Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Best Things About Taipei

My personal blog writing continues to be embarrassingly sporadic. I tend to post about all our adventures on Facebook and get lazy from there. A professional hazard, I guess. Too busy creating content for work, but you won't hear me complaining as I love what I do. This is a long overdue post that came to mind as we took our second trip to Taipei, Taiwan at Christmas (2018). We had been to Taipei (and southern Taiwan) near the beginning of our stint in China and this was a welcome chance to see more. We did some of the major tourist sites the first time (Taipei 101, Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and the more popular night markets). This time, we focused on spending time in neighborhoods, parks, exploring more diverse street food (and food in general) and just soaking up the city.

We stayed in an Airbnb near many of the universities and in the heart of the Shida night market, so we had tons of back alleys with local food spots and shops just outside our door. And, it had a massive rooftop deck overlooking the city (covered, which is perfect for Taipei's rainy weather). I highly recommend a rental apartment over a hotel room in Taipei.

The view from our deck
Taipei is a special breath of fresh air (sometimes literally) when you live in mainland China, especially a big city like Shanghai. The culture will feel very familiar, but everything is a bit easier. Both times visiting, we had people pretty immediately stop and ask us if we needed help as soon as we stood around looking for something. And, each time it happened it was genuine and they helped put us on the right path. So, here are the top reasons I love Taipei and why I think Taipei (and Taiwan more broadly) should be on everyone's travel list.

Some of my favorite things about Taipei:

1. It's easy to escape the urban environment of Taipei for a nature or small town break. 

I loved spending time walking around Da'an Forest Park. It was a quick walk from our apartment and I went there on a few occasions. It's a massive park with a lot of activity and many different areas.

Bird watching in Daan Park

Additionally, my "must do in Taipei" list for this time included hiking up Elephant Hill at Sunset for a view of Taipei 101 and the city. It's a pretty serious uphill (stairs) climb but worth it for the views. You can easily access Elephant Hill from the subway, just a couple stops from Taipei 101. This whole area was so attractive, I'd suggest going a bit ahead of sunset and spending more time walking around.

We also spent a day visiting the National Palace Museum and then heading up to Tamsui. It's a fun, though very touristy, old fishing village. You simply take the metro about 40 minutes from the city center and everything's within walking distance.
National Palace Museum

Food, shopping, fun in Tamsui

Water views in Tamsui

Unfortunately, with the rainy and foggy weather, I didn't think it was worth doing the other nature activity I'd planned to, the Maokong Gondola. However, this would be high on my list if I returned. Again, you can access it right from the subway and can also visit the Taipei Zoo. The ride itself looks stunning and then you can spend time exploring the tea plantations there.

Yangmingshan National Park is another natural attraction with easy access from the city. And, many people take day trips to Pinxi, Jiufen, Yehliu Geopark, and Shifen. You can do it on your own, or Viator and others offer packaged tours to hit the major spots.

If you want to go further afield, Sun Moon Lake would be an option. And, we absolutely loved our time in Hualien and Taroko Gorge (a few hour train ride from Taipei).

2. Food is one of Taipei's main attractions.

Ranging from ubiquitous night markets and delicious street food to ultra-modern cuisine, with everything in between. You could spend days just exploring markets, and years hitting all the different street food vendors and small shops for different specialties. Street food is accessible and safe.

I have to admit one of my favorite things about Taipei is the Japanese influence in cuisine. If you aren't aware, the Japanese occupied Taiwan from 1895-1945. You can still see remnants of that time and Japanese influence in everything from architecture to food. Of course, Japanese cuisine has spread far and wide, especially in neighboring countries. But, Taipei is a Japanese food lover's paradise. We were lucky to get a reservation at Da Wan Yakiniku restaurant on this trip (you can reach them via their Facebook page, make sure to plan well in advance). They have very limited space as everyone is seated around the bar/cooking area with essentially your own chef and food consultant, who will guide you through a delicious meal. Meat eaters will savor the various cuts of wagyu beef, but everything from the seafood to the veggies was outstanding.

My other two favorite food activities on this trip were: Aquatic Addiction and Taipei Eats' Dadaocheng tour. Aquatic Addiction is a complex sitting next to the Taipei fish market. It includes several different restaurants and little sushi and wine bars, as well as a food shop. The fish was unbelievably fresh and it was a fun atmosphere. I'd suggest walking around and taking a look at the whole place and then trying to find a spot. It can be crowded, so you might have to wait, but you can often grab some quick sushi or a drink in the meantime.

Dadaocheng has interesting 19th-century architecture and a thriving food scene of local treats. We tried everything from fish ball soup (sooo much better than I expected--these fish balls were stuffed with pork! might sound gross, but I assure you it is not) to herbal tea and warm rice cakes and a refreshing icy dessert. Our guide was informative and fun, and we had so much food we were turning down tastes by the end.


3. You could spend days exploring all the alleyways.

I'm a sucker for winding alleyways and just getting lost exploring. Our Airbnb location was perfect for this, in the heart of the Shida night market and surrounded by tiny streets full of shops, food, and cafes. Every neighborhood of Taipei seems to have atmospheric alleys with local flavor, hip cafes, tiny stores, hidden restaurants and bars.

4. Taipei is a book lovers paradise.

Taipei is home to the 24-hour Eslite bookstore, perfect for browsing on a rainy day (or night). I noticed a lot of people reading (books, not just their phones!) throughout the city. Taipei's many cafes are perfect for wiling away the day reading over a cup of coffee. Check out this list of Taipei's bookstores from Culture Trip for more to explore.