Cutting this list into just ten places was really, really tough. How to knock the beautiful isle of Formosa to ONLY ten? Many people, actually, most people, think that Taiwan is just a small island with nothing more than good food and good computers. Well, if that’s what you’re thinking, you’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg.
Taiwan may be just an island, but it’s got high mountains, jaw-dropping cliffs, stunning ocean views, big modern cities, good shopping, culture, and heritage. By the way, it of course has great food and computers. The people aren’t too bad either. Even better, you don’t have to worry about crime, as Taiwan’s crime rate is one of the lowest in the world. Women can go traveling alone here (and many do). Dirty pickpockets, (child) beggars, gangsters, crazy strangers, rip-off shopkeepers, or “tourist taxes;” the common plagues of traveling don’t really apply here. You also don’t need to tip in Taiwan, thus, saving you a ton of money to be able to see and buy more.
Traveling around Taiwan is incredibly cheap and there are many ways to get around. There’s an amazing intercity bus system that covers virtually all the major towns and sites, a great rail system, a zooming fast high-speed rail system, as well as planes and boats for the offshore islands.
In fact, the only real drawback of Taiwan is the driving. Just (try to) accept the fact that the Taiwanese suck at driving, and leave it at that.
Taiwanese people love to eat. The people of Taiwan are quite possibly the most “food-centric” people in the world. Nothing gets Taiwan more excited than talking about food. If you’re hungry, there is always something to eat, even if you’ve got a craving for a midnight snack. Taiwanese people seem to be eating all the time, but yet they’re not fat. (Am I missing something here?)
There is something in Taiwan for everyone, from boring old seniors who just want to admire the scenery to daredevils who want to jump in front of live fireworks to animal lovers who want the dolphins swim happily at bay or go scuba diving in the deep waters to metal-heads who want to rock on with 50,000 of their closest friends.
So without further ado, here are the top ten places to go and what to do there.
10. Pingxi/Shifen (平溪/十分)
These two quiet and small towns are located in the mountains of New Taipei City (formerly Taipei County). First, I must admit, the food in these two cities suck. However, I did find the best gravy rice (肉燥飯) in all of Taiwan in a small mom and pop café in Pingxi. (If you find the small restaurant down one of the alleyways with the school benches for seats, that’s the one.)
These two small towns are formerly coal-mining centres whose supply has long dried up. As a result, the cities have stayed the same for ages. Coming here is like going back in time almost 100 years. Now thousands of tourists come here on the weekends to walk around the old laneways, catch in some beautiful scenery, and to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities.
The coolest thing about these two towns is the train that runs right smack in the middle of the cities. Thus, when the trains leave, the market re-opens, and everyone is back on the rails again.
About a ten-minute walk from the Shifen old town is Shifen Forest Park. This park is really quite nice and has three waterfalls. The first waterfall is not bad, and can be seen from the pathways. The second waterfall is nothing special. But the third waterfall is really quite impressive. But in order to get to see this third and grandest waterfall, you need to pay the admission fee. The park is weird, 90% of this park is free. However, the last and best 10% of the park is where they sock it to you. But the admission isn’t that expensive at 80NT.
Pingxi and Shifen are renown for their sky lanterns. Anyone can come and light one off at any time (about 150NT for one) and cast their wishes into the skies. But if you visit Shifen or Pingxi during the Lantern Festival (end of Jan/early Feb), it’s really something. Close to 100,000 sky lanterns are set off into the night sky. It’s really a sight to behold. It’s actually quite amazing to see.
These two towns can be reached via driving, although 90% of the towns’ visitors come by train on the Shifen Line that can be reached via Ruifang station.
9. Fengjia Night Market, Taichung. (逢甲夜市, 台中)
*Warning* Reading this section will cause you to salivate endlessly!
Don’t get me wrong, Taichung is a nice city to live in, but there’s really not much to do or see here other than “men-only” KTV (karaoke) houses and love motels. But then, in the northwest area of the city, is the enormous Fengjia Night Market.
This place is massive, huge, gargantuan, massive, gigantic, . . . (add your own superlative here). My last guess on how big it is, is about 10 city blocks . . . And it’s growing. This IS the must see in Taichung. Fengjia is the biggest, baddest, and best night market in Taiwan.
Maybe even in Asia. The world?
At the night market, you can find almost any kind of Chinese food that you can think of, and then some. Fengjia is a fat man’s paradise, and an anorexic’s worst nightmare.
There’s also tons of great shopping for clothes, shoes, souvenirs, knick-knacks, and whatever else you might need.
But the FOOD!!! MMMMMMMMMMM. Gravy rice, bbq sticks, noodles, fried rice, oyster omelets, shrimp, oysters, beef noodle soup, fried chicken breasts, ice cream, stews, eggs, etc.
The only drawback is getting here. Parking here is a headache in the neighbourhoods surrounding the area. As well, to take a taxi here from the train station will take about 30-45 minutes depending on traffic. Unless you know a local here, or your hotel isn’t too far from Fengjia, your best bet is to take a local bus.
Forget about what (you may have) heard about Shilin Market in Taipei or Huayuan Market in Tainan, Fengjia Night Market is where it’s at.
Hot dogs, steamed clams, steamed mussels, fresh fruit, sweet breads, pasta, dumplings, spring rolls, corn, peanuts, steak, . . ..
Oh, sorry about that. You can wipe the drool off your face now.
8. Aowanda National Forest Recreation Area (奧萬大國家森林遊樂區)
Nestled in the mountains of Nantou County in central Taiwan is an idyllic, quiet place filled with trees, flowers, mountains, and serenity. There are some animals here too (wild monkeys, pangolins, and enough frogs and bugs to make your head spin).
But, this place doesn’t nearly get the attention that it should. That’s likely because it is so far from everything. It’s a bit of a drive from here to the nearest city, Puli. Say… two hours up and down some of Taiwan’s most beautiful (and dangerous) roads. I don’t remember seeing any buses going there, so you’ll likely have drive your way there. Hiking or biking? Well, if you’ve got a day or two from Puli, I guess anything is possible.
Aowanda is high. It’s located on a plateau between some of the highest mountains and deepest valleys of Taiwan. If you want to climb the mountains surrounding the park, please go ahead. But remember to bring your mountain gear and get your mountain pass first.
Aowanda is one of the few places in Taiwan where you can see the sakura (cherry) blossoms in the spring AND the fall colours in autumn.
If you like going hiking, mountaineering, and enjoying the sounds of nature, Aowanda Forest Park is a great place for you.
But there is something that I really don’t understand about this place; why does it take 30 minutes to drive from the sign entrance to the tollgate?!!!
7. Checheng (車埕)
Wow! Just wow! These are the words that come out of your mouth as you get off the Jiji train. Checheng is the last stop on the mountain train line in central Taiwan.
I’ll be honest. There isn’t really much to do here. And I found this place by accident via en route to another place. But when I arrived here, Wow! I was completely in awe. This place was absolutely breathtaking. I had to stay here for a while and walk around a bit.
Ending up here was truly a happy accident.
Checheng’s old town sucks. It really bites. If you’re hungry, go to the 7-11. There’s a woodworking museum here, too. If you’re into that stuff, that’s cool. For me, it’s nothing much.
As for what to do here? Just walk around the lake, take it easy, and just stare in awe.
6. Taiwan’s northeast coast (台灣北海岸)
This area stretches from Shimen to Ilan. And is another one of those “Wow!” places in Taiwan. This is one of those beautiful Sunday drives that your father liked to talk about.
Let’s see what we got here?
Towering mountains? Check!
Delicious mouth watering seafood? Check!
Peculiar rock formations? Check!
Fishing villages? Check!
A giant beach that holds upwards of 50,000 people for a rock festival each summer? Check!
(I think you get my point.)
Note: during the winter and spring (plum) rainy seasons, this area gets a lot of rain. A whole lot. Bucket loads. (The summer is okay here.) So, if you can find a sunny day to come out here, then do it. Otherwise this place will become one of those “You know, I heard that’s a really nice place” place.
5. Jiufen (九份)
Do you like good food?
Do you like cape-side mountain views?
Do you like cool old cities with narrow alleyways?
Do you like feeling like a sardine trapped in a can?
Okay, I don’t think that you like the last one, but I’m pretty sure that you would really like the first three.
Jiufen is an old gold-mining town situated in the mountains between Keelung and Ruifang. On a clear day here, you can see for miles.
First, the food here is great.
I like to call this place the “Jerusalem of Taiwan” because this city has so many stairways going up and down the mountains. That being said, if you don’t have good knees, hips, or lungs, Jiufen is going to be a real problem for you. Wheelchair access in this city is next to impossible. (Sorry, guys)
However, if you do have a decent set of legs, you’ll be fine here. Although after a day here, your legs will resemble Lance Armstrong’s.
Personally, I think this is the most beautiful place in Taiwan. Others may not agree, but it’s definitely in their top five.
If you can, take a walk down to the old mine entrance. The mine has been closed for decades, but it’s a great leisurely stroll down the old alleyways and away from the tourist crowds.
Just a little piece of advice: if you don’t want to feel like a canned sardine when visiting here, try coming during the weekdays.
It really is nice here. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be so bloody popular.
4. Kenting-Taiwan’s Playground (墾丁)
Kenting is located in Pingtung County, at the southernmost tip of Taiwan. Kenting is what the locals mean when they say they want to visit Pingtung. Kenting is where Taiwan goes to play and get away from it all.
Every spring, over hundreds of thousands of partygoers make their way south to Kenting for one of Asia’s biggest music festival, Spring Scream. During this time, every hotel, motel, B n B, outhouse, and doghouse is booked solid. Thus, if you’re planning to come to Spring Scream and staying for the entire weekend, then book ahead. Well, well in advance.
Let’s see what else Kenting has. Hmm… there’s a national park, along with snorkeling and scuba diving, and other watersports. Oh wait, you can also have fun go-karting, hiking, seeing incredible cliffs or towering mountains. Oh silly me, I almost forgot about the amazing seafood.
On average, Kenting is the hottest place in Taiwan. If it goes down below 20C in the winter for a week or two, the locals will claim it’s turning into Antarctica because usually the temperature is in the 30s.
In many ways, Kenting is similar to Phuket, Thailand or Boracay, Philippines but without the shystering local shopkeepers or busloads of prostitutes. The local shopkeepers here are basically honest and easy-going. There aren’t hucksters pushing you to buy copy Rolexes or fake LV bags. Nor will local taxi drivers “take you for a ride.” Generally speaking, with the exception of the Spring Scream weekend when all inhibitions are let loose, Kenting is a laid back town where everyone can relax and take it easy.
If you’re coming here, do what the Taiwanese do; rent a scooter from your hotel (about 500NT/day) and then you can go around at your own pace.
Forget Phuket or Boracay, Kenting is where it’s at!
3. Taroko/Hualien County (太魯閣/花蓮縣)
Although I personally prefer Checheng and Jiufen, most Taiwanese and other visitors to Taiwan would agree that Hualien is the most beautiful place in Taiwan. And when people say Hualien, they don’t mean the boring, quiet Hualien City, what they really mean is Taroko Gorge National Park. Hualien City is merely where all the hotels are. When travelers come to Hualien City, they’re doing everything that they can to GET OUT of Hualien City.
If you’re a nature nut, this is definitely the place for you. If you’re a fan of the open road, you’ll LOVE Hualien County. Compared to the crowded, congested, crazy roads of the western half of the island where 95% of Taiwan’s 23 million people live, there’s almost no one on the roads here.
If you want to know what makes Hualien so special, you’ll have to visit Taroko to understand why.
At Taroko Gorge National Park, there are dozens of mountains well over 3000 metres high. As well, you can visit the caves, the canyons, and the waterfalls if you are willing to venture far enough.
The mountains of Taroko have a cool grayish-white colour due to the high marble content of the mountains. About 20 years ago, the Taiwanese government was seriously considering mining the area and selling the marble, which could have closed off the park forever.
Thank goodness, they decided against it.
Taroko is a hikers’ and cyclists’ paradise. It is one of the few places on the island that still offers unspoiled nature and if you walk off the pathways, you’ll likely find yourself face to face with deer, monkeys, bears or even worse, the dreaded 100 paces snake. Take it easy, usually the biggest thing that you will likely encounter is a dragonfly (which don’t bite). Once you have finished your long hike or drive through the mountains, you can soak up in one of Taroko’s many hot springs. These springs are great for soothing your skin and muscles (and keeps you looking younger, too!).
Outside of Taroko, Hualien County also offers absolutely mesmerizing ocean scenery. This is especially true at Qixingtan Beach, where the water is so blue that it makes the sky jealous. PS, swimming is forbidden here because of the tremendous undertow.
If you venture far enough into Hualien County, there are also tourist farms and whitewater rafting. But when you come back to Hualien City, make sure that you pick up some mochi to take home.
Hualien County is also the heartland of Taiwan’s aboriginal culture whose cultures are quite different from the Chinese. Tourists are always welcome to visit the aboriginals’ festivals and ceremonies. And if you’re looking for a little pick-me-up, you can try some millet wine, their traditional drink.
Hualien is a great place to visit, but it’s only #3 on the list. Now for …
2. Tainan-where Taiwan began (台南)
History in Tainan is everywhere. Tainan is also the place where Chinese religion is alive, well, and growing. This is the oldest and most traditional city in Taiwan. It is also the city with the best food BY FAR in Taiwan.
The history of Tainan is actually the history of Taiwan since Tainan was the original capital of the country. Everywhere you go in Tainan is a testimonial to its history. Go one way, there’s an old city gate. Turn the other way, there’s an old fortress. Maybe if you go down this street, there’s an old city wall. Or if you go down that street, you can walk down a 200 year-old alleyway. And every which way you go in Tainan, there’s an old temple.
Temples in Tainan are EVERYWHERE! Big temples, small temples, old temples, new temples, Taoist temples, Buddhist temples, and Confucian temples. There are even mall-sized temples. In fact, there are about 300 temples in Tainan, and this number is growing. Tainan is essentially the Jerusalem or Mecca of Chinese religion. Since communism in China essentially wiped out religious practices, temples there do not have the same essence or fervor as they do in Taiwan. And nowhere is that essence more prominent than in Tainan. In Tainan, religion never died, it prospered.
A funny fact about Tainan is that Tainan also has Taiwan’s largest Christian population. About 10% of the locals are Christian. Thus, one can also see many churches throughout the city. Even more unusual, is that there have never been any problems between the Christians and the Buddhist or Taoists, or the combination that is called “Chinese religion.” Go figure!
Almost every weekend in the summer is a temple festival. Perhaps it’s a god’s birthday, or it is a temple’s anniversary or some other religious holiday. Some of these festivals are quite small. While others are gargantuan and block off entire city blocks and last a whole week. You might see a massive street parade (usually at night along either Jinhua, Minzu, or Hai-An Roads) complete with drummers, parade floats, Chinese operas, Chinese symphonies, puppet shows, pole dancers (yes, you read that correctly), and dozens of tables of food art. And of course, every temple festival must have fireworks. Lots and lots of fireworks. What most countries show during New Year’s Day or National Day ceremonies are rather just your average weekend here. Tainan is probably the only city in the world whose citizens are BORED of fireworks.
For a smaller city (Tainan’s population is about 750, 000), Tainan has a surprisingly good nightlife. Most bars close around 4 or 5, although some bars will stay open until 7 am. You can even do shopping 24-7 in Tainan. Do you want to buy a pair of glasses or a dog at 3 am? Why would you want to, I’m not sure. But in Tainan, you can.
But the best part of Tainan, I saved for last. THE FOOD!!!
Tainan has the best food in Taiwan by far. And since Tainan is a 24-hour city, there’s always something good to eat at any time.
Let me help you a bit; pork gravy rice, eel noodles, sushi, fish ball soup, bean pudding, fried shrimp rolls, ginger duck hot pot, roasted goose, goat in sesame oil, yam balls, fried fish, every kind of noodle under the sun, tofu, shaved ice with fruit, and so much more. Go to one of the night markets or restaurants and eat until you burst. Even the Beijing duck in Tainan is better than in Beijing. Even the hamburgers here taste as good as any in the West.
Tainan is located in Taiwan’s southern agricultural heartland. Thus, you can always have the freshest fruit and vegetables possible. Mangoes, wax apples, Buddha heads, jujubes, Asian pears, of course the biggest (20kg), juiciest, sweetest, most delicious watermelons you can ever sink your teeth into.
That’s how good Tainan’s food is. Architecturally, Tainan isn’t much. But with history, culture, fun, and food everywhere in the city, you can’t go wrong.
But still, there’s . . .
1. Taipei (台北)
The biggest, baddest, and best place in Taiwan.
If there is one place that you have to visit in Taiwan, it’s Taipei.
Okay, its weather sucks. In the winter, it’s cold, gloomy, and rainy. In the summer, it’s hotter than a frying pan and more humid than a steam room. Throughout the year, it rains almost every other day. Taipei is also one of the most crowded cities in the world. As well, compared to the rest of Taiwan, it’s much more expensive. But look at what it has… EVERYTHING!
There is culture, entertainment, food, sports, people, commerce, shopping, nature (yes, nature), hotels, and one of the best nightlifes in all of Asia.
Taipei is a fast-paced, hustling and bustling, modern city. But even in this modern metropolis, there are pockets of tradition here and there. As well, there are many places where one can slow down if they tire of the hectic pace and want to relax.
In Taipei, things are usually built on a grand scale. First, there is Taipei 101. If you want to see it, look up, way up. Until, 2010, it was the world’s tallest building. Taipei 101 has the best view of Taipei. When it’s a clear day, you can see for miles. Coming here on New Year’s Eve is really something else when almost a million people come to watch the fireworks explode off of Taipei 101.
Taipei also has Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall and Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, two very large and beautiful public squares. There’s also the massive Presidential Palace. (However, entry is forbidden to anyone but government ministers.) But, you can visit the Grand Hotel (what a fitting name), which is as big as a castle. Getting hungry? Then you should visit the Shilin Night Market; two square kilometres of food, fun, and shopping.
Despite being one of the most crowded cities in the world, Taipei has a surprising amount of green space. There are three big parks: Bitan, Dajia, and Da-an. Taipei even has a national park in the city, Yangmingshan (Mt. Yangming) National Park. If you’re thinking it can’t be that big, think again, its highest peak (Mt. Datun) is 1120 metres high. Furthermore, many hot springs are located around Yangmingshan, the most famous being Beitou. There’s also Tamsui in the north of the city where you and your friends can walk along the riverside boardwalk or visit the old city while slurping down a giant ice cream cone or devouring delicious seafood. Taipei also has over 10 kilometres of bike trails that are devoid of the city’s crazy drivers. If you want to ride in the sky, try taking the Maokong Gondola that soars over Taipei’s tea mountains.
But Taipei’s real passion is making money. Taipei is one of the most capitalistic cities in the entire world. Therefore, as a testimony to its commercialism, there is shopping everywhere in the city (at all hours, too). Here are some of the major shops and shopping districts around the city:
Ximenting: Young and urban. It’s sort of like Tokyo’s Harajuku district. If you walk a bit farther towards the Taipei Train Station, you will also get to see the audio/visual, camera streets, and the (Chinese) book streets
Zhongxiao East Road: Cool and modern. Check out the back streets at night for even more stuff.
Xinyi: Dress to impress. If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.
Zhongcheng: Grandma’s favorites.
Wufenpu: Get it here first.
Shin Kong, Sogo: (various locations) giant department stores with everything good under the sun.
Guanghua: nerd central. It’s arguably the best computer marketplace in the world.
Jiangguo: if it grows or it’s green (jade), they’ve got it.
Dihua Street: Traditional Chinese medicine. It’s best to come here just before Chinese New Year’s (Jan/Feb) when this street has an impressive Chinese New Year’s market. Pick up some banners, decorations, or snack until you burst with nuts, candies, and (my favourite) kali-kali.
If you’re a culture vulture, check out two of Taipei’s most famous temples: Longshan Temple and Xingtian Temple. While you are in those areas, you can also visit one of the many fortune-tellers.
Taipei is also Asia’s convention capital. If you’re trying to break into the Asian market, you’ve got to come to Taipei first to make all those connections. Taipei is also a very safe city as its crime rate is low, especially compared with other big cities such as New York or London. Not to say that nothing can happen, but it’s extremely rare. So if you want to go out a night, feel free, but just don’t be stupid about it.
Taipei also has more convenience stores per capita than any place on Earth. It’s almost like a plague in Taipei. However, you can always fulfill those last minute cravings anywhere, anytime. Which brings me to the best thing about Taipei.
Convenience. Taipei has an incredibly efficient subway, bus, train, high-speed rail, bicycle, air, and road networks. In Taiwan, all roads lead to Taipei. The subway (MRT) is clean, fast, and gets you to most attractions. If you’re in a real hurry, you can always take the taxis to get around town. Taipei’s taxis run by the meter and are not in the business of “taking you for a ride.” But you must have your destination written in Chinese because few if any drivers speak English. It really is quite easy to get around the city, and it’s not (too) expensive. You can travel anywhere in this city at anytime.
So there you have it, the ten best of Taiwan. Taiwan is one of the easiest countries in the world to visit. It’s safe, fairly cheap (especially in the south), and Taiwan has got something for everyone.
WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?!