Taipei is not really visited by tourists – more popular Asian cities such as Bangkok and Hong Kong are picked over the capital of the sweet-potato-shaped island of Taiwan. However, if you do find yourself in Taipei, here are 10 things you should do.
10 things to do in Taipei
Before I lived in Taipei for six months while teaching English, I thought of Taiwan as the country where plastic things came from. After I got over my initial culture shock at living in a totally foreign country where no one spoke my language, I was surprised that Taipei had quite a lot to offer. Its sights are not as immediately apparent as they are in a city like Bangkok, but if you know where to go and what to do, Taipei turns into an exciting destination. Here’s what to do.
1. Night markets
Taiwan has fantastic food – it is a mixture of influences from southern Mainland China, Japan, Beijing, Sichuan, Hunan and Shanghai and Guangdong (among others) and there’s no better place to try it out – cheaply – than at a night market. Some night markets sell clothes and souvenirs, but there are food-dedicated ones, like Shilin, that offer all of Taiwan’s culinary influences in bite-sized morsels. Wander through the narrow stall-lined lanes of a night market, eating bits and pieces as you go – try fried oyster omelettes, fresh seafood, stinky tofu (if you can handle the foul smell), spring onion pancakes, mango ices, fried chicken, and honey-glazed cherry tomatoes on a stick, to name but a few. Wash them all down with a cup of bubble tea – my favourite Taiwanese drink – milky, sweet tea with floating sago ‘bubbles’.
Where: Shilin Night Market, Shilin – take the MRT to Shilin
Karaoke is one of Taiwan’s biggest hobbies. Unlike in the West, lots of Taiwanese people enjoy doing karaoke stone-cold sober. Can you believe it! To be honest, I only ever did karaoke after I had consumed a fair amount of Taiwan Beer and horrible rice wine, mostly because I felt that my Chinese pronunciation improved with alcohol. My friends and I frequented the red light district in the city (not as seedy as you would expect) when we were up for a karaoke evening, but there are more sanitary places for you to belt out your favourite 80s tunes, such as Party World in Shi-Lin, which is a skyscraper building filled from bottom storey to top with karaoke rooms. You can rent a room, buy drinks and get food – and then have some karaoke fun without randoms laughing at your singing abilities.
Where: Party World, Ximending – take the MRT to Ximen station
The red light district of Taipei is in Wan-Hua District
3. Taipei 101
Once the tallest building in the world, the Taipei 101 offers some pretty vertigo-inducing views from its top floor. Go up on a day when the city is not that smoggy (it’s always going to be smoggy, this is Asia, after all) so you can see further. The indoor observatory is on the 89th floor, and the outdoor one is on the 91st. Apart from the insane views, the ride up in the lift is also a highlight of a visit to the building. All other lifts in the world pale in inferiority to this super-fast space age one.
Side note: There’s a great food court at the bottom of the building, where you’ll find Jason’s, an upmarket grocery store that sells, among other exotic products, rooibos tea.
Where: Xinyi District – take the MRT to Taipei City Hall Station
4. Themed restaurants
Feel like eating a turd out of a toilet bowl? I thought so. Taipei is well known for its Modern Toilet restaurant, which has diners eating food cooked to look like faeces out of toilets. Other themed restaurants in Taipei include an airplane, hospital (where alcoholic shots come in syringes), and a Hello Kitty palace.
For more on the bizarre restaurants of Taipei, check out this photo gallery.
Where: Modern Toilet, Xi-Ning South Road, Ximending – take the MRT to Ximen Station
Despite being a big, built up city, Taipei has some beautiful natural escapes within its perimeters. ‘Getting out of the city’ is as simple as putting on a backpack and hiking shoes and taking public transport to the start of a trail.
Where: Check out this article on top five hikes in Taipei for some ideas.
6. Wufenpu Market
Don’t leave Taiwan without buying a ridiculous t-shirt printed with nonsensical English words, and some Asian-influenced clothes. There are great shopping areas all over the city, but if you’re looking for cheap clothes, Wu fan pu market is awesome. It’s a bewildering labyrinth of stalls which you could spend hours wandering around in. It’s a great place to pick up budget gifts for people back home.
Where: Take the MRT to Houshanpi Station – the market is a five-minute walk away
7. Tea ceremony
Taiwanese people know their tea like Italians know their coffee and the French their pastries. Tea ceremonies are an important part of Taiwanese culture, and even if you’re not a tea-person, I would recommend that you try one. To find out what a ceremony is like, read my blog about a traditional Taiwanese cermony I did in Cape Town.
Where: Any tea house in the city – they’re all over the place.
8. Hot springs
Taipei has a couple of natural hot springs where all segments of Taiwanese society seem to hang out on the weekends. There are public hot springs with changing rooms and various pools. There’s a method to doing the hot springs – you move from pool to pool of increasing heat until you get into the hottest one, which feels as hot as a pot of just-brewed tea. I actually felt a bit ill when I got into the really hot pools, and a helpful Taiwanese woman explained to me that you can feel nauseous on your first time, so I advise taking the progression to the tea-hot pool slowly. It is a pretty relaxing experience, and Taiwanese people believe that wallowing in the hot springs has a lot of health benefits.
Side note: Taiwanese people tend to be more on the conservative side, so you might get some funny looks – as I did – if you go into the hot springs in your bikini instead of a one piece.
Where: There are hot springs in Beitou, to the north of the city. Take the the MRT to Beitou Station. For details on hot springs in Beitou, click here.
9. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall
You can’t travel to Taipei without engaging with its history, so I’ve chosen my last two spots because they give you an inisight into the country’s past.
Dr Sun Yat-sen was the father of the Republic of China (Taiwan), and the hall dedicated to his memory is a popular tourist attraction. Check out the changing of the guards, history and art exhibitions, the massive library of 300 000 books, and the hall’s surrounding park.
Where: Xin-yi district – take the MRT to Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall Station
10. Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall
The hall has become a landmark of the city, with its grand, imposing architecture and historic symbolism (Chiang Kai-shek was the former president of Taiwan). There are often performances taking place in the square by artists and musicians, and groups of teenagers practising their choreographed dance moves. In the landscaped gardens, tai chi and kung fu lessons take place.
Where: Zhongzheng District – take the MRT to CKS Memorial Hall Station and take exit 5 out of the station
Photograph by Joseph C Lawrence.