The Best Things to Do in Kyoto
Listed as one of the best places to travel in 2023, Kyoto is an incredible travel destination overflowing with culture and history. Once the capital of Japan, Kyoto has a large collection of imperial palaces, Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines. Many of these tourist attractions have become UNESCO World Heritage Sites so you can be certain of their importance and beauty. However, Kyoto has over 2,000 temples and shrines! That’s why I created a list of the best things to do in Kyoto so you can be 100% sure what to do and where to go while you visit.
Before we get into the list, allow me to give you a Kyoto travel tip. First off, if there is an attraction you really want to see, go early. Many of the sites that I recommend will be flooded with tourists during the day. To get some peace, quiet, and quality photos, head out during the morning.
1. The Higashiyama District
A great place to start your day in Kyoto is Higashiyama. The neighborhood is a beautifully preserved historic district with traditional homes, shops, and tea houses. Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka are the most important streets in the area. Thanks to the streets’ traditional Japanese architecture, you can see what feudal Japan might have looked like. You also have the opportunity to try a kaiseki dinner, which features multicourse meals and traditional Japanese foods.
Most of all the Higashiyama District is an iconic location for photography. The Yasaka Pagoda, which towers over the area, is one of the most photographed locations in Kyoto. At all hours of the day, you’ll see tourists lining up to take photos. And whether at morning or night, the photos are always beautiful.
One of the best things to do in Kyoto is visit Kiyomizu-dera. The hillside complex is actually the most visited temple in the city, and for good reason too! Thanks to its location, the temple offers incredible views of the city and valley below. It’s impossible to get a bad photo here.
Sweeping vistas aside, Kiyomizu-dera boasts an assortment of amazing pagodas, shrines, statues, and other architectural wonders. Also, the temple was built in honor of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. So take a moment to appreciate the spiritual significance or the architectural prowess of Japan’s builders.
I should also mention that Kiyomizu-dera is a short walk from the Yasaka Pagoda, Sannenzaka, and Ninenzaka. That makes it a logical next step from the Higashiyama District if you’re considering an itinerary.
3. Fushimi Inari-taisha
Fushimi Inari-taisha is a Shinto shrine constructed in dedication to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Although Fushimi Inari-taisha has a main hall where you can make offerings, tourists flock to this location specifically to see the multitude of torii gates.
These torii gates wrap around Mt. Inariyama on a network of charming, hiking trails. All in all, the shrine compound has over 10,000 torii gates! Some are placed so close together that they form moody, vermillion tunnels lit by the slanted beams of sunlight poking through. I recommend you follow these gates to the top of the mountain. You’ll find fewer tourists up there, allowing you to get better photos of the gates.
4. Golden Pavilion
Originally built in 1397, the Kinkakuji Temple was the retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. The temple was completely covered in gold leaf, thus earning it the name the Golden Pavilion. Although there were other buildings in the retirement complex, the Golden Pavilion is the only one that remains. And in fact, the temple itself has been destroyed numerous times throughout history. The current incarnation was built in 1955.
The Golden Pavilion has three floors, each showcasing a different style of architecture. It sits on a picturesque pond and is surrounded by well-kept gardens. If you follow the gardens, you’ll eventually reach the Sekkatei Teahouse. After a long day of sightseeing, a break for tea isn’t such a bad idea.
5. Sanjusangendo Temple
At 120 meters in length, Sanjusangendo Temple is Japan’s longest wooden structure. The temple is famous for its 1,001 wooden statues of Kannon. Each statue is said to have 1,000 arms and 11 heads to better see the sufferings of mankind. However, supposedly, there are 25 planes of existence. So on our plane you can only see 42 arms on each statue. Subtract the 2 normal arms from each statue, multiply by 25, and you get 1,000.
The spiritual significance of Sanjusangendo Temple cannot be ignored. Regardless, I think the architecture is something everyone can appreciate and enjoy. So if you’re thinking about which of the 2,000 temples and shrines to visit, I recommend putting Sanjusangendo on your list.
Located in Western Kyoto on the Oi River, Arashiyama is a small town with several attractions like the Tenryu-ji Temple and Kameyama-koen Park. The former is one of Kyoto’s 14 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the latter is an intriguing park with monkeys running about. But the main attraction is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
Weaving around the base of Mt. Arashiyama, the bamboo grove transports you to another world. I’ve visited countless forests, but never have I seen one like this. The towering stalks of bamboo surround you, making you feel so small. It’s truly a unique experience.
Another one of the best things to do in Kyoto is take a stroll through Gion. Gion is a traditional entertainment district with everything from upscale restaurants to quaint cafes to izakayas and sake bars. But most of all the neighborhood is known for its geishas.
A geisha, or geiko as they are called in Kyoto, is a professional entertainer with distinctive white makeup that tends to guests at dinners, banquets, and other events. You can see quite a number of them walking around or working in Gion.
8. Nijo Castle
Nijo Castle was built in 1603 as a residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period. The castle served as an imperial palace for a short time after the Tokguawa Shogunate ended in 1867. But it soon passed into the hands of the city and has since been preserved as a historic site.
Nijo Castle is divided into three parts. The Ninomaru Palace is the main attraction. It’s where the shogun lived and worked while in Kyoto. Since the palace was designed for residence and not defense, so-called “nightingale floors” were installed. These special floors squeak when stepped on, so no assassins could sneak up on the shogun.
In addition to squeaky floors and palace architecture, Nijo Castle has several gardens and green spaces. You will definitely enjoy your time walking around the tree-lined paths, and that is especially true in spring. On castle grounds, there is an orchard with several varieties of cherry trees. To see the colorful blossoms, visit around late March or early April.
9. Silver Pavilion
I talked about the Golden Pavilion, so I should also mention the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji Temple). Although not actually covered in silver, the temple is still a fabulous example of Japanese architecture. The Silver Pavilion was modeled after the Golden Pavilion, making it a less crowded and equally wonderful alternative.
Despite the Golden Pavilion’s influence, the Silver Pavilion has a lot of unique features to separate itself. Aside from numerous temple buildings, Ginkakuji also has a moss garden and dry sand garden. All of it is enjoyed by walking along a circular route.
As a little fun fact, I should mention that the Silver Pavilion is one of the only structures in Kyoto that hasn’t been destroyed by the city’s long history of fires, earthquakes, and wars. So you are able to witness authentic buildings straight from 1482.
10. Nishiki Market
Nishiki Market’s history goes back 400 years. So if you’re looking for food, the Nishiki Market is definitely one of the best things to do in Kyoto. Here you’ll find over 100 open-fronted shops selling everything from fresh seafood to souvenirs to tasty, Japanese snacks. Walk along the twisting streets until you stumble upon something you like. Whether you want a quick bite or a heartier meal, you’ll get it here.
Things to Do Outside of Kyoto
There are definitely enough things to do in Kyoto to keep you busy and satisfied. But if you’re looking for an adventure elsewhere, let me give you some pointers. For one, Osaka and Nara are both just a stone’s throw away from Kyoto. You can easily reach them for a number of cultural and culinary delights. For another, you can’t travel to Japan without visiting the incredible capital city of Tokyo or the lively metropolis of Yokohama. So make sure to add them to your list.