This is my personal list of the best places to visit in Tokyo. Japan’s capital has so many amazing attractions and whether it’s your first visit or your tenth, you will find lots of things to do in Tokyo. Tokyo is too much fun to ever get tired of it.
I love Tokyo! I never thought I would say this, but after 10 days spent there, Tokyo became my favorite city in the world (over Paris!!). I’ve always been a city girl. And though I love nature, I could never live too far, nor too long away from the concrete and electric jungle. And I’m afraid I will never again be able to stay away for too long from Tokyo – the most civilized and organized jungle of them all.
Tokyo was the first city we visited in Asia. Comparing it with all the other places we’ve visited before (and after), Tokyo is a different world altogether.
If I were to recommend you only one city to visit in the world (given that you are not Japanese), I would recommend you Tokyo. You get the idea, I’m in love with this city! And not only because for me it represents the peak of civilization, law, order and fashion. But also because from all the places I’ve visited so far, this is the one that stands out most, in all the good ways.
The most famous of Tokyo’s attractions can be reached by subway or train. And though huge and a bit intimidating at first, you will get anywhere in no time.
The following list of places to visit in Tokyo is based on our personal experience and organized in no particular order. Please feel free to add your favorite places in Tokyo in the comment section below.
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THINGS TO DO & PLACES TO VISIT IN TOKYO
Shibuya 109 & Shibuya Crossing
Shibuya is the point zero of Japanese fashion and the Mecca of chic. It fascinated me so much, I must be a Shibuya girl in a parallel universe or something.
The way these girls dress, the contact lenses that make the eyes look bigger, all that lace, ruffles, colorful socks, and ribbons, make for the most elegant casual outfits I’ve ever seen. I get goose bumps every time I remember the time I spent shopping in the trendy boutiques at Shibuya 109. I left part of my heart there, and ever since I got back home all I want is to go back.
The Shibuya Crossing is a couple of minutes from Shibuya 109 and just outside Shibuya Station served by JR Yamanote Line. This crossing, made famous by the ‘Lost in Translation‘ movie, is one of the busiest in the world and the quintessence of organized chaos. The traffic lights from all directions turn red all at the same time and for the next couple of minutes, people invade the crossing like spilled beans out of a can.
You can observe the spectacle of lights and people from the Starbucks on the crossing’s north side or you can experience the madness for yourself, which in my opinion is far better.
My husband and I crossed quite a few times here just for fun and not one single time did we bump into another person or people bumped into us. Everybody matched their peace at the speed of the person in front, walking in unison, on lanes. Now if this is not the ultimate example of civilization, I don’t know what is.
Where to stay in Tokyo:
Shibuya Excel Hotel Tokyu – fantastic hotel right next to Shibuya Crossing. The rooms have huge windows facing Tokyo’s skyline. Great selection of both Japanese and Western breakfast available.
The Peninsula Tokyo – the place to splurge in Tokyo. The hotel overlooks the Imperial Palace’s Gardens. It features an aromatherapy shower, a nutrition adviser, and airport transfer by Rolls-Royce.
Meiji Shrine (traditional Tokyo)
Meiji Shrine is a Shinto shrine located in the Shibuya Ward, in the middle of a beautiful forest with huge Torii gates leading to the main hall and it is accessible from the Harajuku Station on the JR Yamanote Line. Dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, it is now a favorite place for wedding ceremonies.
We were lucky to witness such a procession. Led by two shrine priests and two shrine maidens, the couple followed under a big red umbrella. Family and friends came next, but we were surprised by both the reduced numbers of participants and by the lack of joy on their faces. Apparently, Shinto wedding ceremonies are very solemn and quite unique.
Also, there were lots of worshipers ruminating around the shrine’s grounds, and many of the ladies and young girls were dressed in gorgeous kimonos. As opposed to the nearby Yoyogi Park, Meiji Shrine is the place to go contemplate the old Japan and Japanese traditions.
Yoyogi Park on a Sunday
There is no better place for people watching in Tokyo than the Yoyogi Park. The park is very popular with young Japanese people, especially on Sundays. And you can spot the unleashed wackiness of an otherwise reserved nation.
We spotted anything from shy Lolitas tp classy girls drinking red wine from crystal glasses while seated on a picnic cloth. From couples in love, club meetings, teenagers rehearsing plays, to homeless people giving a ride to their cats in supermarket trolleys. Everything goes and nobody feels out of place.
The park is pretty huge and doesn’t give the feeling of being crowded at all, but then again, this is part of a special Japanese talent – in spite of Tokyo being the world’s most populous metropolis, we never felt overwhelmed by the number of people around us.
Zojoji Temple (traditional Tokyo)
Next to Tokyo Tower, the Zojoji Temple is a Buddhist temple, head of the Jodo sect in the Kanto Region. The temple dates back to the 14th century though it was moved to its present location at the end of the 16th century.
Zojoji Temple was badly damaged during the WWII. Therefore most of the buildings are reconstructions, nevertheless stunning. The temple is surrounded by a forest. So in spite the heavy traffic around it, the place has this serene atmosphere that invites the visitors to meditation and contemplation. And the cats leisurely napping on the temple’s grounds are proof of it.
Behind the Main Hall, there is a cemetery and six Tokugawa shoguns are buried here. But for me, a unique feature of this temple remains the Unborn Children Garden. Rows of beautiful stone statues represent the unborn babies, be them miscarried, aborted or stillborn.
These statues decorated by the parents with baby clothes and windmills are like little angels that supposedly help the children with the transition to the afterlife. It is a surreal sight, but at the same time, this is the saddest place we visited in Tokyo.
Stop by a cat café
Even before I visited Japan I knew there were two things I wouldn’t miss for anything in the world – eat sushi and visit a cat café. I’m a self-declared crazy cat lady (my husband totally agrees). Indulging on my petting urges on the other side of the world was something I was really looking forward to.
So on our second day in Tokyo, we found a cat cafe in Ikebukuro on the 5th floor of an office building. I didn’t hesitate. In what is probably the most purrfect 500sqm in Tokyo, there were comfy sofas, manga books, cat toys and more kitty cats than people. The puffy balls of fur came in all colors and fur lengths. All adult, some of a certain pedigree, others not so much.
We had to take off our shoes before entering and we were given slippers instead. There was a set fee for every 10 minutes spent in the company of the cute kitties. And there were set rules we were given to read in English, as the staff spoke only Japanse and the cats only Meow.
We agreed not to pick up the cats, nor to bother them if they showed signs of being annoyed and they let us in. All in all, the atmosphere was very quiet, just right for a nap actually. It was well under the noise level of any other café – everybody was whispering.
There was a juice and tea vending machine on the premises. And we could take photos without flash. For an additional cost, you could even buy cat food for the kitties. Nowhere and never in history were cats treated with more respect.
Nevertheless, like any royalty born or made, these cats looked bored. They weren’t impressed with the cat toys I flashed in front of them. Most of the time they didn’t even seem to notice me. And they definitely didn’t show much interest in being petted. In spite of being an overpriced experience, I would recommend it to any cat lover out there.
Tokyo Tower & Tokyo Skytree
Tokyo Tower probably gained its fame due to its similarity with Eiffel Tower and up till now, it has drawn many tourists. But my question is, now that a new kid came into town will it steal the show?
Tokyo Skytree (634m) completed in 2012 and Tokyo Tower (333m) are the two tallest artificial structures in Japan. While the orange and white Tokyo Tower is wrapped in a warm light at night, the Skytree is painted in a circus of lights every evening.
Time will tell which will become the people’s favorite place in Tokyo for panoramic views.
Senso-Ji Temple (traditional Tokyo)
This is Tokyo’s oldest temple and the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) is the symbol of the city. Leading to the temple is a 200m shopping street. Here you can buy anything from snacks to Hello Kitty dolls, trinkets, and Buddhist scrolls. Close to the Main Hall is the Asakusa Shrine and the 5-story pagoda. Both the temple grounds and the shopping street were extremely busy when we visited.
This was the first Buddhist temple we went to in Japan. I was surprised to see that the worshipers clearly outnumbered the tourists. In spite of being a super modern metropolis, the inhabitants of Tokyo are still clinging to their traditions. More than the western world, anyway.
The story behind this temple is an interesting one as well. In the 7th century, two fishermen found the statue of Kannon in the river while fishing. The village headman recognized the deity represented in the statue and decided to transform his own house into a temple.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building No 1
This is Tokyo’s City Hall, and with its 243m, it is the 7th tallest building in Japan. Built to resemble a computer chip and also a Gothic cathedral, it makes for one of the best observation decks in Tokyo. On a clear day, visitors can even spot Mt. Fuji far in the distance, but the views of Tokyo’s skyline are just as breathtaking at night as well.
There are quite a few buildings in Tokyo that feature an observation deck from where you can admire the city from above. Some do it for free, as it’s the case of Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, others charge a fee.
My point is, viewing this immense city from the top is quite a different experience than seeing it from ground level. While the latest gives you the feeling that the possibilities are endless, the views from the top give you a sense of endless discovery.
Taking the elevator all the way to the last floor is an experience in itself too. Apart from not making any noise during the seconds-short 200-meter ride up, the elevator doesn’t seem to be moving either.
Tokyo by night
Far from being a city that never sleeps, Tokyo can get surprisingly quiet at night. As we walked the streets of this metropolis around 10 PM, both the buildings and the sidewalks seemed to be falling asleep.
Okay, I’m not talking about Shibuya or Ikebukuro here, which are the gathering places of the young and restless. But I am talking about the residential and business districts. There is an hour between dusk and the end of office hours when Tokyo’s skyscrapers are beautifully lit. But as the night gets older, people go home and the tall buildings become black monsters against the sky.
This contrast between something so huge and full of life and the stillness it can all come to never ceases to amaze me. I believe you haven’t fully experienced Tokyo until you walked its streets at night. You must see the sudden transformations this amazing city is capable of!
And if you are into photography, don’t miss this Tokyo night photography tour through Shinjuku and Shibuya. You will learn some new tips and trick. And you will likely end up with the best souvenirs of your trip – gorgeous photos that tell a great story.
A manga shop
I don’t read manga. Though to be completely honest, there are some Japanese anime movies that I really love. But I believe any traveler should enter at least one manga shop. And if you do so, please make sure you pick an 8-storey building dedicated entirely to the genre. You don’t have to buy a book, although they make for great souvenirs. All you have to do is look around and observe and emerge yourself in the local culture.
Until I arrived in Tokyo, I never realized how inspired from reality manga was. Nor how much influence the manga culture had upon the daily life of the young Japanese people. My first impression about Tokyo was “It’s a manga world!“. And to a certain extent, it is.
Way too bright neon lights. Colorful drawings that cover even the floors of the shop. Loud TVs that each play each a different movie all at once, resulting in a babel of voices. And the impossible to read (for me) books. All these combines in a wonderful way with the school uniform inspired fashion I came to love so much.
I’m sure any European bookstore dreams about having this many and dedicated customers! The Japanese really read a lot. So it is pretty common to see people of all ages reading manga on trains or subway.
More things to do and places to visit in Tokyo
- Spend the night in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), for the best cultural immersion
- Join a Japanese food tour and delve into the enticing culinary scene of this amazing city
- Enjoy the tea ceremony in a Japanese garden while wearing a kimono
- Witness a Tokyo sumo wrestling tournament, one of Japan’s most iconic cultural expressions
- Have lunch or dinner in a hole in the wall noodle shop frequented only by locals
- Attend a festival (there are plenty to choose from – we stumbled upon four – Ikebukuro Autumn Festival, Jidai Matsuri in Kyoto, a street festival in Nagoya and a festival in Arashiyama)
- go on a day trip outside Tokyo to Nikko, Kamakura or Matsumoto or visit the famous Mt Fuji and soak up in an onset on this overnight tour
- If you only have a very limited time in Japan but you’d like to see more than just Tokyo, I highly recommend this 3-day Kyoto and Hiroshima independent tour by Nozomi bullet train
Honestly, the possibilities are endless. For more inspiration, you can further check my list of 25 things to do in Tokyo.
Where to stay in Tokyo:
When it comes to accommodation, I usually use and recommend Booking.com. But for Japan, I can’t help but recommend Agoda, the leading accommodation site in Asia, with discounts up to 80% off and more properties to choose from than any other website.
Getting from the airport to your hotel:
The language barrier and the high taxi fare can add stress to the beginning of any trip. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Before your trip, you can reserve this shared Narita Airport transfer to your hotel in Tokyo and make your entrance in style.
How to move around Japan:
The best way to travel around Japan is by using a Japan Rail Pass, a very convenient and economical way to see the country. For train route ideas and city guides, you can check out the Japan by Rail book.
Before you go to Japan we highly recommend you read the following books. They are great for a better understanding of the Japanese culture and lifestyle:
- A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony (our favorite book on Japan!)
- Cool Japan Guide: Fun in the Land of Manga, Lucky Cats and Ramen (a graphic Japan travel guide exploring Japanese culture from a cartoonist’s perspective)
- Japan: An Adult Coloring Book (if you are into coloring, you will love this Japan-themed coloring book).