Getaway Game: Taipei in 72 Hours

Dash to Taiwan for three days of dragons and dumplings in a city that soars.


7 a.m.: Dude, Where's My Hotel?

I show the cab driver my hotel on my phone’s map, but the address appears only in English. He pulls over to try to figure things out. Frustrated, he whips out his own iPhone, calls up the Google Translate app, and speaks into it in his native tongue. It translates his words directly into English. It doesn’t work perfectly—unless he really does want to “melt me down”—but soon we find the hotel. This was some real Star Trek shit. Traveling to Asia can be humbling in the best way.

9 a.m.: Caffeine!

Taipei’s coffee culture dates back to the Japanese occupation; hence the vintage Japanese siphon equipment on display at one of the city’s original coffeehouses, Fong Da, which opened in 1956. But the full Nordic caffeine experience is on offer at Fika Fika Café, in the Zhongshan District, where single-origin brews are served in a minimalist setting straight out of Kinfolk magazine. Barista Taylor Kuo is serious about her macchiato. When I leave mine on the counter a beat too long, she insists on brewing me a new cup so I can enjoy it the only way one should: piping hot. Pair it with a piece of house-made “rabbit cake,” which is a pretty awesome name for carrot cake.

9:48 a.m.: Marvel at the MRT

Taipei’s subway system (MRT) is only 20 years old but it’s intuitive and clean and (best of all) cheap—between NT $20-$65 per ride. (That’s about two U.S. dollars for the longest trip.) The locals wait in single-file lines for the train and a whimsical jingle plays when the thing approaches, sort of like the neighborhood ice-cream truck.

10:25 a.m.: Mobbed at Art Central

The National Palace Museum is home to, arguably, the finest Chinese art in the world, a 1,000-year-old collection culled from China’s emperors. (Check out the Ju ware porcelain, among the rarest anywhere.) The museum is Taipei’s answer to the Louvre—and just as crowded. Chinese tourists swarm the building, making it tough to navigate. A friend later comments on the flood of mainland Chinese visitors, joking: “Chiang Kai-shek stole their art. They’d like to see it again.”

<p>Guards change on the hour in front of National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.</p>

Guards change on the hour in front of National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

Photograph by Dina Litovsky, National Geographic

11:48 a.m.: On Guard

At the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, I catch the changing of the guard, an hourly affair where soldiers move with the precision of Beyoncé.

12:30 p.m.: Perfect Noodles

It’s time to hit Yong Kang Beef Noodles, a family-owned dive (and favorite of Anthony Bourdain) that’s been serving up Taipei’s savory bowls since 1963. The line at Yong Kang is already out the door but I’m seated quickly, sharing a small table alongside two college students from mainland China. I skip the “steam hog large intestines” and opt for a bowl of the half-cattle tendon/half beef noodles in a Sichuan-style hot broth. The tender meat falls apart on my fork.

1:11 p.m.: In the Presence of Greatness

Hsing Tian Kong Temple, in the Zhongshan District, welcomes about 10,000 visitors every day. I approach a temple helper, an elderly woman dressed in a qipao, a traditional robe in baby blue with a high collar. She looks like Estelle Getty from The Golden Girls and she offers to cleanse my soul. She asks me my name and proceeds to shake burning incense all around me. I admit, I sometimes struggle with the existence of God. Yet her kindness and grace are so overwhelming that I find myself on the verge of tears. Hsing Tian Kong Temple is dedicated to Guan Yu, the patron god of businessmen; visitors come daily to have their fortune interpreted. After choosing a stick with a number on it, I head inside where a man dressed in a robe interprets the Chinese characters on my fortune. “What did you ask the savior?” he says. “Um, I recently moved to Los Angeles,” I say, “and things haven’t been working out exactly as I’d planned. Did I make a mistake?” He nods his head then looks at the slip of paper. I am totally dazed but I remember him saying: “You have to open your heart. Dig deeper.”

2:47 p.m.: Tea With a Master

Still thinking about Life’s Big Question, I make my way to Dihua Street—one of the oldest thoroughfares in town. I stumble into a tea shop called Chen Wey Cha Yuan, where an aging shopkeeper takes a break from his calligraphy to brew a pot of DongDing oolong tea (which tastes almost milky). He answers questions patiently, then unwraps a cheesecloth to reveal a prize: a rare tea called Oriental Beauty.

11:17 p.m.: Gone Shrimping

I am on Zhishan Road in an open-air building, seated by a giant pool trying to catch live shrimp with a cheap wooden pole. I’m hardly alone. Men and women of various ages sit beside me on plastic chairs, nearly three dozen in all, fishing rods dangling in the water. The ponytailed man who rents me the rod shows me how to bait the hook with a piece of liver. Two girls in sweatpants laugh at me as the slippery liver escapes my hands. The man does it for me, then throws the lure in the water. I wait. Then I wait some more. I’m actually about to quit when I feel a tug. I’m ashamed to admit this next part but, when I pull the shrimp from the water, I’m afraid to touch the thing—which squirms like crazy. One of the girls grabs the crustacean with her bare hands and drops it in my bag.


8 a.m.: Pool Meditation

Jet lag! I reset my body clock with a dip in the pool at my hotel, Humble House, a 235-room boutique property in the commercial Xinyi District. The outdoor pool is an oasis of cool in the center of an industrial playground. I do laps in the shadow of Taipei 101, a 1,670-foot-tall skyscraper that was the tallest building in the world from 2004 until 2010. (It’s still pretty tall.) Staring up at all that steel and glass around me I find myself meditating on one famous rabbi’s teachings: “I am but dust and ashes. For my sake was the world created.”

9:30 a.m.: Wheels of Fortune

Taipei’s bike-share program, YouBike (15 cents for the first 30 minutes), was expanded significantly in 2015 and there is no better way to see the city, provided you don’t mind pedaling through thick, steamy heat. Worthwhile stops: Daan Park (Taipei’s Central Park), Songshan Cultural and Creative Park (home to Taiwan’s Design Museum), Jianguo Holiday Flower Market (open weekends), and Dajia Riverside Park.

11:32 a.m.: Delicious

Lunch of steamed soup dumplings (or xiao long bao) at the original Din Tai Fung, a global eatery with an unlikely origin story. Din Tai Fung opened in the Daan District here in 1958 as a retail shop selling cooking oil, but when interest in the oil tanked in the early 1970s, Din Tai Fung was reborn as a steamed dumpling and noodle joint. While traditional Shanghai dumplings can be heavy, you can see the soup swimming inside these delicate pouches of dough. The secret supposedly lies in its 18 folds.

12:47 p.m.: Shopping Happens

The best Taipei afternoons are spent exploring the city’s skinny alleyways, packed with gems like Boven—a subterranean library stashing current and vintage fashion magazines and architecture titles dating back to the 1960s. This is the ultimate hipster hangout; NT $300 (US $9) gets you access to the reading room. Continue the cool-kid crawl with a stop at Take5, which trades in the best Japanese selvage denim. Then go treasure hunting at 70s Vintage, a perfectly edited secondhand shop in the Daan District selling lived-in Levi’s, aged Barbour jackets, and a slim retro Patagonia raincoat I somehow thought I could survive without—but am now hunting for on eBay.

<p>Foot traffic is a flurry in the Ximending neighborhood.</p>

Foot traffic is a flurry in the Ximending neighborhood.

Photograph by Dina Litovsky, National Geographic

6:12 p.m.: In the Zone

Ximending Pedestrian Zone is a mash-up of New York’s Times Square and Tokyo’s Harajuku area: all bright lights and big gritty, home to fashion-conscious youth on parade. Lose yourself in Taipei’s famous Tattoo Street, lined with ink parlors. Or park on the street, get a bubble tea, and watch a flash mob of local kids in pink T-shirts hawking some product. Is that the music pumping or the city’s for-real pulse?

11:12 p.m.: Beverages!

At Double Check, a dimly lit bar where the only thing cooler than the music is the beer on tap, a friend of a friend presents me with an only-in-Asia beverage: a fresh coconut that’s been outfitted with a metal pop-top from a soda can. It’s a Frankenstein of a drink. My head is spinning.

12:30 a.m.: Sad Love Songs

Karaoke is the national pastime—especially in the dead of summer when the air is so stifling one can only survive indoors. At CashBox—in a 15-story office building open 24 hours a day and teeming with private karaoke rooms—my new friends chain-smoke indoors while singing Maroon 5 songs before launching into a marathon of depressing Chinese ballads. While Americans favor cheesy ’80s songs at karaoke, pal Duke Wu explains, the locals here are all about sad love songs sung with zero irony. Someone picks a phone off the wall, and a waiter magically enters with beers, Glenlivet Scotch, and dumplings. We eat, drink, and sing for hours. I love this city.


10:00 a.m.: Get Outta Town

I force myself out of bed and take the MRT to Xinbeitou station en route to Beitou’s celebrated hot springs, a 50-minute ride that works like a time machine, depositing you in a natural theme park formed by volcanic rock. Beitou, an area built out by the Japanese during the 50 years they occupied Taiwan, is rumored to have been home to brothels for visiting soldiers. While there’s a public hot spring in town, open to anyone in a bathing suit, I go for the complete Japanese onsen experience at Villa 32, a boutique hotel and Zen retreat. It’s raining outside—a glorious downpour that only adds to the contemplative solitude of Villa 32’s eight pools of therapeutic water bubbling up from the Earth’s depths.

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1:46 p.m.: So Hot Right Now

Exfoliated and relaxed I dry off and visit the scenic Thermal Valley—where the steam is so thick you can barely see two feet in front of you. The valley floor can reach 194 degrees Fahrenheit. Not too long ago, locals actually boiled eggs in a stone sink filled with hot spring water.

3:17 p.m.: #Blessed

Before I head back, I stop at Taipei’s most blessed site: the Nung Chan Monastery, a Buddhist temple designed by Kris Yao of Taipei’s Archtech Inc., inspired by “a flower in sky, moon in water.” A note on the sky: Taipei suffers from a smog problem, nowhere near the magnitude of Beijing but noticeable. The flood of motor scooters in the city is partly to blame. Thankfully the early morning rain washed away the particulates, and the sky is blue as a whale.

5:19 p.m.: Tall Things

After a quick change at the hotel, I take advantage of the clear skies and visit Taipei 101, riding one of the world’s fastest elevators up to the 89th-floor observatory. Though I instantly remember just how afraid I am of heights and immediately take the next elevator back down to Earth. I head next to Elephant Mountain, one of Taipei’s “Four Beasts” mountains. The hike is short and steep but seriously rewarding: After a 20-minute uphill climb, mostly on wooden steps, I come upon the most Instagrammable views in all of Taipei. Neon lights below flicker to life. A breeze comes in. It feels like the city is just waking up. Which means it’s time to …

8 p.m.: Salad in a Bag

… take it to the streets. At Tonghua Night Market, a smaller, off-the-beaten-track fair, I’m joined by Kathy Cheng, a local writer. We sip glass jelly—a drink made from some kind of Chinese mint, dark as night and tasting vaguely of licorice—and pass unlikely food carts, including one selling basically salad in a bag. I doubt there’s a better bite in town than the peppery sausage on a stick I eat here, sliced down the center and served piping hot.

<p>Pikachus pump up the party at Club Omni. </p>

Pikachus pump up the party at Club Omni.

Photograph by Dina Litovsky, National Geographic

Midnight: Party Like a Pikachu

I leave my comfort zone firmly behind and hit Club Omni, a serious nightclub (Skrillex has spun here) where I dance for hours. Four Pikachus on stage shoot laser beams out of their eyes as Taiwanese rich kids and expense-account warriors from abroad order bottles of Moët. It’s the perfect mind-reset.


Noon: Question Answered

I revisit Din Tai Fung to make sure the soup dumplings are as good as I’d remembered (they are). When I board a 14-hour flight home to Los Angeles I’m still thinking about that moment at the temple when the Taiwanese Estelle Getty rocked my world. Had I made a mistake in uprooting my life and career to move west? Maybe there are no mistakes. There are only roads diverging into the future. Open your heart. Dig deeper.

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