The Japanese capital for more than a thousand years – right up until 1868 when that honour transferred to Tokyo – Kyoto has a wealth of historic and cultural attractions that span the centuries. Exactly what is Kyoto famous for? Here we provide people thinking of visiting the Japanese city with all they need to know when it comes to what Kyoto is famous for!

1. Kyoto Imperial Palace

As the Japanese capital, Kyoto was also the primary residence of the emperor, regarded as a demi-god until the end of the Second World War in 1945. Situated within a rectangular park dotted with ponds in the centre of the city, the present incarnation of Kyoto Imperial Palace dates to 1855, after a fire devastated the previous wooden structure. Visitors are welcome to explore the park and wander around the imperial buildings (though not inside them). Be sure to also check out Kaninnomiya Mansion, and the park’s important shrine, connected to Hiroshima’s Itsukushima Shrine.

2. Sento Palace

Sento must be special to become the second imperial palace that makes our list of what Kyoto is famous for, and this complex (also known as the Omiya Palace) certainly is! Also located within Kyoto Imperial Park, this palace remains an imperial residence, with visitors able to join guided tours through the perfectly-manicured gardens. It’s also possible to see into several of the outer buildings, including the Seikatei tea house, although not the main palace rooms, and get a sense of how the imperial family live today.

3. Pontocho

The narrow but well-kept alleyway known as Pontocho is what Kyoto is famous for when it comes to food, for this street, running between Shijo-dori and Sanjo-dori, is overflowing with restaurants. Offering up everything from cheap eats and traditional Kyoto cuisine to highly-rated international dishes, there is something for everyone here. When it comes to Japanese dishes, keep an eye out for the flamed-grilled chicken skewers known as yakitori (especially if you’re on a budget), or go all out at the low tables of an authentic ryokan inn for an elaborate multicourse kaiseki ryori feast – there’s simply no other word about it.

4. Nishiki Market

Continuing the food theme is Nishiki Market. Stretching for five blocks, the narrow width of this street is dedicated to food in all its forms – with the establishments that run along it switching between restaurants, kitchen stores, and market stalls. Offering up an insight into Kyoto culture, arrive with an empty stomach to make the most of your visit, and don’t be afraid to speak to the stallholders, many of whom offer up free samples of regional specialities including pickles, sweets, and sushi.

5. Kyoto Railway Museum

One of the city’s newest attractions, Kyoto Railway Museum was opened in 2016. It’s three floors of exhibits include 53 locomotives dating from the earliest days of rail transportation in Japan to the bullet trains which Kyoto is famous for alongside many of Japan’s other cities. Children will enjoy the expansive model railway, and the virtual reality train driving experience, while every visitor will find a smile crossing their face on the ten-minute steam train journey that can be taken at the museum for a small additional fee.

6. Nijo Castle

One of the finest structures you’ll find in Kyoto from the earliest days of the Edo Period, which lasted from 1603 to 1867, Nijo Castle was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. It is said to be one of the finest examples of such a structure from the feudal period of Japan’s history, and another example of what Kyoto is famous for. Surrounded by stout stone walls and deep moats, at the castle’s heart lies Ninomaru Palace, where the shogun who built the castle lived, with beautifully-crafted interiors connected by a series of corridors.

7. Kyoto National Museum

This museum has been at the forefront of preserving Kyoto’s history since it first opened in 1897, making it one of the oldest museums anywhere in Japan. The stunning original main building, which wouldn’t look out of place as a royal palace somewhere in northern Europe, is now home to the temporary exhibition space. The permanent collection has been moved to a state of the art structure opened in 2014 to a by Yoshio Taniguchi, the Japanese architect actually best known for his redesign of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Inside, the collections focus on pieces from Japan’s main medieval period – the Heian – and houses 12,000 objects, half of which are on display at any one time.

8. Nanzenji Temple

One of Japan’s most important Zen Buddhist temples, Nanzenji was built in the thirteenth century as the retirement home for Emperor Kameyama before being converted into a religious building. The oldest of the surviving series of structures dates to the late 1500s, attracting both local and international tourists. Soaring over the treetops, one of the complexes most impressive structures in the mighty Sanmon Gate, constructed in 1628, which offers good overviews of the temples from its balcony.

9. Fushimi

What could be more Japanese than Fushimi, Kyoto’s sake district? Built around the banks of the Horikawa River to the south of the city centre (since the distilleries use the highly-regarded waters that flow past them), Fushimi boasts an impressive 40 – mainly traditional – breweries. Several are open to the public to explore how the rice wine is made, as well as providing tastings, but even if you aren’t a drinker it’s worth the short trip south in order to admire the wonderful wood and plaster buildings that typify the area.

10. Gion Matsuri

Gion Matsuri, or the Yasaka Shrine Festival, is a major festival that extends across much of July, with events coming to a head with an evening procession through the streets on July 16, and a huge parade of floats the following day. Standing up to 25 metres high, weighing 12 tons, and hauled by residents pulling on thick ropes, these floats are intricately decorated with traditional designs. But even more impressive if the fact that this celebration is believed to date back to 869 AD, in an attempt to end a disease epidemic by appeasing the gods.

What is Kyoto famous for? Final thoughts

If you were asking ‘what is Kyoto famous for’ before reading this article, hopefully you’ve already had your question answered! One of Japan’s most historic cities, having escaped much of the damage caused by the Second World War, there are a wide array of attractions to keep visitors intrigued and entertained in equal measure.

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