Prior to my time spent living in Asia, I’m not sure I would have even been able to pin point Taiwan on a map, and now, it’s easily a country I would recommend everyone add to their bucket-lists! While I wouldn’t consider Taipei a budget destination choice, I will say that it’s completely possible to explore the city, and more, while on a budget. Nearly all the attractions we visited and have listed below are free and still allow you to see, in my opinion, the best Taipei has to offer – which spoiler alert, is A LOT.
I could ramble on for days about the people we met, the places we went, and the things we ate, but, instead, I’ve put together a list of my top 10 favorite experiences from the trip, in hopes that you’ll just decide to go check it out yourselves. Enjoy!
1. Maokong Tea Gardens
We ventured up to the tea gardens our first full day in country, as our now tropically-conditioned bodies were itching for some mountain views and warm tea. Situated atop Getou Mountain – easily reached by the Maoking Gondola – is a tiny town offering a variety of tea houses, street foods, green tea ice-creams, and giant bowls of noodles. The ride to the heart of the tea gardens was a treat in itself, offering a beautiful panoramic view of downtown Taipei! Some of the best food we had our entire trip was inside a little tea house we stumbled upon during this day trip – in my experience this usually happens if you go with your instinct and choose the restaurant with the best view 😉
2. Zhinan Temple
While Taipei is home to a number of beautiful temples, my favorite experience occurred at Zhinan Temple. Also nestled peacefully among the Getou Mountains, this temple entertains less foot traffic from tourists and is regularly still visited by those intending to pray. Apart from the serenity of the place, the temple itself is magnificent, grand in size and architecture. Whether I was overlooking the railing out at the mountains, or observing the locals praying, I felt overwhelmingly clam, as if I’d gone back a hundred years to when the temple was just built – a simpler time.
3. Elephant Mountain
With Taipei 101 being the country’s most iconic image, we couldn’t miss the chance to view it ~from a rather rewarding~ angle. While we found Elephant Mountain to be less of a mountain-trek and more of a vertical staircase, it was well worth the climb. Helplessly lost, and in a foot-race against the sunset, we happened upon the sweetest locals. We were all lost, it turned out, but we put our head nods, hand gestures, and nervous giggles together and finally made it to the right place. Although it was an overcast evening, and possibly all of Taiwan was atop that mountain with us, it’s an opportunity I’m glad we didn’t give up on – even after the 10th wrong turn.
4. Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall
I’d be lying if I said I was originally over-enthusiastic about visiting the CKS Memorial. Serving as a monument for the country’s former leader, it’s known as Taiwan’s most historical landmark – far from the history-buff, I didn’t know how captivated I’d be by the display. True to myself, I wasn’t captivated at all…I was mesmerized! The memorial sits arranged around a beautifully-overwhelming courtyard. From all sides, we were surrounded by sobering architecture and history. We even stumbled across the changing of the guards ceremony, but, unfortunately, we might have been the only two who actually saw it, as I’m certain there were more smartphones watching than eyes.
5. Raohe Night Market
Mhm there’s nothing not to love about a night market – the busyness, the flavors, the prices! Luckily Taipei seems to have one on nearly every corner, with my favorite being Raohe Night Market. Unlike some of the other markets, Roahe has maintained a local vibe with dramatically less crowds and Adidas shoe outlets *cough Shilin cough… It also has a beautiful temple sitting just off the entrance way! We tried everything from bacon wrapped scallops to candied strawberries, black-peppered buns to stinky tofu. How do you know when you’ve found the stinky tofu and not just regular tofu? You’ll mistake the pungent smell for rotting sewage… I wish I could say it tasted better. Fortunately, Cole had just as much fun watching me try to politely scarf it down. Regardless, it’s a must try – when in Rome, di ba?
6. Taipei 101
Taipei 101 was the tallest building in the world (until 2009) and you can definitely feel its powerful presence no matter where you are in the city. Luckily, we also got to witness its magic during Christmas time, beautifully lit and surrounded by Christmas trees at its base. It’s also home to the highest Starbucks in the world – and I’m never one to turn down a caramel macchiato, let alone one with a killer view – unluckily, you have to make a reservation, in advance, to go up. Well played, Taiwan. So, as you may have gathered, most of our admiring was done from the first floor. Apart from entering 101, it pays to also simply explore around the area and down nearby streets. Nearly every alley in Taipei houses an adorable cafe or boutique, all worth a quick stop.
7. Jiufen Old Street
Juifen, the mystical mountain town that it is, was my most anticipated destination of the trip! There’s just something inviting about streets lit by lanterns and lined with eclectic tea houses. After surviving a bus ride to the top that can only be described as so-terrifying-it’s-funny, we found, to our dismay, that many shops were shutting down. Side note about Taiwan – its appeared that the country runs off of a late start – early end routine. What a place to work! But, I digress. We made it in enough time to stock up on satchels of oolong and jasmine green tea ~my most recent obsession and cozy up in a story-book tea house, where we sat sipping on lavender tea, perched amid hazy mountains. Ah, Taiwan.
8. Beitou Thermal Springs
I’ve always had this fantastical idea of what hot springs are going to be like: shallow, natural crevices, being fed by trickling streams, secluded among the brush. Maybe even some exotic birds singing in the background… I’m now 25 years old and not once has a “hot spring” come anything close to this personal fabrication. The Beitou Hot Springs weren’t any different, rather they’re giant pools with entirely too many people in them. The Thermal Valley, however, was worth visiting! If for nothing else, to marvel at Nature’s capabilities. Thermal Valley, ironically, looked exactly what I always hope the advertised “hot springs” are going to look like. Unfortunately, the water there is rumored to melt metal within seconds, thank goodness for that translated sign – my bikini was packed. While the hot springs themselves weren’t exactly what I was hoping for, a short detour to the hot springs foot soak definitely made up for it.
9. Shifen Waterfall
If you’ve been following my journey at all through the Philippines, then you’ve probably picked up on my enthusiasm for waterfalls. Regarded as Taiwan’s “Little Niagara” and the most beautiful waterfall in the country – I had to see it! And man, it was truly breathtaking and, unlike most of the falls in the Philippines, easily accessible. Also, contrary to most of the falls in the ‘Pines, you couldn’t play in it. I had forgotten what it was like to travel in a country that has rules…Thus, lots of picture taking, no swimming.
10. Pingxi Old Street
We had heard many people mention Shifen Old St., but had it not been for the suggestion of our hostel we would have never discovered the less-populated Pingxi Old St. Pingxi is a tiny, preserved town built closely around the train tracks that once actively transported coal. Walking the streets of Pingxi truly felt like traveling back in time. We bought several mementos and finally got to try the well sought- after peanut cilantro ice cream~ interesting. My favorite activity of the stop, cliche as it may seem, was releasing a sky lantern at dusk. Together we wrote our hopes for the coming year, along with personal reminders, and set our wishes free. There’s always something therapeutic in tangible releases.
BONUS: Taroko Gorge
While not necessarily located in Taipei, Taroko Gorge can be accessed within 2.5 hours from the city via train – this extended detour was my absolute favorite part of our trip to Taiwan! The gorge aside, just getting to Taroko was amazing. The train winds down the coast, providing surreal views of plunging mountains and turquoise waters. Composed entirely of marble boulders and carved by the Liwu River, the gorge itself is absolutely stunning. Complete with temples, trails and waterfalls, our senses were constantly stimulated by our surroundings. Among our favorite hikes were the Shakadang Trail, Changchun Shrine Trail, Swallow Grotto Trail, Baiyan Waterfall Trail, Xiangde Temple Trail, and Lushui Trail. While we, unfortunately, had to miss out on some of the longer, more difficult trails – due to unknown permit requirements – we still had our hands full with dramatic views around every bend.
It was a trip marked by new friends, blunders, and belly laughs. While some things went as planned, the majority ended in wrong turns, missed trains, and, once, even in a timeless tail of hitch-hiking. In short, it was a typical, can’t-wait-to-do-it-again, adventure.
What about you? Are you more of a stick to a plan traveller or go with the flow nomad? Let me know in the comments below!
Until next time, keep adventuring x
“One of the great things about travel is that
you find how many good, kind people there are.”
-Edith Wharton (allegedly…)