There’s hardly a question I hear more often than “What’s your favourite city to visit?” It once perplexed me, but lately the answer seems ever more painfully obvious: It’s gotta be Tokyo.
Over many years of plane-hopping, no city has ever captured my attention & interest as forcefully as the superlative capital of Japan. From dodging a flurry of vehicles & pedestrians in Shibuya to stapling yourself to a seat in a quiet, squished-up izakaya in Golden Gai for a meal that’ll change your tastebuds forever, Tokyo is a place you’ll never quite shake or cease to dream about.
Want to get started exploring? Follow along with this Tokyo travel guide for ideas on when to visit, what to see & do, where to stay, and how to get around!
When to visit Tokyo
Unlike some other cities in Asia, Tokyo is truly a year-round destination. That’s not to say that every time of year will be right for your itinerary though!
The climate in Tokyo sways between hot & humid summers and cool winters with spring & autumn falling in between to provide more moderate shoulder-season conditions for travellers.
Overall, the best time to go to Tokyo is either April or November.
In April, temperatures in Tokyo are becoming gradually warmer without reaching the ridiculous heights of summer. It’s also one of the drier times of year, something you’ll greatly appreciate if you’ve ever visited Asia during summer monsoon or typhoon seasons. (And don’t forget about April’s lovely cherry blossoms!)
Alternatively, visiting Tokyo in November is fantastic. By mid- to late-November, the fall colours in Tokyo are in full-force creating unforgettable scenes throughout the city. Like April, November offers warm to mild temperature and is a relatively dry month, marking the start of a downward trend in rainfall as the dry months of winter creep into view.
What to do in Tokyo
In a city the size of Tokyo, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever be short on things to do. You can enjoy just about anything here from re-aligning your qi at age-old temples to watching robots scrap it out with lasers over a drink or two. (Bet you didn’t see that one coming!)
Want to get started planning out what to do? Here are some of the best places to visit in Tokyo:
- Tsukiji Fish Market: Even if you’ve only got one day in Tokyo, don’t miss out on visiting this gem! Tsukiji Fish Market is most famous for its early-morning tuna auction, but if you can’t stomach the pre-dawn wake up, you can still visit later in the morning to explore the colourful inner and outer markets to see all types of sea creatures before they end up on the chopping table at top local restaurant in nearby Ginza or beyond.
- Senso-ji Temple: The centrepiece of Tokyo’s traditional spiritual core of Asakusa, Senso-ji Temple brings shutterbugs face-to-face with the city’s best architectural photo ops among the surrounding area’s parks, pagodas, gates, and some of the finest temples & shrines in Tokyo.
- Golden Gai: This collection of narrow alleyways in Shinjuku hides hole-in-the-wall bars and izakaya that seem frozen in time. Visit to get a taste of postwar Tokyo before its economic surge to grab a bite of some of the city’s best food alongside local salarymen.
- Meiji Shrine: Indulge in some of Tokyo’s calmest moments by trading in the bustle of Shibuya for the calm greenery of Meiji Shrine. This lovely Shinto shrine, built shortly after World War I, sits among 70 hectares of forest that provide much needed relaxation for Tokyoites and visitors alike.
What to eat in Tokyo
One of the main reasons Tokyo cracks the top of my own personal list of favourite world cities is its food. Even if if the thought of sushi scares the tastebuds off of you, you needn’t worry: there’s far more to Tokyo than raw fish and rice dishes.
Ready to let the flavours of Japan delight you? Here’s a quick primer of some of the best things to eat in Tokyo:
- Sushi: Perhaps it’s a little less than creative to suggest eating the one Japanese food everyone knows about when visiting Tokyo. But, truly, this is probably the best place in the world to do. Whether it’s indulging in a sushi breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market or eating perfect sashimi at a Michelin-starred restaurant like Sukiyabashi Jiro, prepare to never see sushi the same again after trying what Tokyo has to offer.
- Yakitori: The quintessential Japanese street food, these grilled BBQ skewers are a favourite among the pubs & bars of Tokyo and the perfect light snack to soak up sake and biiru. Try out the small izakaya & restaurants under the train tracks at Yurakucho to find some of the city’s best.
- Ramen: Maybe you spent most of your college days eating it, but I can guarantee that all other ramen you’ve ever indulged in will pale in comparison to what you’ll find in Tokyo. There’s a whole ton of ramen varieties around Japan. My recommendation in Tokyo is the delicious (and budget-friendly) Tonkatsu ramen at Ichiran, a popular local chain that you’ll find all over the city.
- Okonomiyaki: Although it’s often more associated with Osaka and Hiroshima, okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancakes) is a must-have while plying the streets of Tokyo. Among the most famous varieties in Tokyo is monjayaki, a pancake with more watered-down batter than traditional okonomiyaki. Monja Street in the Tsukishima area of Tokyo is the most famous place in town to try it out.
- Soba: Along with ramen, you can’t leave Tokyo without a taste of these delicious buckwheat noodles—hot or cold. While in Tokyo, keep on the lookout for Fuji Soba, one of the city’s most popular soba chain restaurants.
Where to stay in Tokyo
In a city as big as Tokyo, there’s no doubt that figuring out where to stay is bound to elicit a little stress. The accommodations scene in Tokyo is spread far and wide with prices that can sometimes make London or Zurich look like Bucharest.
Even so, as a traveller you’ll want to stick close to the city centre to stay close to all the action—even if that means spending a tad more for the privilege. There’s simply no better feeling than waking up to the beat of the city right outside your door.
Not sure where to start looking for your accommodations? Here are some of the best neighbourhoods in Tokyo for travellers:
- Shinjuku: Easily my own personal favourite district in Tokyo, Shinjuku puts out a never-ending pulse that will keep you on the edge of your seat for your entire trip.
- Shibuya: Next to Shinjuku, Shibuya is one of the best places to stay in Tokyo for keeping up with the city’s rapid heartbeat. From the world’s busiest intersection to some of Tokyo’s best shopping, there’s a whole lot of awesome here to justify calling it your temporary home.
- Asakusa: For culture lovers looking for a little more subdued experience, there’s hardly a better choice than Asakusa. Home to Tokyo’s finest historical architecture, Asakusa is a travel photographer’s dream and perfect for anyone who’s spiritual interest in Japan tops their wilder side.
- Ginza: An upscale district that’s a boon for fashionista, Ginza is an excellent choice for mid-range & luxury travellers who’d love nothing more than to spend their time in Tokyo eating, shopping & enjoying the city at its most cosmopolitan.
- Chiyoda: Home to Tokyo Station & the Imperial Palace, this prestigious central district features some of the best 5-star hotels in Tokyo. Chiyoda is perhaps the best place in the city for a luxurious urban getaway.
Transportation in Tokyo
By air: Tokyo is served by two major airports: Narita International Airport (NRT) and Tokyo Haneda International Airport (HND). Which airport you arrive at will depend completely on your origin and the airline you’ve chosen. Since Haneda is significantly closer to central Tokyo than Narita, it’s definitely the more convenient of the two airports to arrive at, and the one I’d personally recommend if available.
Some of the major airlines flying to either NRT or HND from abroad include All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines, Air Canada, Cathay Pacific, United Airlines, and Delta Air Lines.
One of the most exciting parts of visiting is learning how to get around Tokyo. Of course, in the world’s biggest city this isn’t always going to be easy!
As with most cities, my recommendation is to come to grips with the Tokyo subway system. It’s by far the quickest and most efficient way of zipping around the city. With rides starting at just ¥170 ($1.54), it’s incredibly cost-effective, too!
Just one word of caution: Avoid Tokyo’s rush hour if you can.
All of the urban legends about Tokyo’s jam-packed subway cars are absolutely true. If you’ve ever had any type of claustrophobic tendencies or social anxieties, this is not the time nor the place to test your resolve.