The Best of Taipei City
Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, has emerged as one of Asia’s best-loved destinations. The rapidly developing city has restaurants and hotels that hold their own with the best in East Asia, but remains more budget-friendly than Tokyo or Hong Kong. Visitors find strong Taiwanese cultural heritage in places like Snake Alley and Longshan Temple, while just minutes away by MRT is the hyper-fashionable Ximending district and the electronics bazaar of the Guang Hua Digital Plaza.
Soaring more than 1,600 feet into the air, Taipei 101 is one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world and probably Taipei’s most iconic site. For a small fee, visitors can spend time on the observation deck—a large space that offers a 360-degree view of Taipei. From here, you can get a better understanding of the city and how it is organized. For that reason Taipei 101 is the best place to start your sightseeing adventures. There are also a number of great restaurants in Taipei 101 along with shops and entertainment options; you can plan at least half a day of experiences at this one site.
No. 211, Guangzhou Street, Wanhua District, Taipei City, Taiwan 10853
Longshan is not Taipei’s largest temple, but its unique beauty and proximity to the MRT have made it a very popular one. It’s an awesome place to stop by at sunset when the after-work crowd comes to worship. The temple fills with people from all walks of life praying and telling fortunes using traditional bua buei blocks. The slanting light from the setting sun highlights the smoke rising from incense urns, giving it a supernatural feel.
No. 199號, Shuiyuan Road, Wanhua District, Taipei City, Taiwan 108
To see life in Taipei at its fastest pace, be sure to spend some time walking through the always pulsing Ximending Pedestrian Zone. This famous part of town is the center of Taipei’s pop, fashion, and alternative cultures. You will see everything—trust me—from goth ‘Lolitas’ walking down the street to weird cafes, like the bathroom-themed Modern Toilet. Similar to New York’s Times Square or Tokyo’s Shibuya, Ximending both overloads the senses and entertains endlessly at the same time. This is also the heart of the city’s always-growing LGBT community, and most of the popular clubs and bars can be found here.
No. 101號, Jihe Road, Shilin District, Taipei City, Taiwan 111
Calling all lovers of food: Shilin Night Market is the largest of many night markets in Taipei. It is easily accessible by MRT and has endless stalls of restaurants/stands as well as shops. Bring a friend so you can share and experience more of the many dishes that this great market has to offer. If you do take the MRT, make sure you get to the platform before 12am because the trains stop running after that. If you stay past 12am, you will need to catch a cab to get back to your hotel.
10491, Taiwan, Taipei City, Zhongshan District, 台北市中山區建國北路一段96號
After first seeing examples of fine jade art in the National Palace Museum, Burmese master craftsman Sofeen Hu decided that this art form shouldn’t be just for ancient Chinese masters. With this in mind, he created some of the most intricate and beautiful pieces of jade art in the world, all on display at this well-located museum. Wander through and be amazed at the precision and control found in Sofeen Hu’s works like his zodiac symbols and delicate insects. This is a great way to learn more about an art form that over the years has been prized by members of the elite and even royalty.
I found a new food obsession when I visited Taiwan, Peking duck. This traditional Chinese dish isn’t just served in Taipei–it’s been elevated to a form of culinary art. While you can find several great purveyors of this delicacy in Taipei, my favorite is the Celestial Restaurant in Zhongshan District. The adventure starts by ordering how you want to duck presented. Your options are duck served in one, two or three ways. Option one is the classic serving of the tasty duck, option two involves mixing the meat with scallions and soy sauce and serving it over rice and the third way is making a soup from the stock. Keep in mind, it’s not one or the other, if you order it three ways, you get all three ways. The classic is of course the best and more than enough food for several people. The duck is first presented to the table in all of its roasted goodness before the skin is served to the salivating diners. The proper procedure is to wrap pieces of the skin along with scallions and hoisin sauce in a small crepe. This simple layering of flavors quickly became one of my favorite meals I’ve ever had. After a few quality moments with the skin, the duck meat is then served, diners consuming it again with the scallions and crepes. I feel cheated that this was the first time I ever had an expertly prepared Peking Duck but it is without exaggeration when I say I would fly back to Taipei just for the chance to enjoy this remarkable meal a second time.
Alley 342, Lane 150, Section 5, Xinyi Road, Xinyi District, Taipei City, Taiwan 110
The base of Elephant Mountain is just a short walk from the base of Taipei 101 and offers one of the most accessible and stunning views of the city—except, perhaps, from the top of the tower itself. The hike up the mountain is steep, but can be done in about 15 minutes by a reasonably fit person. The less-than-perfectly fit need not worry though: there are plenty of lookouts and benches along the way.
No. 98, Section 3, Xinsheng South Road, Da’an District, Taipei City, Taiwan 106
A favorite cultural activity of mine is to visit bookstores wherever I go. Even if I can’t understand the language, I can usually get a sense for the themes of the most popular books. Luckily, the massive bookstore Eslite has a great English-language section in addition to the hundreds of shelves devoted to books in Chinese. What I enjoyed most was browsing through the travel section, especially the American travel area, to see exactly what the popular perceptions are of traveling to the United States. If you get hungry, there’s also a cafe and some great gift items to take home as keepsakes.
Section 2, Xinguang Road, Wenshan District, Taipei City, Taiwan 116
The largest zoological park in Asia, the Taipei Zoo is an extremely well curated assemblage of animals from around the world, specializing in Asian wildlife. As with many zoos, the most popular attraction are the giant panda bears, their cute and slow-moving style always a hit with kids. But there’s a lot more to see than just pandas. One of the park’s highlights is the Formosan animal area: a look at animals endemic to Taiwan. The zoo is always busy but is extremely popular on the weekends, so plan a mid-week visit if possible.
145號 Ruì'ān Street
Discovering new and exciting restaurants in Taipei is a big part of the travel experience there, but I was surprised when I learned how popular American-style cuisine is at the moment. From Tex-Mex to classic Eggs Benedict, Western-style meals are being consumed at a record pace. Instead of avoiding these cafes and restaurants, be sure to try at least one, if only for the novelty of seeing how homey favorites are interpreted in old Formosa. The Diner is one of the more popular American-style restaurants, adopting a real diner feel both in look and through the menu. The classic breakfast brunch is the most popular option and a great way to usher in the weekend.
No. 100號, Shidong Road, Shilin District, Taipei City, Taiwan 111
A-ji-shi is a stand-up sushi bar located in Taipei’s Shidong Market. There’s only a fixed menu and it is pricey by local standards. But the fish is fresh and the sushiman well-trained.
No. 21號, Zhongshan South Road, Zhongzheng District, Taipei City, Taiwan 100
Located in the heart of Taipei is the massive Memorial Hall Square complex that includes the National Theater, National Concert Hall, and, of course, the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. While Chiang Kai-shek is an incredibly divisive figure, there is no doubt that the beauty of the massive Memorial Hall will make you pause—its size is meant to impress new visitors. There’s a lot more to the square than just the memorial though; every morning you can see tai chi devotees methodically going through their ritualistic exercises, and, throughout the day, everyone from businessmen taking a break to families enjoying picnics can be found on the grassy reserve. Whatever your political beliefs, a visit to Memorial Hall Square is important not just to better understand Taiwan’s complicated past but also to gain a whole new respect for where it is going as a nation.
The Huaxi Night Market ((華西街觀光夜市), also known as ‘Snake Alley’ is famous for selling various snake-based goods such as medicine, soup, and wine. It’s best known, however, for the shots of snake blood that one can take. Pictured, from left to right, are snake blood (mixed with liquor), snake bile, and snake venom ‘antidote’. Of course, there are plenty of other traditional Taiwanese dishes available for the less adventurous. If you’d like to see somebody actually drink the snake blood shot, you need not visit Taipei. Just check out the video that Kevin Wu (who provided the photo) posted on his blog.
No. 221, Sec 2, Zhi Shan Rd, Shilin District, Taipei City, Taiwan 111
When Chiang Kai-shek fled mainland China for Taiwan, he took with him many of the treasures that at one time were featured in Beijing’s Palace Museum. Among the items are relics and antiques reflecting 8,000 years of Chinese history. Today the collection includes nearly 700,000 pieces, an impressive collection that merits a full-day visit. Among the many treasures that once belonged to the Emperors of China are a delicately carved jade cabbage, intricate ivory work, and artifacts that chronicle the evolution of the Chinese language and culture over millennia. The gift shop is just as impressive, and is the perfect place to buy easy-to-carry souvenirs and gifts.
No. 10, Section 5, Zhongxiao East Road, Xinyi District, Taipei City, Taiwan 110
The W Taipei showcases the city’s geography and cutting-edge technology. The lobby’s light installation reacts to human motion, and guest rooms feature dramatic skyline views. The W is also home to some of Taipei’s hottest nightspots, including the Bar at Yen on the top floor. From $314. 886/(0) 2-7703-8888. This appeared in the November/December 2012 issue.