Taiwan has long been a popular destination for Chinese and Japanese tourists. During our time there, however, we found scant visitors from Europe or the United States. Distance is certainly a factor, but that doesn’t stop Westerners from visiting neighboring locations, such as Hong Kong. However, there are many reasons why the island of Taiwan could become a better known destination.
Due to the current political climate in the area, the world’s interest is slowly turning toward the quiet and peaceful island of Taiwan. Massive protests are currently happening in Hong Kong due to China’s growing claim to governance, and the Taiwanese tensely brace themselves as events continue to unfold.
Since the end of World War II in 1945, China has claimed that Taiwan is its own territory. During the civil war in China in 1946, part of the Chinese government withdrew and established themselves as the Republic of China in Taipei after declaring martial law. The Communist Peoples Republic of China does not recognize their claim to Taiwan, and continues to view it as a territory under the China’s One China policy.
Taiwan disputes this and even began holding its own democratic elections following protests and reform in the 1980s. Locals have a realistic concern that conflict could occur to end that disagreement. The atmosphere during our visit was generally quite serene, but a growing tension was palpable just below the surface.
Questioning whether at any point China could decide to invade and formally attempt to take control was a real possibility. Truthfully though, this possibility has lingered for years, and China and Taiwan have somehow learned to live and let live. Hopefully will on both sides exists to continue that trend. Time will tell.
Despite the political climate, we really enjoyed our time in Taiwan and believe that traveling there will give visitors a unique experience. Taiwan, while heavily influenced by Chinese and Japanese culture, has traditions, cuisine, beautiful scenery and a certain charm that is all its own. No matter what the future holds, we believe that Taiwan is an Asian destination that is well worthy of a place on your travel wish list.
Where is Taiwan?
Taiwan is an Island off the coast of China. Shanghai, Japan and Korea are north of the island. Hong Kong and the Philippines are located to the south of Taiwan.
Fun and Unique Things to Do in Taipei
Take a Free Walking Tour of Taipei’s Historic City Center
One of the first things that we do when visiting a new place is to take a free walking tour. The guides are usually entertaining and informative, since they work for tips. They typically give an overview of the city center and tell stories about the destinations history and important current events.
It makes the sights more enjoyable and memorable when they are put in a cultural context. That is particularly true when the narrative is delivered by someone whose family has lived in a place for generations while all of the events and changes have evolved.
We also usually get a good list of things to do and see, and some great restaurant recommendations. In Taipei, we can recommend tours provided by Like It Formosa, who did a fantastic job on all of the above.
Take a Taiwanese Cooking Class
After taking a walking tour, the next thing we always look for is a cooking class. We were very happy to find CookIn Taiwan. They took us on a market tour where we were able to meet vendors and sample local delicacies and seasonal fruits.
We then cooked up four iconic Taiwanese dishes, which is more than we found in any other class. It was great fun and oh so delicious!
Hike Elephant Mountain
If you love to hike, and are looking for some amazing panoramic views of Taipei but don’t want to spend the whole day doing it, then the Elephant Mountain hike is a perfect option. The trail is walking distance from the Taipei 101 building, which is a great place to grab some lunch when you are done.
The trail is well-marked but does involve a steep climb up some steps. And since there are these challenging sections, hiking shoes or walking sticks are recommended. It takes about 45 minutes to reach the summit, so you can finished in 1.5 hours and ready to get back to seeing the sights.
Visit Taipei’s Night Markets
Visiting a night market is a must in Taipei. Here you will find food some food items like nothing you will be able to try anywhere else. It is also great to see how locals live and eat.
Night markets are such a popular eating option in Taipei that many apartments have a very minimal kitchens. Why cook yourself when you have an array of amazing food at hand that is prepared by families that have perfected the recipe over generations alongside some new inventive dishes by young up and coming food stall owners?
So, dive into the bustle of one of the night markets and get adventurous with your choices. You may just get the best (and least expensive) food of your trip.
We visited Raohe, Shilin and Ningxia Night Markets and can happily recommend each one. For a little preview of some of the Taiwanese snacks you can expect, check out our guide to what to eat in Taipei. Hint, the fried chicken is fantastic!
Enjoy Nature in the Center of the City
There are plenty of parks and hiking in Taipei. One minute you can be in the center of a busy city, and the next, watching a group of seniors practicing Tai Chi in a serene tropical setting.
There are also numerous hiking trails in Taipei. They vary from being a very an easy stroll to trails that require a scramble over rocks with the assistance of a rope.
Tour Taipei 101
Standing outside the beautiful Taipei 101 building is an interesting experience alone. The statuesque building dwarfs other structures in Taipei, and gives a very modern feel to the city.
Inside there are plenty of shopping opportunities, along with an impressive food court where vendors offer up some of Taiwan’s favorite dishes. One restaurant not to miss is the famous Din Tai Fung, where you can sample their delicious soup dumplings.
Visit the Taipei Zoo
If you need a reason to visit the Taipei (Muzha) Zoo, I have it three words for you. Giant. Panda. House. Need another reason? The zoo is dedicated to conservation and research. By visiting, you support their efforts.
Not the Kind of Porcelain Dinnerware You Had in Mind?
Ever dreamed of eating chocolate ice cream while sitting on a toilet seat? Or eating out of a toilet? Me neither.
But if the thought appeals to you, or if novelty of this nature calls to you, then the Taipei’s Modern Toilet should be on your itinerary. Not into sweets? The restaurant has a full menu including pasta with clam sauce or German trotters. Bon appetite!
Experience Taiwanese Hot Pot
Eating hot-pot in Taiwan is one of the favorite ways that locals go out and enjoy a meal together. It you have never tried Hot Pot, or Shabu-Shabu, don’t miss the opportunity while in Taipei.
The experience starts out by picking a soup base that staff will bring in a big pot that comes to a boil in the center of the table. You can get pick out a variety of foods to cook inside the pot, including dumplings, seafood, noodles and vegetables. There are also numerous topping and sauces to choose from, so each person gets a perfect bite seasoned just the way they like it.
Visit a Temple
There are many beautiful temples in Taiwan. Their interesting architectural features, and colorful carvings adorning their exteriors are a fun discovery during a walk around the city. But just walking by and not stopping in will prevent you from enjoying a unique cultural experience.
Inside are smaller shrines, each dedicated to a different god. In front of the shrine will be an array of flower and foods and other offerings with small crowds of worshipers burning candles and incense, all hoping for small or large changes to their fate.
There are many temples in Taipei, but the best known is the Lungshan Temple. It is located in the Wanhua district and is well worth a visit.
Visit the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall
The Chiang Kai-Shek (CKS) memorial hall is a historical landmark constructed in memorial to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the former President of the Republic of China.
The hall was opened in 1980. The memorial building and square were central gathering places in the 1980s and early 1990s where Taiwanese organized demonstrations resulting in the formation of the current modern era of democracy. Which is why the area surrounding the monument is now known as Liberty Square.
Sample Some Phallic Shaped Food
After reading about the Modern Toilet restaurant, any fears that the Taiwanese somehow take themselves too seriously, should be put to rest. These waffles will drive that point firmly home.
Penis-shaped waffles are a very popular food item, particularly at the Shilin night market. If your instagram or facebook followers have been complaining about all of those boring food photos you post, these could liven things up a bit.
Day Trips from Taipei
Visit the Beitou Hot Springs
The city of Beitou is an easy 45 minute train ride from Taipei. Beitou is known for its natural hot springs. Here you will find a public bath house where you can sooth your tired muscles after all of that hiking and touring around Taipei.
We recommend that you get there early to make sure you are able to book a time to get in. Women are asked to wear modest bathing suits, and men may be required to actually purchase a suit to make sure your attire is appropriately modest. No speedos allowed.
During our stay, we opted to book a room at the Sweetme Beitou Hot Springs Hotel, where we were able to get a private tub right in our room.
Explore Yangmingshan National Park
Yangmingshan National Park is just a short bus ride from Taipei and offers some beautiful sights. The sprawling area has many parks, hiking trails, and wildlife. It is also the home to natural hot springs where you can enjoy a hot bath in natural surroundings.
The park is a large place, so it is recommended that you visit yourself, you rent a car. Another option is to book a tour with a company. This tour of Yangmingshan from Taipei includes visiting the major sites and enjoying a soak in the springs!
Enjoy a Traditional Tea Ceremony
There are several traditional tea houses in Taipei where the simple act of having a cup of tea has turned into an art form. An experience that has been cultivated for over 400 years.
The best place to enjoy a tea ceremony, however, is close to the tea plantations where the leaves are grown, in the mountainous regions to the south of Taipei, in the town of Maokong.
Visit the Yehliu Geopark
The Yehlui Geopark is an easy day trip from Taipei. Here you can find a beautiful coastal community that is home to interesting rock formations. Take the park’s challenge and find the 20 named sea-carved rocks. Erosion from the wind and water have left them in the shapes of a princess’s profile, an alligator and a pineapple, for a few examples.
Go Fly a Kite
The small town of Pingxi underwent a complete transformation after the mining industry that sustained the population dried up. The entire town now exists to give people with dreams, aspirations and anxieties a vehicle to express their deepest desires.
People flock here to put their hopes and fears in the form of words or pictures adorning the sides of large, thin paper lanterns. The lantern is set aloft by lighting a small flame under it. It drifts toward the heavens, closer to a source that may be able to hear, and grant their prayers.
In Taipei we have found many small metal fireplaces lining the streets. In them, representations of gifts (such as paper money) are lit on fire for speedy delivery to deceased loved ones. In such a culture, you can see why going into the paper lantern business would make complete sense. For the town, at least, the prayer of finding a way to sustain themselves, seems to have been granted.
Floating lanterns have gotten recent press for being bad for the environment – after all, the lanterns eventually fall to earth and litter the landscape. We were happy to learn that the stores that sell the lanterns pay locals to find and return the lanterns, helping to create a few additional jobs while keeping the practice a little more environmentally friendly.
Take in a Waterfall View
Shifen Waterfall is located very close to Pingxi village. It is just a short drive and an easy walk, which are rewarded by this beautiful view.
Enjoy Street Food with a View at Jiufen
The hillside village of Juifen is home to several streets that have evolved into vendor shops filled with Taiwanese delicacies, crafts and street food. There are also tea houses where a traditional tea ceremony can be enjoyed. The town overlooks a beautiful temple and has gorgeous sweeping views of the valley.
All four of the above experiences, visiting Geopark, lighting a lantern, enjoying the waterfall and tasting the street foot at Juifen are available in a day trip tour from KKday tours. I’ll acknowledge that bus tours are not our favorite, but not having to figure out how to travel between the sights and paying a mere $17.50 US for the full day was motivation enough for us to book the trip.
Discover Wulai Aboriginal Village
There are several reasons to visit the Wulai Aboriginal Village. The first is that it is an easy day trip from Taipei (about 1.5 hours by bus and subway).
Wulai boasts natural hot springs, with both public and private bathing options, and a beautiful 80 meter high waterfall.
Beyond these attractions, visiting gives the visitor the opportunity to learn about Aboriginal history, take in a folk dancing show, and enjoy shopping for crafts.
Talk to a Local
While in Taipei, take the opportunity to talk to a local. Tour guides are an easy place to start and get your courage up to ask questions of other locals who may be eager to try out their English skills. Getting a locals impression of the food, best things to do, and hopes for the future of Taipei all make for great questions.
Talking to locals will also make for a more memorable time in this beautiful place, particularly as current events play out that could change the way of life here substantially. Watching history unfold could be one the best thing to do in Taipei that we could ever have imagined.
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