Taiwan

The Ultimate Guide to Taipei: Must-Do’s and Can’t Misses

Taiwan was one of the best impulse travel decisions I’ve ever made.

Articulating how I feel about this country is tough, because I loved it so much.

Clean, orderly streets.
Seemingly limitless ace street food.
Kindness toward Westerners I really haven’t experienced anywhere else- which, really is saying a lot because so few Westerners visit Taiwan. In my nine days there, I saw fewer than 10.
Refreshing and fun bubble tea.
Quirky cultural obsessions, enter the arcades.
And, an obvious respect for the world (and environment) we live in.

Already scheming a return trip.

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In only a few days, Taipei become one of my favorite cities in Asia, and I’d rank Taiwan one of my favorite places in the world.

With comparisons oft drawn to cultural aspects of Japan and China, Taipei is clean, affordable and easy to navigate.

My only regret was purchasing non-refundable onward travel before I arrived, making it impossible for me to extend my stay and see even more of the country.

Whether you have a few days in Taipei or a few weeks to see more of Taiwan, you won’t have a hard time filling your days with rich, interesting things to do and see in the country’s capital.

WHAT TO DO

See Longshan Temple

Built in 1738 by settlers from Fujian, it’s one of the country’s oldest temples. Inside, there are hundreds of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian status, reflecting Taiwan’s varied religious heritage. The temple has survived many natural disasters, including damage from WWII.

Although Taiwan is a country packed with temples, this is one worth seeing because of its historical and cultural significance. It’s served as the spiritual center for immigrants to Taiwan since 1738, and its gorgeous temple features, including a waterfall, make your visit serene and worthwhile.

Just around the corner from Longshan Temple, you’ll find Herb Lane. As its name implies, it’s packed with herb stores selling soups, teas, and soaps. Also, nearby Longshan, you can see beautiful examples of old Taiwanese architecture on Bopiliao Historical Block.

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Check Out Colorful Ximending, the “Harajuku of Taipei” 

Ximending was once inhabited by the Japanese, which is why this area is so reminiscent of parts of Japan, especially harajuku in Tokyo.

Think tons of colourful, buzzing cafes, flashy arcades, bubble tea left and right, and all the tech stores you could dream of. Such a cool, fun area to wander.

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Visit a New Night Market Each Night

Taiwan’s night markets turned out to be my favourite in all of Asia.

Going to Taiwan and not eating at a street market is like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower, or heading to the big apple for the first time and skipping Times Square or the Empire State Building.

Some things are just iconic. Calling night markets iconic may seem like a reach, but it’s absolutely the truth.

The night markets of Taiwan are so far ingrained in Taiwanese culture, you’d be seriously missing out on understanding an essential part of Taiwan if you didn’t visit at least one.

Night markets go back over 1,000 years to the Tang Dynasty in ancient China. Some of the ones in Taiwan date back to the 1950s.

Today, the eats you’ll find at a Taiwanese night market are known as xiaochi, loosely translated in Chinese to ‘snacks’. Think: Tapas. Items are meant to serve one person, and usually meant for take-away.

The three I visited were Shilin, Rahoe and Tonghua.

Of the ones I skipped, Ningxia is the only one I wished I’d made it to. It’s said to be two rows of stalls running alongside Ningxia road, and rumour has it, it’s where you’ll find some of the best mochi in Taiwan.

SHILIN: Easily, the most recognised night market in Taipei, Shilin is the largest. Beginning in 1899 with only a few vendors selling seafood, meat, fruit and vegetables, the market has expanded to hundreds of food stalls.

RAHOE: Adored for being big, but smaller and more manageable than Shilin, I immediately understood why others raved about the Rahoe night market. With one main drag, there are vendors on both sides, and even a few in the alleyways leading away from the market.

TONGHUA: Saving the best for last, always. If you only have time to visit one night market in Taiwan, I’d make it this one. Controversial opinion, since so many people love Shilin, but I liked that Tonghua was smaller. It felt more local- I didn’t see any other Westerners (although, that probably changes depending the time of year you visit). Even if there are other tourists there when you visit, the food is still hailed as the most traditional of all the night markets in Taipei.

For more about each night market and my lists of can’t miss eats at each one, click here.

Learn Taiwan’s History at Liberty (Freedom) Square 

Here, you’ll see four of Taipei’s most iconic monuments, all in one place.

Located in the beautiful Liberty Square, Chiang Kai-shek (CKS) Memorial Hall is an iconic place to visit in Taipei. Chiang Kai-shek was a political and military leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party, who ruled Taiwan as President of the Republic of China.

Chiang may be one of the most controversial figures in Taiwan’s history, but there’s no denying the beauty of the marble-white memorial hall.

In addition to the Memorial Hall, you’ll also find the National Concert Hall and National Theatre, both covered with traditional Chinese architecture.

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Hike to the Top of Elephant Mountain 

For the best view of the Taipei skyline, including the 101 Tower, climb to the top of Elephant Mountain. The path is well marked, easy to find the entrance with Google Maps, and you’ll likely see loads of other people making the climb. Pending your level of fitness and the weather, it should only take you 20-30 minutes to make the climb up, and 10-15 to head back down.

I went at sunset on a very humid night, and while I didn’t find it overly challenging, the steep stairs definitely weren’t easy. Give yourself extra time if it’s hot and you’re hoping to be at the top for a certain time (sunset or sunrise).

And, pro tip: Everyone heads to the tippy top for a view from one of the higher up rocks. While this view is great, I much preferred the one ~20 steps down, which offered a nice panoramic view of the city without the insane crowds.

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Relax for a Half Day at Hot Springs 

With Taiwan being a volcanic island, it should be no surprise it’s also home to some excellent hot springs, which are ideal for relaxing after a busy few days of sightseeing.

Searching what to do during my time in Taipei, I came across oodles of recommendations to visit Beitou hot springs.

North of the city, they’re considered to be within city limits, and thus, reachable by public transit. No need to take an expensive day tour or hail a taxi- just hop on the MRT.

There’s plenty to do in Beitou. Many visitors actually spend a night or two to take full advantage of what the hot springs have to offer.

Since I had decided to base myself in Taipei, I chose activities in Beitou that would be easy enough to accomplish in a single afternoon.

Really, there were only two things on the agenda- visit the thermal valley and unwind at one of the public bath houses. I also wanted to wander the town a bit, but saw that as more of an informal activity.

And, on my way back to the city, I timed my visit to stop at the Shilin Night Market since it’s a stop on the MRT line that runs to Beitou.

Brush up on Taipei’s History at The National Palace Museum 

I didn’t make it here, but I’ve heard the museum, home to a permanent collection of 700,000 Chinese artifacts, is a great place to spend a few hours ogling national treasures.

Legend has it the treasures were moved from Beijing’s Forbidden City when the Chinese Nationalist Party retrieved to Taiwan during the Chinese Cival War. After the war, they were hidden in a mountain to prevent them from being taken back to mainland China.

Day Trip to See The Majestic Mountain Town of Juifen and Historic Shiufen 

This trip could easily be a few days, or a highlights only version if you’re short on time or basing yourself in Taipei. I opted to visit both in the same day, using a shuttle service from Klook to making this easy to navigate on day day with heavy rainstorms.

Beautiful Jiufen, oft referred to as the Santorini of Taiwan. A mountain town that almost seems stuck in time- red lanterns sway overhead, visitors amble the narrow alleyways, and vistas of mountains and the sea beyond stun from all directions.

Jiufen’s history is interesting. Formerly a gold mining town, walking through Jiufen is like looking into Taiwan’s past.

As with many places, the old street has become commercialised for tourism, but there are still reminders of Taiwan’s heritage, mainly in the food you’ll find.

Jiufen’s sloping old street is highly regarded as a place for great eats throughout Taiwan. There are even food tours you can book if you’re staying in Jiufen for longer than a few hours.

Don’t leave without trying taro ball soup, peanut ice cream rolls, rice cakes, mochi and bubble milk tea. If you’re really hungry, there’s also ice cream puffs and stinky tofu to be had.

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If you book a Klook shuttle like I did, you’ll have a few hours in Juifen, and then it’ll be time to head to Shifen.

Shifen feels like stepping back in time.

World famous for an old train that passes down the middle of its main street and for its Sky Lantern Festival, visitors to Taiwan flock to Shifen in hope of decorating and releasing their own lantern into the sky for good luck.

The town itself isn’t very big, and reminded me of Hanoi’s train street. Small, narrow shops crowded together on either side of train tracks.

It seems the train in Shifen runs much more often than the train street in Hanoi- it came through twice while I was in the town.

The main reason many people are drawn to Shifen though, is to release a lantern.

I loved watching families, friends and couples choose their paper lanterns, paint their good wishes onto the sides and them release them into the air.

I chose not to participate because I’m not wild about the impact the hundreds of lanterns that must be released daily has on the environment. Burning aside, I was told the Taiwanese government pays locals to collect the lanterns, but I’m certain there’s no way of getting every one.

After spending about an hour wandering old town and watching people set their lanterns free to the sky, it was time to head over to Shifen waterfall.

Shifen waterfall is often described as the most beautiful in all of Taiwan. 40 meters tall, and free to visit, to get to the falls, you walk through a gorge and along a river. The scenery sets the tone for being awestruck by the magnificence of the falls.

Nicknamed Little Niagra for its horseshoe shape, the falls are insanely beautiful.

There are a few well kept trails around the falls, making it easy to work in a bit of hiking, and see the falls from different angles.

Try Different Tea Varieties

There are a few places to sample tea within the city (Google to find top ranked ones), but if you’ve got the time, I’d take the gondola near the Taipei Zoo to the top of the lush Maokong hills.

There are various tours that run here, but I’ve heard the trip is just as easy to make on your own as most tea plantations are walking distance. I’d planned on spending an afternoon here, but found out en-route to the gondola that it was closed for annual maintenance.

In addition to a tasting house or two, I’d hoped to visit the Bagua Tea Plantation at Thousand Island Lake, which looks spectacular.

Instead, I tried local tea varieties at cafes around the city.

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Keen to See More of Taiwan? 

Consider purchasing a High Speed Rail Pass, the most efficient way to travel to other major cities. 3-Day THSR Unlimited Passes are available, or you can purchase one-way tickets. Be sure to buy in advance though- prices increase closer to travel date.

And, if time isn’t an issue for you, then you may prefer the more budget friendly older railways or intercity buses. Some tickets can be purchased online, others must be bought from the central station in Taipei, pending where you’re heading.

Taichung, Kaohsiung and Taroko National Park: are at the tippy top of my ‘return to Taiwan’ visit list.

WHERE TO EAT

In Taiwan, it’s common for people to ask you if you’ve eaten, before they ask you how you are.

Most days, I picked up breakfast from a bakery and had dinner at a night market, which means I don’t have very many ‘restaurant’ recommendations.

But, when I did pause for a sit down meal, I wasn’t disappointed.

NOTEWORTHY RESTAURANTS 

  • Din Tai Fung: Legendary soup dumplings, and I’m a big fan of their vegetable dumplings, as well as the taro and red bean buns
  • Tamed Fox: Mentioned in my coffee spot round-up below, but beautiful for a Western-inspired brunch
  • Sanhoyan: Come for the animal-shaped dim sum, and stay for the fried rice pyramids and milk tea served in teddy-bear shaped glasses. What I loved the most here was that you could order any amount of dim sum per flavour, making it easy to sample different kinds. I especially enjoyed the taro, black sesame, red bean and custard buns
  • Fuhang Soy Milk: If you only make it to one place on this list, it needs to be this. A Michelin star food court eatery, the line for Fuhang often wraps around the court and snakes down the stairs to the first floor. And, for good reason. The soy milk served here is delicious in its own right- I tried it both hot and iced, and prefered it cold. But, the breakfast sandwich is the real star. Egg and scallion on the fluffiest, crunchiest sesame bread. A top five breakfast of all time, it was unreal. I came here several times, it was that good
  • Yang Shin: A fabulous vegetarian dim sum spot. Prepare for it to be busy, but for prices to be affordable
  • Addiction Aquatic Center: If you’ve got time and are a huge sushi fan, head to the aquatic center for some truly excellent sushi
  • Ooh Cha Cha: Best for leafy, green eats with tons of vegan and gluten-free bowls or salads
  • Alleycats: Pizza and beer, great for your Western food fix

CAN’T MISS TAIWANESE TREATS

  • Snacks on Dongman/Yongkan Streets: Hailed as one of the best foodie destinations in the world, you can’t miss snacking on this street. Two places I especially loved-
    • Tian Jin is legendary in Taipei for having the best onion and scallion pancake. People I spoke to regarded this pancake as a ‘can’t miss’, so I was intrigued, to put it lightly. One bite, and I understood the hype. Savoury, crispy, doughy, buttery- easily one of the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten
    • Shaved Ice: Look no further than Smoothie House to try this Taiwanese dessert speciality. The shaved ice served here is heaping, a literal mountain of refreshment. Order it to share, it’s enough sugar to set anyone over the edge. I tried the classic mango flavour, and would highly recommend
  • Pineapple Cakes: While not a specific place, don’t miss trying this Taiwanese delicacy while in the country. You’ll find them at any bakery in the city
  • Filled, Hot Cakes: Twice, I had these mini cakes, once at Mister Wheel and another time at Catpaw, where they were adorably, shaped like baby cat paws. Fluffy cake wrapped around gooey fillings? It’s a winning combination. I was particularly fond of the egg, custard and chocolate varieties
  • Taro Buns: I’m a big fan of taro flavour, but if you’ve never had it, you should definitely try it in Taiwan. My favourite taro bun was sold at Sunmerry, a pastry and bread shop that has locations all over the city
  • Ice Cream: Specifically, Yongfu ice cream. When you order a cup here, it comes with three small scoops. I tried the taro, red bean and plum flavours. They also have fruit flavours (passion fruit, strawberry) and more interesting options (chicken egg) on the rotating menu. This ice cream was so good, I wish I’d gone back a second time. The texture is creamy and ice, and flavours are prominent without being overbearing
  • Mushrooms: I know what you’re likely thinking- mushrooms, really? I was skeptical as well. Even as a vegetarian, I’m not a huge fan of mushrooms- they’re one of my least favourite vegetables. But, at the Shilin night market, when I saw a 15 minute queue for seasoned and grilled mushrooms, I knew I had to get in line to see what the hype was about. After one bite, I was ready to take back every bad thing I’ve ever said about mushrooms. These were coated in a special sauce, grilled, coated again, grilled a bit more and then sprinkled with two seasonings of your choice. I went with lemon pepper and rosemary seasonings and could not believe how incredible the mushrooms tasted
  • Papaya Milk: You can find this sweet, smooth, creamy beverage at any of Taiwan’s night markets
  • Stinky Tofu: You’ll smell this before you even get close to the stall. Found at night markets all over Taiwan, locals can’t get enough of this smelly, savoury treat. I held off on trying it until I found myself at the Michelin starred stall at the Tonghua night market. Here, the tofu was slightly less stinky than other varieties I’d come across. I found the taste interesting- sour, tart, and oddly smooth. I don’t think it’s something I’d eat regularly, but didn’t necessarily dislike it
  • Egg Tarts: I was skeptical of having this treat in Taiwan, mainly because I’ve had egg tarts in Portugal and Hong Kong, so I know what the real deal tastes like. But, I was pleasantly surprised by how good these were- the eggs were fluffy and creamy, and the outer graham shell was toasted to perfection
  • Muah Chee: Think of muah chee as the Taiwanese version of mochi. It’s soft dough wrapped around different flavours (usually black seasme, red bean, taro or peanut butter) and then grilled and rolled in crushed peanuts

And, if you’re after a tipple or two, check out Taipei’s Mikkeller outpost. I wasn’t drinking while in Taipei, but I’ve been a longtime fan of Mikkeller for their excellent craft brews.

WHERE TO DRINK BUBBLE TEA

Bubble tea, one of my longtime favourite beverage treats.

Something I think you either love or hate. Longtime a fan, my obsession with bubble tea entered new heights when I visited Taipei.

I’d always thought of bubble tea as generally Asian, but it turns out it’s from Taiwan, originating as milk tea with bubbles.

Bubble tea is to Taiwan what pizza and pasta are to Italy, what wine and cheese are to France.

To call it the national drink wouldn’t be wrong.

If you’re in Taiwan, you must try bubble tea. Even if you hate it, it’s just something you have to do. And, with how cheap it is, there’s no reason not to.

Five Bubble Tea Spots I Loved: 

  • Chun Shui Tang: Hailed as the first man to invent bubble tea, you must stop at one of Chun’s 90 branches. There are lots of options on the menu, but I’d go with the Original Pearl Milk Tea. It’s creamy, cool and the bubbles are on the smaller side
  • 50 Lan: Quickly becoming my favourite place for bubble tea, in part because there was one below my Airbnb, and in part, because there were locations all over the city, I could not get enough of the bubble tea from this chain. Some of their options are quite playful- definitely a departure from your standard bubble tea offerings
  • Chen San Ding: The best brown sugar bubble tea I’ve ever had, full stop. Interestingly enough, there’s not even tea in it. Their tapioca pearls are what give the tea it’s excellent, sweet taste. When you visit, chances are you won’t be able to miss this street stall
  • Yi Fang Fruit Tea: In the mood for something more refreshing than milky or decadent? Yi Fang has dozens of different fruit teas, including one with actual passion fruit in it
  • Sharetea: A top chain across Asia, Sharetea stands out in Taiwan because of the quality of tea leaves they use

WHERE TO DRINK COFFEE

Before visiting Taipei, I was curious what the coffee situation would be like. I’d heard many people draw comparisons between Taipei and Japan. And while I loved Tokyo and Kyoto, when I visited both two years prior, I’d had a tough time finding third wave coffee- it seemed to be a concept that was just starting to take off.

I needn’t have worried though, Taipei was full of excellent cafes. There were so many great places, I only made it to a small fraction of what the city has to offer.

Eight of the Best Cafes in Taipei:

  • Cafe N: My first official stop in Taipei didn’t disappoint. Stumbling in here immediately after I dropped my luggage post-early morning flight, I asked for an iced coffee. What I got in return may have been small in size, but sure packed a serious punch
  • Impct Coffee: Taipei is home to the cutest walk up cafes. This rainbow one caught my eye from across the street. If you’re looking for a literal latte on the go, Impct’s got you covered
  • Cuiqu Co: Looking for a cafe with lots of seating and good wifi to work for a bit, I found Cuiqu. Boasting communal work tables and a lively vibe, it was the perfect place to pass a few hours catching up on work. Here also, I was delighted to find two kinds of cold brew, plus lots of other coffee drinks, teas and smoothies. In the end, I went with a Hawaii Volcano Hula Pie cold brew, which was incredible. Slightly sweet (even with no added sugar), but by no means saccharine
  • Paper Street Coffee: Hearing this place was a hipster haven for cold brew and artisanal coffee, I sought out this cafe, tucked underneath an overpass one afternoon, in need of an energy boost. A good place to come for a low conversation, or if you’re the kind of person (like me) who likes to drink cold brew and read a book
  • Fomo: My first thought upon entering, is this Brooklyn or Taipei? A stark white interior with crisp black details could easily pass for any third wave coffee shop in New York City. The cold brew I had here was flat out excellent. Crisp, slightly bitter and refreshing
  • Congrats Cafe: Colorful and filled with a mix of modern and antiques, it’s a cool place to hang out. Overlooking one of Taipei’s busiest roads, sitting on the upstairs balcony still feels calming. Here, I ordered a pot of oolong tea and watched rush hour traffic whizz past
  • Tamed Fox: Hailed as one of the best brunch spots in Taipei, Tamed Fox didn’t disappoint. The food was good, but the coffee was even more impressive. Cold brew infused with blueberries? Yes, pls
  • Louisa Coffee: With locations all over the city, think Starbucks but make it Taiwanese, Louisa is an excellent place for lively catch-ups with friends, working (strong wifi), or just sipping one of their many coffee and tea drinks

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EXTRA TRAVEL TIPS

  • Language: The official language spoken in Taiwan is Mandarin Chinese. The language has two dialects, the Taiwanese Mandarin (Hokkien) and standard Mandarin. Transactional English is often spoken for simple things like ordering or payment, especially in Old Quarter and among younger Taiwanese. If you find someone who doesn’t speak English or need to translate a menu, you’ll likely be fine getting by with gestures and Google translate
  • Currency: Taiwan’s currency is the New Taiwan dollar (NT$)
    • I withdrew from a bank ATM. Look for Visa and Mastercard images on an ATM- that means it’s global, and only withdraw from a bank one (there’s less of a chance your card will be skimmed). I’d advise carrying cash on you- many purchases are so small, you won’t meet the card minimum if the place you’re at even takes cards. Carrying cash is especially important for street markets
  • Budget: Way more affordable than Japan, which is worth comparing because of the similarities between countries, but more expensive than SE Asia. For Asia overall, I’d regard it as a destination you can do on a budget (as I did) or spend a bit more money to have a more ‘premium’ and ‘polished’ experience 
  • Getting There: 
    • Flying: Taipei’s airport is a major international one, and the metro is easy (and affordable) to grab from the airport to city centre 
    • Cruise: There are also cruises from Japan, which stop at a few ports throughout the country
  • Visa: No visa is needed for tourism or short-term stays (less than 90 days) for US citizens. No extensions are permitted, so if you want to stay longer, you’ll need to leave and re-enter. Also, you may be asked for proof of onward travel by border agents- I wasn’t, but I’ve heard of this happening to friends in Taiwan
  • Getting Around: Walk when distances aren’t too long, Taipei’s streets are clean and well marked. When you need to go across the city, hop on a bus or the city’s metro- in my opinion, it’s one of the best in the world. I used Google Maps to get around, which made navigating public transit a cinch 
  • Where to Stay: I stayed in a good budget Airbnb in New Taipei city off the Xingpu metro stop. Getting downtown usually took 15-20 minutes, but often, I found myself heading to different areas of the city, so I’m not sure any place that’s truly ‘centrally located’. I enjoyed staying in New Taipei- my metro stop had loads of restaurants, coffee shops, convenience stores and bakeries, and was 50-60% less per night than staying ‘downtown’ would have been 
  • When to Visit: I visited in late May, and would recommend going earlier in the year (March-early May) to avoid the beginning of the rainy season. As with elsewhere in Asia, the rainy season is no joke- I had a few days in Taiwan that were seemingly endless monsoon-esque rain. My plans were flexible enough to work around the rain, but if you’re only there for a few days, best to visit when the weather is likely better
  • Tipping: Tipping is not common practice in Taipei, with the exception of luxury hotels and service
  • WiFi Access: WiFi was hit or miss for the most part in Taipei, so I was glad I had a SIM with data. Local markets, where I usually ate, didn’t have WiFi. And, while some cafes did, others didn’t 
  • SIM Card Options: I bought a 10 day SIM upon arrival at Taipei’s airport, which I believe was around ~$15 USD for a few GB of data. If your phone is locked, there are also portable hotspots available to rent

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