Kyoto is a must-visit city for any traveler to Japan, and for good reason—it is the cultural capital of Japan and has retained much of its deep historical roots. While Kyoto has a reputation for being expensive to travel in, here are the top five free things to do when you’re in the city!
This neighborhood is one of Kyoto’s best preserved historical districts and walking down its streets will sweep you right back to the past. Its narrow lanes are lined on both sides with traditional wooden buildings and merchant shops that function as cafes, restaurants, and shops—you can easily spend a few hours wandering these quaint streets.
Times: Open at all times, but shops close at around 5 p.m. – 6 p.m.
- The ideal way to experience it is by walking between Kiyomizudera and Yasaka Shrine (2 km).
Located between the Gion and Higashiyama District, this shrine is well known for its famous Gion Matsuri festival (for more details on the festival, check out this article). With more than 1350 years of history, this famed shrine is easily recognizable from its unique structure with an inner sanctuary and offering hall combined into a single building, with a dance stage in front.
Times: Open 24 hours
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Kyoto’s arguably most well-known scenery is Fushimi Inari’s thousand red gates, and the fact that its free to experience them is just icing on a beautiful cake. Fushimi Inari is dedicated to Inari, the god of rice, and foxes are known to be this god’s messengers, so keep an eye out for its fox statues when you’re there! They’ll often be depicted carrying sake flasks in their mouth.
Times: Open 24 hours
- Fushimi Inari is a great place to check out during the late afternoon/at night when most of the other sightseeing spots have already closed.
- The hike up to the top of the mountain that Fushimi Inari shrine sits on is not worth it for those traveling on a tight schedule. The view from the top is not particularly impressive and takes between 1.5-3 hours depending on your climbing speed. My suggestion is to just climb up far enough so as to leave the main tourist pack behind (so that good pictures are possible), and then heading back down.
- Fushimi Inari’s main shrine buildings are especially pretty at night, when they get lit up.
For any foodie, Nishiki Market is a must-visit when in the city. Many of the shops lining the market have free tasting of the goods, which range from dried fruits to traditional sweets and crackers.
Times: Most shops open by 9 a.m. and close by 6:00 p.m.
- If you arrive too late to check out the Nishiki Market, another great free place to check out nearby is Pontocho, an atmospheric alleyway near Kawaramachi station.
Temple/shrine markets are the perfect place to pick up souvenirs while also mingling with Kyoto locals. There are several every month, with the top three markets held at Chionji temple (15th of the month), Toji temple (21st of the month), and Kitano Tenmangu shrine
(25th of the month). The Toji temple and Kitano Tenmangu shrine
markets are far larger than the Chionji temple one (with both containing ~1,000 stalls), but the Chionji temple market is known for its handcraft goods.
Make sure to stop by to view the temples themselves when you’re at these markets! Toji temple is a UNESCO world heritage site, and its distinct pagoda is its trademark. Meanwhile Kitano Tenmangu is known for its popularity with students as they often go here before big examinations to pray for luck and rub this temple’s signature bull statue. Kitano Tenmangu is especially beautiful in February and March, when its 2,000 plum trees are in full bloom. Chionji temple contains two 13th century scrolls that are worth to check out when in the area.
Chionji: 8:00 a.m. – 4.00 p.m.
Toji: 5:00 a.m. – 4.00 p.m.
Kitano Tenmangu: 6:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
- For those on the hunt for yukatas/kimonos, these markets are excellent places to buy them. You can pick up a yukata or kimono for between 500-1000, and several stalls sell accessories to go with your new treasure, including obis (traditional sashes) and geta (wooden sandals).