Uncover the secret beauty of Taiwan with its surprising blend of modernity and tradition
Our week in Taiwan seemed to come and go in a flash. Both Vince and I have been excited to visit the country for a while, having heard great things from friends who had already been. As it was a holiday, we decided to take it slow and focus on just a few places, rather than rushing around trying to see the whole country. As Taiwan is relatively small, it’s easy (and cheap) to see a lot of in a short amount of time. You can go from tropical beach to mountain range to huge, bustling city in just a couple of hours. For us, though, we just stuck to three main areas and left the rest for another trip. Here is how we spent our short time there!
Historic Areas – Ximen – Shida Night Market
Our first day in Taiwan was spent in Taipei. We woke up late and, with no plan in mind, got ourselves acquainted with the city. We stayed at Eight Elephants and Dreaming Dragons Hostel in the Guting area of Taipei. This is a cute, student area with loads of cheap, local eateries and independent shops nearby. It’s conveniently located just a few stops away from Taipei Main Station, so it’s the perfect choice for budget travellers with itchy feet.
Our hostel was within walking distance from Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall so the first thing we did was take a walk up there to see one of the most famous buildings in Taipei. We wanted to explore the city on foot and get a feel for our surroundings so we spent most of the afternoon wandering around until we ended up in the Ximen neighborhood. Ximen is one of the most central commercial areas and has lots of Western shops and restaurants. I loved this area for its bright lights, which reminded me of Shinjuku in Tokyo. I was also happy to find a few street food stands dotted about so I could get my first taste of Taiwan’s famous food.
Later in the evening, we explored Shida Night Market since it was right next to our hostel. This is a great place to pick up cheap clothes and accessories. Even if shopping isn’t on the cards for you, it’s a fun place for a bit of window shopping, especially since it’s pretty much full to the brim with cuteness. I dare you not to buy anything! Shopping is the main focus of this night market, though there are still a lot of places to enjoy some street food. Since this night market is more popular with locals and not really aimed at tourists, English signage is sparse.
Songshan Culture Park – Elephant Mountain – Shilin Night Market
Having heard so much about the culture parks in Taipei, we decided to head to Songshan on our second day in the city. Although we did enjoy it, it did feel a bit like a big shopping center with a background of art. I compared it to a cross between Seoul’s Insadong and Berlin, which is a weird but kind of an accurate comparison. You’ll find abandoned, repurposed buildings and warehouses transformed into art spaces, you’ll see people break dancing and skateboarding. But you’ll also find overpriced upmarket craft shops. I didn’t really know how to feel about it.
To be honest, this can be easily skipped if you don’t have a lot of time in the city as we didn’t feel like there was much to see. A lot of things are aimed towards kids although the garden areas are lovely.
What you definitely should not miss, however, is a trip to Elephant Mountain. This is the absolute best place to get iconic shots of Taipei 101. We went around sunset time and got some great night shots of what was once the tallest building in the world. Don’t miss this on your trip.
After your hike, you’ll have worked up quite an appetite. There’s no better place in Taipei for hungry tummies than Shilin Night Market, the city’s largest night market. Shilin is huge and it can be overwhelming. Just follow the crowds and see what tickles your fancy. There was so much yumminess that we pretty much ate until we popped. #noregrets
Ooh Cha Cha – Maokong Gondola – Huashin Culture Park – Rahoe Night Market – Taipei 101
Have I mentioned how much we loved the area around our hostel? Little local areas in the hearts of big cities always win me over and Guting was no different. I particularly loved the variety of veggie food restaurants around and wish we’d had the chance to try more. After clogging our arteries with deepfried food, we wanted some nutrients back in our bodies so we headed for Ooh Cha Cha and, oh man, it was good. I especially loved their raw vegan cheesecakes. So hipster, so delicious.
After filling ourselves up at Ooh Cha Cha, we made our way south to the Taipei Zoo area and took a cable car to Maokong. Maokong is an area famous for tea cultivation and, although you’re close enough to the city to see the iconic Taipei 101, you feel like you’re hours away. Talk about the best of both worlds. Although the cable car is a bit touristy, it’s still worth doing on your trip.
We had some local Taiwanese tea at the most adorable teahouse perched on the end of a mountain with amazing views over Taipei. At 200 NTD for a pot, it wasn’t the cheapest tea I’ve ever drunk but it was worth every penny, even if just for the experience. I thoroughly recommend it.
We decided to give Taipei’s culture villages another go and head for Huashain. Again, it was a cute area with a lovely park and I think I would enjoy it if I lived in the city. However, I felt for adults with no interest in shopping there wasn’t a whole lot to do. Since the culture parks are so centrally located, I would definitely visit one on your trip but don’t dedicate too much time to them.
When the sun went down we headed back to (yup, you guessed it,) another night market. In a city with so much awesome street food, it’d be a shame to ever eat in a restaurant. This time, we had our sights set on Rahoe, which is the oldest night market in Taipei. This market was smaller and a bit more intimate than Shilan. I found it a lot less overwhelming and with a much more condensed variety of food.
From Rahoe, it’s not too far to walk to Taipei 101. We really needed to sweat off all the food that we had eaten so decided just to wander in its direction. I love skyscrapers, especially at night, so I was glad to see it one more time from ground level.
Jiufen – Keelung Night Market
Just an hour away from Taipei is Jiufen, a charming old colonial seaside town. Studio Ghibli fans will recognize it as the backdrop for Spirited Away and this is the main reason that we wanted to visit. I’ll be honest and say that we were a bit let down by Jiufen. We were expecting to be blown away by it, but I think our expectations were too high. I should point out that most people love Jiufen and cite it as the highlight of their trip. We’re glad that we went and saw it for ourselves.
Looking back, I do think that I might have done Jiufen wrong. I recently found out about a new tour company called Round Taiwan Round with an innovative approach to group travel. You’re picked up in Taipei by either a Mandarin- or English-speaking guide and taken to the five attractions of your choice. At the end of Taipei, you can get dropped off in Taipei again. I love this idea because it combines carpooling with the benefits of both group travel and independent travel.
Although Jiufen can easily be visited in a day from Taipei, we decided to stay in that area for the night. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that our hotel was a short train trip away from Keelung; an area famous for its foodiefocused night market that’s a hit with the locals.
We loved the atmosphere and authenticity of this place. Ironically, this night market had the most English signage out of all the ones that we visited, which is weird since it attracts a lot less foreign tourists than the likes of Shilin and Rahoe. We also found an amazing vegetarian stand. It was so nice to finally get a good feed rather than filling up on things just because they don’t contain meat.
Travel to Taroko Gorge
Day 5 was a bit of an off-day for us. We arrived at our hotel around lunchtime and, after our journey from Jiufen, thought it would be best to just rest and dedicate a full day to hiking in Taroko Gorge. This day was mostly spent relaxing around our hotel, drinking whisky highballs in our room, watching Chinese rom-coms and catching up on work. It’s easy to get burnt out when you travel, particularly when you base yourself in big cities. I think it’s important not to deny yourself lazy days like these.
Taroko Gorge is a place that you have to visit on your trip to Taiwan. We both wish that we had spent a bit more time there as the national park is stunning (and we spent a lot of time getting lost and missed a lot of it-—oops.) I have so much to say about Taroko Gorge that it deserves its own article highlighting how to navigate this monster national park. Later in the evening, we took the train back to Taipei and checked into Meander hostel.
Meander is based in the Ximen area of Taipei so it’s right in the heart of the action. Staying true to character, we spent the evening hunting down more street food. Vince was desperate to try something that he had saw advertised as a “face big”—basically a chicken cutlet the same size as his face. I was more interested in finding Taiwan’s main culinary hero—stinky tofu!
When we got the stinky tofu we realized that I had actually eaten a weaker version of it a few times but hadn’t realized what it was. I guess all the kimchi I’ve been eating in Korea has gotten me used to fermented flavors. I expected it to be a lot worse but it just tasted like tofu with a weird stilton-esque aftertaste. Not as bad as it smells.
Chinese Breakfast – Dadoecheng – Beitou Hot Springs – Vege Creek- Longshan Temple – Huaxi Night Market
Our last day in Taiwan came around far too quickly. And, although we spent a total of five days in the capital city, there are just so many things to do in Taipei, that we felt like we barely scratched the surface.
Following the recommendation from the guys at Meander, we started the day in style with a traditional Taiwanese breakfast. I can’t actually believe that it took us so long to try this. Breakfast in Taipei is basically deep fried carbs inside deep fried carbs washed down with a glass of soy milk. We headed to a place in Ximen, which seemed to be really popular with locals and tourists alike. It was so good that we headed again the following morning before our flight.
After getting all carbed up, we took a walk up to Dadoecheng to burn off our calorie-packed breakfast. My Taiwanese friend Jasmine, who I met in India, had recommended we check out Dadoecheng; a more traditional part of the city where we could experience old Taipei. We visited her mum’s puppet theatre museum and witnessed a proper local market.
The Puppet Theatre museum was a great find that we might not have bothered about if it weren’t for Jasmine. We loved being kids again and getting some pics with the puppets. It’s always great to see the more local side of a city so big thanks to Jasmine for her recommendations.
Next, it was up to Beitou Hot Springs. Taiwan is famous for its hot springs and these are the closest ones you’ll find to Taipei. As you can imagine, a good soak was exactly what we needed after a jam-packed week of sightseeing and we were pretty buzzing to chill out. Annoyingly, though, when we got there, we got turned away from the public baths. Turns out that swimming shorts with pockets aren’t suitable public bathwear, so Vince couldn’t get in. After this major annoyance, I was in no mood for bathing. (I’m pretty stubborn and grumpy when I want to be.) Plus, I would rather have been eating anyway so we went on a quest for food.
As you might know, Taipei is a great city (as far as Asian cities seem to go) for vegetarians. I had been reading so many good things about a restaurant called Vege Creek online and wanted to experience it for myself. Vege Creek is a Taiwanese hot pot restaurant—you take a basket and fill it with all the vegetables that you like and then it’s cooked up for you. After eating so much deep fried food, it was great to actually fill my body with nutrients again. Plus, it was pretty cheap. I’d recommend this place to any vegetarians visiting Taipei needing some greens in their life. Following on from our much-needed health boost, we decided to end our week in Taiwan as we had started it and head to another night market to fill our bodies with even more junk. This time, we went to the Huaxi night market as it was the closest to our hostel. We enjoyed the amount of food on offer and managed to find some vegetarian dumplings so it was a successful trip. Huaxi night market is located close to Longshan temple and Bopilao Historic Block so you can fit in some sightseeing too.
Taiwan is a country that we were sad to leave but can definitely see ourselves returning to in the future. Although my love affair with Korea is well and truly over, I still can’t scratch the itch that I have for its neighboring countries. Taiwan has a lot of the charms that we love about Japan, plus loads of its own little quirks, too. We love the affordability and its proximity to other countries that we’d love to visit.