I went to Taipei, Taiwan for the second leg of my three country summer trip. Before arriving, I thought all the talk about how different Taiwan is from China was overhyped. How different could they be if Taiwan is “owned” by China, right? Probably government politics, right? Wrong. And by wrong, I mean really wrong. Taiwan is not China. Are there similarities between the two countries? Definitely. But allow me to reiterate; Taiwan is not China.
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT TAIWAN
For a relatively small island, Taiwan is brimming with things to do, see and experience. Taiwan has its own personality, and it’s magnetic. I’m already looking into a return trip to Taipei. I need to experience it all. Taipei doesn’t have the mega city popularity of Tokyo. It’s not at the top of everyone’s travel bucket list like Thailand. And that’s part of its appeal. It won’t be the first place to get your attention, but it will keep your attention. Like the dorky girl with thick-framed glasses who slips into a little black dress, lets her hair down and is suddenly the most gorgeous woman you’ve ever seen; Taipei is a diamond in the rough.
BEST TIME TO VISIT TAIWAN
Taiwan is in southeast Asia; the destination that almost every traveler I meet is heading to or coming from. It’s not by accident, there’s a wealth of amazing places to see in southeast Asia. When you book your Taiwan trip, I advise you to book between October and April, the non rainy months. Just a few days before I arrived, Taiwan’s eastern coast was hit hard by one of the biggest typhoons they had seen in recent history. When I arrived, I lost a day and a half of activities because of heavy rain. Luckily, the hostel I stayed in, The Meeting Place, was occupied by some of the coolest, most engaging and genuine people I’ve ever met. It was also affordable and conveniently located less than a five minute walk from Songshan MRT Station (exit 4). Within five minutes of arriving, I had made friends and felt right at home. Not to mention it’s where I met Johnny Chiang of Stop Kidding Studios. He’s the foremost Youtuber in Taiwan and has tons of great and hilarious material on his channel. Check it out and if you love it, subscribe!
If you book an international flight, you’ll most likely land at Taoyuan airport.
Tip: On your way out of Taipei, if you’re leaving from Taoyuan airport, arrive a few hours early to give it a good go around. It’s one of the most well put together airports I’ve traveled from. There are food courts, souvenir shops, money changers, comfortable seats, lounges and even prayer rooms in each section of the airport.
If you’re staying in downtown Taipei, a taxi will set you back between TWD $1000 (CAD $40) and TWD $1300 (CAD $52). I took a taxi to my hostel for no other reason than I wanted to sit in an air conditioned car and not have to think about where to go. It was also the fastest way to get there. Can’t be cheap with everything, right? The easiest way to reach downtown Taipei is by combining the bus (many of the buses will take you directly downtown) and MRT (subway) systems. Have your address on hand (even better if it’s in Mandarin Chinese), ask someone at the tourist information centre which is the best bus for you and they’ll be glad to assist (something the Taiwanese have become famous for).
Once you arrive at one of the downtown stations, follow the MRT map to your hostel/guesthouse/inn/hotel. This should cost no more than TWD $200 (CAD $8). If you plan on bouncing around from place to place all day, spend TWD $150 for an unlimited MRT day pass.
As a newcomer to certain cities, using public transportation can be challenging, but I strongly advise you to make this a habit. First, it’s always the most affordable thing aside from maybe cycling if the weather allows for it, and walking, which is admirable but also insane depending on the city. Second, it’s one of the best ways to feel out the city you’re in, which takes you one step closer to being a traveller and not a tourist (big difference). Third, in a city like Taipei, the MRT system is easy peasy—it’s the easiest system I’ve used aside from my hometown of Montreal.
Advice: Make an effort to see more than popular attractions listed by big time sites like Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor. This isn’t an attack on these sites. They’re great and I consult them all the time. But there is much more to any given location than popular tourists attractions. Speak with locals about the places they enjoy the most that are still traveller friendly. If there’s a language barrier, find someone bilingual. As a last resort (or first), you can read travel blogs or smaller sites for suggestions. Your future self will be thankful.
TAIPEI ON A BUDGET
One of the reasons Southeast Asia is such a popular destination among millennials is its affordability. It’s cheap, especially if you come from the western world. Taipei is no exception to the rule, even as one of Asia’s more well-developed countries. There are no hard rules to budgeting for travel. It depends on the kind of traveller you are. If you eat local food at modest prices (very doable), buy groceries to make your own meals (make sure you book accommodation with a kitchen), use public transit and keep an eye out for deals (IE: free nights at a museum) you can easily get by on CAD $50-60 a day/TWD $1250-$1650. Taipei has scores of free things to do; parks, temple visits, festivals, hiking trails and even swing dancing (it’s a big deal in Taipei). This budget could easily be broken if you take taxis everywhere, stay in lofty hotels and spend a bunch of money shopping. Luxury travellers generally don’t care much for penny pinching.
For expert budgeting tips, see Nomadic Matt’s travel site and buy his How To Travel The World On Fifty Dollars A Day; a best selling budget bible for travellers.
Tip: Change your money into local funds BEFORE you get to wherever you’re going. First, your bank of choice will generally get you the best exchange rate possible. Second, having a set amount of cash on hand automatically makes you more budget conscious. Third, you won’t flush a bunch of money down the drain in bank fees. There’s no worse feeling than checking your bank and visa statement a few days after you’re home and seeing that you spent $10-$50-$100 dollars on transactions that could have been avoided. If you don’t have a chance to change your money before you leave, there are usually a few exchange counters in most decent airports, but you won’t get the best rates possible (and you deserve the best, don’t ya?).
ACCOMMODATIONS IN TAIPEI
The last time I stayed in a hotel for travel was on a business trip, paid for by a potential employer. That’s the only reason I would stay in a hotel (barring an amazing last minute deal or friend and family discount). My go-to accommodations are hostels. They’re available in large numbers in every city, cheap, often have laundry services (for a small fee), kitchens, air conditioning, useful travel information and best of all, likeminded people. There are hosts of other accommodations at a full range of price points all over the city. Here’s a short list of resources to help you book your stay, no matter the budget;
1. STREET FOOD AND NIGHT MARKETS
If you ask anyone who has been to Taipei what to do when you visit, they’ll list the night markets in their top five. If not, they were probably only in Taipei on a connecting flight and didn’t leave the airport terminal. The Raohe night market was an obvious choice for me because it was less than five minutes walking distance from The Meeting Place hostel where I stayed. After speaking to a few local friends, I was told the Shilin night market was also worth checking out, but that locals often avoided it because it was filled with foreigners (yea, that’s pretty ironic).
I was also told about a few other quality night markets to eat and shop at for cheap. After visiting night markets in Beijing, Ho Chi Min City (formerly Saigon, Vietnam), Harbin and Taipei, I’d say Taipei’s night market is tied for first place with HCMC. Reason being, there’s a lot more space in the Vietnam night market, so you’ll feel far less crowded and won’t emerge smelling like grilled (insert meat name here) on your way out. The Taipei night market has a far wider selection of food and shopping items though. All of the night markets open in the early evening (5 pm ish) and close at midnight. They’re especially worth visiting if you want to try delicious local food and if you’re skilled at haggling merchants to get better prices (just because you’re a foreigner doesn’t mean you can’t spend like a local).
2. WARM UP AT THE WU LAI HOT SPRINGS
I had the misfortune of arriving in Taipei, a few days after one of the most devastating typhoons passed through, which knocked the Wu Lai hot springs (Shin Dian MRT station, 849 bus to the terminal) out of commission during the time I was there. But I’m suggesting this to you based on the glowing reviews from my friends (long term residents of Taipei) and the beautiful pictures that I’ve seen. If you’re in Taipei and get a chance to head there, take a few pictures post them to your social networks and tag this blog! I’d love to see your photos! Or email me!
3. TAIPEI 101: GO WAY WAY WAY UP—ENJOY THE VIEW
Until 2010, Taipei 101 was the tallest building in the world. It has since been bumped back to top 5 tallest buildings in the world, but the view is no less spectacular. After visiting Harbin’s Dragon Tower, Tokyo’s Sky Tree and City View (Roppongi Hills), Taipei 101 (Taipei 101 MRT station) far outclasses the other skyscrapers I’ve visited in Asia so far. You can go up to the 89th floor (91st weather permitting) in what is supposed to be the world’s fastest elevator in 37 seconds flat. Entrance to the Taipei 101 observatory will set you back TWD $500. If you’re thinking, it’s a little costly, it is. But some things are worth spending on. I love the feeling of being on top of the world, even if only for a few moments. The Taipei 101 building also houses several floors worth of shopping and restaurants (priced for tourists).
4. TAKE A STROLL THROUGH PEACE MEMORIAL PARK
Looking for something cheap, relaxing and fun? Head to Peace Memorial Park (NTU Hospital MRT station). Just a few short stops away from Taipei’s downtown core. This park is big enough for a quiet romantic (or not) stroll but small enough to not get lost. There are lots of trees, sitting areas, well crafted statues/monuments and more. Perfect for an outdoorsy budget traveller.
5. GO ON A TEMPLE RUN
When in Taipei, you have to visit at least one of the temples. You’ll witness some of the most detailed, finely crafted buildings you’ll ever see in your life, gold, red, wooden designs interwoven with candles, incense and soft colours. If I had to have a temple built, I’d have it modelled after the temples in Taipei. Unlike some other countries where prayer seems to largely be a thing of the past. The Taiwanese, both young and old take time out of their daily lives for prayer and worship. I’m far from a religious fanatic, but I find Taiwan’s devotion to religion and spirituality refreshing. There are several temples around the city, one located directly beside the Raohe night market at Songshan MRT station (exit 3), another (Confucian temple) at 275 Dalong Road (Yuanshan MRT station) and a more famous one (Longshan temple) at 211 Guangzhou Street (Longshan Temple MRT station) to name a few.
6. GET SOME HISTORY AT THE NATIONAL PALACE MUSEUM
Call me a geek, dork, nerd or whatever else. I love museums. There’s something extremely pleasing about a well-curated selection of items with a visual and educational twist. Taipei’s National Palace Museum (Shilin MRT station) is exactly that. Browse through several rooms filled with ancient Chinese relics and artifacts to learn about China and Taiwan at the same time. BEWARE, this is a very popular destination, especially in the early afternoon hours, particularly by Chinese tourists. If you want to avoid the crowd, go around 6 pm. You’ll have a choice of 3-4 different buses to get you there. It’s the last stop. Cost–TWD $250 to get in.
7. EAT YOUR HEART OUT
I’m price conscious and generally save lots of money by eating like a local and cooking my own meals. I’ll also be the first to admit how important it is to eat really good food anywhere you go. Experiences and sites are a no-brainer, but mouthwatering meals are the icing on the cake. They really tie a trip together nicely. Here’s a list of a few restaurants that I either tried or came highly suggested to me by other travellers and locals alike;
Celestial Restaurant: Third floor, 1 Nanjing W Road (Zhongshan MRT station)
Din Tai Fung: 194 Vinyl Road, Section 2 (Dongmen MRT station)
He Xiang Delicious Food: 60 Fuguo Road (Zhishan MRT station)
Beitou Squid: 96 Dexing Road (Zhishan MRT station)
James Kitchen: 65 Yongkang St
As mentioned previously: Any night market
BONUS: Any hole in the wall restaurant that has only locals sitting in it. You’ll get a few stares and awkward glances, and there may not be any English on the menu, but the food will likely be cheap and delicious.
8. TAKE A HIKE UP XIANG SHAN (ELEPHANT MOUNTAIN)
I found out about this gorgeous lookout from one of my local buddies. Be advised, before getting to what I’m told is the best view of in Taipei, you have to hike up a few hundred steps (think of that scene in the first Kung Fu Panda movie). Since the view is far more breathtaking at night, you’ll likely be in the dark on your way up, so bring a flashlight or increase the brightness on your smartphone screen. On your way up you’ll see people gasping for air, bent over, knees shaking, reconsidering their very existence. Don’t quit. When you make it to the top, you’ll be taken aback by the bright lights glowing all over the city, not to mention Taipei 101 standing defiantly in the distance. If you happen to be in Taipei for Taiwanese New Year, rumour has it fireworks burst off several floors of Taipei 101 for an incredible light show.
9. BONUS: WALK THE RAINBOW BRIDGE
A quick left at the front entrance (near the temple) of Raohe night market and you’ll walk down a small quiet street to the foot of the stairs leading to the rainbow bridge. If you go at night, there’s an absolutely magical view along the water. It’s easy to get lost in your thoughts and trigger happy with your camera up there. In fact, it may have been one of my favourite night time moments. Check it out!
Advice: Getting into Taiwan only requires that your passport be valid for at least the next 6 months. This goes for most countries with the exception of the Philippines, which requires a bit of paperwork to get a tourist visa. Make sure you do the necessary research to avoid any hassle when heading into Taiwan. Dealing with a stressful situation as soon as you hop off your flight is a sure way to spoil your trip.
More advice: If you’re aching to go to Taipei but find that prices are simply too high, read my post on the best websites for the cheapest airfare possible. And as I’ve mentioned before, when booking flights to Asia, you’ll want to book at least 8-9 months in advance or use sites like Daily Trip Hack for sales and error fares.
Have you ever been to Taipei? Have you been anywhere else in Taiwan? Was this post helpful? I’d love to hear from you! Comment below! Let’s share our knowledge and make traveling better for everyone. You can also mention me on Twitter [at]DriftAway2015 or on Facebook at Drift Away – Travel Blog. Hope to hear from you!!
Until next time,