20 Best Things to Do in Osaka Japan for First-Time Visitors

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As an avid traveller who has explored destinations across Asia, I was thrilled to recently visit Japan for the first time. Yet while places like Tokyo and Kyoto enjoy global fame, I opted to start my Japan journey in wildly underrated Osaka.

As the long-time business capital boasting outgoing locals, neon-lit streets with nonstop food and nightlife, Osaka immediately captivated my wanderlust spirit. But as a first timer in Japan’s third largest metro, I’ll admit feeling overwhelmed initially by Osaka’s sheer urban sprawl.

Where do you start to unravel this concrete maze of dizzying skyscrapers, crowded subway lines, and restaurant-packed alleyways?

Luckily, I spent weeks immersed in Osaka’s dynamic neighbourhoods – from historic temples to soaring cityscape views to jousting giant robot statue battles. I compiled this list specifically to highlight the 20 most incredible sights, tastes and experiences across Osaka that left me grinning ear-to-ear even after multiple visits.

Best Things to Do in Osaka Japan

As a fellow first-time Japan visitor, I want to pass my Osaka travel insights onto you. Use my customiSed Osaka itinerary mixing must-see highlights with local secrets to maximize adventure and awe-inspiring magic across this nonstop concrete jungle.

Osaka Walking Tour

Explore the real Osaka with this immersive walking tour, perfect for adventurous first-time visitors. Experience the retro zone’s vintage arcades and markets and delve into local nightlife with unique games and eateries.

Wander historic back alleys, sample local snacks, and discover surreal, abandoned buildings. Choose to visit the UNESCO-listed Taisho-Era red-light district or take an alternative route.

This tour also uncovers deeper aspects of Japanese culture, including Yakuza and illegal gambling. Conclude with an optional traditional dinner, offering a comprehensive view of Osaka’s authentic side.

Visit Osaka Castle

Osaka Castle is one of Japan’s most famous landmarks. First built in 1583, this imposing castle has a tragic and tumultuous past, suffering destruction and reconstruction after various wars, fires, and even lightning strikes.

The current concrete reconstruction dates back to 1931 but still cuts an impressive figure with its grand gold-leaf façade set against the city skyline.

Inside, the castle houses an informative museum that chronicles Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s 16th century rise to power along with artifacts and models offering insight into the castle’s rich history. 

Visitors can also take an elevator up to the 8th floor observation deck for panoramic views over Osaka’s sprawling urban landscape, making it an making it a must-visit destination in Osaka Japan. 

Don’t miss strolling through the castle’s attractive plum, peach, and cherry-tree lined grounds that ignite vibrant shades of pink and red come springtime.

Pro tip: The blooming trees make spring one of the best times for a visit.

Wander through Dōtonbori

Lively, colourful, noisy, and unabashedly chaotic—welcome to Dōtonbori, Osaka’s most famous and iconic downtown district.

This popular area bursts with giant neon billboards glittering over the canal, scents of tasty street food wafting through the air, and crowds of locals, travellers, buskers, and more mixing in the cacophony of restaurants, bars, shops, and lights, making it one of the best things to do in Osaka at night..

Be sure to snap some selfies with Dōtonbori’s two iconic symbols adorning the canal’s walls—the giant 4.5-meter-tall Glico Man running sign that’s outlined with hundreds of LED bulbs and the giant red octopus of the Kani Doraku crab restaurant.

Weaving Dōtonbori’s atmospheric alleys you’ll find everything from blowfish to okonomiyaki pancakes sizzling on griddles to arcades and karaoke bars open late into the night.

Admire Spectacular Light Art at Osaka Shinsaibashi-suji Shopping Street

If dazzling Ebisubashi bridge’s iconic crisscross of glittering web-like arches over Dōtonbori canal sparks visions of unbridled shopping in your mind, then you’ll want to venture just a bit north to Shinsaibashi-suji.

As evening falls over central Osaka, Shinsaibashi-suji Shopping Street transforms into a magical glow. Over 600 red lanterns line the 600-meter long shotengai shopping promenade covering pedestrians in warm light.

Historic shops and stalls remain in business late while modern cafes, global cuisines, and hip nightlife beckon, makes it one of the best places to visit in Osaka for shopping enthusiasts. Street performers, musicians, acrobats further enliven the illuminated night atmosphere.

And events like the summer beer garden, or winter ‘Ichi-Rio Yatai’ food vendor gatherings give locals and visitors open-air spaces to connect under the lanterns.

Yet by far the biggest marvel Shinsaibashi’s trees shining with over 270,000 LED bulbs dazzling in synchronized dance. These sparkling arches mimic daylight’s passing, with ‘Blue Sky Trees’ transitioning from sunny yellow to night’s neon hues – all energy efficient. Wandering east to west beneath vibrant canopy light art makes Shinsaibashi-suji Street an iconic nightlife destination in itself.

Check Out the Bright Lights and City Views from Umeda Sky Building

For spectacular views over Osaka, head to the Floating Garden Observatory at the top of the Umeda Sky Building. This innovative high-rise was one of the first “twin towers” designed with a bridge at the 39th floor to connect the two buildings.

The observatory offers a 360-degree panorama from open-air decking and a glassed-in escalator ascending up through the bridge itself. Visiting here is one of the top things to do in Osaka, especially at sunset. On clear days, you can see all the way to the ports of Kobe and across Osaka Bay.

The Sky Building also hosts an array of shops, restaurants, and the Grand Front Osaka convention complex at its base.

And architecture buffs will appreciate the creative girder and beam construction that allows the 173 meter (567 foot) towers to withstand earthquakes. Getting to gaze out over Osaka from 173 meters up is a sightseeing highlight all visitors should experience.

Explore Sprawling Osaka Station City

Not just any train station, Osaka Station City is a sprawling multi-use transit hub, shopping complex, and architectural sight all rolled into one. Passing under its eye-catching 104-meter-high glass atrium are 720,000 commuters daily across three train lines including the speedy bullet train.

Yet it’s inside where JR Osaka Station really dazzles visitors with its eclectic range of futuristic design amid shops and restaurants evoking Old Japan along airy boulevards overhead.

Shopaholics can browse international luxury brands and tax-free malls while culture vultures admire rotating art displays and the Umeda Arts Theatre’s performances. Hungry? There’s no shortage of dining options from chef-helmed extravaganzas to grab-and-go kiosks. 

And for overnight visits, there’s even a hotel built right in. Whether you come to catch a train or not, prepare to be awed by this architectural marvel.

Try Street Food Delights at Kuromon Ichiba Market

Food lovers shouldn’t miss Kuromon Ichiba Market, known affectionately as “Osaka’s Kitchen.” This lively covered market stretches for several blocks, with vendors selling fresh seafood, meat, produce, and street food.

Watch shopkeepers slice up glistening tuna at lightning speed to prepare sashimi right before your eyes. Then grab a piping hot okonomiyaki savoury pancake or kushikatsu deep fried skewers to enjoy as you explore.

Want a more upscale dining experience? Many of the market stalls also have inner restaurant spaces where you can sit down for top-notch sushi, tempura, and regional specialties.

With so many amazing aromas and flavours beckoning around each corner, it’s easy to spend hours grazing your way through Kuromon Ichiba Market.

See Osaka From the Water on a River Cruise

Osaka may be inland, but a boat cruise along the city’s rivers and canals offers a fresh perspective on local landmarks. Several sightseeing cruise companies operate short tours ranging from 30 minutes up to a full afternoon.

You’ll float under iconic Osaka Castle before drifting through the downtown districts of Umeda, Namba, and Tennoji. Many evening options include meal service or drinks so you can cheer to gorgeous sunsets over Osaka’s skyline.

For travellers short on time, the hour-long DAY CRUISE Osaka is a great option to hit the highlights. Or opt for afternoon tea or a multi-course French dinner with the LOVER CRUISE. Whichever sailing time or cuisine you choose, seeing Osaka by river is an idyllic way to soak in quintessential sights around the city.

Stroll Through the Peace and Nature of Osaka Mint Bureau Garden

A serene oasis lies hidden in central Osaka – the Osaka Mint Bureau Garden. Though locals frequent this urban refuge, many tourists remain unaware of its existence. Originally constructed in the 1870s housing minting factories, the gardens were designated a Historic Site in 1997.

Now visitors are welcome to meander through ponds filled with koi fish and ducks, across arched red bridges, and around meticulously sculpted pine trees. In spring, the plum and cherry blossoms burst into delicate pink and white blooms.

It’s hard to believe you’re steps from busy downtown while immersed in the Mint Bureau’s tranquillity. Entry is free, though reservations should be made online ahead of time due to visitor limits. But spending an afternoon getting lost in this historic garden is one of Osaka’s most peaceful pleasures.

See City Scenes from Abeno Harukas – Japan’s Tallest Skyscraper

Towering 300 meters (1000 feet) into the clouds, Abeno Harukas holds the crown as Japan’s tallest skyscraper. This gleaming mega-structure houses a department store, the Kintetsu Railway terminus, art museum, restaurants, and Observation decks take visitors up to floors 58 or 60 for unobstructed 360 vistas across Osaka.

On clear days, visibility stretches all the way from Himeji Castle west to the Rokko Mountains east. Straight below in central Osaka, iconic landmarks like Tsutenkaku Tower, Shinsekai and Osaka Castle glitter amid the urban mosaic.

And the seemingly endless urban plain beyond reveals Osaka’s vast scale as Japan’s third largest metro area.

Golden sunrises or dusky cityscape starscapes provide plenty excuses to visit multiple times. Special exhibits and Harukas 300 observation events also occur seasonally – set to music, projections or art installations. Getting raised atop Abeno Harukas lets visitors take in the full measure of this eclectic, dynamic city in stunning fashion.

See Killer Whales Up Close at Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan

Shape-shifting jellyfish, dancing sea otters, and ethereal moon jellies are just a few of over 600 species at Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. But the star attractions are its pod of killer whales, including the famous father-son duo Bingo and Stella. View them graceful gliding through their colossal tank from front-row seats.

This world-class aquarium deploys cutting-edge technology like interactive displays and animal webcams. Its central tank recreates the stunning biodiversity of the Pacific Rim, holding 5,400 cubic meters of water. Prepare for an unforgettable aquatic experience as you journey through oceans near and far at Kaiyukan.

Burn off Calories Climbing the Longest Escalator in Japan

Locals and tourists flock to surprise transportation sight – the giant escalator tunnel in Osaka’s Hankyu Nishinomiya Garden. These moving staircases connecting the Hankyu Nishinomiya Kitaguchi train station stretch an incredible 572 feet (174m), making them Japan’s longest set of escalators to climb in one go.

Visitors trekking between the train platforms and shops outside can ride up 120 vertical feet without stepping off. The sturdy metal and glass infrastructure makes you feel like you’re zooming through an endless futuristic cylinder.

While you might be short of breath by the time you reach the top, all the calories burned by essentially “hiking” up over 32 flights of stairs means you can reward yourself with snacks from the station’s food stalls.

This architectural marvel makes commuting through Osakan rush hour almost – dare we say it – fun. Locals highly recommend visitors use the Hankyu Nishinomiya Kitaguchi stop at least once during travels around Kansai just for the bragging rights of riding Japan’s record-holding escalator.

Explore Osaka’s Roots at Shinsekai Historic District

To discover the vintage sides of ever-changing Osaka, visitors should wander through the Shinsekai neighbourhood.

This downtown quarter buzzed as a flashy entertainment district in pre-war Japan, filled with cafes, theatres, and Japan’s first skyscraper – the still towering Tsutenkaku Tower. A 1912 replica of the Eiffel Tower, this red lattice tower, which translates to “Tower Reaching Heaven” now watches over Shinsekai’s criss-crossed alleyways today.

Classic dining options remain plentiful around the Tower like 80-year-old ubaru restaurant Kani Douraku. Nearby JanJan Yokocho Alley holds dozens of open-air food stalls dishing up kushikatsu fried dumplings and grilled seafood late into the night.

Wandering under paper lanterns through these narrow lanes lined with traditional shops transports you back into historic Osaka.

Take a Day Trip to Universal Studios Japan

Universal Studios Japan is one of Osaka’s top attractions. This theme park brings Hollywood movies to life with immersive rides, shows, and experiences based on popular films like Harry Potter, Minions, and Jurassic Park.

You’ll feel like you’re on the set as you explore the Wizarding World of Harry Potter or come face-to-face with a giant T-Rex on the Jurassic Park ride. It’s a must-visit for families and all major film buffs.

The park is easily accessible by train from central Osaka, making it a perfect day trip. Be sure to arrive early and plan out what attractions are must-sees for you, as some rides like the Flying Dinosaur Roller Coaster or Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey tend to draw long waits. But with so much to see and do at Universal Studios, you’re guaranteed an entertaining day no matter what.

Learn the Art of Comedy at Namba Grand Kagetsu Theater

Japanese comedic storytelling, called manzai, has its origins in Osaka. And visitors can experience manzai first-hand at Namba Grand Kagetsu Theater. This lively venue hosts non-stop stand-up comedy shows every night.

Short skits feature classic two-person manzai pairings – a straight man and funny man – as they banter back and forth to uproarious laughter. Even non-Japanese speakers will be entertained by the hilarious physical comedy and exaggerated expressions of these skilled performers.

Shows do run in Japanese without subtitles. But most Theatre staff speak basic English to help you find seats and understand basic rules. Getting to witness comedians carry on the beloved Osakan tradition of manzai comedy makes for a fun and laughter-filled night out.

Marvel at the Whimsical Architecture of Namba Parks

This fantastical urban park, shopping center, and office complex towers nine stories tall in downtown Namba. But it’s what’s on the inside that holds the real delight.

Pass through the outdoor garden oasis surrounding Namba Parks to step into a soaring, canyon-like interior filled with waterfalls, rock walls, treetops, and even real mist floating through. The whimsical design feels like a secret world hidden away from the bustling city right outside its doors.

While you’ll want to spend awhile just staring up at the improbable architecture, Namba Parks also boasts top restaurants, shops, cafes, and a rooftop garden terrace.

There are always special events or festivals happening too, especially during the summer months and Christmas season. Getting lost in the fantastical atmosphere of Namba Parks is a must for artistic souls visiting Osaka.

Ascend Up Tsutenkaku Tower for City Views

Soaring over southern Osaka, Tsutenkaku Tower is an unmistakable landmark carrying on five generations of history. Meaning ‘tower reaching heaven’, visitors to this red steel tower are lifted via high-speed elevator 103 meters up to the observation deck.

From those lofty 360° views, skyscrapers and urban sprawl radiates in every direction out to the Osaka Bay and mountains beyond. On clear days you can glimpse landmarks like Osaka Castle, Rokko Mountain, and Kobe’s harbour far off on the horizon.

When Tsutenkaku opened in 1912, it was Asia’s second tallest tower after the Eiffel Tower itself.

Though it toppled twice due to wartime air raids, the present rebuilt Tsutenkaku has stood since 1956 as a symbol of Osaka’s resilience and progress. Ride to the top for stunning cityscapes and learn this distinctive tower’s storied place in Osaka’s heritage.

Transport to Old Japan at Hozenji Yokocho

Escape Osaka’s flashing neon and urban rush two blocks from bustling Dōtonbori at an atmospheric glimpse back in time called Hozenji Yokocho alley.

As you duck under traditional paper lanterns into a narrow stone passage, the modern world falls away revealing a quiet oasis filled with wisps of incense, trickling water, wooden temple structures and weathered stone statues.

Home to temples and shrines since the 1700s, locals visit still today to light incense, offer prayers at small altars and nourish their souls amid the meditative aura. Afterwards pop into the lanes’ traditional restaurants and bars. A serene contrast.

Experience Bygone Osaka at Shitennō-ji Temple

Shitennoji, one of Japan’s oldest temples, is must-see in Osaka. Established in 59 AD, Shittenō-ji Temple holds impressive cultural significance as one of Japan’s earliest Buddhist complexes making it an atmospheric portal back across 15 centuries of history.

Originally built when Buddhism first entered Japan from Korea and China, today its sprawling grounds hold an array of structures to admire from the ancient five-storied pagoda to an evocative Buddha Hall whose curved Chinese-style roof will have history fans swooning.

On Sundays and holidays the central plaza becomes an interesting flea market selling antiques and oddities while nearby lanes tempt with traditional food stalls. And in spring, the plum garden dazzles vibrant pink. An impactful living heritage site conveying old Osaka’s spirit.

Explore the Ura-Namba Hidden Backstreets

Most tourists stick to Namba’s blinking theatre marquees and familiar Dotonbori Canal. But just behind this flashy central strip lies the atmospheric realm of Ura-Namba (“hidden Namba”). These lesser visited streets proffer a window into daily local life amid Osaka.

Discover quirky cafés, cozy pubs, eccentric galleries, and indie boutiques as you lose yourself in Ura-Namba’s charming back alleys.

Beloved haunts like tiny Hozenji Yokocho offer transportive vibes with stone-paved lanes, swaying red lanterns, mossy temples, and the nostalgic rattle of geta sandals over textured cobblestone. Leave the bustling city centre behind to uncover Ura-Namba’s hidden delights.

Ride the Tempozan Ferris Wheel for Panoramic Harbour Views

Soaring 112.5 meters over Osaka Bay, the bright yellow Tempozan Ferris Wheel grants sweeping sight lines across water and city alike. Its gondolas offer a smooth, comfortable ride – perfect for leisurely taking in the panorama floating beneath you.

Time your visit for dusk to witness a captivating transition. Watch as the sun sinks low, casting the skyline in golden light before twinkling evening illuminations slowly blink on. A round-trip ride lasts approximately 17 minutes, allowing ample time to soak up gorgeous vistas in every direction.

Explore the Towers and Traditional Gardens of Osaka Castle Park

Though majestic Osaka Castle may be the area’s main monument, its sprawling surrounding grounds offer beauty in their own right. Over 300 cherry trees burst into pastel florals come springtime, while autumn foliage reflects brilliantly across the park’s ponds and streams.

Pathways meander through plum tree orchards, tea houses, and the remains of some of the castle’s original outer defence structures. On the southwest side lies the plum grove garden with nearly 1000 flowering trees presenting delicate white and pink blooms.

For panoramic views over downtown Osaka, climb the lookout towers situated on the Citadel Ruins southeast of the main castle. Hiking trails also course up nearby Mt. Shizuoka.

Or weary travellers will find relaxation gazing out over the tranquil gardens surrounding Ichi-no-Maru Plaza. Getting to soak in ancient fortress sites paired with iconic Japanese horticulture makes Osaka Castle Park a scenic oasis amidst the urban city.

Osaka Frequently Asked Question for first-time travellers:

Q: When is the best time of year to visit Osaka?

A: I recommend visiting Osaka during the spring (March-May) cherry blossom season or autumn (September-November) seasons. Spring brings pleasant temperatures coupled with gorgeous cherry blossom displays, while autumn has mild weather and vivid fall foliage in hues of red and gold across the city.

Q: What type of budget should I plan for a trip to Osaka?

A: Budget travellers can enjoy Osaka starting around $75 USD a day per person if you mainly eat street food and stay in modest hotels. For more mid-range experiences like multi-course dining and 4-star hotels, plan for $150 per person daily. And luxury seekers will find plentiful splurge-worthy options too.

Q: How many days in Osaka are ideal for a first visit?

A: I’d recommend at least 3-5 days to take in Osaka’s top sightseeing. This allows enough time to explore major city districts like Dotonbori, Umeda, and Namba while also seeing highlights like Osaka Castle, Kuromon Market, and day tripping to Universal Studios Japan. Extend to a full week if you also want to make excursions to places like Nara, Kobe or Himeji.

What’s the best way to get around Osaka?

Osaka boasts a convenient metro system that’s easy to navigate, even for new visitors. Colorful train lines can whisk you efficiently to major sightseeing spots. Purchase reloadable IC cards at stations to tap seamlessly on and off trains. Taxis and buses also readily available, though less user-friendly. Walking works for shorter distances.

Q: Should I get a Japan rail pass for easy transport around Osaka?

A: Yes, Osaka’s metro system is extremely efficient, so an unlimited rail pass saves hassle and money during sightseeing. The Osaka Amazing Pass covers subways, trains and buses across the wider Kansai region. Or just the Osaka Subway Ticket for the metro lines.

What’s the food I must try in Osaka?

Sink your teeth into Osaka specialties like okonomiyaki savoury pancakes, takoyaki octopus dumplings, kushikatsu deep fried skewers, and udon noodles in hearty broth.

Don’t forget to grab street food snacks at Kuromon Ichiba market too. End your eating adventures on a sweet note with fluffy matcha green tea and velvety red bean paste desserts.

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