Best things to do in Kyoto
Find out more about those top places in Kyoto
As the ancient capital of Japan, Kyoto is littered with an abundance of riches ranging from phantasmagorical Buddhist temples, sprawling palace complexes and historic tranquil gardens. Today, the modern city buzzes around ancient attractions, which include the iconic lakeside Golden Pavilion, a working Zen Buddhist temple, and the endless pathways of torii (shrine gates) that crisscross the wooded hillside of Inari-san. What is more, the Gion district was Japan’s largest geisha quarter in the 18th and 19th centuries and today has retained its picture-perfect low-rise streets and ornate wooden houses. However, Kyoto is also a forward-thinking city. It is home to the International Museum of Manga, one of Japan’s most iconic modern cultural exports, while the historic Nishiki Market houses everything from traditional street food stalls to cutting-edge Michelin starred restaurants.
The famed golden pavilion of Kinkaku-ji may just be Japan’s most spellbinding building. Coated in gold leaf and perched above a tranquil reflecting pond, the temple was originally a retirement villa constructed for a Kyoto shogun that was transformed into a place of worship by his son. Today, the complex is one of the most popular attractions in Japan so it is best to arrive early in the day to avoid the crowds.
Spread across the bamboo-clad hillsides of Inari-san are countless bright orange torii (shrine gates), which are one of Japan’s most memorable sights. While the sheer number of gates is mesmerizing, the area’s real highlight is Fushimi Inari, which is one of Japan’s most popular shrines and is the head shrine for more than 50 000 sub-shrines peppered throughout the country. Make sure to be on the lookout for the stone foxes that are scattered throughout the complex, as they are sought to be messengers of Inari, the god of agriculture.
To experience the might of the Tokugawa Shogunate make sure to explore Kyoto’s Nijo Castle, which was their ancestral home. Dominating the northwestern corner of the city, the fortress was built in the 17th century and has imposing whitewashed walls and palatial interiors. You may notice that the palace floorboards squeak when you walk, which was a deliberate aspect of the design used to alert guards to the presence of intruders. For the best experience, walking tours of this vast complex are recommended.
For a glimpse into traditional Japanese culture, a visit to Kyoto’s Gion district is a must. By the mid-18th century the neighborhood was Japan’s largest ‘pleasure district’, where geishas entertained clients in various tea houses, restaurants and bars. To fully understand the area’s rich history and its iconic place in Japanese culture take a walking tour of its cobbled lanes and bazaar-like markets with a knowledgeable local guide.
The most important shrine in the Japanese Jodo Buddhist sect, Chion-in is one of Kyoto’s most breathtaking temple complexes. Owing to its popularity as a point of pilgrimage, the complex is rarely tranquil but it does contain a number of world-class historic attractions, including San Mon, the largest temple gate in Japan, and its giant bell, which is also the largest bell in Japan.
The best place to escape Kyoto’s 24/7 buzz is to head for the Arashiyama bamboo forest, which is a nationally recognized place of outstanding scenic beauty. While the area’s highlight is unsurprisingly its vast groves of bamboo, which can reach upwards of 20 meters tall, it also has a number of other attractions, including the Togetsu-kyo Bridge and the Nonomiya Shinto shrine. One of the best ways to explore this vast area is by rickshaw tour.
Built in the 15th century as a retirement home for a Kyoto shogun that was transformed into a temple after his death, Ginkaku-ji is one of the city’s most impressive attractions. Surrounded by towering bamboo and pine forests and tranquil landscaped ponds, the temple can become very crowded during peak times so it is recommended to visit as part of a guided tour early in the morning or in the evening.
To explore the rich variety of ingredients that go into Kyoto’s world-class cuisine stroll through the winding alleyways and covered market halls of Nishiki Market. With vendors selling everything from freshly caught seafood to wasabi salt and kawaii anime-themed sweets, the market is sure to be an eye-opening experience. For the best experience, take a guided food tour of the area so that you can sample some of Kyoto’s mouth-watering delicacies.