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 neighborhoods, lively markets and breathtaking landscapes that can be enjoyed for free.
Here are the 16 best free things to do in Kyoto.
Explore the enchanting Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
One of Kyoto’s most photographed spots, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is a genuinely enchanting place. Around 500m (1640ft) long, it runs between Tenryū-ji temple and the Ōkōchi Sansō estate. The light takes on a mystical green hue as it filters down through the soaring stalks lining the pathways, and even with the inevitable crowds, it’s a soothing and otherworldly experience.
Amble along the Path of Philosophy
The Path of Philosophy is a short but sweet walk alongside a flower-lined canal in northeastern Kyoto. It was named for Kitarō Nishida, a famous philosopher from Kyoto University who was known to take regular contemplative strolls here. The route runs past serene temples, picturesque shrines and charming cafes, and takes around 30 minutes.
Snag free samples at Nishiki Market
Also known as "Kyoto’s Kitchen," this traditional food market in the city center dates back more than 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 – the market's narrow street gets pretty crowded.
Browse colorful wares at the Tō-ji 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 secondhand goods for sale, including clothing, pottery, antiques, toys, artwork and plants, plus food and drink stands. Even if you don't buy anything, the colorful stalls are interesting to browse.
Take an evening stroll around the geisha district
Kyoto’s famous geisha district, Gion is an atmospheric neighborhood of traditional machiya townhouses, now boasting elite restaurants, souvenir shops and authentic teahouses, interspersed with temples, shrines and other historic sights. Take an evening stroll around the lantern-lit alleyways to see the area at its finest, and maybe spot a maiko (geisha-in-training) or two.
Visit the photogenic Yasaka Shrine after dark
The guardian shrine of Gion, Yasaka-jinja is a striking and colorful 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 adorning the buildings within are lit. Best of all, entry is totally free.
Picnic at Maruyama Park during sakura season
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 spring's sakura season, when the cherry trees blossom and the crowds gather for hanami (flower-viewing) parties.
Lose yourself in the narrow walkways of Higashiyama
Higashiyama is a historic neighborhood where you can step back in time to the 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.
Hike Mt. Atago for great views
Hiking is a great free activity, and Kyoto has stunning natural scenery to explore. If you’re up for a challenge, 924m (3031ft) Mt. 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.
See impressive architecture and elaborate design at 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.
Wander through the tunnels of Fushimi Inari-Taisha
With thousands of vermilion 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.
Meander around the grand Kyoto Imperial Palace grounds
Once the residence of Japan’s royal family, the grand Kyoto Imperial Palace complex is located alongside Sentō Imperial Palace within the expansive Kyoto Imperial Palace Park in the city center. The grounds can be explored for free – the buildings are not open to the public – and the park is pleasant for a picnic or a stroll.
See ornate artistry at 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 and of themselves. There’s also a huge ginkgo tree on the grounds that’s particularly beautiful in the fall, when the leaves turn a vibrant gold.
Spend a day hiking from Takao to Hozukyo
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 11km (7 miles) and can easily be completed in a day.
Venture into a sacred forest to see Shimogamo-jinja
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. The shrine is more than 1000 years old and thought to protect the city from evil, while the forest itself is sacred, rumored to be a place where lies cannot be concealed.
Lose the crowds at Kamigamo-jinja
Shimogamo’s equally significant partner shrine Kamigamo is a few kilometers farther 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.
Learn about traditional arts and crafts at Fureai-Kan Kyoto Museum
The Fureai-Kan Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts has a fantastic free permanent exhibition that showcases works from all 74 of Kyoto’s traditional arts and crafts. You’ll find everything from paper lanterns and lacquerware to woodblock prints, bamboo flutes and different styles of fans. It also hosts regular craft demonstrations, where you have the rare chance to watch talented artisans at work and learn more about the authentic techniques they use.
Plan to celebrate during festivals and special events
Kyoto’s calendar is packed with vibrant festivals and interesting cultural events, many of which are free to attend. The most famous is Gion Matsuri, which takes place over the entire month of July and features colorful parades and lively street parties. If they coincide with your trip, other notable celebrations to check out include Aoi Matsuri on May 15 and Jidai Matsuri on October 22.