What to do and where to go at Taiwan’s colorful capital
Day 1: Old and new, from sunrise to sunset
Locals love park life, so do as they do and get an early start in natural surrounds. The landmark Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park (pictured, above), with its picturesque ponds and gardens, is ideal for a walk and for people-watching. Catch people of all ages and shapes doing their thing — look on as tai chi masters and pop music dancers get in the zone.
After a sustaining breakfast of youtiao (fried dough fritters) and doujiang (soy milk) (US$3.50), a popular street food option, you’ll want to learn a little about the city you’re in. The National Museum of History (US$1) is close to the Taipei Botanical Garden and accessible by subway (alight at Xiaonanmen). If the world’s largest collection of Chinese historical artifacts — spanning 8,000 years — floats your boat, then move on to the incredible National Palace Museum (US$12). The latter museum has so many exhibits, it would take 12 years to see them all.
And then, it’s time to check out the new. Taiwan is a hub for tech and games — iPhones, indie computer games and more have been known to originate from local factories, firms and makers. Guanghua Digital Plaza is nerd heaven; it features six packed floors of digital gadgetry. It’s also right by tech wonderland Syntrend Creative Park — the mall is the destination for the newest tech and electronics (including drones and VR devices) and toys and action figures.
Day 2: Eat your way through Taipei
Mention Taipei and the response from people who’ve been is, “Food!” The city has a deserved reputation for serving up some of the best Chinese dishes in the world, but it’s also cooked up a cuisine that it’s proud to call its own. The local eat-out and takeaway culture also means that there’s plenty of competition and cheap prices.
One recommendation is re chao (hot, stir-fry) restaurants. They don’t look like much, but they serve some of the best food in town, including fresh-off-the-boat sashimi. A good lunch serving shouldn’t cost you more than US$19. Tai Chun on Minsheng West Road is a stand-out; they’ve also opened a new branch at 81 Ningxia Road.
There’s a reverence for night market food in Taiwan, where vendors build loyal followings over several years. But in a city where trends come and go, there’s always room for fresh acts. One example is a mobile operation situated close to Tai Chun. They don’t have a name, but people call them “Granny’s Fan Tuan”. Granny’s opens at 6pm daily and sells sticky rice wraps filled with fried pork and fried dough fritters. Enjoy a meal for about US$20.
Day 3: Get active
Feasting on affordable street food means you can splurge on shopping. The city’s East District — the area off Zhongxiao East Road, between Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT Station and Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall — is a maze of boutique stores, cafés and restaurants, and is worth checking out. If that isn’t enough, there’s Xinyi District, near Taipei 101, where an ever-expanding stack of malls — housing big-name brand boutiques — are connected by elevated pedestrian walkways.
To get in touch with the styles and trends of Taiwanese youth, make a beeline for bustling Ximending. The district had a slightly salty reputation under Japanese rule, when tea shops and other entertainment outlets of ill repute populated the place. Today, it’s kawaii (cute in Japanese pop culture terms) central and packed full of students buying trinkets and the latest fashion; or getting hyped up for guest appearances from their favorite pop stars. Get in on the fun and shop for yourself, friends and family — you could leave with souvenirs for all for under US$100.
Time for a break? Then check out cotton candy store Sola, located on Xining South Road. The light and airy desserts (US$10), which are made of 100% natural ingredients, come in flavors including black tea, oolong tea and roselle.
With shopping in the bag, it’s time to pamper yourself. There are massage specialists on almost every corner in the city — these range from the visually impaired monk on a simple chair outside Longshan Temple to chain stores and ultra-expensive hotel offerings. Opened last year, Relaxing Trip on Lane 524, off Zhongxiao East Road Section 5, has a nature-inspired approach. The clean, refreshing place has Taiwan-style masseuses who are professional and attentive. Prices start from US$34.
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From dedicated cycling lanes to bike-friendly trains, Taipei is one of the premier cycling destinations in Asia. But if you’re not a fan of cycling, try Taipei’s metro system, which is clean, fast and efficient. It’ll get you where you need to go — and if you do need a lift to the doorstep of your destination, the city’s plentiful cabbies provide friendly and affordable service. Even Uber rides, which are easily available, are second-class options.
Three budget accommodations
1. Sleepy Dragon Hostel is the brainchild of seasoned travelers Satoro and Shelley. There’s an emphasis on eco-friendly fittings and warm communal spaces. Book in to be a short walk from Raohe Street Night Market, and also to enjoy pretty city and mountain views. 399 Nanjing East Rd Sec 5; sleepydragonhostel.com
2. Via Hotel Loft is compact, well-appointed and strategically located. It’s earned its brownie points from its efficient service and 24/7 free snack bar. 42 Minsheng East Rd Sec 1; fb.com/via.hotel.tw
3. Bouti City Capsule Inn meets the rising demand for no-frills pod stays. Located near Taipei Main Station, the inn makes for an ideal starting point for explorations of the city’s attractions. 7 Chongqing South Rd Sec 1; fb.com/boutihostel
Where to hang
With drink stands and watering holes dotting the city, visitors have plenty of options when it comes to quenching their thirst:
Line Friends Café & Store opened to great acclaim, but not so much because of the quality of its coffees and baked snacks. What it does do well is cute souvenirs and photo ops. Skm.com.tw
AMPM is a concept clothing store that has a lounge bar and skating ramp. The owner, a graffiti legend, can be credited for attracting an interesting crowd. It’s a great place to kick-start a night on the town. fb.com/ampmstudio
Indulge Experimental Bistro would be worth visiting for the food alone, but it does much more than that. Cocktails from top mixologists are likely to impress. Indulgebistrotaipei.blogspot.tw
Eslite bookstores are perfect places to enjoy some quiet contemplation. The brand is an institution famed for good reads, crafts, music, designer goods, wine and tea. It has branches old and new across the city — but we recommend its lone 24-hour outlet. 245 Dunhua South Rd Sec 1; esliteliving.com
Bake a cake
Gloria’s Sweets is cashing in on the local baking craze. Taiwanese millennials have been making pastries instead of singing their hearts out at karaoke centers or socializing over drinks. They learn a skill, enjoy what they create and, most importantly, get to show off their results on social media. You can do the same. 253 Zhuangjing Rd; fb.com/gloriasweets0704
Note: US$; hotels, airfare and impulse shopping not included
This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Smile magazine.