Often overshadowed by nearby Kyoto and far-off Tokyo, Japan’s second city of Osaka doesn’t get the love it deserves from travellers. For those who carve out some time in Osaka though, the rewards will be limitless.
At the surface, Osaka feels much like any other typical East Asian city: A concrete jungle sprawling endlessly into the horizon. But at a micro level, it won’t take long to discover that there’s so much more brewing beneath.
From experiencing its unforgettable local foods to exploring neighbourhoods seemingly locked 50 years in the past to scoping out hidden temples, shrines & cherry blossoms among its busy streets, get started planning your trip with this quick Osaka travel guide.
When to visit Osaka
Like much of Japan (and in contrast to much of Asia), Osaka experiences a true four-season climate. Although the differences between summer & winter aren’t as obvious as more northerly cities like Tokyo or Sapporo, Osaka deals out hot & humid summer days with relatively cooler winters rolling in on schedule.
Overall, the best time to visit Osaka is in autumn (particularly October & November) or in spring (April & May).
Visiting Osaka in autumn, you’ll get a chance, not only to avoid the sweltering temperatures and crowds of the summer high season, but see the city’s beautiful fall colours in force.
Likewise, spring is a spectacular season, bringing out Osaka’s cherry blossoms and painting the city’s parks, shrines & temples in a light & airy shades of pink and white.
What to do in Osaka
One thing’s for certain: You’ll never go bored visiting Osaka. As the hub of Japan’s second most populated urban area, Osaka’s chock-loaded with plenty of things to do & see.
Even if it’s a little shorter on traditional Japanese charms than nearby Kyoto, the city’s thoroughly enjoyable and ultimately unforgettable. Waltzing through its streets you’ll dabble in everything from feudal castles to age-old temples & Shinto shrines to some of the best glorious street food you’ll gobble down anywhere in Japan—nay, the world!
Want to get started on planning what to do? Here are a few of the best places to visit in Osaka:
- Osaka Castle: This lovely feudal castle, built in the 16th century by Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, remains the symbol of the city’s past glory. Wandering around the surrounding park, especially during cherry blossom season is one of Japan’s most endearing pleasures. Be sure to scale up to the 8th-floor viewing deck for incredible vistas onto to Osaka’s skyline.
- Dotonbori: Osaka’s premier entertainment area that’s as famous for presenting the city’s modern face as the castle is in showing off its history. The neon-splashed streets in Dotonbori never get old nor does its selection of delicious street food. Drop by the nearby Hozenji Yokocho, a popular warren of traditional bars & restaurants, and one of the best things to do in Namba, to see the stark contrast between modern & pre-WWI Osaka.
- Shinsekai: Dotonbori’s vintage rival to the south of Namba, this area was built prior to WWI as a new vision for the world’s future. To get a sense of Osaka’s most happenin’ scene in the 20th century, this is it. Beside its colourful & visually-stimulating appearance, Shinsekai unleashes some of Osaka’s tastiest treats like kushi katsu, deep-fried skewers of various meats & vegetables that a particularly well-done and popular in the district.
- Sumiyoshi-taisha Shrine: One of the most popular temples & shrines in Osaka, this masterpiece is one of the best examples of the uniquely Japanese sumiyoshi-zukuri architectural style. The style’s unique forked gables, appearing much like a samurai crossing two swords, is eye-catching to say the least. Although the original 3rd- to 5th-century shrine is long gone, the 1810 reconstruction does the sumiyoshi-zukuri style justice.
What to eat in Osaka
If you need to learn just one thing about Osaka, know that it’s a gastronomical destination par excellence. Ask anyone in Japan: Osakans take their food quite seriously, enough so, that they invented a Japanese word, kuidaore, that translates roughly to “to eat oneself bankrupt.”
Now, that’s some commitment.
Well, I don’t think you should go that far, scope out some of these must-eat foods in Osaka:
- Takoyaki: These little battered and deep-fried octopus balls are popular all over Asia, but your tastebuds will find some of the world’s best on the streets of Osaka.
- Okonomiyaki: One of my personal favourite Japanese foods, these savoury pancakes fry up a batter based on eggs, flour, grated yam and cabbage, and tossed with a handful of other ingredients like pork, cheese, shrimp, scallops, or squid.
- Kushi-katsu: Delicious skewers of meat & vegetables dipped in a light batter and deep-fried golden brown. The most famous place in town for Kushi-katsu is Kushikatsu Daruma in Shinsekai, whose cranky chef mascot is easy to pick out while wandering the area.
Where to stay in Osaka
Given the city’s immense size, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that choosing where to stay in Osaka can be a challenge
Fortunately for travellers, there’s a few key areas of Osaka that are perfectly located to take on the city fully.
- Dotonbori: The central entertainment area where the modern buzz of Osaka hits its high note. In and around the canal, there are plenty of great options at nearly every price range.
- Namba: The main downtown district around Namba Station that contains the Dotonbori area. For scooting around the city to take it all its top attractions, this is the best choice overall.
- Umeda: Located around Umeda Station, this area is home to some of the best luxury hotels in Osaka. For sightseeing within the city, Umeda’s not quite as convenient as Namba. For day-trippers, however, the closer proximity to Osaka Station and Shin-Osaka Station slots it in among the best options.
Transportation in Osaka
By air: Osaka is served by Kansai International Airport (KIX) located on a man-made island just off the coast on Osaka Bay. Several major Japanese & international airlines fly into KIX including All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines, Jetstar Japan, Peach, China Eastern, and China Southern.
By train: For other Japanese destinations, reaching Osaka by train is a cinch. Some sample fares and times include Tokyo (155 minutes; ¥13,620), Nara (39 minutes; ¥560), Kyoto (12 minutes; 1420 yen), and Hiroshima (85 minutes; ¥9,710).
Despite its size, getting around Osaka isn’t overly difficult. For travellers, the subway system is generally the most convenient way. Most of the top attractions in Osaka are located within close walking distance of the metro stations, meaning you’ll never have far to go.
Most convenient for getting around is to pay for your fares with prepaid card like the local Icoca card. If you’re coming from Tokyo, the Suica or Pasmo cards will also do the trick. Subway fares vary by distance with the regular adult fares falling somewhere between ¥180 and ¥370.