Things To Do in Kyoto, Japan
23 Top Things To Do In Kyoto, Japan From Seasoned Local Guide’s Perspective
Kyoto is one of the most visited cities in the world year after year. But it comes as no surprise. From religious, historical, and cultural monuments to random yet iconic streets and bridges to world-class local flavors, Kyoto never ceases to impress at every turn.
As the ‘cultural center of Japan,’ Kyoto is famous for its Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, Japanese-style gardens, imperial palaces, and old wooden houses. Kyoto is also known for traditional practices like kaiseki (multi-course dining) and geisha (professional female entertainers).
If you are looking for some worthwhile stuff to do in Kyoto, we will make it easier for you. We listed 20 of the best things to do in Kyoto, Japan — plus 3 day trips from Kyoto that you’ll surely love.
1. Explore Gion, Kyoto At Night
Geisha in Gion at night | Image Courtesy of Sourasak / Unsplash
Exploring Gion at night is one of the best things to do in Kyoto. Gion District — the heart of Kyoto — is known as the city’s entertainment center since ancient times. There are lots of ochaya (“traditional teahouses”), izakaya (“traditional pubs”), and ryotei (“luxurious traditional restaurant”) nearby, which also made it a popular place for geisha sightings.
While there are a lot of different things you can do here, you can spend a worthwhile evening just by walking on some iconic streets and observing geisha and maiko in action. Walk around Shinbashi-dori, Shirakawa, and Hanamikoji-dori. Be sure to look for some geisha tours if you want to interact with them.
Hanamikoji-dori is a more active street than Shinbashi. The north part is packed with izakaya, while the south part boasts age-old traditional restaurants.
Shinbashi-dori (“New Bridge Street”) is a relaxed street filled with souvenir shops. It’s also perfect for strolling and geisha sightings. During cherry blossom season, the bridge — canopied in pink bushes — becomes a world of its own.
Shirakawa (“White River”) is a winding canal that cuts through Gion’s core. Ryokans, high-end restaurants, and hostess clubs abound on the endmost part of the canal.
2. Watch Kyoto At Night In 360 Degrees From Kyoto Tower
Kyoto City from Kyoto Tower | Image Courtesy of Jonathan Cho / Unsplash
Opened in 1964, Kyoto Tower is the tallest structure in the city standing 131 meters high. Located right across from Kyoto Station, the tower serves as the most visible landmark in a city filled with ancient shrines and temples.
Its viewing deck is located 100 meters above the ground and provides a 360-degree view of the city. On fine weather, the deck affords a view as far as Osaka. The tower also houses a hotel, several restaurants, souvenir shops, and a public bath on the lower grounds.
The viewing platform and public bath open daily from 7 am - 10 pm. The entrance fee to the viewing platform is 800 yen. The entrance fee to the public bath is 770 yen on weekdays and 910 yen on weekends and public holidays.
3. Visit Kyoto Imperial Palace Grounds
Cherry blossoms at Kyoto Imperial Palace | Image Courtesy Chris Gladis / Flickr
The Kyoto Imperial Palace was the residence of Japan’s Imperial Family for over 1,000 years before the capital was moved to Tokyo in 1868. Located in Kyoto Gyoen or Kyoto Imperial Park, the Kyoto Imperial Palace went through several renovations after fire incidents razed it down to the ground for quite a few times over the centuries.
While you can’t enter any of the palace buildings and gardens, the palace grounds are now accessible to tourists free of charge, even without joining a tour or any prior arrangement.
There are also a lot of sites to see within the park premises, including the Kaninnomiya Mansion, Itsukushima Shrine, Konoe Pond and some weeping cherry trees nearby.
4. Watch Togetsukyo Bridge Light Up At Night
Togetsukyo Bridge | Image Courtesy of Agustin Rafael Reyes / Flickr
Togetsukyo Bridge extends 155 meters across the Katsura River, projecting from a panoramic backdrop of dense forests. The spot is best visited alongside Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and Monkey Park Iwatayama (best place to see monkeys in Kyoto).
During Arashiyama Hanatouro, a festival of flowers and lights taking place in December, Togetsukyo Bridge gets lit up at night, making it one of the most stunning places to visit in Kyoto around Christmas time.
5. Feed Snow Monkeys At Monkey Park Iwatayama
Snow monkeys at Monkey Park Iwatayama | Image Courtesy of Steven Diaz / Unsplash
Located at the end of Togetsukyo Bridge on top of Mt. Arashiyama, the monkey mountain of Japan, formally called Monkey Park Iwatayama, houses over 170 snow monkeys, otherwise known as Japanese macaques.
Snow monkeys are native to Japan, and they are called so because they live in spaces where snow covers the ground for months every year. No other non-human primates can do that. Remember those iconic photos where monkeys are seen bathing in thermal springs in winter? Yup, those are snow monkeys!
As you hike to the park, you’ll see wild snow monkeys everywhere, hiding in tall grasses and swinging from tree branches. And you have the chance to feed some of them, but the first rule is don’t stare and don’t touch. At the top, you will see a good portion of Kyoto City as well as the lush mountain ranges and the Oi River on a clear blue sky.
Monkey Park Iwatayama opens daily from 9 am - 4 pm, depending on the season. The entrance fee is 550 yen.
6. Indulge In The Soothing Soundscape Of Bamboo Forest
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest | Image Courtesy of Walter Mario Stein / Unsplash
Bamboo Forest, also known as Arashiyama Bamboo Grove or Sagano Bamboo Forest, is located about 3.5 kilometers away from Monkey Park Iwatayama’s base.
It may come with a lot of names, Bamboo Forest in Kyoto is the one poster child of the city’s charming natural landscape. It’s one of the “100 Soundscapes of Japan,” a government initiative to help combat noise pollution.
Walking below the towering bamboo stalks, you will hear the most meditative silence — or the most harmonic and soothing sounds if you will — you’ll ever experience. Bamboo Forest is also one of the most Instagram-worthy sights to see in Kyoto. It’s, in fact, one of the most tagged Kyoto attractions on Instagram.
7. Hike To Mount Kurama And Relax In A Hot Spring
Steps at Kurama Temple | Image Courtesy of oT0rip 604 / Flickr
Hitting the trail to Kurama will be one of the most rewarding things to do in Kyoto. Located about 20 kilometers from Kyoto center, the quaint town of Kurama is home to Mount Kurama and Kurama-dera (Kurama Temple), a Buddhist temple housing some National Treasures of Japan.
The town of Kibune (where Kifune Shrine is located) is the popular jumpoff point of hikers going to Kurama-dera. It takes less than a kilometer. The entrance fee to Kurama-dera is 300 yen.
If hiking isn’t your cup of tea, there’s a cable car system that transports tourists halfway to the temple from Kurama town. It costs 200 yen one way. Less than a kilometer away from the temple is Kurama Onsen, a ryokan (“traditional inn”) with indoor and outdoor onsen (“hot spring”). It’s worth trying after a day’s hike. You can use the outdoor bath for 1,000 yen or 2,500 yen for all baths.
8. Enjoy Cherry Blossom Viewing
Philosopher's Path | Image Courtesy of Pablo Padierna / Flickr
Having to sit down and just enjoy cherry blossom viewing is one of the best things to do in Kyoto with kids. You don’t need to worry so much, but you can still enjoy and feel the Japanese spirit.
If you happen to be in Kyoto in the hanami (“flower viewing”) season in April, you can find cherry blossoms pretty much anywhere. But if you’re looking for the best hanami spots in Kyoto, consider these places:
Kamogawa’s riverbank on central Kyoto, where Kitaoji Street crosses, is a great place to set up a picnic with your family for the viewing party.
Hundreds of cherry blossoms surround the Philosopher’s Path, a 2-kilometer pedestrian path that follows a cherry tree-lined canal between Nanzenji and Ginkakuji.
One of the most crowded places in Kyoto during Hanami, Maruyama Park is also worth considering. While the park is filled with cherry trees, the main attraction is the weeping cherry tree in the middle.
Shirakawa is one of the most beautiful yet packed spots in the cherry blossom season. The section between Kawabata-dori and Nawate-dori is a real spectacle of cherry blossoms, so spectacular that you can see them reflected in the sky. Minami-Shirakawa-dori, a flagstone street parallel to the canal, is a crowded spot in the cherry blossom season.
9. Experience ‘Kawadoko’ In Pontocho Alley
Pontocho | Image Courtesy of Andrew Lyu / Unsplash
Pontocho in Hanamachi district stretches in parallel to Kamo-gawa (“Kamo River”), a popular place to experience kawadoko, a dining concept of eating by or atop the water.
Pontocho Alley bars, shops, and restaurants offering kaiseki (“traditional multi-course dinner”) also abound, attracting tourists of all stripes. If you happen to be in Kyoto in the summertime, around June to September, make sure to dine at restaurants with front yards facing Kamogawa for a different kawadoko experience. Pontocho Alley is also a popular geisha sighting spot.
10. Let Loose On Kiyamachi Dori
Ki Bar | Image Courtesy of Ki Bar / Facebook
Pontocho may be too restricting to some tourists. But just one block over is Kiyamachi Dori, the best place to experience Kyoto nightlife where you can let loose. Kiyamachi Dori is a 1-kilometer nightlife strip where bars offer no cover charges and cheap local booze.
Some Kiyamachi Dori bars you should find:
Don’t let our recommendations get in the way to enjoy spontaneity. There are so many wonderful bars on Kiyamachi Dori that usually go unnoticed. Go find them!
11. Eat Local Foods At 400-Year-Old Nishiki Market
Nishiki Market | Image Courtesy of David Stanley / Flickr
Nishiki Market is a 400-year-old market where you can find handcrafted traditional items, textiles, ceramics, and everything imaginable. But more than a shopper’s market, Nishiki Market is one of the best food places in Kyoto, hence the moniker “Kyoto’s Kitchen.”
Food stalls and restaurants at Nishiki Market abound where you can find fresh seafood, authentic Japanese street food, sweets, and everything in between. Some must-try foods at Nishiki Market are takoyaki (dough ball stuffed with octopus), tako tamago (octopus stuffed with quail eggs on skewers), and soymilk donut.
Nishiki Market is one of the best things to do in Kyoto that won’t cost you a lot of money. It opens daily, except Sundays, from 9 am - 5:30 pm.
12. Eat Local Sweets On Shijo Dori
Local sweets | Image Courtesy of Takafumi Yamashita / Unsplash
Shijo Dori in Gion is the food haven of Kyoto for your sweet tooth. Here are some of the best shops you should visit:
Kogetsu sells a variety of local sweets, such as senju senbei (“traditional rice crackers), adzuki (“red mung”) bean jellies, kudzu blossom jam, and matcha kasutera (“green tea castella”) cake.
Ohaginotabaya is a popular shop for dango, a sweet dumpling made from mochiko (“traditional sweet rice flour”). Dango dumplings are usually served by threes on skewers, often with matcha.
Ousu-No-Sato specializes in jams and pickled plums. You can buy a variety of jams and pickled plums from here, or you can just eat them here. Just be sure to drink sake (“traditional rice wine”) in between flavors so you can appreciate them more.
13. Attend A Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony
Outdoor tea ceremony | Image Courtesy of Reinhold Moller / Wikimedia Commons
Kyoto is the cultural center of Japan. A huge part of the Japanese culture is the tea ceremony (or the “Way of Tea” as it’s called) — the art of crafting and enjoying matcha (“powdered green tea leaves”) which has been passed down from generation to generation.
Part of a tea ceremony is a set of Japanese sweets eaten alongside the tea. In tea ceremony tours in Kyoto, a discussion of its history and the process and preparation usually precede the tasting.
Kyoto is home to 3 major tea ceremony schools. It only makes sense to experience a traditional tea ceremony in Kyoto.
14. Watch Geisha And Maiko Perform In Spring Shows
Two maikos performing | Image Courtesy of Wang Xi / Unsplash
If you happen to be Kyoto around springtime in Japan (March to May), don’t miss out on spring shows where dozens of geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) put on a variety of performances, from singing to dancing to acting to the playing of traditional instruments.
There are four spring dances happening every year, namely Miyako Odori, Kyo Odori, Kitano Odori, and Kamogawa Odori. The last one happens in Pontocho, while the other three take place in Gion.
Miyako Odori is the most popular of them all. It’s held in Gion during the Hanatouro Festival. Tickets to these spring dances range between 2,400 yen to 5,500 yen. Geisha and maiko are elusive, so you might want to take the opportunity to watch them up close. Note that you can’t take photos of the performances.
15. Learn About The Lives Of Ninjas And Samurais At Toei Eigamura
A samurai and two ronin | Image Courtesy of Japanexpertena / Flickr
Ninjas and samurais are both interesting identities in feudal Japan. Ninjas were spies, messengers, mercenaries, or assassins that belong to the lower class. Samurais were warriors that often belong to the noble class.
You can learn more about these ancient fighters and dress up like them at Toei Eigamura or Kyoto Studio Park, a theme park and film set inspired by a small town from the Edo period (1603-1868).
You may also visit Kyoto’s ninja village, Nijo Jinya. It’s actually an inn that used to accommodate feudal lords visiting Kyoto. It has hidden pathways, disguised escape routes, trap doors, and other security gadgets to protect the lords.
Note that tours here are in Japanese only. You can bring a Japanese-speaking guide if you want to.
16. Pay Respects To Gods At Buddhist Temples And Shinto Shrines
Ginkakuji | Image Courtesy of topcool tee / Unsplash
Your Kyoto itinerary isn’t complete without visiting at least one of the religious monuments of Japan. Kyoto is home to 1,600 temples and over 400 Shinto shrines.
Here are some you shouldn’t miss:
Kinkaku-ji (Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion)
A three-story Zen temple whose two upper floors are covered in gold leaf. It’s one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Ginkaku-ji (Kyoto’s Silver Pavilion)
It was modeled after the Golden Pavilion as a retirement villa and gardens built in 1482. It was later converted into Zen temple in 1490. Ginkakuji and Kinkakuji are two of the most stunning temples in Kyoto.
Kiyomizu-dera (“Pure Water Temple”)
It’s also one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. The present buildings of this Buddhist temple were constructed in 1633. Not a single nail was used to build this temple.
It’s a Buddhist temple built in the late 13th century. Its temple complex is home to a garden where gigantic 800-year-old camphor trees stood the test of time.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
The head shrine of Inari, the god of rice and agriculture. The shrine complex has nearly a thousand torii (“traditional gate”). Fushimi Inari Shrine is also one of most popular sights to see in Kyoto.
This Shinto shrine is considered as one of the most important cultural properties of Japan. Its torii is one of the biggest in the country, too.
A Shinto shrine once known as Gion Shrine. Visiting Yasaka Shrine is one of the unmissable things to do in Kyoto, particularly in Gion at night where lanterns are lit.
17. Get Back In Time At Museums In Kyoto
Kyoto National Museum | Image Courtesy of Lisa Pinehill / Flickr
Museums, like anywhere else in the world, are always the best way to learn about the history of Kyoto. There are 24 museums in Kyoto, so it shouldn’t be hard for you to find ones that suit your taste.
Here are some museums that you should include in your Kyoto trip:
Kyoto National Museum
One of the four national museums in Japan and focuses on traditional Japanese and Asian art. Located in Higashiyama district, it was first opened in 1897 as the Imperial Museum of Kyoto.
Kyoto Railway Museum
It was first opened in 1972 as the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum. It was later expanded and modernized in 2016 when it also got its current name.
Kyoto International Manga Museum
First opened in 2006, the museum building used to be an elementary school. It has a collection of 300,000 manga-related items.
18. Shop Conveniently At Aeon Mall Kyoto
Aeon Mall Kyoto | Image Courtesy of Tokumeigakarinoaoshima / Wikimedia Commons
Aeon Mall Kyoto is a massive shopping paradise near Kyoto Station. It houses a variety of retail stores, restaurants, a grocery store, an amusement arcade, and a cinema. It’s a perfectly convenient place to find cheap goods to bring home.
Aeon Mall opens daily from 10 am - 9 pm.
19. Shop Til You Drop Beneath Kyoto Station
[Porta Mall | Image Courtesy of Kyoto Station]
Located right beneath Kyoto Station and 2 minutes walk away from Kyoto Tower, Porta Underground Shopping Mall offers an ultra-convenient shopping experience. Restaurants and food shops, retail stores, souvenir shops, cafes, and everything you need all in one place, right below a major train station.
Porta opens daily from 10 am - 8:30 pm (Sundays to Thursdays) and until 9 pm (Fridays and Saturdays).
20. Hunt Down Monster Goods On Yokai Street
[Yokai Street | Image Courtesy of sprklg / Flickr
If you are looking for nerdy things to do in Kyoto and have a strange liking towards anything scary, weird, and mysterious, then you should visit Ichijo Dori. Also known as Yokai (“monster”) Street, this commercial lane is packed to the rafters with shops that are selling beings popular in local folklore.
The Japanese legend is full of good and bad evils — whether it’s humans or animals or inanimate objects. You can find them all here.
21. Find High-End And Budget Goods On Shijo And Kawaramachi Dori
Kawaramachi Dori | Image Courtesy of dany13 / Flickr
The streets of Shijo and Kawaramachi make up the biggest shopping area in Kyoto where you will find department stores like Takashimaya, Marui, and Daimaru. You will also find some high-end international brands like Louis Vuitton, Rolex, Dior, and Gucci.
If you are looking for smaller fashion boutiques and specialty stores, you can also find them toward Yasaka Shrine. At the intersection of Shijo and Kawaramachi, you will find shopping arcades Shin Kyogoku and Teramachi. Shops catering to the younger crowd also abound here.
22. Visit Over 200 Floating Wooden Houses In Ine Town
Funaya houses at Ine | Image Courtesy of Hiroaki Kaneko / Wikimedia Commons
Located 3 hours away from downtown Kyoto City, Ine is a small fishing village hidden on the northern coast of Kyoto Prefecture. The unassuming village — often described as the “Venice of Japan” — looks picturesque with over 200 floating wooden fishing houses called funaya.
Ine is one of the most fascinating villages you’ll ever see. This part of Kyoto isn’t as popular, but it’s slowly becoming one of Kyoto’s points of interest that are up and coming. Though it’s quite far, the trip will be so worth it.
23. Visit Sweeping Matcha Plantations In Wazuka
Tea plantation in Wazuka | Image Courtesy of vera26 / Wikimedia Commons
Another worthwhile day trip you can add to your Kyoto itinerary is a visit to some matcha plantations in Wazuka.
Located in the southernmost part of Kyoto Prefecture, Wazuka is not only famous for its tea plantations, but also for its panoramic and out of the ordinary sceneries. Some activities you can do here are guided tours, tea picking, tea ceremony lessons, and tea planting.
That’s it for our top things to do in Kyoto. These are just some of the thousands of worthwhile activities and places to see around the city. But we hope this list gave you something to add to your Kyoto itinerary. If you are looking for free Kyoto tours, don’t forget to join our free walking tours in Kyoto!