City guide to Taipei
Taipei is alive with tropical urban parks, buzzing night markets, and a new wave of bars and boutiques led by the city's young, creative crowd
The naked, elderly women try to shoo me out, saying something in Mandarin that I assume means the place is closed. I show them my watch and make the international gesture for 'please, just five minutes'. It seems to work; the self-appointed arbiters of the hot springs wave me in and resume dressing as I swiftly do the opposite, stepping into the stone-lined pool, where just one other bather is defying the opening hours, soaking herself in the blissfully warm water.
I've spent hours hiking through Yangmingshan National Park to get to the public baths at Lengshuikeng and were it not for the high-rises visible from the hills as I walked, I might almost have forgotten where I am. I'm still within Taipei's city limits, just a bus and metro ride from the skyscrapers, traffic jams and bubble tea shops of downtown.
If you've visited cities in China or Japan, you'd be forgiven for lumping the Taiwanese capital in with them. A complicated relationship with the former and a 50-year period of occupation by the latter (up until 1945) mean both cultures have left their mark on Taipei. There's the 24-hour buzz, avant-garde fashion sense and enduring love for karaoke you'd associate with Tokyo, mixed in with the Qing-era architecture, shared language and enthusiasm for luxury brands you'd find in Beijing.
Yet, this is a place with its own distinct identity and quirks, whether it's the fact you can spot wild turtles in the city centre's Da'an Forest Park, or that MRT (metro) stations have stands full of communal umbrellas for when the weather turns. Or that sometimes 'bookstores' seem to sell more clothes than books, and while certain streets are dead by day, they transform, superhero-like, into night markets serving fabulous street food.
A former World Design Capital, Taipei has a strong creative spirit, with a huge concentration of independent designers, makers and entrepreneurs. Recent years have seen a new wave of coffee shops, bars, restaurants and hotels springing up in areas such as Songshan and Da'an, alongside homes and the stalls of old-school street vendors. In this city, the hip and historic happily coexist, so you could just as easily find yourself sipping a cocktail in a back-room speakeasy as sharing a hot tub with an octogenarian. If you get there in good time, that is.
What to see and do
Taipei 101: For five years, this 101-storey skyscraper was the world's tallest building — and although it lost that accolade in 2010 (to Dubai's Burj Khalifa) it still offers fantastic city views from its 89th-floor observation deck. You can also check out the seismic damper — a huge weighted sphere that balances out the building in the event of an earthquake.
Taipei Fine Arts Museum: Housed within an eccentric cubist building, this is the city's top contemporary art gallery, featuring everything from early 20th-century paintings to edgy installations. Until the middle of March, you can catch the Taipei Biennial exhibition, displaying some of the country's best modern works.
The National Palace Museum: One of the world's most-visited museums, the vast National Palace is home to a collection of Chinese art, calligraphy and ceramics (seek out the Ming vases). You could spend a whole day here and still not have seen everything — luckily there are suggested 'trails' taking in the highlights, lasting between half an hour and 1hr 40mins.
Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall: This hulking white building celebrates — and takes its name from — the man who ruled Taiwan for almost 50 years. There's an exhibition on Chiang inside, but the main draws are the bombastic architecture and the hourly changing of the guard. Can't get enough of guards swapping places with one another? There's also an hourly ceremony at Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, which is dedicated to the Republic of China (as Taiwan is officially known).
Maokong: Perched on a hill on the southern edge of town, this village is home to dozens of traditional tea shops serving cuppas made with locally grown leaves. Take the scenic Maokong Gondola to get there, before settling down for a hot drink overlooking the tea fields.
Yangmingshan National Park: To the north of Taipei proper, this national park has hiking trails that take you up mountains, through forests and past painted pagodas. You might spot rivers and bubbling hot springs along the way, too — and while these are off-limits for bathing, some hikers do chance an illegal dip. Alternatively, there are two free public bathhouses that utilise the geothermal water.
Pearl jam: Taiwan is the birthplace of bubble tea — chilled milky tea with tapioca 'pearls' you suck up through a straw — and you'll find cafes serving it all over the capital. A tip: unless you want your drink sickly sweet, request it with 'half' (or even less) sugar.
Sing-along: Karaoke, or KTV as it's known, is hugely popular in Taipei, and the place to do it is Ximending, a lively district that never sleeps. Start with an evening walk amid the neon-signed stores and restaurants before late-night drinks and late-late-night caterwauling in one of the many KTV joints.
Sweet treats: Pineapple cakes are a local speciality, and the ideal gift to bring home. Most Taiwan-dwellers will tell you Sunny Hills makes the best; the flagship cafe and shop is in Songshan, but there's also a branch at Taoyuan Airport.
Where to eat
Taipei is a gourmand's dream: the city's first Michelin Guide launched in 2018, so there's abundant fine dining, but also a rich street food scene.
Night markets: Taipei has dozens of night markets; Raohe Street is the oldest and most lively, with a huge selection of cheap, delicious eats, but Ningxia and Da'an are also worth visiting. Look out for dishes such as gua bao — steamed buns with braised pork, mustard greens, coriander and peanut powder — and beef noodle soup.
Gen Creative: They've got the 'creative' part right. The menu of imaginative sharing dishes at this hip dining spot changes seasonally, but there's always beautifully plated seafood, along with a regular favourite: cracker-like puffed beef tendons.
Shoun RyuGin: With a sister restaurant in Tokyo, Shoun RyuGin combines Japanese techniques and ceremony with Taiwanese ingredients. It's one of just two Taipei restaurants with two Michelin stars, and deservedly so — the tasting menus are things of beauty.
Where to sleep
You'll find all types of accommodation here, from homegrown design hotels that are easy on the eye and the wallet, to high-end addresses with price tags to match.
Folio Daan: Tucked down an alley in the hip Da'an district, Folio is a budget boutique hotel that draws a cool crowd — not least the resident artists whose works are shown here. Guest rooms are stylish and minimalist. Doubles from NT$2,484 (£63), room only.
Mandarin Oriental Taipei: Dripping in old-school luxury, the Mandarin Oriental has opulent rooms (expect chandeliers), plus a spa and an outdoor pool. For Michelin-starred dim sum, visit the hotel's Chinese restaurant, Ya Ge. Doubles from NT$9,500 (£240), room only.
Hotel Proverbs: This industrial-looking building bears more than a passing resemblance to a multistorey car park, but inside are seductively stylish rooms full of dark wood and leather. The hotel's crowning glory is the rooftop pool. Doubles from NT$15,000 (£379), room only.
Where to drink
The Taiwanese capital is a 24-hour city, whether you fancy a spot of midnight shopping or a snack in the early hours. There are plenty of bars to prop up, too.
Longtail: Cocktails are the thing at this chic bar, with concoctions incorporating house-made infusions such as pandan rum and oolong whisky. Feeling peckish? It's also a late-night restaurant, and a Michelin-starred one at that (try the kaya French toast).
Driftwood: Wood-clad, with a beach bar vibe, Driftwood is one of several craft beer specialists that have recently sprung up across the city. Part of local Taihu Brewing's mini-empire, it serves a changing roster of draft and bottled beer, including plenty of Taihu.
Ounce: A speakeasy-style establishment hidden away inside another bar; from the street, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd come to the wrong place. Once you've rung the buzzer and been let in, don't expect a menu; bartenders will mix any classic cocktail to order, or create something new for you.
What to buy
Datong: In the historic, low-rise district of Datong, you'll find cafes, independent boutiques and galleries alongside Qing-era architecture and family businesses stocking medicinal herbs and Taiwanese foodstuffs. Visit ArtYard for tea-related gifts and paraphernalia, and Yongle Market for all kinds of fabric.
Huashan 1914 Creative Park: Having started life as a winery, this concrete complex now houses boutiques selling Taiwanese-designed clothes, accessories and homewares. There are plenty of places to eat here, too.
Fujin Street: The city's most fashionable shopping street, Fujin has tree-lined pavements and photogenic shopfronts. Pick up everything from upmarket bathroom accessories (at Unipapa) to records (at Beans & Beats), and local fashions (at Fujin Tree).
Eslite: Of the several branches of Eslite bookstore, the one at Dunnan is open 24 hours a day. Besides the obvious, expect to find clothes, accessories, gifts and ornaments, many of them designed and made locally. No. 245, Section 1, Dunhua South Road.
Getting there & around
China Airlines operates the only non-stop flights from the UK to Taipei, flying from Gatwick. EVA Air flies direct from Heathrow, but stops to refuel in Bangkok, while Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Turkish Airlines, KLM and Air China offer one-stop services from various UK airports.
Average flight time: 13h.
The MRT (metro) has five lines, plus an express route between the airport and Taipei Main Station. It's relatively cheap and very simple to use. Most places of interest are within a short walk of the MRT, but there's an efficient bus network, too (which you'll need for places slightly further out, such as Yangmingshan National Park and the National Palace Museum). There's also the YouBike cycle share scheme, which many locals use.
When to go
Summer is hot and humid, up to 35C, while winters are dry and chilly, with lows around 10C. Visit in autumn when the weather is mild, and there's less chance of the heavy rainfall seen in spring. Avoid visiting during Chinese New Year (late January/early February) when many businesses are closed, and accommodation prices can soar.
How to do it
Expedia has a week at CitizenM Taipei North Gate for £717 per person in March, including Turkish Airlines flights from Heathrow via Istanbul.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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