Formosa; The Beautiful Island
Taipei, the capital of the Republic of China (well better known as Taiwan), is the heart of one of the Four Tigers of Asia, together with South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore. A fascinating overdeveloped city in an island with a very strong personality and heritage very much to the likes of South Korea and Japan, where everything is perfect, cared for and respected. Some of the most polite, educated and helpful people, and a place of contrasts where old traditions survive in the shadow of the countless new towers and districts being created.
It is nice to return for a second time here. Back in 2014 it was a trip from Manila as we were touring a little bit of the Philippines. Today is again a wider trip, coming from Hong Kong, then continuing into Malaysia. On both occasions the time spent here has been the same, 2 days and a half. While not a lot, it is enough to get a glimpse and enjoy most of the sights in the city however, the island has other wonderful cities and villages, nature and landmarks truly worth to explore, but unfortunately it will have to wait for another trip in the future.
As a little background history, Taiwan used to be known as Formosa, name given by the Portuguese meaning “beautiful”. It was part of the Spanish Empire for a short period of time however was never keen to deploy any army and settle nor build the infrastructure needed to protect it against other invaders such as the Dutch to whom it lost the colony. The Spanish colony only lasted from 1626 to 1642. Thereafter the Dutch and the Portuguese developed their settlements and claimed to their own for centuries. Wars and occupations did the rest until its modern history.
Bearing the overall size of the island, the capital is quite a large city occupying a huge part in the north with plenty to do and see. Do not calculate any shorter than 2 days. You will need to count the time you will spend commuting around the sights as some of those are not near each other. We spent 2 full days and was “just OK”, of course compressing as much as we could and thanks that I pre-planned everything having a route, otherwise we would have seen the half. A 3 days trip would be ideal.
Do not expect to find any remains from the former colonial eras (Spanish, Portuguese or Dutch). Instead you will find yourself in a rather tasteless concrete city with buildings in a questionable design, same as you would find in Tokyo; however, what makes is nicer is the vibrant thriving life, day and night, the countless neon lights and adverts everywhere, the many restaurants serving freshly made dumplings, day and night markets and of course, some truly worth to mention towers. Oddly for the Asian standards, here you will not find many skyscrapers, but one stands out on any list. The Taipei 101, among the tallest in the planet. Designed as a giant pagoda, it is a must see and specially for the views offered from the top.
But even with not any special architectural landmarks on the streets considering its size, there is a good number of old Chinese temples scattered here and there, nice parks, plenty of street markets, shopping districts and many more to name a few. The Zoo is also one of the must do’s, the largest in Asia, and nearby the cable car over the rain forest. They call it gondola. It has 4 stops and takes approximately 30 minutes from one end to the other all over the mountains and the thick vegetation of forest down below. The views you will have over the city far in the distance and nature are unparalleled, plus one of the nicest and largest Chinese temples in Taipei is just meters away from one of the stops along the way.
Moving to the next subject, food. Believe me when I tell you I might never try again such a great and tasty dim sum as we did in this city. Not only that you will find plenty of small local places with dim sum just made seconds ago or served straight away to you and what is best, for almost no money! But also you have the only fast food restaurant chain the world with a Michelin star, that’s Din Tai Fun. It is the best without hesitation to anywhere else in the world (so far). A bit more expensive but the choice so vast that you will get lost on what to order, or how many to order! We just kept it going, one after another until we could not fit anymore. So delicious that cannot explain. The best dumplings are the xiao long bao style. Apart of the usual filling, it has some soup inside them. There is a small note for foreigners explaining how to best eat them. Basically take the dumpling to the sauce and then to the spoon, and with a chop stick poke it, the soup will come out and mix with the sauce you took, then all to the mouth. They will serve you tea continuously for free, as much as you like. Of course other than dumplings you have noodles, rice, duck, chicken or pork as some of the basis for their cuisine; and who cannot resit the temptation of a famous bubble tea?.
For more information about Taipei check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Taiwan’s currency is the New Taiwan Dollar (NT$, TWD). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Taipei
- Zhongshan District Located to the north outside the historic city districts of Datong and Zhongzheng. While there are almost no sights in the area, it is worth to mention should you have spare time.
-Grand Hotel Opened in 1952 and after several expansions, it became the landmark it is today, near the Jiantan MRT station, at the north of the Keelung River.
-National Revolutionary Martyrs’ Shrine Is a monument to Taiwan’s dead after the Chinese revolution. The changing of the guards is worth the wait. Also by Jiantan MRT station.
-Xingtian Temple Fairly new construction from 1967 and dedicated to Guangong. Located on corners of Minquan East and Songjiang roads. On Xingtian Temple MRT station.
- Wanhua and Datong Districts The first original and oldest districts of Taipei along the banks of the river where you will find the old layout of the streets and buildings. Famous for the Japanese colonial era and Qing Dynasty architecture, notably along Dihua Street.
-Linji Huguo Temple Although not really special, it is right next door to the Yuanshan metro station, to the north end of Wanhua district, same station to reach the famous Baoan Temple. Built in 1910 in the Song Dynasty stile.
-Confucius Temple Built in 1879 yet destroyed during the Japanese Era, was rebuilt in 1930 and it is the only one in Taiwan adorned with southern Fujian-style ceramics.
-Baoan Temple Located next to the Confucius Temple. Opened in 1830 is dedicated to emperor Baosheng, the god of medicine. It is one of the most important in the city, and because of its architecture, history and mural paintings it is a candidate to become an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
-Dihua Street The main street through the historic Wanhua quarter, running parallel the Danshui River. Here you will find Taiwan’s oldest wholesale dried goods market and plenty of colonial Japanese style shophouses. The nearest metro station is Daqiaotou, or a short taxi ride from Baoan Temple.
-Xiahai City God Temple Built in 1859 is one of Taipei’s most important places of worship, although small in size and opulence compared to the others. It’s along Dihua Street.
-North Gate (Cheng-en Gate) Is still in its original Qing Dynasty look. Located in the middle of the roundabout where Zhonghua, Yanping and Boai roads meet, near the southern end of Dihua Street, and next to the Taipei Station.
-Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Occupies the former Taipei City Government, a building from the Japanese rule period constructed in 1921. A block north of Taipei Station.
-Zhongshan Hall Built during the Japanese rule in 1936 it is nowadays one of the registered landmarks in the city. Located as you head south from the North Gate along Zhonghua Road.
-Ximen Intersection Right by the metro station of the same name, on Zhonghua Road, quite a similar road crossing as the ones you find in Tokyo, where all the buildings are covered in adverts and neon lights.
-Redhouse Theatre Just outside the Ximen MRT station. Built during the Japanese rule it is now an exhibition hall and a small theatre. Across the road from the Zhongshan Hall.
-Bopiliao Historical Block South of the Redhouse, one of the very few standing remnants of what used to be the city during the Japanese Rule, with the traditional brick shophouses.
-Longshan Temple One of the most traditional and oldest in the city, originally built in 1738 although destroyed many times in earthquakes and fires, with the latest rebuilt after WWII. It’s meters west of the Bopiliao block, by the Longshan Temple metro station.
- Zhongzheng District Also part of the old city is just to the east of Wanhua and where you will find some of the most known landmarks in the city. Its confined from Taipei Station to the south and east.
-228 Peace Park A short walk south of Taipei Station, containing memorials, statues, lakes and nicely landscaped is a good starting point to discover the district. Nearest metro station is NTU.
-National Taiwan Museum Along the northern side of the park. Hosting one of the world’s best collection of Chinese historical artefacts and antiquities.
-Presidential Office Building On the west side of the park. Built in 1919 under the Japanese rule. The former office of the Governor-General of Taiwan it became after WWII in 1950 the Presidential Office after the Republic of China lost control over mainland China, relocating the nation’s capital to Taipei City at the end of the Chinese Civil War.
-East Gate It is a 1966 reproduction of the 1884 Qing Dynasty original one. You will find it at the opposite end of the street from the President’s Office, right at the northwestern edge of the Liberty Square.
-South Gate Located at the other corner along the southwest side of the Liberty Square.
-Liberty Square One of the most visited areas and a must do while in Taipei, where you will find the most symbolic monument in the city.
-Liberty Arch Is the beautiful large 5 arches white gate at the front of the memorial.
-National Concert Hall and National Theatre Both designed symmetrically side by side in neo-classic Chinese style.
-National Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall Opened in 1980 is now the most known symbol of Taipei and the Republic of China. The changing of the guards happens hourly by the statue of Chiang Kai-Shek inside the main chamber, while underneath the statue it’s the museum about his life.
-Chinese Gardens Around the grounds of the Memorial itself.
-Dazhong and DaXiao Gates Located at both north and south sides of the Memorial Hall creating the axis.
- Daan District Continuing eastwards from Zhongzheng. The northern part is known as Taipei’s East District and is the major shopping and recreation area in the city with plenty of department stores, boutiques, bars and restaurants.
- Xinyi Distrcit Immediately east of Daan it also boasts many shopping centres among what is the modern business district.
-Taipei 101 Also known by its official name Taipei International Financial Center is the modern symbol of the city. At 508 meters and 101 floors is among the exclusive list of the 5 tallest buildings on earth (as of April 2014). An observation deck is located at floor 89, open from 09.00am until 22.00pm and costs TWD600. The best time to go up is before the sunset to get both day and night views. The nearest MRT station is World Trade Centre, or short walk from the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial.
-Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall Dedicated to the founding father of the Republic of China. Was opened in 1972 and also boasts a nice park (Zhongshan Park) at the front although both hall and park are nothing really special worth from a tourist point of view. Sun Yat-Sen metro station.
- Wenshan District Farther southeast from the heart of the city, where it meets with the dense ring of forests and great nature.
-Zoo Is the largest in Asia. On the Wenhu metro line, last stop.
-Maokong Gondola This cable car leads to the top of the hills nearby the city. The lower station is 5 minutes’ walk from the Zoo entrance. It costs TWD 50 for if travelling along 3 stops for a single ride to the end of the line. Otherwise TWD 30 for 1 stop and TWD 40 for 2. It is much worth to travel to the last stop. Bear in mind that if you get a Day travel pass for the city then the gondola is also included.
-Chih Nan Temple The perfect combination with the visit to the Zoo and the gondola ride. The temple is at an intermediary stop of the gondola, Zhinan Temple.
Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport is the main gateway into Taiwan. Located 30 km from the city, it is easily accessible via buses or trains to the city centre. The cheapest option is by bus. Express buses cost between TWD 125 and TWD 150 depending on the bus company, all having a stop at both terminals with frequencies between 10 and 15 minutes. There is a route towards Taipei Main Railway Station with a stop at Yuanshan MRT Station (Xindian line) and a route towards Taipei Grand Hyatt Hotel with a stop at Zhongxiao-Fuxing MRT Station (Nangang and Muzha lines). You will see all the ticket counters on the arrivals terminal downstairs, just follow signs for the buses. Among the confusion on which bus to take (there are many companies and numbers), go directly for the counter of bus number 1819. That’s the cheapest direct option to the train station, or the bus number 5201 which runs on a circle loop between the airport and verious downtown main hotel locations.
High Speed trains can also be taken from the airport to the city centre. From the arrivals terminal you need to take a bus towards Taoyuan High Speed Rail station where you can take the train to Taipei Main Station. The bus costs TWD 30 and the train TWD 160. This option is not only more expensive than the buses, but also more uncomfortable since you will need to carry your luggage first to a bus then onto a train rather than all the way direct to the final destination.
A secondary smaller airport, Songshan, serves mostly national and some international destinations around East/Southeast Asia. It is very convenient in the sense that it’s directly connected to the metro (Wenshan-Neihu Line) with a journey time to Taipei Railway Station of approximately 20 minutes.
Within the city there is a good metro (MRT) and commuter trains network. With the metro you will move anywhere you need to for visiting all the sights therefore don’t loose any time trying to find an alternative way by bus unless you have the time. The fare for a single ride is between TWD 20 and 35 depending on distance travelled. Otherwise if you plan to take the metro few times consider in getting and EasyCard, this is, a touch in/out stored value card where the ride will be 20% cheaper and offers transfers between metro and to/from buses for a discounted fare of TWD 7. They cost TWD 500 (including the refundable deposit of TWD 100 and 400 usable credit).
Other tickets available are all day metro pass for TWD 250 or the Taipei 1 Day Pass which costs TWD 350 and covers travel on metro, bus and the Maokong Gondola (cable car).
There is a wide choice of accommodation anywhere in the city, basically any chain you imagine, being Western or Oriental is here. Being such a safe city it also does not matter where precisely you stay; as long as you have any transportation nearby then you will be totally fine. A good point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engines such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
In the most recent trip in 2019 we stayed at the Roumei Boutique Hotel, 9-64 Alley Jianguo North Road, Sector 2. Located just a block away from the Songjiang Nanjing metro station hence direct access to the National Memorial Hall, Wanhua, Datong, Zhongzheng and Daan districts therefore a great place to be. Small property yet very charming and up-scale, beautifully designed and elegant, spacious comfortable and very quiet rooms; and great attention to detail by every member of the staff. The breakfast was also a nice plus, with a nice choice and quality.
Back in 2014 we stayed at the Rido Hotel on No 11 Sec. 3, Xinyi Road, Da-an District. Walking distance to the National Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall which is not even 10 minutes away. A very nice place, comfortable and extremely well located meters away from Daan Park MRT Station. To our surprise, even they advertise themselves as a 3* property, their property is absolutely a 5*. Did I mention you get a Jacuzzi inside your room? Not sure if all rooms have this, but all deluxe rooms (as the one we booked which was even the very same price as a standard), have it. The higher floor you get the better views over Daan Park. Breakfast was also really good, with both Asian and European choice where they change their variety constantly during service.