Japan’s enchanting ancient capital needs no introduction. We all love it and go back to it for more — whether it’s a repeat visit to awe-inspiring landmarks such as Fushimi Inari Taisha or to discover smaller uncrowded temples, teahouses and restaurants.
We cover that whole range in our list of the truly best things to do in Kyoto that both first-time visitors and frequent travelers will equally enjoy. Forget trying to spot a Maiko, have you seen the Face House in Kyoto? Read on to find out what a Face House is and more.
1. Walk around Gion. This famous geisha district boasts cobbled streets lined with traditional buildings.
2. Check out the renovated Pontocho area (they removed all the electric wires, making the alleys even more authentic).
3. Go to a traditional ozashiki geisha show, the best way to meet the performing artists (especially as chasing them for a photo on the street is a huge faux pas).
4. Stroll through the iconic Arashiyama Bamboo Forest.
5. Climb up to Arashiyama Iwatayama Monkey Park, also known as Monkey Mountain, to see the semi-wild monkeys roaming around.
6. Go through the seemingly infinite red torii gates in Fushimi Inari Taisha and climb up to the top if you can.
7. See the famous rock Zen garden at Ryoanji Temple. We recommend heading there first thing in the morning for a truly Zen experience.
8. Check out the famous Golden Pavilion and Silver Pavilion. Same as with Ryoanji, you’ll want to head to the temples early.
9. Walk the quaint streets up to Kiyomizudera Temple and enjoy the panoramic views of Kyoto.
10. See the 1001 Kannon Buddha statues in Sanjusangendo.
11. Visit the authentic 400-year-old Nijo Castle and see the stunning gold leaf art inside.
12. Go to the top of Kyoto Tower for a drink with a view. It’s great as the first or last thing to do in Kyoto as it’s close to the main station.
Food and Drink
13. Eat yatsuhashi — Kyoto’s famous wagashi sweets of thin mochi filled with different flavors from anko beans to chocolate.
14. Or go luxe with the photogenic and delicious wagashi from Umezono.
15. Try Kyoto pickles — they’re different from Kanto pickles.
16. Check out Sawai-shoyu Honten to sample soy sauce made using a century-old process.
17. Try barazushi, a Kyotango specialty that consists of scattered fish, vegetables and egg atop rice, like one giant sushi square.
18. Slurp on some very special soba noodles at SubaSoba. Join the line and then eat while standing.
19. Drink traditional matcha. Now, you can get matcha anywhere, but tea shops in Kyoto are sure to offer a variety of the highest quality.
20. Then try creative matcha cocktails, because innovation never stops and that’s a good thing.
21. Try tea at Yugen, close to the Kyoto Imperial Garden. The interior is as beautiful and delicate as its tea.
22. Have the best possible introduction to eating natto at Natsumame, the restaurant that’s on a mission to make people like the fermented pungent soybean dish. The proprietor even hated natto at first.
23. Visit this Starbucks housed in a beautiful traditional building where you can sip on a matcha latte while sitting on a tatami floor.
24. Eat doughnuts at Koe, the shop designed by Kengo Kuma Associates. Great architecture aside, the doughnuts are organic, natural and delicious.
25. Savor shojin ryori (vegan Buddhist cuisine) at a local temple.
26. Have a cup of coffee at Sarasa Nishijin that’s housed in an old sento (bathhouse) retaining its unique architecture and design.
27. Eat precious rock and mineral-inspired sweets at Usagi no Nedoko Cafe.
28. Or visit any of these seven Kyoto cafés recommended by one TW writer.
29. Enjoy delectable vegetable-focused food at Yasai Hori.
30. Do yoga in the morning followed by dinner in the evening at Monk, a small restaurant located along the Philosophers Path, near Ginkakuji.
31. On comfortable evenings, sip on local brews and liquor at rooftop bar In the Moon and admire Kyoto from above.
Art and Culture
32. Go to see the Kimono Forest, an art installation with 600 pillars adorned with vibrant kimono fabrics. It’s best to wait until it lights up at night.
33. All of Japan calls Kyoto the kimono capital, so do your kimono shopping at the city’s flea markets and bazaars. Highly recommended is the monthly market at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine.
34. See a Kabuki play at Kyoto Minamiza Theater.
35. Check out the Kanji Museum and Library to learn about the history of Chinese characters and admire beautiful calligraphy.
36. From steam locomotives to shining shinkansen, see them all at Kyoto Railway Museum.
37. See exquisite artistic Japanese pottery at Kyoto Yamahon.
38. For the best traditional and modern Japanese art, check out Kyoto Kyocera Museum.
39. Try the most beautiful craft of mending broken things with gold. You can do it in other cities, but a kintsugi workshop in Kyoto feels on brand. Urujyu offers a variety of classes at a few different spots in Kyoto.
40. Take a private lesson from a katana swordsmith. Yuya Nakanishi is Kyoto’s only remaining blacksmith making traditional swords.
41. Take a stroll through the Garden of Fine Arts Kyoto to see some beautiful ceramic works in the daylight.
Pop Culture Gems
42. Go on a Nintendo history hunt. You can find little signs of the company’s history in Kyoto where it all started in the 19th century.
43. Superfans of Nintendo can stay at Marufukuro Hotel, which opened inside the renovated old Nintendo Headquarters.
44. See Mindar, a robot priest chanting sutras in Kodaiji Temple.
45. Go and face the Face House, a quirky house in an unassuming little street that most tourists don’t know about.
46. Shop at an Issey Miyake store in a gorgeous 132-year-old renovated building.
47. Go to the Yokai Street teeming with weird and wonderful creatures from Japanese folklore.
48. Lounge around and read all of the manga books humanly possible at the Kyoto International Manga Museum.
49. Step into a world of make-believe at Toei Kyoto Studio Park, also known as Eigamura (meaning “film village”). You can see film sets and get dressed up like characters from a period movie.
Alternative Temples and Shrines in Kyoto
50. Those who especially care for their hair might want to pop by Mikami Shrine in Ukyo-ku to wish for healthy locks.
51. Take it slow and easy by visiting the sleepy temples of Ohara where members of the imperial family used to live.
52. Go to the Saihoji (Kokedera), also known as the Moss Temple, for a magical moment with minimal crowds. The temple allows only a small number of people per day and you have to book well in advance.
53. Hop to the Okazaki Shrine, nicknamed Bunny Shrine, where everything is adorned by cute bunnies. People here pray for fertility.
54. Pass through a magical giant stone in Yasui Kompiragu Shrine and make a wish.
55. Check out the calm Bukkoji Temple and D&D Department shop on the temple premises showcasing designs as well as foods from this part of Japan.
56. Visit Ryosokuin Temple, the less crowded but beautiful side temple of Kenninji Temple. The garden is particularly stunning.
57. And for those who flew in from other regions of Japan or overseas, visit Hikou Shrine in Yawata City (if the detour allows) and wish for a safe, turbulent-free flight home.
58. Rent a bicycle to get around Kyoto. It gets you everywhere faster and you can enjoy the scenery on the way. But if you can only do an afternoon, ride along the Kamo River.
59. Fans of the printed work will love to sniff around Keibunsha Books. You’ll also find small items made by local artists.
60. Take a free night walking tour to see Kyoto lit up. After all, most tourist attractions close around 5pm.
61. See the Take-no-michi bamboo trail, a smaller, lesser-known alternative to the bamboo forest in Arashiyama.
62. Stay in an old converted machiya house, the traditional type of Kyoto townhouse that’s long and narrow.
63. Stay at Fufu Kyoto for a luxurious experience and a private natural hot springs bath in your room.
64. Stay at BnA Alter Museum, a boutique hotel where all spaces and each room are designed differently by artists.
65. Order Kyoto-produced liquor and spirits at the Hotel Anteroom Bar.
66. Sample Kyoto-distilled Ki no Bi gin at its namesake bar in central Kyoto.
67. Visit the Fushimi Sake District in southern Kyoto which boasts around 40 breweries lining the Hori River.
68. Check out the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery and its Whiskey Museum to understand why Japanese whiskey is loved around the world. A reservation in advance is necessary for touring the distillery.
69. Catch a show at Gear, a unique non-verbal theatre that merges the aesthetics of steampunk with Kabuki theatre elements, modern technology and everything in between.
70. Venture a little bit out of Kyoto on the Sagano Scenic Railway from Arashiyama to Kameoka on an old-fashioned slow train that goes past some stunning locations.