Why Taipei should be on your travel list right now

Taipei and its surrounds have food, culture, shopping and nature in spades – all you need is a metro ticket, an appetite and a pair of comfortable shoes. Here are the best things to do in Taipei.

Dragon and Tiger tower in Taipei
  • Words: Ben Hurley
  • June 2018

Taipei is off the radar for many globetrotters, despite being home to excellent boutiques, a lively arts scene, busy streets packed with delicious food outlets and some of the world’s friendliest people. This vibrant city offers a heady mix of culture and relaxation, with mountain trails and hot springs easily accessible for day drips. Travellers, add Taipei to your lists.

A flying start

You can find almost every kind of Asian food in Taiwan, especially regional Chinese cuisine and great Japanese food – Japan occupied Taiwan for 50 years until 1945. Taiwan’s citizens love to eat and Taipei’s streets are crammed with restaurants, food stalls and, in many areas, bustling night markets. Every tourist should head to at least one night market (some of the best include Raohe, Shilin and Ningxia), but appreciation of Taiwanese food culture should start at breakfast. Traditional breakfast stores aren’t always easy to find. Keep an eye out for small, open shopfronts with a handful of tables and chairs, and staff busy behind a hotplate. All of them sell omelettes, sandwiches and fried radish cakes.

A smaller number focus on more interesting traditional breakfasts. Look for stalls where staff work fresh dough into long sticks called youtiao. Fried until golden brown and crisp, they’re a delicious treat – a little like a savoury doughnut.

Taipei’s Yonghe District, across the Xindian River in the south-west, is known for its breakfast shops (some are open 24 hours) and the locally made thick soy milk. At Yong He Soy Milk King, brisk staff take orders for pancakes, steamed buns and youtiao.

Here, the shaobing – savoury, crumbly, breakfast pastries sprinkled with sesame seeds – are a must. Order one packed with fresh salad greens and mayonnaise, or try the pork and egg version. It’s messy to eat, but thankfully nobody notices. Other delights include fan tuan, a crunchy, salty-sweet rice roll of dried pork, pickles and a youtiao rolled inside a ball of firm glutinous rice, and Taiwanese staple dan bing, a pork-filled, crisp egg pancake.

Yong He Soy Milk King, one of several restaurants around the city with the same name, sits on the three-way intersection of Ziyou Street, Zhonghe Road and Yonghe Road. The sprawling Yongan Market next door sells fresh produce, steamed bread and local soy milk.

Raohe night market in Tapei
Raohe night market in Tapei

Culture hack

From Yongan Market head north to Zhongshan and tap into the local art scene. Taiwan, one of the most liberal places in Asia, has a flourishing alternative arts culture and small art spaces can be found all over Taipei. The Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei, in an historic building that was once an elementary school, has become a cultural centre for the city. From exhibitions of renowned local artists, including Taiwanese sculptor Li Chen, to emerging genres, the museum is a great starting point for an exploration of smaller galleries and artist spaces in the neighbourhood.

The collectively-run Shin Leh Yuan (New Paradise) Art Space is an artist co-operative that holds monthly exhibitions, artist slide shows and art talks. Another small gallery worth visiting is Beyond Gallery, located behind an unimposing shop front, with only enough space to display the work of one or two artists. The Treasure Hill artist village near National Taiwan University is a lovely spot for a late-afternoon stroll. It began as an illegal settlement and is now a government-sanctioned labyrinth of aged buildings and tucked-away artist spaces.

Smart shopping

Browsing boutiques, street stalls, malls and markets is one of the pleasures of exploring Taipei. The sprawling Shilin Night Market, Taipei’s largest and best-known, boasts a hub of food vendors, and a range of fashion and homewares stalls. Its side streets and alleyways are home to small shops, cinemas and bars.

If you’d rather avoid the city’s massive shopping malls, the backstreets of eastern Taipei, particularly between Zhongxiao Dunhua subway station and Civic Boulevard, are a great place to find interesting boutiques.

Check out Immense, which specialises in black and white clothing by local designers, the trend-setting AMPM for edgier street style, or the nearby 38 Design Store where you can often see clothing being made on-site.

Mount Datun, Yangmingshan National Park
Mount Datun, Yangmingshan National Park

Mountains, rivers and fresh sulphur

Yangmingshan National Park is an 11,300-hectare cluster of 20 or so volcanoes to the north of Taipei, including the (possibly still active) Datun Mountain. It’s an hour’s bus ride from Jiantan subway station, but a hire car or scooter is faster.

Thick rainforest covers most of the area and pretty streams and waterfalls carve through valleys full of colourful birds and butterflies. There’s no better place to balance out a day in the city.

Bayan Hot Springs is a 20-minute walk from Yangjin Road on the park’s north-eastern fringe. Further up the trail is a hellish-looking landscape where sulphur-smelling gas spews from fumaroles and a stream of scalding hot water flows through a ravine. At Bayan, in a rainforested gully, this hot sulphuric ‘tea’ merges with a cold stream to form inviting pools at varying temperatures, some nudging the threshold between comfort and pain.

You know you have reached the springs when you see a large sign threatening fines if you soak in them, next to groups of people doing just that. Locals will tell you the signs are to protect the park against legal liability, as these areas can be dangerous during bad weather and it’s important to check the forecast. “The police come sometimes and tell people to leave, and sometimes they issue fines,” one soaker says. “It’s not that expensive. I just think of it as buying an entry ticket.”

Beer o’clock

Taipei’s craft beer scene may have gotten off to a late start, but there’s now plenty of choice and craft beer bars and breweries are popular with the young Taipei crowd. Crafted - Beer & Co has a huge selection of local and imported beers. It’s part of the eclectic Maji Square next to Yuanshan subway station. The 23 Public bar near Taipower Building subway station serves a range of local brews including the delicious Number 1 Pale Ale, and holds a fun open-mic comedy night every Monday. Another excellent craft beer group is Taihu Brewing. One of its coolest bars is a refurbished 8.2 m Airstream trailer inside the Commune A7 food market near Taipei’s tallest building, Taipei 101. It boasts 18 beer taps and is an excellent place to sample a cooling ale after a day of exploring.