11 Unique Things to do in Kobe

by Paul Joseph  |  Published October 9, 2023

When it comes to unique things to see and do in Kobe, there’s plenty to get your teeth into – and we’re not just talking about the city’s signature marbled beef.

Kobe Port Tower stands tall against a mountainous backdrop (Photo: hans-johnson via Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0)

Perched on Osaka Bay in central Japan, with mountains framing the harbour, Kobe’s picturesque setting helps attract large numbers of visitors here every year. But the city’s appeal extends far beyond its easy-on-the-eye scenery, with ancient shrines, museums and a vibrant food and drink scene among the man-made attractions. We’ve picked out 12 of the most unique activities and places of interest that Kobe has to offer.

Enjoy the views from the top of a famous tower

Standing an imposing 108 metres high, the Kobe Port Tower is without question the most recognisable building anywhere on the city landscape. Built in 1963, the tower’s design was actually inspired by the world of theatre, with its appearance made to resemble a traditional hourglass-shaped Japanese drum that is often used in Noh and kabuki theatre, and red latticing mimicking the red ropes of the drum and entwined lighting. Inside, several observation decks – reachable via elevator – offer panoramic views of the cityscape.

5-5 Hatobacho, Chuo Ward / Sat-Sun 9am-9pm

Visit the largest herb garden in Japan

Horticulture fans visiting Kobe are in for a treat with the city home to Japan’s biggest herb garden. Nestled in the mountainous area north of the city, Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens is teeming with gorgeous seasonal flower and herb displays. One of the most fun aspects of visiting is that you get to ride a ‘walk-in-the-sky’ ropeway to reach the gardens, affording sweeping views of the city and beyond. Once here, the gardens can be explored via a network of idyllic walking paths that pass by all of the displays, as well as other highlights including Wartburg Castle and the Glass House – the latter housing an indoor tropical garden, a spice museum and a herbal foot bath.

1 Chome-4-3 Kitanocho, Chuo Ward / Mon-Fri 9.30-4.45pm Sat-Sun 9.30-8.15pm

Colourful foliage at the Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens (Photo: Manish Prabhune via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Take in some culture at a museum

With its exterior designed to resemble the sails and rigging of a sailing ship, it’s easy to spot the Kobe Maritime Museum. But there’s far more to marvel at here than innovative architecture. Venture inside and you’ll quickly discover a treasure chest of maritime heritage that tells the story of Kobe’s long history as a port city. Among the exhibit highlights are a large replica of the HMS Rodney 90 gun warship of the Royal Navy built in 1833, and an impressive collection of dioramas, rigging and navigation instruments, and information on the evolving methods of ship construction. There’s also a display showcasing how the city recovered from the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995.

2-2 Hatobacho, Chuo-Ku / Mon-Sun 10am-6pm

Another Kobe attraction housed in a spectacular building that’s even more than the sum of its parts is the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art. Designed by world-renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando and located in HAT Kobe, a relatively newly-developed district east of the city centre, the museum contains a huge assortment of Japanese and foreign contemporary art, including sculptures, paintings and photography. As well as the impressive artwork on display, the museum also plays host to regular live music and performing arts events in its multiple auditoriums.

1 Chome-1-1 Wakinohamakaigandori, Chuo Ward / Tues-Sun 10am-6pm Closed Mon

Spent a day a the zoo

Let’s tackle the question that everyone will want answering head on: yes, there are Giant Pandas at Kobe Ōji Zoo – up to half-a-dozen, in fact, residing in a fully glazed enclosure where visitors can watch them chow down happily on eucalyptus leaves. But while there’s no doubting the zoo’s main attraction, there are plenty of other exotic animals to enjoy here, including koalas, gorillas, chimpanzees, gibbons, lemurs, anteaters, Indian elephants, giraffes, kangaroos, hippos, zebras, and more. There’s also a Zoological Science Center, a small amusement park, and an abundance of cherry blossom that draws large crowds.

3 Chome-1 Ojicho, Nada Ward / Thurs-Tues 9am-5pm Closed Weds

A panda struts its stuff at Kobe Ōji Zoo (Photo: pelican via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Admire a series of stunning waterfalls

Accessible by train and then a short hike, Nunobiki Falls are among Japan’s most breath-taking series of waterfalls. Located near downtown Kobe and comprising four different waterfalls – Mentaki, Ontaki, Tsutsumigadaki and Meotodaki – the mesmerising cascades have served as inspiration for much Japanese literature and art down the years. If you’re game enough, you can even leave your belongings at the rocks and wade up the river. Just be sure to pack a towel.

Nunobiki Park, Kobeko Jikata, Chuo Ward

Explore the city on foot

One of the best ways to get to know a city is by simply walking the streets and taking in its distinctive sights, sounds and smells. Despite being Japan’s sixth largest city, Kobe is actually surprisingly walkable, with many of its most important landmarks and places of interest within the compact centre. Start by walking along the Maiko Marine Promenade before crossing the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge – be sure to look down as the floors are made of glass. You won’t want to miss the Kitano Foreign Residents area, where you’ll find row upon row of architecturally stunning buildings, either. And if your legs get weary, there’s always the option of jumping on public transport or into a taxi.

As well as exploring independently, you can also book onto a private guided walking tour of Kobe via GetYourGuide

A tour group on the streets of Kobe (Photo: City Unscripted / Courtesy GetYourGuide)

Marvel at an ancient shrine

Thought to date back over 1,800 years, Ikuta Jinja is among the oldest ‘Shinto’ (the name for Japan’s native belief system) shrines in the country. Located around a kilometre north of downtown Kobe in the bustling shopping district of Sannomiya, the shrine is the perfect embodiment of the city’s harmonious juxtaposition of old and new, surrounded as it is by modern buildings, department stores and café. Indeed, despite its folkloric heritage, the shrine today is very much a 21st-century meeting place, popular with the city’s young crowds, and also as a wedding destination and the venue for an annual children’s festival. Next to the shrine is a small pond with ducks and koi carp that’s worth checking out, too.

1 Chome-2-1 Shimoyamatedori, Chuo Ward / Mon-Sun 7am-5pm

Try Japan’s national drink

No visit to Japan is complete without trying a glass of the famous rice wine-based alcoholic beverage known as sake. Kobe’s Nada district is Japan’s top sake-producing region, providing visitors to the city with the perfect opportunity to immerse themselves in the traditions and history of this internationally popular drink – and of course to have a tipple, too. There are a number of sake breweries dotted across the city, many of which offer tours. Among them is the historic Hakutsuru Sake Brewery, which also houses its own interactive museum with displays about the history of sake and the processes involved in producing it.

You can also book onto sake tasting tours at several local breweries through Viator

Guests clink glasses during a sake tasting session (Photo: Kampai Sake Tours / Courtesy Viator)

Hang out at a retail & entertainment complex

For indulging in some retail therapy, there’s nowhere better in the city than Kobe Harborland, where you’ll find a huge selection of indoor and outdoor shops, as well as restaurants, cafes and other attractions and entertainment spots. Between shopping, visitors can kick back at a waterfront watering hole overlooking the harbour while taking in views of Kobe Port Tower and the Kobe Maritime Museum. Also within the development are a Ferris wheel, a club with hot spring baths atop a skyscraper, and the Anpanman Museum, which is dedicated to the eponymous manga and anime series that’s popular across Japan.

1 Chome Higashikawasakicho, Chuo Ward / Mon-Sun 10am-9pm

Food tour

Kobe has a vibrant food scene, with everything from street vendors to casual cafes to gourmet restaurants showcasing the city’s culinary diversity. Visitors can indulge in authentic cuisine while soaking up the vibe in Nankinmachi, Kobe’s Chinatown, wander through Kuromon Ichiba Market where vendors sell street food, shellfish and the freshest produce in town, or duck into a bakery for a sweet treat (don’t miss the city’s famous cheesecake). Whatever your tastes, the city is your oyster.

You can book onto a private guided food tour via GetYourGuide

Diners sit by a window in a Kobe restaurant (Photo: City Unscripted / Courtesy GetYourGuide)

Go hiking in the mountains

Running from Sumaura Kōen Park in western Kobe to the city of Takarazuka, the Rokkō mountain range is a symbol of the city and wider region, adorning many a postcard and promotional tourism poster.  For intrepid types, the mountains need not be admired merely from afar, with a number of hiking trails of varying lengths and difficulties on offer. Among the most popular is an approximately 3-hour hike that passes along varied terrain including mellow forest trails, steep steps, waterfalls, and rock climbing spots before reaching the mountain peak. From here, you can either continue down to Arima Onsen, a picturesque town nestled between the mountains, or walk an hour to an observation deck and ropeway, both of which offer the blessed relief of train transportation back to firm ground.

Dramatic views across Kobe from Mount Rokkō (Photo: Felix Filnkoessl via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)