Kyoto, 20 Things to Do in Japan’s Cultural Heart



Kyoto, the heart of traditional Japan, is a city where history breathes in its streets, temples, and gardens. Known for its well preserved heritage, Kyoto offers an unforgettable escape into Japan’s culture and past. We were lucky enough to spend a month in Kyoto during December exploring the main sights as well as some of the cities hidden gems. Here’s our 20 favourite things to do for an unforgettable experience in Kyoto, but first let’s answer some of the most frequent questions about Kyoto.

What is the best month to visit Kyoto?

The best months to visit Kyoto is during Spring cherry blossom season (March-April) and autumn colours (November – December) both offer stunning seasonal landscapes and pleasant temperatures. However, May and October also offer mild weather and fewer crowds, making them ideal for exploring.

What is the best area to stay in Kyoto?

The best areas to stay in Kyoto are around: Gion, Higashiyama, Pontocho & Sanjo. These are all popular choices, offering easy access to major attractions, great public transport & charming local experiences with their traditional street scenes and shop fronts.

How many days do you need in Kyoto?

Ideally 4 days is enough time to experience Kyoto’s highlights. However, you can easily spend a week or longer exploring hidden gems. We ended up spending a month in Kyoto and still felt we had only scratched the surface of this beautiful city.

How to get around Kyoto?

Kyoto is easy to get around and a very walkable city, many areas are best explored on foot. Public transportation is excellent with a great train and bus network connecting many of the sights. Another great option is to hire a bike to explore the city as the majority of Kyoto is completely flat. Google maps works well to navigate, if you don’t have international data download your map on wifi before heading out. Taxi is another option but the prices are generally high.

Note: some local cafes, restaurants and locations may not show on google maps as they are written in Japanese.

How is Kyoto Different from Tokyo?

Kyoto has a historical charm with its ancient temples and traditional tea houses, contrasting Tokyo’s modern skyscrapers and bustling pace. Kyoto is also surrounded by forests and hills with the Kamo river running through the middle giving the city an open fresh feeling.

street sceen of higashiyama with yasaka pagoda

Is Kyoto Japan Cheap?

Kyoto can be more expensive than some other Japanese cities as it is very popular with tourists, but budgeting and exploring local options can help manage costs.

Getting to Kyoto

  • From Tokyo: The Shinkansen (bullet train) from central Tokyo takes about 2 hours. Tip make sure you sit on the right hand side for views of Mt Fuji
  • From Osaka: A short 30 minute local train ride makes it easy to do Kyoto as a day trip from Osaka or vice versa.
kyoto station shinkansen bullet train

Things to Do in Kyoto

1. Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Enjoy breathtaking views and historical architecture at this prized Unesco world heritage temple. Kiyomizu-dera sits above the historic Higashiyama neighbourhood with views back over the city. Its stunning all year round but especially during Autumn and cherry blossom seasons.

Tips: We suggest arriving early in the morning to beat the crowds as this is one of Kyotos top 3 highlights. There is also a small fee to enter the main pavilion and it is cash only as with many temples and shrines in Japan.

How to get there: Get to Kiyomizu-dera by getting a bus to the bottom of Higashiyama and walking 10 minutes up through the historic streets. Other option is by taxi

2. Fushimi Inari Torii Gates

One of Kyotos most iconic scenes. Wander through a mystical path lined with thousands of vermilion torii gates. This is another destination thats very popular with locals and tourists so we recommend arriving as early as you can.

Tip: if you want a photo in the TorIi gates without many people head further along the trail to get segments to yourself. On the way out make sure to try some of the delicious Japanese street food stalls, the area is also full of great shops, cafes and restaurants.

How to get there: 6 minutes by train from Kyoto station using the Nara line getting off at
Inari Station

Vermillion Cafe

If you’re at the tori gates early and looking for a great breakfast spot after, pop over to our favourite, Vermillion Cafe. It has great coffee, views into nature and amazing food.

3. Ichimonjiya Wasuke & Kazariya Tea Houses

These two tea houses at the entrance to Imamiya shrine in northern Kyoto have been serving customers for over 1000 years. Ichimonjiya Wasuke or Ichiwa as it is know to the locals is said to be the oldest running business in the world and is still run by the 25th generation of the same family. Both teahouses specialise in Aburi mochi, chewy glutinous rice dumpling roasted over charcoal and drizzled in sweet miso paste. Each bite is a step back into Japans history.

4. Kinkaku-ji Temple

The crown jewel in Kyoto, Kinkaku-ji Gold leaf covered temple is a one of a kind. A beautiful photo op with its golden reflection across the lake. The temple is also surrounded by immaculate Japanese gardens .

Tip: the matcha soft serve at the gate is delicious, from here you can also walk 20 mins through the suburbs or get a bus to the historic Ichimonjiya Wasuke & Kazariya Tea Houses, see below.

How to get there: The best way to get to Kinkaku-ji is by bus or taxi.

Kinkaku-ji golden Temple Kyoto

5. Daigo-ji Temple

Exploring Daigo-ji Temple was our first stop in Kyoto, easily making it onto the top list of the best things to do in the Kyoto. Visiting Daigo-ji was a soul filling experience.

On the southern outskirts of Kyoto, Daigo-ji is a sprawling temple complex known for its cherry blossoms and autumn colours. The most iconic spot is Bentendo Temple with its red bridge and pagoda along with the immaculate zen garden at Sambo-in sub temple (see below).

Tip: While at Bentendo Temple pop in to the udon restaurant by the red bridge for a tranquil authentic experience with Japanese garden views.

How to get there: by train from Kyoto station get of at Daigo station, from there its a 10 min walk to the entrance.

Sanbo-in Zen Garden

This sub temple within Daigo-Ji has one of the most beautiful, gardens in Kyoto. The zen garden is designed to be viewed from within the temple with the doors and windows framing the gardens scenes like paintings.

How to get here: you can find the Sanbo-in temple and garden on the left as you enter the main gates of Daigo-Ji complex. there is an extra fee to enter.

6. Explore Higashiyama

Higashiyama, one of our favourite areas of Kyoto, charms with its traditional wooden buildings and quaint, narrow lanes working their way up the hillside. Brimming with cafes, tea houses, gift shops, and restaurants, and dotted with temples and shrines, it’s a picturesque area to wander on foot. Whether you visit before or after exploring the Kiyomizu-Dera Temple at the top of the hill, it’s a beautiful experience.

Tip: this area gets very busy in its narrow streets so we recommend arriving early in the morning. We love heading there for sunrise, wandering the empty streets and grabbing a coffee or matcha latte at the original %Arabica coffee shop half way up Hoshinocho street. Here you’ll also find the famous starbucks which we visited but wouldn’t recommend.

Yasaka Pagoda Higashiyama district kyoto japan

7. Gion & Pontocho

The famous geisha district, wander these ancient streets with their wooden shop fronts and teahouses. If you are lucky you might get a glimpse of a Geisha or Maiko as they duck between teahouses. For a full experience you can book a tea ceremony where you can dress in traditional Kimonos, learn how to prepare matcha and meet a Geisha.

Tip: Keep in mind, out of respect there is a no photo policy off the main street in Gion as the side laneways are private residential houses.

8. Nishiki Food Market

Taste your way through Kyoto’s kitchen. Nishiki market is a foodies heaven with fresh seafood with some of the biggest oysters we’ll ever seen, local produce, and delicious street food. Our favourites are the strawberry mochi, matcha ice cream and snoopy themed custard Tayaki, clearly we love deserts.

9. Arashiyama Area

Arashiyama is located in the north west region of Kyoto. Surrounded by forest and backing onto the Oi river it is spectacular in cherry blossom and autumn. Filled with cafes, street food and temples you can easily spend a whole day exploring this area.

How to get here: By metro from Kyoto station getting off at Saga Arashiyama station or by the purple tram on the Randen line from Shijō-Ōmiya Station getting off at Arashiyama station (our personal fav)

Tip: dont miss the bamboo forest, a walk along the riverside or even a boat ride up the river. Also during spring and autumn the Sagano Romantic train is a beautiful ride along the river and up the valley.

10. Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

Probably one of the most iconic spots in Arashiyama, this spot gets pretty busy later in the day so arrive early if you want to avoid crowds.

How to get here: a 10 min walk from Arashiama Randen line station.

arashiyama bamboo forest

11. Sagano romantic train

This scenic railway in Arashiyama starts from Saga-Arashiyama station. It is especially beautiful during cherry blossom and autumn as it winds its way along the valley overlooking the river. seats fill up quickly and the train only operates during peak seasons. You can book tickets online on their official website

Sadly we didn’t get to cross this one off our list but next time we will!

12. Hokyo-In and Hogon-In Temple Gardens

Hokyo-In and Hogon-In Temple Gardens in Kyoto are peaceful sanctuaries that beautifully reflect traditional Japanese garden design. These two spots come alive during spring and autumn, with Hokyo-In iluminated at night during peak seasons.

13. Somekobo Yumeyusai art gallery

Somekobo is found along the riverside in Arashiyama, it’s especially popular in Autumn when the vibrant red maple leaves reflect in the dying ponds through the traditional windows.

Tip: Book in advance to avoid long lines or missing out. Find their official website here

14. Otagi Nenbutsu-ji

This tranquil temple in the hills above Arashiyama is unique with its 1200+ expressive face statues. The moss covered statues are in fact rakan followers of Buddah . Each have been hand carved out of stone to bring out the unique personal figures hidden in the stone. Some are laughing, some praying, some deep in thought. An experience uniquely only to this temple.

How to get here: by bus from Arashiyama theres a stop right outside the temple, and there is a small cash fee to enter.

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji

15. Nanzen-Ji Temple

Explore one of the most significant and largest Zen temples in Japan. The Nanzen-Ji complex is made up of multiple shrines and temples and is spectacular during autumn or cherry blossom seasons with its many zen gardens.

How to get here: You can get here with a 5-10 minute walk from the Keage subway station on the Tozai Line.

16. Wife & Husband Cafe

For a unique nostalgic experience with meticulously crafted coffee, head to Wife & Husband cafe in northern Kyoto. This cute vintage themed cafe has chairs and picnic baskets to rent so you can wander over to the banks of the river and enjoy your coffee in the morning sun.

How to get here: By train from Kyoto station take the green Karasuma line getting off at Kitaoji Station. By Bus take the 205 city bus. You can also get here by riding north up the river.

17. Matcha by the Train Tracks at Hatoya Ryoyousha

For another unique Kyoto experience. Enjoy one of our favourite matcha deserts and matcha lattes at Hatoya Ryoyousha. They serve their matcha latte with a soy milk option (surprisingly hard to find in Japan) and you can enjoy it by the train tracks while watching the cute purple Arashiyama line train pass by.

How to get here: on the Randen Arashiyama Line to and from Arashiyama get off at Kurumazakijinja Station and the cafe is right by the station.

18. Bike Ride along and picnic along the Kamo River

Kyoto is primarily flat all over so one of the best ways to get around is by bike. We rent our bikes in Kyoto from “The Good Day Velo Bikes & Coffee” and you can reserve them online. Naoki the owner is super friendly and helpful, he also runs bike tours around Kyoto and brews a great coffee. One of our favourite things is to ride north along the river bank and stop along the way for a picnic.

kamo river kyoto

19. Temple Illumination Events in Kyoto

During peak seasons and special events many of Kyotos temple are illuminated at night. Check while you are there to see which ones are running. Its a spectacular sight and gives a whole other atmosphere to the temples.

20. Day Trip to Nara

While in Kyoto you cant miss a day trip to the peaceful city of Nara. This ancient capital is where you’ll find the sacred deer and many Buddhist temples. You can buy special crackers to feed the deer from stalls around Nara park. For a dramatic sunset over looking the city head up to the top of Wakakusayama Hill (during winter months the access is close)

While in Nara don’t miss out the udon at Mizuya Chaya and the famous mochi pounding demonstration at Nakatanidou.

How to get here: You can easily get to Nara by train from Kyoto station in about 40 minutes, getting off at Nara station, from there its about a 15 min walk to Nara Park.

Kyoto, Japan

In our opinion a trip to Japan isn’t complete without experiencing Kyoto. It may be the most popular tourist destination in the country but it’s with good reason. Kyoto offers a blend of history, culture and natural beauty, making it a city that steals the heart of everyone lucky enough to visit this city. Whether you’re wandering through its ancient streets, marvelling at the temples, or enjoying the natural scenery, Kyoto promises an experience filled with wonder and tranquility. Our most important tip would be not to be overwhelmed with the many options that Kyoto brings because regardless of what you choose to do you’ll have an amazing experience. Get lost and enjoy your time in Kyoto!

Read: While you’re here be sure to check out or blog on the best Things to do in Tokyo

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