Looking for the best things to do in Kyoto? You’re in good hands.
More so than any other city we’ve visited in our 5+ years of travel, Kyoto has left an impression so deep we seem unable to shake it.
We took our first trip to Kyoto in the fall of 2019 and have recently returned (as soon as tourists were allowed to visit post-pandemic).
Our first visit was timed for peak fall color (here’s a roundup of the best spots to see fall foliage in Kyoto) so our second trip was strategically timed during low tourist season.
We wanted to see all the city had to offer at a slower pace (and with less crowds).
To that end, this list of the best things to do in Kyoto is based on a cumulative 4 weeks spent exploring Kyoto. And yes, I’m counting down the minutes until I return.
With that said, let’s jump right in!
Best Things to Do in Kyoto | Visiting Kyoto
Before we dive in, for those you asking: We stayed at this EXCELLENT (and affordable) hotel while visiting Kyoto. Can’t recommend it highly enough!
Walk the Gion District
Kyoto’s unequivocal darling in the Gion District. Oozing charm from every historic corner filled to the brim with quaint wooden homes and narrow streets, this is known as the geisha district.
I’d argue that when most folks think of visiting Kyoto, this area is the picture that comes to mind. The star of the show is the Hōkan-ji Temple (colloquially known as Yasaka Pagoda), which swells with tourists most hours of the day.
If you want some semblance of solitude, I suggest arriving before sunrise (or well past midnight, if you’re jet-lagged).
Exploring the area and getting aimlessly lost on the meandering streets is one of the best things to do in Kyoto. Pop into any store that piques your curiosity (for souvenirs or interesting and unique trinkets for yourself).
Interesting fact to know before visiting Kyoto
During World War II Americans created two atomic bombs. By the time the two bomb were completed, Germany had surrendered but Japan remained involved.
As such, a decision was made that the atomic bombs would be used in Japan (heartbreaking). From there, it became a question of selecting two cities.
Kyoto was on the list of suggestions but was promptly removed from the list by the Secretary of War (Henry Stimson) because he had honeymooned in the city and determined it too beautiful to destroy.
Some helpful advice: A word on geishas
Geishas go through rigorous training for many (many) years and devote themselves to a lifetime of skilled entertainment at classy events. You may see one walking to (or from an event) while visiting Kyoto.
There’s no guarantee that you’ll see a geisha (and that’s alright!) but it you do, please give them space. Visitors have taken a strange approach to photographing them and it borderlines harassment (in my opinion) when I see so many people circling behind one for photos.
I’ve been fascinated with the lives of Geishas since reading this beautiful book in high school, so I completely understand the fascination. But always remember to be respectful, you represent the country you’re visiting from and that’s an honor.
Experience Fushimi Inari Shrine
No list of the best things to do in Kyoto is complete without mentioning the breathtaking Fushimi Inari Shrine. Heck, you’ve probably seen photos of this area already.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is considered the most important shrine (out of thousands in Japan) dedicated to the Shinto god of rice, Inari.
The draw is the sea of vermilion torii gates that create a tunnel effect, taking visitors from the healthy forest to the summit of the sacred Mount Inari.
If you’re looking for adventurous things to do in Kyoto, I encourage you to walk the entire loop (which clocks in at 3 miles and takes 2-3 hours).
If you’re pressed for time (hard to blame you — there’s a lot to see while visiting Kyoto), spend 1-2 hours enjoying the temple, embark on a short walk through the torri gates and call it a day.
Warrants mention: While shrines are supposed to be inherently peaceful, Fushimi Inari Shrine is anything but. This is one of the most popular things to do in Kyoto (for good reason) so expect crowds most hours at the day.
We visited at sunrise and managed to avoid the crowds, but it started to get very busy as we left.
Visit Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Kyoto has no shortage of breathtaking temples, but the one that stole the cake (for us) was Kiyomizu-dera Temple. Founded in 778 AD, the prime location atop a hill offers visitors unparalleled panoramic views of the stunning city below.
The name Kiyomizu-dera translates to “pure water temple.” Fitting, considering it was built on Otawa Waterfall. Today, the waterfall is divided into three streams and visitors may use cups to drink from the water.
Each stream provides a unique benefit – longevity in life, success in school and a fortunate love life. But be mindful!
Drinking from all three is considered greedy. And no, you can’t bring your water bottle in hopes of stocking up on extra luck in the love department.
You’ll enter the temple through a main hall, make sure to admire the building because it’s an architectural feat. The entire hall was built without nails!
Spend your time slowly walking through the beautiful temple (there’s so many paths to choose from), this is one of the most interesting things to do in Kyoto.
- Kiyomizu-dera is open daily 6am to 6pm
- Admission: 400 yen ($3.65) per adult
- Address: 294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0862, Japan
Eat your weight through Pontocho Alley
Wandering through Pontocho Alley was one of the highlights of our trip, and I think it’s one of the best things to do in Kyoto at night.
This is a narrow alley packed with quaint restaurants (that seat less than 10 people) and old-school bars that comes alive in the evening hours. Some of the restaurants are high end and traditional, while others cater to those on a budget.
The shops are beautiful (completely traditional Japanese buildings) by design. Modern buildings are not allowed in the area (neither are cars) to keep this area as authentic as possible (some of the restaurants don’t offer English menus).
If you’re up for a little adventure, I suggest doing a bit of research ahead of time (we used Google Maps) to find a bar or restaurant that catches your interest. Then, embark on finding it!
You’ll pass lively restaurants en route, peek in through the small windows and watch life unfold inside.
Visiting Pontocho Alley is one of the best things to do in Kyoto for foodies, or those that love traditional Japanese architecture and culture.
Let’s talk about the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Those looking for the best things to do in Kyoto won’t be surprised to see Arashiyama Bamboo Grove on the list.
Touristy? Yes. Crowded? Like you wouldn’t believe. Worth it? Hard to say — let me give you some info so that you can decide for yourself.
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is a colossal grove of bamboo that became uber famous thanks to Instagram. Seems like everyone wants to get a photo with this healthy bamboo grove (us included!).
We swung by while visiting Kyoto and arrived right at sunrise.
Because of our early morning wake-up call (we got up around 4am to get ready), we hardly ran into anyone else when we arrived. We admired the bamboo and took some photos, but within 20-30 minutes of our arrival, the place was swarming with visitors.
It got so busy so fast! Makes sense though, considering there’s only one main path through the grove.
If you don’t get to the grove right at sunrise, expect to bump elbows with hordes of tourists. At peak times, it seems impossible to get through.
Do with this information what you will, but here’s my take. Visiting the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is one of the most unique things to do in Kyoto.
However, unless you’re willing to get there right at sunrise, I don’t think the experience will be enjoyable (and would probably skip because the intense crowds will make it hard to enjoy the area).
Some advice: Trying to escape the crowds while visiting Kyoto?
There’s a high concentration of great things to do in the Arashiyama district. From the Bamboo forest to a plethora of stunning temples, you’ll be spoiled for choice.
The biggest challenge is keeping your cool amidst busy crowds. If you find yourself a bit overwhelmed by hordes of people, I suggest heading toward the Hozugawa River.
On a whim, we decided to stroll down the Hozugawa River to work up an appetite for lunch and found ourselves pleasantly surprise.
We didn’t run into many folks during our stroll, which leads me to assume this is not one of the most popular things to do in Kyoto (oddly enough).
Regardless, it was a very relaxing way to spend the afternoon. We watched various boats and gondolas roll by, which was a nice change of pace.
Next time around, we plan to have a little picnic here. We also got lucky with the fall color (imagine these trees at peak color!) while we were visiting Kyoto.
Visit the Gardens at Tenryu-ji Temple
One of the most popular attractions in Kyoto, I’m tempted to say that Tenryu-ji Temple is a sight for sore eyes. But, in a city as beautiful as Kyoto, sore eyes are not easy to come by.
Located a stone’s thrown from the super-popular Arashiyama bamboo grove, Tenryu-ji is a peaceful Zen temple best known for its stunning gardens.
Built in 1339 (imagine!), Tenryu-ji is considered the most important temple in the Arashiyama district (it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
The buildings have been lost to fires over the years and were subsequently rebuilt. Most of the current buildings date back to the Meiji Period (1868-1912).
However, while the buildings fell victim to fires, the gardens remained largely unscathed. Flanked by the arresting Arashiyama mountains, the garden was thoughtfully curated around a central pond peppered with stunning pine trees (ablaze with breathtaking colors in the fall).
The striking gardens alone make visiting Tenryu-ji Temple one of the best things to do in Kyoto, you’ll remember this gem for years to come.
Stroll down Shirakawa Dori
We came across Shirakawa dori while en route to saké tasting one evening. This picture-perfect street sits right along the river, strolling the peaceful riverwalk is one of the most romantic things to do in Kyoto.
Maybe grab dinner at one of the nice restaurants along the river and then pop into any store that catches your eye.
Shop at the Nishiki Market
Nishiki Market may be 400+ years old, but she doesn’t look a day over 20. Just kidding.
Filled to the brim with cheerful vendors selling delicious food and interesting stuff (the pottery is worth a shout-out), this is the place to be if you’re looking for interesting food to try while visiting Kyoto.
The entire market stretches five blocks and encompasses around 100+ vendors. Expect to find tons of food-related shops that sell cookware, knives, fresh seafood, sweets and produce.
Swing by Koe Donuts while Visiting the Nishiki Market
We walked past this place while exploring the market and promplty popped in. Tempted by the delicious smells and beautiful donuts, we ordered three and did a little taste test. All the flavors ended up being great, very delicious donuts! A perfect mid-day pick me up.
Order Udon from Marugame Noodles
We discovered Marugame Noodles innocently enough. My husband is a noodle/pasta fanatic (seriously, he has pasta practically every night) so when we passed by Marugame Noodles it caught his eye.
Seeing the place filled with locals, we popped in and gave it a go — completely unprepared for the delicious (and super affordable) meal we were about to have.
I mean, just writing about this place is making my mouth water. We enjoyed the udon here so much (and the tempura) that we returned 3 times while visiting Kyoto for the first time.
This is definitely one of the best things to do in Kyoto for foodies.
P.S. If you’re ever visiting Honolulu, Oahu, you may be surprised to learn that Marugame Noodles has a location in Honolulu! We eat there whenever we visit Oahu.
Visit the Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple
Visiting Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple is a great thing to do for anyone eager to escape the crowds for a bit. Located further away from the main touristy areas in Arashiyama, this temple doesn’t get as many visitors but is definitely worth a detour.
Home to a interesting collection of more than 1,200 statues depicting Buddha’s disciples, the temple is tucked into the dreamy hillside of western Arashiyama.
Since the temple is further removed, I suggest taking a taxi over (to spare your legs and save time).
Enjoy a traditional tea ceremony while visiting Kyoto
While visiting Kyoto, I was keen to partake in a traditional tea ceremony. I’m a big fan of matcha (green tea), so I wanted to learn more about the history and proper preparation.
Preparing matcha in the traditional fashion is a laborious affair. It’s common, in Japanese culture, to slow down the time and enjoy the preparation properly.
However, traditional tea ceremonies can last hours, so many places offer informal, shorter tea ceremonies for visitors.
This is a unique and educational experience, making it one of the best things to do in Kyoto for those looking for an authentic experience.
We signed up for a tea ceremony in the Gion district and buckled in for an educational hour. Tucking into a quiet space and getting a little break from the bustle of the city.
See the famous Gold Temple (Kinkakuji Temple)
Kinkakuji Temple is better known (by Americans) as the Golden Pavillion. Aptly named, the top two floors of the pavilion are actually covered in gold leaf and sits on a peaceful pond.
Some folks consider this over temple a bit over-hyped, but honestly — how often do you get the chance to see an entire building painted gold? As such, I’d argue that seeing this masterpiece is one of the best things to do in Kyoto.
Built originally in 1398 as a retirement villa for a shogun, the pavilion became a Zen temple in 1408. Brace for crowds, knowing that Kinkakuji Temple is popular for a reason.
You can learn more about this popular Kyoto attraction by reading this helpful article.
Enjoy the Hojo rock garden at Nanzen-Ji Temple
Dating back to the 13th century, Nanzen-Ji Temple is considered one of the most important Zen temples in Japan. The grounds include several sub-temples — the most famous being Hojo rock garden.
First built as a retirement villa for the Emperor Kameyama, the building was later converted in a temple but most of the buildings were destroyed during the civil wars.
Spend some time admiring the impressive architecture before meandering the paths in search of solitude at the various gardens.
My favorite garden was the Hojo (rock garden), which was uncrowded during our visit. I was completely taken aback by the beauty of the garden and the solitude we were able to find.
Highly recommend finding your own slice of peaceful respite was visiting the Nanzen-Ji Temple.
Visiting Kyoto & Tokyo (Quick Video from Our Recent Trip)
Where to eat while visiting Kyoto:
- Pontocho Alley
- Gion K
- Kichi Kichi
- Kyoto Kitcho
- Kagizen Yoshifusa
- Gion Takama
- Yakiniku Hiro
Visiting Kyoto? Learn the difference between temples and shrines
Last but not least, I’d like to share the difference between temples and shrines for anyone planning to visit Kyoto.
In hopes of not oversimplifying, temples are Buddhist and shrines are Shinto. In our experience, most temples and shrines are free and those that charge only ask a nominal fee ($3-$5 per person).
I’m sure it goes without saying, but make sure to dress conservatively/appropriately when visiting temples and shrines. These are considered sacred places and respect is paramount.
Temples have large incense burners and house Buddhist statues. Monks live and train at temples, so it’s not uncommon to see them wandering the grounds, especially early in the morning.
Did you know that Buddhism did not originate in Japan? It was introduced from China and India and is now an integral part of the Japanese culture.
Shrines welcome visitors with sacred torii gates. Unlike Buddhism, Shintoism originated in ancient Japan and shares the belief that there are thousands of different gods in the world.
Shrines are exceptionally sacred because it is believed that Japanese gods live within the objects housed in shrines. As such, some shrines will post signs prohibiting photography inside. It’s vital to abide by these rules.
List of best things to Do in Kyoto, Japan (Post Overview)
In sum, here’s a list of the best things to do in Kyoto during your first visit.
- Walk the Gion District
- Experience Fushimi Inari Shrine
- Visit Kiyomizu-dera Temple
- Shop at the Nishiki Market
- Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
- Visit the Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple
- Enjoy a traditional tea ceremony
- Stroll down Shirakawa Dori
- Visit the gardens at Tenryu-ji Temple
- Order Udon from Marugame Noodles
- See the famous Gold Temple (Kinkakuji Temple)
- Enjoy the Hojo rock garden at Nanzen-Ji Temple
- Trying to escape the crowds while visiting Kyoto? Head to the Hozugawa River
Visiting Kyoto, Kyoto Bucket List Map
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Planning on visiting Kyoto soon? Don’t hesitate to reach out with questions, I’m here to help!