With Kyoto being the heart of traditional Japan, you’ll find many beautifully designed gardens, wooden houses, temples, and other worthwhile attractions there. This makes it easy to spend a week exploring the city and barely scratch the surface. So how do you choose which places to visit?
To help you with that, I describe the 12 top things to do below. Once read you should have very good idea about the kind of things you can do in the city, which should be a solid starting point for creating your itinerary.
Quick Section Navigation
Organized Things To Do
These attractions are organised by third parties, and will either let you immerse yourself in Japanese culture, or give you experiences unique to this part of Japan.
Rent a Kimono While Exploring Kyoto
Kimono rentals are rather popular amongst visitors in Kyoto, and they add a bit of fun to your strolls along the street. You can choose a basic kimono-only package, or have your hair professionally styled as well.
Outfits are customisable, with a wide variety of kimono and yukata to choose from, and obi belts to go with them. You can even get a photoshoot done in your kimono, which makes for a great souvenir 🙂
Head Out to the City of Nara
Nara City is a popular day trip for visitors to Kyoto. It’s just under an hour’s drive away from Kyoto. Other than the Todaiji Temple and Kasuga Shrine, Nara’s most famous thing to do is probably visting the Deer Park…
In Nara’s Deer Park you get to see over 1,000 tame deer roam freely. There’s deer food for sale there, so do get some and make some ‘deer’ new friends 🙂
Catch a Maiko Performance over Dinner
A maiko is a geisha apprentice, trained in the arts of music, dance and conversation.
Over a traditional Japanese meal, you’ll be treated to a two-hour performance by a maiko. It’s also your chance to chat with them, and take a photo to immortalize the meeting.
Join a Japanese Tea Ceremony with a Tea Master
Learn the art of preparing and serving tea in a machiya (a traditional wooden house) with a private tea ceremony. You’ll witness the methodical process that goes into preparing matcha tea, and even receive lessons on sitting posture and wearing kimonos as well.
Take a Ride on the Sagano Romantic Train
The Sagano Romantic Train is a great way to take in the scenery of Japan along the journey from Osaka (where most international visitors will land) to Kyoto.
The 25 minute ride has different views during different seasons. Depending on when you go, you can expect cherry blossom trees blooming in spring, fiery red maple trees in autumn, green forests in summer, or snowy winter wonderlands.
Learn to Make Sushi
Under the guidance of a professional chef, you can now learn to make sushi and impress friends and family back home. All the basics like preparing the rice and learning the hand techniques required to roll the sushi will be covered. But the best part is of course, eating your own work at the end 🙂
DIY Things To Do
Taking in Kyoto’s best doesn’t have to break the bank. Here are a few things to do that can be lots of fun, yet don’t cost a thing.
Stroll Down Philosopher’s Path
The Philosopher’s Path (Tetsugaku-no-Michi) is a stone path following a canal running through the Higashiyama district, lined with cherry trees. It’s a pleasant walk any time of the year, but is especially popular during early April when the trees burst into bloom.
Aside from being popular as a hanami (cherry blossom viewing) spot in spring, you can find various restaurants, cafes, boutiques along the path as well. A few smaller shrines and temples are also a short walk away.
Explore Kyoto’s Kitchen: Nishiki Market
Nishiki Market is a narrow shopping street lined with shops and restaurants. It has centuries of history, and specializes in everything food-related – from fresh seafood and produce, to cookware. There, you can sample small bites and skewers, or stock up on Kyoto specialties.
Tip: Also see Kyoto’s 12 Best Must-Eat Restaurants & Sushi Places for many more food options beyond Nishiki.
Go on a Geisha Hunt in Gion
If you’re lucky, you may be able to get a glimpse of the elusive geishas and maikos on the streets of Kyoto!
Head to the district of Gion around dusk, when geishas and maikos head out to tea houses for their appointments. Keep an eye out for black, vintage style taxis as you might spot a geisha leaving from a banquet, and of course, always have your cameras ready. Good luck!
Attractions To Visit
These are points of interest that you can see on your own, without booking via any third parties. They cover some of Kyoto’s most famous attractions.
Go Temple Hopping Around Kyoto
A tour of Kyoto’s top 10 temples by Rachael from Small Girl In Big Japan
Choosing from over 1600 temples to visit on a short trip can be daunting, so below are 3 must-sees to start off with:
The “Golden Pavilion” is one of Kyoto’s most iconic attractions, and is best enjoyed just after opening or before closing, when the crowds aren’t as big.
Probably Japan’s most famous zen garden, where you can marvel at rock clusters that seem to float on a neatly raked sea of gravel.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple offers sweeping views from a huge wooden veranda. Cherry blossom season is the best time to visit, since there are night time light-ups providing a spectacularly different view of the temple.
For more temple ideas see 15 of the Best Temples in Kyoto.
Take a Walk through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
The most famous thing to do in Arashiyama district is undoubtedly visiting the Bamboo Grove, with winding paths cutting through thousands of gently swaying bamboo stalks. Rent a bicycle and pedal your way through, or take a leisurely walk at your own pace.
Hike Up the Trail at Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi Inari Shrine is most famous for its thousands of bright vermillion torii gates, as seen in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’.
The torii gate covered hiking trail leads to the forest of the sacred Mount Inari, and the hike to the summit and back takes 2-3 hours. However, you’re free to walk as far as you want and turn back as well.
Kyoto may be most known for its many temples, but that’s not all the city has to offer. From casual strolls down cherry blossom-lined paths, to hands-on activities like making sushi, there’s something for everyone looking to experience authentic Japanese culture.
Hope this list helps you get the most out of your trip to Kyoto. Enjoy! 🙂
P.S. If you’re also looking for things to do at night, see The Ultimate Guide To Kyoto’s Nightlife.