If you’re travelling to Tokyo for the first time, figuring out what to see and do can be overwhelming. Here’s the perfect first time in Tokyo itinerary.
Tokyo has a stellar reputation. It’s on every traveller’s list, and for good reason. I’ve rarely heard anyone speak badly about Tokyo. And why would they? The city is endlessly intriguing. It’s thousands of neon lights glitter with possibility. It’s a city you can come back to over and over again, and still find something new to do.
Tokyo has it all—the food, the technology, and the culture. There are moments where you’ll feel like you’re in a movie. Walking down busy streets, surrounded by technicolour signs and cool-toned buildings. Accidentally turning down cramped alleys with smoke wafting out of izakayas. Tokyo is everything it’s hyped up to be.
Tokyo was the first stop on my first trip to Japan. Landing in a mega-city of 9.2 million people was overwhelming, but everything that intrigues me about Japan was in Tokyo. Here’s what to do if it’s your first time in Tokyo:
Quick tips for travelling to Tokyo for the first time:
First time in Tokyo: Quick Itinerary
Travelling to Tokyo for the first time? Here’s the detailed itinerary
Shibuya buzzes with energy. Bright advertisements plaster the sleek buildings, drawing comparison to Times Square. There’s a continuous stream of people in all directions. Businessmen hustle to work, tourists take selfies, and teens wander around to eat and shop.
Some of Tokyo’s top sights are in this area. Shibuya is one of my top spots for first-time visitors to Tokyo. It has that frenetic but calm Tokyo energy that makes the city so unique.
When you get out of Shibuya station, make sure to take the Hachiko exit. Say hi to Hachiko’s statue. The beloved dog is memorialized here. Hachiko’s story is one of Japanese culture’s childhood stories. It’s a story of loyalty: he would meet his owner daily at Shibuya station after work to walk with him home. And when his owner suddenly died, Hachiko still came to the station every day. It’s a story that tugs at your heartstrings, and it’s worth stopping by the sweet memorial.
Next, cross the famous Shibuya crossing. Cross it 10 times. No shame. It’s pretty funny to watch (and join) the tourists in the fray. You can always spot our expressions of wonder. Meanwhile, businessmen weave amongst each other, sporting an annoyed look on their face. They see this every day.
The Starbucks above the crossing is one of the busiest in the world. It overlooks Shibuya crossing from a couple of floors up. Grab a drink and sit by the window (if you can find a spot). Or you can get the ultimate vantage point at the Shibuya Sky. Shibuya Sky is a brand new observation deck, 230m over Shibuya. You need tickets to visit the viewing deck, you can check that out here.
The Shibuya area is a well-known shopping spot. Shibuya 109 (a famous mall) and Centre Gai (the main shopping street) have everything trendy. You’ll want to wander through the busy stores and malls in this area.
Youth culture thrives in Shibuya. If you’re travelling to Tokyo for the first time, I’m sure you’ve heard about about Harajuku. Famous street-style area Harajuku, and iconic Takeshita street are a 10 minute walk from Shibuya Crossing. Takeshita street is usually busy with tourists, teens, and fashionable youth. Grab a crepe for your walk through; it’s the thing to do here.
Depending on when you plan to arrive in Shibuya, you might want to stick Meiji Shrine at the top of your itinerary. It closes at around 6 pm, which is earlier than the surrounding shopping streets and malls. If you’re travelling to Tokyo for the first time, you definitely don’t want to miss visiting this famous shrine.
Meiji Shrine is Tokyo’s biggest Shinto shrine. It’s dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, the leaders credited with modernizing Japan. This shrine is so worth a visit. Once you walk through the giant torii gate, you’re greeted with a gorgeous walkway of towering trees. The shrine itself is more muted than some other shrines in Japan, but it’s simple and significant.
If you’ve still got time at the end of the day, you can picnic at Yoyogi Park. Yoyogi Park is one of Tokyo’s famous parks. It’s a collective meeting ground for all sorts of people, and it’s the perfect spot to sit and watch the sunset.
At the end of the day, it’s worth wandering through Takeshita street, Centre Gai, and Shibuya Crossing again. The atmosphere is totally different at night, a little more quiet and all lit up. And if you’re up for it I’m sure you’ll find a spot to settle down and grab a drink or two before calling it a night.
Here’s a guide on what to see and do in Shibuya.
Shinjuku is one of the busiest wards in Tokyo. This area has everything: shopping, eating, sightseeing, and wicked nightlife. It has all the excitement of a mega-city crammed into one area. You can stay here from morning until night (and I’d recommend it!) to get a feel of what Shinjuku has to offer.
If you’re travelling to Tokyo for the first time, you have to explore Shinjuku at night (at the very least). It has some fun nightlife spots in Tokyo for first-time visitors.
Over 3 million people a day pass through Shinjuku station. Unless you’re already staying in Shinjuku, you’ll probably start your day here. Like many major stations in Japan, it is full of food and shopping options, with multi-level department stores nearby.
I recommend doing some shopping in Shinjuku. There are so many famous Japanese stores here. Shinjuku is known as one of the best shopping areas in Tokyo – and considering how many places there are to shop in Tokyo, that’s saying something!
There are so many department stores that it’s mind blowing how they all stay in business (until you remember that millions of people pass through this area daily). The scale is something you have to see for yourself, and I’m not exaggerating when I say you can accidentally spend hours in a store just browsing. Loft is one of my favourites.
Tokyo Metropolitan Buildling
First stop for sightseeing: the Tokyo Metropolitan Building. It’s a government building, but that’s not why everyone visits. Tourists come here for the free observation deck on the 45th floor.
You’ll get a great birds-eye view of Tokyo. I recommend going on a clear day. You’ll see how far the city sprawls, and you might even get lucky enough to see Mount Fuji in the distance!
Jingu Gaien Gingko
If you’re visiting Tokyo in the fall, make sure to stop by the Jingu Gaien Ginkgo Festival. It’s a 300-meter long ginkgo-lined avenue in Tokyo that bursts with colour in the fall.
The leaves turn a surreal yellow colour and it’s so gorgeous. Tons of people flock here in mid-late November, and the area fills with stalls offering street food and fall-themed goodies.
After all the shopping and walking around, you’re probably ready for a little break. Shinjuku Gyoen is a popular public garden in Shinjuku. There’s a small 500 yen entrance fee, but it’s a perfect spot to sit and watch the sunset. There are some pretty lakes and ponds in the garden, and a small greenhouse to explore. On a nice day, you’ll see groups of couples, friends, and families dotted across the grass, enjoying some green space in Tokyo.
When night falls, that’s when the real party starts. Into the evening is when Shinjuku gets exciting.
Omoide Yokocho is a great place to start the night. It’s a narrow alleyway, lined by bars and izakayas. It’s smoky and dim. The street is lined by lanterns and there’s a dusky glow to the area.
If you can find a spot, step into one of these cozy izakayas for chicken skewers and a beer. After, hit up one of the bars for a cocktail. I loved Albatross Bar, we went early enough to escape the crowds. It has a small rooftop patio 3 stories up, which looks down over Omoide Yokocho. It was awesome to watch the smoke drift above the ramshackle buildings and over the lights of Shinjuku.
Golden Gai & Kabukicho
Golden Gai should be your next stop. It’s just a few minutes walk from Omoide Yokocho. It also has that ramshackled, old-Tokyo atmosphere. But instead of one street, it spans a couple of blocks. 200 bars are packed into this area. Each inch of building space is taken up by narrow doorways and stairs, or skinny bar tables.
Step back into modern Tokyo and end the night in Kabukicho. Kabukicho is Tokyo’s biggest red light district. Thousands of bars, pubs, and clubs are located here. It’s brightly lit with flashing neon signs. The streets are lined with tall buildings, a different bar on each floor. There are pachinko parlours a-plenty, as well as spots that cater to more… niche interests (I did say red light district!). Keep your wits about you, but it’s definitely an interesting spot to explore nightlife in Tokyo.
Here’s a guide on what to see and do in Shinjuku.
Tsukiji Outer Market
The Tsukiji Fish Market is in every Tokyo guidebook. For a long time, it was the biggest wholesale fish market in the world. Its early-morning tuna market reached international fame.
The traditional fish market (including the famous tuna auction) has since moved. But the Tsukiji outer market is still in the same area. The outer market is made up of narrow alleys and small shops, selling fresh seafood and delicious meals. Its ramshackle stalls retain a ton of character of the old fish market.
The tuna auction and wholesale market now takes place in the new Toyosu Market. Toyosu is modern and clean; it’s a whole different atmosphere from the old fish market. But it’s a fun activity nonetheless. Instead of being in the fray of it all, you’ll watch the auction from a gallery room above the auction. If you want to get a closer look, there is a lower observation deck. Access to this deck is by application, there are only about 10 days each month where this deck is open, and you have to apply a month in advance. Find the application process here: http://pia.jp/piajp/v/toyosushijou19/
Toyosu Market is near the Tsukiji Outer Market (about 2 km away). You can visit both on the same day for all the fishy fun. I’d recommend the live tuna auction at Toyosu in the early morning. Then move to Tsukiji Outer Market for a sushi breakfast.
Make sure to start this day pretty early – the auction is in the early morning and the outer market closes shortly after lunch time. We made the mistake of coming right at closing time, so most spots were boarded up by the time we arrived in the mid-afternoon.
A TeamLab exhibit is a must-do for your first time in Tokyo. These exhibitions are so magical. They’re truly immersive and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. They’re as magical in person as they look online (which is not the case for a lot of Insta-famous spots). These digital art installations are so creative and unique.
Pictures don’t capture the attention paid to temperature, sensory experiences, and sound in these exhibits. It’s a must-do experience.
TeamLab Borderless is the more popular installation. You’ve probably seen the lantern room on Instagram. It’s the bigger and more kid-friendly installation.
I visited TeamLab Planets instead. I was hoping for less crowds and it delivered. Planets is a more sensory experience. It’s a little smaller, but I personally think Planets is the cooler exhibit!
TeamLab Planets is also close to Tsukiji fish market, so it’s perfect to squeeze these two into a day. It’s best to buy tickets in advance. You can purchase them online for around 3200 yen. This blog has a great guide for choosing between the two exhibits.
If it’s your first time travelling to Japan, you’ve definitely heard about the iconic Tokyo Skytree.
It’s a tall tower with pretty views. I didn’t end up going all the way up (it’s a little pricey at ~ $30), but I’ve heard it has the best view of the city.
Tokyo Tower is the second tallest building in the world (after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai). It has two viewing towers, one at 350 meters, and the second, more expensive option at 450 meters. Come on a sunny day, and you might catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji.
The surrounding area is great for shopping. Tokyo Solamachi is the shopping complex right at the bottom of the Skytree.
Tokyo Skytree is in Asakusa neighbourhood, a traditional area of Japan. The Skytree is a super-modern contrast to the next stop on this list, Senso-ji temple.
Senso-ji Temple is Tokyo’s oldest temple. Its first iteration was built in 645 AD.
It’s an important site to visit and so it’s always super busy. Because of its size and historical significance, people visit from across the country. If you’re travelling to Tokyo for the first time, this temple should be on your itinerary.
There were tons of schoolchildren and families here, but that added to the temple’s charm. You’ll get to experience the busy and bustling tourist sight that it is.
The temple is super colourful and eye-catching. It’s a bright vermillion red and there are lanterns bigger than humans. You’ll have to fight through a crowd to get around, but as long as you go in with that expectation, it adds to the experience. You are in Tokyo, after all.
Right near Senso-ji is a street lined with vendors and stores. Nakamise-dori is the spot to pick up souvenirs and gifts. It’s one of Tokyo’s top souvenir shopping spots, you’ll find traditional snacks, sweets, and souvenirs. Of course, there are tons of places you can grab souvenirs for cheaper. But this street is well-known for its shops.
If you want to experience a quieter version of Senso-ji, visit at nighttime. Of course, the stores will be closed, but it’s a little bit more peaceful. The temple lights up at night and it looks warm and glowing.
Tokyo Disneyland. I think this one is pretty self-explanatory.
I didn’t end up visiting on my first trip to Tokyo, but I’ve heard amazing things (of course). As with any Disneyland trip, it’s a pricey day. But of course, it’s worth it for the magical experience.
More things to do if you’re travelling to Tokyo for the first time:
Akihabara tops many first time in Tokyo guides. It’s the “nerdy” electronics district. I didn’t find it as exciting as it’s made out to be, but if you’re into electronics and anime, it’s 110% worth a stop. It wasn’t my thing, but it’s high on the list for many first time travellers to Tokyo.
There are tons of shops selling anime figurines, toys, and gifts. There are also plenty of brightly-lit electronics shops. If you’re looking for everything gaming and anime related – you’ll find it here. There’s also a bunch of maid cafes and animal cafes (with questionable conditions – I’d skip on that activity). Maid cafes have… never appealed to me. But it’s unique, I’ll give it that.
Tokyo Imperial Palace East Gardens
The Tokyo Imperial Palace East Gardens are on the former grounds of the Edo Castle (which dates back to the 1600’s). And it’s the current grounds of the Imperial Palace, the residence of Japan’s Imperial family.
Only part of the palace is open to the public. This area is an great spot to learn a little bit more about Tokyo’s imperial history. The gardens are beautiful; you’ll pass by moats, galleries, historical ruins, and even walk on top of the foundation of the former castle tower.
Nakameguro is a popular spot during the cherry blossom season. For a few weeks a year, the trees lining the river explode with pink blossoms. It’s a must-visit in the spring, but it’s still a good spot year-round. You find cool cafes and restaurants, trendy shops, and the peaceful Meguro River in this area.
If you love museums, stop by the Tokyo National Museum and Edo-Tokyo Museum to learn more about Japan’s history. They are two of the city’s most popular museums.
It goes without saying that this list is not even close to exhaustive. Tokyo is a true mega-city, and there’s so much more to explore.
If it’s your first time in Tokyo, so much of the experience is just wandering around, eating absolutely everything, and exploring how vast and unique this city is.
I highly recommend checking out a Tokyo neighborhoods guide before you go. Make sure to leave some time to wander through some Tokyo neighbourhoods. You’ll find the best spots in Tokyo off the beaten path.
Looking for a day trip out of Tokyo? Check out my one day in Yokohama itinerary.