Kyoto. When you say To-kyo, you also say Kyo-to. These are the two main places in Japan that people visiting this country end up. And the contrast is stark, whilst Tokyo represents modern Japan, Kyoto is firmly rooted in tradition, known as the home of the geisha and the birthplace of the Japanese tea ceremony, the city is awash with temples and shrines. But… is that it? Sure, cultural stuff is great, but is it really all temples and museums? Old buildings and tour groups? No! While there are some must-see historical and cultural sites, there is loads more to do in and around Kyoto, from sampling the great outdoors to wandering around markets. There’s so much that we’ve created this list of the most awesome things to do in Kyoto to help you choose the coolest stuff to do! So let’s see what we can get up to in Japan’s ancient capital!
Table of Contents
- Top things to do in Kyoto
- Unusual things to do in Kyoto
- Safety in Kyoto
- Things to do in Kyoto at night
- Where to Stay in Kyoto
- Romantic things to do in Kyoto
- Best Free things to do in Kyoto
- Kyoto Packing List
- Best Things to do in Kyoto with kids
- Other unmissable things to do in Kyoto
- Day Trips from Kyoto
- 3 Day Kyoto Itinerary
- Final Thoughts
Top things to do in Kyoto
Wow. Wow, wow, wow. This is possibly the most famous sight in Kyoto. So even though it’s mentally touristed, this place is definitely a must-see. Why? Because it’s a Buddhist temple that’s literally covered in gold, that’s why. THAT’S WHY. Kinkaku-ji is the place to go in Kyoto for an iconic photo, but that’s what basically every tourist who comes here thinks, so try to come here very (VERY) early to beat the crowds, snap a pic, then run to 7-11 for a 100 yen coffee.
2. Get foxy at the shrine
This is totally one of the most awesome things to do in Kyoto. The ‘fox shrine’ is famous for its hundreds of red gates that edge the path all the way up the hill to the shrine at the top. A popular place to visit in the city – it’s not hard to see why – we recommend heading up just before sunset. The hike up the many steps winds its way up the hillside but the view from the top of the sun setting over the old city is pretty special. Just don’t get too freaked out on the way back down in the dark like we did, we certainly could not identify the source of those weird sounds.
3. See how sake is made (and taste some, of course)
What’s more Japan than sake? Ok, a lot of different things are quite Japanese, but sake is THE definitive Japanese alcohol. So as with all good alcohols across the world, a good way to experience them is to see how they’re made Yes, you can witness the brewing process of the sake they make at Gekkeikan Okura, which has virtually not changed in 400 years. A tour of this place includes tastings of various sake which is always something we’re on board with to be honest.
- 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).
For more places to stay, check out our full Kyoto neighborhood guide!
The tea ceremony. It’s the sort of thing that is really cool to see because we have somewhat of a different culture of ceremony in the West. Our tea ceremony tends to be…teabag into cup, pour water. But in Japan, the tea ceremony is a massive part of the country’s culture and of zen Buddhism in particular. So if you’re in Japan for a ‘cultural experience’ then the tea ceremony is a must-do activity for you. It was basically invented in Kyoto. You can pop along to the chashitsu (that’s a purpose-built tea house) at Ju-an temple to see it and lap it all up for yourself.
Ok, it’s pretty touristy too, but this place is seriously cool. Can you guess where it is? If you were thinking the bamboo grove, you’d be right of course. Arashiyama (one of the coolest neighborhoods in Kyoto) has a big draw for its beautiful thickets of towering green bamboo. Arashiyama is so stunning, it’s enough just to wander around this place and get lost in thought while observing the nice little temples and a great river walk along the way. Basically, if you like nature, this is definitely a place to add to your itinerary.
There’s cycling around Kyoto, walking around Kyoto – but how about walking around Kyoto with someone who isn’t just a tour guide but a local to the city itself? Pretty cool! What better way to discover the hidden gems, hear personal stories, wander down lanes you’d never go down otherwise. You can generally learn a load of new stuff about Kyoto that a regular tour guide probably wouldn’t think you’d be interested in. Exploring a city with a local is always a great idea, but the best part is getting to go somewhere proper local for lunch.
7. Dine on vegetarian food and get boozy at a zen Buddhist temple
Are you a vegetarian? Great, then you’ll love this place. Fucha is a Japanese take on Chinese vegetarian cuisine and the zen monks at Kanga-an cook up a tasty storm with non-meat, non-fishy ingredients. E.g. you can dine on mock eel, which is actually taro and tofu mashed together. It’s extremely tasty. AND they have one last trick up their sleeve at Kanga-an: a bar. Yes, A BAR. It’s open to the public and popular with female office workers. The garden is relaxing, they say, but we reckon it’s the whiskey.
Kyoto is great to walk around. I think we’ve established that much. But how about wandering around in a kimono to really blend in (or try to) with the geisha and maiko (that’s a trainee geisha) and all the other traditional goodness of this city? Yep, you can rent a kimono for a day and really get the best photo ops going. We reckon this would make for a great talking point, so for all you extroverts, this is a great shout. The only thing is that you have to return it at the end of the day. Boo.
9. Visit one of the curios of Higashi Hongan-ji
Higashi Hongan-ji is a huge temple. It’s all made of wood as well, which makes it extra impressive. But what we’re talking about right now is not the size of this religious building or what it’s made of, but instead, something that’s kept there. To cut a long story short, it’s a rope made of human hair – a really big, really thick, sort of gross rope. During the building of two of the halls they needed extra strong rope, some nuns offered up their hair, and the rest is history. It’s one of those oddities that it’s cool to say you’ve seen.
Exploring Nishiki Market is a totally awesome thing to do in Kyoto for a number of reasons. Firstly it’s 700 years old. Yes, really. It first opened in 1310 as a fish market. Secondly, there is a whole host of things to buy here now – the range is literally amazing. Soy donuts? Nice. Sashimi on a stick? Ok. Baby octopus stuffed with quail egg? Alright. Thirdly it’s always poppin’ here. The crowds, although maybe not that fun for locals is great for a buzzy atmosphere. Fourthly everybody knows that the marketplace is where it’s at when it comes to soaking up a new culture. Definitely go.
Unusual things to do in Kyoto
11. Try to gain entry to an exclusive hidden cafe
Japan sure has its fair share of exclusive places to eat, drink and stay, but this one is literally like something from a manga, so we love it even more. It’s called ANGEL LIBRARY (yes, in capitals) and it’s located under a shop called Cacao Market. The downside is you need a code to get in. How do you get a code? Nobody’s exactly sure. Once you’re in though, it’s a hidden coffee spot like no other, a real exclusive place to sip on a cup of Joe and pretend to read a book in Japanese.
12. Chow down on spicy food at Spicy Street
So Japan isn’t exactly famed for its spicy food, but there is a legendary street in Kyoto totally dedicated to spicy food. Truly. It’s located in Muko town, which is in the west of Kyoto, and it’s known as Gekikara Shotengai. That translates roughly to ‘Intense Spice Shopping Street’. That’s basically it. It’s a great little oddball curio that’s just the kind of only-in-Japan thing we love about this country. The cafes and restaurants look normal, but then you’re sideswiped by habanero ice cream or a ‘sudden death dog’ (a really spicy crepe). A must if you love spicy food.
13. Steal a selfie with a ghoul on Yokai Street
Yokai are not exactly ghosts; they’re more a collection of spirits, demons, monsters AND ghosts that make up a huge roster of familiar shapes and faces in Japanese folklore and you can see ’em all on the aptly named Yokai Street. They’re all homemade standing outside shops on the otherwise normal street of Ichijo-dori – this isn’t a proper tourist attraction (yet). It’s fun. Some of them are genuinely good, sculpted and everything, some are… well there’s a dinosaur in a dressing gown, so…
Safety in Kyoto
Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. Honestly, there isn’t much crime here, and people don’t really steal! You can leave your purse unattended in a metro station, and chances are, you’ll get it back. Have a look at the Japan Safety Guide before you fly and always get travel insurance. Check out our roundup of the best travel insurance.
Things to do in Kyoto at night
14. Get on the beers at the pub
This cool urban-style pub is the ideal place for grabbing a beer after a long day. BEFORE9 Brewpub serves up the best beer and town and their sake is pretty good as well. It’s pretty hipster here and yes, we love it. Sample some of their various craft beers and enjoy a bit of tasty sushi for your dinner. You’ll love it so much you will want to come back again the next night. Just sitting in here makes you feel cooler.
Kyoto is the home of the geisha, so your trip to the ancient Japanese capital wouldn’t be complete without a tour of Gion, the geisha district. Better yet you can do it at night, and get the real feeling of old, traditional Japan as you wander around the streets. You can also go with a guide who’ll keep you primed with info as you discover this cool area. Even in the daytime, the wooden houses of this district are pretty dang dreamy. It’s very photogenic, so your Insta followers will be happy.
16. Hop over to L’Escamoteur for some unique alcoholic beverages
Time for some drinks. Now, what are you in the mood for…? What about somewhere that looks half-steampunk, half-wild west, half-Victorian London – wait that’s too many halves… But yeah, how about somewhere like that? Alright. Then get yourself along to L’Escamoteur Bar! This bar is run by a guy called Christophe. He serves up drinks you rarely see in Japan and whips up a mean medley of cocktails. L’escamoteur is actually French for ‘magician’ so it definitely makes sense. And then when it’s all done you can stumble home through the super safe Kyoto streets.
Where to Stay in Kyoto
Best Hostel in Kyoto – Len Kyoto
Centrally located and just a 1-minute walk from the Kamo River, Len Kyoto is a great hostel to choose! It has a café and bar lounge where you can grab a coffee and breakfast in the morning, and drinks at night. Rooms are spacious and clean, and the beds are comfortable.
Best Budget Hotel in Kyoto – Sunput Nanajo Mibu
This hotel is luxury on a budget! Each room has air conditioning, a fully equipped kitchenette, a flat-screen TV and a private bathroom. Located in the heart of Kyoto, it has everything you could want! The staff is friendly and helpful, and you can even rent bicycles.
Best Luxury Hotel in Kyoto – Kyoto Four Sisters Residence
This 5-star hotel feels like a home away from home. Each apartment has its own balcony with fantastic views, a fully-equipped kitchen, and dining room. They also have all the amenities! Perfect for couples and families. The staff is friendly and professional, happy to provide any help you need.
Romantic things to do in Kyoto
17. Crawl through a rock at Yasui-kompira-gu Shrine
This is one for those of you who want to leave less up to chance when it comes to love. The shrine grounds are home to a huge stone which has a hole in the middle of it. The stone is covered in thousands of slips of white paper which have been tied to the stone. The idea is that, if you’re having trouble in your love life or want a stronger relationship, you should tie your piece of paper (with a written wish) onto the stone and then crawl through the hole. Yeah, we know it all sounds a bit strange but this really is an awesome thing to do in Kyoto.
If you’re in Japan to witness and experience the incredibly different culture of this unique country, then doing a spot of something specifically Japanese is gonna be great for you. So that’s where flower arranging comes in. Nope, this isn’t like western flower arranging. This is – in typically Japanese form – an art. It’s called ikebana. Learning about the history and meaning behind it is cool, but having a go is even cooler. Then you can take this skill back home and make your own home Instagram-friendly.
19. Enjoy a plate of tasty tempura
Tempura is the tasty battered food that has become popular all over the world, but there is no better place to try it than in Japan. Yoshikawa Tempura is housed in an old tea room that brings a touch old world style to the dining experience. The whole place is beautifully decorated, it’s like eating dinner in Kyoto of the past. The tempura here is ultimate in tastiness. It’s heavenly. And if you wish, you can try out their sushi too.
Always Be Insured
Don’t forget to sort your travel insurance! We’ve put together a roundup of the best travel insurance for backpackers, or if you’re low on time, get a quote from World Nomads now, our favorite travel insurance provider.
To find out why I recommend World Nomads, check out my World Nomads Insurance review.
Best Free things to do in Kyoto
20. Take some time out away from the crowds
There’s a whole lot of temples to keep you busy during your visit to Kyoto, but Honen-In makes our list of the most awesome things to do in Kyoto for its peaceful setting. Turn up here and be greeted by a truly serene, scenic approach to the moss-covered temple gate. The best time to turn up here is in autumn when the trees have turned into all sorts of pretty colours, a very chilled out place to escape from the sometimes quite touristy downtown Kyoto.
21. Pay your respects at Mimizuka
This one is a… little bit morbid but bear with us. It has some historical merit, so especially if you’re interested in history you should check this place out. The name in Japanese means ‘Mound of Ears’ and it’s pretty much what it is. Back when Japan invaded Korea in the 17th century, bringing back the traditional ‘trophy’ (a head) was a bit impractical, so ears and lots of noses were taken back instead. An estimated 100-200,000 noses are buried at Mimizuka, a grisly reminder of the brutality of war.
22. Ponder the meaning of life and marvel at cherry blossoms on the Path of Philosophy
Speaking of the Path of Philosophy, strolling along it is definitely something that’s more suitable for something named after a 20th-century philosopher (Nishida Kitaro) who used this walk for daily meditation. So follow in his footsteps and think about… stuff… whilst walking along this path. It takes about 30 mins to walk it but there are so many sights along the way that you’ll be stopping every few steps anyway. When it’s cherry blossom season your mind will literally explode at how stunning this path is.
Kyoto Packing List
1. Travel Water Bottle: Always travel with a water bottle – it’ll save you money and reduce your plastic footprint on our planet. AR bottle are tough, lightweight and maintain the temperature of your beverage – so you can enjoy a cold red bull, or a hot coffee, no matter where you are. For every AR bottle sold, we donate 10% to PlasticOceans.org – an initiative to reduce plastic in our oceans!
2. Microfibre Towel: It’s always worth packing a proper towel. Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if need be.
3. Security Belt with Hidden Pocket: I never hit the road without my security belt. This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside – you can hide up to twenty notes inside and wear it through airport scanners without it setting them off. This is hands down the best way to hide your cash.
4. Camera or Cell Phone Camera Accessories: One thing’s for sure – Japan is one of the most photography-worthy destinations out there. If you’re relying on your mobile phone camera exclusively (which is totally common in digital-savvy Japan), enhance your lens with accessories to make those photos really pop!
5. International Adapter: Japanese outlets accommodate typical US two-pronged plugs, but for electronics that have three prongs or if your plugs are of a different variety, you’ll need an adapter. Save yourself the hassle of trying to track down an adapter at your destination and paying twice as much than planning ahead by buying one online.
More must-haves: Take look through the complete Japan packing list for more items you’ll want while you’re there!
Books to Read while Visiting Kyoto
The Backpacker Bible – Get it for free! Learn how to ditch your desk and travel the world on just $10 a day whilst building a life of long-term travel with an online income. To inspire and help the next generation of Broke Backpackers, you can now grab ‘How to Travel the World on $10 a Day’ for free! Get your copy here.
Memoirs of a Geisha – A masterful portrayal of the intriguing Geishas of Japan, this novel became the center of a lot of controversies, but remains one of the most poignant portrayals of Japanese Geisha tradition.
I am a Cat – The world knows about Japanese and their obsession with cats! This book is based on a nameless cat’s observations of upper-middle-class Japanese society of the Meiji era, the essence of I AM A CAT is its humor and sardonic truths.
A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, ZEN, and the Tea Ceremony – Comprehensive and well informed, the book covers a wide array of topics with numerous photographs, providing a lively digest of the society and the unusual culture of Japan.
Best Things to do in Kyoto with kids
If we said walking tour with a samurai… does that sound good to you? Yes, yes of course it does. Kyoto is literally packed to the brim with historic sights and other curiosities that you’d never know about without a guide. And when your guide is an expert swordsman, that’s even cooler. He’ll even give an ah-mazing demonstration of his skills with a katana (that’s a Japanese sword) and slice through some bamboo and other objects before your very eyes. Definitely down with this one.
A beautiful city park with groves of old trees and weathered monuments is good enough for us, but throw in some furry forest walking partners and we’re there! The city of Nara, just an hour by train, hosts thousands of deer – considered the messengers of the gods. They freely approach visitors because they’re used to being fed. Purchase some deer-friendly biscuits at the park and see if the deer will bow back to you before getting their tasty treat. Tours are available from Kyoto, which provide transportation and everything you need to have an awesome time in the park.
Kembu, what? Well, it is a martial art that’s basically swordplay mixed with dancing. Sounds good, right? So, yeah, the best way to really experience kembu is to go watch a show. It’s sick to see. Everyone loves a samurai sword (aka katana) don’t they? And at the Samurai Kembu Theatre you’ll also hear tales of old narrated in English, get a chance for a photo op with a sword, which could possibly be your next Facebook profile picture… but then maybe a bit too swordy. Great fun though.
Other unmissable things to do in Kyoto
We’ve all seen it, Instagram posts and pics on Twitter and various other visual platforms of cute Japanese lunchboxes. These are known as bento. Food shaped like pandas, hearts, bunnies – anything cute basically. And it’s all in the form of sushi, or rice balls, or thin omelets, carrots, tomatoes… So how about the chance to learn how to make this cute cuisine yourself? We’re definitely in. Ok so maybe you won’t be getting into all the sculpting and kawaii-ness, but at Cooking Sun you’ll learn how to make your very own sushi, miso soup and other tasty things.
Another one for people who like a bit of nature, taking the short – and let’s face it, completely picturesque – train ride north of Kyoto to the small village of Kibune. This place is basically wedged in a valley and you get all the dramatic scenery you’d expect in a place like that. You can hike around here, to places including Kibune Shrine with its old stairway. The trails around here are just… stunning. It’s a slice of less touristed Kyoto (and its surrounding areas) that you’ll literally love. Spoiler alert: there’s a hot spring involved.
28. Check out a building from 1266
You can’t take any pictures inside the temple, but that just adds to the reflective atmosphere. The game here is to find the statue that looks most like your mate.
There’s no better way to see charming Kyoto than on the vehicle of charm and whimsy itself – yes, the bicycle. Humble, carefree, bicycles are fun and if you don’t think so, then whatever. Touring around Kyoto and its 1,200 years of history is like something from an anime, we swear. You get to ride along the Kamo River, then to downtown and its cute network of canals, past old Buddhist temples, down the famous Path of Philosophy, through narrow lanes, under cherry trees. You get the idea: it’s a happy blur of 100% traditional Japan.
30. Check out one of Kyoto’s largest Buddhist temples
Kyoto is all about temples. We couldn’t avoid it with this list. There are so many temples in this city – some of them are big, some of them are small. One of the bigger ones is the very large Chion-in. Though originally built in 1234 (that’s well old), it burned down in the 1600s So what you see today is only about 400 years old. One of the main things here is the huge Sanman, the gate to the temple that’s so big it’ll make your eyes pop out your head. It’s really like a gate for giants.
Do you have money to splurge? If no, uh, don’t worry about it… If you do, then please keep reading. Because this is a helicopter tour over Kyoto. You thought it looked good from the ground? That’s for worms! Getting up into the sky and seeing the scale of the temple complexes nestled between neat rows of houses, all tucked between forested mountains… seriously it’s quite a spectacle and one of the most awesome things to do in Kyoto. Well, if you have the budget for it, of course!
Day Trips from KyotoKyoto is surrounded by some really lovely spaces! If you’re spending more than a weekend in Kyoto, be sure to get out and explore the surrounding areas in one of these fantastic guided tours. That way, you’re sure to get the full experience of everything Kyoto has to offer.
Hiroshima & Miyajima UNESCO Tour with Bullet Train
Osaka: Book a Local Friend
Northern Kyoto and Amanohashidate
3 Day Kyoto Itinerary
Day 1 – The Main Sights
Today’s your first day in Kyoto and we expect (and encourage) you to rush out and see the most you can! We’re assuming here that you have a full day right off the bat, but adjust according to your schedule. Now let’s see what you can get up to. You can start out with a tour of the golden temple of Kyoto, Kinkaku-ji. It’s a bit out of the way, but we can’t recommend skipping it – it’s truly one-of-a-kind. You’ll still have a full day left after the temple, which you can use to see a couple more of Kyoto’s main sights. Head south (you can plot a course on public transportation through GoogleMaps) to the Kyoto Imperial Palace for a poke around the gardens and then go further south to the Fox Shrine, Fushimi Inari Taisha. You’ll recognize it from Instagram (and from item 2 in this post). That’s probably enough sight-seeing for one day, so we’ll let you off easy and send you over to L’Escamoteur (no. 23 on this list) to start out your night. Wander north from there to find some of Kyoto’s best clubs on the same street.
Day 2 – Unique Kyoto Experiences
Now that you’ve seen what there is to see, let’s do some unique activities that you might not find outside of Kyoto, some of which we listed above. In the morning, get your culinary on! Take a cooking class or tour a sake distillery (we don’t judge a little day-drinking). In the afternoon, take a look around the Nishiki Market and try a few items you don’t immediately recognize. From there it’s an 18 minute walk to the Samurai Kembu Theater, where shows usually start around 5pm. If you have time, grab a coffee at Rokuyo-sya Underground on your way over.
Day 3 – See the Philosopher’s Side of Kyoto
We realize we might’ve worn you out with two ambitious days of sightseeing and activity-doing. Today we’re going to take it a little easier, but still get you exploring the city. After breakfast, make your way over to Eikan-do Temple and have a look around. This is the southern end of the aptly named Path of Philosophy, which winds through a few quieter (as well as a couple busy) streets of Kyoto. Spend as much time as you’d like wandering along, viewing the many shrines and temples along the way. Especially make sure you see Honen-in. There are plenty of options for lunch along the way, but Kisaki Tofu is particularly noteworthy. After your walk, find your way back into Central Kyoto to finish up some of the loose ends you might have wanted to see on your trip. If you’re not already sick of walking, stroll through Pontocho, a Geisha district. If you can stand the sight of one more temple, we recommend it be the Higashi Honganji, the longest wooden structure in Japan. If you haven’t gotten the anime/manga fix you came to Japan for, dive into the archives of the Kyoto Manga Museum. More itineraries: If it’s not already obvious, there’s way more to do in Kyoto than this little itinerary explores. Use our full Kyoto itinerary to customize your visit!
More Great Resources
So there you have it, 31 awesome things to do in Kyoto. Ok, so there are a lot of temples on this list… But believe us when we say that you’ll be wowed at the scale and charm of these ancient structures. But of course, it’s not all temples – like we said! You can take a chilled bike ride around the countryside, learn about geisha, take in a tea ceremony, watch a sword display, find some hidden restaurants… There’s plenty to do! All that’s left is to book your trip and note some of your favorites down from our list! Yay for transparency! Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation, buy a book or sort your insurance, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only link to stuff I’ve actually used and never endorse crap. Your support helps me keep the site going. Need more inspiration?
So there you have it, 31 awesome things to do in Kyoto. Ok, so there are a lot of temples on this list… But believe us when we say that you’ll be wowed at the scale and charm of these ancient structures. But of course, it’s not all temples – like we said! You can take a chilled bike ride around the countryside, learn about geisha, take in a tea ceremony, watch a sword display, find some hidden restaurants… There’s plenty to do! All that’s left is to book your trip and note some of your favorites down from our list!
Yay for transparency! Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation, buy a book or sort your insurance, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only link to stuff I’ve actually used and never endorse crap. Your support helps me keep the site going.
Need more inspiration?