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Top 12 Things To Do In Kyoto

Uncover 1200 years of history and cultural influence

The cultural heart of Japan lies in Kyoto. Formerly the capital of Japan and the home of the emperor from 794 to 1868, Kyoto is the birthplace of many of the beautiful traditions that we identify today as uniquely Japanese.

Today, Kyoto is the 10th largest city in Japan with over 1.5 million residents. Although the city is steeped in tradition, Kyoto is modern, exciting and dynamic while also maintaining traditional practices that remain a core aspect of the city’s identity.

Take in all of the history and culture by exploring Kyoto’s 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Wander the streets of Gion and Higashiyama to get a glimpse of the way things used to be during the feudal period.

Head out for a night of elegant Kyo Kaiseki cuisine, and then join the friendly locals at an izakaya in potocho into the early morning hours. Kyoto is the type of place you could spend a month discovering and still be just getting started. Check out the list below and discover what to do in Kyoto to make the most of every minute.

Take in the sights, unwind and dine in style. Here are the top things to do in Kyoto.


What to do in Kyoto

1. Stay in a Ryokan

No trip to Kyoto would be complete without experiencing a night in a traditional Japanese Inn. Immerse yourself in Japanese culture and learn about the traditions of this elegant style of hospitality. Yoshida-Sanso Ryokan is particularly special.

2. Visit Kinkaku-Ji

Kinkaku-Ji is a spectacular golden temple built by influential Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu as a retirement villa. In accordance with his will, it was converted after his death to a zen temple.

3. Explore Fushimi Inari Shrine

The main shrine of the rice god Inari. Famous for its 1000 red gates that each represent a donation from a family or company. The larger the gate, the larger the donation.

4. Kiyomizu-dera temple

Featuring a 13m high wooden stage, this immense structure features a waterfall, cultural artefacts, and superstitions that are unique to this special site located in Higashiyama.

5. Wander through Ginkaku-ji

The silver pavilion is the home of contemporary Japanese culture, also known as Higashiyama culture, which spawned many traditions like the tea ceremony, poetry and garden design.

6. Spend a day discovering Arashiyama & Sagano

A former vacation spot for emperors, with a beautiful bridge, bamboo grove and monkey park offering a fun filled day of sightseeing.

Geisha tourists walk around the gion district near Yasaka Pagoda

7. Dine at a Kyo kaiseki restaurant

Traditional high class cuisine, refined and carefully designed to match the subtlety of the Japanese palate. A Kaiseki typically consists of 8 to 12 courses.

8. Shop in Nishiki market

A narrow, five block long shopping street lined by more than one hundred shops and restaurants. Known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, this lively retail market specializes in all things food related Kyoto specialties.

9. Get lost in Higashiyama

One of the city’s best preserved historic districts. It is a great place to experience traditional Kyoto, especially between Kiyomizudera and Yasaka Shrine, where the narrow lanes, wooden buildings and traditional merchants are reminiscent of the past.

10. Walk the streets of Gion

Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, filled with shops, restaurants, and teahouses where geisha and maiko entertain.

11. Ryoanji Zen Garden

Japan’s most famous rock garden. An interesting feature of the garden’s design is that from any vantage point at least one of the rocks is always hidden from the viewer.

12. Observe a traditional tea ceremony

One of Japan’s core traditional practices, the art synthesizes the preparation and drinking of tea together with spirituality, history, and architecture.

Editor’s Travel Tips

Where to Eat in Kyoto

Pontocho – one of Kyoto’s most atmospheric dining areas.  The alley is packed with restaurants on both sides offering a wide range of dining options from inexpensive to traditional and modern cuisine.

When to Go to Kyoto

Cherry blossom season is a fickle season, sometimes arriving sooner or later than scheduled (first week of March). Perhaps a better time to travel to Kyoto would be in May when it’s less busy, or the fall when the city comes to life in the brilliant hues of oranges, reds and yellows of autumn.

People walk along cherry blossom lined sidewalk in Kyoto
Ginkaku-ji Shrine and gardens in Kyoto
Kyoto at sunrise, seen from the mountain, with a temple in the foreground

Featured Host

Yoshida Sanso

Situated at the foot of Mt.Yoshida, this beautiful Ryokan is an exceptional hospitality experience that offers guests a glimpse into traditional Japanese culture. Serene and restful, each room is beautifully decorated with traditional art and furnishings. 

Also a world-class Kyo Kaiseki restaurant, make a dinner reservation to enjoy a myriad of dishes showcasing the delicacy and subtly of classical cuisine.

Incredible views over temples and parks, a peaceful garden and relaxing bath, Yoshida Sanso is a flawless experience from the moment you check in.