Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to explore the extent of the urban tourism literature that uses the systems approach to outline its research trajectory and detect its trends. Urban tourism is a complex phenomenon whose complexity increases at the very moment it interacts with complex environments. To deal with this kind of issues, urban tourism-related authors have used different approaches, with the systems approach being one of the best alternatives for its understanding and study. Design/methodology/approach: A systematic literature review was conducted using two sets of keywords related to urban tourism and systems approach. Scopus, ScienceDirect and Web of Science databases were used for the peer-reviewed literature search. After filtering processes were applied, 29 publications were retained for the analysis. Findings: This paper provides a significant overview of the existing publications regarding this topic. A theme of common interest and trends for future investigations were detected. Based on the findings, future works to be developed with the use of the systems approach, and its tools are proposed. Originality/value: This review gives promising evidence on that the use of the systems approach for future urban tourism studies is a viable alternative to the application of other dominant approaches, to manage the complexity, diversity and dynamism of the urban tourism and of its environment, which is nowadays addressed as Smart. Then, the paper seeks to foster the use of systems approach and its systemic tools for the understanding and study of urban tourism as a complex system.