Kyoto is a remarkable city of culture, perhaps best known for its Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines – many of which hold UNESCO World Heritage Site status. In fact, there are 17 UNESCO sites across the city. Kyoto is also home to some impressive gardens, parks and palaces, along with ample restaurants and bars to enjoy, meaning you’ll never be short of things to do in the city.
If you’ve been following our blog, you might have read our guide to the best places to visit in Kyoto. In this follow-up post, we explore some of the best activities you can enjoy in the city; from absorbing the fascinating history of UNESCO World Heritage Sites to sipping tea during a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
The Best Things to do in Kyoto: From Temples to Tea Ceremonies
There’s so much to see and do in Kyoto. But don’t worry, our guide is designed to help you with the very best things to see and do in the city. Without further ado, here are our top recommendations for things to do in Kyoto.
The Best Temples and Shrines to Visit in Kyoto
The beautiful temples of Kyoto are a must-see when visiting the city. Kyoto’s temples and shrines offer a glimpse into the history of the city, showcasing impressive architecture, fascinating practices and traditional cuisines.
Kinkaku-Ji Temple (The Golden Pavilion)
As one of Kyoto’s 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Kinkaku-Ji Temple is one not to be missed. This Zen Buddhist temple features three distinct styles of architecture (shinden, samurai and zen), all of which are visible across three floors. It’s often referred to as The Golden Pavilion as its top two floors are completely covered with golden leaves.
Kinkaku-Ji Temple is also set within a beautiful strolling garden, designed with the purpose of integrating the outside and inside for complete tranquillity. Explore this impressive temple and gardens with us on our Very Best of Japan tour.
Ryoanji Temple and its Rock Garden
Ryoanji Temple is another UNESCO World Heritage Site that we visit on our Very Best of Japan tour. The home of Japan’s most famous rock garden, this Zen Buddhist Temple dates back to 1450 and belongs to a school sect of Zen Buddhism. The rock garden itself can be viewed from the Hojo, the residence of the former head priest, and features large rock formations nestled amongst smoother pebbles. The meaning behind the garden is still unknown, which is often what makes the experience so fascinating for visitors.
Located in eastern Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist temple dates back to 778 and is famous for its large wooden terrace. The temple is one of Kyoto’s most popular attractions. In fact, it’s so popular that it has its own expression!
“To jump off the stage at Kiyomizu” is similar to the English expression “to take the plunge”.
Kiyomizu-Dera Temple is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and can be enjoyed during our Very Best of Japan tour.
Fushimi Inari Shrine and its Famous Torii Gates
Take a short coach journey from Kyoto and you’ll find Fushimi Inari Shrine and its Famous Torii Gates. This grand Shinto shrine was built in 711, just before Kyoto became the capital of Japan. Its exterior is marked by bright orange Torii Gates.
The shrine is surrounded by a series of trails climbing the 233m mountain. Many tourists visit the shrine to hike the trails and witness the thousands of Torii Gates that align them. This impressive sight is another stop on our Japan tour.
Sanju-Sangendo Temple is another temple (available as an optional activity) on our Japan tour. The Buddhist temple was founded in 1164 and is famed for its 1001 status of Kannon – the goddess of mercy. Sanju-Sangendo Temple is also well-known for its long main hall and various sculptures scattered throughout.
Experience the Most Beautiful Nature in Kyoto
Aside from its splendid shrines and awe-inspiring temples, Kyoto is perhaps best known for its natural beauty. The slow-paced city has lots to offer for those keen to get outside and enjoy the best of nature.
Arashiyama’s Bamboo Grove
Kyoto’s Bamboo Grove Forest can be found in the Arashiyama district of the city. The bamboo forest is an endless walkway of swaying bamboo boughs. Stroll the pathways as sunlight filters through the bamboo trees. Arashiyama’s Bamboo Grove is an immersive experience that’s open 24/7 – and it’s free to enter!
Nijo Castle’s Gardens
Nijo Castle itself is well worth the visit, but you’ll also find the Seiryu-en garden in the most modern section of Nijo Castle. With over 1,000 carefully arranged stones, it’s an impressive sight to behold. There are also two teahouses on-site, making it the perfect place for a stroll and a spot of traditional tea.
Monkey Park Iwatayama
This commercial park, located in Arashiyama, is inhabited by over 120 Japanese macaque monkeys. Although wild, the monkeys can be fed with food purchased from the park. It’s sure to be an experience.
Walk the Philosopher’s Path
The Philosopher’s Path, Tetsugaku No Michi, is a pedestrian path that follows a shallow canal from Lake Biwa. The path gets its name from famous Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who meditated daily along the route on his commute to Kyoto University. The pathway is lined with Cherry Blossom trees, making it the perfect spot for a soothing stroll.
Autumn Leaves or Cherry Blossom in Kyoto
Cherry Blossom season in Kyoto runs from late March to mid-April (and sometimes early May). If you’re visiting in the autumn months instead, rest assured the autumn leaves of Kyoto are just as impressive.
Immerse Yourself in Kyoto Culture
Kyoto is a city with a fascinating past. The rich history of the city is still evident today across Kyoto’s cultural sights. Here are some of the best cultural activities to enjoy.
Visit Gion Kyoto’s Famous Geisha District
Gion is an area of Southern Higashiyama that’s famed for being the city’s main geisha district. You’ll find places to eat, impressive architecture and countless teahouses to enjoy maiko and geisha performances.
Visit the Samurai and Ninja Museum
If you’re interested in exploring Japan’s fascinating samurai and ninja history, dating back to the Edo-period, then the Samurai and Ninja Museum is a must-see. The experience houses armour, weapons and tools that would have been used in Japan’s mediaeval eras.
Explore Nishiki Market
Fascinatingly fast-paced, this market in downtown Kyoto is a lively space selling a range of foods. You’ll even find Japanese specialities up for grabs, such as sweets, pickles and sushi.
Discover the Kyoto International Manga Museum
The Kyoto International Manga Museum holds one of the largest Manga collections in the world. Browse over 300,000 books and learn all about the fascinating history of Japan’s famous graphic novels.
Visit the Sake District of Fushimi
A trip to Kyoto wouldn’t be complete without exploring the origins of sake, a Japanese alcoholic beverage. Fushimi is a traditional sake brewing district in southern Kyoto with around 40 sake breweries. See how sake is produced and try the beverage for yourself from some of the country’s finest sake breweries.
Some of the Best Bars and Restaurants in Kyoto!
After a busy day of sightseeing, kick back and relax at one of Kyoto’s most popular restaurants or bars.
Omen is home to one of the best udon noodle dishes in the city. Their signature dish is udon broth, served hot or cod, but there’s also an a la carte menu to accompany the centrepiece.
This intimate cafe serves seasonal Japanese food with a twist – everything is 100% plant-based. There’s also an eco-friendly shopping boutique to browse, inspired by the owner’s trip to Denmark
Looking for a place to sample sushi without breaking the bank? Azuma Sushi is a traditional sushi restaurant in Higashiyama that focuses on affordability and quality.
After a busy day of sightseeing, there are few things that will refuel you like fresh dumplings. Gyoza Hohei is often packed with locals tucking into an affordable yet tasty gyoza plate or two.
Kikunoi Honten is a three-Michelin-star restaurant that serves authentic Japanese food with an elegant twist. The restaurant interior is atmospheric and each dish is elegantly presented. It’s a fine dining experience that you won’t forget.
L’Escamoteur is a magical cocktail bar offering an experience like no other. Their menu is creative with all drinks following a theme of mystery and magic. They also host live music events and can be found in the Shimogyo district of Kyoto.
Offering views over Kyoto’s river, this modern bar offers over 1,200 varieties of sake from across Japan. You’ll also find some of the finest spirits and cocktails around, but its views and interior are what really sets Bar K6 apart.
Where will Kyoto take you?
Kyoto is undoubtedly a city packed with culture, history and passion. Whether you decide to explore the city’s natural beauty, embrace its rich history, or sit back and relax with a tasty sake, creating your own experiences is part of the journey.
Kyoto is one of the cities included in our Very Best of Japan Tour. We explore this wonderful city across 3 action-packed days, with many amazing experiences included in the price. You’ll also get a ‘Freedom’ afternoon to explore at your own pace.
Learn more and view the full itinerary on our Japan Tours page.