If you’re looking for a serene place where you can truly experience Japan and explore its rich culture and history, Nara is the best city to do it. Beautiful temples, loads of art, and even deer roaming in one of the city’s parks are just some of the upsides of visiting this fascinating place. Everything seems to be a bit more relaxed than in the rest of Japan, and there is a big emphasis on environmentalism and zen throughout Nara. So, if you want to recharge your batteries, discover something new, and learn more about Japan’s history, one day in this place is just what the doctor ordered. Let’s go!
The best time to visit Nara has to be spring. With the famous cherry blossoms in full swing, the whole city becomes incredibly beautiful. This happens at the end of March and the beginning of April, but keep in mind that this also attracts a lot of tourists. However, May can be a good alternative to this, since the weather is warm and pleasant, with much fewer tourists around.
Another great choice is fall, again because of the trees which start to take their vivid autumn colors. This peaks in November, when you will also see an increase in the number of tourists. Winters are fairly quiet, and although chilly, usually have good weather, so this may be a good choice too if you don’t mind the cold.
As for the summer, this is when the rainy season starts, but this is also when many festivals take place, so you have to decide how big of a problem rain will be for you. Keep in mind that the Obon holiday in mid-August is extremely busy and prices rise significantly.
As for the festivals and events, there are some really incredible things to see in this city. Nara To-kae in the first half of August sees the city decorated with 20,000 lanterns, whereas Omizutori (in March) is the oldest Buddhist festival in Japan during which torches light up the great Todai-ji Temple. Wakakusa Yamayaki (in January) features incredible fireworks displays on a nearby mountain, so it’s a perfect way to celebrate entering a new year.
Located in the heart of Honshu Island, Nara is a city of approximately 370,000 people and the seat of Nara Prefecture. Interestingly, the foreign population in the city numbers only 3000 people, with two-thirds of that being Chinese and Korean residents.
Long ago, in the eighth century, Nara was actually the first capital of Japan, with the Emperor residing there between 710 and 784.
Due to its long and rich history, Nara is full of temples and shrines – more than 2000 of them are scattered throughout the city.
The city also hosts a big annual competition where various organizations and businesses come up with their own mascots and the best one gets the honor of becoming the city’s mascot for an entire year.
Nara is an absolutely fantastic city, and you are going to have an amazing time exploring it. But there are so many temples and sights that a good itinerary is a must if you want to make the most of your one day here. Luckily for you, you can find one if you just keep reading. Here are the best things to see and do in Nara, Japan!
For a good start to your one day in Nara, do try and sit down somewhere for a nice breakfast first. You’ll need your energy for all the exploring, that’s for sure, and it’s recommended you get a relatively early start.
Head to Kintetsu Nara Station, and then choose one of the cafes nearby. Cafe Wakakusa is an excellent choice if you’re in the mood for a crepe or two, followed by some great coffee. Then there’s also aka tombo coffee, a Melbourne-style cafe where you can get a lovely warm croissant.
In any case, a nice breakfast will make sure you start your day right.
Time to start this itinerary for real! First on the list is the Nara National Museum, very close to the cafes I mentioned earlier. So, you won’t have to walk far, but you will get a sense of Nara Park (more on that in just a bit).
Nara National Museum is one of the most reputable art museums in Japan, and here you will be able to enjoy an incredible collection of Buddhist works. Statues, ceremonial objects, and scrolls (with the famous Hell Scroll also a part of the collection) will give you plenty to see as they are all a part of the permanent display.
The museum was built at the end of the 19th century, but a new wing was added in 1972. This new wing hosts temporary exhibitions, so make sure you check out what’s there while you’re exploring the exhibits.
Once you’re done with the museum, put some time aside to walk through Nara Park. This huge piece of greenery is the heart of the city, and you will often see whole families just enjoying a stroll.
The most famous residents of the park are the deer, more than 1000 of them. These animals were considered messengers of gods in this region, and you can actually feed them if you buy a pack of rice crackers called senbei. Don’t worry, they’re not expensive at all! Stopping to feed the deer is one of the best things to do in Nara with kids, so if you’re here with your family, it’s absolutely a must.
As you continue walking through the park, you will see many stalls selling snacks and souvenirs. Grab one if anything catches your eye, but remember that you have a lot more ground to cover. Next stop – the most famous temple in Nara!
A symbol of Nara, Todai-Ji Temple is one of the most famous temples in Japan and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally constructed in 752, this temple eventually grew so powerful that the emperor himself had to move from Nara and find another seat.
The gate leading to the temple is the Nandaimon Gate, and this is a sight to behold in and of itself. The two statues of guardian kings here are themselves considered to be national treasures, plus you can often see some deer roaming around.
The main part of the temple is called The Great Buddha Hall, which was actually the biggest wooden building in the world up until 1998. And it’s only two-thirds of what it used to be before it was reconstructed at the beginning of the 18th century!
Inside, you will find a huge, 15-meter statue of Buddha Vairocana, the biggest bronze statue of this Buddha in the world! There are other Buddhist statues around, but what’s particularly interesting is the model of what the building used to look like. It gives you a good idea of how huge it was!
You deserve a good lunch at this point, and you’ll be happy to know that there are many great choices nearby.
If you would like to try something Japanese, you can go to Maguro Koya for a variety of Japanese dishes. Okaru is a great okonomiyaki place, whereas Tonkatsu Ganko Nara specializes in this deep-fried pork delicacy.
However, should you be in the mood for some Western food, check out Sakura Burger (pretty self-explanatory, right?) or Nino’s (Italian food).
After a good lunch, a nice walk always feels nice, and what better place for that than an authentic Japanese garden? Isuien Garden lies about halfway between the Todai-Ji Temple and the National Museum, so you should be able to find it easily.
The garden itself is quite beautiful, consisting of two parts – the front one from the mid-17th century, and the back part that dates back to 1899. The two parts have their own distinct styles, but the part as a whole represents Japan’s landscape with an emphasis on the four seasons.
There are also many tea houses scattered throughout the park, so feel free to stop by and relax with a light snack or just a hot cup of tea. You can also visit the Neiraku Museum located within the park itself – this lovely little museum contains examples of ceramics from East Asia.
Obviously, you want to leave some room in your itinerary for some good old-fashioned shopping, and Mochiido Center Town is a great place for that. This is the oldest shopping street in the city and full of interesting little shops that are really worth your time. And it’s not that crowded, either.
Another good shopping place in Nara is the Higashimuki Shopping Street, a more vibrant shopping arcade close to Kintetsu Nara Station. A lot of shops and fast food stalls can also be found here, but the street will also lead you to the Kofuku-Ji Temple, one of the most important Buddhist temples in the city, which was moved to this location in 710.
As the sun sets and your one day in Nara draws to a close, head to Sarusawa Pond, close to the Kofuku-Ji Temple. The magical lights there and the willow trees create quite an atmosphere, and the temple’s pagoda is also illuminated. Tea houses are also located here for a complete Japanese experience.
If you’re in the mood for a drink after that, head to Lamp Bar because there you will get some AMAZING cocktails. Cotton Club is also a great choice for cocktails, whereas Hot Staff is a bar and restaurant focusing on American dishes. Finally, for an authentic Japanese experience, go to Kuramoto Houshuku Nara and try their sake.
Where to stay in Nara?
630-8301 Nara, Nara, Takabatacho 1118, Japan
To enjoy the ultimate luxury in Nara, book a room in SETRE Naramachi. This five-star beauty will wow you with its interior and fantastic location, with everything being very zen around here. You will definitely thoroughly recharge your batteries, but let’s not forget about the breakfast, which many guests describe as a “work of art”. Everything is extremely eco-friendly, free bikes are available, there are deer in the nearby park, and the hotel even has its own chickens! This is, without a doubt, a very special place.
Onyado Nono Nara Natural Hot Spring
630-8115 Nara, Nara, Omiyacho 1-1-6, Japan
The name of the place speaks volumes! Onyado Nono Nara Natural Hot Spring is an incredible opportunity to enjoy a hot spring bath, a quintessentially Japanese experience. The place is actually close to the city center and has a beautiful interior design which adds a splash of luxury to your stay. Interestingly, the shoes are supposed to be off in the whole hotel, and the rooms have plenty of toiletries, slippers, and even toothbrushes. Oh, and let’s not forget the amazing breakfast as the cherry on top.
MIROKU NARA by THE SHARE HOTELS
630-8301 Nara, Nara, Takabatakecho 1116-6, Japan
MIROKU NARA by THE SHARE HOTELS is a place that will win you over with the wonderful greenery surrounding it. Both the terrace and the rooms offer wonderful views, and enjoying your breakfast on the terrace is a great way to start your day. On the other hand, in the evenings, you can see deer grazing right next to the hotel! The whole place has a modern design, and all the amenities are readily available, so you won’t lack anything. Definitely, a place where you get your money’s worth.
630-8247 Nara, Nara, Aburasakacho 423, Japan
Yuzan Guesthouse is one of the best hostels around, with a great location, tatami floors, and a wonderful little garden. You can mingle with other guests on the terrace or cook something up in the shared kitchen, plus all guests have the option to store their luggage for free or rent a bike if they so desire. This is a hostel with a great vibe and plenty of guests from all over the world who love coming back. You will, too!
Once Nara enchants you, you won’t be able to resist exploring Japan some more. And there is a lot to explore in the city’s vicinity, much more than what you could squeeze into your one-day itinerary. So, what’s the solution? Simple – just organize a day trip or two to some of the following amazing locations!
Kyoto is a no-brainer for a day trip from Nara, really. Not only is this a city with an incredibly rich history and the former capital of Japan, but you can also reach it in less than an hour. One day in Kyoto will be full of ancient temples and beautiful ponds and gardens, with a few great museums sprinkled in just for good measure. The essence of Japan in its purest form!
Another amazing Japanese city, Osaka is just 45 minutes away and another great choice for a day trip. After Tokyo and Yokohama, this is the third-largest city in Japan, so you can be sure one day in Osaka is going to be exciting. There is great street food to try, amazing modern architecture to enjoy, and many amazing temples to explore. A trip to Osaka is a trip you won’t soon forget!
For nature lovers, the perfect choice is Lake Biwa, the biggest freshwater lake in the whole country. Surrounded by beautiful mountains, the lake provides spectacular scenery for a hike, but you can also hop into a canoe or even go for a swim if it’s warm enough. Plenty of water birds come to the lake every year too, so if you want to get away from the city a bit, this is the best way to do it.
It takes about two hours by train to reach Himeji Castle from Nara, but believe me when I say that the trip is well worth it. This incredible castle is the biggest and most popular castle in Japan, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in 1333, it has more than 80 rooms and takes at least two hours to tour, so allow for enough time when deciding to visit. Then take some time to explore the city of Himeji itself.
- Nara is renowned across Japan as a perfect place for creating sake. The climate is ideal and the water is pure, so do try and try a shot or two while in town.
- takuhai or luggage transportation services operate in Nara, so you can just have your luggage sent in advance to your hotel or airport. Makes moving around much easier.
- it’s very much recommended to always have some cash on hand. Should you need to use a bank, keep in mind that they only work from 9 AM to 3 PM here.
- you should be able to get free internet at all the main sights in the city.
- Integrated Smart Cards (ICs) cover trains, subways and buses. They are rechargeable and can be picked up at a number of locations. If you plan on using public transport here, pick one up to make your life easier.
Make sure you have everything you need
What to pack for your next trip?
Make your next trip as simple and as enjoyable as possible by packing smart. It’s amazing how much stress top travel items can save you, so choose carefully.
Things like lightweight travel backpacks, for example, are ideal for short trips and allow you to move around with ease, and a passport holder will make sure you keep your documents safe at all times.
Check our travel checklist guide for 2021 to make sure you haven’t missed anything, and travel to your next destination in style and with maximum comfort.