The ultimate guide to Osaka, Japan

Osakajo surrounded by cherry blossom trees. Image: Japan National Tourism Board

Zoe Macfarlane

Posted March 10, 2023

To experience a different side of Japan, head to Osaka. As Japan’s third-largest city and its street food capital, Osaka is a destination to let your hair down.

A trip to Osaka opens you to new food, new ideas, and a blend of culture old and new, thanks to the charming, extroverted locals who welcome you to their lively restaurants, cafés, and bars.

Osaka eats

While you head to Tokyo for its ancient sites and eccentricities and Kyoto for its traditions and history, Osaka is a food-first destination. That’s not to say there aren’t historical monuments (it dates to the 5th century, so, of course there are). Only that is most known for delectable dishes and vibrant places to eat. 

Okonomiyaki is an Osaka staple, and we recommend trying it at the start of your Osaka stay, so you’ve got time for a second serving: it’s that delicious. Also known as a Japanese pancake, okonomiyaki is filled with cabbage and a topping of your choice, including yakisoba (noodles). It's a flavoursome, hearty meal and dining at Kiji is our pick for the best in Osaka. Be prepared for queues, though, as it’s that popular. 

Not a dish, but a neighbourhood, make a trip to lively Dotonbori, Osaka’s street food district. Besides the joy of wandering amid the street food smells, you can also sample a range of Osaka specialties. Like skewered takoyaki (grilled octopus), kushikatsu (deep-fried breadcrumbed meat or vegetables), and torikara (deep-fried chicken bites). If you have a sweet tooth, finish off with mitarashi-dango for dessert. The caramelised grilled sticky rice dumplings are sublime. Dotonbori is also renowned for its shopping and entertainment.

traditional Japanese food

Osaka is a food-first destination. Image: Japan National Tourism Board

Historical experiences in Osaka

The confluence of rivers at the Seto Inland Sea, Osaka was an important economic centre in the days before cars and fast Shinkansen bullet trains, with traders coming from across Asia and beyond. 

For a historical deep dive, visit Osaka Castle, a stunning piece of architecture with impressive forts and moats. Discover Osaka Castle’s history at the onsite museum, capture expansive views from the 8th-floor observation deck, and wander the vast grounds, stopping at the tea house. In cherry blossom season, the 3,000 sakura trees put on quite the show.

You’ll also want to explore Shitennoji Temple, one of Japan’s oldest. Founded in 593 BC and painstakingly restored over the years, this serene Buddhist temple offers respite from the bustle of the city. Enjoy the 5-storied pagoda, walk the grounds, and visit the Main Hall to see the statue of Prince Shotoku, the temple’s founder.

For a fascinating trip to outer Osaka, why not visit the Mozu Tombs? Built between the 4th and 6th-century, the tombs housed the ruling elite after their passing, with the size of the mound representing the wealth of its entombed residents.

Himeji Castle surrounded by Japanese cherry blossom trees and people in a boat

Himeji Castle is worth the journey from Osaka. Image: Supplied

Traditional and modern entertainment in Osaka

If you’d like to watch a traditional Japanese show, head to the Bunraku Theatre. Its puppetry, shamisen, and narration saw it awarded a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage award in 2008. The mastery of three people controlling each puppet (and the puppet’s emotions) is astounding. 

For an opportunity to go deep into Japan’s cultural heritage, book a ticket to see a Kabuki show at Osaka Shochikuza Theatre. Watch ancient legends come alive via dance, music, costumes, and intricate staging.

For a more raucous night out, head to Osaka’s bars. Did you know five of the world’s best bars are in Osaka? To see the best of them, a bar hopping, or bar walking tour is advised. Alternatively, aim to include Bar Juniper for its apothecary vibes, The Bible Club for its speakeasy-esque vintage décor, and the famous Moonshine Karaoke Bar if you’re game to have a go at one of Japan’s most popular evening pastimes.

kabuki performance

Catch a kabuki performance at Osaka Shochikuza Theatre. Image: Getty

Only in Osaka

To find out what makes a city tick, visit the experiences that are unique to that destination. Like the Cupnoodles Museum! This unusual attraction takes you through the history of instant ramen (the first chicken ramen noodles originate in Osaka) and the rise of the cup noodle. Alongside the exhibits, you can make your own ramen packaging and round off your visit at the onsite ramen noodle restaurant.

Be sure to stop by the unique Umeda Sky Building. This well-known landmark punctures the Osaka skyline with its two 40-story towers connected by bridges and a doughnut-shaped roof. Enjoy 360-degree views at the top from the Floating Garden Observatory; sunset is an idyllic time to visit.

For another only-in-Osaka attraction, visit the Kamigata Ukiyoe Museum, home to the world’s only permanent exhibit of Kunishige prints on Kamigata wood blocks. Intricate, delicate and coveted, the prints depict scenes from Kabuki performances.

red bridge against autumnal trees and waterfall

Minō Park has vibrant autumnal foilage and a gorgeous waterfall. Image: Supplied

Osaka day trips

To further enrich your Western Kansai stay, head out of downtown Osaka. Exchange the bustle of Osaka’s thriving metropolis with the peaceful forested Minō Park on its outskirts. Only 30 minutes from downtown, the park attracts locals and visitors alike to hike the trail to the park’s the pretty waterfall. In autumn, Minō Park is well-known as the best place in the Kansai region to see the vibrant autumnal foliage.

For a relaxing day trip, head to the Arima Historical Retreat and Spa. Set in the Rokko Mountain Range, this is Japan’s oldest onsen (hot spring), a place where emperors, warriors, and everyday folk have soaked, soothed, and relaxed. There are two public bathhouses to enjoy. Alternatively, if you decide to stay the night, book a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) as many have hot spring baths. 

One of the most significant sites in the region is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, housed in the only building that survived the 1945 atomic bomb. The moving exhibits represent the cost of war and the importance of peace. The easiest way to reach Hiroshima from Osaka is on the very speedy shinkansen (bullet train), which is an experience in itself.


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