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20 of the Best Things to Do in Kyoto, Japan’s Ancient Capital

By Ashley Owen
October 20, 2021
Updated: November 24, 2021

Kyoto is an undeniably beautiful city. From its atmospheric temples and photogenic shrines to stunning natural scenery, there’s an unbelievable amount to discover. It’s also a true cultural hub, boasting impressive museums, historic teahouses, and an epic culinary scene that’s sure to get your mouth watering.

Not sure where to begin? Here are our top suggestions for the best things to do in Kyoto. The only difficulty will be fitting everything in!

20 Top Things to Do in Kyoto

Here are 20 of the best things to do in Kyoto during your trip:

  1. Admire the gilded splendor of Kinkakuji
  2. Stroll through the torii gate tunnels of Fushimi Inari shrine
  3. Explore the magnificent Kiyomizu-dera temple
  4. Join a Japanese cooking class
  5. Take a Kyoto food tour
  6. Marvel at the ethereal bamboo groves in Arashiyama
  7. Experience wabi-sabi at Ginkakuji
  8. Wander the historic streets of Gion
  9. Picnic in Maruyama Park
  10. Step back in time at Nijo Castle
  11. Enjoy kōyō at Tofukuji temple
  12. Participate in a traditional tea ceremony
  13. Walk along the Philosopher’s Path
  14. Go hiking in nature
  15. Browse at the International Manga Museum
  16. Sip sake in the Fushimi district
  17. Get cultural at the Kyoto National Museum
  18. Head up Mount Hiei 
  19. Discover the beauty of Kuruma-dera temple
  20. Attend a festival

1. Admire the gilded splendor of Kinkakuji

Golden Kinkakuji Temple surrounded by green pine trees with its image reflected in the pond

Kinkakuji, or the Golden Pavilion, is one of the most iconic sights in Kyoto. The top two floors of this Zen temple are completely covered in dazzling gold leaf, and the image of it surrounded by pine trees and reflected in the mirror-like pond below is sure to take your breath away.

2. Stroll through the torii gate tunnels of Fushimi Inari shrine

A tunnel of red torii gates

The endless red torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine are among the city’s most photogenic features, and strolling through them is one of the quintessential things to do in Kyoto. Foxes are thought to be messengers of the god Inari, so keep an eye out for the many statues of these cute animals dotted around the grounds.

3. Explore the magnificent Kiyomizu-dera temple

The wooden veranda at Kiyomizu-dera temple overlooking a green valley and Kyoto city

Perched on top of a hill with a fantastic view over the city, Kiyomizu-dera temple is a beautiful and bustling place to explore. Take a drink from one of the three streams of the pure Otowa Waterfall to gain longevity, academic success, or luck in love.

4. Join a Japanese cooking class

Close up of five pink wagashi sweets

Taking a Japanese cooking class is one of the top things to do in Kyoto when it rains, and there are plenty to choose from. You can learn everything from how to make traditional wagashi sweets and decorative sushi, or even your own ramen noodles from scratch.

Check out these top 10 cooking classes in Kyoto for a hands-on experience with a local teacher.

5. Take a Kyoto food tour

One of the best ways to explore Kyoto’s culinary scene is with a food tour. Discover the wonders of Nishiki Market (Kyoto’s Kitchen), attend a Japanese whisky tasting session, or join an evening izakaya food tour if you’re looking for things to do in Kyoto at night. 

6. Marvel at the ethereal bamboo groves in Arashiyama

An empty path lined with tall green bamboo trees

Scenic Arashiyama is most famous for its otherworldly bamboo forests, where tall stalks tower above the walking paths and leaves rustle gently in the breeze. The Shigetsu restaurant in nearby Tenryuji is a fantastic spot to enjoy the traditional vegetarian Buddhist cuisine shojin ryori in a temple.

7. Experience wabi-sabi at Ginkakuji

Image of Ginkakuji Temple surrounded by green pine trees

Elegant Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion) is the understated sister of Kinkakuji, and despite its name is not actually coated in silver. This temple is the perfect embodiment of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which finds beauty in transience and simplicity. Don’t miss the stunning gardens of moss and neatly raked white sand.

8. Wander the historic streets of Gion

A street in Gion at night, with wooden buildings and a pagoda in the background

Most famous for being Kyoto’s geisha district, wandering around historic Gion is one of the most atmospheric things to do in Kyoto at night. The preserved narrow streets and traditional wooden architecture will transport you right back to the Edo era.

9. Picnic in Maruyama Park

People walking through Maruyama Park, with a cherry blossom tree in bloom in the background

Picnicking in the spacious grounds of Maruyama Park is one of the top cheap things to do in Kyoto when the weather is good – especially in spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. It’s also a lovely place for a stroll, with lots of pretty walking trails to discover.

10. Step back in time at Nijo Castle

Wooden building at Nijo Castle

Once the official Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa shoguns, the imposing gates and opulent palace buildings of Nijo Castle are fascinating to explore. Look out for the famous "nightingale floors," which squeak when walked upon to alert people to the presence of intruders! 

11. Enjoy kōyō at Tofukuji temple

People admiring the red and orange trees from the wooden walkway at Tofukuji Temple

Tofukuji temple’s extensive grounds and striking buildings are worth a visit at any time of year, but are particularly spectacular in the autumn. November sees the Japanese maple trees turn a vibrant red in one of the city’s most breathtaking displays of fall foliage (kōyō), and witnessing it is among the most memorable things to do in Kyoto.

12. Participate in a traditional tea ceremony

Close up image of a bowl of frothy green matcha tea with a traditional white Japanese sweet and a purple flower

No trip to Kyoto would be complete without experiencing an authentic tea ceremony. At teahouses across the city, you can taste perfectly prepared matcha green tea and traditional Japanese sweets, while learning more about the history and etiquette that surrounds this popular drink.

Check out these 5 best tea ceremony experiences in Kyoto to learn more about the Japanese "way of tea."

13. Walk along the Philosopher’s Path

People walking along a narrow pathway next to canal, lined with pink cherry blossom trees

The Philosopher’s Path is a charming walking trail that runs alongside a canal in the Higashiyama district, and a great option if you’re looking for free things to do in Kyoto. It was named after Nishida Kitaro, a philosopher who took meditative strolls here on his way to work at Kyoto University.

14. Go hiking in nature

A set of steps leading up the mountainside to a black torii gate on Mount Atago

For those who want a more challenging walk, Kyoto has plenty of gorgeous hiking trails to explore. Some of the best options include the path that runs along the Kiyotaki River from Takao Village to Hozukyo Station, and tackling the majestic 924-meter Mount Atago – the city’s tallest peak.

15. Browse at the International Manga Museum

Bookshelves and displays of manga comics

A must for all fans of the art, the Kyoto International Manga Museum has a massive collection of Japanese comics available for visitors to peruse or take out to the courtyard to read. The facility also holds temporary exhibitions on different themes, as well as talks by manga artists.

16. Sip sake in the Fushimi district

Big wooden barrels outside a sake brewery in Fushimi

If you enjoy Japanese rice wine, visiting the Fushimi sake district should be top of your list of things to do in Kyoto. Thanks to the pure water from the nearby river, there are nearly 40 breweries here – several of which offer tours and tastings, plus have shops selling limited edition bottles.

17. Get cultural at the Kyoto National Museum

The outside entrance of Kyoto National Museum

One of the most distinguished museums in the country, the Kyoto National Museum is a must-visit for those interested in Japanese art and history. Its collection features an impressive array of fine art, handicrafts and archeological artifacts, with frequent special exhibitions also held on site – a perfect idea for things to do in Kyoto when it rains!

18. Head up Mount Hiei 

A shot of a red building at Enryakuji Temple, surrounded by autumn trees

Kyoto’s 848-meter Mount Hiei is not only a great spot for a hike, it’s also home to the sprawling temple complex of Enryakuji. There are many beautiful buildings and walking trails to explore, as well as panoramic views of Lake Biwa in neighboring Shiga prefecture. 

19. Discover the beauty of Kuruma-dera temple

An image of a red and white building at Kuruma-dera Temple covered in snow

Kurama-dera temple is a large complex in the north of Kyoto, with many gorgeous buildings and shrines to discover. There’s also a scenic hiking trail that runs up the wooded mountainside behind the temple, plus one of the city’s best onsen (hot springs) is just a short walk away.

20. Attend a festival

A huge float shaped like a boat with a dragon at the front being pulled through crowded streets during Gion Matsuri festival

If the timing of your trip allows it, attending a festival is one of the most unforgettable things to do in Kyoto. The three largest events are Aoi Matsuri in May, Gion Matsuri in July and Jidai Matsuri in October, with plenty of other smaller celebrations taking place throughout the year.

Japanese girl wearing yukata with red umbrella in Kyoto, Japan

These are just some of the many amazing attractions and unmissable things to do in Kyoto, and has hopefully shown you why the city is one of the top destinations in Japan.

Looking for more? Check out some of our top food experiences in Kyoto for further inspiration!

We strive to be as accurate as possible and keep up with the changing landscape of Japan’s food and travel industries. If you spot any inaccuracies, please send a report.
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Ashley Owen
Ashley is a freelance travel writer from the UK who spent the last two years living in Japan, and is about to embark on her next adventure to New Zealand. She's always on the lookout for exciting new vegan treats wherever she goes!
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