kasuga taisha shrine in nara, japan

Explore Nara’s historic shrines and temples in this charming city steeped in history. (Photo: Marriott International)

Weekend Getaways

3 Days in Nara: Discovering History and Traditional Cuisine in Japan’s Deer City

Nara carries the echoes of ancient Japan as it once served as the nation’s capital in the eighth century. It’s home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including one of Japan’s most famous landmarks, Todai-ji Temple, and is a destination celebrated for its natural beauty, expansive parks and well-preserved traditions.  

In this serene city, get up close and personal with Nara’s famous residents — the sacred sika deer that frolic freely in Nara Park. If you’re lucky enough to visit the park in springtime, watch it transform into a sea of white and pink during the vibrant bloom of the cherry blossoms.  

On the charming streets of Naramachi, machiya townhouses dating as far back as the Edo period will whisk you away to another time. Local cuisine and traditional tea ceremonies also make a trip to Nara as scrumptious as it is educational.  

Here’s your guide to making the most of your three-day journey through this historically rich city. As always, check for travel guidelines and closures before planning your trip.  

Friday: Wander the Grounds 

a deer eating grass in nara park, japan.
Nara’s friendly residents roam freely in Nara Park. (Photo: Marriott International)

Start your day bright and early with a visit to Kasuga Taisha Shrine, with the option to observe the morning prayer held at 9 a.m. Marvel at the stunning vermilion lanterns that line the pathways to this awe-inspiring shrine.  

Then it’s onward to Nara Park to stroll among the friendly deer. Be sure to purchase some deer crackers to feed them, but take note of where you’re keeping your treats. While they appear mild-mannered, the deer have no qualms about burying their noses in your pockets until they find their next meal.  

After feeding the deer, it’s time to fill your stomach, too. Check out the cozy Mizuya Chaya, nestled conveniently within the park, for an affordable bowl of fried chicken and noodles.  

Alternatively, visit Nagomi for an upscale teppanyaki experience — a style of Japanese cooking where meat and vegetables are grilled on a flat metal plate in front of guests. If you don’t feel like splashing out for the full works, the restaurant also offers bento boxes, where rice, meat and vegetables are neatly arranged into a box and served as a single portion.  

Now that you’re fully fueled, make your way back to Nara Park to summit Mount Wakakusa. This scenic hike lets you take in the natural verdant beauty of Nara Park while spotting various historical sites like Todai-ji Temple and Kasuga Taisha Shrine.  

The trail is beginner-friendly and not too steep, and you’ll most likely encounter more sika deer as you make your way to the top of the hill. The best seasons to climb Mount Wakakusa are spring and autumn, when you can catch the cherry blossoms and the brilliant orange-red fall foliage, respectively. The mountain is closed from mid-December to the middle of March, so plan your trip accordingly.  

Alternatively, you can always explore the Nara National Museum to get a deeper understanding of Nara’s cultural history. The museum features an impressive collection of Buddhist sculptures, art and writings alongside archeological finds and bronze pieces from China used in ancient rituals.  

Did you know that Nara is the birthplace of refined sake? It is said that monks at Shoryakuji Temple developed the technique of brewing Japanese rice wine back in the 13th century. Celebrate this fact by treating yourself to a late-afternoon aperitif of narazake (local sake) at the renowned Harushika Brewery Store.  

To finish off your day, treat yourself to a dinner at a local restaurant within the narrow streets of the Naramachi neighborhood. Options include Harishin, which serves tempura (seafood and vegetables fried in a batter) in a 200-year-old house, or sampling some delicious grilled eel, also known as unagi in Japanese, at Edogawa Naramachi

Saturday: Temple Tours 

view of todaiji temple, nara, japan.
Nara is home to a large collection of enchanting UNESCO World Heritage sites. (Photo: Marriott International)

Nara boasts a tremendous number of historically significant temples, each more magnificent than the last. Spend your second day in the city visiting as many as you can, starting with a trip to two architecturally gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  

First up, Yakushi-ji Temple. Explore its stunning pagodas and beautiful gardens before taking a 10-minute stroll to the next UNESCO site, Toshodai-ji Temple. Enjoy your time exploring the grounds of this ancient temple created in the eighth century. Known for its serene surroundings and masterful wooden architecture, the main hall houses an important Buddhist statue, the Rushanabutsu, the bodhisattva of wisdom (a bodhisattva is a Buddhist deity that has attained enlightenment but delays their entry into nirvana to help others).  

Enjoy a Japanese lunch near the vicinity of Toshodai-ji Temple. Visit either Yoshimura for soba (buckwheat noodles) with battered and fried vegetables or Nishida for a kaiseki (multicourse) feast featuring fresh and seasonal Japanese ingredients deftly prepared by its chefs.  

Then it’s on to the next World Heritage spot, Heijo Palace Historical Site, a testament to Nara’s historical significance during eighth-century Japan. The palace was once the heart of the ancient capital, serving as its political head office. Wander through the grand audience hall to better understand what administrative life was like in those times. The grounds don’t just offer a window into the past; the palace gardens also offer a peaceful respite before you continue your journey.  

Once you’re ready, head back to Nara Park. This time, you’re here to visit Todai-ji Temple, home to the Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden) — one of the world’s largest wooden buildings. Inside, you’ll find one of Japan’s largest bronze Buddha statues standing 49 feet tall.  

After paying your respects, see if you can squeeze through the pillar with a hole at its base that’s said to be the same size as Buddha’s nostril — those who make their way through will receive enlightenment in their next life.  

As night falls, treat yourself to some divine food at Yamatoen Honten, a casual gem that features game meat from the region, including venison and boar, alongside sashimi (sliced raw fish) — with the bonus of an all-you-can-drink option where you can have all the sake, beer or whisky you could want.  

And if you want to keep the party going after dinner, head to Savant Bar, a local speakeasy for bespoke cocktails and a wide range of rare spirits.  

Sunday: Escape to Nature 

kasugayama forest in nara japan
A trip to Kasugayama Primeval Forest makes for a mystical morning. (Photo: Marriott International)

It’s your final day in Nara, but there’s still plenty to see and do. Embark on a journey to Kasugayama Primeval Forest where you can get lost in nature and breathe in clear, crisp air. This ancient forest, with its towering trees and lush undergrowth, offers a sense of calm before striking you with the beauty of Uguisu Waterfall.  

Meander through well-marked trails that make navigating your way through the forest a breeze, and make a pit stop to have a packed sandwich, bento box or other food — either prepared by you or picked up from Le Case or any of the other restaurants in the complex near the entry to Nara Park — before heading back out to conquer the rest of your day.  

After your nature immersion, return to Nara for a spot of afternoon tea in one of the many machiya houses (traditional Japanese townhouses that used to serve as both residence and place of business) lining the narrow streets of Naramachi, the quaint old town of Nara.  

This is not just an English breakfast tea and scone; it’s experiencing a traditional Japanese tea ceremony at a local teahouse. These ceremonies showcase a formal preparation and serving of tea, a unique insight into transforming what some would consider a basic practice of drinking tea into a sacred experience made to savor every step in the process.  

Try Sarusawa, which offers daily tea ceremonies at 4:15 p.m. But even if you miss it, there are plenty of traditional teahouses throughout the district, all with their unique spin on this cherished tradition. Make sure to book in advance so you don’t miss out.  

If you have some time before or after the ceremony, pop into the Nara Crafts Museum to pick up some souvenirs and inspect some Japanese crafts, including traditional woodwork, calligraphy and pottery.  

Then return to Nara Park in the evening to visit Nigatsudo, a structure forming part of the Todaji complex perched atop a hill, for a panoramic view of the city at sunset, a poignant way to end your Nara adventure.  

Head back down to Naramachi for a final dinner at one of the many restaurants, including Omoya, a restaurant known for its fusion of Japanese and French cuisines (ooh, là là!), or Awa Naramachi for a more traditional Japanese dinner of beef and local fresh vegetables.  

This article was created in partnership with Time Out.