It’s a sad and unfortunate fact that many travelers don’t put Taiwan high on their travel wishlist; it may be the most underrated of all the South East Asian countries. To highlight the missed opportunities of skipping a connection in Taipei, this Wednesday I’ve put together enough things to do in Taiwan to keep you busy for half a day or half a year. If you’re on your way to Asia and are even mildly adventurous Taiwan will quickly surprise you.
Situated 80 miles off the coast of mainland China, the city is abuzz with what’s new and not so new. Surely, the past 50 years has had an adverse effect on the popular opinion, with its perceived endless sprawling factories, electronics assembly plants and swatches of endless neon glowing menacingly through some kind of dystopian gloom.
While the western half of the island may be somewhat overdone with urban sprawl there’s so much to do in the country you’ll forget the reputation and leave comfortable, relaxed and delighted you came, likely with a memory card full of photographs. Mist-covered mountains, hot springs, national parks and a culture as ancient and rich as any in the entire eastern hemisphere.
Taiwan offers visitors a hypermodern skin, an ancient Chinese skeleton and an aboriginal soul. And more than that, Taiwan has some of the world’s warmest people, affable to a fault and so filled with rénqíng wèi (which, roughly translated, means “personal affection”) that few who come to Taiwan a stranger leave that way. ~ Lonely Planet
Situated on the northern coast of the sweet potato-shaped island Taipei reigns supreme as the capital and the populace packs into her borders. At roughly the same population as Chicago and half its size you’d think there’d be little breathing room. It’s not the case. The city feels quite relaxed considering its density.
1. Shop till you, um… drop – It’s a reason to visit Taiwan in and of itself. Night markets, department stores, pedestrian-only streets and bazaars, with bars and restaurants to cool the heels really make Taipei a shoppers Mecca. The city is equally as cosmopolitan and good looking as any place in Tokyo or Hong Kong.
2. Scale the Taipei 101 – Tell your friends you could only have been higher if that upstart Dubai building hadn’t come along. Towering at nearly 1700 feet, this is the world’s second tallest building. Catch the view from the top and prepare to have your mind blown.
Note about getting around Taipei: You can travel around the city by metro or bus but English is hardly widespread. Study your timetable at length before you leave your room and if you’re planning on cabbing it, have your destination written down in Chinese so that the driver can get you there.
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Rest of the country
3. Stroll the shores of Sun Moon Lake – take a lazy lakeside toddle around this picture-postcard bit of scenery in the country’s central mountain range. When the mists spiral upwards and the rainbow-dragons take flight, make sure you get that picture. Ten miles north is the behemoth Chung Tai Chan Monastery. It’s architecture blending modernity and traditional Buddhist style in perfect balance.
4. Take the Alishan Railway up the hill – Ride on this historic narrow-gauge railway from the rice paddies of the lowlands, traversing tunnels and bridges up to the lush evergreen forests at 7300+ feet. You won’t even need to remember to pack your childish wonder. It’ll just be there.
5. Wander Taroko Gorge – Taroko National Park is Taiwan’s most visited park, but don’t let that stop you. The Gorge is a perennial crowd-pleaser and deserves to be witnessed firsthand. If you thought you were immune to the romanticism of nature, try these 500-foot cliffs, cascading waterfalls and mist-shrouded forests on for size.
6. Drive Highway 11 – One of the two scenic routes that travel north and south on the east side of the island (the other is Highway 9). This route travels the very shoreline of the East Coast National Scenic Area, showcasing some of the most picturesque coastal scenery in the country. The ocean is on one side, the mountains on the other, with you threading the needle down the middle. Plenty of camping awaits.
7. Laze in Kenting – At the very southern tip of the island is the famous Taiwanese beach and vacationer’s paradise of Kenting. Few non-natives make it down this way, and it’s too bad. Much snorkeling, diving and white-sand cavorting will ensue.
8. Catch a baseball game — Brought to Taiwan by the Japanese (well, what did you think?) there’s a strong local baseball following bolstered by the national team’s second place finish in the Japanese national championships, with several Taiwanese players subsequently being drafted to the MLB. Their teams were all absorbed by the Chinese Professional Baseball League of Taiwan a few years back but still play hard for their fans. The LA Dodgers are playing the CPBL March 13 and 14. See it and marvel at the differences!
9. Ride the bullet train – There’s nothing like sitting in comfort, sipping a coffee, while the world blurs underneath you at 150mph. Taiwan has one of the fastest, and sexiest, trains in the world, catapulting you from Taipei to Kaohsiung in just 90 minutes. (Oh, they’re 215 miles apart!) Off peak fares are only $28 one way.
10. Rock out at a music festival – hit the scene with Taiwan’s rocker youth. If you’re there the first weekend of April, bullet south to Kenting for the “Spring Scream“, a wild, truly Asian rock spectacle. 250 bands played over 3 days for the 2008 edition.
11. Dip your toe in a hot spring – There are more than 150 separate hot springs scattered throughout the country of Taiwan, and with the volcanic mountains it’s not hard to figure out why. Vulcan likes hot water! Many of these springs waters are piped right into local hotel rooms and spas. Two of the most popular are Wulai and Yangmingshan, up in the Volcanic National Park, both less than an hour from Taipei. Or else, try Taian Hot Springs, one that must be experienced. Note: unless the springs are mixed sex, it’s etiquette to be naked while bathing. So there’s that.
12. Noodle up – hit up a back-alley noodle shop and eat cheaper than anywhere else. You can get a filling bowlful for about a buck twenty-five. I won’t even get into the quality of the food in general, which is traditionally very close to the hearts of the Taiwanese. Eat at a big round table with as many friends as possible. Chopsticks will fly.
13. Visit a Seven-Eleven – 7-11s in Taiwan are far more than they are anywhere else on earth. Ultra-prevalent, they’re frequented by the locals for everything from paying bills to having dinner. Even if you’ve had enough of your hometown 7-11, they’re no joke in Taiwan. Not to mention they may be the only air-conditioned box you’ll find within 5 miles.
14. Learn the martial arts – Kung fu is prominently taught in Taiwan along with Taekwondo, and there are masters who will take foreigners under their wing. They even give visa extensions for those who wish to continue their training. Fear is the only darkness, Grasshopper.
15. Get a job – Teaching English is a common way to make money while on the road and the opportunities in Taiwan are plentiful. There is even a heavy favoritism displayed for the North American-English accent. You can make up to $20 per teaching hour, and even more for private lessons. Check out englishintaiwan.com for details.
16. Chew a Betel nut – chewing the seed of the Betel Palm is almost as popular as breathing in Taiwan and no doubt associated with the intoxicating effects. And the mega-industry that sprung up around its production and distribution has spawned a franchise of scantily clad young women called Betelnut Girls who sit in glass roadside boxes selling the “drug” to any driver and passerby who craves it. They even have their own documentary! Be careful not to chew long-term, it’s a known carcinogen.
Only in 2008 did the first nonstop flight in 60 years take place between mainland China and Taiwan, making it easier than ever to get there. Flights now exist from Taipei to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Xian.
If you’re coming from the USA, Taipei is a great stopover opportunity with China Airlines and EVA Air providing flights from the west coast continuing to many points in South East Asia, China, Korea and even India. Take TripPlanner for a spin and see about adding Taiwan to your round the world itinerary.
The Portuguese originally called Taiwan Ilha Formosa or “beautiful island” – it’s lost nothing of that namesake four centuries later.