Taipei is the capital of Taiwan, the large island formerly known as Formosa, just off the coast of China. Officially, this commonwealth is currently a part of the PROC, but it has had a very tumultuous history due to its location between Japan and China.
Because of its location as a gateway to the East, it is a very popular stopover destination. I have used it as such twice and found it to be every bit as exciting as some of my final destinations.
Perhaps the most well known feature of this city is its bounty of night markets and food. The origin of your milk teas and soup dumplings, Taiwan is a food lover’s fever dream.
Taipei is located at the northern point of the island and is a very bustling metropolis, with a sea of skyscrapers. However, its surrounding suburban?/rural areas and the Yangmingshan National Park are quite beautiful in their lush green hills. Driving into the city, you’ll see a view of Taipei 101.
Hit the ground running when you get to Taipei, there’s not time to waste! Stop first at the National Palace Museum. There are > 700k imperial Chinese artifacts, and I’m sure you could spend an entire week in here looking at all of it.
The Shilin Night Market is one of the most famous, and well, there’s a reason. It is expansive. If you don’t partake in the mouthwatering squid balls and minced pork over rice, then at least look at the vendors selling frogs and clothes and toys and everything. Live for night markets in Asia.
I stayed at the Howard Plaza, which was in a very nice location in the Da’an district. This area has a ton of shops, bookstores as there are multiple universities in its proximity. Where there are young people, there’s usually a lot of food. One of the most popular quick eats is at Yong He Soy Milk King. Imagine a savory long cruller and you’ve got you tiao, the Chinese donut best served dipped in a steaming bowl of, you guessed it, congee.
No trip to Taipei would be complete without some congee. Served in every hotel and at many shops around the city, you best know I was filling up my bowls with all sorts of briny fish and pickled radishes and fermented tofu and minced meat. Fun fact, I once ate congee every single day for 3 weeks. And I loved every spoonful.
Now that you’re fueled up with CARBS galore, you have to head to the National Revolutionary Martyr’s Shrine for the changing of the guard. This shrine was built to commemorate the thousands of lives lost during the Sino-Japanese War and its architecture is reminiscent of the Forbidden City in Beijing.
The ceremonial guard changing is a perfectly synchronized march from the main building to the gate, and it happens every hour. Just as the guards at Buckingham Palace, they are expressionless and stoic and tourists love to take pictures of them.
Next, you’ll want to hike over to one of the most iconic attractions in the city, the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial. General Chiang Kai-Shek was a former president of the ROC from the late 1920s to the 1970s, as a leader of the Nationalist Party. Chinese Civil War history is complex, to put it mildly, as there was the National Government of China during WWII and the Sino-Japanese war with Japan, which then evolved into the Republic of China. He was around during this whole period, and fought against Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army…we know how that worked out. Somewhere in there, Communist rule defeated the Nationalists, creating the People’s Republic of China as we know it. However, he migrated over to Taipei and the government of what is now modern day Taiwan continued under the moniker Republic of China. I think. Shrugs.
So anyway, he was a controversial figure, but he has a very large memorial dedicated to him as he did fend off Japanese takeover in China. Flanked on each side by the National Concert Hall and Theater, this very large white marble and concrete structure is like a beacon on a hill. There are 89 steps to climb to get to the main hall where his statue is seated, representing each year of his life.
All this sightseeing will undoubtedly making you hungry again. You’re in luck. Perhaps the most famous soup dumpling or xiao long bao in the world is at Din Tai Fung and there’s once pretty close to the CKS Memorial. And yeah, there’s locations all over the US now, but you have to sample it in its place of origin. That first little nip letting out all of the piping hot broth and bathing the perfect little pillow dumpling is a revelation. I could eat many baskets of these. I nearly have.
Taipei 101 may not be the tallest building in the world anymore (thanks a lot Burj Khalifa) but its 1440+ feet height is still pretty dang tall. The lower floors are filled with high end designer boutiques. There’s apparently a secret VIP floor and if you spend over $1 million in their mall you could get an invite! Sounds like a deal.
Tonghua Night Market was between Taipei 101 and my hotel, and is fortunately one of the oldest and less touristy options. It is also smaller scale, so it’s a nice way to dip your toe into the night market water because night markets are quite sensory and can be overwhelming. Not great if you’re claustrophobic or don’t like crowds.
This market has lots of clothing, souvenirs, etc, but the food! Load up on boba, snow (shaved ice with condensed milk), tofu pudding, red bean buns, grass jelly everything. The trick is to eat small and eat often. Nothing should be more than a few bucks and you should sample EVERYTHING. Squid on a stick is one of my all time favorite street meats.
The next day, start off at the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall. Dr. Yat-Sen was the first president of the Republic of China under the Nationalist party. He led the revolution that overthrew the Manchurian Qing Dynasty. Again, complex history. There’s also changing of the guards at this memorial and very expansive gardens and grounds.
Travel across town to the 228 Peace Park (so named after an anti-government uprising that lead to the start of a period of martial law when thousands of dissidents were “taken care of” to put it euphemistically). Inside this park is the National Taiwan Museum which is basically their natural history museum.
There are a lot of exhibits on the indigenous tribes of the island, and also its famous Bryde’s Whale skeleton.
After a museum is the afterparty right? Well, maybe just lunch. The famed Liu Shandong Beef Noodle shop is actually only a few blocks away, and even though their long city blocks, do it. Taiwanese Beef Noodle soup is hearty and comforting. While not my most favorite Taiwanese dish, it has a large legion of fans. And I can get behind any place that has pickled gai choy.
If you’re wanting dim sum instead, there’s also a Tim Ho Wan (yep like the one in SF go figure!) on that same street, so maybe just eat whatever is on this street during your trip.
For something sweet hit up any number of Taiwanese dessert shops. There is a Blackball in the area, and this chain has an abundance of grass jelly, puddings and snow ices galore.
After you’ve fed your belly, continue to feed your cultural mind by visiting the most famous, and certainly most colorful temples, the Longshan Temple. Buddhist and Taoist symbols can both be found here, and the original structure (long gone now) was built in 1738 during the Qing Dynasty.
Because it’s been far too long since you’ve been to a Night Market, visit the nearby Hua Xi. This one is a little bit seedier, a little bit more gambling in a secret alley movie trope feeling.
It has a lot of massage parlors and serves snake delicacies.
Before you leave, maybe check another temple or two. They really are community centers, places of worship, art galleries, archives. Just beautiful.
Driving to Taoyuan airport, you will catch a glimpse of the Grand Hotel, one of Taipei’s most iconic buildings. Many presidents and foreign dignitaries have stayed here, and apparently their brunch is incredible. Something to think about when planning your next trip to Taiwan.