Japan’s Second City: The Only Osaka Travel Guide You’ll Ever Need

train suite shiki shima journey to japan banner smallTokyo may be Japan’s biggest, busiest city, but Osaka is its most vivacious. With a population of 2.7 million, it’s the second largest city in Japan and boasts plenty of rich history, tantalizing street food, and a buzzy, diverse nightlife scene. Osakans are friendly and curious—they’ll often turn to you in a bar or at a baseball game to find out where you’re from and what brought you to Japan. They have killer senses of humor. And above all, Osaka residents love to eat. There’s a reason the city is nicknamed the “nation’s kitchen.” Lots of Japanese foodie favorites originated here, like kitsune udon (topped with deep fried tofu) and takoyaki, delicious little battered and grilled octopus balls topped with a sweet, tangy sauce, mayonnaise, and bonito flakes. In Osaka, it’s impossible to get a bad meal.

But the city has more to offer than great restaurants, and there’s plenty to do and see in-between nibbles. We rounded up some of the best places to sight-see, shop, grab a great cocktail, and, of course, eat with our Osaka travel guide.

Play

Hanshin Tigers Baseball Game
The Japanese are diehard baseball fans. Although the game originated in the United States, you would think the sport is native to their country by the way they cheer and participate at games. While baseball fans all over Japan are incredibly enthusiastic, there is no group more dedicated than followers of the Hanshin Tigers. Attending a game at Koshien Stadium, which is only a 40-minute metro ride from the Osaka city center, is one of the greatest spectator sports experiences you’ll ever have. The entire stadium (minus a small section of away team fans) is a sea of yellow and white jerseys which bob up and down as everyone chants and cheers in unison—do your best to sit in the cheering section so you can experience the excitement in full. There is a unique song for each of the most popular players, and everyone knows the words. Cheerleaders and drummers stand at the front of the crowd while everyone else bangs noisemakers. Snacks like fried chicken and curry rice help fuel hungry fans. You can buy beer inside, but you’re also allowed to bring your own, which is definitely the move to make as there’s a huge in-stadium markup just like in the U.S. Before entering the stadium, purchase a little pack of balloons in the team shop (or at 100 yen stores across the city), which everyone blows up and lets go at the same time during the seventh inning stretch.

Hanshin Tigers Osaka Japan osaka travel guide

Max Schwartz/The Manual

Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum
Instant ramen is more than just a college dorm room staple; it has a rich, interesting history, and anyone who likes to learn about how their favorite foods are made will love a trip to the Instant Ramen Museum. Once inside, you’ll learn how and why Momofuku Ando invented CUPNOODLES, walk through a museum-like hallway dedicated to instant ramen through the decades, and have the chance to sample your favorite kinds from the tasting room. But the best part about the museum is the My CUPNOODLES Factory where you can customize your very own batch to take home as a souvenir.

Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan
As one of the most impressive aquariums in the world, it’s easy to spend hours at Kaiyukan. More than 15 large tanks are designed to show different areas of the Pacific Rim and include habits like the lush Japan forest and icy Antarctica. You’ll get to see all kinds of wildlife from adorable otters and penguins to vibrant tropical fish to deep sea spider crabs. The most stunning part of the aquarium is the four-story Pacific Ocean tank, which features majestic hammerheads, whale sharks and large schools of fish swimming in formation.

ToursByLocals
There’s a lot to see in Osaka, so you need to spend your time wisely.

Osaka Castle Japan

Genevieve Poblano/The Manual

Because we wanted to get the most out of the half-day we reserved for sightseeing, we enlisted the help of ToursByLocals, a company that’s been matching hand-picked local guides with visitors since 2008. We were paired with Hideki-san, an Osaka native who’s been giving private tours of the area for 10 years. He met us at our Airbnb, and we embarked on a six-hour tour that covered more ground than we ever would have been able to do on our own time. We first stopped at the Osaka Museum for a quick history lesson on the city before walking the lovely grounds of Osaka Castle, a prime spot for cherry blossom-peeping during the height of the season. We suggest waiting in the short line to get to the top of Osaka Castle for an impressive view of the city. The next stop was a relaxing cruise down the Okawa River where we got to see the city surrounding us from all angles.

We stopped at a street fair for lunch where we feasted on okonomiyaki and takoyaki, two Osaka specialties. Finally, Hideki-san took us to the Floating Garden Observatory, a 360-degree observation deck atop the Umeda Sky Building that offers sweeping views of Osaka and beyond. Hideki and TourByLocals provided one of the best sightseeing experiences we’ve ever had on vacation, so we highly recommend booking a tour if you want a true insider’s guide to this beguiling city.

Tours by locals Osaka Castle Japan

Photo by Max Schwartz

Shop

Don Quixote
This 24-hour store is a one-stop shop for weird, random souvenirs, and everything else you can imagine, from wasabi-flavored pretzel nuggets to fine jewelry to Sanrio everything. There’s a whole pharmacy section with medicine and grooming products, a corner dedicated to specialty foods, and even a clothing department where you might find a stray Hanshin Tigers jersey. It’s the perfect place to pick up a last minute gift or shop for an essential you forgot back home. (Quick note: The Don Quixote pictured below is located in Shinjuku, Tokyo, but the outpost in Osaka is equally impressive.)

Don Quixote

Nicole Raney/The Manual

Namba Parks
Japan’s malls are a thing of beauty, and this Osaka gem is no different. The nine-story Namba Parks shopping center is home to 120 retailers and eateries—both casual and fine dining—as well as a rooftop garden and live music amphitheater. Around the outside of the building is a landscaped park that gradually ascends eight levels to the roof. There are street-level access points, so passers-by can enter and enjoy its rocks, cliffs, streams, waterfalls, lawns and terraces.

Eat and Drink

When in doubt, spring for the street food in Osaka, because some of our best meals in this city came from those vendors.

Ippudo
New York City residents and visitors may have experienced this Japanese ramen chain once or twice, but there’s nothing quite like dining at Ippudo in its home country. Order a bowl of the Shiromaru Classic, which is made with a rich tonkotsu pork broth that’s simmered for 18 hours and dosed with perfectly cooked thin noodles, pork belly, bean sprouts, mushrooms, and spring onions. You can adjust the spiciness to your taste and add a plethora of sauces and condiments that are conveniently placed in the center of the communal tables. Order a side of toothsome gyoza to share with your dining partners—or finish them yourself after you’ve slurped up the last bit of broth.

Ippudo

Max Schwartz/The Manual

Inc & Sons
After dining on traditional Japanese food during our first week traveling the country, stepping into Inc & Sons’ laid-back, subterranean bar and restaurant was a modern breath of fresh air. They roast their own coffee, blend their own namesake whiskey, and feature a killer sound system that shows off their excellent taste in jazz or whatever vinyl selection they’re spinning that evening. We shared a variety of delicious small plates like a seasonal vegetable salad, macaroni and cheese gratin, and lamb chops grilled with lemon and garlic. The bar menu boasts both original and classic cocktails as well as a nice selection of whiskies, wine and beer. The staff is extremely friendly, warm and welcoming, which made our dining experience at Inc & Sons one of the best we had in Japan.

Inc and Sons by Max

Max Schwartz/The Manual

Bar Nayuta
Bar Nayuta is one of the coolest bar experiences you’ll have in all of Japan—but first, you have to find the joint. Navigating Osaka’s unnamed streets makes things even more difficult, but once you spot the bar’s symbol on the outside of an unassuming building, a magnificent journey begins. Ride the elevator to the fifth floor, duck into the three foot door, take a seat at Hiro Nakayama’s bar and watch as he expertly mixes you a custom cocktail. There’s no menu at Bar Nayuta, so Nakayama will fix you something based on your preferences, whether it’s whiskey or gin, sweet or sour, shaken or stirred. Every cocktail we tried was more complex and delicious than the one before, and before long, we were sipping flavor combinations that didn’t seem possible on paper. If you go to one cocktail bar in Osaka, it must be Bar Nayuta.

Bar Nayuta

Max Schwartz/The Manual

Bar K
Located in the lively Kitashinchi district of Osaka’s upscale Umeda neighborhood, this quiet bar is the place to come for a dram of whiskey or expertly-made classic cocktail. We shared a couple of mixed drinks and bar snacks while watching businessmen periodically filter in and out for a nightcap. If you’re not sure where to go after walking around Umeda’s bustling streets, this friendly bar is a perfect oasis.

Balbushka
This smoky international bar is a great place to come for a highball and the comfort of a familiar language if you’re feeling slightly homesick. The big space features nooks with games like darts, pool and foosball, and it’s a great place to catch a soccer match on the big screen. There’s a solid selection of beer and decent bar food if you need something to soak up those last few whiskies.

Cafe Absinthe
Europeans will feel right at home in this Mediterranean cafe, which features tasty Middle Eastern cuisine, shisha and a cocktail menu dedicated to absinthe. Take a seat at the comfy snaking bar, or settle into a cozy corner table where you can enjoy the green fairy with your companions. We recommend ordering an Absinthe Frappe and plate of their homemade hummus as you take in the diverse mix of locals and tourists.

Tempozan Marketplace
If you make a trip to the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, save time for lunch at the adjacent Tempozan Marketplace. There are modern eateries reminiscent of American mall food courts, but you’ll find the best meals in the Naniwa Kuishinbo Yokocho section. This food “theme park” was designed to look like Osaka’s streets in the 1960s and features small authentic eateries. We feasted on a gorgeous bowl of sushi from one vendor before tucking into chicken katsu curry rice at another.

Tempozan Marketplace

Max Schwartz/The Manual

Sleep

Airbnb
While there are tons of great hotels throughout Osaka, Airbnb made the experience feel like we were actually living in the city rather than just visiting. We rented an apartment in a residential neighborhood that was about a 10-minute walk from bustling Dotonbori and 15 minutes to Namba. It was large by Japanese standards and featured a nice kitchen where we cooked breakfast and separate sleeping and living areas. It came equipped with a washing machine, so we were able to wash clothes without paying steep hotel prices or schlepping it to a laundromat. If you’re looking for an authentic experience that’s more affordable than the average hotel, an Airbnb rental in Osaka is the way to go.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of The Manual’s larger Journey to Japan travel guide. Over the course of a month, our writers had the pleasure of experiencing Japan in all its forms, from high-rise bars in Tokyo to traditional tea ceremonies in Kyoto. We hope this series will not only inform, but inspire you to take your own trip to the Land of the Rising Sun.