The capital of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, Sapporo has the lot: great museums, wonderful shopping markets and streets, sporting attractions, fine food, and some of the country's best beer too.
It's also an all-year-round destination. Being so far north, Sapporo gets plenty of snow. The mountains that ring the city (and hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics) become a playground for skiers and snowboarders, while the Sapporo Snow Festival in February is a visual spectacular.
Come summer, when the city heats up, you'll find food and drink festivals, open air music, enchanting Japanese gardens, and an easily walkable city center. There's not much more to ask for from an Asian vacation destination.
Few Japanese cities (or any cities) can match Sapporo's hectic schedule of festivals. From the Sapporo Snow Festival in February, with its massive ice sculptures and captivating light shows, to June's city-wide dance festival, the Yosakoi Soran Festival, every month sees something to enjoy.
The countryside around Sapporo is staggeringly dramatic in summer, when you can hike, mountain bike, and climb in stunning locations. Then, around November, everything changes, and the region becomes Japan's winter sports nexus. If you love to ski, there's no better place to be.
The city is Hokkaido's commercial hub, and it has all of the stores, bustling markets, and electronics shops you could ever need. You can head to Odori to check out cutting-edge fashion labels or dive into historic Tanukikoji Shopping Arcade, with its narrow streets lined with restaurants, souvenir stores, and karaoke bars.
Sometimes it seems that the people of Sapporo are obsessed with fun. It's obvious at attractions like the Sapporo Beer Museum or the Ishiya Chocolate Factory (don't miss the white chocolate), manicured gardens like Moerenuma Park, and the quirky agricultural-themed amusement park Sapporo Satoland.
Sapporo is famous for its food culture. On one hand, you'll find a distinctive style of ramen noodles (topped with fried vegetables), while there are also succulent snow crabs, curry soups, and much more to discover.
More of a green street than a park, Odori Park separates the city of Sapporo into its northern and southern halves. Walk down the paths and you'll come across fountains, tables and lawns perfect for picnics. If you'd like to see some of the city's most well-known buildings without feeling like you're in a concrete jungle, this is the place for you. Each month of the year brings new events to Odori Park, with everything from the Snow Festival to markets taking place along its green way.
Japan's Shinto culture is strong and storied, and the Hokkaido Shrine is a great place to learn, reflect, and admire its rich traditions. Located in the heart of Maruyama Park, the shrine boasts not only beautiful woodwork and art but also a lush campus that hosts blossoms of all kinds during springtime. Visit and you'll be able to step into the presence of four kami, including the soul of the Meiji Emperor. The shrine is open to visitors throughout the year, but cherry and plum blossom season is probably the best time to pay the Hokkaido a visit.
Few cities can claim a mountain as their heart; visit Mount Moiwa and you'll see that Sapporo is one of them. Offering unparalleled views over the cityscape from an elevation of more than 1,500 feet, this mountain features walking paths galore. A cable car runs throughout the year for those with mobility problems or a strict time limit for their explorations. As you climb up the mountain, you'll have a chance to learn about Japan's indigenous Ainu people, who worshiped their gods at the top of the mountain.
Sapporo boasts Japan's only beer museum, as well as its most famous beer. At the Beer Museum, you'll learn about the history of beer in Japan while touring an old brewery dating back to the Meiji Period. In addition to history, you'll also get an up-close look at the brewing process itself. After the tour, you can enjoy beer tasting in the museum, or head to several nearby beer halls offering bottomless beer on tap and mutton BBQ.
After spending your day in the city, there's no better place to go than Moerenuma Park. The park's expansive grounds are intended to form a single sculpture, with hills, fountains and play equipment integrated into a harmonious whole. The Glass Pyramid located on the park's grounds utilizes snow to create energy and hosts nature conservation exhibits. There are roughly 3,000 cherry trees in the park, which also houses tennis, baseball and athletic facilities. Cross-country skiing is popular in wintertime, and all sorts of sports equipment can be rented at the Glass Pyramid for a small fee.
Sapporo doesn't really have an "off" switch. It just keeps on celebrating, shopping, and dining all year round. Obviously, if you are interested in hitting the slopes, you'll need snow, so visiting between December and March makes sense. Otherwise, festival season kicks off in May, and the weather warms up nicely after that. Any time between May and October will be ideal for sightseeing.
New Chitose Airport (CTS) has a direct flight to Honolulu, and indirect connections to a vast array of North American cities. After you get there, the most convenient transportation option is the Skybus shuttle, which drops visitors off at their hotels (at a cost of around ¥20,000), but JR trains to the city center are cheaper, costing ¥1340.
You can travel by train (via the impressive Seikan Tunnel) all the way from Tokyo. Sapporo also has excellent rail connections to other cities on Hokkaido. The JR Sapporo Station is the only terminal, and it's on the blue Toho subway line, making it easy to find your hotel after arrival.
Few people choose to drive all the way from Tokyo (which takes 2-3 days in many cases), but renting a car at the airport and driving into town is a great option. If you rent a car, you'll just need to take the Hokkaido Expressway (northbound), which feeds you into central Sapporo.
Regional buses from other cities on Hokkaido arrive at Bus Center-Mae, a short walk east of the city center, with companies running routes into town including JR Hokkaido Bus and Hokkaido Chuo Bus.
Sapporo is dotted with superb hotels, in almost every neighborhood. The most visually impressive (from the outside at least) is definitely the 1930s Sapporo Grand Hotel, but Sapporo Park Hotel, Cross Hotel Sapporo, and the New Otani Inn are all just as comfortable, offering fine food, plenty of amenities, and central locations. If you need a ski resort nearby, try the Sheraton Hokkaido Kiroro Resort, which is a few miles west of the city.
Susukino - Sapporo's brightly illuminated, vibrant entertainment hub, Susukino, is where tourists and locals alike flock after dark. With its endless warren of underground shopping streets, ramen restaurants on every corner, nightclubs, and bars, it's a thrilling evening destination.
Chūō-ku - literally "central ward", Chūō-ku is where you'll find most of Sapporo's attractions, being home to the Sapporo Beer Museum, the Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium (which hosts World Championship Events in the winter), the historic (American-designed) Sapporo Clock Tower, and much more.
Nakajima Koen - just south of Susukino, Nakajima Koen is the city's luxury hotel district, as well as the city's lungs, thanks to the huge expanse of Nakajima Park. Studded with beer gardens, teahouses and ponds, it's a magical place to spend time in between visits to the city center.
Public transportation in Sapporo includes streetcars, subway, and light rail services, which combine to cover pretty much every inch of ground. Single subway fares are ¥200, but With You rechargeable cards offer better value, with a day's travel costing ¥500. Streetcars cost ¥170 per journey, with day passes available for ¥300.
Taxis in Japan tend to be extremely expensive relative to public transportation or renting your own car, so beware. However, if you need to take a cab, there are plenty of options. Expect to pay around ¥650 per mile.
Sapporo's city center has a handy grid network that is easy to get to grips with, and the intersection of Ō-Dōri (north to south) and Sōsei-Gawa (east to west) marks the center point. There are also plenty of rental outlets, including Nissan Rent a Car, Toyota Rent a Car, and ORIX car rental. Rental costs can be very competitive, at around ¥800 per day.
Shopping is a civic obsession in Sapporo, and everywhere you go, you'll find malls, underground shopping centers, and atmospheric alleyways full of craft stores. The best areas to go include Stellar Place (next to JR Sapporo Station), which hosts hundreds of fashion stores, cosmetics outlets, and restaurants. Sapporo Factory, near the Beer Museum, is also a fabulous shopping mall. If you want to buy an authentic kimono, head to Tanukikoji Shopping Arcade, where you'll find innumerable boutiques offering traditional and contemporary prints.
Supermarkets in Sapporo include Aeon (the most common store across the city) and many independent grocery stores. Don't expect rock bottom prices though, with a gallon of milk coming to around ¥820 and 12 eggs costing ¥200.
The food in Sapporo is the envy of many Japanese cities, and in a country as obsessed by high-quality cuisine as Japan, that's high praise indeed. Great restaurants abound, but some of the finest options include Hanamaru (an exceptional sushi restaurant), Nishitondendori (which specializes in curry soups), and the seafood experts Sapporo Kani-Honke. There are also excellent vegan-friendly places like Aoi Sora and barbecue restaurants like Jingisukan Daruma Rokuyon; don't miss the BBQ mutton with bell peppers, leeks, and onions. Meals won't cost the earth, either, with a sit down dinner coming to around ¥3,000-6,000.