Taiwan - Getting to know Tainan
Rich in heritage, Tainan is the laid-back spiritual home of bentu (Taiwanese) culture. As Taiwan’s oldest city – and its former capital, from 1683 to 1887 – Tainan has a wealth of great architecture and history to explore, and hundreds of temples. The city is also Taiwan’s foodie mecca, with an astounding number of restaurants and regional specialities, and a reputation that draws hungry visitors from all over the island and beyond.
Tainan is in many ways a counterweight to Taipei, the capital city that dominates so much of Taiwanese life. Whereas Taipei is the bastion of Chinese culture in Taiwan, the people of Tainan are justified in feeling they are the keepers of Taiwanese culture. Mandarin is the main language spoken in Taipei, but people in Tainan prefer a different Chinese language, called simply Taiwanese by most. The pace of life in Tainan is also slower and people’s priorities tend to be more focused on family, friends and enjoying what life has to offer.
Known as ‘Taiwan's Kyoto’, Tainan has more Buddhist and Taoist temples than any other city in Taiwan. The city holds an important place in Taiwanese culture as a religious centre, and many of the temples, such as Kaiyuan and the Matsu Temple, are worth visiting for the intricate artwork and age-old rituals that still take place today.
The central core of Tainan is easily explored by foot and it’s here that you’ll find some of the oldest buildings in Taiwan, such as the well preserved Fort Proventia, originally constructed in 1653 by the Dutch, and the 17th century Confucius Temple.
Like many Taiwanese cities, the main university (Cheng Kung) in Tainan acts as a hub, with bookshops, cafés, and restaurants clustered in the streets around the leafy campus in the eastern section of downtown: an excellent place to people watch and take a break from sightseeing.
What to do in Tainan
- The Confucius Temple is both historically important and a great place to visit. Confucius was China’s great sage, and every hall, gateway, pond, and path here is imbued with philosophical and educational significance. Despite the site’s lofty purpose as a temple of learning, it’s not all hushed studious reverence. The courtyard is a place of community – people come to practice tai-chi, chat, or rest under the shade of banyans.
- Close to Fort Proventia in the centre of town lies the Official God of War Temple - if you see only one temple in Tainan, then this is the one to visit. The titular deity is, like many Taiwanese, a multi-tasking god, combining the obvious martial and protective roles with being a patron saint of accountants. The temple buildings are superb examples of Fujianese architecture, with a blend of roofing styles, carvings and incense-laden halls that are both evocative and photogenic.
- Eat! Ask any Taiwanese person where to go for the best food and they will undoubtedly name Tainan. Frequently dubbed ‘the City of Snacks’, dishes are typically served as small plates - Taiwanese tapas if you like! – as opposed to banquet style buffets, and there is a dominance of seafood. There are street-food vendors everywhere - expect family-owned, home-cooked, affordable cuisine.
Tainan residents greet each other by asking 'have you eaten yet?'
Getting off the trail in Tainan
- Away from the bustle of downtown, Tainan opens up into farming country. Among the flat reclaimed land north of the urban centre is Lu’ermen Temple, once reputed to be the largest in Taiwan as the result of an ecumenical arms race with a neighbouring temple. Close by is an ossuary holding the unearthed bones of Dutch soldiers who died during the early 17th century.
- A little further north in Qigu is one of Taiwan’s oddest attractions – Salt Mountain, which is, as the name suggests, a mountain of salt. The region was the hub of Taiwan’s salt industry. Besides scaling the salt mountain and visiting the Salt Museum, it’s possible to sample the unique tasting salt ice cream!
- Elsewhere in Tainan, if the heat isn’t too oppressive then a cycle-ride around Wushantou reservoir makes for a rewarding afternoon. The nearby town of Yanshui is quiet for 364 days of the year, but fifteen days after the Lunar New Year it erupts with a firework festival. Revellers dress up in protective gear while tens of thousands of rockets are fired directly into the crowds. A spectacle that is, perhaps, best enjoyed from a safe distance.
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