Do you want your Kyoto vacation to be truly memorable? Here is a list of 10 things that every visitor to the city should do. These will make your Kyoto trip magical.
Pagoda at Kiyomizu-dera Temple in cherry blossom season © Thipjang | Shutterstock
If you’re in need of some inspiration of how to spend your time in Kyoto, the following list will help you – these are all quintessential Kyoto Must-Do activities.
GEAR cast and stage – image © Kishi Takako, courtesy of GEAR
GEAR is a 90-minute non-verbal performance that might remind you a little of Blue Man or STOMP, but it’s actually very different from those shows. It’s an enchanting show that children will enjoy as much as adults. It’s the perfect way to spend an evening in Kyoto. For more details, see our full article on GEAR.
See a Geisha Dance
If you’re going to be in Kyoto in April, May or November, you should definitely see one of Kyoto’s five annual geisha dances. They range from the opulent Miyako Odori to the quaint Kitano Odori. There is simply nothing else like them in the world. For more details, see our Kyoto Geisha page.
Take an Evening Walk
Yasaka-no-to Pagoda in Southern Higashiyama in the evening © David CJ | Shutterstock
It’s no secret that Kyoto is crowded these days. However, even in the busiest season, you can escape the crowds by taking an evening stroll. Streets like Nene-no-Michi, which can be shoulder-to-shoulder during the day in cherry blossom season, can be completely deserted in the evening. And, Kyoto looks magical by night. Here are some places to try: Ninen-zaka/Sanen-zaka/Nene-no-Michi, Kiyamachi-dori south of Shijo-dori, the Path of Philosophy, and Ishibei-koji.
Go to a Kyoto Market
Tenjin-san flea market at Kitano-Tenmangu Shrine © Yasemin Olgunoz Berber | Shutterstock
Kyoto’s big flea markets, Tenjin-san (25th of every month) and Kobo-san (21st of every month), are some of the best markets of their kind in all of Asia. You will be amazed at the offerings, from antiques to ceramics to used kimono, with plenty of food to boot. If you aren’t in town when those are held, you can try the Chion-ji Handicraft Market (15th of every month) or the Kamigamo-jinja Handicraft Market (fourth Sunday of every month). Finally, if you love antiques, you cannot miss the Pulse Plaza Grand Antiques Fair (held irregularly).
Visit an Off-the-Beaten-Track Temple
Enjoying the garden at Enko-ji Temple © Beeboy | Shuterstock
There’s nothing like having a quiet, peaceful temple all to yourself. That’s never going to happen at Kyoto’s world-famous temples, but there are hundreds of lesser-known temples in the city that few tourists ever visit. Even in busy seasons you might be the only person there. Good choices include the subtemples of Daitoku-ji, Myoshin-ji and the temples in far northern Higashiyama, like Enko-ji.
Check out a Department Store Food Floor
Kyoto’s department store food floors (“depachika” in Japanese) are like Aladdin’s Cave – filled with wonders that will dazzle your eyes and whet your appetite. The two best are Daimaru and Takashimaya, both in downtown Kyoto. If you can’t make it to these, you can dash into the food floors at Isetan Department Store before jumping on the shinkansen.
Enjoy a Cup of Tea in a Traditional Teahouse
Sakamaruyama Teahouse in Maruyama-koen Park, Southern Higashiyama – image © Michael Lambe
You can drink coffee at Starbucks anywhere in the world, including Kyoto. But, you’ve come all this way, why not try something unique to the city? A hot cup of frothing matcha paired with a Japanese sweet is a real Kyoto experience and there are some great places all around the city to try it. Visit our Tea in Kyoto page for some top picks.
Try a night in a ryokan
A hotel is a hotel anywhere in the world. But, a ryokan is a distinctly Japanese form of accommodation and Kyoto has some of the best. Sure, a good ryokan is more expensive than a hotel, but a stay usually includes two great meals. You can also have a simple ryokan experience, usually without the meals, at many budget or mid-priced ryokan in the city. And, if you’re traveling with a family, a ryokan is the best way to fit everyone in one room. See our Kyoto Ryokan page for more details.
Soak in an Onsen or Sento
Tenzan-no-yu Onsen Kyoto – image © Chris Rowthorn
A soak in a steaming hot Japanese bath is the ideal way to relax after a day of sightseeing. A natural hot spring (onsen) is the luxury way to do this, but if you’re in a hurry, you can pop into a local public bath (sento) for about four dollars. For more details, see our Kyoto’s Best Onsen and Kyoto’s Best Sento pages.
Buy an Icoca Card
Icoca Card- image © Chris Rowthorn
Okay, this isn’t nearly as exciting as the other listings, but doing this will seriously improve your trip. An Icoca card is a prepaid “smart” card that you can use to pay for trains, buses, subways and convenience stores in Kyoto. It will also cover travel on trains to Osaka, Nara etc (but you cannot use it for the shinkansen). Note that if you buy a Pasmo or Suica card in Tokyo, you can use them in Kyoto (in which case you won’t need an Icoca). You can buy an Icoca card at Kyoto Station using an English-language machine. For more details, see Prepaid Cards: Icoca, Suica and Pasmo.
Other Useful Links
- For help planning your days in Kyoto, visit our Kyoto Itineraries page.
- For some recommendations for things to do in Kyoto, visit our Things to Do in Kyoto page.
- For some recommended Kyoto activities, see our Kyoto Activities page.
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability on Booking.com – usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Kyoto
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, save a ton of money with a Japan Rail Pass – here's my explanation of why it's worth it
- A prepaid Icoca card makes travelling around Kyoto easy – here's how
- Get travel insurance for Japan - World Nomads is well-regarded (and here's why)