Kyoto is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Kansai, Japan, outside of Osaka. With a centuries-old history as the island nation’s capital, as well as one of the major religious hubs in Japan, Kyoto has a plethora of cultural sights, from ancient palaces to hidden temples. At the same time, Kyoto also offers fun activities as alternatives to visiting shrines. Here we explore the most unmissable things to do and see in the city.
One of Kyoto’s most iconic tourist attractions, Gion, is an area of Kyoto preserved in the style of the Edo period. This is the district where geishas were trained, and today tourists can get a geisha makeover and explore the historical streets dressed how its inhabitants would have looked. Even if you prefer not to dress up, Gion is a fantastic place to experience Kyoto’s history and culture, as it is filled with temples and other traditional architecture.
Opening hours: 24/7
This Buddhist temple, one of the most famous in Kyoto, if not Japan, is located on a hill in Gion. Kiyomizu-dera is seated on a mountain and is almost one with nature, as it is half-shrouded by trees that turn pink with Sakura blossoms in the spring and fiery with fall foliage in the autumn. The vivid colors of Japan’s distinct four seasons can clearly be seen from the temple, which offers a spectacular view of the valley below.
Opening hours: 6am – 6:30pm
Address: 1-294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto 605-0862, +81 75-551-1234
One of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in Kyoto, Saiho-ji is famed for its moss-covered garden, which feels like a hidden, magical oasis. At the center of this garden is a pond shaped like the Kanji character for a heart. The pond is surrounded by moss-covered trees and other greenery, giving a peaceful and zen hush to the place. Saudi-ji is also colloquially known as Koke-Dera, which means moss temple. You must make a reservation in advance before entering, so be sure to check out their website to book a visit.
Opening hours: Reservation required
Address: 56 Matsuojingatanicho, Nishikyo Ward, Kyoto, 615-8286, +81 75-391-3631
Kyoto International Manga Museum
Located in downtown Kyoto, this museum is a must-visit destination for manga lovers. Kyoto International Manga Museum houses a collection of over three hundred thousand items, one of the largest in Japan. The museum features a number of permanent and temporary exhibitions and events, but a feature that may be more attractive to manga fans is the Wall of Manga. This 200m long wall holds fifty thousand volumes of manga from the last fifty years, and visitors are free to take and read them. You can spend an afternoon reading manga on the museum grounds, including old or rare series that are difficult to find commercially.
Opening hours: 10am – 6pm, closed on Wednesdays
Address: Kinbuki cho 452, Nagakyo-ku, Kyoto, +81-75-254-7414
Kyoto has no shortage of expensive and extravagant dining options, but for a taste of local Kyoto on a smaller budget, Nishiki Market is a perfect choice. This food market contains over a hundred food stalls, selling products that range from snacks like takoyaki to filling meals like ramen. Most stalls only have a few seats available at most, so an alternative would be to try a variety of snacks on the go. With all the delicious choices available, as well as all the other shops and things to see, you are sure to have an authentic taste of local Kyoto.
Opening hours: Usually from 9am – 6pm but varies by the stall. Note: some stalls may be closed on Wednesdays and/or Sundays
Nijo Castle, located in central Kyoto, was built in 1626 by the order of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Edo period, Japan’s last feudal military government. Over the years, the castle went through physical changes of expansions and ruination, and as governments rose and fell the purpose of the castle changed. Today, the castle consists of several buildings, as well as multiple moats, walls, and elegant gardens. The interior is mostly preserved in its original form, and you can walk around barefoot on the tatami mats that line the floor, letting history come alive.
Opening hours: 8:45am – 4pm
Address: 541 Nijojo-cho, Horikawa-nishiiru, Kyoto 604-8301, +81 75-841-0096
One of the smaller and lesser known temples in Kyoto, Honen-in, is located right next to the sakura-lined Philosopher’s Walk. You enter through the moss-covered gate and into the humble temple grounds. While it is not as impressive as many of the other temples in Kyoto by its size, Honen-in gives a sense of quietude and tranquility that is lacking in the more popular temples. This secluded area is surrounded by nature and is especially beautiful during the sakura season in spring, and the fall foliage season in autumn when the trees are painted pale pink or bright orange in turn.
Opening hours: 6am – 4pm
Address: 30 Goshonodan-cho, Shishigatani, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto, +81 075-771-2420
Kyoto Imperial Palace
The Kyoto Imperial Palace had been the seat of Japan’s Imperial family for eleven centuries, before the nation’s capital was moved to Tokyo in 1868. The walled palace is part of the Kyoto Imperial Park. While the park is open to the public, you must join a guided tour, offered by the Imperial Household Agency, to enter the palace. The knowledgeable tour guides, who speak in Japanese or English depending on the tour, offer information about the history and culture behind this former royal residence. Even if you can’t make the time for the tours, the picturesque park grounds contain ponds and shrines.
Opening hours: Check website for details
Address: 3 Kyoto-Gyoen Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto 602-0881, +81-75-211-1215
This modernistic tower is a far cry from Kyoto as a hub of culture and history, as it is constructed with the contemporary materials of glass and steel. This 131m tall tower is built on top of a nine story building and faces the Kyoto railway station. The observation deck at the top of the Kyoto Tower overlooks the downtown, as well as the mountains Higashiyama and Arashiyama to the east and west of the city.
Opening hours: 9am – 9pm
Address: Kyoto Tower, Karasuma Shichijo sagaru, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto 600-8216 , +81 75-361-3211
Kyoto Cycling Tour Project
If you’re not staying long in Kyoto but still want to see all these wonderful attractions the city has to offer, why not visit them all in a day? Kyoto Cycling Tour Project offers bikes for rent, as well as private guided tours if you want a tour guide. You can choose one of the tours they have to offer, which range from 3 to 8 hours in length. Kyoto is very flat and spacious, making it perfect for exploring on bicycle.
Opening hours: Check website for detail (depends on tour)
Address: 552-13 Higashi-Aburanokoji-cho Aburanokoji-dori Shiokoji sagaru Shimogyo-ku Kyoto, +81 075-354-3636
By Elizabeth Lee