Taiwan: What To Do & See In An Often-Overlooked Country
Today’s guest post comes from Adam Smith, an American travel writer, CPA, TNN member, and all-around adventure seeker. Not only were many of his world views and paradigms on life flipped completely upside down but he has learned many life lessons from travel through the years, including from his time living in Taiwan as an expat English teacher for FREE, that he wishes to pass on to everyone else. Adam is also the writer behind this post all about the most delicious food to eat in Taiwan.
When planning a trip to Asia, travelers often consider destinations such as Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam. While these are all amazing places and well worth visiting, one country that often gets overlooked is Taiwan.
Why Taiwan doesn’t get the publicity it deserves is somewhat of a mystery to me — although there is one giant reason to the northwest of the island. Despite the Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to keep Taiwan under the radar by applying political pressure to organizations, such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations, once people experience this beautiful country, there is an unmistakable feeling of home that makes you want to never leave.
Although it’s a shame that many people still don’t know the wonders of Taiwan, you can take advantage of this by having the country relatively to yourself! While there are still tourists, you won’t see hordes of people like in more popular destinations, which also makes getting the perfect photographic shots relatively easy.
Whether you love hiking, sightseeing, exploring, partying, relaxing, or simply eating, Taiwan has it all. Also, despite the endless number of things to do, Taiwan is quite affordable, even in Taipei, where things are more expensive than anywhere else on the island.
While you can spend a lifetime uncovering Taiwan’s secrets and finding the beauty of each small town, I will be covering five of the major must-see cities/areas; for each, I will detail places you should make a priority on your trip.
Places You MUST Visit in Taiwan
Without a doubt, Taipei, located in the north, is the business and entertainment capital of Taiwan. Since it is an international city, you will be sure to find fun and exciting events happening each weekend. Despite how large Taipei is, it is quite easy to get from one place to another via the MRT system, which far exceeds any subway system in the US in quality, cleanliness, and comfort. In Taipei, most people are also fluent in English.
If you are seeking out the hippest, trendiest part of town, look no further than the highly acclaimed Xinyi District. Here you will find a multitude of shops, including high-end ones for those looking to splurge a bit more. Also, there are endless, amazing dining options to enjoy; whether you are looking for Taiwanese cuisine or something more international, you are sure to find excellent food all around this area of town!
To this day, one of my absolute favorite Italian restaurants in the world — it even beats Italy — is called Botega del Vin. Had I not been living in Taiwan, I probably would have never thought to try Italian food here, but the gnocchi and veal are perfecto! When it comes to Taiwanese food, you’ll also find world-famous restaurants, such as Din Tai Fung and Mala Hotpot, both of which I frequent, since the food is spectacular!
Outside of shopping and eating, there is an abundance of entertainment options in Xinyi. Many times, when I had no plans for the evening, I would simply take a train or bus to Xinyi and roam the streets; often, you will find excellent street performers that help set the atmosphere.
Most of the time, when I want to enjoy a night out with friends, this is the area I go to, as the streets are lined with plenty of bars and clubs. If you have never experienced the club scene in Asia, you will be surprised how much different (and in my opinion, better) the experience is! The quality is simply top-notch, and even the ones locals dismiss as mediocre or bad are better than the majority I went to in my college days in America.
When Taipei 101 was built in 2004, it was the tallest building in the world! (Now it is 10th on the list.) Taipei 101 also previously held the record for fastest elevator; having ridden it myself, I can say it’s pretty crazy how quickly you get from the bottom to the highest level they allow guests on (the 91st floor).
One fun fact: Due to Taiwanese superstition, there is no fourth floor in the building, which is a common occurrence throughout the island, as the word for 4, si, resembles the word for “death.” The more you know!
I have always had an affinity for the beauty of Danshui (also spelled Tamsui), which is located on the river. Sunset over the river is a perfect romantic spot for couples; if you’d like, you can even take a cheap ferry ride. While Danshui’s night market is extremely popular, its beauty, vibe, and open space (not to mention the fresh seafood) make it a must-visit. Between the cheese-filled fried chicken, squid-on-a-stick, fried quail eggs, and sky-high ice cream cones, I dare you to not leave Danshui fat & happy. (I also recommend visiting the Raohe Night Market if you get a chance. Although the Shilin Night Market gets most of the attention, I think it’s way overrated and way too crowded to enjoy; even a normal weekday sees insane crowds.)
Wulai Aboriginal Village
One of the neatest and most unique experiences I had in Taiwan came back in 2014 when I was an exchange student; one of the classes I took was about indigenous tribes in Taiwan, and my professor, who is part of the Atayal tribe, recommended that I visit Wulai. This part of Taipei is home to that tribe, and you can experience a full day as an honorary member; since my great-granddad was a Native American chief in the Cherokee tribe, I was instantly intrigued.
During my day with the friendly Atayal people, I did some great hiking, learned about old “booby traps” from ancient times, was taught how to use a bow and arrow (poorly), learned how to make things by hand (also poorly), and joined the group for a circular tribal lunch. Despite not having inherited any natural skills from my great-granddad, I had a blast meeting so many awesome people and learning their way of life. They told me that very few Westerners make their way to the village, so they were happy to introduce me to their culture. It was an enlightening experience, and I encourage you to try it if you get the chance!
National Palace Museum
The National Palace Museum is one of my favorite museums in the entire world, including Europe. There is so much history lining the walls of this grand place, and its extensive collections get rotated every so often to keep the experience fresh for repeat visitors. If you are a lover of art and history, put this near the top of your list!
Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall & Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall
Two of the best historical sites to visit in all of Taiwan are the Chiang Kai-shek & Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Halls, which are both located in Taipei. To get to either one, you can easily take the convenient MRT subway system and disembark at the stops with the same name. I recommend always learning as much about the local culture and history as possible when traveling, so try to make time for these when in Taipei. Also, the buildings and surrounding areas are beautiful. (Matt does a nice job of summarizing both of these historical sites here.)
While there are other, arguably better mountains in the Taipei area, the photo that never fails to make others jealous is taken atop Elephant Mountain. Once you finish hiking to the top, you can climb on a rock to get a beautiful shot of downtown Taipei, including the famed Taipei 101.
Beitou Hot Springs
The beautiful Beitou Hot Springs are not just delightful to look at, you can enjoy them as well. After an exhausting day, when you think your feet are going to fall off, it feels great to soak them in these hot waters. Be sure to shower before doing so, though. Also, keep in mind that some springs are hotter than others.
2. Keelung – Heping Island Park & Zhengbin Fishing Port
The stars of the show in Keelung are the many awe-inspiring views to be had. At the Zhengbin Fishing Port, simply looking out over the water: seeing all the colorful buildings lined up with many boats docked in front is a wonder to behold. Additionally, at Heping Island Park, the natural rock formations that have developed over the years are interesting to look at.
Centrally located, Taichung has perhaps the best weather in all of Taiwan. From here, any destination in Taiwan is just a day trip away, which makes living in Taichung especially convenient. Even better, Taichung itself is one of the best destinations in the country and has plenty to see, do, and eat!
Feng Chia Night Market
One of my favorite night markets in Taiwan, Feng Chia is very large and spans many streets, so be prepared to get your steps in! You will need all of that walking to combat the impending food coma coming from all of the delicious food you’ll be eating.
Nantou – Sun Moon Lake
I have been to Nantou many times, but I recall my first experience vividly: I was on a gondola high in the sky, and as it started to descend above the mountains and over the lake, the beautiful imagery became ingrained in my brain.
This is a wonderfully relaxing area to visit. The best time to go is September, during the Mid-Autumn Festival (Moon Festival); during this holiday, friends and family alike have massive barbecues. As you’re surrounded by loved ones, chowing down on perfectly charred meat and vegetables and admiring the majestic views in front of you, it’s hard not to be thankful.
Nantou – Qingjing Farm
First, Qingjing Farm is massive! I love how much space the cows, sheep, and horses have to roam around; just watch out for all of the sheep dung, as it’s everywhere! That aside, there is a peaceful atmosphere permeating the air, aided by the surrounding mountains. The views at Qingjing Farm are enchanting.
Dakeng – Hiking Trails
For those of you looking for some great hiking trails in Taichung, Dakeng is loaded with them! The picturesque views are like something out of a movie. No matter how many times I hike these, it never gets old.
At 7,152 feet (2,180 meters), Yuanzui Mountain isn’t one of the tallest in Taiwan, but I do find it to be one of the most breathtakingly beautiful in the entire country. Even better, applying for a permit is not necessary, so you can come and go as you wish; be sure to take the normal precautions as you would when climbing any other mountain.
Probably my favorite city in all of Taiwan, Tainan in the south has such a laid-back feel to it. There is a reason why many, including myself, call it the “Kyoto of Taiwan.” If you have never been to Kyoto or Tainan, then let me explain what that means.
When you walk down the streets, watch the interactions of the people, and enjoy all the delicious local cuisine, there is just a noticeable homey feeling that is hard to put into words. Every time I visit, I never want to leave. (I’ve had many thoughts of moving to Tainan, and that may indeed happen in the future. Considering my wife is Taiwanese, I will likely live in Taiwan again. It is simply a matter of WHEN not if.)
Garden Night Market
Arguably the best night market in all of Taiwan, the Garden (Flower) Night Market has plenty to offer for everyone. It is quite easy to get lost in the sea of food vendors serving classic Taiwanese street food, cuisine local to Tainan, and even some international food for less adventurous guests. However, despite all the options, the fresh seafood and lu wei steal the show. This night market’s version of lu wei is chicken marinated in a hot broth of soy sauce with various spices; the flavor is off the charts, and my mouth waters just thinking about it. I could eat nothing but this and be very happy. The fried squid and oyster omelets are also popular options.
Anping Old Street
The first ancient, traditional street in Tainan I’d like to introduce you to is Anping Old Street (Anping Lao Jie); this is the oldest street in Tainan. Whether you prefer to walk or bike your way around the area, Anping Old Street is one of the absolute must-see areas when you go to Tainan. The roads in this area are narrow, and the houses are unique in their appearance. If you look closely in the Anping District of Tainan, you will notice the city symbol on some of the doorways: the famed sword-lion.
Although short, Shennong Street has many older-style buildings lined with lanterns. I enjoy the feeling I get here. Also, there were these mysterious lottery-style vending machines owners put outside of their buildings; inside were gift boxes that could contain anything from a cheap toy to an expensive iPhone, iPad, or camera.
Yet another awesome, laid-back street filled with local designers is Fuzhong Street. For a small price, we even were taught by an older gentleman how to make a snack known as honeycomb toffee; to be honest, it reminds me of the food Rey eats near the beginning of the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
(If you didn’t realize by now, in Taiwan, it’s super easy to get your steps in, due to all of the great places to see!)
Chikan Lou (Fort Provintia)
A historical site built by the Dutch many centuries ago, Chikan Lou is fascinating from an architectural standpoint. Despite all the different periods of rule Taiwan has gone through, I’m glad to see it still maintains the original design.
Confucius Temple (Kong Miao)
Finally, another site rich with history is the Confucius Temple. Although it’s great to marvel at the architecture here as well, don’t miss the beautifully written calligraphy; it takes so much skill and hard work to master the art of calligraphy, and most Taiwanese learn how to do this from a young age. I have trouble making even the simplest Chinese characters look nice.
If you are looking for a destination sure to make all your friends and family back home jealous, Hualien fits the bill! This mountainous area is full of natural beauty just waiting to be explored, but since it’s on the east coast, you’ll find that it’s not easy making your way there. While public transportation is great throughout much of Taiwan, it is lacking a bit in terms of options to reach to this area. While it is possible to find bus and train routes, the quickest, easiest, and most convenient way to travel to Hualien is by renting a scooter. Fair warning: the roads are a bit narrow, so be safe, and always stay alert!
Taroko Gorge National Park
The views at Taroko National Park are incredible! At times, you may pinch yourself to believe what you’re seeing is real. You’ll want to be sure to take this moment in and fully appreciate the beauty. No words or pictures can give do place proper justice; go see it for yourself!
You’ll be mesmerized by the uniqueness of Qixingtan Beach, which is covered in stones. When in Hualien, find time to come check this place out! (Remember to take plenty of photos; when you’re in the moment and experiencing the pure awesomeness firsthand, it can be so easy to forget to capture it on camera.)
Some might be surprised to find out that Kaohsiung is the second-largest city in all of Taiwan, behind only Taipei. It has an MRT public transportation system, albeit smaller than Taipei’s.
If I had to describe Kaohsiung in one word, it would be “friendly.” On my initial study-abroad trip, the university I attended was located in Zhongli, which is roughly an hour south of Taipei. The students who showed us around to different local spots told us that people are generally a lot friendlier down south in Kaohsiung than they are up north in Taipei.
In my experience, Taiwanese are some of the friendliest people in the entire world, both in the north and south. However, the extent of this friendliness is quite noticeable in Kaohsiung. You could be standing on the sidewalk with a puzzled look on your face, trying to figure out where to go, and the next thing you know, a local is coming up to you, asking where you are trying to go — and they will often walk the entire way with you! Even if they know zero English, they try so hard to help you. Kindness transcends all barriers.
Cijin (Qijin) Island
To get to Cijin (Qijin) Island, you will need to either drive or take a ferry from near the Sizihwan MRT Station; you can even ride your scooter onto the ferry if you’d like. The ferry ride is less than $2 USD. Once on Cijin Island, you can visit the Kaohsiung Lighthouse (also called the Cihou Lighthouse), the Rainbow Church (not a real church, by the way), the Cijin Star Tunnel, Cihou Fort, the Qijin Coastal Park, and Cijin Beach. If you are hungry, I strongly suggest enjoying some fresh and tasty seafood from the many affordable street vendors.
(If you are confused by the Cijin/Qijin (or even Chijin) spellings, this is one aspect of Taiwan you kind of get used to with time. Pinyin, the system used to spell out Chinese words, isn’t widely used in Taiwan the way it is in mainland China. Instead, they use something called the BoPoMoFo system. As a result, you will see multiple spellings used interchangeably.)
Aside from chowing down on seafood, soaking up the sun at the beach, getting some exercise and selfies at the park, and exploring the rest of Cijin Island, there is a scenic area for taking some memorable photos. From the Kaohsiung Lighthouse, you have gorgeous views of the water and the entire cityscape.
Regardless of how you spend your time in Qijin, you are guaranteed to have a great time!
The Pier-2 Art Center
Close to the Sizihwan MRT Station, the Pier 2 Art Center is a cool place that houses exhibitions; they do change from time to time, so repeat visitors will have different experiences. For example, there is a massive Transformer, Bumblebee, on the outside; other exhibitions they’ve had in the past range anywhere from Snoopy to the Egyptian pyramids. Most people have a look around and take selfies, especially a lot of couples.
This is purely just a temple. There isn’t a whole lot to do around here, but Lotus Pond is a popular place to walk around and take pictures. I am including it because of the unique design, as the dragon and tiger pagodas are cool-looking. (Architecture is an interest of mine, so I always enjoy seeing differently made structures and how they compare to one another.) Temper your expectations though as the pictures you see online are heavily filtered.
Fo Guang Shan Monastery
This working monastery is huge, and as you walk toward the giant statue, it’s impossible to ignore the eight impressive pagodas flanking you (four on each side). The sheer size of this place will make your jaw drop.
Tianliao Moon World
Tianliao Moon World is a group of badlands and mud volcanoes located in the Tianliao District of Kaohsiung; you can find it between the Chongde and Gutin Villages. The name Tianliao Moon World is derived from its resemblance to the stark moon surface. We have erosion to thank for providing us with this incredible site.
Dome of Light
Lastly, you’ll want to make sure you allow yourself a few minutes to pass through the Formosa Boulevard MRT Station. Here, you will find one of the most dazzling, majestic glass ceilings anywhere in the world. The Dome of Light is supported by two glass pillars in the middle of the room stretching from the ceiling to the floor. If you’re lucky, when you pass through, you may even see a pianist playing on a grand piano.
What are your favorite cities and places to go or things to do in Taiwan?
Have you ever been to Taiwan? If so, what are some of your favorite cities and places in this beautiful country? We would love to hear your thoughts! And if you have any questions or disagree with anything above, please feel free to let us know. If you’re interested in how to travel to Taiwan on a budget, Matt has some great advice here.
Adam Smith is an American travel writer, CPA, TNN member, and all-around adventure seeker. The inspiration for Adam’s Apple: The World dates back to 2013 when he was going through many personal struggles, including depression. Travel helped bring him out of the abyss and opened his eyes to the true beauty of the world. Not only were many of his world views and paradigms on life flipped completely upside down but he has learned many life lessons from travel through the years, including from his time living in Taiwan as an expat English teacher for FREE, that he wishes to pass on to everyone else. Most importantly, he wants to introduce as many people as possible to the world of travel and help them get the most out of their experiences. When you show respect to the local culture and attempt to immerse yourself, whether it be through learning some of the languages, researching the history, or trying to experience the lifestyle, it is so incredibly easy to make lifelong friendships and connections. Or perhaps even meet the love of your life, like he did.
You can connect with Adam and/or his Taiwanese wife Mora on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Pinterest, or via the contact form on his site. Adam is also the writer behind this post all about the most delicious food to eat in Taiwan.
Note: We love featuring our travel-loving members. If you’d like to write a guest post for this blog, send us an email at info @ thenomadicnetwork . com with the subject line “TNN Blog Guest Post.”