Consider the xiao long bao, or “soup dumpling”, in its natural environment: inside the mythical kitchens of Din Tai Fung, in its original outpost on Yongkang Street. Walking through alleys fringed with lush balconies dripping with bougainvilleas and decorated with turquoise tiles, one reaches the mecca for foodies from around the world, a steaming workshop of whirling hands and wooden baskets flying behind glass. A sea of eager diners crowds the sidewalks, clutching menus in delirious anticipation. “Really?” you might think. “All this for a dumpling?” But upon closer look, it becomes crystal clear what the fuss is all about: chefs tucking the delicate pleats of the diminutive dumpling fold by fold. It’s a mesmerizing sight in a place with the air of a religious hall.
Taiwan’s understated capital seems equally unassuming at first glance. Lacking the gargantuan, almost infinite sprawl of soaring skyscrapers of nearby cities such as Hong Kong and Tokyo, Taipei can easily be overlooked by those looking to go on a “grand tour” of Asia.
But perhaps being underestimated is one of the city’s most considerable advantages, and its greatest draw. The Taiwanese relish the idea of xiao que xing, meaning “little joys” or “small fortunes” — an upbeat ethos that can make the capital feel distinctly intimate, whether you’re cycling leisurely along the Danshui River, or wandering through a neighborhood of small, independent boutiques and cafés, or indulging in local tea in some scenic highland outpost. Just so you don’t miss out on the real Taipei, here’s how to savor the city in seven experiences.
1. The local cycling culture
An investment in dedicated bicycle lanes throughout the city has ensured that biking through Taipei is more pleasurable (and notably less panic-inducing) than ever. The city’s public bicycle system YouBike is accessible to anyone with an EasyCard (visitors can easily purchase a card for a small fee at any Taipei metro station), and hundreds of rental stations for these easily recognizable orange-and-yellow bikes dot the city.
Within the city center, Ren’ai and Dunhua roads provide a particularly aesthetic cycling experience, with cafés and upscale boutiques shaded by sumptuous canopies of camphor trees limned with sunlight. In recent years, the city government has also invested significant resources in the building of recreational riverside cycling paths. A popular day-trip cycling route winds south to north along the Xindian and Danshui rivers, passing through a series of riverside parks, where locals play basketball and host barbecues, while colorful kites whip through the air. The flat terrain makes for a smooth ride north towards Pier 5, a newly developed riverside conglomeration of hip eateries and bars, many of them equipped with compact rooftop garden setups ideal for catching the sunset (or your breath) over ice-cold beer and snacks.
Despite the surfeit of cycling destinations, one of the most overlooked places for cycling tours happens to be one of the city’s grandest sights: the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, where a grand plaza is bookended by the National Theater on the south and by the National Concert Hall on the north, both palatial examples of classic Chinese architecture. Along its perimeter are a series of winding pathways, ornamental rock gardens, koi ponds and verdant stone-paved lanes. One area of the colossal square serves as a gathering space for activities ranging from the mundane — marching band practices and group tai chi lessons — to the revolutionary: the site has a rich history of political demonstrations. On another end is the octagonal building, capped with a striking azure-tiled roof, that houses a large bronze statue of Generalissimo Chiang.
2. The buzzy, bustling traditional markets
Located across from the grand expanse of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Nanmen Market, established in 1906, is one of the oldest traditional markets in the city, and a time-honored destination among the locals. Here, stalls are spread out over three distinct floors. The basement houses a wet market, which has long been an essential part of the Taiwanese domestic routine. There are pyramid piles of local produce — such as dragon fruit and huge Taiwanese avocados — as well as fresh, glistening seafood.
The labyrinthine ground floor contains rows upon rows of stalls hawking regional specialty goods, from glutinous rice cakes and gaudy packages of dried fruits to freshly steamed buns, entire piles of whole-leg Jinhua ham and strings of fatty pork belly. Winding through the maze of stalls, you’ll wander into a nostalgic slice of the city’s past and uncover a veritable goldmine of samples: pieces of dried mango and fragrant roselle flowers, razor-thin slices of jerky and pungent pickled goods. A smile and a quick brush of the fingers against an unfamiliar item and the sellers are ready with a plethora of tasting bites — not to mention a few rejoinders: “Ah, red ginger. Good with seafood. Look at her though, she obviously doesn’t cook,” or something similarly ambivalent. It’s all part of the good-natured marketplace ribbing. Delicacies are weighed and dispensed in iconic red-and-white striped plastic bags, coins jingle as they exchange hands and the commercial hum of Nanmen Market continues on, as it always has.
3. The iconic street food at night markets
The soulful, hearty cuisine found at the open-air ye shi — literally “night” and “market” — is a hallmark of the island’s culinary experience. The Taiwanese of the capital are famously enthusiastic epicures, and it’s part of the reason why the city is a proven fertile breeding ground for inventive trends, from umami-saturated soup dumplings to the satisfying “qq” (“chewy”) texture of bubble tea, that have found fans across the globe. Much of the city’s food culture revolves around the vibrant network of night markets: rows of no-frills eateries and open-air food stalls, the air redolent with the scent of frying dough and the scraping sounds of plastic stools being pulled up to metal folding tables.
Although Shilin Night Market is arguably the better-known destination, Raohe Street Night Market is a significantly less sterilized example of a classic Taiwanese night market. The action takes place along 600m of steaming food stalls interspersed with quirky carnival games, discount clothing shops and foot massage parlors. Traditionally, night markets are located around a temple complex — in this particular case, the Qing dynasty-era Ciyou Temple at the market’s eastern end. Any sort of religious fervor, however, seems to be squarely centered on pursuits more gastronomical than spiritual: visitors chow down on pepper buns and boar-meat sausages while winding their way past rickety tables laden with oyster omelets, sesame noodles and the notoriously pungent stinky tofu.
4. All the modern feels around town
Standing on the eastern end of the city at 509m tall, Taipei’s most recognizable building is rife with symbolism. The circular embellishments on each side of Taipei 101 look like ancient Chinese coins. The building’s shape resembles a stalk of bamboo, valued in Chinese culture for its adaptability and durability — fitting symbolism for a key center of Taiwan’s financial sector. Each day, its elevators zip a never-ending stream of visitors up to the 89th floor observation deck in a jaw-dropping 37 seconds.
But urban planners and developers are increasingly turning their gaze to the empty remnants of Taipei’s past, devising ambitious plans to transform dilapidated warehouse properties and historical villages
into hubs for arts and culture.
The cavernous warehouses of the former Songshan Tobacco Factory have come to life, filled with an ever-increasing number of design-related initiatives, but the crumbling structures and leafy grounds alone are worth a look — one can hardly believe that the ultra-modern Taipei 101 stands less than a 20-minute stroll away. Exploring the maze of warehouses is in itself a worthwhile activity, with the option of stopping for a cup of siphon coffee or shopping at Eslite Spectrum, a futuristic structure that houses the conceptual department store of Taiwan’s premier bookseller.
5. The throwback charm of Dihua Street
Though modern commercial activity has been trending towards the eastern neighborhoods of the city, the development of modern Taipei began in the west. Situated along the banks of the Danshui River, the Datong district was once the commercial center, as tea exports boomed and foreign companies did brisk trade on the wharf. Entire stretches of the district remain relatively unchanged: the bulk-goods shophouses of Dihua Street — their architecture revealing a succession of overlaying influences from Fujianese, Baroque and Japanese colonial styles — still process mammoth quantities of garlic and black fungus.
A stroll around the area evokes a sense of Taipei’s past. The Xiahai City God Temple, the district’s religious and social heart, was completed in 1859 to honor the god charged with watching over the denizens of the district. The god certainly has his hands full during the lead-up to Chinese New Year, when the street turns into an open-air bazaar. During this time, locals flood the typically serene district in search of wrapped candies, salted nuts and other delicacies to serve during family reunions. Apothecaries continue to display glass jars of traditional Chinese medicine ingredients, perfuming the arcades with the odor of ginseng, jujubes and goji berries.
Recent years have seen more sustainable efforts at reinvigorating the neighborhood, aimed at a younger, design-minded audience. The result is a refreshingly unpretentious warren of art galleries, hip eateries, handicraft stores and intimate speakeasies mixed amongst the shopkeepers and herbalists going about business as usual, unperturbed by the new crowd of camera-wielding hipsters and design fanatics. One stellar example of the area’s influx of vitality is Peacock Bistro, an intimate eatery tucked behind the leafy courtyard of an elegant stone mansion. Diners first pass through a quaint bakery, Salt Peanuts Cafe (famous for their oversized cinnamon rolls), before encountering a stunning wooden bar lined with glass jars containing a myriad of tantalizing infusions, mimicking the shelves of the nearby apothecaries. Indulge in an array of small fusion dishes, whimsical takes on beloved Taiwanese dishes and ingredients — think fried chicken dipped in a batter infused with sake and peanuts, and delicate oyster fritters, a modern spin on the fried oyster snacks sold at the food stalls in the city’s numerous night markets.
6. Oolong tea in Maokong
The city is sprawled in a basin ringed by hills, many of which offer magnificent hiking trails and sweeping valley views. Maokong, the collective name for the network of peaks above the region of Muzha in the city’s southern reaches, would be merely another scenic destination were it not for the region’s singular climate.
By the early 19th century, the lush hillsides of Maokong had already been transformed into a thriving area of tea production. The region became known particularly for its oolong (literally “black dragon”) and tieguanyin (“Iron Goddess of Mercy”, so named for the rust-like hue of its infusion) teas, and Maokong tea was exported around the world. The village is now acclaimed as a highly atmospheric station to imbibe locally grown tea, with nearly a hundred teahouses, eateries and cafés perched against a stunning backdrop of city views. The journey is part of the experience: Maokong is best reached by a scenic gondola ride — certain cabins feature glass bottoms for an even more thrilling experience.
Most Maokong teahouses sell tea in portions of liang (one liang being around 37.5g), offering the option of renting sets of tea preparation accoutrements for a small fee. Tea aficionados need not stop at liquid consumption — many teahouses, such as Yao Yue, boast menus of aromatic fare centered around tea: chicken stewed with tea-infused oil and ginger; tea-spiced fried pumpkin; and bowls of rice noodles tossed in tea oil.
To truly enjoy tea time in Maokong, far removed from the bustle and chaos of the city streets, find a teahouse with quiet spot on a terrace overlooking a lush stream, and pay close attention to the attendant rituals — from the heating of the water to the preparation of the tea leaves —that make such a simple activity a kind of ceremony.
7. The gorgeous satellite village of Shifen
Winding through Keelung River valley just outside the urban sprawl of Taipei, the Pingxi Line was originally built in the early 20th century to ferry coal. It now acts as transport into a sanctuary of Taiwan’s nostalgic charm: the village of Shifen, where you’ll find an abundance of natural attractions — stunning waterfalls, serene streams and a variety of gentle mountainside trails. While the neighboring village of Jiufen— the inspiration behind the animated film Spirited Away — remains the star of the Pingxi region with its atmospheric cobblestone streets and glowing teahouses, Shifen is an underrated gem not to be missed.
The photogenic Shifen Waterfall, nicknamed “mini Niagara”, is located only a short stroll from the town’s main street. The village of Shifen sits directly alongside the railroad tracks, with visitors scrambling off the tracks for the shelter of local eateries and shops whenever the distant whistle of an incoming train is heard. Once the train has roared through the village streets, shopkeepers once again set up racks of the village’s signature sky lanterns out on the tracks for customers to paint. Formerly used as a signaling system for the railroad, the lanterns are now used as a signal to higher powers: visitors are invited to choose colored lanterns and paint the sides with wishes, hopes and dreams before releasing them into the sky — a sight that gets dreamier as night encroaches. Looking up at the rainbow of softly glowing lanterns scattered across the sky, surrounded by delicious smells and the embrace of a warm night, it’s hard not to believe in the potency of Taipei’s xiao que xing.
This article first appeared in the November 2018 issue of Smile magazine.