The ultimate guide to visiting Kyoto, Japan

mako geisha in kyoto

Zoe Macfarlane

Posted March 30, 2023

For the ultimate in traditional Japanese experiences a visit to Kyoto is a must. Immerse yourself in the best of Kyoto with our handy guide.

Home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Kyoto, Japan is a destination filled with ancient treasures, majestic landmarks, and a wealth of cultural activities. Pack your visit with Buddhist shrines, Shinto temples, and incredible scenic wonders, leaving space to catch the city’s unique entertainment.

Historical landmarks in Kyoto

With over 1,000 years as Japan’s capital before Tokyo, it’s not surprising that Kyoto has several historical sites of interest. The UNESCO World Heritage Nijo Castle was once the residence of the Tokugawa Shogunate, rulers of Japan during the Edo Period (1603-1868). Wandering Ninomaru Palace is a highlight, thanks to its ornate and elegant features, and nightingale floors – they chirrup as you walk on them! 

For a serene experience, head to Fushimi Inari Taisha, a shrine dedicated to the Shinto god of rice. Not only is it Kyoto’s most important shrine, but it’s also one of its most photographed. This is thanks to the thousands of rich red Torii shrine gates that guide you across the site and up Mount Inari. 

A visit to Kiyomizudera is also in order. Recently renovated, it’s the perfect time to see Kyoto’s most famous temple in all its glory. The stunning scenery seen from the main hall of this World Heritage Site is jaw-dropping, as is the craftsmanship of the temple.


Kinkakuji Temple

Kinkakuji Temple is another must-visit historical site. Image: Supplied

Out in nature in Kyoto

For breathtaking views across Kyoto, take a hike up Narabigaoka Hill. Nearby, World Heritage-listed Ninna-ji temple – former temple-turned-imperial-palace - is en route. Be sure to include it in your day trip plans. You can even spend the night at Ninna-ji to extend your time in serenity. 

Thirty minutes northwest from central Kyoto, take a walk in nature at the Sagano Bamboo Forest. Close to Tenryū-ji Temple, wander the wooden paths under the dense canopy of towering bamboo along the forest trail. Bamboo is recognised as one of the top 100 governmentally recognised sounds that must be preserved, so take time to revel in the mesmerising creaking sounds that soothe the soul.

For matcha and green tea fans, we recommend a trip to a tea plantation in Wazuka, Kyoto’s tea town. Kyoto is one of Japan’s biggest green tea producers, especially for its quality Uji green and matcha teas. This picturesque, perfectly groomed destination is home to several tea plantations. A plantation visit offers a chance to discover more of the region’s 800-year-old tea production history and sample why Uji tea is held in such high regard.


bamboo forest in Kansai

Bamboo is one of Japan's 100 governmentally recognised sounds. Image: Japan National Tourism Board

Cultural activities to experience in Kyoto

Continue your tea experience when you sign up for a matcha tea ceremony. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the customs and rules that make this a long-lasting and beloved custom across Japan. A tea ceremony isn’t simply a time to enjoy a nice cup of Uji matcha but a chance to discover this Zen-like practice. It may leave you wondering if you’ll ever make a quick cuppa again. 

For a quintessentially Kyoto experience, book a textile dyeing workshop at the Roketsu Dyeing Studio. At the only roketsu place in Japan open to visitors, learn Kyoto’s traditional textile dyeing technique using a deep indigo dye. Along with uncovering the multiple steps to this technique, the workshop is meditative and fun. 

Another creative traditional Japanese pursuit is that of ikebana: flower arranging. Plants are an important part of Shintoism, and ikebana goes back to the 7th century. Under tutelage, learn about the four principles and three elements required to make a stunning flower arrangement. Book a private class or head to the Ikebana Museum.


Japanese woman in kimono performing tea ceremony

Take part in a traditional tea ceremony while in Kyoto. Image: Supplied

Dining out in Kyoto

No visit to Kyoto is complete without sampling the city’s most famous flavours: tofu, soba, and sake. All three require quality water to produce, something Kyoto is well known for. 

Nishin-soba is a Kyoto staple of herring with soba noodles. There’s no better place to try Nishin-soba than Matsuba, Kyoto’s original Nishin-soba restaurant. The family has been serving this Kyoto delicacy since 1861!

Try Kyoto yudofu, a silken tofu served in a kombu broth with soy sauce, at Yudofu Sagano. Thanks to the Buddhist monks’ vegetarian diet, you’ll also find plenty of yudofu offerings around Kyoto’s temples. 

To sample the Kyoto trifecta, head to the Matsui Sake Brewery. Operational since 1726, this microbrewery has passed on their famous sake blend for 15 generations. If you’re visiting Kyoto during the cherry blossom season, stop by Shimogamosaryo to try Matsui sake with a traditional multi-course meal. The awe-inspiring cherry blossom is a mesmerising backdrop.


two geisha walking in Kyoto

Kyoto is considered the geisha capital of the country. Image: Supplied

Entertainment in Kyoto

If seeing a geisha performance is on your Japan bucket list, then you’ll want to know that Kyoto is considered the geisha capital of the country. It is here that young females undergo the strictest training in the traditional Japanese arts before being performing at high-end dinners, special events, and private parties. Seeing a geisha can be a pricey experience; for lower-budget options, time your holiday with one of Kyoto’s five annual geisha dances. Miyako Odori, held daily in April, is the most wow-worthy performance, featuring numerous geishas in a tightly choreographed show.

Another Japanese entertainment tradition is kabuki. Kyoto’s Minamiza Kabuki Theatre is the number one spot in town to catch this vibrant performance. Kabuki is a classic show featuring bold costumes, elaborate make-up, spectacular staging and dramatic plots.

If you’re seeking less drama and more peace, make your own entertainment as you stroll under the lanterns at Yasaka Shrine in Gion, along the dreamy nightscape of lit pillars at Arashiyama Kimono Forest, or join the riverside revellers at the Kamo River. 

Kyoto does entertainment spectacularly well; however you choose to spend your evenings, you’ll be sure to be charmed.


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