Taiwan is definitely overlooked in terms of tourism and I'd highly recommend more people consider it, especially if already visiting or living in Asia. We spent some relaxing time there over the Christmas holidays and found a lot to like.
We had a lot of rainy (but significantly warmer than Shanghai) weather while there, so we took it a bit easy on this trip and left a lot to see in future visits. One of the great things about Taipei is how easily accessible nature is from the city, with hot springs and mountains within a MRT (subway) journey. When we come back, we will certainly take advantage of those opportunities. On this trip, we enjoyed:
, including the famous night markets where you can get all types of street food and assorted junk or even play some games. We shopped in the jade market, a local produce market, and enjoyed a stroll through the flower market, filled with holiday poinsettias. We also popped in to the electronics mart for a new hard drive and the prices, variety and quality were nice.
|Night market food (including the infamous snake restaurant) and shopping|
Strolling the streets, enjoying the coffee shops and shopping opportunities
|Jade everything for sale|
, with nice little lanes to get lost in and a great coffee culture to get out of the rain and watch the world go by over a cup. There are plenty of big malls and department stores with good food courts too, which is easy for a cheap, convenient meal (somewhere I would avoid like the plaque in the U.S. but go to options in Asia). Because it was Christmas, there were festive decorations up everywhere and a special display by city hall.
|Christmas lights display near Taipei 101|
, which is one of the things Taiwan is known for, from street food and beef noodle shops to all kinds of international cuisine. The years of Japanese occupation have left behind plenty of authentic Japanese restaurants and we enjoyed tasty shabu shabu one night. Yongkang Lu is the place to go for a huge variety of restaurants and little dessert shops (plus the original Din Tai Fung). Try shaved ice with fruit or all kinds of good street snacks and Chinese food from all different provinces. We also had a gourmet dinner to celebrate a special birthday at the top of Taipei 101 (Diamond Tony's) and enjoyed "Taiwanese tapas" at China Pa, a great little 1920s style place with a live band and fun crowd.
|A popular vendor on Yongkang Lu|
|Getting my ice cream "spring roll" at the night market (spring roll wrapper with peanut and pineapple ice cream plus shaved peanut brittle and cilantro). Tasty, but maybe no cilantro next time.|
with all the things above to do, it is sort of nice that Taipei does not necessarily have a massive list of sites to see. We visited Chiang Kai Shek memorial hall and its exhibitions and we took in the view from Taipei 101 during our dinner rather than via the observation deck. The national museum has many of the treasures of old China that were taken when the KMT fled here. We visited Longhua Temple, which was a busy temple packed with locals. There are plenty of nice museums to keep you busy as well, though I think it's more fun to get out and explore the city.
|The amazingly still guards at the Chiang Kai Shek statue|
Hualien and Taroko National Park
|Beautiful grounds and surrounding architecture around CKS Hall|
We loved Taipei, but I think the highlight of the trip was our visit to Hualien and Taroko Gorge. We took the train over to Hualien, a quaint little beachside town. The next day we woke up for our full day tour of Taroko Gorge. These are pretty easy to arrange in town with English-speaking taxi drivers (or group tours) but we had prearranged ours via Round Taiwan. Our driver arrived and whisked us off for a day of enjoying nature's beauty and some great hikes. Taroko is a large swath of parkland along the pacific coast where dramatic geological landscapes have been formed by tectonic shifting. The "marble gorge" lives up to its name (a tribal word meaning magnificent and beautiful) and you could spend many days exploring the varied terrain.
Hualien istelf is a cute little town with some beautiful beaches nearby (our drive along the coast reminded me of Hawaii, but instead of million dollar homes and hotels, there was a large cemetery and a military base). Hualien had one of the most enjoyable night markets, where we tasted a local specialty. "coffin bread" (sort of like a french toast pocket sandwich with different filling options) and enjoyed some freshly grilled seafood and tasty beers at a little corner bar/restaurant.
|Beaches of Hualien|
|Hualien at night|
|Hualien night market|
|Yummy "coffin bread"|
|Beer and freshly grilled seafood|
Taiwan is a beautiful country. In addition, it is well-organized and traveler-friendly. We met so many nice people and were often offered help (for example, when we stopped to look at our map one day). We were impressed by the level (and willingness) of English spoken. Taiwan has a great transportation system (plus it's a small island packed with diverse geography so you can see a lot in short distances) and it was clean, quiet, safe and generally left a wonderful impression. We hope to go back to explore more!