Taipei is the capital of the island of Taiwan, part of the Republic of China. The city is divided into two parts: the east side is filled with western-style boutiques, restaurants, and upscale hotels, and the west side displays some of the older cultures of the city, with street vendors and temples. There are many things to do and see in the city, regardless of your interests: from the temples of Longshan (Buddhist) and Baoan (Taoist), to the markets (the famous Shilin night market is especially fun) and street vendors, and even the towering Taipei 101 building, there are things here for everyone.
I was traveling with a coworker, and we had been on a grueling business trip that started with India, went on to the Philippines, and ended with Taiwan. Due to the way our trip was scheduled, we had a weekend in Taipei to do as we wished, and then of course had our evenings after work to play with.
We stayed in The Regent, which is probably the fanciest hotel I have ever stayed in, and I’ve stayed in some swank places in my Asia travels. The Galleria had stores like Hermes, Harry Winston, and Valentino…in other words, places I did not shop at while I was there.
I was most interested in spending the time viewing the cultural side of the city, particularly the temples. Although I would not call myself religious, I have always identified very closely with the teachings of Buddha, and have, for years, wanted to pay respects in an eastern temple. Longshan and Baoan temples were exactly what I would have imagined: ornate architecture, the smell of incense, and the throngs of passionate and loyal worshippers kneeling at the various statues and relics. Entrance into the temples is free, but it is polite to leave a donation to help with the upkeep.
The Shilin Night Market was fantastic. Before you even enter you’re overwhelmed with the assortments of fragrant foods, and making the choice on what to eat will be the most difficult choice you’ve made all day. Inside you can also find lots of souvenirs and knick knacks to take back, all of which are very reasonably priced. Taiwan jade is also aplenty here, and while it is not too expensive, a nice piece will run you far more than the sum of the rest of your purchases. To keep costs down, I purchased small pieces, like earrings, and a charm for my car.
We also spent a fully day in Danshui (also called Tamsui), a coastal fishing and commerce town not far from Taipei (you can reach it via a 20ish minute ride on the Metro). There are markets here, as well as a nice fisherman’s wharf where you can buy local wares and find some unique food vendors. You can also take a ferry across to Bali (no, not that Bali), which has lots of parks and trails for locals and tourists.
For cuisine, you can find nearly anything, from authentic Taiwanese and Chinese cuisine (which, as you may know, is nothing like the westernized stuff we eat here), as well as food from all other cultures, including US fast food chains. One of my favorite experiences was eating at a hot pot-style restaurant, where you are given an individual pot of boiling water to make your own meal.
I would visit Taipei again in a heartbeat. The people were very friendly, the culture is still very prevalent throughout the city, and the food was varied and fun.
- Do not expect to use your credit card in most places. Taxis, shops, and so forth only take cash. The exception will be hotels and larger shops/establishments.
- Things are relatively cheap in Taiwan (when comparing to the USD), so a little cash will stretch a long way.
- English is mostly spoken only in the corporate world, and in folks under the age of 30 or 40. Your cab driver will most likely only speak Mandarin or Taiwanese. Learn a few helpful phrases to take with you (“Thank you,” for example, is pronounced “shay shay”).
- Unlike some of the other Asian countries, the street vendor food in Taiwan is relatively safe. It’s also pretty delicious!
- Price negotiation is very common in the markets here, so always try to negotiate a lower price. As a lot of merchants do not speak English, it’s common for them to communicate using the calculator to show their price (which you can, in return, use to show the price you’re willing to pay).
- These folks do not mess around with their love of Hello Kitty!