“Touch Your Heart” is the slogan of the Taiwan Visitors Association and a visit to Taipei does just that. The capital city of one of the most densely-populated countries in the world, Taipei has much to offer tourists. From truly magnificent buildings and peaceful gardens to exciting sporting activities and colourful festivals, Taipei promises a fascinating holiday experience.
[Also see our travel article “An Epic Night Out in Taipei“]
Hot, crowded and chaotic, Taipei may, at first glance, overwhelm the visitor, but scratch the surface and you will find a city that is warm and welcoming with an energy that is intoxicating. Taipei has grown from a simple farming settlement to a world class metropolis in an extraordinary short period of time. Standing testimony to its growing power are the skyscrapers, towering above the city’s ever rising skyline. The soaring Taipei 101 tower, till some time back the world’s tallest building, is not only an amazing tourist attraction for those who are fascinated by heights, but a symbol of Taiwan’s growing economic and financial strength.
Down on the ground, Taipei is home to an amazing mix of people from different cultures with their collective influence reflecting in the city’s buildings, cuisines and way of life. In fact Taipei is a gourmet’s delight and is packed with excellent restaurants. The Taipei Chinese Food Festival hosted in the World Trade Centre is the icing on the cake allowing you to sample Chinese cuisine from across the country.
When the sun goes down, Taipei’s night markets light up. Tourists and locals throng the narrow alleyways that are filled with the tantalizing aromas of the food stalls. The city is full of bars and nightclubs and its red light district in Zhong Shan is one of the most legendary in Asia.
If the city heat gets to you, head to the northwest hills to relax and rejuvenate in the many spas that take advantage of the curative properties of the hot springs of the Bei Tou area. Once charged, hike through the Yang Ming Shan National Park to fully experience Taipei’s unique beauty.
Things To See
Taipei has long been underestimated as a tourist destination and it is only now that people are realizing that the city has much to offer. Here is a list of some of Taipei’s must-see attractions but perhaps the city’s most important attraction is its culture.
National Palace Museum: Located on the outskirts of Taipei amidst beautiful surroundings, the National Palace Museum houses the world’s largest collection of priceless Chinese artifacts numbering more than 650,000. The museum is a must visit for the history enthusiasts who can trace China’s dynasties to the present day.
Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall: Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall is an imposing tomb and shrine to Taiwan’s famous and controversial leader. The Hall also houses on its grounds the National Theatre and National Opera House where you can enjoy traditional performing arts.
Taipei 101: It was the tallest tower in the world till the Burj Dubai stole its limelight. Still this imposing skyscraper is a major tourist destination and not just for its height. The 101 floors offer a host of entertainment and eating options– the Taiwanese idea of heaven. You’ll find everything here from bars, restaurants, a health club, to cinema and designer boutiques. And of course, you have to take the fastest lift in the world up to the observatory for the ultimate views of the city.
Lungshan Temple: Taipei is home to thousands of temples, with the most famous being the Lungshan Temple. The temple, which was first built in the 1730s, has been destroyed several times both by natural disasters and during World War II. Each time the temple was carefully rebuilt. You can admire the architecture and partake in the activities of worshippers shrouded in incense clouds.
The Wisteria Tea House: Named after the old wisteria vines growing along the building eaves, the Wisteria Tea House occupies a central position in the political culture of Taipei. In 1997, the tea house was designated a historical site. The tea house served as the setting for the Ang Lee film ‘Eat, Drink, Man, Woman.’
Landis Pause Resort: Taiwan is fast emerging as a world class spa destination given the fact that it has a high number of hot springs. You can pamper your mind, body and spirits with a dip in sulphurous springs in the forested mountains at the Landis Pause Resort. You can also check out Wulai, where apart from relaxing in the lap of nature, you can also enjoy aboriginal traditional dancing and cuisine, and cherry blossoms in spring.
Festivals and Events
The Lantern Festival: Held in February, the Lantern Festival welcomes the zodiac animal of the Chinese New Year. The main celebrations are held in front of the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall.
The Taipei Chinese Food Festival: Held in the month of August, this festival is especially worth checking out if you are a food enthusiast. You can sample a broad range of Chinese cuisine found throughout Taiwan.
Taipei Dragon Boat Festival: Held in the month of June, the festival re-enacts the tragic story of poet Chu Yuan, along the Keelung River.
The Ghost Festival: This is a month long carnival that is held in temples and on the streets where worshippers burn paper tributes to honor ancestral spirits.
Taipei has enough accommodation options to suit all tastes and budgets. You’ll find numerous hotels spread across the city. If you seek the ultimate in comfort and luxury you can pamper yourself to the world-class services provided by the luxurious five-star accommodations. At the other end of the spectrum are the numerous hostels offering basic facilities in comfortable surroundings. Between the two extremes are a wide array of mid-range accommodations ranging from business class to moderately priced.
Luxury hotels: You will find both international and regional chain of five star hotels offering impeccable service and the facilities associated with luxury establishments, such as business centres, swimming pools, modern exercise facilities and restaurants serving both Chinese and international fare. The five star hotels are spread across the city and you can choose to stay in one that is near the shopping/entertainment areas or near your business centre or airport. If you really want to stay in a luxury hotel but your budget does not cover the listed rates, you can keep a look out for special promotional packages which may just make your stay within reach.
Moderate: You can easily find modest rooms and facilities if you are on a traveller on budget. In most cases, these hotels offer a continental or buffet breakfast that is included in the cost of the room. Facilities include a clean room, a telephone, a television, and of course, friendly assistance. Hotels worth checking out include the Leofoo or Golden China Hotel.
Inexpensive: The hotels that fall under this category are usually the “rent-by-the-hour”, though you can also rent based on per night stay. These hotels mainly cater to those seeking quiet and discrete privacy on a short-term basis. In fact they are more or less like the Japanese “Love Hotels”, although they are not as outrageous as their Japanese counterparts.
Ask the Taiwanese living abroad what they miss about their country and the unanimous answer will be food. In fact eating seems to be Taiwanese idea of heaven. Taiwanese cuisine includes seafood dishes with distinct flavour and slightly heavier sauces. If you like Chinese food you will definitely eat very well in Taipei. The city has an unrivalled reputation as a gourmet’s paradise, boasting cuisine from every region of China.
The places to eat are as varied as the menu. At one end of the spectrum are the high end restaurants and at the other are the night market food stalls; in between are the inexpensive and moderately priced eateries.
If you are in an unknown area, simply walk into the place that is most crowded. Chinese restaurants on the whole focus on the quality of food rather than providing a beautiful setting for eating. However this is slowly changing and you will find many restaurants trying to liven up the surroundings. Here is the catch though, a good ambience will mean an expensive bill and so the general rule is if you are on a tight budget, don’t worry about the plastic flowers on display. Just sit down in a clean restaurant and savour the best Chinese food you have ever had.
If you prefer Western food, you can eat in Tien Mu or a hotel. You will find a large number of restaurants in hotels serving Indian, French, German, Swiss, Middle Eastern, American, Greek, Mexican, Indonesian, Thai, Korean, and Spanish specialties. For variety and value, you should check out the teatime, lunch and dinner buffets offered by these hotels. For great Western food and breakfasts, Grandma Nitti’s Kitchen is the place to head for.
If you crave fast food, there is hope for you. American, Japanese and Chinese, burgers, noodles, chicken, and pizza joints are easily found throughout the city. Given the fact that many Japanese live in Taipei, you’ll find Japanese restaurants just about everywhere. The only problem is that most of them serve Taiwanese Japanese food. If you want to try something that is authentic, you could try the restaurants in the luxury hotels.
For a cheap and delicious meal, you can dine in the food courts found in the department stores. You can check out the basement Food Courts in department stores such as Mitsukoshi, Sogo Department Store, Takashimaya, and Asiaworld Shopping Center.
To sample street food, you can visit the stalls in the night markets. You can choose from delicious fried and steamed meat-filled buns, oyster-filled omelets, refreshing fruit ices, and much more.
Taipei is an important shopping destination in Asia. You can buy almost anything under the sun, from designer names, antique curios, electronics and original jewellery to hand-painted scrolls, fragrant tea and toys for children.
And of course, if you are in Taipei, you simply have to visit the city’s night markets. Filled with people and enticing aromas, the night markets are integral to the unique cultural experience of Taiwan. There are many such markets in the city that stay open till midnight. The ShihLin night market is the largest, while Huashi Street night market, a few paces from Lungshan Temple, is the most famous. This night market comes alive once the sun sets and the action continues well past midnight. Here you can buy anything from snake soup to painted umbrellas and also pamper yourself to shoulder massages. You can stroll through a bewildering number of stalls and stores selling everything from clothing to pets, souvenirs to DIY tools. Taiwan’s national obsession is food and there is no place like the night market to treat your taste buds to the most exotic of Chinese cuisine. The atmosphere is nothing less than a fair with games adding to the genial din.
If you prefer to shop in the comfort of air conditioned malls, you can head to the Living Mall or Living Hell as locals would prefer to call it— it is the largest shopping mall in Asia and it’s easy to get lost! Here you can shop for all international brands from Armani to Louis Vuitton. If it is designer labels you are looking for, you can try out the Breeze Center, which also has to its credit designer labels, good restaurants and a cinema.
Dihua Street, the oldest and largest trading area, is the best day market and giving it competition is the Chinese Handicraft Mart, a one stop shop for inexpensive traditional items. To find everything under one roof, check out the Japan’s Mitsukoshi department store on Sung Kao Road. It covers three blocks and occupies 12 buildings. Just across the road is the Eslite Bookstore, which has six floors of books (many in English) intermingled with a host of brands from around the globe.
Excursions From Taipei
Taroko Gorge: This popular day excursion takes you to the spectacular marble canyon of Taroko Gorge in one of Taiwan’s seven National Parks. The trip includes a walk through tunnels and across a rope bridge below towering cliffs. You can also visit one Taiwan’s most picturesque temples.
Sun Moon Lake: This largest natural lake in Taiwan is a major tourist attraction. Situated in Yuchih, Nantou, the east side looks like a sun and the west side a moon and hence the name. The area around the Sun Moon Lake is home to the Thao tribe, one of aboriginal tribes in Taiwan. At the lake you can take a row boat to the tiny island called Lalu.
Nightlife and Entertainment
The best nightlife in Taipei is to be found in the commercial district of Anho Rd in East Taipei and the older Shi Men Ding or West Side. Anho boasts numerous bars and restaurants, including the Champagne Bar and American-style Carnegies, which plays rock music.
Taiwanese tend to eat early so you’ll find that most restaurants close by 9:30PM, but with no licensing limits many bars are open until 2AM or 4AM, and some all night.
Taipei has its fair share of bars, pubs and restaurants. Apart from these, you can also check out the Shao yen or snack bars in the night life areas. Besides there are night-time diversions such as the neighbourhood night markets, which, apart from being a shoppers’ paradise also offer excellent street food. The biggest and most famous is Shihlin, which is now easy to reach on the new mass transit.
Another well known nightlife haunt is Shi Men Ding. The area has an old world atmosphere with lots of tiny little bars and atmospheric tea and coffee houses in its narrow alleys and traditional night markets.
The beer houses in the city have outlandish decorations and serve salty, spicy seafood. Beer houses worth checking out include Indian and Jailhouse, in the lively Shihmenting district. It doesn’t take much to guess that Jailhouse is decorated like a prison, and the waiters dress like inmates. You can put on some manacles and have your photos taken in a mock jail cell.
As far as clubs go, you can check out Barcode in Taipei 101, which has more of a lounge atmosphere. The favourite haunt of the A-listers is Opus Bar in Breeze Center. Then there is Luxy 201, which boasts a three-tiered themed venue. Plush in The Living Mall, Core Pacific City features International visiting DJs.
For pubs with a laid-back atmosphere, you can try out the Shi-Da University district. The bars there attract college students, teachers, and foreign expatriates who live in the city.
The busiest bar in Taipei is without doubt, Roxy 99. The place attracts a slice from every demographic in Taiwan, from the Chinese students, to western students, local university students, and foreign professionals.
Taipei has a humid, subtropical climate. Summer is the typhoon season. The city enjoys a distinct winter season, with average temperatures of 10° Celsius (50° Fahrenheit), which rise to 33° Celsius (90° Fahrenheit) in summer which is when the rainfall is highest. Spring is the best time to visit the city.
By Air: The main airport is the Taoyuan International Airport (TPE) and it is located 40km (25 miles) south of the city centre.
Airport facilities: These include a currency exchange, bank, post office, medical, nursery, duty free, hotel reservations, car hire, shops, beauty salon, massage and basic restaurants. Business facilities include executive lounges, limousine services, payphones, mobile-phone hire, Internet and meeting rooms.
Transport to the city: If you have booked a hotel in advance, it will arrange airport transfers by limousine or minibus. Otherwise, you can take a taxi. There is also an inexpensive private airbus service that take passengers into the city centre in just under an hour.
By water: Cargo ships visit the ports of Taichung, Hualien and Suao. Weekly international passenger ferries run between the Taiwanese Keelung and Kaohsiung ports and Naha, the capital of the southern Japanese-island of Okinawa. Visitors can take an overnight ferry, which departs from Okinawa on Thursday or Friday. It takes from 16 to 20 hours to reach Keelung.
By rail: The new Taiwan High Speed Rail link runs north-south from Taipei to Kaoshiung. Electrified train services run along the west coast and diesel trains along the east coast. Services are slow, but frequent, and less expensive than flying. The main city station is Taipei railway station, 3 Beiping W. Road, Jhongjheng District.
By road: Taiwan being an island, you can’t drive to Taipei from any other country. However on the island there are two freeways that run north to south and cover Taipei: Freeway 1 or the Chung-Shan freeway and Freeway 3 or the north-south freeway, known locally as the second freeway. Both go more or less north/south.
Public transport: There are eight lines of the MRT (mass rapid transit system) besides a vast bus network. There are auto ticket machines available in the stations, with prices depending on the distance. You can take day passes to make travelling convenient.
Taxis: You can hire a metered taxi to take you around but keep in mind, drivers rarely understand English so it is advisable to have your destination written down in Chinese.
Car hire: Self-driving in Taipei is not advisable because the street numbering system is very confusing and traffic is congested.
Bicycle hire: Because of the heavy pollution, riding a bicycle in central Taipei is not recommended. However, in greater Taipei designated bike paths are fast gaining popularity.