Tip: Visit during the fall for amazing foliage views

Tip: Stay in Kyoto at least 3 nights

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The best things to do in Kyoto, Japan? I’ve got you covered!

We recently spent a week in Kyoto as part of a longer Japan trip, and absolutely fell in love with the city.

Kyoto was easily one of my favorite cities that we visited throughout our three week trip in Japan. I love that it is a big city, yet you can find so many quiet peaceful areas and some amazing hiking nearby. 

Garden at Heian Shrine (Kyoto, Japan)
Garden at Heian Shrine (Kyoto, Japan)

Read on to find out everything you need to know about planning a trip to Kyoto, Japan, including where to stay in Kyoto, the best restaurants in Kyoto, the best time to visit, and all of the must-do activities. 

Before we dive into the article, here are some popular tours in and around Kyoto if you are in a rush:

Top-5 popular tours in Kyoto

Best things to do in Kyoto (plus day trips from Kyoto)

Despite the city’s small size, there are so many amazing things to do in Kyoto. From exploring the beautiful Kiyomizu-dera temple to enjoy a hot cup of matcha, there is something for every type of traveler.

Let’s dive into all of the best things to do in this amazing Japanese city.

1. Visit Kiyomizu-dera at sunset

Kiyomizu-dera, located right in the heart of Kyoto, is one of the most famous places to visit in the city, and definitely one of the best things to do in Kyoto. 

I recommend visiting for either sunrise or sunset. We went during sunset and although it was undeniably busy, it was still an absolutely beautiful experience with amazing sunset views over Kyoto. 

Hours: Opens at 6am daily. Closing time differs based on sunset time.

Entrance Fee: 400 yen ($2.74 USD)

View from Kiyomizu-dera at sunset
View from Kiyomizu-dera at sunset
Crowds in front of Hokan-ji Temple
Crowds in front of Hokan-ji Temple

2. Spend a morning at the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha

Fushimi Inari Taisha is easily one of the most recognizable landmarks in not only Kyoto, but all of Japan. The image of these red tori gates has become a symbol for Japan over the years. 

As one of the most popular attractions in all of Japan, you can expect crowds at any hour of the day. I recommend arriving early (before the tour groups at 9am) for a most pleasant experience. We visited around 7:45am and while already busy, it was was still easy to navigate. 

We found that a lot of people only walk a short distance through the gates before turning around. For a more peaceful experience with less crowds, just keep walking up. It is about an hour climb all the way to the summit. Towards the top there are a number of lookout points, as well as small shops selling hot tea and coffee and snacks. 

You can easily visit on your own, or as part of a private customized walking tour of Kyoto.

Hours: 24 hours a day

Entrance fee: Free to enter

How to get there: Take the Keinan Train line to Fushimi Inari Station or JR Nara line to Inari Station.

Early morning exploring Fushimi Inari
Early morning exploring Fushimi Inari
man at fushimi inari
Fushimi Inari is one of the best free things to do in Kyoto

3. Wander Nanzen-ji temple

Located in the heart of Kyoto, Nanzen-ji is one of the most important Zen temples in Japan. The temple is just a short walk from the end of the Philosopher’s Path, so the to two stops can easily be combined.

The temple is known for its amazing and expansive gardens – Hojo Gardens. If you’re visiting during the fall, it is an incredible place to experience the fall foliage.

Hours: 8:40am-5pm, hours may vary

Entrance fee: 600 yen ($4.12 USD)

How to get there: Take the Keinan Train line to Fushimi Inari Station or JR Nara line to Inari Station.

4. Heian Shrine (and gardens)

Heian Shrine is one of the many popular things to do in Kyoto, but the real gem in my opinion is the gardens that sit behind the shrine.

If you visit during the Spring, the gardens are a great place to experience the cherry blossoms. We went on a rainy fall day and the gardens were incredible.

Hours: 6:00am to 5/6:00pm for Shrine, hours may vary. Gardens opens at 8:30am.

Entrance fee: Free to visit the shrine. 600 yen ($4.12 USD) to visit the gardens.

Gardens at Heian Shrine
Gardens at Heian Shrine
There is a separate ticket to visit the gardens
There is a separate ticket to visit the gardens

5. Enjoy the delicious local cuisine

I think it’s safe to say that the food in Japan is best. Enjoying the local food is one of the best things to do in Kyoto (and really everywhere in Japan)

Here are a few of my favorite restaurants in Kyoto:

  • Katsukura Tonkatsu – crispy breaded pork served with a cabbage and a tangy sauce. We loved it so much that we ate here two nights in a row.
  • Tai sushi – (affordable) Omakase in the heart Kyoto
  • Ichiran – popular ramen chain that is worth the hype imo
  • Mimikou – Udon noodle restaurant in Kyoto’s historical center
  • MACCHA HOUSE– a tea house for matcha products – lattes, ice cream, desserts

Feel like getting more hands on? You can even book a class to learn to make your own ramen or Japanese bento box.

6. Visit Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Temple)

Kinkaku-ji, otherwise known as Rokuon-ji or the Golden Temple, is a famous Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto. The Golden Pavillion is what gives the temple area its name, as it is covered in gold leaf, which can be seen in the water’s reflection on a clear day. Acknowledged as a UNESCO Heritage Site, it a popular stop for guided tours of Kyoto.

We visited in the ice cold rain, and even then the temple was absolutely breathtaking. On a beautiful day, it is a great place to sit and relax in the garden area. It can easily be combined with a visit to Ryoan-ji, located in the same area.

Hours: 8:40am-5pm, hours may vary

Entrance fee: 600 yen ($4.12 USD)

How to get there: There are a number of buses that arrive just a short distance from Kinkaku-ji at the Kinkakuji Michi stop.

A visit to the Golden Temple
A visit to the Golden Temple
The Golden Temple (Kyoto, Japan) in the rain
The Golden Temple (Kyoto, Japan) in the rain

7. Do the Mt Kurama Shrine Hike

I’m honestly shocked that more people aren’t talking about this beautiful shrine area. Mt Kurama is a mountain and shrine area located just a short 25 min train ride north of Kyoto, and yet we only saw a handful of other tourists when we visited. 

Mount Kurama is considered a sacred mountain with great spiritual significance, especially in Japanese folklore and religious traditions.

You can hike along a mountain pass and visit a number of beautiful shrines along the way. It’s the perfect half day 2 hour hike from Kyoto. The majority of the path is well maintained with stone steps.

The main attraction is Kurama-dera Temple, which is located near the top of the mountain, offering incredible views. 

To shorten the hike, you have the option to take a cable car part of the way up the mountain.

Things to know before visiting: 

  • Can take the train to either Kurama Station, transferring at Demachiyanagi Station, or Kibuneguchi Station
  • There a many traditional onsen baths in the area of Mt Kurama
Foliage views on the hike at Mt Kurama
Foliage views on the hike at Mt Kurama
Mt Kurama is a perfect day trip from Kyoto
Mt Kurama is a perfect day trip from Kyoto

8. Enjoy a tea ceremony at Sanzen-in temple

If you’ve visiting Kyoto, Japan, you need to take a day trip to Ohara to visit Sanzen-in temple. Just a short bus ride from Kyoto and you’ll be at one of Japan’s best hidden gems. I highly recommend enjoying a matcha ceremony here.

From Kyoto you can take bus 17 all the way to Ohara. If you’re starting from Kyoto Station you can also take the subway to Kokusaikaikan station, and then bus 19 to Ohara.

To reach Sanzen-in Temple from the bus stop, you’ll just need to follow a short uphill forest path. You’ll find tons of shops and food stands along the path.

Things to know before visiting

  • There is a cost of 700 yen to visit Sanzen-in Temple. It is an extra 600 yen ($3.95) per person for a matcha ceremony. 
  • If you enjoy hiking, there are beautiful trails from here that lead all the way to Mt Kurama shrine trails
Add Sanzen-in Temple to your Kyoto itinerary
Add Sanzen-in Temple to your Kyoto itinerary
Tea ceremony in Kyoto
Tea ceremony in Kyoto

10. Take a stroll down Philosopher’s Path

Philosopher’s Path is a beautiful pedestrian walkway in Northern Higashiyama. The trail is just over a mile, and connects two popular temples in Kyoto, Nanzen-ji and Ginkaku-ji.

The path is very to visit, and is a great way to experience the city on foot.

It is open 24/7, but sunrise and sunset offer the best views.

11. Visit Eikando temple

Eikando, or Zenri-ji, temple is one of my favorites in Kyoto. The temple is located in the Sakyo-ku district of Kyoto. This temple in particular is super famous for its fall foliage in its beautiful garden. For this reason it is typically busiest in the fall months of October, November, and December. There is actually a nighttime foliage lighting you can attend for a few weeks in late November.

Hours: daily from 9AM-5PM

Entrance fee: 600 yen ($4.12 USD)

Fall foliage in Kyoto, Japan
Fall foliage in Kyoto, Japan
Eikando Temple (Kyoto, Japan)
Eikando Temple (Kyoto, Japan)

13. Explore Kyoto by bike

Although Kyoto isn’t a massive city, it can still take some time to get between all of the many amazing things to do in the city. One of the best ways to explore Kyoto is by bike. Our AirBnb offered free bike rentals, and it was by far my favorite way to get around the city.

Note: there are strict rules in regards to where you park your bike. Many of the temples have designated parking areas for bikes, but if you’re heading into the heart of the city or to a restaurant, then I recommend looking up parking lots with bike racks ahead of time.

You can also join a group e-bike tour if you want a more guided experience.

14. Rent a kimono

One of the most popular things to do in Kyoto is to rent a kimono.

15. Explore the Gion Geisha District

Gion is Kyoto’s traditional Geisha District. It is beautiful to stroll through at any time of time, but if you visit in the evenings you may have the chance to spot a geisha. If you do, please be respectful!

Check out this night walking tour of Gion here!

16. Eat dinner along Pontocho

If you’re looking for good food in Kyoto, head to the famous Pontocho street. Along this road you’ll find tons of delicious restaurants. I recommend making reservations in advance, especially on the weekends.

18. Try local cuisine at Nishiki Market

Feeling hungry? Take a stroll through the famous Nishiki Market.

This market is by far one of the most popular things to do in Kyoto, so expect crowds. This covered shopping street is a great place to pick up local ingredients or sample local dishes.

I recommend visiting early and avoiding lunchtime to minimize the crowds.

If the market feels a bit too overwhelming, consider joining a guided tour. This is a great way to grasp a better understanding of the culture and local cuisine.

Here a few tours you can book:

19. Join a miniature clay workshop

A miniature clay workshop? Might this just be the best thing to do in Kyoto?

Whether you’re looking to sculpt a mini plate of tonkatsu or bowl of udon noodles, this class at BONCHI is the class for you.

I regetably didn’t have the chance to attend this workshop, and I was super bummed about it. Class sizes are limited to five participants, so I recommend booking well in advance.

20. Take a day trip to Uji for a matcha making workshop

Easily one of my favorite things to do in Kyoto is to take a day trip to Uji. If you know me then you know that I love matcha. I’ve drank it almost every morning for over 5 years. So of course I jumped at the chance to visit a beautiful city only 30 minutes from Kyoto that specializes in matcha.

We signed up for a matcha making class at Fukujuen Uji. This is a great place to learn about and interact with matcha. We booked the “making matcha with a stone mill” experience. The experience takes about 45 minutes and costs 1,650 yen (~$11 USD).

To get to Uji from Kyoto you can take either the JR line or Keihan line directly to

Here are the most popular things to do in Uij:

  • Try matcha flavored everything (ramen, gyozas, ice cream)
  • Make your own matcha
  • Buy high-quality matcha for cheap
  • Visit the beautiful Byodo-in Temple (the temple on the 10 yen coin) and museum
Visit Deer Park in Nara, Japan
Visit Deer Park in Nara, Japan
Make your own matcha in Uji, Japam
Make your own matcha in Uji, Japam

21. Take a day trip to Nara

I’m sure this spot is already on your list, but for a good reason! Nara is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Japan! The deer are super cute, and most importantly you can get literally the best mochi ever along the main road at Nakatanidou.

You can reach Nara from Kyoto in just 45 minutes. There is a rapid train on the JR line covering this route. If you do not have a JR pass, you can also take the Nara Line and transfer to the Keihan Line. This may make more sense depending on where in the city you are staying.

Things to do in Nara

  • Feed (and bow to) the deer of Nara
  • Try the famous mochi at Nakatanidou
  • Grab lunch at Kasuya Nara Sanjo
  • Visit Kofuku-ji, a famous Buddhist temple
  • Enjoy the Kasuga Taisha

Where to stay in Kyoto

I recommend staying in or near Gion. This is a quieter neighborhood, so you can be removed from some of the the craziness of the crowds, while still being close to everything.

Here are a few top rated hotels:

Getting to Kyoto

Kyoto is well-connected to the rest of Japan via trains and buses. You can travel from Tokyo to Kyoto by bullet train in as little as 2 hours and 20 minutes. Osaka is even closer, and can be reached by bullet train in as little at 15 minutes, or with a local train in 45 minutes.

Getting around Kyoto

Kyoto is a super easy city to navigate as it is both super walkable, and very well connected by buses and trains.

If you plan on taking a number of buses or subways in one day, it may be worth purchases a 1-day Kyoto bus and subway pass. The pass lasts one days and costs 1,100 yen ($7,50) for unlimited rides on a number of lines.

Best time to visit Kyoto

The best time to visit Kyoto is either in the Spring (April/May) or Fall (October/November).

We visited in November and the weather was perfect. We had a bit of rain, but otherwise we enjoyed perfect fall temperatures with amazing fall foliage. The crowds also felt manageable this time of year.

TRAVEL TIPS

🏘️ Book your accommodation

Booking.com will help you to book accommodation in advance and check availability

✈️ Book your flight in advance

To find the cheapest flight options, you can use WayAway and find the most suitable option for you

🧾 Get your tickets and tours

with Viator and GetYourGuide to get the most out of your journey

Visiting Japan? Here are some other articles to check out:

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