Taiwan and especially the capital Taibei is an awesome place to say hello to East Asia for the first time. Even if you are a well-seasoned Asia traveler, Taibei will wow you with its delicious local food, high mountain tea plantations, hip cafés, innovative bars and restaurants, good museums and bookshops, hiking through lush green mountains, extensive bike paths, convenient public transport, lovely people and relaxed vibe.
Here are six reasons (there are more) why we think you should consider visiting the beautiful island’s capital:
1. Taiwanese food is ingenious and delicious
Taiwan is famous for a good number of dishes, snacks and drinks. Really, it is a foodie paradise. Actually Taiwanese food is so popular that it can be found in most neighbouring countries.
Taiwanese cuisine blends different Chinese and Japanese influences together, gives it an innovative twist and creates its own style. The resulting dishes are simply delicious and exciting. Taiwanese food ranges from simple vegetable soups, to steamed fish, BBQ, braised pork, preserved eggs, fried chicken, to a multitude of noodles… . Usually few ingredients are combined to great effect. Very famous examples are beef noodle soup (牛肉面), various dumplings (水饺), Bubble Tea (珍珠奶茶), pineapple cakes (凤梨酥), oyster omelet or fried stinky tofu (臭豆腐). For a better idea of what to eat in Taibei here is a good introductory list by CNN. Most dishes are quite healthy and dining out is fairly cheap.
In addition to great dishes, Taiwan also has a crazy amount of imaginative snacks like the round car-wheel red bean cakes with cream cheese or bread with sweet potato filling. They are as delicious as they sounds curious. Another interesting one is crackers with milk toffee and spring onion filling. Again, as delicious as it sounds strange. Taibei nightmarkets are snack heaven central. Enter hungry and bring friends to share, so you get to try everything. Popular night markets are Shilin, Raohe and Ningxia night market, but there are tons more and they are all a bit different and interesting.
Besides awesome, wacky snacks Taibei is the home of amazing dumplings. Try the soup Xiaolongbao on Sunday morning at DinTaiFeng. When debating the best food we have ever eaten, those were among the top contenders. Go to the original restaurant near Yongkangjie at 9 am to avoid the long queues of tourists forming later. For a different flavour try 福鼎湯包店 near Wanfang Yiyuan.
2. Taiwanese drinks are awesome (so much so that they warrant their own category)
Taiwanese Oolong tea is carefully grown in the mountains. Some variations are lighter, some darker, some roasted. All are delicious. If you want to try different teas go to one of the tea houses near Yongkangjie. We went to 串門子茶館 (Chuan Men Zi) or Stop By Teahouse, which has very stylish decor and a great selection of tea.
Taibei also has a myriad of hip coffee shops. The coffee will cost you between 60 and 150 NTD. The price is quite steep, because many coffee shops are used as work space by most customers who sit there for hours with laptops, textbooks and even tutors. Taiwan also grows some coffee in the mountains, so you can sample some local drip coffee. We really liked Wakey coffee near Xinpu Station in Banqiao, Jackwell Cafe near Guting Station and the One-Piece-themed PEG Coffee near Liuzhangli Station.
Small teashops where you can get tea to go with different toppings are everywhere. Fancy a pudding milk tea, fresh kumquat lemon honey tea, red bean red rice latte or rather cream-cheese topped oolong? No problem, you will find that and more in Taibei. It is fun to drink yourself across the menu. Chris is demonstrating how to enjoy a cup:
3. Taibei is convenient and a great city for walking
There are side-walks all over the city. Many are covered to protect against frequent rain and only sometimes do you have to circumvent a parked motorcycle. The traffic stops for pedestrians when the light turns red. The traffic lights even show the seconds you still have left to cross the street, so you do not get stranded in the middle of a large multi-lane road. (Yes, this is an implicit criticism of Berlin’s extremely short green light periods.)
The MRT and bus system is easy to use and runs frequently. There are even lines on the floor where to queue up to enter the cars. MRT and bus stations in the city are now marked in several languages including English and have printed maps of the surroundings. There is free WIFI in the stations and MRT cars. I challenge you to get lost anywhere. Taibei Main Station, which is a maze of underground malls, might be the exception here. The local rechargeable metro card is even called EasyCard.
Should you surface at a random MRT exit, you can just use your EasyCard to borrow a bicycle at one of the ubiquitous YouBike stations to enjoy Taibei’s streets on two wheels.
4. Lush landscape, nice parks and great hiking
The Portuguese were so stunned by the lush green forests that they called the island Formosa. Although modern day Taiwan is one of the world’s most densely populated countries and not particularly known for it’s natural environment, you will find everyday beauty abounds. Taibei is surrounded by beautiful and fairly high mountains with lush forests and tea plantations waiting to be marveled at. You can easily go on daytrips to Yangminshan National Park in the North or Maokong in the south by using public transport. Or you can head for the hot springs in Wulai or Beitou. To get some green within the city visit one of the many park areas, like Daan Park, which is full of interesting trees.
5. Discover many different cultural and architectural hotspots
The 101 used to be the highest building in the world for a short while. It’s bamboo-like structure and core protect it from the frequent earthquakes and typhoons. Even if you are not a fan of the outside, check out the interesting inside construction that helps absorb shocks.
Hang out at Chiang-Kai Shek Memorial Hall’s huge square in the evening and watch people practice different physical activities while contemplating where you are among the prettily lit up buildings. (Bring some bubble tea ;-))
Furthermore, Taibei has a variety of very interesting temples on offer for the curious visitor. Below you see Longshan Temple during Chinese New Year welcoming the year of the dog.
Finally, the National Palace Museum is home to some the most important treasures in Chinese history. The collection is so huge that it takes 12 years to exhibit every object. Join a tour to get the myriad of stories behind the objects. Taibei has many other museums including cool contemporary exhibitions, but the National Palace Museum really should not be missed.
6. Taibei is a very relaxed and friendly big city
In general many Europeans stereotypically think of Asian cities as crowded, chaotic and loud places. Unless they think of orderly Japan. Taibei is not really any of those things. It is just the right mix of surprising, lively, easy to navigate, improvised, nerve-grating and easy-going.
If you walk through the MRT you will notice that people move quite leisurely. Even during rush hour there is surprisingly little rushing involved. People are dressed far more casually than for example the chique Tokyo-ites. Although they generally work long hours, you see people walking around smiling and laughing a lot.
In Taibei it is also fairly easy to talk to the locals. Many people speak English. Taiwanese people are very friendly, curious and usually up for an animated chat, especially about local food.
We both love Taibei, so we are biased, sure. Tanja altogether lived here for over a year, and frankly coming back during our long trip felt a bit like coming home. It is a great place, full of good memories old and new. Still we tried to explain above why it is a place to love with good reason.
We feel very lucky that we got the chance to stop by and are extremely happy to have met many old friends on our visit!