When you first step out onto the streets of Taipei it can be an overwhelming experience, especially at night. The city is incredibly busy and bustling crowds, neon signs and the smell of stinky tofu assaults the senses (it’s actually called stinky tofu, we’re not savaging their cuisine). You never really get used to it when visiting.
However, I found that busyness only added to the excitement of being in a city so far removed from my own, and over a few tremendously enjoyable in days in Taipei I tried to see and do as much as possible. Here’s a countdown of my favourite things to do in and around Taiwan’s capital.
11. Visit Longshan Temple
Crowds of worshippers gather to pray to over 100 different gods and goddesses at the remarkable Longshan Temple, which is found in the historic Wanhua district of Taipei. Beautiful paintings and sculptures adorn the temple buildings, and offerings to the gods are piled high on every available surface. It’s a fascinating place to visit.
10. Enjoy the view from Elephant Mountain
For the best view of Taipei hike up Elephant Mountain, which is accessible on foot from the Taipei 101 tower, though you can also take a train right to the foot of the trail. Climbing up the stair-filled route takes around 20 minutes and the reward is a sensational view of the city with Taipei 101 in the foreground. If you go up in late afternoon you can watch the sun set over the city.
9. Strike gold in Jiufen
The charming mountain town of Jiufen is a short bus, train or taxi ride away from Taipei and well worth making time for. Jiufen was a gold-mining town during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan between 1895 and 1945, and its architecture reflects this Japanese influence. The setting of the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away is often said to be based on Jiufen and although director Hayao Miyazaki has denied the link, the scenery of the town does bring to mind the classic anime.
8. Watch the changing of the guard at the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall
Found at one end of the massive Liberty Square in the centre of Taipei, the Memorial Hall contains a statue of Chiang Kai-shek, a military and political leader in the Republic of China who moved the government to Taipei in 1949 when the Communist Party founded the People’s Republic of China on the mainland. Chiang’s legacy is a matter of debate, but he is one of the most important figures in the history of Taiwan. Time your visit on the hour to watch the changing of the guards at the Memorial Hall.
7. Cycle along the rivers
Cyclists are well catered for in Taipei with over 100km of cycle paths along the banks of the rivers that frame the city. The Tamsui and Keelung Rivers surround the centre of Taipei, and there are many riverside parks to cruise through on an extended ride that offers great views of the urban skyline. It’s best to get up early to do this though, because the heat and humidity can be fierce.
6. Release a sky lantern in Shifen
Shifen is another former gold-mining town just outside Taipei that you can combine with a visit to Jiufen for a day trip. Along with a stunning waterfall, Shifen’s main attraction is sky lanterns, which are set off from the train tracks in the town. Write your hopes and wishes on the lantern, or just something inspirational you saw on Instagram, and then let it fly.
5. Go shopping in Dihua street
Found in the Datong district of Taipei, Dihua Street is one of the oldest in the city, and one of the most exciting to walk down. Shops selling local products crowd both sides of the street, with tea, medicinal herbs, incense and an incredible variety of dried food, including sea creatures and seemingly every mushroom in existence, available. You’ll also find plenty of street performers on Dihua Street. The quality of these varies, as you’d expect, but a very talented string quintet of young children brightened up my visit immeasurably.
4. Eat dumplings
If you can, eat dumplings at Din Tai Fung, which has several restaurants in Taipei including one at the base of Taipei 101 – just look for the big queue. Din Tai Fung specialises in xiao long bao, soup dumplings that contain broth along with filling. Scaldingly hot broth, so don’t dive in as soon as the dumplings arrive at your table. Instead, hold the dumpling on a spoon after dipping it in a mix of soy sauce, vinegar and ginger, then let the broth cool a little before consuming. The dumplings are excellent and you can watch them being made through the glass walls of the kitchen. The chefs make thousands of dumplings by hand each day, with each one folded 18 times to create the twirl at the top.
3. Hit the heights at Taipei 101
The tallest building in the world when it was completed in 2004, Taipei 101 has since dropped to tenth spot in the rankings, but when you take the lift to the top it I can confirm it still feels mighty high. That lift was once the fastest in the world, travelling at 60.6km/h, though like the tower it climbs it has been superseded by the lift in the Shanghai Tower. There are indoor and outdoor observatories near the top of the tower, both of which provide glorious views of Taipei that only lack Taipei 101 itself. I recommend heading up after the sun sets to see the city at night.
2. Stay up late at a night market
Unless you’re chowing down at Din Tai Fung, I recommend going pretty light on dinner and saving some room for the abundance of tasty snacks on offer at Taipei’s many night markets. These are found all over the city – just follow the sights, sounds and smells until you find one. You’ll discover a fantastic range of snacks – although I’m not including the omnipresent stinky tofu in that fantastic tag – drinks, including the always exciting bubble tea, and fairground games to try your luck on. Forget bars and clubs, this is where you want to go when the sun goes down.
1. Run the EVA Air Marathon
The main reason I travelled to Taipei was to take part in the inaugural EVA Air Marathon, which is not actually a marathon – in parts of Asia the word is used loosely to describe long races. The event has a half marathon, a 10K and a 3km, all of which start very early indeed to avoid the worst of the heat. Along with 5,000 other people I ran the half marathon, which started in the dark at 5.30am. This made the early kilometres of the race in the city centre pretty eerie, with normally bustling streets almost entirely deserted.
After seven kilometres or so the race hits the Keelung River and sticks to the banks until the finish, making for a very scenic run that offers grand vistas of the city and, owing to the early start, a view of the sunrise over some distant mountains. It’s a terrific event and set to return in 2019, though sign-up details are yet to be released. It’s also timed perfectly during autumn in Taiwan, when it isn’t stiflingly hot and there’s little rain.
EVA Air flies to Taipei from London Heathrow via Bangkok daily. Economy return fares from £533, premium economy return fares from £1,051, Royal Laurel return fares from £2,331. evaair.com
Visit the Taiwan Tourism Bureau online for help preparing an itinerary