Kyoto is one of the most gorgeous places in all of Japan. Surrounded by mountains, it has countless zen gardens, temples, and statues, as well as endless shopping and some seriously great food. I loved wandering around Kyoto, popping into temple after temple, seeing a wide array of gardens, and walking through the bamboo forest. Kyoto gets a lot of hype (it used to be the capital of Japan) but I found it lived up to all my expectations. Beyond the historic Japanese temples, there is a vibrant nightlife and restaurant scene. Honestly, I could live in Kyoto, I loved it that much.
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Kyoto
1. Visit Gion
2. Check out Heian Shrine
3. Explore the Kyoto National Museum
4. Visit the Golden Pavilion
5. The Bamboo Forest
Other Things to See and Do
(Click the title to expand the text)
1. Tour the Nijo Castle
The palace building was created in 1603 and became famous for its distinct architecture. Now it is a popular tourist attraction, so it’s best to arrive early in the morning before the crowds. It’s a beautiful castle, and a worthwhile destination for a few hours. The entrance fee is 600 JPY.
2. Visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace Park
The palace is where the Imperial family and court nobles once resided. It’s located in the center of the city and admission is free.
3. Walk around Higashiyama
Spend an afternoon on the east side of the Kamo River and walk along its historic streets and neighborhoods. Be sure to visit the Yasaka shrine and a teahouse or two.
4. Visit Ryoan-ji Temple
It’s hard not to be in Kyoto without seeing a zen garden, and this is one of the best with its unusual rock garden. Get here early before the crowds, and try to decipher the message of the rock formations. Admission is 500 JPY.
5. Wander among the plum blossoms
If you happen to be visiting Kyoto between mid-February and mid-March you’ll have the opportunity to view the plum blossoms. While not as famous as Japan’s cherry blossoms, they make for a great alternative. Two places you can find them are Kitano Tenmangu and the Kyoto Botanical Gardens, both of which are located in northern Kyoto. Admission for Kitano Tenmangu is 600 JPY, while admission to the botanical gardens is 200 JPY.
6. Try traditional Japanese confectionery
Kyoto is a great city for trying one of Japan’s most unique treats – mochi. Made from pounded rice, there are numerous types of sweet treats prepared fresh in the city. They have a very distinct texture, so not everyone will enjoy the gelatinous blobs but they make interesting souvenirs, so give them a try!
7. Take a trip to Nara
The capital of Japan from 710-784, Nara was the center of Japanese culture, arts, and crafts. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s 45 minutes from Kyoto via train and makes for a great day trip. Be sure to visit the world’s largest wooden building, Todai-ji. Tickets cost between 620-1130 JPY, one way (however it’s free with a JR Pass).
If you have trouble putting your mind to rest, sleeping at night, or suffer from frequent headaches, meditation might be the solution for you. Meditation is a major tradition among the Japanese, specifically among Buddhists. Trying their time-tested techniques can give you a greater understanding of the people here, and it may just provide you with some calm and clarity.
9. Kyoto International Manga Museum
For the nerd and art enthusiast in all of us, this museum is home to a collection of over 300,000 manga. There are a number of exhibits highlighting the evolution of the art of manga over the years, as well as how-to workshops, with manga-portrait, caricaturists on hand. Admission is 800 JPY for adults, 300 JPY for students.
10. Relax in an onsen
There are over 140 bath houses (onsen) in Kyoto, supporting a tradition that dates all the way back to the early Middle Ages. Separated by gender, bath houses are a great way to relax and soak in some of the more unique aspects of Japanese culture. Just be aware that some onsen don’t allow visitors with tattoos, so be sure to check before you arrive. Expect to pay around 1,000 for the budget bath houses.
11. Eat at Nishiki Market
Almost every major city in the world has a local market, and Kyoto is no exception. The Nishiki Ichiba is host to an amazing selection of locally-grown fruits and veggies, as well as all of the more ‘unknown ingredients’ found in Japanese cooking. The street food here is delicious and there are plenty of places to sit down and people watch.
12. Go hiking
The hills of Kyoto are a wonderful place to go hiking, perfect for escaping into nature and spending some time outside of a city atmosphere. There are a number of Buddhist temples and complexes throughout the hills, which make for some great exploring.
13. Enjoy the nightlife
Kyoto offers a wide variety of drinking options, and most are all within the same area (Central Kyoto, around Kiyamachi). You won’t have a hard time finding a local bar to grab a drink, so be sure to wander the area and hunt down a bar of your choosing. Beyond the bars, the city isn’t known for its club scene so you won’t have many options when it comes to dancing.
14. Wander among the cherry blossoms
Cherry blossoms are a big part of Japanese culture and Kyoto has some of the best trees in the world. Come during the cherry blossom festival – it’s beautiful.