Like most of the world's historic cities, Tokyo is a mix of contradictions. It's old and new, fast and slow, sprawled and clustered. Yet ask anyone who's been to the Japanese capital and they'd probably agree: There's something about this particular city that's different. Maybe it's the streetscapes that seem to evoke the future. Perhaps it's Tokyo's radical eye for fashion or its abundance of Michelin-starred restaurants. As fun as it can be to explore a new city as dynamic as this one, it's also a challenge to uncover those many layers without a plan.
That's why we're sharing an itinerary of the must-see spots to hit so that you see why travellers put this destination on their bucket lists.
The best way to understand this city's mesmerising size is to get a bird's-eye view of it. Start your journey at the observation deck of the Tokyo Skytree, the tallest structure in all of Japan. There are two floor-to-ceiling observation decks to peer out from—one is higher than the other, in case you really want a perch—as well as an elevated café and restaurant. And once you've tested your fear of heights, there's even an aquarium at the bottom.
There's a reason this ancient Buddhist structure also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple is one of the most popular sights in Tokyo. It's the city's oldest one—dating all the way back to 645—and also one of its most detailed. As the story goes, two men uncovered a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, from the nearby Sumida River a few decades before the temple was built. Although they returned the statue to the water, it kept coming back to them. This complex is meant to honor that occurrence, and while the ancient image of Kannon isn't on public display, there's still plenty to see.
Stop by Kaminarimon Gate at the entrance to see its large red lantern, and admire the wooden statues of the gods of wind and thunder. A walkway of souvenirs leads further into the temple.
Looking to feel like a Tokyo local? Pull up a seat—if you can find one—at one of the many cramped restaurants lining Ebisu Yokocho. Yokocho translates into the maze of alleyways hidden throughout the city, and this particular one is popular for its mix of daring eats and relatively cheap booze crammed into stalls that are only a few feet wide. Take your time wandering from counter to counter, too, since this spot stays open till dawn.
Named to honor the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken, Meiji Shrine feels like an escape from the rest of the city even though it's one of its most well-known tourist spots. Why? It was built in the midst of thousands of donated trees that spill into Yoyogi Park, making it a locale that feels calm and removed.
And speaking of quiet havens in the city, Rikugi-en Garden is no exception. This centuries-old open space, which was built to showcase dozens of miniature scenes from poetry, is often noted as one of the most beautiful gardens in the country. Its verdant trails are also dotted with teahouses where you can take in the views.
It's the busiest intersection in Japan and arguably the busiest one in the world: When pedestrians get the go ahead to walk through Shibuya Crossing, they're doing so from multiple directions at once. Pair the dizzying web of moving people with the eye-catching billboards overhead and this is one of the most energised places in the city, especially at night.
The National Art Center
There isn't a single permanent collection within the sprawling space of the National Art Center, and that's what makes it so alluring: There will always be something new to see. Its architecture is worth an Instagram of its own, but since the center houses an ever-changing collection of 10 exhibitions, we're sure you can find something else to snap too.
21_21 Design Sight
Architect Tadao Ando and designer Issey Miyake decided to go in the opposite direction than what can be found at the airy National Art Center. For their collaboration on the 21_21 Design Sight, a museum focused on design and culture, they created a space that feels more like a concrete bunker. But don't worry about getting claustrophobic: The building is surrounded by green open space.
The Nezu Museum
Art you more of fine-art buff? No problem. Head to the Nezu Museum for an impressive mix of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese collections that span from ancient to modern times. And when you've had your fill of landscapes, walk through the adjoining garden to see trees that change with the seasons.
Anthony Bourdain says that the best way to get to know a city is by exploring its markets, and since Tokyo has famously been lauded as his favourite destination, it's worth checking out Tsukiji Market. The early-morning scenes are a spectacle of food stalls, where the epitome of fresh seafood is a backdrop of mingling vendors and spectators. Glimpse the catch of the day, including big tuna, and stay for a sushi breakfast.
Bibliophiles, rejoice: Daikanyama T-Site is the sleek bookstore of your dreams. Three modern buildings house every type of title that may pique your interest, and the owners encourage visitors to stay as long as they'd like. While most of the titles are in Japanese, there are some in English, too.
If tempura is more your thing, check out Tempura Fukamachi, another Michelin-starred restaurant that serves up battered options Edomae-style in front of customers. Come here and pick out your choices of seasonal seafood and vegetables, and then watch as they're prepared one by one. The chef has been preparing tempura dishes for more than 30 years, so you know they're going to be good.
Obviously you shouldn't come all the way to Tokyo without slurping down a hot bowl of ramen, and Fukki is just the type of unassuming but delicious joint to help make that happen. Like many restaurants of its kind, you start by making your selections at a ticket vending machine. Choose which type of broth you want here—the specialty is miso ramen—and then add your toppings. The chef will display your order at the counter. And the best part? This place is open until 4 a.m.
Just as you shouldn't travel to Tokyo without tasting ramen, you definitely shouldn't leave before enjoying a sushi feast. And if you're searching for the best sushi, make a reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro. This restaurant may be located in the basement of an office building, but it actually has three Michelin stars and the reputation for being the best sushi spot in the city. Ninety-two-year-old chef Jiro Ono serves up a tasting menu of about 20 courses, and while it will set you back about $300, we imagine that it's worth it.
By the time you've visited most of the places on this list, you'll have explored some of its most fast-paced and ultra-modern enclaves. So why not save the Nakano neighborhood for last? This hub is often described as a quiet area of Tokyo that still has the best of its artistic personality without all the crowds. Wander its streets for local-approved ramen, and head to Nakano Broadway for beloved anime and manga.