Updated October 2023
When going to Japan, Kyoto is at the top of the list of places to visit for good reason. A culturally rich city set along the river, there are shrines, temples, and beautiful sights to visit. These incredible things to do in Kyoto will help plan your time there.
I have personally been to Kyoto on three different occasions. On each trip, I find something new to love in the historic city. And then, of course, there are my favorite spots that no matter how many times I see them, I have to return.
Kyoto is both equally compact and spread out. It means you can see a lot in one neighborhood at a time. Then you can also adventure out to the outskirts to discover more of Kyoto’s gems.
When planning a trip to Japan, you may find it a bit overwhelming, I’d recommend starting on my destination page for Japan first. There are helpful resources like a sample 2-week Japan itinerary, top tips before visiting Japan, and a guide to transportation in Japan. It will help you get your bearing ahead of time and help you plan accordingly.
Either way, Kyoto should be at the top of your list if you haven’t been before, and is always worth a return. Soak in all of those still moments, the noises of the markets, and savor every delicious bite in this wonderful city. Here are 20 incredible things to do in Kyoto.
Planning a Trip to Kyoto? Here Are My Top Picks for the Best Hotels in Kyoto:
- The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto, for the best downtown Kyoto hotel
- The Junei Hotel Kyoto Imperial Palace West, for the best central Kyoto hotel
- Four Seasons Kyoto, for the best Southern Higashiyama hotel
- Ryokan Inn Yoshida-sanso, for the best Northern Higashiyama hotel
- Hotel Kanra, for the best Kyoto Station hotel
- Suiran, for the best Arashiyama hotel
Travel Tip: Be sure to get your JR Rail Pass prior to arrival in Japan!
20 Incredible Things to Do in Kyoto, Japan
1. Visit the Mossy Gardens at the Lesser-Known Honen-In Temple
One of the most memorable things we have done while visiting Kyoto is an afternoon at Honen-In Temple. It is lesser-known, so far less traffic than the other central shrines in the city.
Located just off of the Philosopher’s Path in Northern Higashiyama, you can climb the hill to explore the temple.
Inside you’ll find tranquil gardens and ponds with a stone path and bridge. The serenity and stillness in this garden are ones that I always love to return to. Often times you’ll find rotating art exhibits as well to enjoy in some of the pavilions pending the season.
For more, read this guide on the best temples in Kyoto to visit.
Address: ３０番地 Shishigatani Goshonodancho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 606-8422, Japan
2. Pass Through the Orange Gates of Fushimi Inari Taisha
One iconic sight to visit in Kyoto is the Fushimi Inari temple. You’ll probably recognize it from its bright orange/red gate that leads up the mountain in Kyoto.
Many go about halfway but you can easily hike 2 hours to do the entire trail, so best to plan accordingly to how much time you want to spend.
My one recommendation is to arrive very early in the morning to experience it sans crowds. Since it is so highly visited, you’ll find it much quieter in the early hours of the morning.
Address: 68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, 612-0882, Japan
3. Stroll the Philosopher’s Path
Located in Northern Higashiyama, the Philosopher’s Path is one thing worth the trek.
You can stroll this quiet path that leads along a canal in a quiet neighborhood. Along the way, you’ll find small boutiques, local ceramicists, design stores, and cafes. There’s not a lot going on but it is quite tranquil.
One incredible restaurant is located in this neighborhood called Monk, so you could time it to stroll the path and then eat dinner.
During spring months, this is a wonderful location to see the blossoms as well.
The entire trail is around 2 kilometers long.
Need a Japan Rail Pass? This is Where I Book Mine
4. Sip a Cup of Coffee at the Iconic Weekenders Coffee
When it comes to hip coffee shops, Kyoto has a very long list to explore. For more spots, read this guide to Kyoto coffee shops.
You’ll find many across the city to enjoy, which is why I recommend checking the list below. However, one of my favorites is Weekenders Coffee. It’s in a small home and has a wonderful cozy feel to it. It’s also one of my preferred coffees in the city.
Address: Japan, 〒604-8064 Kyoto, Nakagyo Ward, Honeyanocho, 560 離れ
5. Take a Food Tour
While in Kyoto, you have to experience the range of food available in the city.
I think one of the best ways to do this is on a food tour as you have an opportunity to taste several categories and be led by a knowledgeable local guide.
We’ve done a few through our hotels over the years and there are several tours available on Get Your Guide (my trusted partner for tours). Their range of food tours goes from private to group, so you can really decide what kind of experience you may like for your time!
6. Go for a Stroll Through the Historic District of Higashiyama
To take a walk back in time head to the district of Higashiyama for a wood-built quarter that brings you back to feudal-era Japan.
The narrow streets lined with small shops selling sweets, pottery, and tea houses give you a good feel of what the original Kyoto was like. It is home to the Yasaka Shrine and the Kiyomizu-dera Temple which sits up on the hillside overlooking the city.
My favorite time to come here is very early in the morning to go for a stroll sans the crowds. It is certainly the most picturesque area of Kyoto.
7. Eat Like the Locals in Pontocho Alley
For those looking to lead themselves on a self-led food tour, head straight to Pontocho Alley. It’s home to dozens of restaurants tucked along a small street in the Hanamachi District just off the river.
You can truly go from one spot to the next, or consider booking reservations at some of the finer dining restaurants that perch out over the river.
Now our favorite down the street is Chao Chao Sanjo Kiyamachi for their housemade gyoza. We usually go to this restaurant at least twice a trip and it’s well worth the wait.
8. Soak in the Views from Kiyomizu-dera Temple
A historic 1200-year-old temple gives way to not just a beautiful scene but also views over Kyoto. Kiyomizu-dera Temple is a popular place to head to for sunset as the views are unparalleled.
The temple is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, making it one of the top visited places in Kyoto.
Address: 1 Chome-294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0862, Japan
9. Stroll the Gion District at Dusk
For those looking for a chance to spot a geisha, there is no better place than the Gion District at dusk. It is home to most of the geisha houses in Kyoto and often around dusk you may spot one or two.
Please remember to be respectful and always leave their path open as they’re walking. If you’re looking for more information on spotting geishas in Gion, I would recommend reading this article.
10. Experience Cherry Blossom Season
There is no better place in Japan to experience the iconic cherry blossom season.
Kyoto is home to so many cherry blossoms and the city truly comes alive during this special season. My recommendation is to try to make it towards the end of March or early April as the season is quite short.
You will need reservations for everything far in advance as it is one of the most popular times to visit Japan.
Need a Hotel? Read Where to Stay in Kyoto!
11. Visit Nijo Castle
They refer to this style castle as a flatland castle, dating back to the first shogun era of the Edo period.
Nijo Castle is one of the seventeen Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto and is classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Because of this, it’s a popular sight to visit while in Kyoto and well worth it if you’re looking for a historic sight to explore.
Address: 541 Nijojocho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, 604-8301, Japan
12. Get a Custom Knife at Aritsugu Nishiki Market
When it comes to taking a souvenir home from Japan, a handmade knife is one of my favorites.
Every trip to Kyoto has led us back to Aritsugu in Nishiki Market to pick out a knife. You can then get it engraved as well with a word or small phrase.
The artisanal shop offers an array of knives to choose from and it’s also a favorite gift to bring home.
Address: Japan, 〒604-8052 Kyoto, Nakagyo Ward, Kajiyacho, 219
Helpful Read: The Ultimate Guide to Kyoto
13. Stop for a Bowl of Ramen at Ichiran
There are plenty of ramen spots across Kyoto, and the most iconic is always Ichiran.
The vending machine is where you purchase your ticket and then you get seated at a bar-style spot. Eventually, your bowl of ramen appears from behind a curtain! There is always a team member to help you order your ramen as well.
For more of our favorite noodle spots, read my guide to the best restaurants in Kyoto!
Address: 598 Uraderacho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, 604-8041, Japan
Be Sure to Book Your Japan Rail Pass Before You Arrive
14. Visit the Kinkaku-ji Golden Temple (And Get Ice Cream with Real Gold!)
Kinkaku-ji Temple, also known as The Golden Pavilion, is one of the top visited sights in Kyoto.
The top two floors of the pavilion are completely covered in gold leaf! This shining material reflects off the pond, creating a wonderful scene.
When in the temple, you’ll find vendors selling all kinds of things. One of my favorite food finds in here is the soft-served ice cream topped with edible gold leaf.
Address: 1 Kinkakujicho, Kita Ward, Kyoto, 603-8361, Japan
15. Spend a Morning at the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
No matter how many times I visit Kyoto, a morning at the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is a must.
It’s a bit of a journey, especially in the morning hours from the center but so worth it. We always arrive around sunrise and go for a walk when there are usually just a few other people out. Its peacefulness is unmatched (until the crowds arrive).
Our tradition is to then walk over to the Hozu River and enjoy a coffee at % Arabica which has an epic location on the river.
16. Shop the Local Hand-Wired Home Goods at Kaanami-Tsuji
Kyoto’s plethora of artisanal shops and makers is something that can’t be missed (For more, see my guide on local shops in Kyoto to shop at)
I talked about the knives that we love, but one other stop is at Kaanami-Tsuji. They specialize in coil goods for the kitchen and home. They’re delicate, incredibly beautiful, and make a wonderful gift to take home.
Address: Japan, 〒605-0826 Kyoto, Higashiyama Ward, 高台寺桝屋町362
17. Find Stillness at the Tofuku-ji Temple Zen Garden
For those looking to take a moment or two for quiet reflection, head to Tofuku-ji Temple.
As you pass through the gates, follow into the temple to where the zen garden is. It’s a wonderful location and the stillness here makes for a great spot to zen out. You’ll find many others doing similarly as well. In the fall, you can also spot beautiful autumn colors here as well.
Address: 15 Chome-778 Honmachi, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0981, Japan
18. See the City from Kyoto Tower
Head to the observation deck 100 meters above the city at Kyoto Tower for epic views.
It’s a popular tourist attraction (and for good reason) as it gives a wonderful opportunity to see the vast city.
Inside the Kyoto Tower, you will find a spa, hotel, and restaurants so you could consider enjoying one of these amenities while there.
Address: 721-1 Higashishiokojicho, Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto, 600-8216, Japan
19. Have a Kaiseki Dinner at Mizuki Inside the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto
One of my favorite meals in Kyoto is actually inside the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto.
Mizuki is a fine dining experience that is focused on a kaiseki-style meal. Kaiseki is a traditional multi-course meal that takes you through small dishes focused on refined cuisine. Their kaiseki experience is one of the most elevated I have experienced in Japan, paired with wonderful service.
For this dinner, I would also recommend doing a sake pairing with it as well.
For more of my favorite Kyoto eats, read my guide to the best restaurants in Kyoto.
Address: 543 Hokodencho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, 604-0902, Japan
20. Soak in the Beauty of Ishibe Alley
You may feel like you’ve stepped into a movie set because Ishibe Alley in Kyoto feels totally removed from the city.
The best part is that it is not just a display, there are working hotels, tea houses, and shops in this alley. It is incredibly quiet, you may even spot a geisha from time to time, and it’s well worth a stroll at dawn or dusk.
It’s one of my favorite spots to sneak a photo or two. For more, see this guide on the best photography spots in Kyoto.
Address: 463-34 Shimokawaracho, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0825, Japan
21. Retreat at a Luxury Hotel Along the Hozu River
Kyoto houses several luxury hotels across the city, you truly have several picks.
One of my favorite areas to retreat to is along the Hozu River at Suiran Kyoto. It feels a world away from the city and the tranquil setting makes it an unbeatable location to spend a few days of rest.
For more of my favorite hotels, read this guide on where to stay in Kyoto.
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1. Book Your Flights
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Use Booking.com for hotels and guest houses. They have the biggest inventory and consistently offer the best rates.
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4. Book Your Car
Use Discover Cars or Rentalcars.com to find the best car rental deals. I recommend comparing rental agency reviews on Google to ensure you are booking with the best company in that destination, as the reviews are often more accurate than the car rental search engines.
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