Kyoto is an ancient city that’s often described as one of the most beautiful in the world. And after you’ve spent some time there, you’ll understand just how it got that title. There are endless amazing and historic places to visit in Kyoto, amazing food, and an incredible culture to explore. So, no matter how long you’re spending in the city, you won’t be short of things to see and do.
But there’s a downside to all of this beauty. Kyoto can feel like a very foreign city sometimes, and this can make it a little intimidating to visitors. It’s so old that it can be difficult to navigate if you don’t speak Japanese because it grew in a time long before people traveled for fun. If you’re concerned about traveling in Kyoto, you shouldn’t be. With our easy guide, you’ll be able to find all the places you’re most interested in and go home with priceless memories and lots of great photos to put on social media!
Need a place quick? Here’s the best neighbourhood in Kyoto:
Southern Higashiyama is home to many of Kyoto’s most famous and popular tourist destinations. If you haven’t been to Southern Higashiyama, you haven’t been to Kyoto!
- Visit glorious well-known temples like Sanjusangen-do, Kiyomizu-dera, Kennin-ji, and Chion-in.
- Try and spot geishas in Hanami-koji .
- Be wowed by the cherry blossom at Shimbashi (in season).
These are the BEST Places to Visit in Kyoto!
#1 – Kinkakuji Temple
Why it’s so awesome: This temple is one of the most popular landmarks in Kyoto and it’s easy to see why. It’s a golden temple surrounded by gardens that are perfectly designed to invoke serenity and peace. The site was once built as a retirement home for a famous shogun and was made a temple after his death. Get this one on your Kyoto itinerary.
What to do there: This site is amazing at any time of day or year, but if you want to see the sun gleaming off the gold leaf that wraps around this building then go in the early morning. This will also allow you to get there ahead of the crowds because this Kyoto must see gets incredibly busy. The are is also incredibly beautiful in autumn, when you can see the building backlit by fire red trees.
#2 – The Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine – A must visit place to visit in Kyoto on the weekend!
Why it’s so awesome: If you’ve ever seen Memoirs of a Geisha and marveled at the scenes where the characters walked along pathways lined with bright red pillars, then this is where those images were shot. This Kyoto must-visit attraction is the city’s most iconic location and includes thousands of the red torii gates set along trails that wind their way up the mountain.
What to do there: You’ll need most of an afternoon to explore this site. The trails are surrounded by a network of shrines and you’ll get amazing views at key spots up the mountain. Make sure you spend some time at the Yotsutsuji Intersection, where you’ll be able to take some amazing pictures of Kyoto.
#3 – Kiyomizu-dera Temple – A beautiful and scenic place to check out in Kyoto
Why it’s so awesome: This temple is set at the top of a hill and is surrounded by cherry trees, which is why it’s widely considered to be one of the most beautiful sites in the city. It’s also known as a magical temple, where you can find true love or drink from streams symbolizing love, success, or a long life.
What to do there: This is a beautiful, serene spot to spend some time in. When you arrive at the Jishu Shrine, try to walk between two stones with your eyes closed in front of it. This apparently will allow you to find your true love. You should also spend some time at the Otowa Waterfall, which is divided into three streams representing love, success, and longevity. Drink from whichever stream symbolizes your greatest wish and really become a part of the mysticism that surrounds this beautiful site.
#4 – Kyoto Tower
Why it’s so awesome: You may think by now that Kyoto is all temples and shrines, but it’s also a functioning modern city. This building is the tallest in the city and offers incredible views that extend all the way to the next city!
What to do there: Go up the tower at sunset if you want to see the city against the colored sky and make sure you spend some time explore the telescopes and touchscreen at the top of the building. They highlight the best places in Kyoto for tourists, and you may get some new ideas for your trip from them!
Get A Local Kyoto Guide!
We’re sure you agree that our things to do in Kyoto guide is awesome. However, if you really want to get under the skin of Kyoto, then why not get yourself a tailor made itinerary from a local Kyoto guide?! Via Hero can connect you with local Kyoto guides who will custom design a perfect itinerary for you.
#5 – Pontocho – A must-see for foodies!
Why it’s so awesome: Pontocho is a lively alley that’s lined with restaurants that offer a range of Japanese foods from fine dining experiences to snack foods. This range and the quality of the food makes it one of the most popular places to visit in Kyoto for locals and tourists alike.
What to do there: The best restaurants in this area probably won’t have English advertisements, so ignore your guidebook and just explore. Look for a restaurant that smells and good and has lots of locals in it, because that’s where the best food will be. If it’s a hot night, try to choose a restaurant that overlooks the river, as you’ll be able to eat your meal in slightly cooler air.
#6 – Yokai Street – Quite the quirky place in Kyoto!
Why it’s so awesome: Japanese culture is incredibly detailed and unusual, and this small street reveals just how unique it really is. It’s a commercial street that celebrates local folklore, which includes the yokai, strange beings from Japanese legends. Some yokai are good, others bad, and some are inanimate object come to life. These ideas are explored by the business owners in this street, who all have small statues outside of their shops celebrating these stories.
What to do there: This street isn’t a tourist area and the clientele are mostly locals. The statues are just there to acknowledge Japan’s culture and past and to introduce it to curious passers-by. It’s located near the shrine on Imadegawa Dori and each display is different in a nod to the incredible variety in the yokai stories.
#7 – Sagano Bamboo Forest
Why it’s so awesome: This site is located about 30 minutes from Kyoto’s city center and it’s a surprise to see so much nature so close to the city. The wooden paths weaving through huge bamboo stalks are a Kyoto must do and are the perfect place to wander and take in one of nature’s miracles.
What to do there: This site is very popular at the moment, so it often gets crowded with tourists. Fortunately, there are numerous paths through the bamboo, which means that you’ll be able to find a quiet spot to just stand and listen. The sound of the bamboo, the creaking and rustling and twisting of wood, is one of Japan’s most important soundscapes, and you’ll never forget those sounds once you’ve heard them. It’s a strangely meditative sound, which is why this is one of the most unusual things to do in Kyoto.
#8 – Otagi Nenbutsu-ji – One of the most underrated places to see in Kyoto
Why it’s so awesome: This remote Buddhist temple is located on the top of a hill and surrounded by more than 1,000 stone sculptures. It’s an oasis of calm that encourages meditation and deep thought that might not have been there if it weren’t for the work of one man. The temple was destroyed in the 1950s by a typhoon and painstakingly rebuilt by one of its priests with the help of the locals. They also created the carvings that surround the site.
What to do there: Pay close attention to the stone sculptures that surround the temple. They depict Buddha’s disciples and line the path like moss covered guardians. They were created by the priest and the locals, so the small faces are unique and incredibly expressive.
#9 – Nishiki Market – A great place in Kyoto if you love to shop!
Why it’s so awesome: This market has enough shops, stalls, and food options to fill an entire day of your time! That’s why it’s one of the most popular attractions in Kyoto for tourists and locals alike. It’s also a good place to good on hot or rainy days as the entire area is shaded to keep you safe from the elements.
What to do there: Browse the stalls for souvenirs and just take in the action. This is the perfect location for some people watching as you’ll see everything from local families to crowds of tourists. Make sure you bring your appetite with you too, as the stalls offer a range of tasty snacks from fresh seafood to dumplings and yakitori.
#10 – The Philosopher’s Path
Why it’s so awesome: The Philosopher’s path winds its way from the Silver Pavilion to the neighborhood of Nanzenji. It’s a long walk if you go the whole way and designed to encourage meditation and peace. You don’t have to walk the whole way but treading in the footsteps of all those who have come before you is a strangely connective experience that shouldn’t be missed.
What to do there: Start wherever you choose and just walk. This is a beautiful part of Kyoto, so there’s plenty to see along the path. It’s also lined with cafes and restaurants, so when you get hungry or thirsty then stop off for something tasty before resuming your walk.
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#11 – Maruyuma Park – A perfect place to visit in Kyoto if you are on a budget!
Why it’s so awesome: This is one of the most popular parks in the city and it’s a fairly young one as well. Until 1886 it was little more than a weed garden until it was redesigned by Jihai Ogawa, a renowned landscape gardener. The garden is done in a traditional Japanese style with ponds, decorative bridges and statues.
What to do there: If you’re in Kyoto during Japan’s cherry blossom season, then this is the perfect place to see them. It does get fairly crowded at this time of the year as well as noisy, but it’s the perfect place to see this beautiful spectacle. The rest of the year you can relax and have a picnic or explore this beautiful green space. And during festivals, the park is alive with portable food carts that will offer you some of the tastiest snacks you’ve ever tried.
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#12 – Higashiyama District – Easily one of the most fun places to check out in Kyoto
Why it’s so awesome: This district of Kyoto holds all the age and the majesty that you would expect from such an old city. The streets are narrow and lined with wooden buildings and traditional stores that sell all manner of foods and goods. It’s a popular area for tourists and locals alike, but don’t let that stop you from spending an afternoon in this picturesque district.
What to do there: Put aside an afternoon just to wander. The narrow streets are a maze of dark wood buildings that smell of aged wood and incense, and the vibe and the history behind them will excite your imagination. Make sure you stop by the shops, restaurants and cafes that interest you. You’ll find everything from pottery to sweets and traditional crafts, so it’s a great place to pick up a souvenir to take home with you.
#13 – Gion
What to do there: When you’re trying to decide what to do in Kyoto, this is the place to go for inspiration. Gion is home to the famous Geisha bars, close to some of the best temples in the city and contains lots of restaurants and traditional tea houses. There’s always something going on in this area, and you could spend an entire day exploring it and eating amazing foods.
What to do there: Arrive during the day to take full advantage of everything this district has to offer. Have a meal and then wander the streets, looking at the traditional crafts and shops. You’ll be able to pick up some great souvenirs in this area and once it gets dark, you might be able to see some geishas hurrying towards their workplaces in traditional garb with cell phones in hand!
#14 – Shorenin Temple – An unknown (but awesome!) place to see in Kyoto!
Why it’s so awesome: If you want to explore somewhere that’s traditional but not crowded, then this temple is a great choice. Despite being close to the Higashiyama District, this is one of the quietest temples in the city. It’s also a monzeki temple, which means that its head priest was traditionally chosen from Japan’s imperial family.
What to do there: This is a place of peace and tranquillity, and it’s a great place to go when you need to relax and get your energy back. There are also four gardens attached to the temple which are absolutely stunning and well worth exploring.
#15 – Nijo Castle
Why it’s so awesome: You might not think of Japan in connection with castles, but there are a lot of these old structures all over the country. Nijo Castle is one of the best places to visit in Kyoto if you want to explore this past, with its samurai, Shoguns, and flashing swords. The castle has two large moats and there are actually 2 palaces inside the castle itself. The first was owned by the Shoguns and the other by the emperor.
What to do there: The Shogun’s palace is open to the public, so take the time to explore it. The palace has what’s known as nightingale floors, which are deliberately created so that they squeak when you walk on them. This feature was an early alarm system for the Shogun, who was always at risk of attack!
#16 – Kyoto National Museum – A fascinating educational place to visit in Kyoto
Why it’s so awesome: There are four national museums across Japan and the Kyoto National Museum focuses on traditional Japanese art. If you’ve ever wanted to learn about the precise and very unusual artforms that were popular in Japan’s history, then this museum will give you a thorough education. The museum’s special exhibitions are shown in a building from the Meiji period, which adds some historical drama to the collections, while the permanent exhibition is in a modern building built in 2014.
What to do there: The collection in this museum changes constantly as special exhibitions are put on display. So, when you travel to Kyoto, make sure that you look up online to see what’s showing and don’t miss any special displays that pique your interest.
#17 – Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum
Why it’s so awesome: Sake is absolutely iconic in Japan, and you can’t visit Kyoto without tasting some of this traditional alcohol. And the best way to appreciate it is with a visit to this museum, where you’ll be able to see the traditional tools and methods that are used to make some of the many varieties of sake.
What to do there: The museum is open during business hours throughout the year except over the Christmas and New Year’s period. You need to pay a small admission fee to get in, and then you’ll be able to explore the history of this fascinating and historically important beverage. Afterwards, don’t miss out on the free sake tasting, and don’t be surprised if it’s a little stronger than you expected!
#18 – Kyoto International Manga Museum
Why it’s so awesome: This museum serves as a facility for manga research and it also has a massive exhibition space where you can explore an incredibly wide range of different genres. They also hold regular special exhibitions on international manga themes, so make sure you check them out if you’re in Kyoto at the right time.
What to do there: This museum is open every day except Wednesday and there’s an entrance fee. The fee is well worth paying if you’re interested in Manga though, because they have an incredibly wide range of these popular books as well as exhibitions on international manga. So, if you read manga, or if you’re interested in seeing what all the hype’s about, then put aside a couple of hours to explore this museum.
#19 – Kyoto Station – A great place to see in Kyoto if you love architecture
Why it’s so awesome: It might sound funny to hear that you need to see a train station, but Japan always seems to be the exception to the idea that functional places have to be boring and ugly. Kyoto station is amazing. It’s an architectural wonder that’s won several international awards and it’s also one of the biggest buildings in Japan.
What to do there: This station feels like a small world all packed into one area. It has a shopping mall, hotel, movie theater and department store all packed into one area and yet it always manages to feel comfortable and beautiful rather than crowded. Make sure you take the time to explore it while you’re in the area. Have a meal, see a movie, or just wander around and take photos of the striking building. It’s a fitting entrance point into Japan and a great place to spend some time while you’re traveling around the country.
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Final Thoughts on the Coolest Places to Visit in Kyoto
Kyoto is probably one of the most foreign feeling cities you’ll ever visit. It has a vibe and a sensibility that’s incredibly different to what you’ll find in western countries and a beauty that’s both ancient and restrained. When you’re looking for the best places to visit in Kyoto, you’ll be confronted with a seemingly endless list of historic and stunningly beautiful sites. And that will be your hardest task when you’re in this city, sorting through all the options and deciding which ones you want to see. That’s why we’ve created this list so you can spend all your time basking in the atmosphere rather than trying to make up your mind what you most want to see.
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