On prior travels, we had been to a few Asian cities like Bangkok, Hong Kong or Ho Chi Minh. Still, we didn’t really know what to expect in Taipei. Was it a city with shiny modern buildings like Hong Kong’s financial district? or more like the hustle and bustle of Bangkok’s riverside?
We found Taipei to be a mix between an Asian and European city. The city is very clean and not as loud as we remembered Bangkok or Hanoi to be. There are no street vendors or Taxi drivers trying to get your attention to eventually sell something to you. Instead, people are really friendly and try to help in any way they can. A puzzled look on your face is enough for people to approach you and offer their support. To our surprise, there many nice little cafes on the sidewalk and sometimes there was even space to sit outside to enjoy a cup of coffee (when we were there, it was too cold for that). Apart from that, there are so many street food options night and day – a foodie’s heaven! As there are so many great things to do in Taipei we picked our top 6 experiences and in our opinion must-sees for everyone visiting Taipei.
1. Beitou Hot springs
When we booked our trip to Taipei at the beginning of January, we knew it was going to be chilly. It turned out that we picked the probably coldest week of the year, as our AirBnB host, Shawn told us (By the way, we had an amazing stay there and can absolutely recommend his very affordable place at a top location downtown). The first few days of our stay it was about 12 degrees only. So, one of the first things we decided to do was to get to one of Taiwan’s hot springs to warm up. With a little bit of research, we soon found the closest hot spring to Taipei in Xin Beitou. This place can easily be reached with the comfortable MRT and offers various hot spring options. It is located at the foot of the volcano and national park where further up are more natural hot springs to discover. In Beitou itself you either choose to go to one of the many hot spring hotels (apart from the shared bath there are also private hot springs to book) or you do what we did and go to the public hot spring. It is good to know beforehand, that men’s shorts are not allowed in the public bath. You have to wear this synthetic bathing suit fabric to get in. Pants like this can be bought at the entrance for about $8 (no, they don’t look nice and you probably won’t ever use them again). The entrance fee is only about $1 so even with an extra pair of pants, the experience is still quite cheap. And for us, this public bath absolutely was a real experience! Don’t think of it as one of the nice thermal baths we usually go to in Europe. There are about 7 small pools on the hill, filled with about 1m of water and a lot of people sitting in there next to each other (we weren’t allowed to take pictures but there are plenty to find online if you are interested). So, after you get changed in either the toilet or the shower every one has a shower and after that gets in the very warm water of the lowest pool. As we were sitting there, the guy next to us explained, that we had to be careful not to get the water in our eyes as it was acid and would hurt. Of course, we followed his advice. He continued talking and explained further, that after this lowest pool you had to switch to the really cold one and sit there for about 1 minute. The trick is to sit still so that your body doesn’t lose any heat through the movement. After this cold pool, you were allowed to go to the pool a level higher up, where the water was even warmer (already hot for us). But we were told that the same sitting-still trick works as well in the hot water. So that’s what we did. And it’s true. As long as you keep very still and no one is moving around you the water isn’t as hot. After this pool, we went to the cold one again, then to the one further up and hotter, to the cold again and then tried the hottest. we endured about 30 seconds! This water was unbelievably hot and we don’t know how the many of the other people did manage to stay in there for a few minutes. We rushed to the cold pool again where we also met a French guy whose girlfriend is Taiwanese and another guy who was at least 80 and impressed us with his perfect English and French skills. He explained with a big smile that he went to school in Paris at Sorbonne 63 years ago. Wow! Anyways we had an amazing afternoon at Beitou public hot spring with a lot of fun with the locals there.
2. Taipei 101
Probably the most famous sight of Taipei and no surprise that it finds space in this list is Taipei 101. However, there are different ways how to explore this building. And we share with you how to get (in our opinion) the most out of it. Taipei 101 looks just as amazing when you are close to it as from a little distance. Of course, it is very popular among tourists to go up to the top level of one of the tallest buildings. In fact, from 2004 to 2007 it even was with 504m the highest building in the world. We didn’t go to the top level though as we had a much better option in mind. We read about a Starbucks at the 35th floor of Taipei 101 and figured that the view from up there would be good enough as there are only about 5 other buildings reaching the middle section of Taipei 101. The only thing was that it wasn’t clear to us how to get up there and which entrance to use. After trying to find our way with the descriptions of a (what we found out afterward) outdated blog we read a different one and more up to date one. It said that you had to make a reservation by calling a number at least a day in advance. Noo! We were too late – we thought. But it was our lucky day! Just when we got to one of the actual Taipei 101 entrances (not one of the shopping mall), there was a line and two people from Starbucks there. So, we just asked them if they still had capacity for two more people and they gave us a reservation for the next slot at 12am (every slot is 90 minutes)! We were lucky because without the people from Starbucks checking all the reservation we couldn’t have known that this was the place to wait for the next slot. There still is a minimum order of 200 TWD (about $6.70) per person but like this, you still pay less than half the price to get up there than for the top floor of Taipei 101. Plus: you get coffee and cake with it. Isn’t that great?! Now that we know how it works we would definitely recommend calling at least a day before to get a reservation (+886 2 8101 0701) or if you don’t have a Taiwanese SIM card, to be there at one of the slot times (like 10.30, 12.00 or 13.30) and ask for the reservation there.
3. Sunset at Elephant Mountain
Like it is generally the case with views in big cities, you don’t get the best view up from the highest and most famous building but from somewhere where you can actually see this building as well. For Taipei, this “somewhere” is definitely Elephant mountain. The best thing: You get also to see the sunset behind the city from up there. The walk up Elephant mountain is not far, but very steep. So water and enough time are recommended. When we got there (a little late of course) we realized that we were just walking in a real tourist gathering. We hadn’t seen that many tourists all week! So, it was a little hard to find a good spot to see the sunset but it was absolutely beautiful and should be on everyone’s top list when visiting Taipei (given the weather is ok). It was only after the sun had already set that we found the perfect spot without a lot of people to watch this beautiful spectacle. To get up to the mountain you better take the back road. We assume that there are fewer people walking up on this side of the mountain, which is much more convenient of course, than walking in line behind people of all kinds of fitness levels. Also, the perfect viewing spot we discovered is the first spot that allows you to see over the city when you are pretty much on the top.
4. Taipei food
One of the other things Taipei is famous for is its amazing food. There are little food stalls everywhere. Just turn into a side street and usually you stumble across one or the other delicious treat. The only time you might find it hard to find something to eat is between 3 and 5 pm. When the lunch offers are over but the dinner stalls aren’t ready yet. But It is also manageable to endure 2 hours without food I guess. Especially at night, there are a lot of street food markets all over the city. The one we liked best during our stay was Raohe Street Night Market. It offered a lot of different foods and had a good size to spend an evening or two. Something else we were really happy and also surprised about was the very good coffee that was offered at some places. There are various cafe chains like Cama, Ikari or Louisa Coffee and also smaller shops. We really liked the coffee at Cama. They roast their coffee in-house and in some stores even in the cafe itself, what gives the place an amazing smell! Every coffee lover should go to one of those places, enjoy the smell of the freshly roasted coffee together with a nice cup of coffee. But now we will tell you about the top foods discovered in Taipei.
Hot Soybean Milk and Egg Cake was the first breakfast we had in Taipei and it was also one of our favorites. I didn’t think I would like hot soybean milk as I don’t like soy milk back home in Switzerland. But the taste here is completely different and it is actually really tasty. Egg cakes are pan-fried (with a lot of oil) dough omelets with spring onions inside. Other typical breakfast dishes are fried noodles or noodle soups or rice with braised pork over it. All tasty – but more for a lunch or dinner dish for us.
There is a seemingly limitless amount of dumplings with different shapes, fillings and doughs, steamed, baked, deep or pan-fried. You get them at street stalls as well as in Michelin starred restaurants and we tried a lot of them. We found that the best dumplings we had were at Ding Hao Zi Lin Steam Dumpling on the ground floor of Ding Hao Mall and not at the Michelin stared one. The Michelin starred dumplings at Tim Ho Wan’s were pretty good too, but not worth the higher price. But pretty much all of the dumplings we had at some food stalls were really tasty as well. I guess you really cannot go wrong with dumplings. What we discovered, is that the meat dumplings often have a little more flavor than the vegetable ones (unfortunately, I think, as after a while here I really start craving veggies.) and the shrimp ones are always great.
Michelin Stared Dumplings
Street Food Dumplings
Best Dumplings at Dinga Hao Zi Lin’s
There are a lot of different soups to choose from. The best two we had so far was a lamb soup and a seafood soup. The lamb one was kind of a clear broth with lamb chops and different spices in there (this was ta Raohe Street Night Market). The seafood noodle soup was at a night market near Zhongshan Elementary School MRT station. It had a fish ball, shrimp, some veggies, noodles and a blanched egg in there. The egg actually gave the soup a really nice creamy taste as the egg yolk was still liquid when we opened it. Unfortunately, we didn’t take pictures of either of the soups.
Chiang Kai Shek Memorial and its surrounding park are a beautiful calm oasis in the middle of Taipei. When we were there the Memorial itself was under construction, so most of it was wrapped and we couldn’t see much of it. But the two alike looking buildings being the national concert hall and theater together with the gate of the liberty square are absolutely picturesque already. It is best to go there in the early morning when not a lot of people are there. Then you can also see older people doing their Tai Chi and monks praying in some corners.
This nice area on the northern part of the river is great for a stroll and can be combined perfectly with a half day trip to Beitou as it is on the same MRT line. The riverside seems to be one of the places to hang out for young people. There is a nice park and also lots of snacks to buy (how could it be any different). About every fourth food stand offers different cuts of deep fried cuttlefish (it was delicious!), but there is also ice cream or stinky tofu for the ones who dare to try. It is perfect to be there in the late afternoon as the sun sets right behind the river. Strolling along the river you get to see some really talented street artists as well as some nice and fancy looking restaurants right at the river. Another European-like area for us.