So you’re in Japan’s cultural city and looking for the best things to do in Kyoto? Well, we have you covered.
Kyoto is one of the top places to visit in Japan. It carries a world-class reputation and was once the capital of Japan. Needless to say, there is a lot to do in Kyoto. From walking around the Geisha district to exploring the thousands of temples and shrines, or eating your way around the city, you’ll be hard pressed to get bored in Kyoto.
The city blends the best of ancient and modern Japan, and any visitor here will fall in love with Kyoto’s points of interest.
Table of Contents
- Rent a Bike
- Path of Philosophy
- Fushimi Inari-Taisha
- Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
- Spot Geisha
- Have Dinner with a Maiko
- Enjoy Gion at Night
- Try Real Matcha
- Higashiyama Jisho Ji
- Kinkaku–ji Temple
- Kyoto Imperial Palace
- Conveyor Belt Sushi
- Sushi Making
- Learn Kendo
- Stay in an Art Exhibition
- Kabuki Theatre
- Enjoy Sakura
- Sake Tasting
- Rent a Kimono
- Japanese Tea Ceremony
- Nishiki Market
- Enjoy the Park
- Day Trip to Nara
- Where to stay in Kyoto?
- What to Pack for Kyoto
The Best Things to do in Kyoto
Rent a Bike
If you only have 3 days in Kyoto or less, the very first thing I want to stress is to rent a bike. If you want to really cover ground and explore all the things there are to do in Kyoto you will need a faster mode of transport than your two feet.
We rented a bike for two days of our time in Kyoto, and afterwards, I wish I would have done it throughout our whole time in Japan. There are many bike lanes throughout the city, and Japanese drivers treat bicyclists with respect. If you feel a bit nervous riding on the street, I saw many people on the sidewalks too.
We scoured our bike rentals from Bicycle rental Raku-chari Sanjo near the Gion district for ¥1500 for 24 hours. The longer you rent, the more of a deal you may be able to work out with them.
Note that it is not easy to park your bike in Kyoto. You cannot just leave your bicycle locked up anywhere without the risk of having it impounded. There are designated areas to park your bicycle for 100-200 yen for the day, but at many tourist sites, there is free bicycle parking. It’s also important to note that some areas in Kyoto have banned bicycle riding. Upon renting your bike, the shop should notify you of these areas.
- Location: Raku-chari Sanjo
- Cost: ¥1500 for a full 24 hours
- ¥100-200 for bike parking per six hours
Ride that Bike Down the Path of Philosophy
If you’re wondering where to go in Kyoto first with your bicycle head to the Path of Philosophy. The Path of Philosophy is a quiet and scenic path that runs between Ginkaku-Ji Temple in the north and Eikan-do Temple in the south. It’s a spiritual path that is a delightful retreat away from the city.
Along the path are small boutique shops and cafes. It’s perfect for riding a bike on or just going for a stroll with your sweetheart.
The path is stunning during the springtime when the cherry blossom trees are in bloom, and also in the fall when the leaves turn orange and yellow. However, the Path of Philosophy is a stunning canal stroll any time of the year!
- Location: Between Ginkaku-Ji Temple in the north and Eikan-do Temple
- Cost: Free
Perhaps the most famous shrine on Instagram and in Japan is Fushimi Inari-Taisha in Kyoto. This shrine is at the base of the mountain Inari and has many trails up from the bottom to the mountain. It’s definitely one of the best places to visit in Kyoto, but only at the right time.
Along the 4 kilometers walk up you’ll pass numerous smaller shrines to enjoy. Get here before 7 am to avoid the tourist buses, seriously if you get here after 9 am you’ll be with swarms of crowds. Also, don’t take all your photos at the entrance of the shine. Walk a bit until you find yourself alone to grab the best photo (that’s what we did below).
- Location: Fushimi Inari Taisha
- Cost: Free
- Tips: Get there EARLY. Like 6am early.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
One of the most popular Kyoto attractions is the bamboo forest. The Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is easily one of the best places in Japan to visit. Lying between two temples that look like they’ve leaped from the pages of a Japanese fairy tale, the bamboo forest in Arashiyama is a mythical place that’ll make you feel like you’ve been transported to another world. Watching the towering bamboo sway and creak in the breeze as you gaze down the corridor into the forest is a remarkable experience.
- Location: Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
- Cost: FREE
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: Get here INCREDIBLY early to beat the crowds
Bamboo has a long tradition in Japanese culture and has been used as a building material, dining implements, tools, and even clothing and hats. The area is also known for its spring cherry blossoms and the brilliant maple leaves that change in the fall. There are plenty of trails to take you through the forest and to the adjacent temples, or if you’d like to ride, bike rentals are available.
Spot Geisha in Gion
Seeing if you can spot a Geisha in Gion is one of the best things to do in Kyoto at night! Geisha, Maiko, and Geiko are a huge and essential part of Japanese culture. Unfortunately, there’s a preconceived notion that Geisha are prostitutes, and this cannot be farther from the truth. If you’re traveling to Japan chances are you probably know that a Geisha is not a prostitute, but just in case you don’t…
A geisha is a highly skilled and trained professional artist. She is a female entertainer performing different forms of Japanese art. To hire out a geisha for a private event is a not cheap affair and is typically done at an ochaya (tea house) or at a ryōte (Japanese restaurant).
Prices typically start at ¥100,000 for upper geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha). As a foreigner, it can be pretty tough to hire out a Maiko or Geisha from the Geisha mother, as it’s typically reserved for well-known clients. AKA not first-timers, and definitely not foreign visitors, but rather Japanese businesspeople.
If hiring out a geisha is not in your budget see if you can spot them around the city. Gion, in Kyoto, is the traditional geisha district in Japan and it is here that you stand the best chance of seeing one going to or from an appointment. We saw about 40 in one night by just hanging out in Gion on a Saturday night and spotting them walking to and from tea house to tea house. Quite an amazing experience!
I was also able to see Geiko at Setsubun Celebrations in Kyoto before, Kabuki Theatre in Gion, and having dinner at Enchanted time with Maiko.
- Location: Hanami Lane
- Cost: FREE
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: 5:45, 6:45, and 7:45 no weekend nights is when you stand your best chance to see a geiko.
Enchanted Evening with Maiko
Our Airbnb host told us about Enchanted time with Maiko, when we asked her where we could have more interactions with a Geiko or Maiko in Kyoto.
This is a three-hourlong dinner, drinks, and entertainment extravaganza where tourists are able to interact one on one with a real Maiko. In the heart of the Gion district, you can go and have a traditional Kaiseki meal, unlimited plum wine, shochu, sake, and beer and be literally enchanted by a Maiko’s performance. Afterward, each group is able to have one on one time with the Maiko and through a translator able to ask any questions you could want.
I’ve always been interested in Geisha culture and asking Maiko questions like, “Can you be on social media,” and “What do you do for fun,” was eye-opening for me. Check their website here and email the organizers to see what dates you are able to join in on the fun. This must be booked in advance.
- Location: Yasakadori Enraku
- Cost: ¥19,000
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: Book in Advance
Hang out in Gion
There are other things to do in the Gion District besides go Geisha hunting. . The whole district is filled with shops, restaurants and ochaya (teahouses). It’s extremely romantic to walk down during the quiet winter months or at sunrise before all the tourists come out.
I love walking around the Gion district as it feels like I’m exploring Kyoto as it was before WWII. No high rises, no modern chain restaurants or shopping malls, just pure beauty.
- Location: Gion District
- Cost: FREE
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: Don’t forget to at least have one special meal here.
Try Real Matcha
Kyoto is known for having the best matcha in all of Japan. The cities specialty is called “Uji matcha” and is regarded as the highest quality green tea.
There are plenty of high-end Matcha cafes around Kyoto to enjoy real matcha at. A few notable ones are Charyo Tsujiri, Nakamura Tokichi, and Umezono.
You can expect to try things like Matcha pancakes, Matcha sundaes, or traditional matcha tea.
- Location: Charyo Tsujiri
- Cost: ¥1,000
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: Waiting in line at these places is common
Higashiyama Jisho Ji
Higashiyama Jisho Ji, or Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), is a stunning temple in the heart of Kyoto. It’s not Silver, but it is well worthy of some exploration. The grounds surrounding the temple are stunning and everything you think of when you think about Japan. Perfectly zen and set alongside the mountains.
It costs ¥500 to enter the grounds and takes about a half hour to explore. Get here early or late as this site gets crowded come midday. You can reach Ginkakuji by foot along the Philosopher’s Path from Nanzenji in about 30-45 minutes, or ride a bike for 10 minutes along the path.
- Location: Higashiyama Jisho Ji
- Cost: ¥500
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: Get here early!
From the 8th to the 19th century, Kyoto was Japan’s capital. Though it no longer holds that distinction, it’s rich in history and home to the Kinkaku-ju Temple, or ‘Golden Temple.’ Perhaps the quintessential Zen temple, it got its name due to the two top floors which are covered in gold leaf. The temple was originally home to an aged shogun warrior who was too old for that brutal lifestyle and wanted to spend his golden years surrounded by beauty and serenity.
You’ll understand why he chose this location and style of architecture when you see it. The present building was reconstructed in the ’50s after an insane monk purportedly set fire to it. Thankfully, the damage was repaired shortly after that, restoring the building to its original splendor.
- Location: Kinkaku–ji Temple
- Cost: ¥400
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: Make sure to come on a sunny day so you can see the sun reflect off the gold!
Kyoto Imperial Palace
The Kyoto Imperial Palace was the Imperial Family’s residence until 1868 when the capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo.
The Palace is located in the center of the much larger Kyoto Imperial Park and is the perfect thing to combine with Kinkaku-hi and Ginkakuji.
Entrance into the palace grounds is free, and they have free guided walking tours in English throughout the day. The grounds are massive, but you cannot go into any of the buildings, only view from the outside.
The grounds took us about 45 minutes to explore, just outside is a bike park, bathrooms, and a cafe.
- Location: Kyoto Imperial Palace
- Cost: FREE
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: Allocate an hour for walking around here
Have Conveyor Belt Sushi
While sushi is probably a special and expensive meal out where you live, you can find it for an affordable price in Japan. Of course, there are expensive world-class options, but Kyoto is full of affordable conveyor belt sushi options.
Conveyor belt sushi is a quick and cheap meal in Japan. Sushi is made and sent out onto a train like a conveyor belt which will rotate around the restaurant. Guests can grab what they please and then at the end of the meal the waitress will come to tally up the plates to give a total for the meal.
The plates are different colored and the higher grade sushi goes on more expensive plates, which is all color coded. Typically you can get two pieces of nigiri for ¥100 to ¥200 and then the prices go up from there depending on the cut of fish.
You can easily walk out of a sushi conveyor belt meal feeling stuffed off high-quality fish for under ¥1500. That’s the price of mediocre sushi in the United States! The absolute best belt sushi we had in all of Kyoto was Musashi Sushi, they have over 1800 reviews on Google so don’t just take my advice on it!
- Location: Musashi Sushi
- Cost: ¥1000/ per person
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: Go midday to avoid waiting in line
Catch sunset at Yasaka-no-Tou
A favorite thing to do for photographers (and Instastars) is catch sunset at Yasaka no Tour. Yasaka-no-Tou is one of the most iconic sights in the Higashiyama sightseeing district.
This pagoda tours over the streets of Higashiyama and is truly a site to take in. During the day the area is busy with tourists, but show up around sunset and you might get lucky with fewer people around.
We had to wait until one hour after sunset for everyone to altogether leave and get a people free photo, but it was more than worth it. The whole area surrounding the pagoda brings you back in time.
- Location: Yasaka-no-Tou
- Cost: FREE
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: You’ll have to wait until nighttime to get photos without anyone in them
If you are a sushi connoisseur like us, then it’s only fitting to take a sushi making class (and then eat your creation). For one hour, we were given an in-depth sushi making class by a top Kyoto sushi chef. Afterward, we got to put our Japanese food to the test and taste it all ourselves.
You may have taken sushi classes elsewhere before, but in my opinion, there is no better place than Japan.
- Location: Various Around Kyoto
- Cost: ¥4000-10,000
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: Arrive Hungry! You get to eat what you create.
Learn the Art of Kendo
One of the best non touristy things to do in Kyoto is try Kendo! Kendo is a traditional Japanese martial art, which descended from swordsmanship (kenjutsu) and uses bamboo swords (shinai) and protective armour (bōgu). However unlike Jujutsu or Judo, Kendo is actually not well known outside of Japan.
Despite being well known, Kendo is actually widely practiced within Japan. As a visitor it’s possible to learn the basics of Kendo in a short amount of time. We found this activity on Airbnb experiences and were so excited to try it in the oldest Dojo in Japan. (A Dojo is a typical Japanese hall where martial arts is usually practiced).
Over two hours, we learned the basics of Kendo, and even got to fight each other and our teacher. It was a unique thing to do in Kyoto, but definitely worthwhile!
- Location: Butokuden in Kyoto Budo Center
- Cost: ¥8000
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: Wear light clothing in the summer. The Kendo attire is hot.
- Do What We Did: We found this on Airbnb Experiences.
Stay in an Art Hotel
The perfect unique thing to do in Kyoto is stat at an art installation hotel. The BnA Alter Museum is a brand new hotel in the heart of Kyoto. Each room here has been designed by an artist in a unique and sensory way.
Each of the 31 rooms is essentially a permanent exhibition that you can sleep in. Outside the hotel is a ten story staircase art gallery, and a contemporary bar. We found this hotel on Airbnb two days after its grand opening. We decided to go big and book the best room in the hotel and were completely blown away with what was inside. I honestly can’t share too much without giving away the surprise, but trust me, it’s impressive.
- Location: BnA Art Hotel
- Cost: ¥15000
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: No Spoilers!
Still wondering what to see in Kyoto? How about some Kabuki! Kabuki is a traditional Japanese dance-drama. It’s highly stylized, often comical, and known for the elaborate makeup worn by the performers.
I went to my first Kabuki theatre in 2013 and laughed so hard even though I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying. It’s a perfect time for visitors and Japanese. .
Minami-za is the main kabuki theatre in Kyoto, Japan. Founded in 1610 it is historic and beautiful seating 1086 people.
- Location: Minami-za
- Cost: ¥4200-10000
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: Book in advance!
The cherry blossom or Sakura in Japanese is perhaps one of the most remarkable things about Japan. Every spring, the blossoming of sakura draws in thousands of people from around the world.
Kyoto is one of the top destinations tourists and Japanese alike go to view cherry blossoms. Just walking around the city, you will be filled with pink emotions everywhere.
- Location: Around Kyoto!
- Cost: FREE
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: Be out at sunrise to avoid crowds
Drink Some Sake
Had enough of Kyoto sightseeing? One of my favorite things to do when I get to Japan is hit up a sake bar. Sake is a Japanese rice wine that can be served chilled, room temperature, or warm.
I love warm sake in the winter and love chilled sake in the summer. There are plenty of sake bars around Kyoto to pop into for a few glasses of Japanese sake. Two of my favorites are JAM +SAKE bar and Sake Bar Yoramu.
- Location: JAM +SAKE bar
- Cost: ¥300-500 a tasting
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: Ask your bartender for recommendations
Setsubun is a bean throwing festival in Japan that celebrates the beginning of spring. The festival happens each year on February 3rd, and in Kyoto, it is a good chance to see a Maiko. It’s a wild good time that happens in the Gion district of Kyoto, so if you’re visiting Kyoto in the winter it’s worth checking out!
- Location: All around Kyoto
- Cost: Free
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: Make sure to have a camera, this is a photogenic time.
Rent a Kimono
One of the top things to do in Kyoto is to rent a kimono. Renting a kimono is a very popular activity for both men and women to do. Once you walk around the Gion district for the first time you will see what I mean. There are tons of tourists dressed in Kimono, don’t be fooled and mistake them for Maiko.
Kimono rental shops are very prevalent throughout Kyoto, and it’s quite trendy to rent them and grab photos in scenic spots. Most kimono rentals will rent out kimonos for the entire day, so make sure to hit all the photo spots you want on that day.
Be forewarned, wearing a kimono is not a super comfortable experience (especially the shoes), so try not to venture too far between the kimono rental shop and where you want to grab photos.
- Location: Various Rental Shops
- Cost: ¥3000-4000
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: Wear comfortable clothes under your kimono
Enjoy a Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony
The Japanese tea ceremony is a traditional Japanese cultural activity that involves the preparation and beautiful presentation of matcha tea. It’s a unique thing to do in Kyoto and will teach visitors a lot about Japanese culture.
The tea ceremony represents respect, harmony, purity, and tranquility, and as visitors, you can learn the basic concepts and ideas of a tea ceremony. The providers will demonstrate “the way of tea” in a quiet atmosphere and give you the chance to make your own matcha tea with Japanese cake!
- Location: Various Operators
- Cost: ¥5000-6000
Visit the Nishiki Market
The Nishiki Market is a great free thing to do in Kyoto for those looking for a delicious cultural experience. Like market in Osaka, this is a five-block long shopping street with hundreds of shops and restaurants.
Here you’ll find things like fresh seafood, produce, and all kinds of knick-knacks. It’s also where you can find sushi, sweets, and Kyoto specialties.
Hours are typically from 9:00 to 18:00, and like with most markets the earlier you arrive, the better. However, if you visit later in the day around closing time, you’ll likely find vendors slashing prices.
- Location: Nishiki Market
- Cost: FREE
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: Avoid the midday here.
Enjoy a Beautiful Day in the Park
All along the Kamo River is an amazing green space to enjoy the fresh air. It’s here that you’ll find visitors and Japanese alike enjoying the park. On weekends it gets busy with families, friends, and couples coming together to ride bikes, grill out, fish, or enjoy a game of cards. It’s a great free thing to do in Kyoto if you’re looking to spend time outside!
- Location: Kamo River
- Cost: Free
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: Grab some food and drinks from 7-11 and enjoy lunch here.
Day Trip from Kyoto to Nara
I know this technically isn’t a thing to do in Kyoto, but it makes for a great day trip from Kyoto. The city of Nara is only a 45 train ride from Kyoto and is where you can find Nara Park.
Nara Park is home to hundreds and hundreds of deer. These deer are considered the messengers of the Gods, and have become a symbol of Nara.
Once you arrive at Nara Park, you will no doubt start to see the deer. They will approach you in hopes of food, and you can get some deer crackers from the many vendors around. Please only feed them the deer crackers as human food is bad for their digestion and can even lead to death.
Nara Park is a great free thing to do in Kyoto, especially for families who love wildlife. It’s worth noting that if you bow to the deer, they will likely bow back. Keep exploring past the deer to see the famous Todaiji temple.
- Location: Nara Deer Park
- Cost: Free to enter the park, ¥100 for deer crackers, and ¥500 to enter Todaiji temple.
- Kyoto Insider’s Tip: Some of the deer can become aggressive – don’t taunt them!
Where to stay in Kyoto?
Kyoto has some absolutely fantastic places on Airbnb. Here is the exact family Ryokan we stayed at and highly recommend! To feel more at home, we use Airbnb – you can check out some tips and read more about getting an Airbnb coupon code here. Or take this coupon for your first stay!r
BnA Alter Museum: Art Suite Room by EYE
As mentioned above, we also stayed in a brand new art installation hotel that we found on Airbnb. It was a unique experience and I expect it to get more and more booked up with popularity so stay there while the price is still reasonable!
Yadoya Manjiro is the best place to stay in Kyoto! To stay at a traditional Japanese Ryokan is an amazing experience. Yadoya Manjiro is located in the heart of Higashiyama and has some of the best reviews in the entire city!
What to Pack for Kyoto
Delsey 24″ Spinner
Delsey makes my favorite hard side luggage, and after five years of travel around the world, they have yet to let me down. Plus their bags look incredibly stylish, have heavy duty wheels, TSA approved lock and two full packing compartments with tie-down straps and a zippered divider. If you want something different, check out our other favorite carry on luggage pieces.
Carry on Backpack
As far as design the Knack Expandable Backpack is one of my favorites in the travel world. Everything about this pack has been well thought out, and I’m impressed by the organization of the pockets and the ridiculous amount of features in such a small layout. Serious kudos to the designers of this pack. There are a lot of travel backpack companies popping up these days, but the vast majority of them are lacking in terms of build quality — not the case with this pack.
Travel Water Bottle
The tap water in Japan is clean, so there is no need to buy plastic water bottles and contribute to our world’s plastic problem. We’ve shifted to using an insulated aluminum water bottle as it handles the hot sun well and also keeps drinks warm when need be. See all of our favorite water bottles here.
Smith Lowdown 2
If you’re visiting during the summer, you will want sunglasses in Japan. Smith makes my favorites. The Chromapop lens technologyis like seeing the world with a fresh set of our eyes. They enhance contrast, reduce glare, and reflection for grand vision while driving, walking around town, or out on the water. We also love the style of glasses for anyone who likes to live an active lifestyle.
It is considered rude to wear your shoes inside in Japan so most places will give you slippers to walk around with once you take your shoes off at the door. However, I never found these slippers comfortable and would rather have my own from home.
You’ll be doing a lot of walking in Japan, especially if you are hanging out in cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, Sapporo, or Osaka. Make sure your feet don’t want to kill you and get a pair of good men’s walking shoes or women’s walking shoes.
Chances are you’ll want a camera for your trip to Japan. Our favorite pocket-sized point and shoot camera for quick trips are the Sony RX100V. It takes fantastic photos and video and is the size of your palm. To up your photography game, a bit consider the Fuji X-T3. We just bought that camera and found the images to look amazing. Check out our other travel cameras here.
Check out some of the best sellers right now and pick up a copy. There’s nothing better than enjoying a good book under the comfort of a Japanese katsu table. I’ve recently upgraded to the Kindle Paperwhite. It’s small, has touchscreen functions, and a backlight so that I can read at night without a harsh glare.
Japan mainly uses the Type A plug like North America, but there is generally no socket for the grounded portion. Make sure you find a good universal adapter like the one I have to keep you charged. Otherwise, you may struggle to find one once you land.
We don’t travel without travel insurance and neither should you. You never know what can happen in a foreign country and it’s best to be prepared. World Nomads provides good short term coverage.
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