Hugely varied and always on the go, Tokyo is an exhilarating city to visit. As the world’s largest metropolis, planning a trip there can feel a little intimidating – but it doesn’t have to.

It’s helpful to think of Tokyo as several very well-connected neighbourhoods, rather than one sprawling city. That way, you won’t try to squeeze shopping in Harajuku, visiting the Ghibli Museum and taking in the view from the Skytree into one day. They may all be in the city, but they’re at opposite ends.

With that in mind, we’ve put together seven achievable day-long itineraries. Each introduces you to one or two neighbourhoods and includes a major music venue, to help you get the most out of your time in Tokyo.

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Shinjuku skyscrapers
© B Lucava

Getting around Tokyo

Tokyo may be huge, but the excellent public transit makes it easy to explore. Between the trains, trams, buses and boats, you can reach every corner of the city. Most places you’ll want to visit are best accessed via the subway network – though note that services don’t run between midnight and 5am, so you’ll need to rely on taxis or all-night karaoke sessions if you miss the last train.

Though you might be worried about the language barrier, there is actually a good amount of English signage (especially since the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games). You can also download a map of the network onto your phone, and use it to check things with the ever-helpful station staff. Common English-language apps like Google Maps and Citymapper work well for route planning.

Tokyo’s subway and train network is run by several separate companies, all with their own tracks. Buying a prepaid tourist IC card like a PASMO Passport or Welcome Suica (or a smartphone equivalent) makes it much easier to navigate, as you won’t need to buy separate tickets for each company.

Not enough on your prepaid card to cover your fare? No need to worry about getting a fine in Tokyo. Just look for the fare adjustment machines near the ticket gates before you exit, and you’ll be able to top up there and leave without any problems.

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JR Shinjuku Station
© Tokyoform | Flickr

Picnic beneath the skyscrapers of Shinjuku

Shinjuku is the perfect place to experience Tokyo’s characteristic contrasts. It’s a business district, but also a nightlife area. Food-filled yokochō alleyways sit alongside sleek skyscrapers. People dance all night in LGBTQ-friendly Nichōme district, and enjoy jazz and cocktails at the Park Hyatt à la Lost in Translation.

Start your day at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building’s observation deck, getting a bird’s-eye view of the controlled chaos of Shinjuku station – the world’s busiest. Then, make your way to Takashimaya Times Square for high-end shopping. Buy a picnic lunch from the department store’s food hall (depachika) and enjoy it al fresco in beautiful Shinjuku-gyoen park.

Next, take the JR Chūō train line west to various music-focused cafés (meikyoku kissa). A few stops further on, indulge your inner child at the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, or stroll through the Edo-Tokyo Open-Air Architectural Museum in Koganei.

Round out your day with a visit to Shinjuku’s Tokyo Opera City or New National Theatre, Tokyo, before heading out for a drink in the microbars of Golden Gai.

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Kabukichō, Shinjuku
© B Lucava

See Shibuya Scramble Crossing

Shibuya’s legendary pedestrian scramble, by the station’s Hachikō exit, is among Tokyo’s most famous images. Score a spot in one of the cafés overlooking it, or make your way up to Shibuya Sky’s viewing platform or the rooftop deck of the Magnet by Shibuya109 shopping centre.

Spend a couple of hours shopping, gaming and people-watching – and maybe catching an early performance at Bunkamura – then take the JR Yamanote line one stop to Ebisu for chic coffee shops and restaurants with lunchtime specials. If you have time, stop by Yebisu Brewery Tokyo (opening in April 2024) to try some of the famous beers and explore the on-site museum, then walk to upscale Daikanyama for boutique shopping, or to Nakameguro for its cherry tree-lined canal.

One stop south of Ebisu, by Meguro station, the Institute for Nature Study is a slice of pre-urban Tokyo right in the city. For an even more unexpected green space, take the Meguro line to Ōokayama then the Ōimachi line to Todoroki. From here you can access Todoroki Gorge, a verdant river valley dotted with shrines, tearooms and scenic bridges.

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Shibuya Scramble Crossing
© B Lucava

Admire the street style of Harajuku and Omotesandō

When exiting Harajuku station, you have two options: head straight into the colourful crowds of Takeshita-dōri – a narrow street crammed with cosplayers, purikura photo booths and crêpe cafés – or enter the leafy grounds of Meiji Shrine. Harajuku may be known as the centre of Japan’s youth culture, but between the shrine complex and neighbouring Yoyogi Park, it’s also great for relaxing outdoors.

After exploring the parks, make your way up the wide avenue of Omotesandō. Its gleaming storefronts house international brands like Prada, plus homegrown fashion icons like Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons. The backstreets lean more towards street style than high-end brands, with Cat Street in particular known for its cutting-edge indie boutiques, vintage shops and gallery spaces.

There’s plenty to do when evening falls, with some excellent restaurants and extremely cool bars, plus NHK Hall (just south of Yoyogi Park) and several smaller music venues.

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© Gilbert Sopakuwa

Explore art and nightlife in Akasaka and Roppongi

With historical ties to the Tokugawa clan, and the Imperial Palace just to the north, Akasaka has long been linked to politics. Start your explorations of the area with a tour of the National Diet Building, the modern-day seat of government, right by Kokkai-gijidō-mae station.

Next, head to pretty Hie-jinja via its tunnel of bright red torii (shrine gates), and on to Toyokawa Inari Betsuin, a fascinating and jam-packed combined Buddhist temple and Shintō shrine by the State Guest House, Akasaka Palace.

Take the Toei Ōedo line two stops from Aoyama-itchōme (just west of the palace grounds) to Roppongi. This well-established nightlife area has in recent years also become one of Tokyo’s biggest art destinations. Visit the glittering glass towers of Tokyo Midtown for galleries and upscale shopping, and follow up with visits to the nearby Suntory Museum of Art, Mori Art Museum or National Art Center, Tokyo to complete the “Art Triangle”. Finish your day with dinner in one of Roppongi Hills’ restaurants, then a concert at Suntory Hall.

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Torii shrine gates
© Giuseppe Milo

Soak up the local atmosphere around Ikebukuro

Northern Tokyo may not have the high-profile sights of the central districts, but its refreshingly unpolished atmosphere and local restaurants make it a great place to spend a day. Start at the hub of Ikebukuro, where you’ll find plenty of good shops and cafés, not to mention the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre.

East of Ikebukuro station is the Toden-Arakawa tram line, one of only two streetcars left in Tokyo. Ride five stops from Toden-Zoshigaya to Waseda, a neighbourhood with some standout architecture. Visit Waseda University for the Kengo Kuma-designed Haruki Murakami Library and the curious mock-Tudor Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum. Or go for afternoon tea and a stroll around the refined Japanese gardens at Hotel Chinzansō, before admiring the Brutalist concrete St Mary’s Cathedral opposite, the work of Kenzō Tange.

The Sugamo district, two stops on the JR Yamanote-line train from Ikebukuro, is also worth exploring. You can pick up traditional items and snacks on Jizō-dōri – which earned this district its nickname of “Old Ladies’ Harajuku” – and see one of Tokyo’s prettiest classical gardens at Rikugi-en.

Take the Yamanote line in the opposite direction for Shin-Ōkubo (three stops from Ikebukuro). As Tokyo’s Koreatown, it’s the go-to spot for k-drama and k-pop fans, and has some excellent Korean restaurants.

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Rikugi-en garden
© jpellgen | Flickr

Step into history in Ueno and Asakusa

East of Ikebukuro is Ueno, best known for its large park dotted with shrines and museums. The bustling district has a slightly nostalgic feel, with open-air Ameya-yokochō market sprawling around the railway arches and plumes of steam emerging from noodle joints tucked down alleys. On the park’s eastern edge, the modernist Tokyo Bunka Kaikan is one of the city’s top music venues.

Just three stops east on the Ginza line is historical Asakusa, where the big attraction is Sensō-ji, with its huge red lantern at the temple gate. The surrounding streets are full of traditional craft and food shops, not to mention one of Tokyo’s remaining geisha districts, and the riverside park has excellent views of the Skytree and Asahi Beer Hall.

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Sensō-ji temple
© Albert Izquierdo

Marvel at the Skytree and sumō in Sumida

Across the river from Asakusa, Sumida is dominated by Tokyo Skytree – the tallest structure in Japan, and the tallest tower in the world. The observation decks have predictably incredible views, with serene Mount Fuji visible on clear days.

From here, stroll towards Ryōgoku. You can stop off at one of the area’s public baths (sentō) on the way: trendy Kogane-yu; artsy Daikoku-yu; or Mikoku-yu, where one pool has a view of the Skytree. All three are tattoo friendly.

In Ryōgoku, visit the Sumida Hokusai Museum to learn more about the master of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Keep an eye out for sumō wrestlers in the area – it’s not only home to the National Sumō Arena, but also several training stables. Round out your day with a hearty chanko-nabe dinner (the stew the wrestlers eat) before catching a concert at Sumida Triphony Hall, just one stop east on the Chūō-Sōbu line.

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Tokyo Skytree
© Geoff Henson

See our complete guide to classical music in Tokyo.
This article was sponsored by Tokyo Tokyo.

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