Nara is located in the Kansai region of southern Japan. The capital of Nara prefecture, Nara, was also once the capital of Japan. Geographically, Nara is close to several major cities, including Kyoto and Osaka, making it a popular destination for day trips.
Here you can admire the beauty of ancient temples and shrines, as well as the deer that live here and are considered messengers of the gods, sacred animals for its inhabitants. Discover the must-sees of this city with its rich history and unique atmosphere.
Introduction: Why go to Nara?
Whether you’re a history buff, nature lover or culture explorer, Nara has something to offer everyone. Here are just some of the reasons why you should visit Nara.
History and culture
Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital, reflected in its many historical sites. Famous for its Buddhist temples and Buddha statues, which testify to the importance of Buddhism in the region, Nara’s temples and shrines are among the oldest and most impressive in Japan.
These include Todai-ji, home to the world’s most giant bronze Buddha statue, and Horyu-ji, recognized as the world’s oldest existing wooden building.
Nara is particularly famous for its park, Nara Park, where over 1,200 sika deer, an Asian species, roam freely. You can buy specially adapted cakes to feed these sacred animals and spend a relaxing day in nature.
Mountains surround Nara on three sides, with Mount Ikoma to the west, Mount Katsuragi to the south, and Mount Kasuga and Mount Wakakusa to the east, offering breathtaking views of the city. These mountains add to the region’s natural beauty and offer numerous trails for hiking and other outdoor activities.
Nara is ideally located near Kyoto (29km) and Osaka (42km), making it an easy day trip from these major cities. Public transport in Nara is excellent. It’s easy to get there by train from both cities, with journey times generally under an hour.
Finally, unlike more prominent cities like Tokyo or Osaka, Nara offers a more peaceful and authentic experience of Japan. It’s the ideal place for those looking to escape the hustle and bustle and discover a quieter side of the country.
In short, Nara is a destination that harmoniously combines history, culture, nature and cuisine in a relaxed atmosphere. Whatever your reasons for visiting this city, you’re sure to find something to love.
The “must-sees” are well known, but the city is also home to many lesser-known gems. Here’s a combined list of Nara’s must-sees and hidden treasures.
Visit Nara's parks, temples and museums
- Nara Park: Classified as a place of scenic beauty, it’s a visitor’s first stop. Here you’ll find over 1,200 free-ranging, semi-domesticated deer and hinds, which you can feed with locally purchased cookies. Why not visit during the sakura? You’ll see an enchanting pink landscape with deer stretched out under the cherry blossoms!
- Tōdai-ji temple: This famous temple is home to the world’s most giant bronze Buddha statue. If you’re lucky, you’ll also be able to admire the cherry blossoms in the surrounding area.
- Kasuga-Taisha Shrine: Known for its thousands of stone lanterns, this is one of Japan’s most important Shinto shrines.
- Kōfuku-ji temple: With its five-storey pagoda, this temple is one of Nara’s most important historical monuments.
- Nara National Museum: The museum offers an overview of Japanese Buddhist art and regularly organizes exhibitions of precious artifacts.
Nara's hidden treasures
- Naramachi: Besides its deer, Nara is famous for its historic district, with traditional houses, small stores and craft workshops.
- Mount Wakakusa: An easy hike with breathtaking views over Nara. Enjoy a family hike or a romantic picnic at sunset. In January, Mount Wakakusa hosts the Yamayaki Festival.
- Jardin Isui-en: A magnificent Japanese garden often overlooked by tourists. It offers perfect tranquillity and superb views over the rooftops of Todai-ji.
- Ukimido Pavilion: The “Floating Pavilion” offers a peaceful view of Sagi Pond in Nara Park.
- Horyu-ji Temple: Located a little further from Nara, this is the oldest existing wooden building in the world. It’s a little off the beaten track for many visitors, but well worth a visit.
- Nara Toy Museum: Located in the city center, your children can play with traditional and mechanical toys.
Each place has its own unique history and charm, adding to the experience of any visit to Nara.
Other things to do in Nara
In addition to its cultural sites and deer, there are many other things to do here. Here are a few ideas for your future trip.
- Nara calligraphy: Nara is famous for its ink and brushes, and many stores offer workshops where you can try your hand at Japanese calligraphy. It’s an educational activity that children might enjoy. They’ll learn to write their name in Japanese characters and leave with a unique souvenir.
- Akahada ceramics: Nara is also known for its Akahada ceramics, which are appreciated for their simplicity and use of natural motifs. Courses are offered in Naramachi.
Festivals in Nara
- Omizutori Festival: Also known as Shuni-e, this is one of Japan’s oldest Buddhist festivals, held every March at Todai-ji temple. It is famous for its nocturnal processions of monks carrying giant torches.
- Takigi Noh Lantern Festival: Usually in May, Heian-Jingu Shrine hosts traditional Noh theatre performances by torchlight in the open air, creating a unique and magical atmosphere.
- Yamayaki Festival: Every year in January, the grass on Mount Wakakusa is set ablaze in an impressive spectacle that attracts many visitors.
The tea ceremony is an essential cultural tradition in Japan, and Nara offers several places where you can take part. Here are some suggestions:
- Nara National Museum: In addition to exhibiting the history and culture of tea in Japan, this museum sometimes organizes tea ceremonies, particularly during special exhibitions, as well as special workshops for children at certain times of the year.
- Kasuga Taisha Shinen Manyo Botanical Garden: Located near the famous Kasuga Taisha Shrine, this botanical garden offers the opportunity to participate in a tea ceremony in magnificent surroundings.
- Jiko-in Temple: This temple of the Soto Zen sect, located in Yamatokoriyama (a town near Nara), is famous for its tea ceremonies. Reservations are required in advance, but the experience is unforgettable.
Japanese cuisine in Nara
- Kakinoha sushi: Nara sushi is unique in that it’s wrapped in a persimmon leaf, which adds a slightly nutty flavour to the rice and fish.
- Cha-gayu: A rice and green tea dish often eaten for breakfast.
- Miwa Somen: These thin white noodles are a specialty of the Miwa region of Nara and are often served cold with a dipping sauce.
Our selection of restaurants in Nara
Here are some recommendations for popular, top-rated restaurants to suit all budgets:
- Restaurant Kura This sushi restaurant is very popular with locals and tourists alike. The sushi is fresh and delicious. It’s located in the old town of Naramachi, adding a historic atmosphere to your meal.
- Tekisui-san Located near Nara Park, this Teppanyaki restaurant overlooks a beautiful Japanese garden and offers a set menu.
- Edogawa NaramachiEdogawa Naramachi: This restaurant specializes in grilled eel, a classic Japanese dish. The eel is delicately grilled and served over rice, creating a rich, flavorful dish.
- Maguro Koya For tuna lovers, this small restaurant is a must. They serve high-quality tuna in a variety of ways, including sashimi and nigiri.
- Wakasa Annex Wakasa Annex: This restaurant offers kaiseki cuisine, a traditional form of Japanese meal consisting of numerous small dishes. It’s a great option for those wishing to experience a traditional Japanese meal.
For an even more upscale dining experience, visit one of Nara’s award-winning restaurants:
- Wa YamamuraThis is the only restaurant in Nara to have been awarded three Michelin stars. Wa Yamamura is run by chef Nobuo Yamamura, who prepares exquisite kaiseki dishes using seasonal ingredients.
- KagamanThis two-Michelin-starred restaurant is known for its delicate kaiseki cuisine and local sakes. It is located in an old merchant’s house, adding to the traditional atmosphere.
- Tenpyo RyokanTenpyo Ryokan: Although it’s a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), Tenpyo Ryokan’s restaurant has been awarded a Michelin star for its innovative and delicious cuisine. You can expect high-quality kaiseki dishes with a modern twist.
For each of these restaurants, we recommend you book at least 24 hours in advance, as rooms are sometimes limited in number of people.
Take a cooking class in Nara
Nara offers several options for those wishing to learn how to cook Japanese cuisine. Here are some suggestions:
- Nara Umemori SushiThis school regularly organizes cooking classes for visitors. Classes are based on sushi and bento preparation. An excellent introduction to Japanese cuisine.
- Haru Cooking Class Haru Cooking Class: This family-run cooking school in Kyoto, a short train ride from Nara, offers classes in authentic Japanese cuisine. They offer different types of courses, including vegetarian cooking courses and cooking courses with market visits.
- Eat Osaka Although located in Osaka, this cooking school is easily accessible from Nara. She offers cooking classes on several types of Osaka regional cuisine.
Our suggestions for activities with Viator
How do I get to Nara with the points?
You can easily find Air Canada flights to Japan from Canada. For all our tips on how to travel to Japan using rewards points such as Aeroplan points, and how to get around, see our following articles:
You can buy a pass to get to the Kansai region, for example, using the Kansai Thru Pass (Suruttu Kansai). This pass allows you to visit the entire region, including Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, Wakayama, Koyasan and Himeji, on regional trains, for 2 or 3 consecutive or non-consecutive days. It is also valid on the link with KIX airport and ITM.
Getting around Nara
Getting around Nara is relatively easy, whether you prefer public transport or walking. Here are some of the best ways to get around Nara:
Most of Nara’s main attractions are clustered around Nara Park, making walking very convenient. Once you arrive in the center of Nara, you can easily spend a day exploring the temples, shrines and stores on foot.
Bicycle hire is a popular option among visitors to Nara, especially in spring and autumn when the weather is mild. Many hotels and hostels offer bike rentals, allowing you to cover greater distances and explore areas less accessible on foot.
Nara’s bus system is very efficient and serves most tourist attractions. Buses run regularly and are an affordable way to get around. Day passes are available for purchase, allowing you to hop on and off as you please throughout the day.
The Nara City Bur Tour is a great way to explore the city without getting too tired, especially with young children.
By car or cab
If you’re travelling with children or older people or prefer a more comfortable means of transport, cabs are readily available in Nara. Just make sure you bear in mind that cabs can be more expensive, especially if you’re travelling long distances. If you rent a car, driving is on the left. The signs are clear and there’s plenty of parking. You’ll have no trouble finding a place.
If you plan to visit other sites outside Nara, such as Kyoto or Osaka, the train is the most convenient means of transport. Trains are regular, fast and comfortable.
Whichever mode of transport you choose, Nara is a welcoming city full of wonders to discover. Just be sure to plan to make the most of your visit.
As you can see, there are many ways to get around Japan. To help you save with transport points, we’ve put together a special guide. Read our complete guide: Japan: How to save on transport in Japan?
Where can I find accommodation in Nara, Japan?
There’s a wide range of accommodation in Nara, from luxury hotels to traditional Japanese inns known as ryokans. If you’re looking for an authentic experience, I recommend staying in a ryokan, where you can enjoy a traditional kaiseki meal and sleep on tatami mats. For those who prefer modern comfort, Marriott hotels remain a benchmark, especially as you can use your Marriott Bonvoy points.
Our suggestion of hotels in Nara
A new Marriott hotel will open at the end of August 2023, the Shisui, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Nara, blending the traditional and the modern. It’s ideally located within walking distance of the classic Nara Park sightseeing circuit, and its verdant surroundings are sure to cause a sensation.
Our suggestion of hotels in Nara
- Nara Hotel This historic luxury hotel was built in 1909. It offers a unique blend of Western and Japanese styles and is ideally located near Nara Park.
- Noborioji Hotel NaraNoborioji Hotel Nara: This luxury boutique hotel is located near Nara Park and offers impressive views of the park and Todai-ji temple.
- Hotel Nikko Nara Located close to JR Nara station, this hotel offers good value and easy access to Nara’s attractions.
- Guesthouse Nara BackpackersFor those traveling on a budget, this hostel is a popular option. It is housed in a wooden house over 100 years old and offers a mix of private rooms and dormitories.
Our suggestion of ryokans in Nara
- Tsukihitei Ryokan For a more traditional experience, try this ryokan located in Kasugayama Park, a primary forest listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Meals are served in your room and are based on kaiseki cuisine, a type of traditional Japanese meal.
- Nara Mikasa Ryokan Located on a hill overlooking Nara, this ryokan offers a breathtaking view of the city. The ryokan has a private hot spring where you can relax after a day of sightseeing.
- Ryokan Kosen This ryokan is known for its high-quality kaiseki cuisine, using fresh, local ingredients. It’s just a short bus ride from the center of Nara.
- Asukasou Ryokan Located near Nara Park, this ryokan overlooks the Great Southern Pagoda temple. It also has a public and private hot spring.
Ryokans are often more expensive than hotels, but the experience they offer is unique and traditional: well worth the extra cost.
Advice and precautions before travelling to Nara
Nara is generally a very safe travel destination, but as with any tourist city, there are a few things to keep in mind to make your travel experience smooth and enjoyable. Here are some safety tips and things to avoid in Nara :
- Feeding fallow deer incorrectly: Nara fallow deer are a great attraction, but they can sometimes become aggressive if they think you have food. Buy the special cookies sold in the park and follow the instructions for feeding them correctly. You’ll find signs everywhere reminding you of the rules.
- Traffic: As in any city, be careful of traffic, especially if you’re renting a bike or crossing busy streets.
- Respect for sacred places: Nara is rich in temples and shrines, so be sure to respect local customs and the rules of sacred sites. For example, remove your shoes when entering certain parts of the temples.
- Keeping an eye on your belongings: Although Nara is generally very safe, as with any tourist destination, it’s essential to keep an eye on your personal belongings, especially in crowded areas.
- Plan: Some popular sites can be bustling, especially during peak seasons. Plan ahead to avoid crowds and maximize your time. Book any restaurant or activity!
- Dress appropriately: If you plan to visit temples or other sacred places, dress respectfully.
All in all, with a little common sense and respect for the local culture, you should be able to take full advantage of all that Nara has to offer.
To prepare for your trip to Nara and the surrounding area, we suggest the following Ulysses Travel Guide: Fabulous Kyoto, Osaka and Kansai.
In our opinion, Nara is a must-see destination on your trip to Japan. With its verdant parks, historic temples and cultural activities, this Japanese city offers a unique experience for every visitor. Prepare to fall under Nara’s spell!