Even if you think you’ve seen it all in your travels, the best things to do in Kyoto will leave you in awe. The cultural heartland of Japan, Kyoto isn’t just one of the top tourist destinations in the country but one of the most interesting cities to visit in the world.
Whether you have one day in Kyoto or a week, it’ll quickly become clear why visiting the former imperial capital of Japan is a must. Over 400 shrines and over 1,600 temples are nestled among the city’s top tourist attractions in Kyoto, including Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji. Explore Japan’s cultural roots in the Gion District before refueling at the restaurants and bars along Pontocho Alley.
Need a little help planning your trip to Kyoto? Launch your ultimate vacation itinerary with this complete guide to the top points of interest and places to visit in Kyoto!
What to see & do in Kyoto
Marvel at the golden hues of Kinkaku-ji Temple
Looking for an iconic scene as you look for things to do in Kyoto? Search no further than Kinkaku-ji Temple. Also known as the Golden Pavilion, this unmissable 13-meter-tall multi-tiered temple chills out next to a serene pond surrounded by forests that feel miles away—even though the city’s right at its doorstep!
The top two levels of Kinkaku-ji Temple are covered with brilliant gold leaves. It presents a gorgeous façade that’s enhanced by the rippled reflection in the pond below.
The golden reflections in summer at this UNESCO World Heritage Site are a scene to behold, but the sight of snow caps among the lush green background during winter is equally beguiling.
As Kinkaku-ji is one of the top points of interest in Kyoto, aim to visit as early as possible to see it at its least crowded.
Find your zen at Ryoan-ji Temple
Not far from Kinkaku-ji in northwestern Kyoto lies Ryoan-ji Temple, translated as the temple of the peaceful dragon. The current structure dates back to 1488, after the original was destroyed during the Onin wars of 1467.
The mirror-shaped Kyoyochi Pond, dotted with numerous water birds, welcomes you to the Ryoan-ji Temple grounds before you reach the monk quarters.
Ryoan-ji is also home to Karesansui, one of the most spectacular Zen gardens in Japan. The Zen rock garden has 15 mysterious stones, laid in such a way that only 14 can be seen at the same time. Amazingly, the branches in the garden cast borrowed shadows filled with moss. The patterns on the rocks never remain the same twice.
Improve your fortunes at Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine
Built around 1500, the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine is one of the oldest tourist attractions in Kyoto. It’s popular for the over 10,000 torii gates that open to each other.
Walking through the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine is an adventure in itself, especially if you choose to venture outside of the main tourist area. There are a handful of great hiking trails in the area, including the winding path up Mount Inari that will take around three hours to climb.
Along the structure are smaller shrines with vendor shops and areas to relax. Many superstitious folks believe that visiting Fushimi Inari-taisha brings success in business. Try your luck and donate to the shrine to get your name etched onto your own vermillion gate.
Breathe in the mountain air at Arashiyama
In the far western part of Kyoto is the Arashiyama Mountains, where the famous Arashiyama trails lie. Although it’s just a short ride from central Kyoto, Arashiyama feels worlds away with its more relaxed, smaller-town feel. Even if you only have a weekend in Kyoto, visiting this beautiful district is a must.
The highlight of the area for many is Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, a beautifully-trimmed bamboo forest that’s among the most famous places to visit in Kyoto. Even if it starts out a little underwhelming, be sure to continue walking the paths to the deeper part of the forest where the denser, taller patches of bamboo grow.
Besides the bamboo grove, there are a handful of other interesting things to do in Arashiyama. Monkeys at Kameyama-koen Park near the mountain top freely entertain you as you gaze at the spectacular Togetsu-kyo Bridge below.
Alternatively, the riverside Iwataytama Monkey Park is a great place to catch the sneaky little devils in action. (Just don’t get too close or stare them in the eye as they can sometimes get aggressive and snatch up your belongings.)
Near the bamboo grove, you’ll also find Tenryu-ji Temple and its lovely gardens. Sneak into Gio-ji Temple for a glimpse of traditional dancing, or head to the right towards Adashino Nenbutsu-ji Temple and Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple for their one thousand famous stone statues.
A view of the 9th-century Daikaku-ji Temple or a visit to the Okochi Sanso Villa will leave you equally spirited.
Relax under the glow of lanterns at Yasaka Shrine
While exploring Kyoto, there’s a good chance that you’ll stumble upon Yasaka Shrine (also known as Gion Shrine). With a history dating back about 1350 years, visiting this Shinto shrine is a must for anyone passing through.
Compared to other more grandiose shrines and temples in Kyoto, the small and subdued Yasaka Shrine feels a tad less dramatic. Time your visit in the evening, when the shrine’s dance hall gets lit up with hundreds of lanterns donated by local businesses, hoping for a dash of extra luck.
Even better is to visit in July when the Gion Matsuri festival kicks off. It’s one of the most popular festivals in Japan, with a history dating back over a millennium. The Gion Matsuri festival is famous for its procession of colorful floats.
Yasaka Shrine is also a great area to explore during Kyoto’s cherry blossom season. Neighboring Maruyama Park is one of the top places to check out the sakura in Kyoto.
Dive into Japanese history at Nijo Castle
No other attraction in Kyoto can give you a better glimpse into medieval Japanese history as Nijo Castle. While the major tower was destroyed centuries ago, the fortification walls and moats still remain intact. Constructed in 1601, Nijo Castle is an enormous collection of structures that demonstrate the power of the shogun warlords.
Inside the castle grounds are the five buildings of Ninomaru Palace, the Tozamurai guard house, and the Ohiroma grand chamber. The interiors feature decorative panels and the spectacular nightingale floors that squeak when intruders step down.
Nijo Castle is open from nine to five, apart from a few select days.
Find bliss at Ginkaku-ji Temple
Built in the 1480s by Ashikaga Yoshimasa as Jisho-ji, Ginkaku-ji Temple is an iconic structure and is near the top of most lists of what to see in Kyoto. Although less impressive than Kinkaku-ji, both are must-sees while temple hopping in Kyoto.
Scholars believe the initial plan was to have Ginkaku-ji Temple covered in silver leaf, but the shogun ran out of money before completing the project. Nevertheless, the silver-less Zen temple is a true representation of Higashiyama culture and a relic of the library style.
The surrounding garden is equally striking, featuring a Sea of Silver Sand and a moon platform, which is believed to reflect moonlight to the Silver Pavilion.
Ginkaku-ji is open all year round. Visit in the morning before the crowds envelop the grounds if you want a little peace and quiet.
Whisk yourself into the past at Gion District (Gion-Shinbashi)
Primarily serving as a teahouse district for travelers visiting the Yasaka-jinja Shrine in the 18th century, Gion District has since morphed into a modern neighborhood in the heart of Kyoto.
Shinbashi-dori, on the northern border of Gion, has perfectly preserved the beauty and customs of medieval Japan. Don’t miss your opportunity to spot geisha sneaking along the street before they mysteriously disappear in a rustle of cloth.
Although an authentic geisha entertainment experience is often out of reach for most foreigners, simply catching a glimpse of them while wandering around Gion District in the evening bestows a special feeling.
Also close by is the cherry-tree-lined Shirakawa Minami-dori, arguably the most beautiful street in Asia. Cherish a visit to the adjacent Shirakawa River in the evening for some peaceful moments of silent reflection in the geisha district.
If you want to catch some interesting Japanese cultural performances, head south of Shijo-dori to Yasaka Hall at Gion Corner. There are seven different shows to choose from (daily from 6 pm to 7 pm), including a tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and kyo-mai dances performed by maiko (apprentice geisha).
Admission for the performances is ¥3,150. Check the Yasaka Hall website for more details, including closure dates.
See the vestiges of the Japanese empire at the Imperial Palace
The city’s history as the former imperial capital of Japan becomes immediately obvious when you step onto the grounds of the Kyoto Imperial Palace (also known as Gosho in Japanese). Once home to the emperor of Japan, this walled complex throws together a mishmash of gates, shrines, gardens, and halls that remind of its former glory.
If Kyoto Imperial Palace factors in later on your itinerary, you might feel a little underwhelmed compared to the other more glorious temples, gardens & shrines elsewhere in Kyoto. Nonetheless, now that travelers are able to freely enter and explore the complex (but not the building themselves) without admission, it’s worth the short jaunt northward to see for yourself.
Shop & chow down at Nishiki Market
With nearly four hundred years behind it, Nishiki Market isn’t your typical Japanese street market. Kyoto’s most famous culinary delicacies and rarest seafood always find their way into the stalls here.
Most of the food stalls are stacked with orange carrots, grilled squid, rice balls, sugared fruit, or omelets. You’ll be easily overwhelmed walking through Nishiki Market by the welcoming sights and smells of delicious Japanese food and the lively chatter of the merchants shouting irasshaimase to beckon you to grab a tasty snack.
For a break from the edibles, stroll into one of Nishiki’s stationary shops to rustle through the never-ending selections of Japanese paper printed with colorful designs and, if you’re lucky enough to spot it, entertainingly bad English translations that can brighten anyone’s day.
Catch spiritual views from above at Kiyomizu-dera
Even in Kyoto, where temples seem to sprout from the pavement at every turn, Kiyomizu-dera will wow you. You can’t help becoming entranced by the temple’s entrance, jutting out of a mountain with 13-metre-high columns supporting it.
The veranda at Kiyomizu-dera Temple is so impressive that the locals use the expression “jumping from the balcony of Kiyomizu” to mean a daring adventure.
Below the balcony runs the Otowa Waterfall. Do as the locals do and take a sip of water to test the popular theory that they have healing powers.
Next to the main hall are three smaller halls: Amida-do, Okuno-in, and Shaka-do. All three have deep religious roots connected to Buddha worship.
If you can, visit Kiyomizu-dera in the evening when it takes on a stunning glow or in autumn when you can witness a panorama of Kyoto erupting in fall colors.
Escape the city at Mount Hiei
Looking to escape the big city buzz? Among the most popular day trips from Kyoto is Mount Hiei, located about 1.5 hours northeast of the city center. From its stunning mountain scenery to its wildlife & vegetation, Mount Hiei offers something special whatever time of year you visit.
Besides hosting some of the top hiking trails in Kyoto, Mount Hiei (Hieizan) is also home to Enryaku-ji Temple. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is famous for giving birth to the Tendai sect of Buddhism in 788.
The temple spreads over three main areas (Todo, Saito, and Yokawa) among blissful ancient forests. Not surprisingly, Enryaku-ji is among its most beautiful in fall when the leaves burst into bright red, orange & yellow hues.
Bask in fall colours at Tofuku-ji Temple
Wedged between Kiyomizu-dera and Fushimi Inari Taisha, Tofuku-ji Temple is a must-see during any visit to Kyoto. This large Zen Buddhist temple, founded in 1236, is a particularly popular destination in autumn under a blanket of fall colors.
Among the most impressive sights here are the small vermillion-coloured Tsutenkyo Bridge, the 22-metre-high 15th-century Sanmon Gate, and the reconstructed Hondo (Main Hall).
While you’re checking out Tsutenkyo Bridge, don’t miss out on the lovely Zen gardens in front of Kaisando Hall. Entrance is just ¥400.
See the cherry blossoms at Philosopher’s Walk
Lying to the north in Kyoto is a scenic mile-long stretch named Philosopher’s Walk in honor of Nishida Kitaro, a Japanese philosopher. The ever-cheerful Lake Biwa Canal alongside the pathway is a scene to behold. But if you decide to visit in spring, perhaps the best time to visit Kyoto, it’s the blossoming cherry trees that will attract you most.
Walking on this path in spring will refresh you as the wind blows flower petals around you. Reflect on life among the tranquility of the Philosopher’s Walk or grab a drink from the adjacent cafes to keep refreshed.
Enjoy a kaiseki meal
Even if you’re not one to travel for food (hey, I do it all the time!), one of the coolest experiences you can have in Kyoto is to enjoy a kaiseki meal.
Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese haute-cuisine meal served over several courses. It’s particularly popular in Kyoto as many of the cooking and presentation styles originate in the Muromachi and Higashiyama periods while the city was the imperial seat of power.
In kaiseki, much attention is paid to the freshness of the ingredients and the appearance. As you’d expect with such meticulousness & artistry, a kaiseki dinner in Kyoto doesn’t come cheap. (Especially if you pair it with some of the best sake like a high-end junmai daiginjo!)
If you’re not familiar with Japanese, it’s a good idea to book your kaiseki experience online to lock down your reservation and avoid any hassles.
Participate in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony
Experiencing a traditional Japanese tea ceremony is something every traveler to Japan should throw into their itinerary. And as the cultural heart of the country, there’s hardly a better place to see this elaborate ritual in action than in Kyoto.
Walking through Higashiyama or Gion, you’ll stumble upon an endless number of teahouses where you can experience a traditional tea ceremony.
Even better, however, is to book a traditional Japanese tea ceremony online. Unlike showing up at a random teahouse, booking the experience beforehand will ensure you get an English-speaking tea master who can walk you through the experience.
See the city from above at Kyoto Tower
In a city dominated by shrines and temples, the modern Kyoto Tower certainly feels a little out of place. At 131 meters tall, Kyoto Tower is the highest building in the city. For travelers interested in taking in sweeping bird’s-eye views of the city, visiting this tower, located adjacent to Kyoto Station, is a must!
The observation deck at Kyoto Tower is set 100 meters above the ground floor. It delivers 360-degree vistas of the city and the surrounding mountains, stretching even as far as Osaka under clear skies.
Entrance to the tower is ¥770. There’s also a public bath in the basement (¥750) should you need to sweat out some sake.
Wander through the gardens of Katsura Imperial Villa (Katsura Rikyū)
Located outside the main tourist area, the stunning Katsura Imperial Villa isn’t necessarily one of the most-visited attractions in Kyoto, but it’s certainly among the finest. The villa dates back to 1645, when it was built as a residence for the Katsura clan, a family connected to the imperial rulers.
As impressive as the villa itself is, the real treat here is the gardens. The well-manicured gardens of the Katsura Imperial Villa offer one of the finest examples of Japanese landscaping you’ll find anywhere in the city.
Unlike many other attractions in Kyoto, you’ll need to join a tour to visit the grounds of the villa. Be sure to book well ahead of time at the Imperial Household Agency website, as there are only limited spots available each day.
Grab a bite at Pontocho Alley
If the buzzing traffic and modern shopping centers of Sanjo-dori have you second-guessing your visit, reset your cultural bearings at the riverside restaurant district of Pontocho Alley. This ultra-narrow alley, running parallel to the Kamo River, is chock-loaded with small restaurants and bars serving both Japanese and international cuisine, making it one of the coolest places to go in Kyoto.
Eating great food is only part of the bliss of Pontocho Alley. Along with the nearby Gion District, the district is one of the coolest areas of central Kyoto to wander around. The wooden architecture, when combined with the alleyway’s delicate lanterns, is atmospheric and will keep you clicking the shutter on your camera or bombing your Instagram feed with shots.
If you’re on a tighter travel budget, however, you may want to stick to just wandering. Pontocho Alley is well-known for its less-than-budget-conscious pricing when it comes to food & drink. (You’re no doubt paying for the river views.) There’s even a handful of restaurants here that require not just reservations but invitations!
Catch a kabuki performance at Minami-za Theatre
Even though the geisha is the symbol most associated with Kyoto, there’s one other huge Japanese cultural phenomenon that found its wings here: kabuki. This definitively Japanese art form combines colorful stage sets with exaggeratedly dramatic scenes. What results is a bizarre (yet intensely satisfying) spectacle that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen or experienced in your life.
One of the best places to catch a kabuki performance in Japan is Kyoto’s Minami-za Theatre. It’s one of the oldest kabuki theatres in the country, with a rich history dating back to the Edo Period. Even though the current theatre has only stood since 1929, it’s still an impressive landmark on its own that’s worth checking out.
If you’re a first-time kabuki attendee, be prepared for the experience of a lifetime. Even without understanding Japanese, the dramatic performances are so over-the-top that you should have no problem getting the gist of the storyline.
Timing your visit with a kabuki show can be a little hit-or-miss. Check the Shochiku Kabuki official site for schedules and to book tickets online.
PRO TIP: Keep in mind that a little kabuki can go a long way. Performances can draw on for hours. Watching an act or two is likely enough for all but the most dedicated theatre-goers.
Find your bliss at Byodo-in Temple
Got a little extra time? Beeline south to the town of Uji to catch a glimpse of its finest treasure, Byodo-in Temple. This complex was originally built as a villa in 998. It was converted into a temple just a few short years later. The architectural style of Byodo-in is typical of Buddhist Pure Land (Jodo), a sect of Mahayana Buddhism that’s one of the most practiced in Japan.
The most impressive of all the buildings at Byodoin Temple is the Phoenix Hall. Built in 1053 with two of its namesake firebirds perched upon the roof, the hall is the only original building left intact on the temple grounds.
You can check out the interior of the stunning Phoenix Hall (including its famous Amida Buddha statue) on a guided tour for ¥300. Unfortunately, the tour is only available in Japanese.
Catch your breath at Chion-in Temple
Located betwixt Maruyama Park and the entrance to the Philosopher’s Path, Chion-in Temple sits near the top of the list of must-see temples in Kyoto. Chion-in is the main temple for the Jodo Buddhists and has the goods to prove its importance to this popular sect of Pure Land Buddhism.
From the street level, the massive Sanmon Gate entrance greets you into the sprawling temple complex. At 24 meters high, it’s the largest of its kind in Japan and is, on its own, worthy of the short trek from Maruyama Park to check out.
Beyond the gate and up a staircase, you’ll find the temple’s main buildings and expansive gardens. There’s a handful of highlights here, including:
- Miedo Hall: A gigantic building that’s home to a venerable statue of Honen, the founder of Jodo.
- Amidado Hall: Another hall containing a statue of the most important Jodo Buddha, Amida Buddha.
- Seishido Hall: The oldest building in the complex, with a history dating back to 1530.
- Hojo Garden: A traditional Japanese garden originally conceived by one of the resident monks in the middle of the 17th century.
- Yuzen Garden: Another beautiful garden that’s the first you’ll see beyond the entrance gate. The interplay between the rocks, ponds, vegetation, and lay of the land is absolutely breathtaking.
Frolic among the temples & deer of Nara
Okay, so it’s not in Kyoto per se, but if you’ve got a little time to spare, you simply need to spend at least one day in Nara! Like Kyoto, Nara was once the capital of Japan. That distinction left Nara with innumerable cultural sites that are more than worth your while.
The highlight of Nara (especially for kids and animal lovers!) is, without a doubt, the free-roaming deer of Nara Park. As you wander between the top tourist attractions in Nara, you’ll see these cute little creatures just about everywhere. Despite being wild animals, they’re mostly quite tame—other than getting a little unintentionally aggressive when they’re hungry.
Besides frolicking with the sacred deer in Nara Park, a few other things to check out include:
- Todai-ji Temple: The world’s largest wooden temple, whose main hall, Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall), houses a 15-metre-high bronzed Buddha statue that’s one of the biggest in Japan.
- Kasuga Taisha Shrine: Nara’s most important shrine and one of the most impressive sites in the city. The moss-covered stone lanterns lining the approach to the shrine are a wonderful site to behold.
- Kofuku-ji Temple: Another impressive temple whose 50-meter-high five-story wooden pagoda is the second-largest in Japan.
Where to stay in Kyoto for sightseeing
Want to tackle all the top things to see & do in Kyoto? Where you base yourself will make all the difference! Here are a few of our top recommendations for the best places to stay in Kyoto…
- Guest House Oumi is a budget ryokan in the heart of Nakagyo. It features an incredible garden terrace that whisks you away from the city buzz and is located less than a kilometer from Nijo Castle.
- Royal Park Hotel The Kyoto is a modern 4-star hotel that features large, comfortable rooms in a central Nakagyo location and a delicious on-site restaurant headed by an award-winning chef.
- Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto is one of Japan’s finest 5-star hotels, fusing modern elements with Japanese sensibilities for a unique experience. The rooms looking out onto the central Shakusuien Japanese garden and pond are simply divine.
- Searching for otherworldly ideas for where to go in Kyoto? Hang out with a thieving troop of monkeys and walk through the immense bamboo grove of Arashiyama.
- Want to enjoy an incredible panorama? Find your way to Kiyomizu-dera, one of the most beautiful temples and shrines in Kyoto, for big views of the city.
- Visiting during hanami? Contemplate life among Kyoto’s spring cherry blossoms on the Philosopher’s Walk and along Shirakawa Minami-dori in Gion District.
- Need a quick classic Kyoto experience? Walk through the thousands of vermillion red torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha and gaze upon the golden reflections at Kinkaku-ji.