Most Hokkaido-bound travelers are researching Sapporo, and don’t even bother looking at a Hakodate travel guide. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons, first among them that Hakodate, as a travel destination, is superior to Hokkaido in just about every way.
Of course, it’s not just Hakodate attractions like the famous (among Japanese) Hakodate Morning Market or iconic (again, largely among Japanese travelers) night view from atop the Mt. Hakodate Ropeway. Hakodate has that intangible something, one that’s at once bounded by the two bays its city center sits between and yet as high above it as the Goryokaku Tower.
Whether you’re looking for what to do in Hakodate or are simply deciding whether to include it in your Hokkaido itinerary (spoiler alert: The answer is yes!), you’ll definitely want to continue reading.
Where to Stay in Hakodate
The majority of Hakodate things to do radiate out from the area around JR Hakodate Station, so the majority of the hotels I recommend are going to be near there. However, as you browse my recommendations, I want you to keep in mind that Hakodate hotels do leave something to be desired, with a few exceptions. Apart from newer properties springing up around JR Hakodate Station (such as the fantastic Tokyu Stay), the quality of hotels hasn’t kept up with the surge in tourism.
These Hakodate hotels include La Jolie Motomachi, which is managed by popular Japanese brand WBF, and the posh Villa Concordia Resort and Spa, which sits near the ropeway for Mt. Hakodate. A third option, if you don’t mind being a bit outside the city center in tranquil Yunokawa Onsen, is Emi Hakodateya.
The Best Things to Do in Hakodate
Ascend Mt. Hakodate By Night
As I mentioned in the intro to this post, the Hakodate night view is primarily famous among Japanese travelers—most foreigners have never heard of it! Still, I can’t imagine feeling disappointed by the incredible site of a city sprawled out beneath you atop Mt. Hakodate, especially one with Hakodate’s geography. Sandwiches between two bays that are nearly symmetrical, it’s one of the most attractive cities in Japan, certainly from above.
Explore Unique History in Motomachi
If you’re interested in history, another of my favorite things to do in Hakodate is to explore the picturesque and charming Motomachi district, which sits roughly halfway between the station and Morning Market and the entrance to the Mt. Hakodate Ropeway. Several European-inspired structures exist here, but my favorites are the Russian-influenced Hakodate Orthodox Church as well as Kanemori Red Brick Warehouse, which houses a variety of shops and restaurants.
Eat the Famous “Dancing Squid”
Like Mt. Hakodate, the Hakodate Morning Market is a place that’s primarily famous among Japanese—or at least it was, before a certain viral video took over the internet several years back. Even if you don’t eat the so-called “Dancing Squid” (which is very much dead, and moves solely because of salt in soy sauce reacting with its neurons), the market is a feast for the eyes (and camera!) and offers delicious seafood of the non-zombie sort.
Look Down on Goryokaku’s Star Shape
The shape of Goryokaku, the famous Hakodate fort, isn’t evident until you look down on it from atop Goryokaku Tower. While you’re up there, however, you should also make sure to read up on the fort’s—and Hakodate’s—history. Although the city (and Hokkaido in general) have a much shorter and less eclectic history than Japan as a whole, the important military role Hakodate played in the not-too-distant past is fascinating to learn about.
Cross the Tsugaru Strait
Because Hokkaido’s trains are slower compared to other trains in Japan (at least until 2030, when the Shinkansen extension to Sapporo opens), options for day trips from Hakodate are somewhat limited. As a result, rather than traveling north to destinations in Hokkaido, your best course of action is to ride the bullet train under the Tsugaru Strait, whether you take a city trip to Aomori or visit Hirosaki Castle, which is especially stunning when the sakura are at full bloom.
How Many Days in Hakodate Do You Need?
Since the majority of travelers aren’t planning to visit the city in the first, the answer to how many days in Hakodate you should spend is usually a low number. While I generally recommend a minimum of about three days in each Japanese city, two days in Hakodate tends to be sufficient, especially since it’s relatively difficult to take day trips from Hakodate, compare to other destinations in Japan.
With this being said, there are enough things to do in Hakodate to justify staying 3-5 days, especially if you’re taking a longer trip to Japan (say, one month), if you’re focusing on Hokkaido and Tohoku or if you’re simply at the phase of your Japan travel where you’re focusing on secondary and tertiary destinations.
The Best Time to Visit Hakodate
You might not have ever considered seeing Hakodate cherry blossoms, but the city is actually one of the best places in Hokkaido to enjoy the seasonal spectacle. This is especially true if you ascend Goryokaku Tower and look down on the star-shaped fort, which is literally bursting with pink and white during the first week of May every year.
On the other hand, I’m also a fan of Hakodate winter attractions, even though the city admittedly isn’t as favorable to winter travels as Sapporo and nearby destinations like Niseko and Otaru. There’s nothing like a warming seafood meal at Hakodate Morning Market on a cold winter day, or a snowstorm setting is as you walk through the churches of Motomachi.
Other FAQ About Things to Do in Hakodate
Is Hakodate worth visiting?
Hakodate is one of my favorite cities in all of Japan—it is absolutely worth visiting! Whether you come in spring to see the sakura of Goryokaku Fort from above, wake at the crack of dawn to eat the controversial ika odori don at Hakodate Morning Market or simply make a weekend trip from Tokyo as an expat, Hakodate will seriously impress you.
How do you get from Tokyo to Hakodate?
Several flights to Hakodate depart Tokyo’s Haneda Airport each day, with an average travel time of 80 minutes—you should plan on a minimum of two hours door to door, depending on how far your Tokyo home or hotel is from HND. The Shinkansen Hayabusa, meanwhile, travels between Tokyo Station and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto in exactly four hours, as of May 2021.
How do I get from Sapporo to Hakodate?
Until the Hokkaido Shinkansen opens in 2030, getting from Sapporo to Hakodate is somewhat cumbersome. If you prefer to travel by train, limited express services between the city take over four hours—far from convenient. Alternatively, you can fly from one of Sapporo’s two airports (ANA flies to New Chitose, while JAL flies to Okadama), although the shock of the price (sometimes as much as ¥20,000 one-way) can often offset the short travel time of less than an hour.
The Bottom Line
Whether because of Hakodate things to do or because you’re crossing from Honshu to Hokkaido (or vice-versa) anyway, I can’t recommend highly enough that you visit Hokkaido. Even if you’re not impressed by Japan’s most famous night view, which is a relatively Japanese title anyway, I have a feeling the colors, flavors and rich history of the city will quickly wrap themselves around you. Planning a longer trip to Hokkaido or Japan as a whole? Commission a custom Japan itinerary—my Hakodate travel guide is only the beginning!