/ for more details. | Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/beqq2K4aU1tyeF9D7 | Phone: +81755511234
Participate in a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony
A Japanese tea ceremony or Sado, is the quintessential immersive cultural experience, and one of the best things to do in Kyoto. Sado is much more than simply enjoying a hot beverage. It is a window that offers an intimate insight into the fascinating culture of this small island country.
Participating in a graceful tea ceremony in Kyoto (with dressing up in a kimono et al) is all the more special because Kyoto is considered to be the birthplace of tea ceremony rituals.
Book a tea ceremony in one of the many teahouses in the city for an authentic cup of the world-famous matcha tea, right at the source!
Have a meal at Kawadoko beside the Kamo River
Having a meal with a side of some delightful views of the Kamo River while seated on a Kawadoko during the summers is one of the top things to do in Kyoto.
The Kamo is a popular spot in Kyoto loved by tourists and locals alike. Come summer and the restaurants dotting the riverbanks extend their seating areas into open-air terraces facing the Kamo. This arrangement known as Kawadoko meaning “a floor on the river”, provides a respite from hot summer days so that patrons can enjoy the cool breeze while indulging in a delectable meal.
Address: 489 Higashiikesucho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, 604-0922, Japan | Timing: 24/7 | Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/tBRTvdsYrJ5BPAuF6 | Phone: +81753430548
At 131 meters (0.081 miles), the Kyoto Tower is the tallest building in Kyoto and offers some of the most stunning views of the city. This ultra-modern structure stands tall in juxtaposition with the ancient temples of the city.
The tower sits atop the Kyoto Tower Building that has many eateries, a three-star hotel, several shops, and a public spa. The tower itself houses souvenir shops, tourist information desks, the Sky Lounge Café & Bar, and of course, the famous Observation Deck that attracts hundreds of tourists every single day. Telescopes and LED screens installed at the deck highlight famous landmarks of the city.
Address: 721-1 Higashishiokojicho, Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto, 600-8216, Japan | Timing: 11:00 am to 07:00 pm | Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/k9opw98Rr1aPDntUA | Phone: +81753613215
Monkey Park Iwatayama
The Iwatayama Monkey Park at Arashiyama is a great way to spend a day filled with fun and adventure with the monkeys – in contrast to the peaceful days spent temple hopping in Kyoto.
Put on your most comfy shoes and get ready to hike up to the monkey park where you will find hundreds of monkeys at the peak of their activity – hanging from the branches, observing the tourists inquisitively, and not missing a single chance of scoring some treats!
Buy some fruits and nuts from the shops nearby to feed them. Be very careful of your personal belongings though! The monkeys don’t mind snatching a bag or two for some extra treats.
Address: 61, Arashiyama Nakaoshitacho, Nishikyo Ward, 616-0004 Kyoto, Japan | Timing: 09:00 am to 04:00 pm | Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/fViihRfzVnLsZooB9 | Phone: +81758720950
Eikando Zenrin-ji Temple
With a history older than a thousand years, the Eikando Zenrin-ji Temple is a stunning example of Japanese architecture and culture. The many koi ponds in the temple complex lend it a sense of tranquility.
The most iconic structure in the Zenrin-ji Temple premises is the Tahoto Pagoda. Nestled among the trees, the Tahoto Pagoda offers some great views of the city in distance.
For an unforgettable experience, visit the Eikando Zenrin-ji Temple during the latter part of November when the temple is decorated with fall foliage in all possible shades of red and hosts fall illumination events.
Address: 48, Eikandocho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 606-8445, Japan | Timing: 09:00 am to 04:00 pm | Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/fokdEXokBK3zXY9x7 | Phone: +81757610007
The Philosopher’s Path gets its name from the famous philosopher Nishida Kitaro’s daily meditative walks on this pathway. One of the popular Kyoto attractions, this pleasant pedestrian path is lined with cherry trees along a canal and is equally beautiful in all seasons. However, if you happen to be in the city in the cherry blossom season, you simply must not miss sakura viewing on the Philosopher’s Path.
About two kilometers long, the Philosopher’s Path starts at the Ginkaku-ji Temple and ends at the Nanzen-Ji Temple. Take a leisurely stroll, eat at one of the many eateries dotting the path or pay your respects at the many smaller shrines dotting the pathway.
Address: Tetsugaku No Michi, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, Japan | Timing: 24/7 | Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/GmXPmWzd7m6bRRD97
Go shopping in Nishiki Market
Whether you want to go window shopping or just buy everything that catches your fancy, you should definitely visit the Nishiki Market. Also known as Kyoto’s Kitchen, the Nishiki Market has hundreds of shops to explore Kyoto’s local and authentic food culture.
This place has a lot to offer, right from traditional handicrafts, textiles, and ceramics to local delicacies such as fresh seafood, fish cakes, yakitori, and freshly roasted and brewed tea. With so much to explore and enjoy, you can easily spend a day exploring the Nishiki Market.
Join a guided tour of the market or go on your own and immerse yourselves in some authentic local food.
Address: 609, Nishidaimonjicho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, 604-8054, Japan | Timing: Vary by stores | Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/Q5uJkxjZ1v2wddYS7 | Phone: +81752113882
Kyoto International Manga Museum
Manga is a style of graphic novels and cartoon comics that has origins in Japan and is enjoyed by both kids and adults alike.
If you are a manga nerd, spend a day geeking it out at the Kyoto International Manga Museum. One of the exhibits there looks at the importance of manga in the country’s culture. The museum houses over 300,000 manga comics and novels, mostly in Japanese, but translated into several other languages.
You can also watch manga artists create comics, live, in front of you, or perhaps get your manga portrait made.
Address: 452 Kinbukicho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, 604-0846, Japan | Timing: 10:00 am to 06:00 pm, Wednesday: Closed | Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/fN4UDZhMCnZrskgBA | Phone: +81752547414
Kurama Onsen Hot Spring
The small town of Kurama is just 30-minutes north of Kyoto and is home to the popular Kurama hot spring. You can hike up to Mount Kurama and visit the Buddhist temple Kurama-dera but if you don’t want to walk all the way up, a cable car can drop you halfway up to the mountain.
Once there, simply relax your tired muscles by taking a dip in hot pools. Choose between an indoor tub with several extra amenities or go for an outdoor tub with forested mountains as far as the eyes can see!
Address: 520 Kuramahonmachi, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 601-1111, Japan | Timing: 10:00 am to 09:00 pm | Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/r2PDTDALEiyXoxb48 | Phone: +81757412131
In north Kyoto lies the Ryoanji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site which should definitely be on your list of things to see in Kyoto. The famous rock gardens at Ryoanji are traditional Karesansui, or dry landscape gardens, and attract hundreds of visitors every day.
At first, the 15 boulders sitting atop moss patches appear haphazardly arranged onto the carefully raked gravel. But a closer look reveals an interesting fact. From any given vantage point, only 14 of them are visible at a time – one is always out of sight. The meaning behind this clever arrangement has been lost to time.
Address: 13 Ryoanji Goryonoshitacho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, 616-8001, Japan | Timing: 08:00 am to 05:00 pm | Google Map Location: https://goo.gl/maps/exEAnwXVsfMpimuQ7 | Phone: +81754632216
Go Cherry Blossoms Viewing
The cherry blossom (called the sakura in Japanese) season is the best time to visit Kyoto and millions of international tourists seem to agree!
Kyoto sightseeing is incomplete without the cherry blossom and they are arguably the most iconic Kyoto attractions. The sakura season starts early in April and lasts only for a couple of weeks. Several temples and shrines the city host sakura viewing festivals in their beautiful gardens and some of them also feature night light-up events.
Even though the entire city seems covered in the soft pink hues of the pretty sakura flowers, some of the viewing spots are the Philosopher’s Path, Takenaka Inari, Daigoji Temple, the famous Kiyomizu-dera, Ninnaji Temple and so many more!
Explore the tourist hotspot: Southern Higashiyama
The historic district of Higashiyama in Kyoto takes you back to feudal-era Japan with its narrow streets, hole in the wall teahouses, and centuries-old Zen and Shinto shrines. One of the popular Kyoto attractions, it is known for its several old shops and cafes selling locally produced specialty sweets, handicrafts, Kiyomizu-yaki pottery, and a lot more.
It also houses the famous Geisha district of Gion, where Geishas or hostesses adorned in traditional makeup and colorful kimonos is a sight to behold.
Visit the iconic Yasaka Shrine, go on a shopping spree for souvenirs, or wander around aimlessly exploring the rich local culture. Higashiyama is easily one of the best places to go in Kyoto!
Address: Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Japan | Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/F7YLdRAmDv9hgQkv6
Built along the Oi river in the Arashiyama district and easily accessible in under 30 minutes via train or bus from the Kyoto station, is the historic Togetsukyo Bridge. Literally translated, Togetsukyo means the “moon-crossing bridge”. And true to its name, the 155-meter-long bridge really seems to stretch up to the moon.
During the annual Hanatuoro festival, the Togetsukyo bridge is brightly illuminated during the nights. It looks right out of a fairy tale during springtime and is an ethereal vision during autumn when the colors of fall make for a perfect backdrop for this timeless bridge.
Address: 1-7 Sagatenryuji Susukinobabacho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, 616-8385, Japan | Timing: 24/7 | Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/4skNtRw8i8xhuXFU6
The Kyoto Aquarium is slightly smaller when compared to the other aquariums in Japan but houses an impressive variety of fishes and other aquatic animals. One of the exhibits is a recreation of the underwater environment of the rivers in Kyoto with Japanese Giant Salamanders.
Other exhibits showcase several life forms from various seas around the world such as penguins, seals, and jellyfish. They also run several breeding programs to protect and preserve the rare aquatic animals, indigenous to the region. Their dolphin stadium is one of the famous Kyoto attractions with multiple shows lined up throughout the day.
Address: 35-1 Kankijicho, Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto, 600-8835, Japan | Timing: 10:00 am to 05:00 pm | Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/Kjp7t9qNN1dHDBAu8 | Phone: +81753543130
Enjoy the traditional architecture at Pontocho
Just a block west of the Kamogawa (or Kamo) is the famous Pontocho area. It is a narrow street packed with eateries on both sides. If you are on a budget indulge in some inexpensive and delicious yakitori or a fulfilling bowl of ramen. If you are in a mood to splurge, there are several fine dine options on this street too.
Apart from the food, Pontocho is also known for its licensed Geisha district and beautiful, old-world architecture. Take a stroll around the street, spot some beautiful Geishas, and take in the charming little teahouses while you work up an appetite to later gorge on some amazing food!
Address: Kashiwayacho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, 604-8014, Japan | Timing: The opening and closing times will vary with the establishments. | Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/nGHWLuuGVvWiv8926
A trip to Kyoto is incomplete without spending some quiet time in a bamboo grove, letting the whistling bamboo shoots serenade and calm you.
There are many bamboo gardens worth your while around the city. The ones that attract the most tourists are the groves at the Arashiyama district and the beautiful cluster at the Kodai-ji Temple.
There is another small grove at Tenjuan in Nanzen-Ji Temple which looks nothing short of surreal during the autumn season and isn’t overcrowded – perfect for an early morning stroll.
The trail of Philosopher’s Path ends at the Zen temple of Nanzen-ji. Unlike some other temples in the city, Nanzen-ji is not overcrowded and is a great place for some quiet self-reflection and meditation. The temple grounds are quite expansive and there is ample space for all the visitors.
You can wander around in the shade of lush trees, see the enormous Sanmon gate and explore the quiet and secluded sub-temples such as the one at Tenjuan. Tenjuan also has two gardens, one of the gardens is rock and the other pond garden with a tranquil little bamboo grove which does not get many tourists and is relatively quieter.
Address: 86, Nanzenji Fukuchicho, Sakyo Ward, 606-8435 Kyoto, Japan | Timing: 08:45 am to 05:00 pm | Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/g1K23RETiRhKJGcd8 | Phone: +81757710365
Kyoto sightseeing is so much more than just the historic temples and architecture. Located in the Tango Peninsula, the quaint little town of Ine No Funaya is one of the most picturesque villages in the country. A traditionally fishermen village on Kyoto’s northern coast, the pristine town of Ine No Funaya consists of over 200 floating homes or “Funaya”.
Aptly named the Venice of Japan, this town is quickly becoming a favored tourist destination for day excursions. Several boat taxi options take tourists on short tours around the bay but for a more personalized experience, you can opt for tours offered by the local fishermen.
Address: 77, Hirata, Ine, Yoza District, Kyoto, 626-0423, Japan | Timing: 24/7 | Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/kYi7TmU2rMiDpj4K8
Ginkaku-ji Temple (Official Name: Jisho-ji)
Ginkaku-ji Temple aka the Silver Pavilion is a famous Zen temple located at one end of the Philosopher’s Path and the gardens in the temple complex are simply stunning.
Interestingly, the Silver Pavilion, unlike the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji Temple), was never covered in silver leaf in its entire history. In fact, it was named Silver Pavilion because of the silvery moonshine reflecting off of the black lacquered exteriors.
It is surrounded by a placid lake in which its reflection is simply breathtaking. Go for a quick walk up the hill nearby and admire the magnificence of the Ginkaku-ji from above.
Address: 2 Ginkakujicho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 606-8402, Japan | Timing: 08:30 am to 05:00 pm | Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/wJzttbupVXDxkTkj7 | Phone: +81757715725
Wazuka Tea Plantation
The world’s best Matcha green tea comes from Japan and Kyoto is the leading green tea producer in the country. A major chunk of the Matcha produced by Kyoto is grown in Wazuka.
Wazuka is a small and picturesque town in the south of Kyoto, famously known for its Uji tea. It is becoming increasingly popular with more and more tourists visiting the town for small day trips from the city.
Visitors can enjoy many activities here including guided tours of the Wazuka tea plantation for a deep understanding of the importance of tea culture in the country, tea plantation experience (seasonal), ritualistic tea ceremony lessons, and a lot more.
Address: 35, Ohazama, Shirasu, Soraku District, Wazuka, Kyoto, 619-1222 35, Japan | Timing: 24/7 | Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/picKH8g8cv7kYuMDA | Phone: +81774783396
Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple
Tucked away fairly far from the popular tourist spots in Arashiyama, the Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple is one of the off-beat shrines.
It is not one of the mainstream Kyoto attractions, but it is, without a doubt the coolest temple in the city. The temple complex itself is lush with greenery and there are over 1200 sculptures of Buddha’s disciples known as rakan, spread across the entire complex. Each of these sculptures has unique expressions ranging from cheerful, scary, serene, cute, and some simply bizarre!
Since not many people know about this little gem hidden in plain sight, it is easy to enjoy the temple peacefully.
Address: 2-5 Sagatoriimoto Fukatanicho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, 616-8439, Japan | Timing: 08:00 am to 04:30 pm | Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/XP1TTWuLqXxBKJC86 | Phone: +81758651231
Take a cooking class
Japanese food culture is so much more than just sushi. What better way to explore a new cuisine than to try your hand at cooking it yourself?
An unmissable immersive cultural experience in Kyoto is to take a fun cooking class and not only understand the basics of the local cuisine but also learn more about the country’s rich culture. There are several local teachers across the city that host cooking classes for individual travelers or small groups of tourists.
You can focus on various dishes such as ramen bowls, sushi, gyoza, omurice, etc., or learn to cook tailored recipes as per your palate such as a healthy vegetarian meal or a seafood extravaganza.
Meet Ghosts at Yokai Street
Take a wee break from temple hopping and meet Japanese ghosts or Yokai at the Yokai Street, a popular shopping district selling some pretty unusual yokai monster sculptures brought to life by local artisans.
If you are intrigued by the stories of supernatural beings and ghouls, wander around Yokai Street, and spend some time learning about the Shinto religion that worships nature and believes in animism, a belief that spirits embody every object in the world.
The Yokai Street in Kyoto also hosts several events based on yokai themes all year round.
Address: 1F, Kamigyo Ward, 602-8375 Kyoto, Japan | Timing: 24/7 | Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/9E2e17m5pWQeAAf38 | Phone: +81754612520
Eat at the famous Kichi Kichi Omurice
The local favorite Kichi Kichi Omurice became a viral sensation on social media almost overnight.
While omurice is not local to Kyoto, it is still an iconic dish from the country’s rich and varied cuisine. A humble recipe with rice pilaf and fluffy omelet balanced on top, the omurice is a staple dish in many households. But chef Yokimura Motokichi’s signature style of cutting open the omelet so that all the eggy goodness engulfs the rice pilaf under it remains irreplicable!
Address: 185-4 Zaimokucho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, 604-8017, Japan | Timing:Saturday – Sunday: 12:00 pm to 02:00 pm and 05:00 pm to 09:00 pm, Monday – Friday: 05:00 pm to 09:00 pm | Google Maps Location: https://goo.gl/maps/SwKBrWC4YY39hLP7A | Phone: +81752111484
Drink the famous Matcha
Kyoto is responsible for the production of the finest Matcha products in the world and many traditional teahouses serve drool-worthy matcha tea and matcha desserts.
Slightly bitter in taste, the bright green matcha tea is not just a hot beverage but is also an important part of the country’s heritage and culture.
A trip to Kyoto will be incomplete without sampling a cup of matcha with a side of delectable sweets and trying out some of the most clever and innovative desserts made using matcha. You can also buy some matcha products home as souvenirs.
The Kamogawa or Kamo river is the heart of Kyoto. It is a beloved recreational spot for the locals as well as the tourists. Several eateries dotting the banks of the Kamo make for a great night of delicious fare and fun with friends. However, if you are on a budget, head out to Sanjo bridge where several artists and bands play music throughout the evening and join the many people hanging out there and enjoying some drinks.
It is also an amazing place for cycling, a quick run, or maybe a leisurely walk. But springtime is when the riverbanks are bursting with color from the blossoming cherry trees and the Kamo becomes a vision to behold.
As coveted as the cherry blossom season is, autumn in this country is equally stunning and much understated. The fall foliage paints the city in every possible shade of red.
Just like cherry blossom viewing, there are several spots across the city that are famous for viewing the fall leaves. The Kiyomizu-dera temple is particularly beautiful during fall and so are several areas in the Arashiyama district such as the Togetsukyo bridge. Many temples and shrines across the city host fall festivals as well.
Kyoto is the city of contradictions – where the old and the new live in perfect harmony. It is not just a city, but an experience, unlike any other in the entire world. Now that you know what to do in Kyoto, plan an unforgettable trip to Kyoto the next time feel an urge to travel!