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24 Best things to see & do in Kyoto

  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Last updated: 15 June, 2024
Expert travel writer: Rob Goss
  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Walkway through blossom

Bucket List Experience

Cherry blossom in Kyoto

Every spring Japan goes into sakura (cherry blossom) frenzy. The subject of everything from traditional haiku verse and woodblock prints to apps that track its flowering, sakura is deeply woven into Japanese culture.

Sakura are the blossoms of ornamental cherry trees – although found across Asia, Japan has historically been home to especially large varieties which were subsequently cultivated into today’s impressive displays. Reflecting both its aesthetic and its importance to Japanese culture, cherry blossom became the national flower of Japan.

When the blossoms briefly reach peak bloom in late March or early April, nothing is as Japanese as heading out to enjoy a spot of hanami (cherry blossom viewing). Whether you find blossoms in a park heaving with picnickers or a quiet stretch of petal-strewn riverbank, hanami is accessible to all. Just get a picnic sheet, a few drinks and something to snack on – then chill under the sakura’s shade.

Good for age: 13+

Duration: 2 months

When: March & April

Freq: annually

  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Geisha women

Bucket List Experience

Geishas in Gion

Geishas (translation: artist) are female performance artists trained in dance, music, singing, conversation and hosting. Famous for their distinctive appearance – dressed in colourful kimonos, complimented by elaborate hairstyles and oshiroi make-up, they’ve been entertaining Japan’s wealthy and well-connected for centuries.

Kyoto’s historic Gion quarter, one of the world’s best known geisha districts, is the place to see them. The world of geishas is exclusive and mysterious, but a walk around Gion gives fleeting glimpses into their lives and this remarkable, uniquely Japanese tradition.

The most famous of Gion’s streets, the flagstone-paved Hanami-koji, is a beautiful relic, lined with old wooden chaya (teahouses) where many geishas entertain. While chaya are off-limits without an invitation, you can stroll Gion in the early evening and spot geisha heading to work in their finest kimonos.

Also stop by the Gion Corner Theatre for the nightly one-hour shows. They’re touristy but fun, and include geisha dancing, traditional music, flower arranging and more.

Good for age: 13+

  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Temple surrounded by trees

Bucket List Experience

Kinkakuji Temple

First built in 1397 as a shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu’s retirement villa, but then transformed into a Zen temple upon his death in 1408, no sight better highlights the former capital’s glory than this gilded temple casting a shimmering reflection into its islet-studded pond.

Taking in the view while strolling Kinkakuji’s garden pathways is a timeless experience. So, despite having UNESCO World Heritage status, it can be a surprise to hear that the current structure only dates to 1955. That’s when Kinkakuji was rebuilt after being burnt down by a crazed monk in 1950.

Hats off to the artisans who painstakingly recreated it – it’s stunning

Good for age: 8+

  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

You are born Shinto (Japan’s indigenous religion) but die Buddhist – or so one Japanese saying goes. While most Japanese wouldn’t call themselves religious nor profess to have a faith, the traditions of both Buddhism, which came to Japan in the 6th century, and Shintoism, run deep in Japan.

Newborns are celebrated with a visit to a shrine for Shinto rites, death sees Buddhist ceremonies. Marriage could be a solemn Shinto affair or even a white wedding, with an English teacher moonlighting as a fake priest.

The most common religious encounter for travellers is a visit to a temple or shrine – Kyoto alone has a combined total of almost 2,000, Japan roughly 150,000 in all. The main difference between the two? Temples are Buddhist, shrines Shinto, and the latter are distinguishable by their often-red torii gateways.

Good for age: 13+

  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Bullet train speeding in front of Mount Fuji

Bucket List Experience

Ride the Bullet Train, Kyoto

Whizzing around Japan at up to 320 km/h, Japan’s world-famous ‘bullet train’ (shinkansen in Japanese) isn’t just quick, convenient and incredibly punctual – a journey on one is a bucket list experience in and of itself.

From the regimented cleaning crews who whip through the train before boarding to make the carriages spotless, through to bowing conductors, it’s a very Japanese affair. It’s very safe too; in 50 years, carrying over 10 billion passengers, there has not been a single injury.

With comfy reclining seats and, in most cases, regular trolley services selling snacks and drinks, it’s also very relaxing – especially if you watch Japan go by from the window while tucking into a bento and sake. Just as importantly, the Shinkansen can get you across large parts of Japan’s main island, Honshu, but also connects to Kyushu out west and Hokkaido up north.

It connects Toyko, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagano and many other major cities. So if you are planning to visit multiple destinations on your trip, make the Shinkansen part of your itinerary.

Adult price: £90

Good for age: 4+

Duration: 2+ hours

  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Shrine entrance external view

Bucket List Experience

Fushimi Inari Shrine

A sprawling mountainside shrine complex with trails covered by thousands of vermillion-coloured torii gateways, Fushimi Inari has become one of Japan’s most photographed sites.

Founded in the 8th century, but with most of the spread-out buildings dating to the 1500s, the shrine is one of the most sacred in Japan. It’s dedicated to Inari, the god of rice, sake and prosperity, and functions as the head of some 40,000 Inari sub-shrines nationwide.

It’s a wonderfully eerie place to explore, and a pleasing way to soak up traditional culture while getting some fresh air and exercise.

Adult price: £2

Good for age: 13+

  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Breakfast table at a ryokan

Bucket List Experience

Kaiseki-ryori dinners in Kyoto

The succession of artistically presented dishes that comprise a kaiseki-ryori dinner has come to represent the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine.

Featuring anywhere up to 12 fixed courses that focus on in-season produce, kaiseki will include some familiar elements, with sashimi early in the dinner, delicate tempura later, and maybe a few mouthfuls of wagyu as a centrepiece. The rest, however, can be wonderfully indecipherable.

Being such an exalted cuisine, kaiseki dinners don’t come cheap – expect to pay at least £100 a head. Or, go for lunch, when many restaurants offer taster sets at a fraction of the price.

Just reserve well ahead – even though Japan has plenty of kaiseki restaurants, they always book up quickly.

They are often served at ryokans (traditional Japanese inns). For a real flavour of traditional Japan, book in for a night at one, and tick off both bucket list experiences at once.

Adult price: £100

Good for age: 18+

Duration: 3-4 hours

  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

A classical expression of Japanese hospitality that can last for hours in its most elaborate form, the tea ceremony has been practised for centuries. Every aspect, from where the most important guest is seated to how the host wipes the utensils, has significance. Every movement is choreographed, and for kimono-dressed practitioners, the nuances take years to perfect.

Full versions (around 4 hours) are only for die-hards; shorter versions are available down to a mere 30 minutes, but the shorter it is, the less traditional. There are usually special options for children, and some will include sweet-making.

Even the shortest versions, though, are a great way to experience traditional Japanese culture and formality.

Adult price: £20

Good for age: 13+

Duration: Up to 4 hours

When: On request

Freq: daily

  • Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Inside traditional room

Bucket List Experience

Stay at a ryokan in Kyoto

To stay a night at one of Japan’s ryokan (traditional inns) is to immerse yourself in living history – the oldest hotel in the world is a ryokan, established in 705 and still going strong 51 generations later.

Ryokan can be modest or uber-luxurious, but there are defining traits.

Almost all have tatami mat rooms and futon beds, staff wearing traditional attire like kimono, and an air of calm and quiet. Many have in-house onsen baths, and serve traditional kaiseki-ryori dinners (if not the full 12-course extravaganza, then at least simpler multi-course dinner that focuses on local produce and specialities).

But it won’t be for everyone. Kids can find ryokan a bit dull – and the food challenging. The service, though often superb, can also be inflexible, with mealtimes locked into narrow windows and many mid-range and above ryokan not offering room-only stays. The best approach is to stay for just one night.

Adult price: £-

Good for age: 18+

Duration: 1 night

  • Nara, Kansai, Japan

Exterior red temple

Bucket List Experience

Day trip to Nara

Japan’s first permanent capital, from 710 to 794, the city of Nara is calmer, greener and more historic than Kyoto, and it’s home to some of Japan’s finest historical sites.

UNESCO recognises eight locations making up the ‘Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara’ World Heritage site, including 5 Buddhist temples, one palace, one Shinto shrine and primaeval forest. See the full list on Wikipedia.

Most people start at Todaiji, a temple built in 752 that houses a 15-metre-high bronze statue of Buddha, then walk through the leafy expanse of Nara Park to Kasuga Taisha. The stone lantern-lined approach to this shrine passes through ancient forest, before reaching a vivid red main building decorated with hundreds of bronze lanterns.

On the way, look out for the park’s thousand or so wild-roaming deer. You can get close and even feed them.

Good for age: 4+