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51+ Things to Do in Kyoto

Kyoto is famous for being one of the older, more traditional cities of Japan that survived the war, and real talk: there is so much to see in Kyoto. It was actually quite overwhelming to be there, to love everything we saw, and to want to see more when there was so much! However, good planning and narrowing down what you want to see can be a big help in curating your trip.

Here are 51+ things to do in Kyoto to get the most out of your time in Japan’s ancient capital.

Places to See

  • Pay a visit to Nijo Castle. Nijo Castle is a 17th-century shogun residence and one of Kyoto’s most popular destinations. It’s not super exciting on the outside, but the interior is lavish and the nightingale floors? You have to experience them for yourself.
  • See the sunset from Kiyomizu Dera. Kiyomizu-dera is another one of Kyoto’s more popular attractions. It’s a very beautiful and colourful temple off the historic Gion District and it has views of the entire city! You have to pay to go to the balcony (seen in most pictures of the temple), but you can view the sunset from the front for free (and it’s gorgeous).
  • Walk through the Bamboo Forest. The Bamboo Forest in Kyoto is another famous stop, but it’s something you can skip in my opinion. Half of the bamboo is cut down, and it’s not like you don’t see bamboo at all in Japan.
  • Go through Fushimi Inari Taisha. This shrine is probably the most photographed place in Kyoto if not Japan. Though the feel is a little dampened by learning that all the gates are actually advertisements, it’s still a surreal place and I absolutely loved it. Note that it can take an hour or even more to get to the top of the mountain. However, going to a certain point, you’ll lose other tourists quickly and will have a good chance to take tourist-free photographs and explore in peace.
  • See Kinkakuji Temple. Another one of Kyoto’s most popular attractions, Kinkakuji Temple is more popularly known as the Golden Pavilion. It’s worth facing the crowd.
  • See the Kyoto Imperial Palace. The Kyoto Imperial Palace is one of the newer structures in Kyoto dating to just before the capital moved to Tokyo. To be very frank, the structures and gardens were not the least bit lavish or enjoyable as one would guess with a title such as “Imperial Palace” and visitors aren’t allowed inside. Even though you can reserve a tour, it is apparently not much more exciting and you still can’t go inside. I’d definitely skip.
  • Stop by Chion-in Temple. Chion-in is a large, 13th-century temple near Gion District. Its history is more impressive than the temple itself, but since it’s located by several other attractions, it’s easy to stop by and see.
  • Marvel at Sanjusangendo Temple. This temple is way too overlooked when going to Kyoto. Inside this large hall, there’s a large Lotus Buddha and surrounding it are one thousand life-size kannon, a figure in Buddhism that needs to be read into to be understood. What’s even more amazing is that they look incredibly similar but they’re not metal – they’re gold-leafed wood! Amazing. The temple was built almost one thousand years ago and even the reconstructed statues are dated to the 13th century! A must-see.
  • Visit Heian Jingu. The Heian Shrine is a large and very colourful shrine.
  • Take a stroll down the Philosopher’s Path. The Philosopher’s Path is even more out of the way but is a popular spot to walk, especially when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.
  • Visit Tenryu-ji temple. Though it’s not super fancy, Tenryu-ji Temple is a historic temple complex in Arashiyama, and it makes for a nice place to walk around if you’re in the area.
  • See Eikando (Zenrinji) Temple. Eikando Temple is another temple in the complex east of the Gion District, so it’s an easy visit for those in the area.
  • Stop by Shoren-in Temple. Shoren-in is a beautiful temple that’s also in the eastern Kyoto temple area, so it’s worth stopping by and seeing.
  • See the Shimogamo Shrine. Another important and ancient structure, the Shimogamo Shrine is a gorgeous red shrine to stop by if you have the time.
  • Take a trip to Kifune-Jinja. The Kifune shrine is still in Kyoto but way outside the city centre. If you have the time, it looks like a beautiful and relaxing day trip.
  • See Ginkaku-Ji Temple. Ginkaku-ji temple is the less crowded sister of Kinkaku-ji Temple, and its nickname is the “silver pavilion.”
  • See the Katsura Imperial Villa and Gardens. If you have more time to spend in Kyoto, a stop at the Katsura Imperial Villa and Gardens may be worth checking out.
  • Escape to Saiho-ji. Saiho-ji Temple, known as the “moss temple,” is a bit out of the way but a great place for people with a longer stay to experience nature.
  • See Higashi Honganji Temple. Higashi Honganji is a large temple complex by Kyoto station.
  • See Nishi Hongan-ji. Near Higashi Hoganji is Nishi Hogan-ji. We admired the outside several times but we never went in – and from the pictures, it looks like that was a big miss!
  • Marvel at Toji Temple. Most of Kyoto’s sights are north of the station, but just south of the station is the very gorgeous Toji Temple, so be sure to mark it on your map.
  • Visit Tofuku-ji Temple. Tofuku-ji is more known for its zen gardens than the temple itself.
  • Stop by Nanzen-ji Temple. Nanzen-ji is another temple located in the temple complex east of Gion District, so it’s an easy visit.
  • See Ryoan-ji Temple. Ryoan-ji is another temple that’s famous for its zen gardens.
  • Cross the Togetsukyo Bridge. If you go to Arashiyama, you will probably cross this bridge unknowingly, but it’s actually a centuries-old bridge and significant landmark in Kyoto.
  • Visit the Yasaka Shrine. If you go through the temple complex in the eastern part of the city, you’ll probably see the Yasaka Shrine complex, which like many other structures is over one thousand years old.
  • Stroll through Maruyama Park. The park was under construction when we went but when it’s in better condition, it’s probably a lot prettier. It’s also between several temples so it’s easy to see either way.
  • Go to the top of Kyoto Tower. You can see Kyoto Tower from so many places, but what about the top? If you don’t want to pay the price, you can get a good free city view from Kiyomizu-dera Temple.
  • Stop by the Matsunoo-Taisha Shrine. If you want to explore western Kyoto more, the Matsunoo-Taisha Shrine is a more popular shrine in the western part of the city.
  • Explore Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji. Much like Kifune, Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji is way out of the city centre but looks like a great day trip for those who want to escape to nature.

Museums

  • See marine life at the Kyoto Aquarium. I didn’t go to the aquarium in Kyoto but it’s an alternative to the Osaka Aquarium if you don’t want to make the journey to Osaka.
  • Explore the Nishijin Textile Centre. The Nishjin Textile Centre is small but a nice place to see textile making and buy souvenirs. It wasn’t crowded at all when we went, but be sure to look at their website ahead of time to plan any classes or textile-wearing experiences ahead of time.
  • Visit the Museum of Kyoto. The Museum of Kyoto is an exhibition-based art museum.
  • See the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts. A great stop for craft lovers, the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts not only has displays but demonstrations and workshops.
  • See the Kyoto National Museum. Based in an impressive western-style building, the Kyoto National Museum is another exhibit-based art museum in Kyoto. It is much larger than the Museum of Kyoto.
  • See Buddhist artefacts at the Ryukoku Museum. Kyoto’s Ryukoku Museum is dedicated to Buddhism.
  • Visit the Kyoto Railway Museum. Japan is famous for its bullet trains, and if that piques your interest, Kyoto does have a railway museum to visit.
  • Visit the Museum of Modern Art. Kyoto is a beautiful blend of the ancient, old and modern, so of course they have a collection- and exhibition-based modern art museum to visit.
  • Stop by the Hosomi Museum. Ahh to one day be an art collector. See Hosomi Ryo’s art collection on display at this museum, conveniently located near the Heian shrine.
  • Visit the Kyoto Botanical Garden. Japan is well-known for their gardening so be sure to stop by Kyoto’s Botanical Garden.
  • Pay a visit to the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum. We wanted to go so much but this museum is quite out of the way, even though it is in Kyoto city limits. If you have an extra day, this museum is actually more easily accessible than other sake museums and do I need say more than sake?
  • Get nerdy at the Kyoto International Manga Museum. If you’re a fan of manga, you probably already know about this museum and are dying to go.
  • Stop in the Kyoto Costume Museum. Japan is well-known for its garments and traditional theatre, so deepen your knowledge about such subjects by visiting the Kyoto Costume Museum.

Activities

  • Feed monkeys at the Iwatayama Monkey Park. It’s so fun to visit wild animal parks in Japan, and seeing Japanese macaque monkeys is no exception. You’ll have to climb to the top of a mountain, which is no easy feat, but you get to see wild monkeys and have the opportunity to feed them.
  • Rent a kimono. There are so many places to rent a kimono in Kyoto and I wrote about my experience here. Since Kyoto’s a traditional place, it’s a great city to wear a kimono and take photos in.
  • Spend a day at Toei Kyoto Studio Park. Looking to do something different? Toei Kyoto Studio Park is a theme park with a focus on Samurai!
  • Stop by Nishiki Market. Tokyo is to Tsukiji Fish Market as Kyoto is to Nishiki Market. Stop by to try some food or go shopping for groceries, but make sure to check hours beforehand as they are quite limited.
  • Take a boat ride on the Katsura River. If you access the river near the Togetsukyo Bridge, there are plenty of places where you can have someone take you out on a boat on the Katsura River.
  • Get a free view from the station. To get a free view of southern Kyoto, you can go to the top of Kyoto station. Just keep going up the escalators and you’ll get to a pavilion where you can also eat and wait for your train to come.
  • Take a stroll down the Kamo River. There are banks on the Kamo that you can walk down, seeing the city from a different perspective.
  • Try a traditional, cultural experience. Whether it be seeing a Geisha show or taking a calligraphy class, Kyoto is steeped in over one thousand years of history, making it a great place to try something cultural.

Neighbourhoods

The Gion District is the most popular because it’s known as old town Kyoto. It’s quite a bit more touristy than the rest of the city but you do get to see a lot of old buildings and come across a lot of nice shrines.

That’s not to say that the rest of the city isn’t charming in its own way. It’s more modern but more laid back.

Some Things to Know

Kyoto is huge huge, huge – so I definitely recommend public transit. Buses are the way to go. There is a JR bus that goes around parts of the city that’s included in your JR Pass, but I could not for the life of me find a map of where it goes. I do know it goes down one of the main roads, Road #1 on a map, but that’s about it. However taking a bus is a flat fare of about 230 yen, which is not much considering the time and foot pain you save.

Have you ever been to Kyoto? What was your favourite thing to do? What was your favourite temple/shrine?

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51+ Things to Do in Kyoto 51+ Things to Do in Kyoto

Posted on Sunday, February 3, 2019 in Destinations
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