Kyoto offers more cultural attractions than anywhere else in Japan, and served as the capital city from 794 to 1868 – which is more than a thousand years! The capital was relocated to Tokyo in 1869, where its been ever since but is still regarded as the cultural capital thanks to its rich history, perfectly preserved geisha districts, and many traditional rural villages. Let’s explore the top 20 Kyoto tourist attractions.
- Kyoto Imperial Palace
- Nishiki Market
- Fushimi Inari Shrine
- Philosopher’s Walk
- Kinkakuji Temple
- Gion District
- Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
- Minami-za Theater
- Sagano Romantic Train
- Kyoto Tower
- International Manga Museum
- Toei Kyoto Studio Park
- Miyako Odori
- Fushimi Distilleries
- Togetsukyo Bridge
- Kyoto National Museum
- Nijo Castle
- Koyasan Monastery
- Kyoto Botanical Garden
Go on a Kyoto Imperial Palace Tour
The Kyoto Imperial Palace tour is a must for anyone interested in Japanese history. The beautiful building, with its Heian period wooden architecture, is one of many historical attractions located within the expansive Kyoto Imperial Park. The actual palace served as the Imperial Family’s official residence before relocating to Tokyo in 1869.
Tours are held daily in both Japanese and English, but the best part is that it’s free. That’s right, free! We recommend you book a day or two in advance because of high demand, although there are quieter periods where tours can are available on the same day.
|English tours||10:00am & 14:00pm||Free|
|Japanese tours||9:00am, 11:00am, 13:30pm & 15:00pm||Free|
Shop and Eat at the Nishiki Market
What started as a small wholesale fish market 400 years ago is now the enormous Nishiki Market. Take a walk along the narrow five-block-long downtown Kyoto market street as you take in the colorful sights and inexplicably delicious smells. The busy and lively atmosphere with its many traditional merchant stalls will give you a look and feel for what a real Japanese marketplace is supposed to look like. So why not visit one of the best culinary destinations in Kyoto to enjoy Japanese candy, green tea, sushi, octopus, various fish, and a whole lot more?
|Most stores are open from 09:00 to 18:00||Varies from store to store. Many stalls are closed on Wednesdays.||Free Entry|
Walk Through Thousands of Torri Gates at the Fushimi Inari Shrine
The Fushimi Inari Shrine and its thousands of red torii gates are on Mount Inari in southern Kyoto. Torri gates are well-known symbols of Japan and are used as entry points to sacred Shinto shrines. The Fushimi Inari Shrine, however, is somewhat unique since it has a history that dates back to over a thousand years, and its the main Shinto shrine of the many thousands across Japan. The Hata Clan started its construction at Inariyama Hill during the 8th Century to honor the god of rice – Inari, before being relocated to the base of Mount Inari in 816 at the request of monk Kukai.
Today, the Fushimi Inari shrine is one of the top Kyoto attractions. Walking through these Torri gates is a surreal experience, and smaller trails branch off from the main one where you will come across many smaller shrines and restaurants. The journey to the summit and back takes approximately 3 – 4 hours to complete, depending on how fast you walk, but the things you will find and the incredible views make the journey well worth it.
|Open 24 Hours||No Closing Days||Free Entry||Website|
Stroll Down Philosopher’s Walk
The Philosopher’s Walk is a 2,3 km long pedestrian pathway in the Higashiyama district that runs next to a row of beautiful cherry tree’s along a canal. It was made famous by a 20th-century Japanese philosopher and professor named Nishida Kitaro, who walked the pathway every day to Kyoto university. Walking down the Philosopher’s walk is a healthy way to see this part of Kyoto, and there are numerous cafes, shrines, temples, and art galleries to be found along the way.
|Open 24 Hours||No Closing Days||Free Entry|
Go on a Tour of the Kinkakuji Temple
The Kinkakuji Temple – or Golden Pavilion Temple, as it’s known in English, was initially built in 1393 as a villa and is today the most visited Zen Temple in Japan. The building extends over a small lake named Kyōko-chi and is surrounded on the other side by a stunning Japanese garden. The structure burned down during the 10-year long Ōnin war (1467–1477) and once again in 1950 – therefore, the temple you see today is a reconstructed version from 1955.
The temple houses valuable Buddhist relics, and each floor features a different style of architecture. The first floor is in the traditional Shinden style, which was common during the Heian Period. The second floor makes use of the Buke Zukuri style, which was common in samurai houses. The third floor has an architectural style you would only find in a Buddha hall while both the second and third-floor ceilings are plastered in thick gold leaves. The only downside of the tour is that actual entry into the temple is not allowed, so watching it from across Kyōko-chi will have to do.
|09:00 to 17:00||No Closing Days||400¥||Website (Japanese Version Only)|
Visit the Famous Gion District
Kyoto is known for having the most famous geisha districts in Japan: Kamishichiken, Gion, Pontocho, and Miyagawacho. The most famous of these is the centuries-old Gion with its perfectly preserved wooden merchant houses, and rich geisha history.
Walking down the narrow little streets of this beautiful district while admiring the incredible architecture from an era long gone is a thrill on its own. The restaurants, along with their traditional Japanese cuisine, are just as incredible, but for many, the ultimate experience is to be entertained by a geisha at one of the ochaya’s. An ochaya is a traditional Japanese tea house where you can enjoy a geisha-hosted dinner. For many, this is unobtainable because not only are these geisha-hosted dinners extremely costly, but its also very exclusive. Although, if you visit a place called the Gion Corner during April you will be able to enjoy daily geisha performances targeted at foreign tourists. The performances include comic plays, tea ceremonies, and of course, traditional Japanese music and dance.
Stroll Through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Visiting the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is one of those things you have to do in Kyoto. Walking along the pathway, lined with tall, thick bamboo, is somewhat of a magical experience. Maybe it’s the way the sunlight barely shines through the endless rows of thick bamboo combined with the twisting and creaking sounds that make it feel otherworldly. It’s very popular among tourists and Japanese couples. You will also often spot girls wearing kimonos walking down the path. Do yourself a favor and avoid the bamboo grove on weekends when it’s packed with people. It just doesn’t have the same effect. Instead, visit during the weekdays when it’s much quieter.
|Open 24 Hours||Free Entry|
Watch Kabuki at the Minami-za Theater
Kabuki was a popular form of entertainment among the merchant classes of the Edo period in the 17th Century. These theatrical plays are vibrant, entertaining, and sometimes weird. Plays usually last up to 5 hours with periodical breaks and are performed entirely in Japanese, but headsets providing English translations are available at most performances. Minami-za was one of seven kabuki theaters that were built in Kyoto at the start of the Edo period and is also the only theater remaining. Watching a real kabuki play is probably one of the most recommended cultural things to do in Kyoto.
|Times vary||4200¥ to 27,000¥ (Depending on seats)||Website|
Go on a Scenic Train Ride
The Sagano Romantic train offers you a 7.3 km long scenic trip by railway along the Hozugawa River from Saga to Kameoka. Board the old-fashioned open cart train as you slowly make your way through beautiful mountains, rural villages, and forested ravines.
Seats for the 25-minute trip need to be booked in advance during the busy autumn season, and tickets can be obtained from the Torokko Saga Station or the JR ticket offices in Kansai. The price is 620 Yen for a one-way trip, and unfortunately, there is no discount for the return fare.
Once you have reached the end of the journey, you will have three options for getting back to the Torokko Kameoka Station. Option one is for you to buy another Sagano Romantic train ticket, option two is for you to walk to the Umahori Station and catch the Japan Railways train to Kyoto or Arashiyama. Or option three – the most popular choice – go back on the scenic Hozugawa River Cruise.
Departs hourly from 09:00 to 16:00
|River Boat Cruise:|
Departs every 60 minutes from 09:00 to 15:30 (March to November)
Departs every 90 minutes from 10:00 to 16:30 (December to February)
Enjoy the Scenery from Kyoto Tower
The Kyoto observation tower is the tallest structure in the city and reaches a height of 131 meters. Enjoying the superb views from the deck has been one of the most popular Kyoto attractions since its completion in 1964. The tower receives approximately 1100 visitors a day who come to take in the 360-degree view of Kyoto and sometimes even of Osaka on a clear day.
|9am to 9pm||No Closing Days||770¥ per person||Website|
Attend One of Kyoto’s 3 Big Festivals
Out of all the festivals which take place across Kyoto each year, there are three that stand out the most: Aoi Festival (15 May), Gion Festival (1-31 July), and Jidai Festival (22 October).
The Aoi Maturi festival (15 May) involves hundreds of people dressed in authentic Heian period attire who marches from the Kyoto Imperial Palace to the Kamigamo Shrine. The Gion festival (1-31 July) is unique. Not only does it last the entire month of July, but it’s also the third-largest festival in Japan. It began 1100 years ago when 66 pikes (one for each province) with shrines were sent to Shinsen-en as part of a prayer for the end of the plague. The Jidai Festival (22 October) started in 1895 and involved the procession of a shrine from the Heian Shrine to the Kyoto Imperial Palace. If you’re ever in Japan during these festivals, be sure to attend them for a memorable experience.
Visit the Kyoto International Manga Museum
The former elementary school turned Manga museum has three floors and a basement with most of its walls lined with manga books. The museum first opened its doors in November 2006 and today holds an estimated 50 000 manga books, mostly from Japan but from elsewhere around the world too. Most manga books are available for visitors to read from the shelves and is a must-visit destination for anyone who likes manga.
|10:00 am to 6:00 pm Thursdays to Tuesdays||Closed on Wednesdays||800¥ (Adults), 300¥ (High School Students), and 100¥ (elementary and younger).||Website|
Explore the Toei Studio Park
Welcome to Japan’s version of Hollywood – the Toei Kyoto Studio Park. If you’re a fan of Japanese cinema, then this place will have to top your list of Kyoto tourist attractions. Around 200 Japanese movies are filmed here each year, and visitors can watch on set whatever is being filmed that day as well as freely wander around the park. For an additional fee, visitors can dress up as a geisha or a samurai and have their pictures taken.
|9:00am to 17:00pm (March to November) 9:30am to 16:30pm (December to February)||Whenever maintenance is required||2200¥||Website|
Watch Geisha Perform at Miyako Odori
Every year in April a Geisha dance performance known as the Miyaki Odori is held in Kyoto. Most of the performers are Geiko and Maiko from the Gion District. The Miyaki Odori is held in the Kaburenjo Theater and has authentic tatami seating areas. Many claim this to be the best Geisha event in Japan and for an additional fee, you can partake in a 40-minute long tea ceremony with Geisha.
|4 performances a day in April: 12:30-13:30, 14:00-15:00, 15:30-16:30, 16:50-17:50||4500¥ for special seats including tea ceremony, 4000¥ first class seats and 2000¥ for unreserved seats.||Website|
Drink Sake at the Fushimi Distilleries
Fushimi sits to the south of Kyoto and is famous for more than its shrine because it’s also one of the most renowned places in Japan for sake production. Many wooden sake breweries in the region have been there for centuries. Visitors can try any of the sake produced locally at several places and even visit a sake museum.
Enjoy the Autumn Scenery From Togetsukyo Bridge
West of Kyoto in the Arashiyama District sits an iconic landmark – the Togetsukyo Bridge. The bridge you see today has been there since 1934, but there has been one here for over a thousand years. The first bridge was built in 836, but continuous wars and floods eventually led to its destruction. The bridge runs over the historically important Oi river and is surrounded by tree-covered mountainsides, which gives it extraordinary beauty. The best time to visit the Togetsukyo Bridge is during the Autumn leaves when the surrounding mountain hills become bright orange, yellow, and red. The scenery is spectacular, so be sure to add this to your list of Kyoto attractions.
Visit the Kyoto National Museum
The prominent Kyoto National Museum, with its spacious galleries, is one of the four national museums in Japan. It’s home to an impressive collection of 12 000 mostly pre-modern Japanese art pieces, which consists of paintings, sculptures, and even ancient artifacts. The museum occasionally holds special exhibitions, which are well worth seeing if you happen to be in Kyoto at the time.
|9:30 to 17:00 (permanent collection), 9:30 to 18:00 (special exhibitions), closed on Mondays.||520 yen (permanent exhibition), 1500 yen for special exhibitions||Website|
Visit the Nijo Castle
Construction of the Nijo Castle began in 1603 and was completed in 1626. It was the Kyoto home of the first rulers of the Edo period and features two defensive moats with two palaces – the Shoguns palace and the Emperor’s palace. The Shoguns palace is open to the public, and there is a beautiful garden within the compound that has a large pond with three islands.
|8:45 to 17:00 Entry into the compound. Entry to Ninomaru from 9:00 to 16:00. Closed Tuesdays in Jan, Jul, Aug and Dec (or following day if Tue is a national holiday) December 26 to January 4||600 yen||Website|
Stay at a Buddhist Monastery in Koyasan
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to spend a few nights in a real Buddhist monastery? If so, hop on board the 90-minute train ride from Kyoto to Koyasan and find out. It’s a Buddhist monastery town that has a mausoleum, a university, and an incredible 120 temples – many of which you can stay at. This valley town, which sits near the top of Mount Koysan was founded 1200 years ago. The architecture, cobblestone roads, and thick misty cedar forest, which surrounds the town, give it a real ancient mystical look and feel. Koyasan also happens to be the best place in Japan to experience spending a night or two at an actual Buddhist monastery. Visitors will even attend morning prayers and eat as the monks do.>/p>
Find out more about Kyoto monasteries.
Explore the Kyoto Botanical Gardens
The enormous 240,000 ㎡ Kyoto Botanical Garden is the oldest and largest botanical garden in Japan. It’s divided up into various sections: The Cherry Tree section boasts 500 trees and is a popular place to watch the cherry blossoms during spring. There are also maple trees that turn orange during Autumn. Other types of gardens include a bonsai section, a European garden, a spectacular bamboo garden, a sunken garden, a Hydrangea Garden, and lots more.
|9 am-5 pm Opening hours of the Conservatory: 10 am-4 pm (Last entry at 3:30 pm)||Closed: December 28th – January 4th||Admission is free for children, junior high school students, senior citizens (70 years and older), and those in possessions of their physical disability handbook.||Website|