Kyoto

12 amazing things to do in Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto holds a special place in our hearts as one of our top spots in Japan. Its well-preserved old town, peaceful temples, and iconic shrines are just some of the traditional charms that captivated us. But Kyoto isn’t just about tradition. It’s also a modern city with skyscrapers, plentiful vending machines, and amazing food options. Check out our ultimate list of 12 amazing things to do in Kyoto.

Short on time? Here are our top picks for the best hotels in Kyoto:

1. Hike to the top of Fushimi Inari Taisha

Things to do in Kyoto: Fushimi Inari Taisha

Let’s kick off with one of Kyoto’s most iconic spots: Fushimi Inari Taisha. Who hasn’t heard of this famous Shinto shrine, known for its thousands of red torii gates? These gates form a stunning path you can walk through. While many visitors stop after the first few minutes, we suggest going all the way to the top to fully experience Fushimi Inari Taisha. You’ll have the place all to yourself as the crowds thin out the farther you go. So don’t believe people that say you have to wake up super early! Just be ready for a bit of a walk. 😉 Believe us, it’s worth it for both the perfect photo and a serene experience. Doing the full “hike” will take you about two hours, photo ops not included. And the best part is, admission is free!

2. Wander the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

Another must-visit spot in Kyoto is the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. Unlike Fushimi Inari Taisha, there’s no secret to avoiding crowds here. Our best advice? Get there as early as you can. We arrived around 5:45 AM, and had the whole forest to ourselves for a peaceful experience. However, 15 minutes later the quiet was broken as groups started arriving. So be sure to arrive before 6 AM!

Getting there early is the hardest part, since the forest is not located near the city center. We had to take two train rides and walk for about 25 minutes to get there from our hotel in Kyoto. The earliest buses or subway rides start operating from around 5 AM, and since it’s still quite early in the morning you can’t really afford to miss a connection. The other option is to hail a cab or ask your accommodation for transportation, which we saw plenty of people do.

3. Visit Otagi Nenbutsu-ji

Things to do in Kyoto: Otagi Nenbutsu-ji

About a half-hour stroll from Arashiyama Bamboo Forest lies Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, a temple that stole our hearts in Kyoto. It’s not your typical temple, that’s for sure! Here, you’ll find 1200 moss-covered Rakan statues, each uniquely detailed. It’s a hidden gem with few visitors, making it a must-visit. 

The only catch is that it opens at 8 AM. This doesn’t sound like a big deal at first. However, if you arrive early like we did at the Bamboo Forest, you may have to wait a bit for Otagi Nenbutsu-ji to open. That being said, it’s worth every minute of the wait! We had an absolute blast here. For such a small place there’s tons to see and do, a great place to go exploring. The entrance fee is 400 yen, which is about € 2,40.

4. Escape the crowds at Daikaku-ji

Daikaku-ji

If you want to escape the crowds in Kyoto, we recommend visiting Daikaku-ji. This peaceful temple used to be an imperial residence. Now, you can wander through the temple complex and enjoy the beautiful pond area. It’s a perfect spot to soak in some nature and culture. It’s also a great place for photographers, as every corner has something special to offer. When we arrived at 9 AM, we had the whole place to ourselves, making it even more serene.

Daikaku-ji is only a (less than) 10-minute bus ride away from Otagi Nenbutsu-ji. Even more convenient, is that you can find the bus stand right in front of Otagi Nenbutsu-ji!

Good to know
The entrance fee is 500 yen (about € 3) for the temple area and an additional 300 yen (just under € 2) for the pond area.

5. Explore Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka

Explore Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka

Explore Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka for a taste of old Kyoto. These picturesque streets, lined with traditional wooden houses, make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. It’s best to visit early in the morning when the streets are empty. Our morning stroll was one of the most peaceful moments of our Japan trip! During the day, both streets buzz with locals and tourists exploring the teahouses, shops, and restaurants. There’s even a Starbucks in a traditional Japanese house, which is one of the most unique Starbucks we’ve ever seen. Unfortunately we didn’t go in. The first time we saw it, it wasn’t open yet (yes, we were that early). The second time we walked past this Starbucks, the wait was really long.

6. Capture the beauty of Hokan-ji

Things to do in Kyoto: Hokan-ji

Hokan-ji, also known as Yasaka Pagoda, is located in Sannenzaka. You’ve probably seen it in countless photos, and it’s easy to see why. This 5-story pagoda is absolutely stunning! The setting is timeless and charming, and seeing it in person makes it a million times better. Because it gets crowded, like really crowded, we recommend arriving before sunrise. We got there 20 minutes before sunrise and had the place to ourselves for about 10 minutes. If you want a photo with no one else in it, arriving early is the way to go. And by early, we mean early. Don’t believe anyone who says waking up at (or even getting there by) 6 AM is sufficient. Trust us, having the whole place to ourselves was worth the early wake-up call!

7. Experience the charm of Gion

Gion

Strolling through the charming neighborhood of Gion is one of the best things to do in Kyoto. It takes you back in time with its romantic bridges, traditional architecture, and wooden houses. Our favorite spot was Gion Tatsumi Bridge, a beautiful bridge over the Shirakawa River. So romantic!

Gion is also Kyoto’s main geisha district. Geisha, or geiko, are professional entertainers dressed in kimonos with traditional hairstyles and white powdered faces. Hanamikoji Street is a well-known place to spot a geisha, but we didn’t get lucky during our visit. It’s important to be respectful and not disturb them. If you see a geisha, admire them from a distance without taking photos or approaching them. This has been an ongoing issue in the area, Kyoto even banned tourists from parts of the geisha district because of bad behavior.

8. Stay golden at Kinkaku-ji

Things to do in Kyoto: Kinkaku-ji

Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto’s famous ‘Golden Pavilion’, is one of the most photographed and recognizable temples in Japan. Covered in real gold leaf, it’s truly unique! We visited around 11 AM, expecting it to be overrated due to the crowds. But, we must admit we were completely mesmerized by the shimmering golden temple in the middle of a pond. When the sun shines, the gold sparkles and reflects beautifully. So magical! The temple’s beauty attracts crowds any day of the year, but it’s so worth it in our opinion. Beating the crowds at Kinkaku-ji is near impossible, because you can’t really arrive early in the morning or late at night. The temple is only open from 9 AM until 5 PM, which are arguably the busiest hours of the day. The entrance fee is 500 yen, and it’s definitely one of the best things to do in Kyoto!

9. Marvel at Mikane-jinja

While heading to Nijo Castle, we stumbled upon Mikane-jinja, a small yet striking shrine. Its golden color caught our attention immediately! Among the sea of red shrines we’d seen, this golden one was a unique sight. It’s said that gold symbolizes financial success, and many visit this shrine to pray for prosperity. There are even rumors of lottery wins post-visit, so why not give it a shot? 😉

10. Try local specialties at Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market, also known as Kyoto’s Kitchen, is one of the most popular things to do in Kyoto. This indoor market is the perfect place to try local specialties like eel skewers, dango (rice flour dumplings), and taiyaki (fish-shaped cakes). We also recommend trying the honeycomb soft-serve ice cream. It’s amazing!

It’s also a great place for souvenir shopping. We got personalized chopsticks at Kitchen Yuzen, which make for thoughtful and unique gifts. Our family certainly loved them! We paid around € 7 for one set of chopsticks. Just come early if you want to get your chopsticks the same day.

Good to know
There are designated areas for eating, usually in front of the shop, so don’t eat while walking. Another thing to keep in mind is that some stalls don’t allow photos, so always check before snapping pictures.

11. Take a day trip to Nara

Day trip to Nara

About half an hour from Kyoto is Nara, home to the famous Nara Park. As soon as you leave Nara station, you’ll be greeted by adorable deer. There are stalls selling crackers to feed the deer at around 200 yen (little over € 1) per packet. However, after seeing a few tourists get mobbed and bullied by deer, we decided to admire them from a distance instead of feeding them. We even saw a fawn, so adorable!

While the deer are the main attraction, there’s a lot more to Nara. You can explore Kōfuku-ji Temple and Yoshikien Garden, one of our favorite gardens in Japan. And don’t miss the mochi pounding at Nakatanidou! We’re usually not big mochi fans, but the mochi here is amazing and definitely worth a try. They’ll usually announce when the next mochi pounding will take place, which is great if you just missed the previous one. Timing and frequency of the pounding depends on demand, there are no fixed schedules. You can always ask when the next pounding will take place, as we’ve heard this gives them a better idea of how many people will buy some!

12. Have fun at Universal Studios Japan

Universal Studios Japan

If you have some extra time, we recommend a day at Universal Studios Japan for some fun! This theme park is located in Osaka, about half an hour to 45 minutes from Kyoto. We’ve been to several Universal Studios, but the one in Japan is one of our favorites. The rides are amazing, especially ‘The Flying Dinosaur’ – the scariest ride we’ve ever done! From thrilling attractions to seeing your favorite characters and exploring Super Nintendo World and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, you won’t be bored for a second!

And what’s even better, is that we dedicated a whole blog post to Universal Studios Japan! If you’re interested in learning all about USJ, make sure to check it out.

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