Kyoto, Japan. While you’re bound to find great activities and experiences on any trip to Japan, there’s no other place to explore the full extent of Japanese culture than Kyoto city. That being said, it can be easy to get overwhelmed between Buddhist temples, heritage sites and delicious food to try. Kyoto is, without a doubt, one of the must-see cities of Japan - along with other great hubs such as Osaka, Hiroshima, Hokkaido and Kanazawa. The city is home to many UNESCO world heritage monuments and its illustrious history will allow you to get an insight into Japan’s ancestral past. From the moment you arrive at Kyoto station on the shinkansen from the Narita or Kansai airport, Superprof invites you to discover the most interesting sight-seeing, shopping and cultural activities you can do in the ancient capital of Japan. Whether you're looking to drink like the locals or want to see a show at the theatre, check out what to do with this Japan travel guide to Kyoto.

For a more extensive travel guide including where to stay and what time to go, check out this article.

what to do Kyoto
When visiting Kyoto from another Japanese city, you'll be amazed by the mixture of old and contemporary architecture!

Visiting Gion

While many typically think of the beautiful Fushimi Inari shrine or the Imperial Palace when thinking of classic Japanese natural and architectural activities in the cities- a visit to the Gion district is a must. Gion is one of the best preserved historical districts in Japan and, for that, has made it one of the most visited areas of the prefecture. While Gion has been important since the Heian period, its current importance is attributed the modern day geisha. Geishas, trained from a young age to perfect and mimic the Japanese style, makeup and mannerisms of the past, can be found in everything from a traditional tea ceremony to entertaining at restaurants. Whether you’re simply looking to fill time during your layover at Kansai, have some extra yen to blow through or want to wander the streets far from your ryokan - Gion is also full of traditional temples and buildings. Here are some of the best streets to start your adventure:

  • Pontocho, the most famous street in Gion where you’ll find many great restaurants
  • Hanami-koji, full of tea houses and restaurants
  • Shirakawa, runs along the canal and give you access to river-side restaurants

Far from the hustle and bustle of Shibuya and Shinjuku, Gion is not only culturally stimulating but also one of the best places to stay in Kyoto!

Go to the Noh Theatre

A great walk from Nijo castle, Noh theatre is the perfect place to experience the best of traditional Japanese theatre. Typified by beautiful dances and chants, the dramas are generally taken from Shinto religious episodes or depict battle scenes between samurais and shogun. Throughout Japan, you’ll be able to see this ancestral art that is classified as one of the UNESCO’s list of intangible world heritage. At the Kanza Kaikan or Noh theatre, you’ll be able to get a look as to why this type of drama has been so integral to Japanese society over the centuries. If you want to know the best places to stay in Kyoto, start by knowing where the things you want to do are located!

Discover the Traditional Temples of Kyoto

Whether you’re a first-time traveller to Japan, on a business trip or live there - it’s impossible not to bump into Kyoto’s more than 1600 temples. If you’re wondering how to get to a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple, you probably won’t have to look further than your block. Keep in mind that Arashiyama is especially great for finding these gems. Here are some of the most famous temples of Kyoto:

  • Kinkakuji, also known as Kinkaku or the Golden Pavilion
  • Ryoan-ji and its rock garden
  • Tenryu-ji and its bamboo forest
  • Tofuku-ji and its maple forest
  • Kiyomizodera or Kiyomizu temple
  • Ginkaku-ji or the Silver Pavilion
  • Kurama-dera, accessible by hike
  • Jingo-ji, the best for nature-lovers

Whether it’s classified as one of the best world heritage sites by UNESCO or not, all of these temples are worth a visit!

kyoto fushimi inari
Step off that plane from the airport and stretch your legs by hiking up the Fushimi Inari shrine!

Taste Some Traditional Bites at Nishiki Market

Hungry from riding the bullet train on the Japan rail all day? Want to buy a kimono, slippers and fried octopus all in the same place? The infamous Nishiki stalls have got you covered! This market specializes in seafood and traditional Japanese spices and ingredients such as Tsukemono (pickles) and tofu. In between bites, get some retail therapy in and buy the souvenir you won’t be able to find at a Zen temple or world heritage site. Whether you’re staying in the best hotel Kyoto has to offer, are just finished visiting the Kyoto Imperial Palace or need an excuse to get out of your onsen - take advantage of the delicious sushi, sashimi and sake restaurants at Nashiki. If you’re not into learning about the Heian period or don’t want to hike up the Fushimi Inari shrine, exploring Kyoto through food can be one of the best ways to spend time in the city! Looking for more info on travelling in Kyoto? Check out this Kyoto travel guide!

Shinto Shrines

Sleeping on a tatami, taking the city bus and seeing Mount Fuji aren’t the only things that should be on your Kyoto itinerary. Get to know some of the Shinto shrines peppered throughout the city. Shinto shrines are those connected to the ancient Shinto religion, which is still celebrated through many festivals throughout the year. There are about 400 in Kyoto alone so there’s no excuse not to see one! Here are some of the most famous:

  • Located in Fushimi and dedicated to the god Inari is Fushimi Inari Taisha
  • Kitano Tenmangu
  • Shmogamo-jinja
  • Kamigamo-jinja
  • Yoshida-jinja
  • Heian-jinja

If you’re interested in knowing the difference between a Buddhist temple or pagoda, like Kannon, and a Shinto shrine - joining a tour that can help you understand the intricacies of Shinto architecture.

Walk in a Japanese Garden or Down the Philosopher’s Path

If you have a Japan rail pass, travelling from Narita Airport or Kansai International airport or simply get tired from the bustle of the city, one of the best places to get lost and decompress is in Kyoto’s many gardens. If you arrive during Hanami season, you’ll be able to admire the cherry blossom trees in full bloom. If you’re obsessed with all things cherry blossom, make a pilgrimage to Kyoto for spring and enjoy some of the greatest gardens and imperial villas, such as Katsura and Shugakuin. Another great place to unwind is in the higashi, or east. In this district, start at the Philosopher's Path and wind your through centuries-old architecture. Find out all about Kyoto's districts. 

Visit the International Manga Museum

If UNESCO World Heritage Site or Edo period don’t stir up any feelings of excitement in you, perhaps taking a visit to the International Manga Museum will! People come from Himeji, Hakone, Miyajima and other Japanese cities throughout Japan to visit Kyoto's manga museum. Whether you take the Kintetsu, Hankyu or shinkansen - getting to the manga museum is easy once arriving in Kyoto. Not only do you get to experience the history of the art form, but also get a chance to meet others who are passionate about all things manga.

See Kyoto from the Kyoto Tower

You won't spot lake Biwa or Nagoya from Kyoto Tower but you may be able to spot landmarks like Kyoto University, the Imperial Palace and more! Take a break from learning about the Meiji period and visit one of Kyoto's most recognizable, contemporary monuments. Tickets range from 700 to 750 yen.

Meet the Monkeys at Iwatayama Park

Easily accessible by train, whether you have a Japan rail pass or not, Iwatayama park is great all year round. If you're coming for the spring, visit after Matsuri festivities to get a look at all the spring activities Japanese macaque like to do! In the winter, you'll be able to get a much closer view at the macaque and their families because of the lower resources available for them in the forest.

Attend One of Kyoto’s Many Festivals

Hop off the plane at Osaka Itami, use your JR pass or drive to Kyoto to visit during Kyoto's festival seasons! The biggest festival, by far, occurs during cherry blossom season in the spring and is called Matsuri. Considered to be one of Japan's most important festivals, you'll be able to celebrate the whole month of July with the locals at summer block parties, cultural events and more! For more information on seasonal activities, check out our guide to the best seasons to visit Kyoto!

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A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.