We spent three weeks in Taiwan with great food, the friendliest people and impressive landscapes. Like so many others we started our trip in Taipei. We planned a week there so that we would have enough time to figure out where we want to go next and what to do on the island of Taiwan. That’s what we did and in the end, we visited the following places:
Taipei City is a great place to live. Transportation is very convenient, you get cheap and very good food on every corner, there are tons of nice cafes to chill and it takes only one hour to reach Taiwan’s beautiful nature. We found that the city cannot pride itself with beautiful buildings (apart from Taipei 101) or a lot of nice roads to stroll along and enjoy an afternoon (apart from the stylish Dihua Street or the area around the Red House). That is why it might not be obvious why this city should be on everyone’s bucket list. I guess we just liked the city’s vibe. Despite the many people living there and the heavy traffic, this city didn’t feel packed or rushed to us. It seemed kind of calm and there was friendliness everywhere. Maybe we enjoyed this place as much because we had to discover the gems first and weren’t told about them before? And I am sure, there are much more to discover apart from the ones we did. Find out about our 6 must-sees in Taipei here.
Attracted from the beautiful pictures of Jiufen Old Street with its red lanterns we decided to head there after Taipei and spend a night, to continue our journey along the east coast after that. What we didn’t realize before was that it was a little city that is apparently kept alive for tourism purposes only. Prices for overnight stays are relatively high with $ 30 a night for a Homestay and food prices were very high as well. Jiufen is a nice little town on the hill with a beautiful view over the coast. It used to be a mining town and there are still a few relics left from this time. Also, there are some really beautiful, traditional buildings worth to have a look at. Our highlight was the sunset we enjoyed out of the village on top of Mount Keelung. From up there you can see the coast to the south and to the north as well as Taipei and its surrounding mountains in the far. Really impressive! We spent a wonderful day in Jiufen. Would we recommend it to others? Probably not to spend the night there. A day trip from Taipei or a few hours when passing by will suffice. You can easily stay in Ruifang and catch a bus to go there and back.
Hualien and Taroko Gorge
Taiwan’s Taroko Gorge is probably the country’s most famous attraction and on many ranking lists the top sight to visit. Most people either stay in one of the few hotels close to the National Park or in Hualien with a lot of options for overnight stays. We took a train from Ruifang to Hualien and stayed in a Homestay there. Homestays are often a good and cheap option to stay overnight if you are traveling with someone else. You get a private room and private bathroom for about the same price as for two dorm beds in a hostel. In Hualien our arrival was a little weird though and just as in Jiufen the place was not easy to find. When we arrived we just found a closed door with a notice to text or call the owners through „Line“ (equivalent to „WhatsApp“). So that‘s what we did. When no one picked up we checked our booking details and found out that check-in wasn‘t until 4pm (we were there about 2pm). So we had a late lunch and waited. Like we assumed, just after 4pm someone texted us back asking what time we wanted to check in. 10 minutes later we met the nice woman in front of the closed door and she let us in. It turned out that this building had only studios in there but nothing like a reception. Since then we always try to remember to check beforehand at what time check-in is available and also try to let the homestay/hotel know at what time we plan to arrive. The next day we wanted to see the famous Taroko Gorge and headed out to rent a scooter so that we could leave early the next morning. We found one for about $ 20 (I think we paid a little too much for it) that we could keep until late the next day. At about 7am the following morning we left towards Taroko Gorge. After taking the wrong way two times and about 45 minutes drive we reached the valley. We passed the beautiful temple with the eternal spring running through it, continued our drive over fiery red bridges crossing the river and enjoyed beautiful views of the mountains. We reached the narrow part of the gorge and found it to be very beautiful. In fact, similarly beautiful as the Rhein valley in Switzerland! This attraction is undoubtedly impressive and for people not used to mountains definitely a must-see. For us, growing up close to a lot of huge mountains, clear rivers, and steep gorges, the views we had here in Taiwan were similar to what we could see at home. Don’t get me wrong. Taroko Gorge is still very beautiful but we just didn’t get that feeling of being surprised and excited like we do when we discover something that is new to us. Still, I would definitely recommend everyone who passes Taiwan’s east coast to take the time and have a look at this narrow gorge and the temples hiding between the trees. We did really enjoy to explore the valley by scooter so that we weren‘t in a group whenever visiting a spot. But there are also public buses and tour buses to take. Apart from Taroko Gorge, there are the Ch‘ing-Shui Cliffs to take a peek at. The watercolor and the contrast of the grey beach to the steep forest are just stunning. And in summer it might even be warm enough to stay at the beach for a while!
Kenting National Park
As we had enough of the cold we decided to skip Taitung and head south to Kenting directly. We planned our trip over there with Google Maps and were prepared for a four hours train ride plus another 5 hours bus ride. The train ride did take about 4 hours and was really comfortable. Trains in Taiwan are in general quite good and ours were always on time. We never took one of the high-speed trains as they are more expensive and their train stations are often located outside the city center (or at least not where the main station is). But also the regular trains are really good – a little old, but plenty of space! And if you buy a ticket at the counter you get the seat reservation with it (not when using “Easy Card”). When we changed to the bus, we soon realized that we were moving much faster than Google expected us to. The whole trip from Fang Liao to Kenting took us about 40 minutes instead of the predicted 5 hours. That was fine with us of course! We suspected already before that google’s timetables weren’t reliable here in Taiwan but were certainly sure of it after this ride.
Kenting National Park is the most southern part of Taiwan. In this area, there are still a few small towns and it is not as secluded as other National Parks are. We stayed in the small town called Kenting. There is basically only one lane with hotels, restaurants, bars and convenience stores. On the other side of these buildings is the beautiful beachfront. Unusual for Europeans is, that the beachfront is not busy at all. Instead, life is taking place between the two building rows. There, every night dozens of food stalls gather on the side of the street and allow visitors to taste many different foods. We really enjoyed our four days in Kenting, where we could feast at the night market every night, enjoy the beach, discover the coastline with our scooter and take a walk in Kenting National Forest Recreation Park. The very southern part of Kenting was extremely windy the day we were there. And as all the trees point in the same direction (which is not towards the sky but to the side), we assume that it might be this windy a lot over there. The National Forest Recreation park seemed a little dull at first but as we went deeper into the forest we were surprised with beautiful trees, narrow caves, and ancient corals. This whole part of Taiwan used to be under water 80 000 to 120 000 years ago. That’s why today you can still see the massive coral in between and beneath the beautiful forest of Kenting.
A traveler we met in Kenting explained to us that the air further up north was very bad at the time. We did notice the thick fog when we were heading down to Kenting four days earlier. We thought this was weird as it was at the coastline, but it was only when this other traveler told us about the bad condition of the air, that we realized that this whole area was covered in smog. We also learned that there are different levels of air pollution measured and announced. The air around Kaohsiung reached the red level at the time, which indicates a strong pollution with actual health risks. Of course, we wanted to avoid the bad air and decided to head up to the mountains of Alishan, hoping that we might get better conditions a few days later. To get to Alishan we caught a bus to Fang Liao, hopped on a train to Chiayi and changed to another bus that would take us up to the mountains. By the way: In Fang Liao, we had the best and probably cheapest steamed dumplings of our stay in Taiwan. The little food stall is just at the right corner when you leave the train station. Anyway, we went up the winding roads by bus and reached Alishan after about two hours. Alishan is a mountainous area, famous for its beautiful sunrises and sunsets with a few trails to take and park areas with cherry and magnolia trees and some other trails with huge trees to see. We stayed two nights so that we had two chances to catch a sunrise and absolutely enjoyed this trip. We took the train in Alishan up to the mountaintop at 5.50am. As it was still dark we didn’t get a view but were still glad that we didn’t have to walk up this early in the morning. We enjoyed two stunning and completely different sunrises up there. The first morning there were a lot of clouds and we could barely see the sun. Instead, we enjoyed the colorful sky and the clouds moving between the mountain tops. The second morning there was not a single cloud, no colorful sky and it was only 2°C but we could see the sun very clearly this time. Surprisingly, just a few minutes after the sun was up, everyone rushed off to catch the train back down. As we only bought a one-way ticket we could enjoy the loneliness up there and had the views to ourselves. The walk down to the village takes about one hour if you take your time and stop every now and then to take pictures. Instead of taking the path straight back to the village you can also take a longer trail which leads through a beautiful forest, passes by the Sisters Ponds and a temple. The temple area is a great spot for lunch. We had the best Lu Rou Fan (braised pork over rice) there at a food stall right in the corner. At this food stall, we could even pick two toppings (like egg, vegetables or tofu) for 60TND ($2). Lu Rou Fan is a very popular dish that is also eaten for breakfast. The one we had at the temple, was the best we had in Taiwan.
Our recommendation: Try to stay only one night. Catch the earliest bus up to Alishan (if possible to see the sunrise, stay for one night and leave some time in the afternoon again. We found hotels to be extremely overpriced. Ours was the cheapest we could find with $55 (at the same time the most expensive stay we had) and it was bad. Also, we were there during low season. I don’t want to know how high the prices are during magnolia and cherry blossom time (February to April).
After our stay in Alishan we went back to Chiayi where we stayed for the night. We spent the evening and half a day in the morning there. It seemed like people were even less used to western tourists in this city than in other parts of Taiwan. We visited an amazing and huge morning marked which we really enjoyed and the people there kept on surprising us with their friendliness.
Tainan is Taiwan’s oldest city. The city is charming with some nice little cafes and the many temples appearing behind a corner or a building. There is Amping Old Street to visit which is the part of the city that was built first. When we got there we were a little disappointed though that there weren’t many old buildings around. The Fort we visited and that is a museum now, was obviously built in a different time and also the “dried fruit museum” which we stumbled upon was really pretty as well. Apart from that, there are a lot of tourists but not much else to see. However, we discovered another road that really still had some old houses and was more of the kind we expected Amping to be. This is Shennong street. Tainan has also some huge night markets. We visited the Garden night market and Wushen night market. The garden night market was extremely crowded and we left again after a short while. Also, we thought that the food offered there was not too special. There was a lot of snack food, which can be fine sometimes but might not be for every day. The other market we went to was less crowded (but we were already there when it just opened at 6.30pm) and we got to try some foods we hadn’t had yet. So we definitely enjoyed this one.
Our last two days in Taiwan were in Kaohsiung. We were a little tired of traveling so we didn’t do much in Kaohsiung. Luckily the air pollution was better by now, so there weren’t any health risks anymore and every now and then you could even see wholes of blue sky in the smog. We went visited the area between the MRT station Sizihwan and the love river. There is a big park where there used to be a train depot and around pier 2 there are some art sculptures and old freight halls nicely redone. Definitely, a great spot to take a stroll.