Kyoto is just one of those places that is on every traveler’s bucket list. And for good reason! There are just so many things to see and do in this ancient city, from exploring magnificent temples to sampling the best matcha green tea in Japan. But, with so many options, where do you start? With our top recommendations for must do experiences in Kyoto, of course.
Visit one (or more) of the many temples and shrines
Visiting temples and shrines is one of the most popular things to do in Kyoto. And it’s no wonder, there are simply so many to choose from — literally thousands. And six of our top twelve attractions in Kyoto are either temples or shrines.
The key is deciding just which ones to visit. If you only have time to visit a few we recommend hitting the big three: Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kiyomizudera, and Kinkakuji. Fushimi Inari Taisha is where you will find those iconic red torii gates, and if you climb to the top you’ll get a nice view over Kyoto (on a clear day anyway). Kiyomizudera also has striking architecture that extends out of the hillside. While Kinkakuji is also known as the Golden Pavilion — need we say more.
Unfortunately, these three are not particularly close to each other so it takes close to a full day to visit all of them. If you’d prefer someone else takes care of the logistics for you, there are numerous tours available. We recommend this one for ¥15,500 that visits not only the aforementioned temples and shrine but also Nijō Castle, Kyoto Imperial Palace or Kitano Tenmangu Shrine (on days when the palace is closed), and Sanjūsangendō. You’ll be accompanied by an English-speaking guide and there’s a lunch-included option if you’d like to upgrade.
Rent a kimono and dress like a local
What better place than Kyoto to try on a traditional kimono? There is something incredibly special about wearing a kimono and wondering the ancient streets of Japan’s former capital. And it’s even better if you happen to be visiting during spring when the cherry blossoms are guaranteed to add a romantic touch to all your photos. If you’re visiting during the summer months, you can try a yukata instead. It’s the kimono’s summer cousin, and looks just as good but is lighter and more suited to the humid summer.
There are endless options for rental stores, especially around touristy areas. However, do consider the quality of the rentals on offer — some are much better than others. We recommend Wakana, as they have locally-made, high quality rentals available. A big bonus is their location, right next to Yasaka Shrine and just a short walk from Gion — one of Kyoto’s main geisha districts.
You can easily book your rental online. Prices start from ¥3,600 for a single adult, and there is also a couple’s package available for ¥6,980. All packages include dressing and styling services, so you know you’ll look your very best!
Explore Nishiki Market
Foodies can’t visit Kyoto without stopping by Nishiki Market — nicknamed Kyoto’s Kitchen. This 400-year-old market has over 100 stalls selling all kinds of fresh fish and meat, sweets and souvenirs, and much, much more.
If you’ve got limited time, this breakfast tour with a local guide will make sure you hit all the best spots. And they even take photos for you, so you can focus on filling your tummy. It costs ¥5,900 per adult. There is a maximum of six participants per tour so make sure to book early.
Visit Sagano Bamboo Forest
You may have seen the photos of bamboo reaching into the sky on all sides, and this is the place where you can experience it yourself. Also known as Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Sagano Bamboo Forest is a popular destination for insta-worthy photos. Nestled in the mountains and right by the river, the area is rich in both nature and history. Tenryūji, famous temple and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is nearby.
After wandering through Sagano Bamboo Forest, we recommend booking a river boat ride. For ¥4,100 per adult, you can cruise along Arashiyama’s Katsura-gawa and enjoy seeing the area from another perspective.
Meet a real life geisha
It’s no secret that geisha can be elusive. Called geiko in Kyoto, these women are highly trained and respected entertainers, and if you are lucky enough you may catch a glimpse of them from afar. And if that’s enough for you, check out our guide on where to spot geisha for some hints and tips.
However, if you want to get up close and personal you have a few different options — and all of them will cost you. If you can speak Japanese, or don’t mind paying a little extra for foreign language service, you can have lunch with a maiko for ¥7,900 — a surprisingly affordable option. A maiko is a young woman who is training to be a geisha; while not at the level of a geiko or geisha they are still highly trained and impressive! Plus, maiko are the ones with the really elaborate kimono and hairstyles.
If only a fully fledged geisha will do, it’s going to cost more. A private banquet with two geiko — at an ochaya (the teahouses where geisha entertain) no less — costs ¥163,462 per person (minimum of two people per booking). The experience includes a full kaiseki meal (traditional Japanese multi-course haute cuisine) and a live shamisen performance (a traditional three-string instrument similar to a guitar or banjo). While this may seem like a very un-Cheapo recommendation, it’s actually still pretty reasonable as far as costs in the geisha world can go.
Participate in a tea ceremony
This is another activity steeped (haha) in tradition. And given the traditional atmosphere of Kyoto — and the proximity to Uji, the matcha green tea paradise — this is the perfect place to experience it.
Tea ceremonies have a long history and a number of very specific customs associated with them. Tradionally, such “ceremonies” (for lack of a better translation) involve one host serving tea to guests as an aestheticized act of hospitality. This is the sort of thing you have to be invited to. Fortunately, Kyoto offers other ways to experience the Japanese art of tea. For example, instead of a host preparing the tea, you can try your hand at making the tea yourself under the guidance of an instructor. The best part of doing it this way is that you’ll be able to whip up your own cup of traditional Japanese tea long after you’ve returned home.
At a lovely teahouse, not far from Kiyomizudera, you can learn about the tea ceremony with an English-speaking instructor, then try making your own tea, which you can then enjoy alongside some traditional Japanese sweets. If you’d like to get a bit fancy, this tea experience comes with kimono rental and costs ¥8,500 per person (minimum of two people per booking).
Find peace in a Zen garden
Many of the temples in Kyoto have beautiful gardens that you can enjoy. Usually there’s a small admission fee of a few hundred yen, but it’s well worth the extra cost. You can see the traditional rooms, with tatami mats over looking tranquil gardens. Some of the gardens include a “zen garden” where careful placement of plants, stones and raked gravel reflect zen philosophy.
Off the beaten track: Learn all about matcha green tea in Uji
Can’t get enough matcha? Then you’d better head to Uji, a small city about 20 minutes away from Kyoto by rapid train. This city is reknowned for its matcha, which is considered the highest quality matcha in Japan, and it’s the place for matcha enthusists to visit. Plus you can tie in a visit to Byōdōin, the temple featured on the 10-yen coin.
There are variety of matcha related experiences you can do in Uji. For a mere ¥700 you can try your hand at stone-milling matcha. Afterwards, relax in the tearoom and sip your freshly ground matcha. If you’d really like to get up close and personal with the matcha process though, you can splash out ¥21,795 per person (minimum of two people per booking) for a visit to a matcha plantation and factory. Your guide will meet you at Kyoto Station and escort you to Uji where you will treated to a tour of one of Japan’s oldest matcha plantations.
Off the beaten track: Enjoy the view at Amanohashidate
Had your fill of temples and shrines? If you’d like to explore far flung corners of Kyoto Prefecture why not head to Amanohashidate? Amanohashidate is a natural land bridge that stretches across Miyazu Bay on the Sea of Japan. It’s known as one of the Three Most Scenic Spots in Japan — no really, it’s a thing. The area has lots of white sandy beaches, and is a popular summer getaway for Kyoto- and Kansai-area residents.
The best way to reach Amanohashidate is to score a seat on one of the three daily services of JR West’s Ltd. Express Hashidate, which goes direct from Kyoto to Amanohashidate Station in just over two hours. One-way fare is ¥4,790, so we recommend using a rail pass like the Kansai Wide Area Pass (or the Kansai Wide Area Excursion Pass for foreign residents). Both passes cover the whole journey, and with just a round-trip between Kyoto and Amanohashidate you’ll have paid off the pass — the rest is just bonus (or use it for that other trip to Uji).
If you do decide to head out that way, we also recommend getting the Kasamatsu 2-day Pass. This includes round-trip tickets for both the Amanohashidate Sightseeing Boat and the Amanohashidate-kasamatsu Park Cable Car, as well as rides on local buses. The pass costs ¥1,400 and is valid for two days.
Coming from Tokyo? Here is a breakdown of the best ways of traveling between Tokyo and Kyoto.