After what had been an eye-opening first look at China, we made our way to another brand-new destination: Taiwan. Unusually for us, we had only planned to spend 10 days in Taiwan but we packed in a lot in that short amount of time.
The capital city, Taipei, was our start and end point; we spent about a week here in total. We also took a trip to Hualien to visit the impressive Taroko Gorge. Here, I’d like to share what we experienced in the island’s buzzing capital.
First Impressions of Taiwan
On arrival, wanting to do things as cheaply as possible, we took the Airport Rail Link into the city. This was the second train we had caught that day as we had to take an inter-airport train between where the plane landed and baggage reclaim… another first! With a clean and convenient system that is relatively cheap, it was simple enough to get into the city.
I was immediately impressed by the Taiwanese; their friendliness and warmth was instantly apparent, so much so that when I accidentally bumped into someone, he apologised to me! It was also clear that there was going to be a lack of spoken English to contend with but, thankfully, most signage is written in English as well as the local language, so it wasn’t too much of a struggle.
Once we had disembarked from the train, it was a short yet challenging walk to our guesthouse. Like most accommodation in this part of Asia, it was clean and neat but not very spacious and, equally, not as cheap as we would have liked. Although the hosts didn’t speak much English, they were very kind and approachable from beginning to end.
What to See in Taipei
At 300 years old, Taipei is a vibrant, clean and modern city; it is rich in architecture, culture and other aspects too. It has fantastic street markets, restaurants and many attractions to keep an avid traveller busy.
Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall
Our initial stop on our first day of exploring was the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. This monument to authoritarian leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, is a popular attraction. Designed as a counterpoint to the cultural revolution, the main hall is accessed by 88 steps, purposefully built with such number as this was the exact age of Kai-Shek on his passing.
With nothing more than an artefacts museum inside, we didn’t stay long. Interestingly, the park in which the monument sits was renamed Liberty Square in 2007 to mark Taiwan’s long road to democracy.
2-28 Peace Memorial Park
Our next destination was the 2-28 Peace Memorial Park. Built in 1908 and modeled on European designs, it is a lovely green urban refuge with ponds, walkways and pavilions.
The park serves as a memorial to an unfortunate event in Taiwan’s history known as the 2-28 Incident, which saw the whole country erupt into protests and chaos for several days. The episode began on 28th February 1947 after the mishandling of the tobacco black market trade by the Tobacco Monopoly Bureau.
Temples of Taipei
We continued to wander the vast streets of the city, stopping by the Presidential Office Building, Zhongshan Hall, Tien-Ho Temple, Qingshan Temple and the Confucius Temple for photo opportunities.
Most impressive though is Longshan Temple, dedicated to Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Mercy. This large and busy temple is considered one of the city’s top religious sites. The exterior and interior are rather grand, considering it has been rebuilt multiple times.
A visit to the Bao’an Temple is also a must when in Taipei. The temple is a rightful recipient of the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for restoration, the largest one taking place between 1995-2002, as well as its revival of temple rites and festivals. Playing host to many festivities, this large temple is lively and busy most of the year.
National Revolutionary Martyrs Shrine
During our city explorations we found the National Revolutionary Martyrs Shrine, a rather bulky structure, which marks the sacrifice made by 400,000 soldiers. The site is well-protected by guards with the cleanest and smartest uniforms and equipment I have ever seen!
The hourly ceremonial changing of the guard is a tourist spectacle. Not far away in the district of Shilin is where you’ll find Taipei’s most famous and tourist-friendly night market (Shilin Night Market), as well as the atmospheric Cixian Temple.
The striking thing about Taipei is that, despite how heavily developed it is, there are green spaces within the urban setting. One such place is Elephant Mountain. I wouldn’t call it a mountain as such but it sure is a steep climb up!
Once you reach the summit, often busy with tourists and locals alike, you’ll be rewarded with great city views. The summit is also the place to snap iconic photographs of Taipei 101, which at 508m high, was once the world’s tallest building! You can go inside Taipei 101 for a fee but, in this case, we decided that it was most impressive from a distance.
Dihua Street and Bopillao
Despite the city’s modern façade, if you look carefully you can still find areas where Old Taipei is still thriving! Once such place is Dihua Street, known for the sale of Chinese medicine, as well as fabric shops and a Sunday market. Having undergone renovation, it is now a popular spot with cafes and antique shops; yet it still keeps some of its old-world charm.
On the same street you’ll also find the lively and well-loved Xiahai City God Temple with elaborate decoration and items of traditional arts and crafts on display.
Another historic street where tradition has been preserved is Bopillao, a very narrow thoroughfare that, despite stretching only for a few hundred meters, is packed with Qing and early Japanese-era architecture.
Day Trips from Taipei
Having explored the bustling city, we were seeking solitude in nature. Thankfully for us, Taipei has natural surroundings in abundance, all within an easily commutable distance from the centre.
Within the Greater Taipei area, getting to places further afield is easily achievable by taking the MRT; we found this simple to navigate with help from our faithful guidebook and the English signage around the city and station.
Yangmingshan National Park
One of our favourite escapes was Yangmingshan National Park, which is free for all to enjoy; the wonderfully peaceful hiking trails are a welcome respite from the city. One such trail (that we did) is the Qixingshan (Mount Qixing) Trail, which opens up to a wide expanse of rolling green hills and great views.
Reaching the summit, you’ve made it to the top of the area’s highest peak at 1120m! From here you can continue north to the smoky pits at Xiaoyoukeng, which are somewhat bewitching; the scent of sulphur hangs heavy in the air.
Another excursion was to Tamsui, otherwise known as Danshui, which has many interesting buildings and a pleasant riverside location. The town, at the mouth of the Danshui River, is compact, making it a great place for on-foot exploration.
A man synonymous with Tamsui is George Leslie Mackay, a 19th Century Canadian doctor and missionary, who founded many of the town’s historic buildings.
In Tamsui look out for:
- The Longshan and Fuyou Temples
- Mackay Street – Home to two buildings founded by Mackay: his original hospital and the Gothic-styled Danshuei Presbyterian Church
- Tamsui Customs Officer’s Residence
- Tamkang Senior High School – The Mackay Family Cemetery and the Tamsui Foreign Cemetery are at the far edge of the campus
- Missionary House
- Alethia University (founded by Mackay) and Oxford College (the university’s original building)
- Fort San Domingo and the Former British Consular Residence
- Hobe Fort
We also visited Beitou with its Thermal Valley. This scenic area has been famous since the Japanese-era, altered many times throughout the years in order to attract tourists. The main draw is to see the green Sulphur waters boiling at 100 degrees Celsius.
Beitou offers little else in the way of sights, with just a cultural centre and library, but the area’s village-feel makes it a pleasant escape from the city.
Another possible day trip from Taipei is to the Maokong area, which offers a range of hiking routes, including the Tea Pickers Trail. Maokong is a wonderfully lush, green landscape, complete with tea bushes and the recharging feel of being in nature.
Numerous cafes and teahouses are available within the hills and you could spend hours enjoying a pot of the local brew. A scenic gondola runs to Maokong from the MRT Zoo station, stopping also at the Zhinan Temple; views along the 4.3km-long ride are supposedly enchanting.
Back within Taipei, we made it to Jiantan Mountain, which, with paved walkways and wooden railings, was a very easy and enjoyable walk to the top. The summit offers great views over the Keelung River basin and city.
To end our time in Taiwan we visited the public gardens at Shilin Official Residence, the 8-hectare Botanical Gardens and Bitan Scenic Area, where we hiked up one last mountain (Hemeishan) for amazing views over the surrounding area.
Bitan has been famous for its rocky cliffs and green waters since the Japanese-era; the landscape is lush and pretty and the 200-metre long swaying Bitan Suspension Bridge is a favourite landmark.
Eating in Taipei
Taipei offers a plethora of food choices from traditional Taiwanese cuisine (which includes stinky tofu) to markets and fine dining; there really is something to suit everyone. We, as vegetarians, were even catered for, finding some gems such as a vegetarian restaurant and veggie friendly street food!
Taipei is, for sure, an incredible city with enough sights to keep you busy for days. There are some great opportunities to visit natural surroundings and enough modern conveniences to make you feel at home.
Is Taipei the most livable city in Asia? It is certainly a strong contender! Even though we covered a lot in a short time, there is undoubtedly enough to warrant a second visit.
Interested in exploring more of Taiwan? Read about our adventure at Taroko in: A Day at Taroko Gorge!