Although a fraction of the size of Tokyo, Kyoto was the capital city of Japan for more than one thousand years! Located in a valley, Kyoto is a hidden gem rich in culture and Japanese history. If you’re visiting Japan, add Kyoto to your itinerary, a six-hour drive or an hour’s flight west of Tokyo. It has a temperate climate year-round and is pleasant to visit at any time of year.
To get a taste of Kyoto attractions, here is a list of the top things to do and places to visit in Kyoto.
Popular Kyoto Attractions
1. Shrines and Temples
Fushimi Inari Taisha is a world-renowned Shinto shrine dedicated to the god Inari, at the foot of the Inari mountain. Inari is the god of rice but has been worshipped as the patron of business, which is why each of the torii pillars leading to the shrine is donated by a Japanese business. You might notice multiple fox statues in the grounds of the shrine – these are thought to be Inari’s messengers.
For more Japanese symbolic animals and their meanings, check out our previous blog post.
Visiting Fushimi Inari Taisha makes for a beautiful day out as visitors are welcome to hike up to the mountain’s summit, stopping at smaller shrines along the way, or at one of the restaurants which serve local dishes. Here, you can try some unmissable delicacies, such as udon noodles or inari sushi!
Important tip: If you go as far as the shrine’s main hall you will be expected to make a small offering out of respect for the resident deity.
Another one of the top Kyoto attractions is the Kinkaku-ji temple whose walls are covered in pure gold. Surrounded by water and trees, the temple looks breathtaking in all seasons, especially with its impressive reflection! Kyoto’s shrines and temples are one of our top ten places to view autumn leaves in Japan.
2. Tea Picking
Japan is famed for its matcha tea and it is possible to immerse yourself in the fascinating world of tea picking and tasting. There are a number of tea picking excursions to enjoy, including rural hikes to tea fields and farms where you can handpick green tea, taste cold brew tea, and learn to whisk your own matcha.
Kyoto is known as the centre of Japanese tea and there are plenty of tea houses where you can take part in a traditional tea ceremony.
It is even possible to sample green tea ice cream in parts of Kyoto – a matcha made in heaven!
3. Philosopher’s Path
The Philosopher’s Path is named after well-known Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who used to meditate while walking this path along the canal to Kyoto university. The canal is surrounded by hundreds of cherry blossom trees which look stunning in the spring. There are also several pretty shrines and places to visit in Kyoto along the route which are only a short deviation from the canal, including the Zen temple, Ginkaku-ji, officially named Jishō-ji. Ginkaku-ji is deemed a national treasure that represents the Muromachi Period, an age said to blend the aristocratic culture of samurai, monks and nobility.
4. Mingle with Monkeys in Iwatayama
Japanese snow monkeys are native to Japan and can be seen and fed in the famous monkey park of Iwatayama. These same monkeys are often seen taking a bath in hot springs.
Located thirty minutes’ walk up the mountainside, 120 snow monkeys roam free in the grass and trees. It is inexpensive to buy monkey food from the shop and the monkeys will come and take the food from your hand. Be careful, though – the monkeys will have no qualms about rummaging through your bags, so make sure they are zipped tight!
5. Mount Kurama and the Hot Springs
Kurama is a rural town nestled in the northern mountains of Kyoto, and is known as the birthplace of the eastern healing practice, reiki. Although it was damaged in a typhoon in late 2018, the hiking trail between Kurama and Kibune has since reopened to the public and is a beautiful place to visit in Kyoto. There are several relaxing hot springs that can be enjoyed by residents and visitors of Kurama, but the main attraction is Kurama-dera, a Buddhist temple found on the mountainside.
6. Visit the Gion district
Gion, set in the geisha district and known for its quaint wooden structures, is a very picturesque place to visit in Kyoto. Wooden merchant houses were built with very narrow facades to avoid high property taxes, as buildings were formally taxed on their frontages, giving the architecture a distinctive and unique look. While the shopfronts may only be six metres wide, the depth can be as far as 20 metres!
Gion is one of the few remaining parts of Japan that preserves the authenticity of geisha experience, making it a truly amazing place to visit. Geisha in Gion are known as geiko or maiko, depending on the seniority of their training – maiko are apprentice geisha while geiko are fully trained. Geisha (translated as ‘arts person’) are trained in traditional Japanese arts and provide dance, music, and calligraphy entertainment at dinners.
See our brief history of Japanese geisha to learn more.
They can sometimes be spotted on their way to or from engagements, but if you are lucky enough to see one on their travels, remember to show respect as some geisha have been distressed by the level of attention from tourists in recent years.
While it may be too expensive and exclusive to experience a geisha’s services at an ochaya (tea house), it is possible to watch a more affordable performance at a theatre or as part of a tourist group experience – definitely worth seeing!
7. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
‘Bamboo Alley’, a walk through the bamboo groves in Arashiyama, is one of the most photographed of Kyoto’s attractions and for good reason. Entering from the main street of Arashiyama or from the Tenryu-ji temple, the walkway leads you through the heart of the bamboo groves where thousands of enormous bamboo stalks line the path. This otherworldly place to visit in Kyoto draws you in as you wind your way through what can only be described as a forest of bamboo.
One thing to keep in mind is that the Arashiyama bamboo grove can get very busy at peak tourist times. It’s a good idea to try and get away from Arashiyama main street and walk deeper into the park. Aside from the bamboo forest, there are tea rooms, gardens and viewing areas for you to make the most of your time!
8. Katsura Imperial Villa
The Katsura Imperial Villa was originally built as a residence for the prince of an imperial family and its location was chosen as an idyllic place to view the moon. With reverence to the importance of the tea ceremony, the villa has four teahouses – one for each season.
There are three structures attached to the main buildings – the ko-shoin, chu-shoin and shin-shoin. This translates to old, middle and new halls respectively. While the buildings themselves are not open to the public, the gardens are a gorgeous place to visit in Kyoto if you join a tour – these are also available in English.
9. Nishiki Market
To truly appreciate the culinary delights in Kyoto, you must take a trip to Kyoto’s Nishiki Market. Stretching across five blocks, this Kyoto attraction is often called Kyoto’s Kitchen as it has the best range of traditional food shops and stalls in the city. Try some tsukemono (pickled vegetables), tanaka keiran (a square omelette) or kai (tiny octopus stuffed with a quail’s egg).
Whether you’re looking for a sit-down meal, a light snack or something fresh to take back to your hotel, Nishiki Market is the place to get it. Just remember that if you decide to get some noodles, don’t bite them off – slurping noodles is not seen as rude in Japan, but as a way of enhancing the flavour and evidence that you are enjoying your food.
10. Kyoto National Museum
Opening in 1897, the Kyoto National Museum is ‘an institution for the collection and preservation of cultural properties’. It displays its permanent collection in rotating exhibits and often showcases special temporary exhibitions as well as contributing to conservation efforts, and is a wonderful place to visit in Kyoto.
The exhibits consist of everything from ceramics and archaeological finds to calligraphy, clothing and works of art, and the museum is divided into three sections; fine arts, handicrafts and archaeology. Many of the artifacts are pre-modern Japanese items, including the famous Gaki-zoshi (Scroll of the Hungry Ghosts) and Senzui Byobu (Landscape Screen) from the 11th century.
If you’re looking for more cultural Kyoto attractions, the Kyoto National Museum is not to be missed!
11. Nijo Castle
Nijo Castle is a complex in the heart of Kyoto. It is surrounded by two concentric walls with moats lining each. The karamon, a Chinese-style gate, stands in front of the Ninomaru palace and is a fantastic place for a photo opportunity!
Within the ground of Nijo Castle you can also find the Ninomaru garden, originally designed by prolific landscape architect Kobori Enshū. The carefully-placed stones around the pond in the Ninomaru garden make it a particularly scenic place.
12. Kyoto Imperial Park and Palace
The Kyoto Imperial Park, or Kyoto Gyoen, is a national garden with lush greenery, traditional structures and tranquil water – a haven of natural life. Set within the park is the Kyoto Imperial Palace, which was home to Japan’s emperors between 1331 and 1869, when the capital was moved to Tokyo.
Tours are available but you can walk freely around the park and palace grounds, although it’s important to note that you cannot enter any of the palace buildings. There are places to eat and shrines to visit around the park and it is a very peaceful place to visit in Kyoto.
Kyoto captures the spirit of Japan like nowhere else, and Kyoto attractions feature architecture and culture harking back to ancient days, warranting it a top spot on every avid traveller’s bucket list. If you’re looking to do a trip across Japan, check out our travel guides to Tokyo and Yokohama too.