If you're headed to Kyoto for the first time, these are the 20 activities that can't be missed. Explore the city's Zen Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, stroll through the serene parks and gardens, eat your way through bustling food markets, experience a tranquil traditional tea ceremony, and marvel at the quintessentially Japanese sight of a geisha in Gion. But remember—no list of things to do can compare to a custom-built Kyoto itinerary from Journy. Leave it to the experts to build a daily travel plan from scratch just for you—complete not only with activities, but also restaurants, cafés, bars, transportation, and accommodation.
Forests, Parks, and Gardens
Stepping into the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest feels like stepping into an alternative universe; one filled with a sprawling, sky-high bamboo grove that reaches further than the eye can see. Stroll leisurely down the main path through the grove (arguably the most famous site in Kyoto) and take in the enveloping atmosphere of thick green stalks. The path leads slightly uphill to the magnificent garden of the Ōkōchi Sansō Villa, which is a sight in and of itself.
Bamboo Forest 嵐山竹林, Japan, 〒616-8393 Kyōto-fu, Kyōto-shi, Ukyō-ku, Saganonomiyacho, 12
2. Philosopher's Path
In the spring and fall, there is no prettier place to be than on the Philosopher’s Walk, a charming stone path next to the canal through Higashiyama. Along the canal, hundreds of vibrant cherry blossoms light up the scene during peak hanami season, making for a stunning stroll while gazing at Japan’s most famous flower. In the fall, come for the orange and yellow foliage that line the canal.
Shishigatani Honenin Nishimachi, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 606-8427, Japan
Come face-to-face with Japanese macaque monkeys at Iwatayama Monkey Park, located high above the tree tops on the stunning Arashiyama Mountain. Once you’ve reached the park, spend some time engaging with the playful and interactive animals. Before you leave, turn your attention to the sweeping panoramic views of Kyoto.
Note: It’s a steep climb uphill to get to the monkeys, so make sure you wear proper footwear.
Open every day, 9AM - 4PM
61 Arashiyama Nakaoshitachō, Nishikyō-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 616-0004, Japan
Temples and Shrines
Famous for the hundreds of bright orange torii gates that wind through verdant trails, Fushimi is Kyoto’s main shrine to Inari, the patron god of prosperity. Behind the shrine, the sacred Mount Inari rises 700 feet above sea level. As Inari is also the god of foxes, you’ll find many statues of the little animals as you wander the beautiful and sacred grounds. In the early morning and late afternoon, the bright torii gates catch the light and glow from within, making for a truly magical walk.
68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 612-0882, Japan
Kiyomizu-dera is one of Japan's most popular temples. It stands in the wooded hills of eastern Kyoto and offers visitors a nice view over the city from its famous wooden terrace. The busy approach to the temple is lined by dozens of shops and restaurants that have been catering to pilgrims and tourists for centuries. Don’t forget to enter the subterranean Tainai-Meguri, which symbolically represents the womb of Daizuigu Bosatsu, a female Bodhisattva who has the power to grant any human wish. Inside, you're plunged into darkness with nothing guiding you save for some glowing stones.
Open every day, 6AM - 6PM
294 Kiyomizu 1-chome, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0862, Japan
Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺, Golden Pavilion) is a Zen temple in northern Kyoto whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaves. Formally known as Rokuonji, the temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and according to his will it became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after his death in 1408. Kinkaku-ji was the inspiration for the similarly named Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), built by Yoshimitsu's grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, on the other side of the city a few decades later.
Open every day, 9AM - 5PM
1 Kinkakujicho, Kita Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 603-8361, Japan
One of Kyoto’s prettiest temples and gardens, Ginkaku-Ji is an incredibly tranquil, elegant, must-visit sight. Amble through the Japanese gardens and head up the hill between primly trimmed trees before coming back down and taking in the gorgeous scenery. The eastern mountains stretch out into the distance, serving as a backdrop for the wonderfully manicured shrubbery by the pond.
Open every day, 8:30AM - 5PM
2 Ginkakujicho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 606-8402, Japan
A headline attraction in Arashiyama, Tenryu-ji is a Zen temple with one of the finest gardens in Kyoto complete with gorgeous mountain views. Right off the main drag and just a few steps from the Tenryuji-mae bus stop, the temple is also walking distance from Arashiyama’s famous bamboo grove. To get there, head uphill and away from the temple’s main hall, exit the garden/temple through the the north gate, and take a quick left.
Open every day, 8:30AM - 5:30PM
68 Sagatenryuji Susukinobabacho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 616-8385, Japan
During the fall, visitors come from all over to see the autumn colors at Tofuku-ji, a massive Zen temple in southeastern Kyoto. Founded in 1236, the temple, with its stunning grounds and spectacular buildings, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an impressive sight any time of year. Perhaps the most famous view is the Tsutenkyo Bridge, a covered walkway which becomes crowded with people during November.
Open every day, 8:30AM - 4PM
Japan, 〒605-0981 Kyōto-fu, Kyōto-shi, Higashiyama-ku, 本町１５丁目778
Founded in 1164, the Buddhist temple Sanjusangendo is famous for containing 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy and compassion. Officially known as “Rengeō-in" or “Hall of the Lotus King,” the long wooden hall, with its many sculptures, is one of the most impressive and fascinating sights in Kyoto.
Open every day, 8AM - 5PM
657 Sanjūsangendōmawari, Higashiyama-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 605-0941, Japan
11. Gio-ji Temple
One of the most scenic spots in Arashiyama, Gio-Ji is a tiny temple with a thatch-roofed main hall overlooking a gorgeous, moss-covered grove. Most people walk right by this tiny temple, as there’s not much to see inside, but the fairytale-like moss grove is worth a look.
Open every day, 9AM - 4:30PM
Japan, 〒616-8435 京都府京都市右京区嵯峨鳥居本小坂町３２
12. Nanzen-ji Temple
Founded in 1291, this massive temple is the unquestionably impressive headquarters of the Nanzen-ji sect of Rinzai Buddhism. You could easily spend two or three hours exploring its sprawling grounds and many sub-temples, but be sure to take the steps to the top for a fantastic view of this ancient city. Although you have to pay for admission to the Hōjō garden (¥500) and San-mon gate (¥400), the grounds are free.
Open every day, 8:45AM - 5PM
Japan, 〒606-8435 Kyōto-fu, Kyōto-shi, Sakyō-ku, Nanzenji Fukuchichō, 南禅寺福地町86
READ MORE: A Guide To Kyoto With Kids
13. Yasaka Shrine
Yasaka Shrine, host to the Gion Matsuri, is located at the eastern end of Shijo-dori next to Maruyama Park. While not one of Kyoto's most impressive temples, it's worth stopping by to see the shrine's hanging lanterns, which are lit every night after dark. Also, you'll find a number of food stalls outside the temple which feature local snacks from Kyoto.
625 Gionmachi Kitagawa, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0073, Japan
Castles and Palaces
Formerly the ruling palace of the Emperor of Japan, the Kyoto Imperial Palace is located inside the massive Kyoto Imperial Park. Once only accessible on a guided, pre-reserved tour, the palace grounds are now open to the public (entering the buildings is still not allowed). The park—with gravel paths, cherry trees, and elegant gardens—is also worth a visit. The tours do not require prior registration. English tours begin at 10AM and 2PM every day, and last approximately 50 minutes.
Open every day, 9AM - 4PM
3 Kyōtogyoen, Kamigyō-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 602-0881, Japan
15. Nijo Castle
One of Kyoto’s most popular places to visit, Nijo-jo Castle invites you to explore the history of the Shoguns and the power they once wielded throughout Japan. With massive stone walls and deep moats, Nijo-jo is a low-slung but still impressive structure, and it’s surrounded by beautiful gardens, including the Seiryu-en Garden. Get there just after opening (8:45AM) to avoid the crowds.
Open every day, 8:45AM - 4PM
541 Nijojocho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 604-8301, Japan
Attention all food-obsessed travelers: beeline it to Nishiki Market in Kyoto ASAP. With more than 100 stalls over five city blocks, the Nishiki food market is known by locals as “Kyoto’s Pantry.” From delicious street food to eat on the go to obscure spices and fresh seafood, it’s a haven for locals and tourists alike. Dried pickles, street food, unique, hand-crafted ceramics—you name it, it’s probably there. The covered market runs all the way from Teramachi to Shinmachi, and is the city’s best and largest traditional food market. Go with an empty stomach, because you’ll want to sample everything from skewered octopus to sticky sweets.
Open every day, 9AM - 5PM
Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 604-0000, Japan
READ MORE: The 25 Best Restaurants In Kyoto
For an experience authentic to Kyoto, you must participate in the traditional Camellia tea ceremony. Located in a traditional house not far from Kiyomizu-dera Temple, the tea ceremony consists of the process of making matcha tea (a powdered green tea), with all the traditional utensils (wooden whisk, wooden ladle) and rituals. During the tea ceremony, which is an indelible part of Japanese culture, the guides will teach you (in English) all about the significance of each part of the ceremony. This is a wonderful, authentic experience that you should take time to try while in Kyoto.
Open every day, 10AM - 6PM
Japan, 〒605-0826 Kyōto-fu, Kyōto-shi, Higashiyama-ku, Masuyachō, 東山区桝屋町３４９−１２
18. Gion (Geisha district)
Situated along the Kamogawa river banks, the Gion District is a fascinating mix of old and new Kyoto. Some streets are lit by teahouse lanterns, while tall buildings and fluorescent lights glow a street away. Shirakawa is a popular area of Gion, where you’ll find restaurants and tea shops shrouded by willows that overhang the river. Gion is also Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, and you might catch a glimpse of a beautiful kimono among the crowds.
Japan, 〒605-0073 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, 東山区
19. Pontocho Alley
Take a step back into old world Japan in this narrow alleyway filled with small bars and restaurants. The tiny storefronts range from inexpensive yakitori to traditional and modern Kyoto cuisine, from casual hole-in-the-walls to exclusive, invite-only establishments. In spring, many of the restaurants put up temporary patios overhanging the Kamogawa river, so you can dine in the temperate open air. To get to Pontocho, take the Hankyu line to Kawaramachi Station. It's the narrow alley running from Shijo-dori to Sanjo-dori, one block west of the Kamogawa river.
Japan, 〒604-8016 Kyōto-fu, Kyōto-shi, Nakagyō-ku, Nabeyachō, 中京区下樵木町１９６−１
READ MORE: The Journy Guide To Kyoto
20. Higashiyama District
For a postcard-perfect view of Kyoto, head to the Higashiyama district. The area is home to all of Kyoto’s shrines, many of which are within walking distance of each other. A walk among the shrines gives you a feel for traditional old-world Kyoto, with narrow lanes and wooden buildings. The historic shrines have been attracting pilgrims, and now tourists for centuries. As a result, you can sift through the somewhat generic shops to find real gems selling Kiyomizu-yaki pottery and authentic sweet treats.
Now that you've got a handle on sightseeing in Kyoto, read up on all the best places to eat (ramen, sushi, kaiseki, tempura, etc). And if you're splitting your time between Kyoto and Tokyo, this list of things to do in Japan's capital is a must-read. Oh—and thinking about traveling during cherry blossom season? Here's what you need to know.