If you’re spending time in either Kyoto or Osaka, you definitely can’t miss out on digging deep into all of the best things to do in Nara. This former capital city of Japan remains a top spot for those who want to escape the busier metro areas and immerse themselves in Japanese nature and culture.
When visiting Nara, you’ll experience friendly locals and deal with fewer tourists (though there’s still plenty!) as the city itself is much smaller than neighbouring Osaka and Kyoto. From exploring a few of the earliest temples to mingling with sacred deer, you’ll have no problem filling your day with fun activities in Nara.
Not sure where to explore first? Plan your trip like a pro with this guide to the best Nara attractions…
Table of Contents
- What to do in Nara: Top attractions & places to visit
- Feed the deer at Nara Park and start your journey through the city
- Marvel at the largest bronze Buddha statue at Todai-ji Temple
- Breathe the scents of fragrant flowers in Isui-en garden
- Continue to Yoshiki-en garden to smell more flowers
- Explore the maze of paths around the Kasuga-Taisha Shrine
- View the oldest wooden building at Horyu-ji Temple
- View the Kofun tombs of Nara to see the resting place of an empress
- Shop, eat, and drink in the Naramachi shopping district
What to do in Nara: Top attractions & places to visit
Feed the deer at Nara Park and start your journey through the city
If you’re struggling to figure what to do in Nara, start with a trip to Nara Park. The park in the centre of the city is a sprawling area of hills, forests, and ponds with lots of meandering paths. Most surprisingly, you’ll also find plenty of deer. (Read: thousands of deer!)
The park (and the city of Nara, in general) are known for the free-roaming deer. They’re considered Shinto messengers from God and are revered by locals and foreigners alike. As you walk through the park, you’ll see them grazing lazily in seemingly every direction. (Occasionally, you’ll even find them roaming various other areas of the city as well.)
Visitors are welcome to feed the deer. There are even vendors throughout the park that sell treats (shika-senbei) for them. Just be cautious as they are wild animals and can sometimes get unintentionally aggressive when they’re peckish.
While the park is lovely, the location is the main reason to make it your first stop, whether you’ve got just one day in Nara or few. Several of the next few Nara attractions are close by, making it the perfect place to launch your itinerary. Note that you can also get off the train near the park entrance.
Marvel at the largest bronze Buddha statue at Todai-ji Temple
Nara is home to some of the oldest temples and shrines in Japan, including Todai-ji Temple. Especially if you’re travelling to Japan for the first time, Todai-ji is a necessary stop due to the sheer size of its giant bronze Buddha. The temple is located in the northeastern part of Nara Park.
Todai-ji, constructed in 752, is a complex containing many buildings. However, the main attraction is the Hall of the Great Buddha (Daibutsuden), the world’s largest wooden building, housing the massive relic. The 16-metre-tall statue is the largest bronze depiction of Buddha in the world.
The entrance to the temple includes the large Nandaimon Gate, a wooden gate flanked by two statues. As you wander about Todai-ji, you’ll also likely encounter even more deer!
Breathe the scents of fragrant flowers in Isui-en garden
Japanese gardens are so popular that people recreate them in other parts of the world. The Isui-en garden is a great example of Japan’s traditional botanical flare.
It’s also inside Nara Park, making it an easy attraction to check out. You can even see the top of Todai-ji through the trees.
The garden is expansive. It includes well-manicured lawns and ponds containing flowers, trees, and topiary of all sizes and colors. As you walk the paths, take short breaks to smell the flowers or check out the native plants.
The garden is divided into two sections (a front and a rear garden) and each has its own pagoda while a number of tea houses are scattered throughout. To really appreciate the spectacular swirl of colours, visit in the fall when you’ll see the most diversity of colors.
Continue to Yoshiki-en garden to smell more flowers
If you visit the park on a particularly crowded day, you may catch a break at Yoshiki-en garden. This garden is located just south of the Isui-en garden in Nara Park. It’s also frequently overlooked by visitors.
The smaller garden includes a teahouse with a thatched roof and entrance is free. While the garden is smaller, it still offers a chance to enjoy the outdoors and view the unique style of Japanese gardens.
The garden, broken into three parts (a pond garden, moss garden, and tea ceremony garden) doesn’t have a lot of topiaries and carefully trimmed shrubs. It’s simply a quiet, serene garden that offers a bit of a break from the busier parts of Nara Park.
Explore the maze of paths around the Kasuga-Taisha Shrine
The Kasuga-Taisha shrine is one of the most visited Nara points of interest and another destination in the Nara Park area. Established when Nara became the capital of Japan, the shrine is dedicated to the deity responsible for protecting the city.
You should take your time walking around the complex. The buildings are nestled in a forest of pathways, trees, and stone lanterns. The shrine is, in fact, famous for its lanterns that have been donated by worshippers over the years.
You’ll also continue to encounter the free-roaming deer. It’s a good idea to get used to these animals and treat them with respect. As messengers of God, they’re considered an important part of the city even when they aggressively seek handouts from tourists.
The shrine is open about two hours earlier compared to the Todai-ji Temple and the garden. If possible, try to make this destination your first stop, especially if you’re on a day trip from Osaka, to give you more time to explore each sight.
View the oldest wooden building at Horyu-ji Temple
Nara is full of history. While it may not contain more temples and shrines compared to Kyoto or Osaka, it’s got a few of the oldest temples, including Horyu-ji Temple.
Horyu-ji isn’t in Nara Park, but it’s still just a short walk from JR Horyu-ji Station. The compound includes various temple buildings and a large museum. You can check out one of the largest collections of Buddhist images.
However, the main attraction is the main temple hall. It’s the oldest wooden building in the world. It was built around 600 CE and then rebuilt in the early 700s.
Designated a World Heritage Site in 1993, it’s also a cool-looking building and a wonderful example of the typical architecture used for these ancient temples.
View the Kofun tombs of Nara to see the resting place of an empress
A “kofun” is an ancient grave. These tombs are found throughout the country. They are keyhole-shaped mounds that were mostly created between 300 and 700 CE.
In Nara, you’ll find the Gosashi tomb, which is the resting place of the famous Empress Jingu. She was a regent who ruled Japan in the year 201. The tomb also contains Haniwa terracotta figures.
You can find the tomb by visiting Heijo Palace, one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Nara. The palace itself is also a fun destination. It was the imperial residence when Nara was still the capital of Japan.
Shop, eat, and drink in the Naramachi shopping district
One of the best places to visit in Nara for eating, drinking, and shopping is the Naramachi shopping district. This neighborhood separates the park area from the rest of the city and includes a dense collection of shops, restaurants, homes, and small cafes.
Walking the streets of Naramachi makes you feel as if you are stepping back in time to the early days of Japan. There’s still plenty of modern details, however, to remind you of the present, including the sight of tourists walking around with cameras.
It’s a busy area and the best spot to go shopping and grab a bite before retiring back to your hotel.
If you’re a night owl, you’ll find a variety of late-night restaurants and bars in the shopping district. There are even a few that are open 24-hour.