Back to top


Top Things to Do in Kyoto


The serene temple laden cultural Yin to Tokyo’s fast-paced technological Yang, Kyoto is a city that very much embodies the spirit of old-world Japan. From its imperial palaces, Zen gardens and Shinto shrines to the traditional wooden buildings and screen facades of downtown Gion, where the mysterious and graceful geisha can still be glimpsed (if you’re very lucky!). Travelers to Kyoto today not only get the chance to visit otherworldly bamboo forests and ornate shrines but also to learn all about the art of tea, Zen Buddhism and many other pillars of Japanese culture, all within the borders of this mysterious yet welcoming city. Here are our top things to see, places to go, food to eat and experiences to have to make the most of your once in a lifetime trip to Kyoto.
Decorative torn edge


Kinkaku-ji (Golden Temple)

Kyoto reined as Japan’s capital city for over 1,000 years and its 2000 (or so) temples and shrines, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites, are testament to its past glory. With such an embarrassment of sacred riches, it can be difficult to know where to start, but one temple that you absolutely cannot miss is Kinkaku-ji, otherwise known as the Golden Pavilion. If you close your eyes and think of a Japanese temple, the elegant three-tiered golden pagoda of Kinkaku-ji, with its reflection shimmering in the water, is undoubtedly the image your mind summons. One of Kyoto’s most iconic sites, Kinkaku-ji temple is artfully set amidst a calm lake surrounded by trees, with the Zen temple itself wrapped entirely in gold leaf. It was originally built as a retirement home for a legendary shogun, who decreed the building become a temple after his death.

Building Japan
Woman on a bike

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

For a more interactive Temple experience, we recommend the beautiful hilltop Kiyomizu-dera Temple. Otherwise known as the “Pure Water Temple”, Kiyomizu-dera was founded on the site of the Otowa Waterfall in the verdant hills east of Kyoto. The experience begins with the pilgrimage-like journey up through the steep and bustling lanes of the Higashiyama District, arriving up to an iconic red arch and spectacular views across the leafy hillside of cherry and maple trees, vividly effervescent in red and orange during autumn, with a glimpse of Kyoto in the distance. The temple complex stretches across the hilltop and boasts an array of magical features. Visitors can drink the stream water, which is believed to have wish-granting powers, or attempt to successfully walk from one ‘love stone’ to another – with eyes closed (*gulp*) – at the Jishu Shrine, dedicated to God of love Ōkuninushi, to see if ‘True Love’ is in their stars… well you never know right?

Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine

Now for something completely different, and uniquely Japanese, visit the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine. The Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine sits at the base of a mountain and can be reached through a flamed coloured walkway comprised of thousands of traditional red torii gates, with secret Shinto shrines and various offshoot pathways around the mountain, with incredible views of Kyoto at the Yotsutsuji Intersection. The shrine honours the Shinto god (or Kami) Inari, the god of foxes, rice, tea and sake (all pretty important in Japanese culture!) who merchants and manufacturers have traditionally worshiped as the patron of business. Each of the torii at Fushimi Inari Taisha has been donated by a Japanese business. Be spirited away as you pass under gate after gate after gate, guided by red vested fox statues, who represent the sacred messengers of Inari. You can easily spend a day here wandering through the trails and exploring the network of ornate shrines.

red temple
Kyoto garden


Ryoan-ji Temple – Zen Rock Garden

In Japanese culture, the garden is just as important as the temple, arguably even more so! Kyoto is the best place in all of Japan to experience the true state of Zen that can only be achieved in a minimalist Japanese garden. The best place to begin your journey into the Zen is in the world-famous dry rock garden of the Ryoan-ji Temple, the original garden of true contemplation. Not far from the Golden Pavilion in northwest Kyoto, this karesansui dry landscape garden is truly unlike any other garden you have seen, with 15 mysterious rocks floating in a sea of pure white sand. Nobody knows who created this extreme minimalist garden or what it all is supposed to mean. Some academics claim the garden depicts an ocean accented with small islands or a sky dotted with clouds. With its simple calming design, and innate mystery, there is certainly plenty to contemplate at Ryoan-ji.

Tenryu-ji Temple

If you prefer your Zen gardens a little less mentally challenging and more picturesque, then the abundant garden of the Tenryu-ji Temple may be more to your taste. Located in the western outskirts of the city, Tenryu-ji Temple is one of Kyoto’s great Zen temples, the garden features a circular promenade around a Sogen Pond and is framed by the scenic mountains of Arashiyama, which blend in perfectly as part of the garden and create a landscape reminiscent of a painting. Such is its beauty, this stunningly idyllic garden has been designated a ‘Special Place of Scenic Beauty’ in Japan.

Saiho-ji Temple – ‘Moss Temple’

For a garden less traditional but no less tranquil, pay a visit to the Saiho-ji Temple. Known as Koke-dera, the ‘Moss Temple’ is famous for its entirely moss covered garden and is one of the most celebrated gardens in all of Japan. Arranged as a circular promenade centered around a golden pond, the lush green garden also contains three tea houses where you can relax and reflect upon the world.

Garden Kyoto
Bamboo grove

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Although technically not a garden, The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is one of Kyoto’s best known attractions and can rival any manicured garden for a sense of otherworldliness. One of the most unusual landscapes in the world, the thick green bamboo stalks reach up and up to the heavens, rustling and swaying back and forth in the breeze and distorting the light, creating an eerie but nevertheless calm and Zen atmosphere of being somewhere else entirely.


Minamiza Theatre

There is no better place to find a cultural, interesting and well-rounded view of Kyoto than downtown Gion. To wander through the winding alleyways of the Gion district, past simple wooden buildings, demure teahouses and distinctly Japanese restaurants, is to step back a few hundred years in history. Gion is the last working Geisha district left in Japan and the only place in the world where (if you’re lucky) you can see these mysterious elegant female entertainers practice their craft. You can see the perfectly poised ‘dance of the maikos’ (apprentice Geisha) at the renowned Minamiza Theatre, which also showcases various other Japanese traditional arts such as tea ceremonies and kabuki shows – a genre of theatre that features dance, dramatic make-up, and bright vivid colors.

Talking about Geishas, when you visit Kyoto you’ll probably encounter tourists that wear traditional yukatas and kimonos that resemble a Geisha look. Real Geishas are very sophisticated and exquisite entertainers that embody traditional Japanese arts and therefore quite hard to spot outside performing theatres. Very sought after, they are highly skilled in the Japanese art of conversing, singing, literature and dancing. For Japanese people, Geishas keep ancient traditions alive. You can recognise real Geisha by their perfectly manicured hair, distinctive white make-up and flawless traditional attire. Your best shot to see Geishas is attending a show at the Minamiza Theatre and watch one of their mesmerising performances.

Japan market

Pontocho Alley

Pontocho Alley, which runs parallel to the west bank of the Kamo-gawa River between Sanjo and Shijo, is one of the most atmospheric streets in all of Kyoto and a great place to spot Geisha at dusk. The alley is lined with traditional restaurants and shops, and no modern buildings, cars or gaudy signs are allowed. Spend an hour wandering the area and chances are you’ll see geisha shuffling between teahouses in their high zori sandals and extravagant kimonos. Pontocho Alley is also an ideal place to sample some traditional Japanese cuisine. Walking down the lantern lit street, seeing the closed screen facades of the restaurants with flickering candlelight under the door and the outside menu entirely in Japanese, is an incredibly atmospheric but not for the faint-hearted! However, if you are brave enough to push aside the screen doors you will be rewarded with some authentic, incredible cuisine. Pontocho Fujita, a family-run Kyo-kaiseki restaurant that serves exquisitely presented dishes of pike conger and puffer-fish, and Yoshiya, a popular kappo restaurant serving sashimi, tempura and stewed dishes, are popular with locals and tourists alike.

Nishiki Food Market

The Nishiki Food Market is also a great place to go to try lots of different types of Japanese delicacies. The self-styled ‘Kitchen of Kyoto’ is a mecca for food lovers where all kinds of fresh seafood, dumplings, pickles, roasted tea, fish cakes, and yakitori can be discovered in the various food stalls. There are also many stalls that sell food samples at the front of their stores aimed at tourists, so you can enjoy what is called “Tabe-aruki’ (walking and eating), a particularly popular pastime at the market.

En Teahouse

Another iconic staple of Japanese culture is tea. Like the British the Japanese love a good cup of tea, although for them it is more about the preparation than the drinking. Tea ceremonies, known as chado or sado, are available all over Japan, but experiencing one in Kyoto is extra special due to the city’s strong Zen Buddhist roots. The ceremony begins with the graceful cleansing of the tea utensils, the tea is poured carefully and artfully and you are presented the cup with a gentle ceremonial bow. The ceremony itself is deeply spiritual, and as you sip the delicate tea you are subtly encouraged to be mindful and thankful of your place in the world. En, a small teahouse in Gion with tatami tearooms, has English speaking Kimono-clad servers and is ideal for first time visitors looking to experience the unique art of Japanese tea.

Man in Japan