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Best Things To Do in Kyoto

Kyoto receives scores of visitors each year and crowds can be overwhelming at many of the city's top attractions. But never fear: A bit of planning can yield introspective experiences in peaceful atmospheres. Climb the well-worn steps of a Shinto shrine or contemplate the deeper meaning of a centuries-old rock garden. On the other hand, if you'd like to join Kyoto's throngs, wend your way through the crowded Nishiki Market or flip through comics at the Kyoto International Manga Museum. However you choose to spend your day, your experience will be unique to Kyoto.

How we rank Things to Do.

#1

#1 in Kyoto

Free
As far as Shinto shrines go (there are about 400 in Kyoto), this one is pretty special. Perched on a wooded hillside in southern Kyoto, Fushimi Inari is a 1,300-year-old temple dedicated to Inari, the Shinto deity of rice and sake (Japanese rice wine). The shrine complex dates back to the 8th century, but it's not the star of the show. Most visitors come for the close to 10,000 red and orange lacquered torii gates that line the 2.5-mile-long path up Mount Inari, where the shrine sits. Sometimes in dense rows and other times more staggered, the gates are all engraved with the names of Shinto devotees who donated them.
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Churches/Religious Sites Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
Fushimi Inari Shrine
As far as Shinto shrines go (there are about 400 in Kyoto), this one is pretty special. Perched on a wooded hillside in southern Kyoto, Fushimi Inari is a 1,300-year-old temple dedicated to Inari, the Shinto deity of rice and sake (Japanese rice wine). The shrine complex dates back to the 8th century, but it's not the star of the show. Most visitors come for the close to 10,000 red and orange lacquered torii gates that line the 2.5-mile-long path up Mount Inari, where the shrine sits. Sometimes in dense rows and other times more staggered, the gates are all engraved with the names of Shinto devotees who donated them.
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#2

#2 in Kyoto

Situated on Otowa Mountain in eastern Kyoto, Kiyomizu Temple wows travelers with its stunning natural scenery, which visitors say is best viewed from the verandah off the temple's main building. The "stage," as it's called, sits atop huge pillars more than 40 feet above the hillside and affords visitors panoramas of the surrounding forest. Those views are even more beautiful in the spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom or in the fall with the changing foliage. When you're done taking in the temple's surrounding beauty, you are invited to drink from the Otowa Waterfall, which gave the temple its name ("kiyomizu" means "pure water"). The waterfall is divided into three streams, each of which is said to bring longevity, academic success or love, respectively. But according to temple etiquette, drinking from all three streams is bad luck, so don't be greedy.
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Churches/Religious Sites Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
Kiyomizu Temple
Situated on Otowa Mountain in eastern Kyoto, Kiyomizu Temple wows travelers with its stunning natural scenery, which visitors say is best viewed from the verandah off the temple's main building. The "stage," as it's called, sits atop huge pillars more than 40 feet above the hillside and affords visitors panoramas of the surrounding forest. Those views are even more beautiful in the spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom or in the fall with the changing foliage. When you're done taking in the temple's surrounding beauty, you are invited to drink from the Otowa Waterfall, which gave the temple its name ("kiyomizu" means "pure water"). The waterfall is divided into three streams, each of which is said to bring longevity, academic success or love, respectively. But according to temple etiquette, drinking from all three streams is bad luck, so don't be greedy.
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#3
Gion Free

#3 in Kyoto

Free
Recent visitors to Gion are wowed by its quaintness (though some travelers note that hordes of camera-wielding tourists can detract from the scenery). This neighborhood is known for its charming historic features: historic tea houses, willow-lined roads, kaiseki (Japanese haute-cuisine) restaurants, wooden ryokan (Japanese guest houses) and shops selling local crafts and antiques. But all of those things are secondary to Gion's real source of fame — the geisha. Visitors to Gion may catch a glimpse of these extravagantly dressed women flitting between tea houses on wooden-sandaled feet.
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Neighborhood/Area Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
Gion
Recent visitors to Gion are wowed by its quaintness (though some travelers note that hordes of camera-wielding tourists can detract from the scenery). This neighborhood is known for its charming historic features: historic tea houses, willow-lined roads, kaiseki (Japanese haute-cuisine) restaurants, wooden ryokan (Japanese guest houses) and shops selling local crafts and antiques. But all of those things are secondary to Gion's real source of fame — the geisha. Visitors to Gion may catch a glimpse of these extravagantly dressed women flitting between tea houses on wooden-sandaled feet.
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#4

#4 in Kyoto

Free
Arashiyama is a quaint neighborhood surrounded by trees and mountains on the western edge of Kyoto. The neighborhood's most iconic landmark is the wooden Togetsukyo Bridge, which has spanned the Katsura River since 1934. It makes a great spot for admiring cherry blossoms or changing fall foliage, depending on the season. Or you can rent a paddle boat to enjoy the scenery from the water. On either end of the bridge are a number of shops, restaurants, temples and gardens to explore. Some recent visitors enjoy walking around and taking in the sites, but others suggest renting a bike. You can get one for the day for around 1,000 JPY (about $10 USD) near train stations in Kyoto.
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Neighborhood/Area Type
Half Day to Full Day Time to Spend
Arashiyama
Arashiyama is a quaint neighborhood surrounded by trees and mountains on the western edge of Kyoto. The neighborhood's most iconic landmark is the wooden Togetsukyo Bridge, which has spanned the Katsura River since 1934. It makes a great spot for admiring cherry blossoms or changing fall foliage, depending on the season. Or you can rent a paddle boat to enjoy the scenery from the water. On either end of the bridge are a number of shops, restaurants, temples and gardens to explore. Some recent visitors enjoy walking around and taking in the sites, but others suggest renting a bike. You can get one for the day for around 1,000 JPY (about $10 USD) near train stations in Kyoto.
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#5

#5 in Kyoto

Every day, hundreds of people visit Ryoanji Temple to see its Zen rock garden — which is probably the most famous of its kind in Japan. Located in Kyoto's northern outskirts, the temple was built in 1450, but details surrounding the rock garden's origins are hazy. Its white pebbles, which surround 15 larger rocks, were laid sometime during the Muromachi period (1392-1573), but beyond that, the garden's origins are unknown.
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Churches/Religious Sites Type
1 to 2 hours Time to Spend
Ryoanji Temple
Every day, hundreds of people visit Ryoanji Temple to see its Zen rock garden — which is probably the most famous of its kind in Japan. Located in Kyoto's northern outskirts, the temple was built in 1450, but details surrounding the rock garden's origins are hazy. Its white pebbles, which surround 15 larger rocks, were laid sometime during the Muromachi period (1392-1573), but beyond that, the garden's origins are unknown.
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#6

#6 in Kyoto

Free
For those unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine, a trip to Nishiki Market can be an overwhelming experience. This bustling, five-block-long covered market is lined with 126 stalls, each one hawking Japanese foods and specialty items that are hard to come by in the United States. With barely any English signage for reference, it might be difficult to determine what to buy or where to start. But just because Nishiki Market is busy and confusing doesn't mean you should avoid it. In fact, recent visitors say that's exactly why you should go.
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Shopping Type
1 to 2 hours Time to Spend
Nishiki Market
For those unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine, a trip to Nishiki Market can be an overwhelming experience. This bustling, five-block-long covered market is lined with 126 stalls, each one hawking Japanese foods and specialty items that are hard to come by in the United States. With barely any English signage for reference, it might be difficult to determine what to buy or where to start. But just because Nishiki Market is busy and confusing doesn't mean you should avoid it. In fact, recent visitors say that's exactly why you should go.
... more

#7

#7 in Kyoto

After years of bitter strife, the aging samurai lord Tokugawa Ieyasu finally wrested power from Japan's many warring clans and unified them at the turn of the 17th century. Upon being proclaimed Shogun (feudal military dictator) of Japan in 1603, Ieyasu constructed a palace that would reflect his supreme power. Nijo Castle in central Kyoto was certainly ostentatious enough to fit the bill. Unlike other noble homes of the day, Tokugawa's gleaming white structure — decorated with ornate wood carvings — was built for show, not for defense. Even the palace's moat and inner wall stood not as defensive structures, but rather as examples of the shogun's exclusivity; only Japan's highest-ranking officials were allowed into the castle's inner sanctum.
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Castles/Palaces Type
1 to 2 hours Time to Spend
Nijo Castle
After years of bitter strife, the aging samurai lord Tokugawa Ieyasu finally wrested power from Japan's many warring clans and unified them at the turn of the 17th century. Upon being proclaimed Shogun (feudal military dictator) of Japan in 1603, Ieyasu constructed a palace that would reflect his supreme power. Nijo Castle in central Kyoto was certainly ostentatious enough to fit the bill. Unlike other noble homes of the day, Tokugawa's gleaming white structure — decorated with ornate wood carvings — was built for show, not for defense. Even the palace's moat and inner wall stood not as defensive structures, but rather as examples of the shogun's exclusivity; only Japan's highest-ranking officials were allowed into the castle's inner sanctum.
... more

#8

#8 in Kyoto

At nearly 400 feet, Sanjusangendo Hall is the longest wooden structure in Japan (there are archery contests held along the length of the hall every January). And lining its lengthy walls is a rare full set of 1,001 wooden statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. The human-sized statues were carved from Japanese cypress in the 12th and 13th centuries.
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Churches/Religious Sites Type
1 to 2 hours Time to Spend
Sanjusangendo Hall
At nearly 400 feet, Sanjusangendo Hall is the longest wooden structure in Japan (there are archery contests held along the length of the hall every January). And lining its lengthy walls is a rare full set of 1,001 wooden statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. The human-sized statues were carved from Japanese cypress in the 12th and 13th centuries.
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#9

#9 in Kyoto

Free
Honoring Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro who used to stroll here on his commute to Kyoto University in the early 20th century, the Philosopher's Walk is a roughly mile-long pathway along the Lake Biwa Canal in the Higashiyama district of northern Kyoto. In the springtime, the cherry trees overhanging the canal blossom, emitting a flurry of petals onto the path every time the wind blows. But recent visitors say that Philosopher's Walk is gorgeous no matter the season, and that the peaceful atmosphere really does promote thought. However, visitors note that the walk takes about an hour, so you'll have to consciously carve out a portion of your day to enjoy it. And there are no public restrooms along the way, so plan accordingly.
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Parks and Gardens Type
1 to 2 hours Time to Spend
Philosopher's Walk
Honoring Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro who used to stroll here on his commute to Kyoto University in the early 20th century, the Philosopher's Walk is a roughly mile-long pathway along the Lake Biwa Canal in the Higashiyama district of northern Kyoto. In the springtime, the cherry trees overhanging the canal blossom, emitting a flurry of petals onto the path every time the wind blows. But recent visitors say that Philosopher's Walk is gorgeous no matter the season, and that the peaceful atmosphere really does promote thought. However, visitors note that the walk takes about an hour, so you'll have to consciously carve out a portion of your day to enjoy it. And there are no public restrooms along the way, so plan accordingly.
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#10

#10 in Kyoto

Its top two floors swathed in gold leaf, the Golden Pavilion sits pretty in Kyoto's northern reaches, overlooking the glassy surface of Mirror Lake. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu lived in the gilded structure in the late 14th and early 15th centuries after he passed political power down to his son, Ashikaga Yoshimochi. When his father died, Yoshimochi had the pavilion converted into a Buddhist temple. However, in 1950, an extremist monk set the golden temple aflame, reducing it to smoldering ashes. What now stands is a replica of Kinkaku-ji that was built in 1955.
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Castles/Palaces Type
Less than 1 hour Time to Spend
Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
Its top two floors swathed in gold leaf, the Golden Pavilion sits pretty in Kyoto's northern reaches, overlooking the glassy surface of Mirror Lake. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu lived in the gilded structure in the late 14th and early 15th centuries after he passed political power down to his son, Ashikaga Yoshimochi. When his father died, Yoshimochi had the pavilion converted into a Buddhist temple. However, in 1950, an extremist monk set the golden temple aflame, reducing it to smoldering ashes. What now stands is a replica of Kinkaku-ji that was built in 1955.
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#11

#11 in Kyoto

Unlike the very literally named Golden Pavilion, the Silver Pavilion is not actually silver — though it was intended to be. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who built Ginkaku-ji in 1482 as his retirement villa, died before he could swath the structure in silver leaf. But even without the bling, Ginkakuji and its grounds are stunningly beautiful.
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Castles/Palaces Type
1 to 2 hours Time to Spend
Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion)
Unlike the very literally named Golden Pavilion, the Silver Pavilion is not actually silver — though it was intended to be. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who built Ginkaku-ji in 1482 as his retirement villa, died before he could swath the structure in silver leaf. But even without the bling, Ginkakuji and its grounds are stunningly beautiful.
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#12

#12 in Kyoto

Many of Kyoto's top attractions pay homage to a Japan of the past, but the Kyoto International Manga Museum focuses on a very current form of Japanese art. Manga is a style of comics that originated during the post-World War II period and has steadily been gaining popularity in the past 60 years. The International Manga Museum, which opened in 2006, showcases a massive collection of Manga, from famous works like Astro Boy to more obscure comics by non-Japanese artists.
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Museums Type
1 to 2 hours Time to Spend
Kyoto International Manga Museum
Many of Kyoto's top attractions pay homage to a Japan of the past, but the Kyoto International Manga Museum focuses on a very current form of Japanese art. Manga is a style of comics that originated during the post-World War II period and has steadily been gaining popularity in the past 60 years. The International Manga Museum, which opened in 2006, showcases a massive collection of Manga, from famous works like Astro Boy to more obscure comics by non-Japanese artists.
... more
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