You could easily spend years exploring the culture capital of Japan known for its elaborate temples, historic shrines and quiet, canal-lined streets. But if you only have a few days to spend, here are 50 of the best things to do in Kyoto, from the beautiful Buddhist temples to greasiest okonomiyaki.
1. Explore the city by bike
Sign up for a guided group Kyoto bike tour, one of the best ways to see the city.
2. Walk through Fushimi Inari Shrine
It takes about two hours to hike through the famous red torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine, a Shinto shrine and one of the most iconic spots in the city.
3. Splurge on one night at a luxurious Japanese inn
4. Check in to a more affordable—but just as culturally cool—option
For a lovely ryokan experience that you won’t have to spend a whole paycheck on, book a night at Ryokan Matsubaya.
5. Take a scenic boat ride
Head to the northern area of Arashiyama and take a sightseeing boat ride down the Hozugawa river.
6. Get lost in a bamboo forest
Take in the sights at Arashiyama bamboo forest. If you can, get there early in the morning or late at night to avoid the crowds.
7. Take a river walk
Stroll along Togetsukyo Bridge and gawk at the blooming cherry blossoms or changing fall foliage.
8. See some monkeys…and a view
9. Find zen at a mosque temple
10. Admire thousands of stone Buddhist sculptures
Not far from Gio-ji, you’ll find Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, an eighth-century restored temple that houses more than a thousand Buddhist stone sculptures with all sorts of facial expressions.
11. Try barbecue eel (unagi)
Stop for lunch at Hirokawa, a restaurant that specializes in unagi, aka delicious glazed barbecue eel. Psst: Be sure to make a reservation in advance.
12. Amble the city’s most picturesque streets
13. Then take in more scenery along Philosopher’s Path
This walkway follows a treelined canal that is lit up by colorful leaves and blossoming flowers during the fall and spring.
14. Step into an off-the-beaten-track temple
As you walk Philosopher’s Path, keep an eye out for Honen-in, a peaceful and under-the-radar temple that isn’t packed with tourists.
15. Devour dumplings…lots of them
Fuel up on crispy pan-fried pork and cabbage gyoza at Sukemasa. Prepare for a line, but just know these dumplings are worth the wait.
16. Eat a meal you’ll never forget at Monk
You’ll want to reserve your seats at Monk months in advance. The seven-course standout meal is cooked in a giant wood-burning oven by a single chef. Be sure to save room for the last course: one of the best pizzas (yep) you’ve ever tried.
17. Sit down for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony
At Camellia, the hostesses speak English, which helps English speakers understand the deep rituals and meanings of the ceremony. Plus, you’ll learn how to make your own matcha.
18. Buy some matcha
Ippodo’s flagship store is the perfect place to stock up on matcha powder to bring back to the states for you and all your friends.
19. Treat yourself to kaiseki
20. Satisfy your soba craving
Slurp on bowls of hot or cold soba noodles at Honke Owariya. Beware, English speakers: Not much English is spoken in this basement eatery, but it definitely adds to the charm.
21. Gawk at Kinkaku-ji
It’s easy to see why this gold-covered temple has become one of the most iconic sites in Kyoto.
22. Eat like a Buddhist monk
Stop for lunch at Izusen, where you can try shojin ryori, a traditional vegan dining style with roots in Zen Buddhism. Be sure to try gomadofu, a super soft and savory tofu made out of sesame seeds.
23. Learn about sake, Japanese rice wine
Wander around Fushimi, Kyoto’s renowned sake district and the second largest sake producer in Japan.
24. Take a sake brewery tour
For an in-depth look at the sake-making process, take a tour of Gekkeikan Okura, a brewery that’s been producing the Japanese rice wine for almost 400 years.
25. Or take a class to hone your sake palate
26. Then stock up on Japanese rice wine to take home
Many Japanese sakes are impossible to find in the states, so browse the aisles at Takimoto, a giant sake superstore, and pick up a few bottles to pack in your suitcase.
27. Get ready to slurp some ramen
28. Go hungry to Nishiki Market
Sample everything from Wagyu beef skewers and fresh uni to octopus and quail egg “lollipops” at Nishiki Market, a huge covered marketplace downtown.
29. Then shop ’til you drop
Teramachi is Kyoto’s main shopping street, and it’s just a stone’s throw from Nishiki. It’s lined with clothing boutiques, home decor stores, arcades, art galleries and more.
30. Check out an enormous department store food court
Near Nishiki Market is Takashimaya, a giant department store. Head straight for the basement, where you’ll find a giant food hall with stands serving everything from pressed sushi sets to colorful bento boxes.
31. Go omakase or go home
An omakase meal at Sushiiwa is a bit of a splurge, but when the chef hands you the first piece of fatty tuna over fluffy rice, you’ll know it’s worth it.
32. Save room for something sweet
Satisfy your sweet tooth at Kagizen Yoshifusa, a dessert shop that sells traditional treats like warabi mochi and kuzukiri (think sweet, syrupy noodles) alongside green tea.
33. Or try some intriguing ice cream flavors
At Gion Kinana, you’ll find some of the best ice cream in Kyoto, which comes in some interesting flavors like soy bean and brown sugar.
34. Peruse a bamboo grove without the crowds
Arashiyama can get seriously packed, so for something more manageable and serene, visit Take-no-Michi, a small yet impressive bamboo forest in Muko City.
35. Walk through the gardens at Kodai-ji
This small temple boasts beautiful gardens that burst into color during spring and fall, as well as a small bamboo forest.
36. Take a half-day trip to Kurama and Kibune
To escape the city, take the easy hike from Kurama to Kibune, two rural villages just outside Kyoto. End your walk with a dip in a natural hot spring at Kurama Onsen.
37. Feed deer in Nara
For a full-day trip from Kyoto, travelers flock to Nara, a city made up of beautiful gardens, shrines and temples. Don’t miss a stop at Nara-koen Park, where you can feed the semi-wild, roaming deer that bow for treats.
38. Take a food-filled day trip to Osaka
Located less than half an hour from Kyoto by bullet train, Osaka is known as the nation’s kitchen. Wander down Dotonbori Street, eat some okonomiyaki, takoyaki and yakitori, and you’ll see why Osaka is the capital of Japanese street food.
39. See geishas in Gion
Take an evening stroll around Gion, the historical, canal-lined geisha quarter. Seek out Shimbashi—one of Kyoto’s most beautiful streets—which is lined with old wooden houses, art galleries and antique shops. Still today, many women dress up as geishas and wander the neighborhood around sunrise.
40. Have a cocktail in a hidden bar
Stop for a drink at The Common One, a clandestine bar housed in what looks like a Japanese guesthouse. Just tell the bartender what you like, and he’ll whip up the best craft cocktail you’ve ever had.
41. Barhop in Pontochō Alley
42. Try sukiyaki, a cozy meal similar to hot pot
At Iroha Kitamise, diners sit on tatami mats and cook sliced beef, tofu and veggies at their table.
43. Make your way to L’Escamoteur for a nightcap
End the night with a cocktail at L’Escamoteur, a quirky and whimsical speakeasy where you’ll feel as if you’ve traveled back in time to Belle Époque France. But, ya know, in Japan.
44. Experience a Japanese steakhouse
Treat yourself to a decadent Wagyu steak dinner at Calf. The meat is so soft it actually slices like butter.
45. Try Yakitori as it’s meant to be
Hitomi is a tiny, laid-back restaurant where a single chef grills skewers of perfectly cooked chicken thigh, meatballs and gizzards over an open flame.
46. Sample the famous street food
Pop by Gion Tanto for the best okonomiyaki. These savory cabbage pancakes topped with fried egg, bonito flakes and scallions are a popular street food around the country for good reason.
47. Pick up some souvenirs to decorate your home
Shop for eclectic home goods, from heirloom miso paste to bamboo serving trays, at D&Department, a funky shop housed in a 13th-century temple.
48. Then stock up on stationery
Uragu is a graphic design studio and shop that sells colorful Japanese stationery and notebooks.
49. Improve your handwriting
Take a Japanese calligraphy class at Sakura and then bring home your artwork as a souvenir.
50. Stroll along the Kamo River
The Kamo River is to Kyoto what the Seine is to Paris. It runs through the whole city, and on warm nights, you’ll find people picnicking and drinking sake by the water.
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