Taiwan - Getting to know Taipei
Taipei combines a dazzling array of culinary options, a vibrant cultural scene, and a friendliness and approachability unmatched in other busy metropolises. As the capital of Taiwan, Taipei is the centre of cultural and economic activity on the island. It is also an excellent base from which to explore the country’s areas of stunning natural beauty, and has quite a few unexpected secrets of its own.
Taipei’s 300 year history is one of turbulence, but the modern city has embraced Chinese, Japanese, native Aboriginal and Western influences, and like much of the country, life in the city is a blend of traditional and modern cultures. Peking opera and the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre rub shoulders with underground punk and street puppet performers. Restaurants and street-side vendors offer Shanghai dishes, steaks with a Taiwanese twist and sashimi, alongside local cuisine like beef noodle soup and gua bao, a steamed bun with sliced pork, greens, and ground peanuts.
Like the food, the architecture of the city tells its own story – evocative incense-filled temples built by 18th century Fujianese settlers in Wanhua District, grand buildings of state from the Japanese and Kuomintang eras, and the thrusting skyscrapers of Xinyi, which testify to the commercial strength of modern Taiwan. One of these skyscrapers is Taipei 101, which towers above the city and is Taiwan’s most recognised landmark.
The efficient metro system, the MRT (Mass Rapid Transport), is an excellent way to get around the city and further into the surrounding suburbs, such as Tamsui (Danshui) with its bustling waterfront markets and shops, Maokong with its tea plantations and teahouses, and Beitou with its hot spring resorts.
What to do in Taipei
- Sharing its roots with the Palace Museum at the Forbidden City in Beijing, the National Palace Museum is a must-visit place in Taipei. Housing exquisite collections of bronzes, jade, paintings and calligraphy from eight millennia of Chinese history, there are over 700,000 pieces permanently exhibited at the museum. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, Taiwan’s first president, ordered the evacuation of these precious collections to Taiwan after the defeat of his Kuomintang forces by Mao Zedong’s Communist army and the National Palace Museum was purposely built to house these priceless treasures.
- Taiwan is home to many Aboriginal tribes who inhabit its mountainous areas and offshore islands. To learn more about Taiwan’s Austronesian heritage, a visit to the nearby Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines is highly recommended.
- In contrast, the Martyr’s Shrine and Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall will help you to understand Taiwan’s recent history. The National Revolutionary Martyr’s Shrine is dedicated to the war dead of the Republic of China, while Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall was erected to honour the first president and the founding father of modern Taiwan.
- Sampling local cuisine should be high on the list for anyone visiting Taipei. Visit the Michelin-starred Din Tai Fung for soup-filled xiaolongbao dumplings, sample street food in Shilin Night Market and stroll along the restaurant-packed Yongkang Street.
Bird's eye view
The top of Taipei 101 – the tallest building in the world from 2004 to 2009 – is an excellent place to start a visit to the city. The vantage point is ideal to appreciate Taipei’s physical geography and plot your days based on the landmarks you can see from the 88th floor.
Greater Taipei is home to nearly a third of Taiwan’s population.
Getting off the trail in Taipei
- For a slice of old Taiwan, head east towards the coast and visit the quaint villages of Jiufen and Jinguashi. Formerly prosperous gold mining centres in the 1930s, then deserted when the gold dried up, both villages are now enjoying a revival in interest due to their abundance of beautiful Japanese architecture and decorative teahouses.
- Pinglin, an hour from Taipei, is synonymous with tea, particularly the Bao Chung variety. There’s an interesting museum which has everything you ever wanted to know about tea, and, as you might expect, the village is awash with teahouses serving the local speciality. The tea is harvested in spring, so if you happen to be there at this time you will be enjoying the freshest of the fresh! Besides drinking tea, a network of hiking and cycling trails dot the scenic surrounding landscape of tea fields, hills and rivers.
- Outdoor enthusiasts should head south to Wulai, an area of natural beauty with endless hiking trails, winding cycle routes and natural hot springs. Expect forests of fir, beech and cypress, bamboo bridges and spectacular waterfalls - particularly worthy of mention is the 80 metre high Wulai Falls. The region is also renowned for its birdwatching areas – winter is the best bird viewing season.
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