25 Best Things to do in Kyoto

Things to do in Kyoto Kyoto
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Charles Brown is an intern from the United States. He is earning his Masters Degree in Public Administration at the University of New Orleans, where he lives. He is passionate about experiencing different cultures and living an exciting life with reckless abandon, which is why this company was a perfect fit for him. He is also a big fan of all things sports, especially soccer. Just don’t challenge him, because he is overly competitive.

Kyoto is one of Japan’s most famous and historic cities in the entire country. This ancient city and former capital of Japan has a certain ethereal feel that you won’t get anywhere else. With easily over 60 million tourists per year, Kyoto has more than enough attractions for everyone to get their fill for any interests they might have. From temples to shopping to scenic views, there isn’t anything this city doesn’t have. Therefore, let’s get into some of the best things to do in Kyoto that you should experience on your next trip!

Historic and Cultural Experiences

1. Visit Kiyomizu-dera Temple

If you have read our recent article, you would know that the Kiyomizu-dera Temple is one of, if not the, most popular Temple in all of Japan. This Buddhist place of worship is more than 1,300 years old and is declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is best known for its giant wooden stage, which stands 13 meters tall! The temple is also nuzzled in the forest around tons of cherry blossoms that have some of the best autumn views in all of Japan!

2. Visit Kinkaku-ji Temple, The Golden Pavilion

Just as the name implies, Kinkaku-Ji Temple is a gold-leaf plated structure that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This famous area is said to evoke feelings of “peace on Earth,” with its meticulous architectural design and layout. While all temples in Japan are a wonder in their own rights, this pavilion is the standout structure when it comes to architecture. Being rebuilt to exact specifications after an arson in the 1950s, this temple has three different floors that are each of a distinct design. Those floor designs are shinden, samurai, and zen styles.

3. Pay Respects at Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine

Transitioning to the other major religion in Japan, the Shinto Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine is one of the most beloved destinations in the Kansai region of Japan. It is most famous for its thousands of giant red torii gates that you can stroll through. In fact, the Torri gates line various paths and trails all throughout the sacred Mount Inari, making it a popular spot for tourists who like a pleasant hike with beautiful scenery.

4. Check out Nijo Castle

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a bit different from the others in that it is only about 400 years old. That means it has more recent architecture that sets it apart from them as well. This castle was the residence of the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu when he traveled to the imperial capital at the time, Kyoto. Due to that, Nijo Castle was a setting stage for many of the political events that happened throughout the entirety of the Edo period. This is one of the remnants of Edo style architecture, that was characterized with its grand architecture and its spectacular interior designs.

This is Nijo Castle’s Outer gate

5. Take a Trip to Yasaka Shrine

One of the most popular shrines in Japan, the Yasaka Shrine was built in 635 and is still as beautiful as ever. It is the site of arguably the most famous festival in Japan as well, Gion Matsuri that takes place every July. However, if July is a bit too hot for you to visit the area, the Yasaka Shrine is also a very popular destination for watching the cherry blossoms bloom in the Spring.

6. Check Out Sanneizaka

Sanneizaka, also known as “Sannenzaka,” is a stone paved road in the historical district of Higashiyama in eastern Kyoto. The street and buildings that line it are all of the traditional Japanese architectural style. The street is often paired with an adjacent street known as Ninenzaka. While they have tons of historical buildings lining the roads, there are many stores in that area, so it is a great place for shopping as well.

More Modern Experiences

7. See the sights from the Kyoto Tower

If you’re not really a person interested in history and don’t feel like looking at shrines all day, that is okay too. Kyoto has plenty of modern attractions for people to choose from. One of the most popular is Kyoto Tower. At 131 meters, it is Kyoto’s tallest structure, and its viewing deck gives you a 360 degree view with the ability to see as far as Osaka on a clear day! It’s no Skytree, but its the next best option if you are in Kyoto and want to do something exhilarating!

8. Check Out the Kyoto International Manga Museum

Manga is a major part of Japanese pop-culture, so much that it has even spread around the world and become quite popular as well. If you’re a manga, or even an anime fan, this is a haven for you. The research reference room has about 250,000 that are not even open to the public that you can search through. The manga database search has about 300,000 items that can be searched in the museum. There is even a “Wall of Manga” that has over 50,000 books! You could spend your entire life reading these collections and would hardly even make a dent.

Peat Bakke, (CC BY 2.0), via flickr

9. Visit the Kyoto Railway Museum

Some people are very into trains, but it seems fair to say that all people should at least be interested in the Japanese rail system and its trains. Japan is famous throughout the world for having arguably the most efficient railway system and trains in the world. It seems there are even aspects of its train culture that have made the country unique in this regard. This museum boasts an impressive 31,000 square feet of exhibition space, so there is more than enough to see. Within that area there is a life-size diorama, a working steam engine, and even a train simulator, so you can see what it is like to be a conductor and drive a train!

10. Check out the Kyoto City KYOCERA Museum of Art

Another great museum in Kyoto to visit is the KYOCERA Museum of Art. It is located in Okazaki Park in Sakyō-ku, Kyoto. It first opened in 1928, making it one of the oldest museums in Japan! Because the original building has been renovated to preserve the historical integrity of the structure, there became a blend of the old and the new to give a fresh feel to the museum. However, if art is not your forte maybe flowers are.

11. Stroll Through Kyoto Gyoen National Garden

This area was originally the Court Residential for nobles in the Edo period. Once the capital moved to Tokyo, the people sought to preserve the Imperial Palace, so they put the Kyoto Garden in place. After World War II, the Kyoto Garden was declared the national garden. Now it is a place for all people, free of charge. There are a myriad of activities one could participate in here: nature walking, tennis, gate-ball, sightseeing, and playing on the playground.

12. Take a Boat Ride on the Hozugawa River

The Hozugawa is one of the most beautiful rivers in Japan. With much of it set in a deep ravine, the views are incomparable. There are boat riding tours down the river also. The 16 km tour lasts 2 hours and allows you to experience tons of amazing scenery and even exciting rapids down the river. Don’t worry though, the rapids are not too tough, so you will still be able to have a comforting and relaxing experience with only a few bumps along the way. Therefore, this would be a good excursion for kids, but Kyoto also has more to offer if your choices are limited by having kids.

Kid Friendly Attractions

13. Make your way to the Kyoto Aquarium

Going to the aquarium is one of the all-time greatest activities you can do as a kid. It’s even exhilarating and like brand new when you are an adult. That is why going to the Kyoto Aquarium is such a good family activity. The Kyoto Aquarium has over 15,000 aquatic creatures from 250 different species. This aquarium has both sea creatures and local fresh water creatures from Japan and elsewhere! Recently, they have installed a jellyfish exhibit with 5,000 jellyfish that you can observe from a 360 degree panorama fish tank!

Ryuichi Okumura, (CC BY-ND 2.0), via flickr

14. Monkey Around with the Monkeys in Arashiyama

Arashiyama is on the western outskirts of Kyoto. Away from the hustle and bustle of the former capital, Arashiyama provides a scenic escape for those who want a bit more peace and quiet in their trip. If you pass through the Zen heart of Arashiyama, the Bamboo Forest, and are still looking for something to do, you should stop by the Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama. There are well over 100 Japanese macaque monkeys that live in the forest around there and are quite used to being around humans. With that being said, they are still wild animals and should be with caution and respect. As long as you obey the park rules, you will be just fine. You can even feed them by hand, up close or from a fenced room. However, if this is still a little too close for comfort, there are other options to see animals as well.

15. Go to the Kyoto City Zoo

Like most buildings and institutions in Kyoto, the city zoo has a long history. Being built in 1903, it is the second oldest zoo in Japan behind the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo. It sits in the Sakyō ward, overlooking the Northern Higashiyama district. While it is definitely not the biggest zoo in Japan, it has all of the classic big animals like lions, tigers, bears, giraffes, etc. There is even a reptile house if you’re not afraid of our slithering friends. Furthermore, there is also a restaurant for when you get hungry and even an ice cream shop for dessert! This is a great step away from the temples and shrines for the kids.

16. See the Kyotomangekyou Museum

This next one is definitely a “hidden gem” in comparison to most of the other entries here. This lesser know museum is definitely worth checking out, especially if you have children. It is a compact showcase of kaleidoscopes that are dazzling! Even more than that, there is also a light show based on the refracting properties of the objects. Lastly, there is a “create your kaleidoscope” workshop that lets you design, build, and customize your very own kaleidoscope. That would be a great souvenir for your child or even you, creating memories that will last a lifetime.

Other Fun Experiences

If you’re an adult and find yourself not really wanting to spend all day checking out the historic landmarks and museums of Kyoto but also not wanting to be around a massive amount of kids, there are still plenty of things that you can do.

17. Have Some Whiskey at the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery

At the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery you have one of two options when visiting. The first is just going to the Whiskey Museum. This option is free, but you do not get access to the distilling process of the the alcohol. The second option is the paid tour. With this, you get a tour through the entire facility by the professional guide, you get to view the distilling process, you get to sample many of the different types whiskeys, and you also get to do the museum viewing as well.

cotaro70s, (CC BY-ND 2.0), via flickr

18. Explore the Geisha District

While Geisha are skilled in entertaining people, the certain cultural traditions and experiences that fascinate adults might bore children. That is why this option is put in this section. Kids might be okay with a temples illustrious architecture, but it’s unlikely they will see the value in experiencing a traditional tea ceremony or sitting through a play at the Gion Corner. However, there are other parts of the Geisha District that might appeal to the younger people. Shijo-dori is a famous street in the district and has a ton of great restaurant and shopping options.

19. Take a Dip in Kurama Onsen

The Kurama Onsen (Hot Spring) is definitely one of the most popular onsen in Kyoto. It is only 30 minutes from the heart of Kyoto. Unfortunately, it is temporarily closed. Its website does not specify how long they will be closed, but when they do reopen, it should be your first choice. However, do not fear. Kyoto is famous for its abundant amount top quality onsens. You have options of Fufu no yu, Tenzan no yu, Hana no yu, Nizaemon no yu, and more!

Darcy Moore, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), via flickr

Other Awesome Experiences

20. Explore Nishiki Market

If there’s one thing you can’t skip when you’re in Kyoto it is the Nishiki Market. This is the gateway to Kyoto’s unique food culture. There’s a lot to it, so you might need some help. That’s alright though because there are plenty of amazing tours available to give you the full experience of everything that Kyoto’s Nishiki Market has to offer! You won’t regret going here and not leaving until you have had your fill!

21. Hike Through Kurama and Kibune

The villages of Kurama and Kibune (also called Kifune) are prime destinations for people who want to escape the city-life and enjoy a more relaxed setting in nature. They are nuzzled in the mountains North of Kyoto and offer excellent selections for a various amount of activities. One of the main activities is nature walks and hikes through the mountainside. You can do a shorter or a longer path, but the latter path leads to an onsen in Kurama, so that would be ideal after a nice long hike. If you’re having trouble deciding on which path you should take, just book a tour and we will take care of that for you!

Kibune - Kurama hiking

22. Ride on the Sagano Scenic Railway

The Sagano Scenic Railway is a slow paced 25 minute train ride through the Saga-Arashiyama mountainside in western Kyoto. The old fashioned trains go from Saga torokko station to Kameoka torokko Station and runs along the Hozugawa river and follows all of the most beautiful scenery that the area has to offer. This is definitely one of the most instagramable experiences on the list. The beauty of the area is incomparable!

23. Visit Ine

Ine is a tiny seaside fishing town that has less than 2000 residents. What it lacks in numbers, it makes up for in beauty and the serenity of the area that surrounds it. It resides in the northernmost part of Kyoto prefecture right on the water. There are many boathouses that appear to float. That is why it is known as “the Venice of Japan.” It is the perfect town to just relax by the water, but if you want to do a little more than that the town has shrines to check out, boat and fishing tours in the bay, and a fish market with the absolute freshest catches possible.

24. Visit Uji

Uji is another small town, but it is very different from Ine. Uji is situated between Kyoto and Nara, two of the most important historic and cultural areas in Japan. That gives Uji a long history. As of today, the little town is known all throughout the country for its green tea. Despite Kyoto being the original cultivator of tea in Japan, Uji has reigned supreme as the best quality tea for the last one thousand years almost. If you visit Uji and want to do more than just see the historic sites, you should absolutely try one of the tea ceremonies there.

25. Take a Kyoto Tour

If you really want to experience all of the things that were listed here but have a hard time deciding, we offer a completely customizable walking day tour as well as a fun food tour. We can help you figure out what you’re most interested in and help you narrow down your choices. Then you can visit some of the most popular and fascinating spots in Kyoto in one day and get an idea of the traditional and unique atmosphere. You can learn the Japanese history and culture one step deeper while walking through the beautiful city.

Kyoto food tour
A couple on the Kyoto food tour and having a drink with the locals

Japan Wonder Travel Tours in Kyoto

When you are visiting Kyoto and you need some help organizing your trip, you came to the right place. We’re happy to help you make your trip to Kyoto the best trip ever. We can advise you on where to go or even better, show you around with a local, English speaking guide. Let us help you create safe, comfortable, and unforgettable memories in Kyoto!

Kyoto Private Full-Day Walking Tour
On this full-day private tour of Kyoto, you will be able to see the highlights of Kyoto in just one day and at the same time develop a deeper understanding of both the culture of the area and Japan as a whole.

Total Kyoto Experience
If you only have a day or two in Kyoto, we offer a full-day tour of the city, enabling you to immerse yourself in and fully enjoy the entire city of Kyoto in just 10 hours!

Kyoto Food and Drink Tour @Nishiki Street & Gion
If you’re looking to learn more about the culture and the local cuisine of Kyoto, this is the perfect tour for you! Take part in this Kyoto food and drink tour and explore the 400-year-old market and the famous Gion district.

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