If you’ve ignored Taipei every time you’ve slapped together Asian travel plans, you’re not alone. With high-profile tourism centres like Hong Kong, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Seoul popping out in every direction, poor ol’ Taipei never gets the attention it deserves from travellers.
It’s a shame because Taipei, in many ways, rolls the best of these popular East Asian destinations into one: It’s got the innovation of Tokyo without the high price tags, the cultural intrigue of Shanghai without the strict visa regime, and for the diversity of the cuisine, well, Taipei might just trump them all.
Even if you’re only planning a short stay, nothing will give you a better appreciation of Taiwan than wandering around Taipei for a couple days. Try out these ideas in your first 48 hours in Taipei:
Day 1: Zhongzheng and Xinyi Wanderer
Grab a quick coffee—or iced coffee if visiting in the hot and humid summer months—and start your morning off by walking (or travelling on the Taipei MRT) to Liberty Square in Taipei’s Zhongzheng District.
The political and social spirit of Taipei has a nerve centre, it’s right here in Liberty Square. The plaza been around for ages, though far newer than its buildings’ ancient Chinese architectural styles would suggest.
At one end of Liberty Square sits Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, a monument to modern Taiwan’s most infamous politician; on the other, Taipei’s fraternal twin cultural buildings: the National Concert Hall and the National Theatre.
Arriving early in the morning, the plaza will be pleasantly devoid of people save the occasional fitness nut and, if you’re lucky enough as I was, Taiwanese soldiers as they raise the flag of Taiwan in the centre of the square.
If you arrive later in the morning, wander into Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (open at 9am; free entrance) to learn more about the man and the history of modern Taiwan. Catch the hourly changing of the guard before trotting through the park to the lefthand side of the main building to watch Taipei’s residents warm up for their day with Tai Chi.
From Liberty Square it’s less than 10 minutes by foot to Dongmen Market. Unlike Taipei’s night markets, Dongmen Market starts motoring just after dawn and is the perfect place to gobble down a cheap and filling breakfast. Choose from a variety of fresh meats, seafood, noodles, soups or dumplings—like nearly every street food hotspot in Taipei, it’s hard to go wrong at Dongmen Market.
Da’an Forest Park
With a stomach full of Taiwanese food and energy to spare, follow the roar of traffic on Xinyi Road to Da’an Forest Park to escape the busy streets and inhale some fresh air in the “lungs of Taipei.”
While Da’an Park couldn’t compare to a well-manicured Japanese garden in Kyoto, it’s a pleasant break from the densely-populated centre of Taipei. Meandering through the park you’ll come across birds, turtles and even a bamboo forest if you veer far enough south. Relax and recharge here before wandering back north to Xinyi Road for bigger adventures in Taipei City.
The symbol of Taipei since 2004, Taipei 101 defies description—you truly need to stare at it from below to fully appreciate its magnitude (in case you’ve never heard, it’s kinda big). Taipei 101 dominates the skyline so finding your way there from Da’an Park won’t be a problem. What you choose to do once you get there is (literally) up in the air.
Most travellers visit Taipei 101 to quickly jet up to the outdoor observation deck on the 91st floor (NT$500; $17) and leave. But for perpetually hungry travellers like me, the true brilliance of the building lies in the food courts and restaurants on the lower floor.
After gawking at Taipei’s skyline from (way) up above, drop down to the lower level and queue up for the long—but worthwhile—wait at world famous Din Tai Fung for some xiaolongbao (Shanghainese-style dumplings). For less than $20 you can easily sample several mouth-watering xiaolongbao varieties, filling yourself up for the next leg of your journey.
Elephant Mountain and the Four Beasts
Even if you aren’t much of a hiker, I recommend challenging yourself to scale up the seemingly never-ending staircase to the viewpoint atop Elephant Mountain (Xiangshan). The entrance to the Elephant Mountain Trail lies about 20 minutes by foot from Taipei 101 on a quiet side street south of Sanli Park (use this Four Beasts Mountain Hiking Map to help you).
You could easily spend the better half of the day navigating through the dense forest trails high above Taipei, but even pushing though the 600 metres or so of stairs will reward you with one of the finest views of Taipei.
If hiking in the summer, especially during the day, the heat and humidity up here can be monstrous. Be sure to hydrate well (there’s a 7-11 to stock up on water not too far from the trailhead) and take frequent breaks if needed.
Tonghua Night Market (Linjiang Night Market)
Once you’re through with wandering the subtropical forests above Taipei, it’s about a 20-minute walk through Xinyi District to Tonghua Night Market (also called Linjiang Street Night Market) where you can recharge with some more Taiwanese street snacks.
Of all the night markets in Taipei, Tonghua was one of my favourites in terms of size, price, selection, and breathing room. Cheaper, smaller and less-crowded than both Shilin Night Market and Raohe Street Night Market, Tonghua Night Market feels more like a hangout for locals than a trap for tourists. With all the usual street food goodies here, you should have no problem finding something to suit your tastes. Keep your eyes peeled in the main section of the market for the “ninja-chef” who hunts his own boar (see bottom of picture below!) and cooks up delicious sausages and garlic pork skewers with his signature spices.
On your way back to your hotel from Tonghua Night Market (Xinyi Anhe or Taipei 101 MRT), navigate to Ximen MRT Station on the blue metro line for a taste of Taipei high-tech style.
Anyone who thought Taipei’s architecture was nothing more than a handful of temples and bleak concrete high-rises clearly missed out on wandering around Ximending at night. It’s hip, fashionable, energetic and youthful—the perfect expression of an ever-expanding global city growing into itself.
Follow Taipei’s up-and-comers through the streets of Ximending as they dodge in and out of swanky boutiques and scourge the twisting alleyways for trendy late-night Japanese restaurants before head back to your hotel for a good night’s sleep.
Day 2: Temples and Street Food
Start your second day with a coffee or tea and a fresh morning fruit snack at the Shuanglian Market, just outside of the Shuanglian MRT Station. Like Dongmen, Shuanglian is a haunt for locals rather than tourists—you’ll probably get a few stares (and smiles) as you saunter along the alley!
After wandering around the marketplace, use your navigational skills to march northwest to Dalong Street. Walking along Dalong Street and immersing yourself in its produce markets, food stalls, and chaos is like stepping back into Taipei’s storied past.
Things here feel a little less organized and tame—and it’s all part of the fun: You’ll dodge speeding motorbikes, inhale interesting odours (expect intermittent whiffs of stinky tofu), and if you’re still hungry, you can even enjoy some of Taipei’s best daytime street snacks (Dalong Street also hosts a night market although I only visited in the early afternoon.)
Confucius Temple and Bao’an Temple
Both temples feature spectacular architecture, but the much older Bao’an Temple stands out as the more arresting of the two. Like many temples in Taiwan, Bao’an fuses elements from Taoism, Buddhism, and Taiwanese folk religions, creating a striking mélange of intricate designs whose details could captivate you for hours.
Taipei Expo Park
From Confucius Temple, it’s a short walk down Kulun Street to Taipei Expo Park. Home to gardens, pavilions, and museums including the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei Expo Park offers a break from the chaos of Taipei City. Even if you have no intentions of slipping into a museum, wandering around the park is a good way to kill some time and relax before evening rolls around. Check out nearby Dajia Riverside Park for city views over the Keelung River.
After a nice rest at your hotel, aim to roll into Longshan Temple (via the MRT Station of the same name) just before 6pm. Among both tourists and worshippers, Longshan Temple is the king of religious institutions in Taipei. Moments of emptiness at Longshan are rare. Be prepared to share your experience with hefty crowds.
Most interesting at Longshan Temple is how patrons encourage guests to partake in the worship. It’s confusing as hell at first, and you’ll no doubt look like a lost puppy to onlookers as you fumble through getting started.
But after burning the incense sticks at the wrong end, followed by a few chuckles from my Taiwanese helpers, I figured it out and wandered along the seven worship stations, gently dropping my incense sticks into the caldrons and offering well-wishes to my family and friends back home along the way. It’s undoubtedly an interesting, even if touristy, experience.
Night markets put Taipei on the map. And no night market in Taipei is more notorious than Huaxi Street Night Market—also known as “Snake Alley”—located just steps away from Longshan Temple.
Unfortunately, I arrived too early to catch the evening action at Huaxi Street Night Market so can’t comment on the quality of the street food—or whether the snakes are still out in full force. After wandering through the area mere hours before opening though, I can only imagine that Huaxi Street Night Market isn’t exactly one of Taipei’s most savoury night markets.
If I’ve scared you off, no worries: in Taipei, other night markets are never far away. The nearby Wuzhou Street Night Market and Guangzhou Street Night Market lack the seedy reputation of Huaxi Street and might be a better choice if you’re searching for something more tasteful in the area.
But if you really want to eat at the granddaddy of all night markets in Taipei, it’s Shilin Night Market, located near Jiantan MRT Station on the red metro line (20 minutes from Ximen MRT). Claustrophobic travellers beware: Shilin is about as crowded as public places get—anywhere. Once you tough out the crowds though, your taste buds will be rewarded with Taipei’s best selection of street food. Follow the long queues and harvest all your patience to find all the tastiest Taiwanese street food favourites.