Walking from the subway station towards our guesthouse in the Ximending area of the city, we had this strange sense of familiarity. Although we had never been to Taipei before, it felt very comfortable. Anyone we know who has visited has never had a bad word to say about the Taiwan capital; in fact, many people have told us it’s their favourite city in Asia. Looking around us, we could see why. Taipei offers a unique blend of what people love about South East Asia, combined with what people love from North East Asia.
Taipei: Asia’s Mixing Pot
In Taipei, there is the same order as you come to expect in Korea and Japan. People will wait for traffic lights, they stand in line without question and they operate strict escalator rules to keep everyone moving along. At the same time, there are elements that are reminiscent of South East Asia. For example, the street food, the scooters and the abundance of outdoor restaurants, street snacks and night markets. It’s this blend, which makes Taipei a truly unique city in Asia.
What to do in Taipei?
From a traveller’s perspective, there are an abundance of sights in the city worth checking out. The metro is excellent, very easy to use and is a great way to get around the capital, explore the highlights of Taipei and sample some of what Taipei has to offer.
1. Longshan Temple
There are a few temples worth visiting in Taipei. Our favourite by far was Longshan Temple. Arriving around dusk, the temple was in full swing with locals, young and old, clapping, praying and lighting incense in the temple courtyard.
There’s nothing worse than arriving at temples and feeling that they are put on for the tourists. This was a truly genuine experience and while there were a few other visitors like us, the majority were locals just getting on with their usual routine, oblivious to the visitors. It was nice to just find a corner and watch everybody going about their business.
2. Qingshan and Qingshui Temples
If you are looking for smaller, quieter temples to visit then check out Qingshan Temple and Qingshui Temple; tiny little temples in a quiet part of the city not far from Ximending. Although they are quieter, they are no less impressive than the bigger temples like Longshan. The added bonus is you’ll likely have the place to yourself to explore at your own leisure.
3. Taipei 101
Taipei 101 is the second tallest building in the world standing a whopping 1,667feet (508meters) from top to bottom. It’s an incredibly impressive structure, to say the least, which was designed to symbolize good fortune and prosperity. Even the surrounding neighbourhood and art pieces in the nearby parks are designed to prevent positive energy escaping and support the tower’s feng shui. Taipei 101 is also considered, symbolically, to be the tallest sundial in the world with the surrounding circular park adding to the effect. Inside the building are 61 elevators, the fastest of which moves at a crazy speed of 37.7 miles per hour, that’s an incredible 52.2 feet per second! The building is a must-see for anyone visiting Taipei. Visitors pay an entrance fee to reach the top of the tower for what, we can only imagine, must be spectacular views of the surrounding city. However, there is an alternative option for those visiting Taipei on a budget.
4. Elephant Hill (Taipei 101 budget option)
Elephant Hill is one metro stop beyond Taipei 101 and a short uphill walk will lead you to some spectacular views of the tower and the city below. Some guidebooks call it a hike but that’s a bit of a stretch, to be honest. It should take about half an hour to get to the top. We recommend going just before sunset to watch the city transform before your eyes. Once the sun has set, the lights start to come on and Taipei takes on a whole new light.
Taipei 101 in particular, is lit up in bright, neon lights and looks even more impressive than during the day, especially from this vantage point.
5. National Palace Museum
We don’t usually seek out museums but there are always exceptions and the National Palace Museum in Taipei is one. It gets rave reviews, is constantly listed as one of the top things to do in the city and all with good reason.
The museum houses one of the largest collections of Chinese art in the world and there are some really impressive pieces in the museum, even to untrained eyes like ours. The more permanent exhibits are on the top floor and really are impressive to see in the flesh. Incredibly intricate designs, shapes and patterns are carved into ivory, timber and bamboo. Displayed under a magnifying glass, you can really get a sense for the amount of love, labour and time that went into each of these works of art.
For museum aficionados, you could spend weeks, months or probably years in here working slowly through the exhibits. Bear in mind, the National Palace Museum is enormous, so be sure to allow a few hours. Even casual visitors like us are going to need at least this much time.
6. Try Taiwanese Food
Taiwanese food is a reflection of the country in that it, too, is a blend of tastes from around Asia. The food culture has Japanese influences, as well as influences from the West, the aboriginal people and the Chinese who immigrated to Taiwan. Chinese and Taiwanese food are very different, however, you can still find many similarities and the resulting food fusions are a real treat for the taste buds.
Spicy hotpots, fried dumplings, cuttlefish soups, stinky tofu, noodles galore and Taiwanese-style porridge are all on the menu and can be washed down with one of Taiwan’s biggest exports, Bubble Tea.
7. Night Markets
Throughout the country you will come across countless night markets touted to be some of the best in the world. Trying the local food is a quintessential travel experience when we go anywhere and these markets offer up a real taste of Taiwanese cuisine. We headed for Ningxia Night Market to get a feel for what these places were all about.
Two lines of stalls create a narrow laneway through the centre of the vendors. Walking through the narrow street, there’s no shortage of foods to try, from local Taiwanese delicacies to Aboriginal dishes to the stranger things like chicken feet and goose heads! There really is something for everyone here. Even if you’re not planning on eating anything, it’s worth coming just to see the markets in action.
Don’t miss out!
With a great few days spent in Taipei, we can certainly see the draw of the city and why so many people refer to it as one of their top Asian cities. It’s a place where South East and North East Asia collide, bringing a different flavour than you’re likely to experience anywhere else in Asia. Why so many travellers overlook it is beyond us but it has grown in popularity with expats in the last number of years and for us, that trend is only going to continue.
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