It’s taken some time but Osaka, gateway to Japan’s Kansai region, has moved well out of Tokyo’s long shadow.
Today, Japan’s third-largest city is one of Asia’s top urban travel destinations and rightfully so – it’s a vibrant city filled with unique culinary, cultural and eye-opening experiences you won’t find anywhere else in Japan.
Osaka will appear under the global spotlight this weekend, with the city hosting the G20 summit from June 28-29. According to officials, the event is expected to draw more than 30,000 people to the city.
In honor of the diplomatic action, we’ve put together a quick list of some of the top things to do in Osaka if you’re a first-time visitor. (Bear in mind, many of Osaka’s attractions will close or adjust their hours during the summit.)
Embrace your inner tourist in Dotonbori
Yes, this place is incredibly touristy.
But it’s also a wonderful assault on the senses and not to be missed.
Located in Osaka’s Minami neighborhood, historic Dotonbori is where you’ll find the famous neon Glico sign as well as other Osaka symbols like the giant crab, the Dotonbori Ferris Wheel – also known as the Ebisu Tower in reference to the Ebisu god figure on it.
Most of the action centers around the Dotonbori Canal, which is filled with restaurants and bars. Boat tours are on offer here as well.
Another highlight nearby is Hozenji-Yokocho – a picturesque alley filled with dozens of small restaurants and bars as well as one of Osaka’s most revered Buddhist temples.
The Osaka Shochikuza Theatre is also worth a visit. It showcases a variety of traditional and modern performances though is most famous for its Kabuki acts.
Lastly, we’d be remiss if we didn’t also mention one of the coolest retro arcades in Japan – and maybe even the world. Just a few blocks from Dotonbori Canal lies Silver Ball Planet – an incredible space filled with dozens of retro and modern pinball machines (1 Chome-6-14 Nishishinsaibashi, Chuo Ward, Osaka, 542-0086; +81 6-6258-5000).
Visit Tsutenkaku, the Eiffel Tower of Osaka
Standing at 103 meters, Osaka’s Tsutenkaku Tower is not Osaka’s highest building. It doesn’t even crack the top 10.
But it’s a symbolic slice of Osaka history offering fantastic views that stretch far beyond the urban skyline.
The original Tsutenkaku was built in 1912 and, standing 64 meters high, was at the time the region’s tallest building, earning it comparisons to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Unfortunately, it was severely damaged in a fire in 1943 and subsequently dismantled.
The current iteration was constructed in 1953 and features several indoor viewing platforms, plus an outdoor observation deck on the 5th floor, which is 94 meters high. The lower levels of the tower are filled with fun diversions as well, including a Glico display that looks back on the history of Pocky chocolates.
We also recommend checking out the nearby Shinsekai neighborhood, which is filled with restaurants and bars, including a few devoted to fugu – the feared puffer fish. It’s a great place to snap photos of the illuminated Tsutenkaku Tower after dark.
Geek out in Denden Town
Oft compared to Tokyo’s famous Akihabara neighborhood, the smaller Denden Town is the place to go for all things anime and manga.
Located between Nipponbashi Station and Ebisucho Station, it’s filled with arcades, maid cafes and shops selling figurines, toys, trading cards and electronics.
You’ll find plenty of gashapon capsule machines here too.
Eat the day away in ‘Japan’s kitchen’
Osaka’s nickname is “Tenka no Daidokori,” which means “the nation’s kitchen,” and this is not a moniker the Japanese take lightly.
The city is filled with everything from Michelin-starred restaurants to delicious street eats. You’ll find world-class beef from the nearby city of Kobe and fresh sushi brought in via Osaka Bay.
There are a few local specialties, too. Osaka’s quintessential street snack is takoyaki. A crisp exterior surrounds a gooey center of octopus, pickled ginger and scallions. These are then brushed with a sweet sauce and sprinkled with nori.
The city is also famous for okonomiyaki, popularly defined as a savory Japanese pancake. You can choose your own ingredients such as meat, seafood and even noodles.
For a nice sampling of Osaka’s culinary treasures, consider a local food tour. Arigato Food Tours offers a variety of Osaka culinary experiences that cover various neighborhoods and the famous Kuromon Ichiba market.
Immerse yourself in history at Osaka Castle
Another historic symbol of the city, Osaka Castle was built in the late 1500s by Hideyoshi Toyotomi – the “Napoleon of Japan” – a powerful warrior and feudal lord during Japan’s Sengoku period.
A five-story building surrounded by a large moat, the castle has been re-built multiple times thanks to the numerous battles and fires that have left its various structures in ruin – the most recent being American air raids during World War II.
Inside, visitors can explore a museum filled with artifacts highlighting both the castle and Osaka’s history.
The surrounding park is also beautiful, particularly during sakura (cherry blossom) season in the spring and then again in the fall, when the leaves change color.
Go shopping in Namba
Not far from Dotonbori and Denden Town, Namba is both Osaka’s transportation hub and an extremely popular shopping destination.
We recommend kicking things off in the massive, covered Shinsaibashi Arcade. More highend brands can be found a block west on tree-lined Midosuji avenue. Keep walking west and you’ll hit Amerika-Mura (“American Village”), known for its vintage shops.
You’ll also want to visit Namba Parks. It’s a shopping mall with a multi-storey outdoor garden in which visitors can walk through a gradually ascending trail, passing lovely foliage and waterfalls along the way.
Designed by American architect Jon Jerde and completed in 2003, the mall is connected to the massive Namba Station, which is connected to the Takashimaya Department Store. Getting lost is pretty much guaranteed.
“Float” on top of the Umeda Sky Building
Designed by architect Hiroshi Hara, Osaka’s Umeda Sky Building is filled mainly with offices.
But the rooftop of these 40-story twin towers has something special to offer – a “floating garden” observatory, which sits inside a glass dome that’s suspended between the structures.
Underground, there’s a food alley filled with markets and restaurants designed to transport you to a 1920s Japanese town.
Battle the crowds at Universal Studios Japan
Though you’ll have to head for Tokyo to check out Japan’s Disney theme parks, Universal Studios Japan is located in Osaka.
The bad news is that this attraction is crowded year-round, regardless of the season. Which means you’ll want to cough up the cash for an Express Pass – it’ll shave hours of time waiting in line off your day.
Like its American counterparts, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the true star here. Opened in 2014, it features many of the same attractions including the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where visitors will find the signature “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” ride.
In Hogsmeade, a recreation of the village Hogwarts students visited to get their fill of Butterbeer, there are a few shops that appear in the books/films.
Other attractions include the classic Jaws ride, which disappeared from Florida in 2012, as well as a Hello Kitty zone, Minions and Jurassic Park-themed rides and the Sesame Street Fun World.
Take a day trip
Osaka is a top place to base yourself to explore the many attractions of the surrounding Kansai region.
Historic Kyoto is just 15 minutes away by bullet train. The ancient city of Nara, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is about a 45-minute train ride away. It’s famous for its 1,000 sacred deer, who have learned to bow for treats.
Kobe, with its famed Chinatown and world-renowned beef, is just a 30-minute train ride from Namba station.
Ambitious travelers who don’t mind early starts/late finishes can even head to Hiroshima for the day – it’s just 2.5 hours by bullet train.
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