Technically speaking, I’ve had a post about a Nara day trip on my site for a while. Almost since I first visited the city, in fact, way back in 2014 during my first trip to Japan.
However, those posts (there were two—I replaced the first one with a brand-new version in 2017) were rather anemic in their descriptions of things to do in Nara, presenting somewhat anecdotal advice on how to take a Naraday trip from Kyoto, or travel from Osaka to Nara.
With today’s post, the third time is the charm. In addition to offering a more detailed rundown of Nara sightseeing options (spoiler alert: deer are only the beginning!), I’m going to recommend Nara hotels for the first time ever. I still believe that things to do in Nara are best appreciated as a day trip, of course, but it’s also a pleasant and calm city—if you have time in your Japan trip to stay a night, you should.
Is a Nara Day Trip Enough?
I’ve tried to stake out a middle path with this Nara itinerary. While I’ve recommended enough activities to last a full 24 hours (or even longer), I haven’t gone so far as to list Nara hotels (though that will come in a few paragraphs, to be fair). When it comes to my personal feelings, I do believe Nara shines best as a day trip destination, enough though there’s more than enough to see to justify an overnight stay.
To be sure, the real question I want to answer with this post is not whether you should take a Nara day trip from Osaka or Kyoto. It’s to hammer home that the answer to “is Nara worth visiting?” is a resounding, irrefutable “yes”—Nara is one of Japan’s most important destinations, full stop.
Things to Do in on a Nara Day Trip
Make New Friends in Nara Deer Park
Basically every Nara itinerary in the world begins in Nara Deer Park, and mine won’t be any different. What I will tell you is that many of the most scenic places to spot deer in Nara, especially during the spring and autumn seasons, sit outside the technical bounds of the park. I like to get off the bus from Nara Station a couple stops before Nara Park in fact, and walk south by foot to five-tiered Kofuku-ji pagoda and then eastward into the park to explore more of what to do in Nara there is.
Admire the World’s Oldest Wooden Structures
Kofuku-ji not only makes a backdrop for deer, but also foreshadows what’s to come later on in your Nara day trip. Most notably, about 20 minutes’ walk, is the Nara Todai-ji temple. In addition to being one of the world’s largest wooden structures (and the oldest—it dates back to the year 728), it houses the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue, which is really something to behold. It might be one of my favorite Buddhas in Japan, even more than the great Buddha of Kamakura.
Go Green in Nara’s Gardens and Parks
There are a number of other stunning structures near Todai-ji, including Nigatsu-do and Chisoku-in (to the north and east, respectively), but my Nara itinerary now heads into greener territory. From the eastern exit of Todai-ji, walk under the large torii gate you see to your left, which will eventually lead you to Kasuga-taisha, an absolutely stunning shrine. I say eventually, because you should take your time on the walk here, which takes you through some of the lushest green space you’ll see during your Nara day trip.
See Nara’s Artistic Side
We all love Nara deer, but it’s natural to crave something more, even beyond stunning spots like Todai-ji. One obvious place to head is Nara National Museum, whose unassuming façade humbly conceals a secret. This is actually one of the premier hubs of fine art, not only in Nara or in the Kansai region, but in Japan as a whole! As you can expect, the sprawling lawns just to the west of the museum are home to many hungry deer.
Enjoy the Cherry Blossoms (or Autumn Colors)
Spring and autumn are some of my favorite times to take Nara day trips—and it’s obvious why. The deer of Nara always give the city a surreal, magical feel, but amid the pink and white cherry blossoms and the vibrant fall colors, they’re downright magical to observe. The same is true for Nara’s historical architecture. On the flip-side, you should be prepared for heavy crowds around the time of year, particularly once Covid-19 is far in the rearview mirror. TIP: If you’re in the Nara area during springtime and want to enjoy even more scenic blossoms, consider visiting Mt. Yoshino.
Where to Stay in Nara (if You Do)
Now, what you’ve all been waiting for—well, some of you. Those of who aren’t coming from Osaka or Kyoto for a Nara day trip will need a place to stay. For about 80% of people reading this, simple but high-quality hotels like The Deer Park Inn, Mountain Home Lodge and Guesthouse Komachi are going to suffice. They situate you close to Nara’s best attractions at a fair price, and even with a little bit of flair.
The other 20% of you are seeking hotels in Nara that are either very cheap or very luxurious. On the low end, properties like Haruya Naramachi shouldn’t break a backpacker’s budget. For you luxury travelers, it’s all about expectations. The traditional ryokan Tsukihitei isn’t on par with the big-city opulent options you find in Osaka and Tokyo, but it should suffice as your not-so-humble home in Nara.
Other FAQ About Your Nara Day Trip
Is a day trip to Nara worth it?
A day trip to Nara is extremely worth it, particularly if you plan to visit an eclectic range of the city’s attractions—the famous deer are even more impressive when paired with the city’s stunning architecture. Coming from Kyoto, another way to make a Nara day trip more fulfilling is to stop in historical Uji on the way there or back.
What is the best time to go to Nara Park?
Like most scenic places in Japan, Nara Park is at its most beautiful during the spring and autumn seasons, when the cherry blossoms and fall colors are at their brilliant peaks. If you can’t visit during these times, however, don’t fret: Nara is very much is a 365-day per year destination.
Is Nara Deer Park free?
Nara Deer Park is totally free, as it is a public park in the middle of the city. Note, however, that many Nara attractions charge an entry fee, including Todai-ji and its famous Buddha, which are located just to the north of the free Nara Deer Park (whose official name is actually just “Nara Park”).
The Bottom Line
This Nara itinerary is perfect for any traveler, whether you take a Nara day trip from Osaka or Kyoto, or buck trends and stay the night. In it, I outline Nara attractions that are just as important as its furry mascots (namely, some of the oldest and largest wooden structures in the world), and even recommend Nara hotels for the first time ever. Still not sure where Nara fits into your larger Japan plan? Commission a custom Japan itinerary today, and leave the heavy lifting to me.