Kyoto, once the imperial capital of Japan, is a city steeped in history, culture, and natural beauty. For those considering things to do in Kyoto, exploring the historic Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), a Zen Buddhist temple covered in gold leaf, and visiting the Fushimi Inari Shrine, famous for its thousands of vermillion torii gates, are top activities.
The city’s Arashiyama Bamboo Grove offers a mesmerizing walk through towering bamboo stalks, creating a surreal and tranquil atmosphere. Nearby, the Gion district, known for its traditional wooden machiya houses, provides a glimpse into Kyoto’s past and is a great place to spot a geisha or maiko in their exquisite kimonos.
Beyond its historical and cultural attractions, Kyoto is also celebrated for its seasonal beauty, with cherry blossoms in spring and vibrant autumn foliage creating a picturesque setting. For those seeking the best places to visit in Japan, Kyoto’s blend of ancient traditions, stunning landscapes, and cultural richness makes it a captivating destination.
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Attractions & Things to Do in Kyoto, Japan
1. Fushimi Inari Taisha
Fushimi Inari Taisha is one of Kyoto’s most iconic shrines, renowned for its thousands of vermillion torii gates that create a network of trails leading into the wooded forest of Mount Inari. The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice, and foxes are thought to be the messengers, with many fox statues found throughout the shrine grounds.
Travel Tip: Start your visit early in the morning to avoid the crowds and experience the mystical atmosphere of the torii gate pathways in tranquility.
2. Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion, is a Zen Buddhist temple that is famous for its stunning golden exterior, beautifully reflected in the mirror pond in front of it. The temple is surrounded by meticulously maintained gardens, providing a picturesque setting.
Travel Tip: Visit during different seasons to see how the surrounding landscape changes, especially in autumn when the fall foliage provides a stunning contrast to the golden pavilion.
3. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is one of Kyoto’s most photographed sights, known for its towering bamboo stalks that create a serene and otherworldly atmosphere. Visitors can walk through the grove and enjoy the unique experience of being surrounded by these giant grasses.
Travel Tip: Continue your walk to the nearby Tenryu-ji Temple, a World Heritage Site, and enjoy its beautiful gardens.
4. Gion District
Gion is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, filled with traditional wooden machiya houses. Visitors can explore its atmospheric streets, visit teahouses, and perhaps catch a glimpse of a geiko or maiko in their exquisite kimonos.
Travel Tip: Be respectful when taking photos, especially of geikos and maikos, and consider joining a guided tour to learn more about Gion’s history and geisha culture.
5. Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Kiyomizu-dera is a historic temple that is part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage site. The temple is famous for its wooden stage that offers impressive views of the surrounding trees and the city of Kyoto.
Travel Tip: Visit in the evening during special night openings in spring and fall when the temple and its surroundings are illuminated.
6. Nijo Castle
Nijo Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its beautiful architecture, including the Ninomaru Palace, and its well-preserved interiors featuring elaborate screen paintings. The castle grounds also include beautiful gardens and a moat.
Travel Tip: Don’t miss the “nightingale floors” in the Ninomaru Palace, which chirp when walked upon as a security measure against intruders.
7. Philosopher’s Path
The Philosopher’s Path is a scenic walk along a canal lined with hundreds of cherry trees. It is especially popular in early April during the cherry blossom season but offers a tranquil and picturesque walk year-round.
Travel Tip: Take your time exploring the small shops, cafes, and temples along the path, and consider visiting the nearby Nanzen-ji Temple.
8. Kyoto Imperial Palace
The Kyoto Imperial Palace used to be the residence of Japan’s Imperial family until the capital was moved to Tokyo in 1868. Today, visitors can explore the palace grounds and gardens, and learn about the history of the Japanese monarchy.
Travel Tip: Access to the palace buildings is permitted only during guided tours, which are free but require advance registration.
9. Kyoto Tower
Kyoto Tower is Kyoto’s tallest building and offers a panoramic view of the city from its observation deck. On clear days, visitors can even see as far as Osaka.
Travel Tip: Visit the tower at night to see Kyoto’s cityscape lit up, creating a different but equally stunning view compared to daytime.
10. Ryoan-ji Temple
Ryoan-ji Temple is famous for its Zen rock garden, consisting of 15 rocks meticulously placed among white gravel that is raked every day. The garden’s design encourages contemplation and meditation.
Travel Tip: Visit early in the morning or later in the afternoon when the temple is less crowded, allowing for a more peaceful experience.
11. Sanjusangen-do Temple
Sanjusangen-do is renowned for its impressive long wooden hall housing 1,001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. The statues are an incredible sight, each one unique and intricately carved.
Travel Tip: Take your time to observe the details of the statues and the architecture, but remember that photography inside the temple is not allowed.
12. Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion)
Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Pavilion, is a Zen temple set amidst beautiful gardens, including a unique dry sand garden known as the “Sea of Silver Sand.” The temple itself is a model of simplicity and restraint, standing in contrast to the ostentatious Kinkaku-ji.
Travel Tip: Visit during late afternoon when the setting sun casts a warm glow on the temple and the surrounding gardens.
13. Iwatayama Monkey Park
Located in the Arashiyama district, the Iwatayama Monkey Park is home to a troop of over 100 Japanese macaque monkeys. Visitors can interact with the monkeys and enjoy stunning views of Kyoto from the park.
Travel Tip: Bring some change to buy food for the monkeys at the feeding site, and remember to follow the staff’s instructions for interacting safely with the animals.
14. Heian Shrine
Heian Shrine is a Shinto shrine known for its large torii gate and stunning gardens, which are particularly famous for their weeping cherry trees that bloom spectacularly in spring. The shrine’s architecture is a partial replica of the original Imperial Palace from the Heian Period.
Travel Tip: The shrine hosts several festivals throughout the year, so check the calendar before your visit for a chance to experience a traditional Shinto festival.
15. Eikando Temple
Eikando, officially known as Zenrinji Temple, is famous for its autumn colors and the statue of the Amida Buddha, which is unique because it turns its head sideways. The temple grounds are extensive and offer various buildings and a pond to explore.
Travel Tip: Visit in November during the peak of the autumn leaf season when the temple is illuminated at night, creating a magical atmosphere.
16. To-ji Temple
To-ji Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its five-story pagoda, which is the tallest wooden tower in Japan. The temple also hosts a popular monthly flea market where visitors can shop for antiques, crafts, and food.
Travel Tip: Time your visit to coincide with the monthly market (held on the 21st of each month) for a unique shopping experience.
17. Yasaka Shrine
Yasaka Shrine, also known as Gion Shrine, is located in the Gion District and is famous for hosting the Gion Matsuri, one of Japan’s most famous festivals. The shrine is lively and colorful, and it’s free to visit at any time of the day or night.
Travel Tip: Visit in the evening when the lanterns are lit for a different and charming atmosphere.
18. Nishiki Market
Nishiki Market is a bustling marketplace in downtown Kyoto, known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen,” offering a wide variety of food-related goods and local specialties. Visitors can sample street food, pick up unique souvenirs, and observe the locals going about their daily shopping.
Travel Tip: Go with an appetite and be adventurous, trying some of the unique local foods available at the market.
19. Kyoto International Manga Museum
The Kyoto International Manga Museum offers a unique experience for manga enthusiasts, with walls lined with thousands of manga from around the world that visitors can sit and read at their leisure. The museum also provides insight into the history of manga and its impact on culture.
Travel Tip: Even if you don’t read Japanese, the museum is a fascinating visit, and there are plenty of manga available in other languages.
20. Kodai-ji Temple
Kodai-ji is a Zen temple located in the Higashiyama District, known for its beautiful gardens, including a bamboo grove, and impressive buildings. The temple also offers a variety of cultural experiences, such as tea ceremonies and Zen meditation sessions.
Travel Tip: Visit during one of the temple’s evening illumination events in spring or fall, when the gardens are beautifully lit up.
FAQ About Things to Do in Kyoto, Japan
What are the must-visit temples in Kyoto?
Kyoto is famous for its historic temples. Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion), Fushimi Inari-taisha, and Kiyomizu-dera are some of the most iconic and must-visit temples in the city.
Can I experience a traditional tea ceremony in Kyoto?
Yes, Kyoto is the heart of Japan’s traditional tea culture. You can participate in a tea ceremony in various places such as the Camellia Tea Ceremony or En Tea House.
Is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove worth visiting?
Definitely. The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is one of Kyoto’s top sights, offering a magical and otherworldly walking experience.
What is a unique culinary experience I should try in Kyoto?
In Kyoto, you should try kaiseki dining, which is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner, known for its refined presentation and seasonal ingredients.
Where can I see geisha in Kyoto?
Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, is the best place to see geisha. You may spot them on their way to performances, especially in the early evening.
Are there any cherry blossom spots in Kyoto?
Maruyama Park and the Philosopher’s Path are among the best spots to view cherry blossoms in Kyoto, especially during the sakura season in early April.
What historical sites should I not miss in Kyoto?
Don’t miss the Nijo Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the historic district of Higashiyama, which is home to many preserved streets and traditional shops.
Are there cultural festivals in Kyoto I can attend?
Kyoto is famous for its festivals, such as the Gion Matsuri in July, which is one of Japan’s most famous festivals, featuring processions of floats and traditional garb.