Often referred to as the "Venice of the East" due to its network of canals branching off the river Yodo, Osaka is Japan's third largest and most fun-loving city.
Osaka is the kind of destination that blends ancient history with ultra-modern attractions. On one day you could tour the ramparts of Osaka Castle and venerable temples before shopping for the latest electronics and riding the 100-meter-tall Tempozan Ferris Wheel.
Famous for the quality of its cuisine, Osaka will delight foodies, but it's just as enticing for nightlife fans thanks to neighborhoods like Umeda that never seem to sleep.
Osaka is an ancient city and was one of the strongholds of the Edo Dynasty. These days, it has the castles, temples and palaces to prove it. You can visit stunning historical attractions like Osaka Castle or the temple of Shitennō-ji, which can trace its history back 2,000 years.
Osaka's informal city motto is "eat until you drop" and you won't find many better places to explore Japanese cuisine. With superb eateries like Chibo, Imai Honten, and Shoubentango-tei around, anyone with a taste for teriyaki or a soft spot for sushi will be in heaven.
Osaka is a city that loves to have fun. It might be a busy commercial center, but when night falls, neighborhoods like Umeda are full of music, lights, and places to drink.
Osaka was the birthplace of Bunraku (Japanese puppet theater) and these days, places like the National Bunraku Theater are the best locations in Japan to catch a mesmerizing performance.
The city has always been a commercial hotspot, and modern Osaka remains a wonderful place to shop. From the electronics stores in Denden Town to the apparel boutiques in Shinsaibashi and Midosuji, there are plenty of opportunities to fill your cases with Japanese products.
Set among fantastical gardens is the city's foremost landmark. The castle, atop a fortified hill surrounded by moats, reminds visitors of its military function over the centuries. Rebuilt time and time again, the classical architecture stands out and maintains its glory. The surrounding parks provide leisure for locals and tourists year-round, but the best time to visit is during the cherry blossom season, when the grounds are sprinkled in pink petals. Don't miss the Osaka Museum of History.
Known as the first Buddhist Temple in the country, Shitennō-ji is a well-preserved complex that tourists cannot miss. Its construction thousands of years ago near Osaka Bay gave a platform to the new religion in Japan leading up to this day. The gardens are the pinnacle of serenity, while the temple itself invites all visitors for reflection. And the Treasure House displays valuable items from the temple through the ages, from scriptures to paintings.
The NMAO is a world-renowned institution of art, resting with importance on Osaka's Nakanoshima Island at the heart of the city. Amongst significant government offices and near the Osaka Science Museum, this attraction stands out for its modern architecture and art collection. Most of the galleries focus on the post-war era, with exceptions including the greats like Cézanne and Picasso. Of course, there is also a unique focus on local artists worth exploring.
As an island-country, Japan has long depended on its surrounding seas, and Kaiyukan Aquarium celebrates that relation. It is one of the largest public aquariums in the world, and the dozens of habitats recreated focus on habitats surrounding Earth's volcanic "Ring of Fire". Nearby this nautical experience, tourists will also find the LEGOLAND Discovery Center, as well as the Tempozan Ferris Wheel for views across the city.
Nestled inside of Tennōji Park is one of Japan's most famous zoos, welcoming 1.5 million visitors each year. The habitats recreated here are particularly well executed, and nearly as much of a spectacle as the animals themselves. From the African savanna to the tropical rain forest, adults and children alike will feel transported to unknown lands. The Osaka Municipal Museum of Fine Art shares the public park with this zoo, offering a contrasting cultural experience.
In April and May, the city is a blaze of color as the cherry trees blossom (and the locals make this an excuse for a week long Cherry Blossom Festival as well). Otherwise, the Tenjin Matsuri Festival in late July is a great time to go, as is October, when mild weather and sunshine make for great sightseeing conditions.
Kansai International Airport (KIX) is around 24 miles southwest of Osaka's city center and has connections to US cities like San Francisco. The best route into town is via the JR Limited Rail Express, which takes just under an hour and costs ¥1,300. You can also catch limousine buses to selected downtown hotels for ¥1,550 and taxis will cost around ¥4,000.
Another popular way to reach Osaka is by taking the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka station. The Tokyo service takes a little over two hours and costs ¥14,050. When you get to Osaka, switch to the Midosuji subway line into the city center.
If you are driving to Osaka from Tokyo, the best route to take is Highway 1, which runs directly into Osaka via Kyoto, a short drive to the north.
Plenty of buses cover the route between Tokyo and Osaka, including Willer, JR Bus, Hankyu, and Kintetsu. Bus stops vary, but the most common terminus is Shin-Osaka station, although it's worth checking the schedule to ensure you have a route from the bus stop to your accommodation.
Osaka is a busy tourist and commercial hub, so there's no shortage of hotels at all luxury levels. Some of the most opulent include the Ritz-Carlton Osaka Hotel, which is very handy for attractions in Umeda, the Swissotel Nankai Osaka in Namba. and Hotel Universal Port, which is right next to Universal Studios Japan. If you need somewhere cheaper, check out Osaka Guesthouse KOMA in the city center, which has friendly staff and affordable dorms.
Umeda - one half of Osaka's city center, Umeda is all about fun. There are cavernous department stores like Hankyu, stunning views from the top of the Umeda Tower, and the warren-like streets of the Kitashinchi District, home to great bars like Owl Osaka and the Blue Note.
Namba - Osaka's other city center neighborhood, Namba also offers plenty of entertainment options, from the brightly illuminated shopfronts and restaurants of Dotonbori to the teen-oriented boutiques of Amerikamura and the National Bunraku Theater.
Osaka Bay - built on a number of reclaimed islands, Osaka Bay is a modern tourist neighborhood where family attractions include the Tempozan Ferris Wheel, the massive Osaka Aquarium and the Naniwa Food Theme Park, probably the best place to sample Osaka's legendary dishes. Just offshore, Sakurajima Island is also home to Universal Studios Japan, the city's leading family amusement park.
The best way to get around Osaka is the city's superb subway system, in particular the Midosuji line, which cuts the city center in half. Single tickets cost ¥200, and day passes are ¥800 (¥600 on Fridays). The other main public transportation options are JR or private trains (especially for getting to and from the airport). It might make sense to buy a prepaid ICOCA card when you arrive, which can be used on trains and subways.
As with most Japanese destinations, taxis in Osaka tend to have a high price tag, but they can sometimes be the only option. Cabs are hailed on the street, and expect high charges simply to begin journeys (¥500 is normal).
There are plenty of car rental outlets both at Kansai Airport and in Osaka itself, including Europcar, Nissan, and Nippon Rent-A-Car. If you just want to see the city center, there's no real need for a car (and parking and gas are expensive). However, for trips up the coast or into the hills, having your own vehicle is a great option. Expect to pay around ¥40,000 per week from most rental companies.
Osaka is an incredible place to shop and the city is dotted with markets, department stores and shopping malls. Shinsaibashi Suji is a good place to start (in between Umeda and Namba), offering apparel boutiques of all varieties. If you are looking for cutting-edge fashion, don't miss Amerikamura, and try to get to Tenjinbashi Suji as well (if only to marvel at its two-mile-long parade of stores).
Visitors to Osaka can save a lot of money by shopping at the city's supermarkets during their stay. Some of the best places to shop for groceries include Super Tamade (the cheapest stores) or Seijo Ishii, while the Kuromon Ichiba is a must-visit for gourmet food fans. In general, expect to pay around ¥700 for a gallon of milk and ¥310 for a pound of apples.
Eating in Osaka is one of the main attractions and the options are almost endless, but there are some highlights that every foodie should explore. Endo Sushi (in the Central Fish Market) is the place to head for sushi, while Hanamaruken serves great value, delicious ramen. Every visitor should try Osaka's okonomiyaki pancakes at least once, and the best in town are probably served at Houzenji San Pei, while Kimukatsu offers superb (and quick) katsu chicken. Prices vary wildly, but in general a sit down meal will come to between ¥1,000 and ¥1,500.