Kyoto may no longer be the capital of Japan or home to the emperor, but this city is still king of culture. There are so many cool things to do in Kyoto that it’s a one-stop shop for everything you’ve ever imagined Japan to be.
From geishas to traditional tea ceremonies, shrines to cherry blossoms, this historical city has it all. If you’re wondering what to do in Kyoto then then you’ve come to the right place. I spent three days in Kyoto and managed to make a good dent in the huge range of cool activities in Kyoto, but I’d totally go back to make my way through more of this list.
Here are just a few Kyoto activities to get your trip started.
52 Coolest Things to Do in Kyoto
1. With more than a thousand Buddhist temples in Kyoto, prioritise Kinkakuji Temple and its famous Golden Pavilion.
2. Beware of the many bridal parties you’ll have to battle to get a picture at the extremely pretty Kifune Shrine.
3. Feel like you’ve stepped into a movie in Gion, the geisha district, with its old wooden machiya houses.
4. Spend a night in a traditional wooden house like Iori Machiya Stay.
5. Did you even go to Kyoto if you then didn’t dress up as a Geisha girl yourself?
6. While you’re wandering in Gion, visit an ochaya, or a traditional tea house, for a decent cuppa and keep your fingers crossed you’ll get a real geisha performance.
7. If you don’t, catch the geishas at Gion Corner for one of their daily cultural shows.
8. Unwind with a Japanese beer somewhere traditional like Kurakura.
9. People watch from the banks of the Kamo river.
10. Hang with the coolest crowd around at the Monkey Park Iwatayama.
11. Splash out on a Kaiseki traditional multi-course Japanese dinner.
12. Find your inner peace with a quick course in zen meditation from a priest at the Shunkoin Temple.
13. Visit the kind of creepy but colourful handmade characters on Yokai, aka Monster, Street.
14. See if you recognise the red gate path at the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine from the Memoirs of a Geisha movie.
15. Visit the Kimono Forest at night to see pretty pillars of colourful kimono fabric all lit up.
16. Day trip it north of the city to visit the traditional and super scenic fishing village of Ine no Funaya.
17. Wield a samurai sword and learn the way of the warrior with a samurai class.
18. Make the most of being in the home of matcha and go mad for all things green in a cafe like Giwon Komori.
19. Listen up to one of the world’s most unique soundscapes as you walk through the beautiful Bamboo Grove in the Arashiyama area.
20. Put your relationship in the hands of a rock by crawling through the Yasui Kompira-gu Shrine, said to have the power to make or break relationships.
21. Visit the Ukiyoe Small Museum to see a collection of woodblock prints (Japan is known for these).
22. Eat the traditional boar dish of botan nabe in the restaurant it was first created, Hatakaku.
23. Walk along the pretty Philosopher’s Path.
24. Flex those muscles with a hike to the top of Mount Inari-san.
25. Soothe those limbs afterwards in an onsen, or hot spring, somewhere like Kurama Onsen.
26. Go to the top of the Kyoto Tower for top city views.
27. Or opt for Kyoto Station’s observation deck instead for free views that are still great.
28. If you’re around in April, cherish the cherry blossom trees at the Maruyama Park.
29. Visit Gekkeikan Okura to see how they’ve been making sake here for over 400 years.
30. Continue your sake education at the Jo Social Sake Bar.
31. Take part in traditional tea ceremony somewhere like Camellia.
32. Then learn that it’s not about a kettle by taking a tea ceremony course.
33. Keep some yen aside for the 700 year-old Nishiki Market and its amazing food.
34. Feel a little intimidated by the 1001 carved statues of the Buddhist God of Mercy at Sanjūsangen-dō.
35. See more cool yet creepy stone sculptures at Otagi Nenbutsu-ji.
36. Enjoy a traditional dinner somewhere like Kyo Apollo.
37. Travel to the tea town of Wazuka just south of Kyoto and tour a tea plantation.
38. Both here and elsewhere in the city, make sure to sip plenty of local uji tea.
39. Learn how to concoct the best ramen inside a ramen factory with a cooking class.
40. Take a day trip to the birthplace of Buddhism in Nara.
41. Bow down to the boar at the Go’o Shrine which is dedicated to the animal.
42. Eat at one of the many cafe and restaurants on the riverbanks of Kamogawa River.
43. Walk the creaky floorboards of Nijo Castle where one of Japan’s most powerful residents once lived.
44. Feel incredibly safe on a walking tour with a samurai.
45. Watch a kembu show, which is a mix of dance and sword work.
46. Visit the Nishijin textile centre for one of their daily kimono fashion parades and take a peek behind the scenes to see how some of these silks are made.
47. Get your history fix with a visit to the Imperial Palace.
48. Feel a little freaked out at the rope made from human hair inside the Higashi Honganji Temple.
49. Acknowledge that a rock garden is a real and very relaxing thing to see at the Ryoanji Temple.
50. Visit the Kyoto International Manga Museum to learn about Japanese cartoonists.
51. Master the mindfulness in Japanese calligraphy with a quick course.
52. Walk around the historical Higashiyama District.
More on travelling in Japan
What it’s Like to Stay in a Capsule Hotel in Japan
Is the Japan Rail Pass Worth it for 3 Weeks?