My visit to Taipei was also my first time in Taiwan. Rather than rush around and try and visit the whole island I dedicated two weeks to exploring Taipei and decided to visit the rest of the island another time.
Two weeks turned out to be a good amount of time to linger and explore the different neighbourhoods, night markets, and spacing out my meals for all the great food that is on offer.
I enjoyed my time in Taipei, and given the chance or right circumstances in my life I would be happy to base myself here for longer.
The following are my notes and observations on the city.
Taipei: Like China, without the hassle
I heard it described a few times that Taiwan is what China used to be like in terms of culture and pace of life. Altogether I have spent about three months travelling in China, and Taipei felt like a chilled out version of China, without the pollution and spitting. Even though Taipei is a big city it feels easy there. The air is clean(er), queues are abided by, and people talk softly.
Like a cross between China and Japan
A terrible analogy I know, given their less than friendly relations, but Taipei seems to have blended traditional Chinese culture with the pop cultural vibrancy of Japan. There are Chinese temples…
…mixed in with Manga-style cartoon advertising.
I’m not going to say it’s like where east meets west…
…because a) it isn’t, and b) it’s a terrible travel writing cliche. BUT, how else do you describe this?
Pedestrians really do have the right of way. After being in Southeast Asia for so long it was a novelty to use a zebra crossing that worked.
Hello Kitty is everywhere
Maybe the Japan comparison was due to the omnipresence of Hello Kitty. Even though this non-cat is Japanese, she seems to have been adopted as one of their own.
At the airport I saw the EVA Air Hello Kitty Jet and there are Hello Kitty shops all over the place. I found this Hello Kitty Cafe during my cafe research…
…and a Hello Kitty restaurant.
I spotted these advertising billboards on the side of a building – Chinese sponsored I presume. Hey it’s a free country; try putting a pro-Tibet independence billboard up in China.
Speaking of being a free country, the first thing I did when I arrived in Taiwan and logged in was to Google “Tiananmen Square”. In China any reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre is blocked. This is not “China” (well, kind of not China) so I was curious to see what a visitor from actual China would see.
[Tiananmen Square suggestions.]
The results in English.
And the Chinese version also produced uncensored results.
I also checked this because if I wanted to live here I like to have uncensored internet. The internet is censored in Thailand and Vietnam, but that is easy enough to get around. China is heavily censored (the Great Firewall of China) and I found using a VPN to be cumbersome.
There is also free internet available in the city if you have a local sim card. I didn’t get a sim card on this trip but I like knowing that this option is available.
The Taipei Metro, also known as the MRT, was being expanded at the time of my visit and was due to increase by 30% by the end of 2014, including an extension to TPE airport.
The metro is the embodiment of Taiwanese cleanliness and efficiency. Everyone abides by the queue system, and people are quick to give up seats for the elderly.
I know other metro systems around the world have a “stand to the right” policy, but here it works all the time, and no one is difficult about it if they forget (this might be where I got my Japan comparisons from).
And because everyone is so courteous, they get toilets! The metro has toilets that are clean and don’t feel creepy. Not only inside the ticketed area but outside as well. It was nice to walk around the city and never have to worry about where the nearest toilet might be, as you could just find the nearest metro station.
Can you imagine having toilets in London, New York, or in the case of my home city, Melbourne. No. We can’t have nice things like toilets, because junkies and vandals. Ok, there are toilets in London, but they are mostly pay toilets and are usually broken, dirty, and a bit scary.
And ladies, just in case you were worried about secret cameras, the MRT have got your back with anti-spy camera detection units.
[Anti-spy camera detection in restrooms – they’ve got everything covered.]
At one station I found this customer satisfaction point – a computer sitting untethered on a desk. Sure, it’s a notebook from 2008 but people here aren’t dicks, so no one is going to take it. Thus Taipei People can have nice things likes toilets in the metro.
Stations have these mobile recharging units and wifi is available in the trains.
Of course everyone is so courteous that they wouldn’t think to have loud conversations onboard.
Even if you are here for a day I would get the metro card, which you can get with a 100TWD ($3.30 USD) refundable deposit. Put credit on the card and you won’t need to buy tickets, plus there is a discount compared to the single tickets.
Hike Elephant Mountain to get the best view of Taipei
Whenever a news agency/travel guide uses a stock photo of Taipei it’s usually of the view from Elephant Mountain. It’s arguably a better view than going to the observation deck of Taipei 101, because you get the view of Taipei 101.
The view point is close to the city at Xiangshan Station at the end of the Xinyi Line. Go to Exit 2 and walk along the park, then turn left and walk uphill until you see the pathway for the Xiangshan Hiking Trail. The walk from the station to the top is around 30 minutes with steep stairs.
If you are going to be in Taipei for a number of days check the weather and pick what day will be the most probable clear afternoon.
There are a few viewing platforms along the way but keep going to the top for the best view.
[A good view here, but keep going.]
At the top you will be surrounded by photographers looking to get their quintessential Taipei stock photo.
Time your hike so you arrive at Xiangshan Station an hour before sunset to get the postcard view of Taipei 101 sunset while watching the lights flickering on across the city.
There are few cities that do night markets as well as Taipei. Night markets are all over the city so I was glad to have two weeks worth of nights to visit as many as I could. I visited some of the famous markets as well as some smaller ones that happened to be near where I was staying.
The biggest and most famous market is Shilin Market. Being the biggest you may read some blogs trying to offer “off the beaten path” advice by saying not to go because it’s too touristy. Sure, it’s crowded but it is worth it.
[Shilin Market – I got there early, before the crowds.]
One market that’s not prominently featured in guides is the Sanhe night market in New Taipei City. There are two streets that make up the market so you can walk down one and then up the other.
[Sanhe night market.]
Huaxi market is also known as Snake Alley. This is the Taipei night market of legend where you can get snake blood and meat, along with the usual night market fare.
Raohe St is another big market street and is worth a visit.
Qingguang is a smaller market and I only happened upon because it was near where I was staying.
Taipei is is famous for its food scene but it can be intimidating if you don’t know where to look. With pots of bubbling offal and strange smells it is not like somewhere like say, Thailand, where the street food is visually appealing.
There is also a language barrier as english isn’t as widely spoken here.
[This restaurant menu board had me wishing for a picture menu.]
I was lucky enough to have some local help with a blogger who lives here as well as arranging a meetup with a local via Couchsurfing, who took me out to markets and ordered food I had not tried. Before meeting up with my foodies-on-the-ground I was working my way through this list of Taiwanese foods.
Here is a sample of some food I tried:
Braised pork rice
This is a classic Taiwanese meal and a tasty introduction to local food.
Beef Noodle Soup
Beef noodle soup is one of the most popular dishes here and can be found everywhere.
[Beef Noodle Soup]
[Stinky Tofu is indeed stinky and tofu-ey]
The ATL (Anti Tofu League) must be thrilled that tofu has the prefix of “stinky”, but here it literally is stinky. In fact it is so stinky, when you are at a market you can smell it from a few carts away. I tried it and found that it tastes better than it smells, and I wouldn’t have a problem ordering it again as a side dish.
The stink is stinky but I found it to be a comforting smell by the time I left. For me it’s like the smell of durian on the streets of Bangkok, Saigon, or any other big Southeast Asian city. I don’t particularly like the smell of durian (though I can eat it) but the smell is forever associated with being somewhere in tropical Asia, so that is a good thing. And so it is with the smell of stinky tofu, which is now forever associated with wandering the wonderful night markets of Taipei on a humid night.
Bitter Gourd Juice
Not content with having a smelly food with an off-putting name, you can wash down your stinky tofu with a cup of bitter gourd juice. I forgot to opt out of sugar in this case so I didn’t get to experience the full bitter fury of this gourdy looking fruit. People drink it for its health qualities. It’s not my cup of melon.
[Bitter Gourd (or bitter melon) Juice.]
For a simple breakfast you can’t beat Dan Bing (Taiwanese Pancake with Egg) and soy milk. The soy milk is served warm – usually in a bowl – and you can opt out of added sugar. This was 30TWD ($1USD).
The lunch box is a popular workers meal and an economical meal option. You can choose from a variety of meats and vegetables and includes rice and soup. This meal cost me 55TWD ($1.80USD).
[Lunch Box Meal]
And for vegetarians and vegans, don’t despair. I had lunch a number of times at vegan buffet places where you pay by weight. I put together this plate purely by colour coordination. This meal cost me 88TWD ($2.90) and includes rice, plus you can help yourself to a soup and tea.
Pork is popular in Taiwan, and as with everywhere else in Asia most of the animal is used. I had the Oyster vermicelli which comes garnished with chopped intestines. It tastes better than it sounds.
[Oyster vermicelli with pork intestines.]
Pasta – the noodles of the west
For some reason pasta is everywhere here, or as they like to call it – Italy Noodles.
Pepper cakes are baked buns filled with pork and pepper and make for a great mid-afternoon snack. There is a famous pepper cake stand at the entrance of the Raohe St. Night Market, and I can attest to the nomminess of the cakes there.
Bubble tea was invented in the city of Taichung in the 1980’s and has now become synonymous with Taiwan. Bubble tea shops are everywhere and I lost count of the amount of local chain stores. The classic milk tea with bubbles starts at 15 TWD (50c USD).
While I was expecting bubble tea I wasn’t expecting shaved ice to be a thing here. I’ve had shaved ice in Hawaii which was topped with flavoured syrup. Here the signature shaved ice dish is topped with mango and sweetened condensed milk. On a hot summer night when the humidity is one million percent this is the best thing ever.
[Mango and shaved ice]
[Fong Da Coffee.]
There are cafes everywhere in Taipei which vary in quality. Some of them are just cake shops that look like they were designed by little girls (see Hello Kitty above). Others would compete with any hipster-den in Brooklyn or Melbourne. I made a list of cafes to work from but some of my favourites didn’t make the list as they were nothing more than hole-in-the-wall type places. Wilbeck is one of those small cafes I enjoyed. I also liked Fong Da Coffee, which has been open since 1956 (and some of the equipment in the cafe looks as old.)
Museum hell at the National Palace Museum
[National Palace Museum: best viewed from the outside.]
I’ve dropped off the whole going to museums thing when visiting new cities. There are only so many old vases you can look at before it all starts looking the same. In Taipei though I figured I should at least visit the National Palace Museum, which houses one of the most important collections of Chinese art and artifacts in the world. The museum collection was evacuated from China during the Chinese Civil War in 1948 and it rivals any collection held in Beijing.
I mentioned to a Taiwanese friend that I was going and they said that I will see lots of loud mainlanders there (mainlanders being from the PRC). I was told attendants are on patrol with signs saying “quiet please”, which they wave in front of noisy people. I presumed this might have been local Chinese prejudice and thought nothing else of it.
I went to the museum and sure enough, it was the noisiest place I went to in Taipei. The foyer was filled with tour groups and it was the most unruly museum I have ever been to. Camera’s aren’t allowed inside so I present to you this grainy image from my phone. The staircase was a solid sea of people.
Some of the exhibition rooms were so full I didn’t even bother trying. I found some rooms that weren’t too busy and I caught myself enjoying the “old vases” more than I thought. In the end though I got frustrated with fighting my way through the crowds and left earlier than I planned.
One good thing about having so many Chinese tourists congregated in one place is that it makes for an ideal location for Falong Gong protests and information on the Tiananmen Square massacre.
[Falong Gong and Tiananmen Square massacre information for the benefit of mainland guests.]
The good news is that you don’t need to go to museums to get a cultural fix. There are temples all over the city, and like markets I can never resist having a look inside.
Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall
One of the grandest buildings in Taipei is the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Inside you can see the statue of Chiang Kai-shek that is reminiscent of the Lincoln Memorial.
Also on the CKS Memorial grounds are the National Theater and National Concert Hall.
Cultural tidbit – don’t point at the moon
My brain is filled with cultural oddities and superstitions that have been acquired from places in my travels, and here is another one I picked up.
I met a local one evening to go to a night market. I saw the new moon in the sky and pointed to it, to which I was told “don’t point at the moon”. Apparently it is something young kids are told by superstitious parents. I had to look it up afterwards and sure enough don’t point at the moon is listed as a cultural myth.
[The moon that I pointed at.]
Cost is a relative thing. I have heard Taipei being described as both expensive and cheap. If you are coming from Australia or the US you will think that Taipei is a bargain. If you are arriving after travelling around Southeast Asia you will be paying more than what you have become accustomed to, but it is still a good deal.
Some sample prices
Coach from airport (45 minutes on freeway): 140 TWD ($4.60 USD).
Metro ticket (5 stop ride): 16 TWD (53c USD).
Hostel dorm room $16USD per night.
Short term apartments from $400 USD per month.
Food (see sample prices in the food section).
If you are looking to stay here long term check out the budget breakdowns by Jeremy of gocurrycracker.com, an American living in Taipei who keeps track of monthly expenses.
Where to stay
There is no guesthouse accommodation like in Southeast Asia, so the minimum to expect for a cheap hotel room is about $50usd per night. There are plenty of hostels which are good value, starting at $15-20USD per night. Alternatively you can check Airbnb which has private rooms in apartments.
[If you haven’t used Airbnb you can get $25 Airbnb credit on your first booking.]
I ended up staying in two hostels in different areas. I stayed in Ximen and near the Xingtian Temple Metro Station. While the Ximen area has lots to do, the metro is so convenient and I was going to different neighbourhoods every night, so where I stayed didn’t matter. I don’t think there is an area of advantage, just as long as you are staying a short walk from a metro station.
More Taipei Resources
I have a Taipei resources page which links to Taipei sites and useful blog posts.