While planning our RTW 3.0, I was really excited about visiting Taiwan, and Taipei in particular. Described as a great street food destination with beautiful temples, a hopping nightlife, and great daytrips to national parks and hiking spots, it sounded like a city that was right up our alley. The country as a whole, while on the smaller side, is pretty much a nature-lover’s paradise, packed with hiking, biking, mountain climbing, and then hot springs to soothe your aching muscles from all of these activities.
After having been in Japan for two and a half weeks, where there’s really no street food, no movie theaters, and no overwhelming feeling of being in Asia, we were thrilled to get off the train in the neighborhood we were staying in Taipei (Ximen) to an abundance of all three. I’ve never seen a neighborhood quite like this one before. It was like Time Square if Time Square was a square mile instead of a few blocks. Ximen was filled with bright lights, tons of shops selling all sorts of clothes and souvenirs, tons of food, and best of all, tons of movie theaters. It was packed every single day of the week (well every night at least) and we were immediately happy with our choice to stay there (even though it was sort of by accident because the area also had the cheapest accommodation in the city). Our hotel was great too and we were happy that we’d be there for the next 5 nights, which is longer than we’ve stayed pretty much anywhere.
On our first night, we explored Ximen and had a great local meal of the famous Taiwanese beef noodle soup, plus wontons and pork spare ribs. It was a great meal, and it was good to be back to amazing $10 dinners (speaking of dollars – the currency in Taiwan is called the dollar also. It’s the same exchange rate as the baht, so that’s what we’ve been calling it instead. It’s way too confusing to keep saying something is 15 dollars, when really that means it’s 50 cents).
The next four days that we spent in Taipei were filled with everything the city is known for: Street food/night markets, neighborhood exploration, biking, temples, day trips, and of course, a movie. As we spent more time in the city, we realized that Taipei had become our second favorite big Asian city (after Bangkok, of course) and also that this was the only other city in Asia that we could conceivably see ourselves living in. Since we did so much and spent so much time in Taipei, this time I’m going to keep it a little shorter with only the most notable/memorable things we did, places we saw, and food we ate, rather than writing about every single detail (sorry moms:).
On our first day, we spent the day exploring around our area, Ximen. There was a great walking tour in our book that we did which took us zig zagging through the streets in our neighborhood and through a little bit of everything, from the old to the new, stopping at about 20 different places. My favorite sight of the day was also the first – Longshan Temple in Wanhua, the oldest district in Taipei. I think I loved this temple because when we showed up (early, at about 8am), it was filled with tons of people praying and chanting. It was unlike anything I’ve experienced at a temple before, as I’ve never actually gotten to be a part (or at least an observer) of the ceremony. I found it very beautiful. This was also the first Chinese-style temple that we saw, a style that I love.
We were back by our guesthouse at lunchtime and picked up Hot Star, which is a Taiwanese fried chicken sensation. Their specialty is a huge (and I mean huge) fried chicken cutlet. This place actually just opened a branch in Bangkok and when we went to go check it out there was a line out the door and down the street. So, we thought we’d give it a try at the source, especially since at our early lunchtime of 10:30am there was no line. The chicken was good (and so was the bubble tea we got to wash it down with), but not so good that we’ll be back for more.
At the end of the day, we ended up experimenting with U-Bike, the famous Taipei bike share service. There are stations set up all over the city (literally hundreds), and while this service exists all over the US and elsewhere, we’ve never seen such a good or cheap one. In Chicago, for example, you can rent a bike and it’s fairly cheap, but you have to check it in at a station every 30 minutes or so. That seems pretty silly, as it doesn’t really give you much time to do anything. In Taipei, the bikes cost about 70 cents per hour, and you can keep them for up to 24 hours. We ended up using this a lot throughout our time in Taipei and it was great. We rented a bike to ride from the very trendy Huashan 1914 Creative Park (an area filled with trendy/hipster cafes and shops – it was kind of a weird place and very expensive) to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, a beautiful and huge square with two big temples and then an open hall, which you have to climb 88 steps to reach, with a big statue at the top – it was similar to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. We even got to see the changing of the guards, which happens every hour on the hour.
That night, we went to check out our first night market. Ningxia Night Market is supposed to be one of Taipei’s most popular. It was several blocks long and filled with street food vendors. We ended up with a huge baked clam, a plate of oysters (we never expected to be getting seafood for dinner, but when we saw a plate of oysters for $3—a single oyster in Japan was $5—we couldn’t resist), some fried chicken pieces in a great sauce, and Taiwan’s famous (or infamous) stinky tofu, which we had to try. It was a great first night market meal. We even liked the stinky tofu (like may be a strong word, but we at least didn’t hate it, though we likely won’t be ordering it again).
We’d planned our night and dinner around getting back to our area in time to go see a movie. We’d spent about an hour before dinner scoping out all of the movie theaters to find the best times and prices (we literally walked back and forth between all of the theaters half a dozen times; there are at least 5 within 3 blocks of our hotel). Luckily, we bought our 9:10pm ticket for Jurassic World in 3D early, because as always, when we got back, the lines were insane. In fact, every time we walked by all of the movie theaters they seemed to have lines down the block. We almost started laughing when we actually walked into the theater, as it looked like a little mini movie theater. The screen was small and there weren’t many seats – no wonder there are so many movie theaters here. It’s not quite the experience we get at the world-class cinemas in Bangkok, but hey, still better than year old $19 movies in Tokyo. At least we were getting to see a brand new movie! And a popcorn/Diet Coke combo was only $2.
Day two was another city day in Taipei. We started off with a great breakfast at a place around the corner from us that we happened to walk past. I think it was the most popular place on the block, with a really long line. We got an egg sandwich (a popular breakfast in Taipei) and a coffee. The coffee in Taiwan is supposed to be some of Asia’s best. We’d tried a couple the day before, but it wasn’t until this coffee at breakfast that we agreed. It was delicious and we went back every morning after for more.
We had planned to go to the National Palace Museum in the morning, which supposedly has one of the best collections of Chinese Art, but after realizing that the price has doubled from what our book says (from $5pp to $10), we decided to skip it. Instead, we headed toward the Zhongshan neighborhood to see one of the most famous temples in Taipei, Bao’an Temple, which our book describes as a “must-visit” in Taipei. It was nice, but we actually liked the Confucius Temple across the street better (especially because they had a 4-D movie explaining the history of the temple, which was really cool, and free).
For lunch, we headed to Dihua Street, which is supposed to be a trendy street with nice shops and restaurants. The street itself was ok, but we did find a good lunch spot right off of it (no need for a trendy/expensive lunch when there’s street food right around the corner) of peanut noodles and grilled chicken.
Since we had some extra time in the afternoon (from skipping the museum), we decided to rent the U-Bike again to drive from where we were down the river to our area. The ride was surprisingly short, so we kept going along the river for a few miles, until the sky started to turn threateningly dark and we turned around. It never ended up raining, but it was still a great ride and nice to have a biking path (near the water) to ride on.
That night, we rented bikes for the third time, to ride to dinner. We thought that maybe we’d want to go to a club later in the night, as they are supposed to have some good ones in Taipei. We always talk about going to a club, but we rarely/never end up actually going when we remember that it will cost us around $50 and that we can’t stay up that late, plus it would likely ruin us for the next day. This time was no different, but as always, we continue to try.
We started the night off by biking to Da’an Park, an amazing park in the middle of the city, comparable to Central Park in NYC. We rode all around the park, (though not into it, as we couldn’t take our bikes) and as we were riding (and admiring the beautiful views of Taipei 101, at one time the world’s largest building), we realized that if we lived in Taiwan, this would be the area we’d want to live in. Not only right near the park, but also near a couple of universities, and a great food area, which reminded us of a little mini West Village. This area had a great mix of street food and restaurants and our book describes it as the quintessential Taiwanese eating area. Whereas the area we were staying in was mostly full of teenagers, this area was more college students and young professionals (another reason we could see ourselves living there). We thought we’d maybe come back for dinner, but first, we needed to check out another night market, the Shida Night Market. This market was a mix of food and clothes. It was pretty big and very crowded, but we didn’t really see anywhere we wanted to sit for dinner. Instead, we got a snack (an amazing pork bun) and then rode back to the food area from earlier for some more beef delicious beef noodles and dumpling.
After dinner, we took the train (we’d returned our bikes before dinner) to Taipei 101, which is also the area with all of the shopping malls and the clubs. The clubs were actually a part of the malls (though still outside) and had lines down the street (very long lines seemed to be a theme in Taipei). As I already mentioned, we decided not to actually go into the clubs, but it was still cool to see them.
On Day 3, it was time to get out of the city for one of Taipei’s famous day trips. Wulai is about an hour south of Taipei and is a jungle/hiking area known for its river tracing (basically hiking through a rocky river and for more advanced people even hiking through/up waterfalls). When we got to the Visitor’s Center, they told us the hike we’d been planning to do was closed (and had been for a couple of years, which doesn’t really make much sense since our book is the latest edition). They also told us that there was nowhere to swim in the park, which also made no sense considering the fact that the whole park is surrounded by a large river and is famous for river tracing. We ended up hiking to the Wulai Waterfall which was surprisingly big, and then to another Park Reserve area, which disappointed, though it too had some nice waterfalls. But the hike to the waterfalls and in the reserve left a lot to be desired, the former because it was mostly on a small path along the highway where we could hear cars passing us by and the latter mostly because it was packed with old people and kids which didn’t make us feel like we were really hiking. A local Taiwanese guy and his parents gave us a ride from there to the area where the original hike we wanted to do started (we had talked to a couple people who told us that the trail was officially closed, but the hike was still ok), but as soon as we got there it started to pour. The day, overall, was a disappointment, and to top it off, we came home soaked. Wulai is very pretty and has a cute town, but unless you want to do a very easy hike or are an experienced river tracer which we aren’t, your time is probably better spent elsewhere – maybe in the historic district of Tamsui, which the Lonely Planet recommends in their 4 day itinerary of Taipei (Wulai was recommended in their 1 week itinerary of Taiwan if you only stay in/around Taipei), but we skipped Tamsui because we’d already done so many temples in Taipei.
Luckily, the day wasn’t a total loss, as we still got to check out another great night market for dinner that night – the Raohe Street Night Market, Taipei’s oldest night market. It was still raining a little bit when we went out, but it cleared up by the time we got our food. This market was huge and a mix of food and clothes/accessories, though mostly food. We ended up with an oyster omelet, a couple of rice dishes, and then the star, a soup with huge pieces of lamb in it, which seemed to be the most popular dish at this market. It was another night market success!
Our last day in Taipei, we headed out of the city again, this time to Yangmingshan National Park, another hour or so ride from the city. We did the most popular hike there (Mt. Qixing Main Peak), which ended up being really nice (though surprisingly hard at the beginning). The whole hike took us about 2.5 hours (including a stop for lunch at a park in the mountains about half-way up), though our book and the Visitor’s Center said it takes most people 3-4 hoursJ. The first part of the hike to the park was all up stairs and was pretty hard. The second half was a little more open, but the way down was the most interesting, as we saw lots of insects and lizards, and some cool smoking, volcanic sulfer pits, where the ground is so hot (from volcanic activity underneath) that it steams and you can’t walk on it.
After a great hike, we stopped on the way back to Taipei in Beitou, which is a little (sleepy) hot spring town. We went to the public bath in the middle of town (40 baht per person) to take a dip and soothe our sore muscles. The bath was packed, mostly with older people. It was outside and there were three different pools that you could choose from, the bottom was the coolest, and then it got hotter as you went up. We went in the first two, but the third was way too hot, even for Dave (about 45 degrees celcius). It was a nice, relaxing break, but considering the fact that it was so hot outside, we couldn’t stay that long.
On our last night, we wanted to stay in our area for dinner, so we went to check out a street mentioned by our book as being packed with great Sichuan food (Lane 25 Kanding Street, off Kunming). A Chinese meal sounded great and the first place we saw was packed AND they had an English menu, so we quickly had a winner. We got a kung pow chicken, chicken cashew, hot and sour soup, and fried green beans. The meal was great (though could have been much spicier) and the whole time we were wondering if we’d be able to find these recognizable Chinese dishes once we were actually in China (we hoped so!).
Now, we’re on our way to Hualien to spend the day tomorrow in the #1 attraction in Taiwan, Taroko Gorge. Time to put the computer away and take in all of the beautiful scenery along the East Coast.