Despite Japan’s reputation as an expensive destination, sightseeing in Kyoto doesn’t have to break the bank. The city has a wealth of stunning temples and shrines, historic neighbourhoods, lively markets and breathtaking landscapes that can be enjoyed for free. Here are the 16 best.
1. Fushimi Inari Taisha
With thousands of vermillion torii shrine gates leading up into the forest, the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shinto complex is one of Kyoto’s most captivating and impressive sights. Wandering through the endless tunnels of red, watched over by guardian fox statues, is an otherworldly experience that is surprisingly completely free. Go in the morning or evening to avoid the crowds.
2. Philosopher’s path
The tetsugaku-no-michi, or path of philosophy, is a short but sweet walk alongside a flower-lined canal in the north-east of Kyoto. It was named after Kitarō Nishida, a famous philosopher from Kyoto University who would take regular contemplative strolls here. The route runs past serene temples, picturesque shrines and charming cafes, and takes around 30 minutes.
3. Nishiki Market
Also known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, this traditional food market in the city centre dates back over 400 years. You can find all sorts of local cuisine on offer – from pickles, tofu and seafood, to tea, Japanese sweets and sake – and there are plenty of free samples to try. Go early, because Nishiki Market’s narrow street gets pretty crowded.
4. Tō-ji temple market
Another free market worth visiting is the lively Kobo-ichi flea market at Tō-ji temple. Held on the 21st of every month, it has a huge variety of new and second-hand goods for sale. These include clothing, pottery, antiques, toys, artwork and plants, plus food and drink stands. Even if you don’t buy anything, the colourful stalls are interesting to browse.
Kyoto’s famous geisha district, Gion is an atmospheric neighbourhood of traditional machiya townhouses now home to elite restaurants, souvenir shops and authentic teahouses. These are interspersed with temples, shrines and other historic sights. Take an evening stroll around its lantern-lit alleyways to see the area at its finest, and maybe spot a maiko (geisha-in-training) or two.
6. Yasaka Shrine
The guardian shrine of Gion, Yasaka-jinja is a striking and colourful complex that’s always buzzing with activity. Its towering red and white entrance gate is wonderfully photogenic, and the grounds look especially beautiful after dark when the hundreds of lanterns that adorn the buildings within are lit. Best of all, entry is totally free.
7. Maruyama Park
Next to Yasaka shrine lies Maruyama Kōen, a grassy expanse of calm where you can wander through neatly-manicured gardens and around koi-filled ponds, or enjoy a picnic between visiting nearby sightseeing spots. The park is particularly popular during the spring sakura season when the cherry trees blossom, and the crowds gather for hanami (flower viewing) parties.
Higashiyama is a historic neighbourhood where you can step back in time to Kyoto of old. It hosts some of the city’s most important temples and shrines, as well as numerous museums, shops, cafes and restaurants. Meander down the narrow flagstone walkways of Ishibei-koji, Nene-no-michi, Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka to lose yourself in this preserved world.
9. Mount Atago
Hiking is a great free activity, and Kyoto has stunning natural scenery to explore. If you’re up for a challenge, 924m Mount Atago is the city’s tallest peak and offers great views over the surrounding area. It’s also home to a peaceful shrine said to provide protection against fire-related disasters, which hikers make an overnight pilgrimage to every July 31.
10. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
One of Kyoto’s most photographed spots, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is a genuinely enchanting place. About 500m long, it runs between Tenryū-ji temple and Ōkōchi Sansō Villa. The light filtering down through the soaring stalks that line the pathways takes on a mystical green hue, and even with the inevitable crowds it’s a soothing and otherworldly experience.
11. Higashi Hogan-ji
Just north of Kyoto station, Higashi Hogan-ji temple is a sprawling compound of impressive architecture and elaborate design. Its main hall, the awe-inspiring Goei-do, is the largest wooden structure in the city. Inside the slightly smaller Amida-do hall, you can see huge coils of human hair donated by devotees to make ropes when the temple needed reconstruction.
12. Kyoto Imperial Palace
Once the residence of Japan’s Imperial Family, the grand Kyoto Imperial Palace complex is located alongside the Sentō Imperial Palace within the expansive Kyoto Imperial Palace Park in the city centre. The grounds can be explored for free – though the buildings are not open to the public – and the park itself is pleasant for a picnic or a stroll.
13. Nishi Hogan-ji
Higashi Hogan-ji’s partner temple, Nishi Hogan-ji, is smaller and a little quieter, and also more ornate. Don’t miss the intricately-carved bell tower and Kara-mon gate, both of which are works of art in themselves. There’s also a huge gingko tree on the grounds that’s particularly beautiful during autumn when the leaves turn a vibrant gold.
14. Takao to Hozukyo hiking trail
This route from Takao village to Hozukyō station in the west of Kyoto is one of the city’s best hikes. The path follows the Kiyotaki river through a forested valley, with an optional detour to Kuya-no-Taki waterfall, and has some great picnic spots along the way. It’s about seven miles, and can easily be completed in a day.
One of the oldest and most important shrines in Kyoto, Shimogamo sits at the fork of the Kamo and Takano rivers. Surrounded by the ancient and rare broadleaf forest Tadasu-no-mori, it’s over 1000 years old and thought to protect the city from evil. The forest itself is sacred, and rumoured to be a place where lies cannot be concealed.
Shimogamo’s equally significant partner shrine Kamigamo is a few kilometres further up the Kamo river. Pleasantly crowd-free, its scenic and spacious grounds are a delight to amble around. Look out for the two large sand cones in front of the main hall, which are said to represent the sacred mountain behind the shrine and have a purifying influence.