Thin plumes of dark smoke spiral towards the scarlet lanterns hanging overhead. People push past, bowing in silent prayer and clasping long sticks of incense close to their foreheads. Others chant in low murmurs. Sunday morning at Taipei’s Longshan Temple, and the faithful are out in force, eager to please the gods with offerings of tropical fruit and tubes of Pringles.
Of all the 165 deities that have a presence here, the one with the biggest pile of treats is the matchmaking god, Yue Xia Lao. “He’s always very popular,” laughs my guide, Michelle.
For centuries, people have come to this ornate temple in the heart of the Taiwanese capital seeking guidance and blessings. It may be ancient but it remains just as relevant to life in Taipei today as it did when it was built in 1738 — testimony to the enduring importance of tradition in this rapidly modernising city.
Of course, time hasn’t stood still for Taipei. Beyond its aged stone walls are high-rise towers and satellite dishes. Across the road, a man polishes his prized Mercedes convertible — customised with diamante trim and, even more bizarrely, mini fountains contained in glass boxes behind the rear-seat headrests.
Home to 2.5 million people and located in the north of this East Asian island, Taipei sits in a basin against a backdrop of forested mountains where the Danshui River meanders from north to south. It’s big and brash, with corners that could pass for Shanghai or Beijing.
Comparisons to Mainland China — just 13 miles across the Taiwan Strait — are inevitable. Dubbed the ‘Renegade Province’, Taiwan has long endured a complicated and fractious relationship with the People’s Republic, which claims sovereignty. Previously occupied by the Dutch and Japanese, the island became officially known as the Republic of China in 1945 but there are growing calls for complete independence — a plea last year dismissed by Chinese president Hu Jintao as ‘doomed to fail’. Watch this space…
Start at the very beginning, on Dihua Street, one of the first to take shape in Taipei in the mid-19th century.
“This is no longer the centre of the city, like it once was,” says Kwan Nan Lin, who’s been selling spring rolls here for the past six decades. “Taipei is big and busy now, but this neighbourhood hasn’t changed much.”
I roam the aromatic boulevard where traditional Chinese medicine shops and grocers selling salty sea cucumbers and pickled jellyfish stand beside tiny Taoist shrines and family-run tea shops dating back generations. The first, belonging to the Lin Family, opened in 1851. Venturing inside, among old wooden tea crates, I pause for a short tea ceremony and sip cup after cup of complex oolong blends.
From the traditional to the futuristic — the Taipei 101 tower dominates the city’s skyline, drawing inspiration from a stick of bamboo and standing like a solitary candle on a birthday cake. Up until 2010 (when Dubai’s Burj Khalifa opened), this was the tallest building on earth: a 1,666ft-high beacon, which remains a source of great pride to all Taiwanese, despite having lost the title.
My ears pop as the lift rushes towards the 89th-floor observatory — a journey of 37 seconds. At the top, the whole city and mountains beyond are laid out. Far below, tiny yellow taxis look like toy cars.
To the north is the impressive National Palace Museum. Among its haul of 600,000 treasures from ancient Chinese dynasties are rare Ju Ware pottery from the 12th century and pieces of art that originally hung in the Forbidden City in Beijing. Taking pride of place, of all things, is a vegetable. Crowds flock to see the miniature, but impressively realistic, bok choi carved from a piece of sparkling green-and-white jade by an unknown sculptor.
Elsewhere, Taiwan’s recent, and complex, history is well documented at the National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall. There’s no missing this extravagant and nationalistic monument of white marble and blue glass, modelled on the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.
It’s dedicated to Chiang Kai-shek, a revolutionary who fled to Taiwan in 1949 after suffering a defeat to the communists during the Chinese Civil War. On display are a number of personal artefacts relating to his life and reign as President of the Republic of China (during which he ruled Taiwan for 26 years), which ended with his death in 1975.
Shopping in Taipei means one thing: markets, markets and more markets. Some specialise in such things as jade, flowers, jewellery and electronics, but most sell all you could want and more.
The most famous by far is Shilin Night Market. Densely crowed, its pulsating alleys are lined with stalls and shops offering everything from ‘Louis Vuitton’ handbags to puppies. You can even take home a taste of Taiwan by buying a special brew.
While coffee culture sweeps the rest of the world, Taipei has remained true to tea. Seeking out some high-quality leaves, I venture to the Da Doa Cheng neighbourhood, where the industry first flourished in the 19th century.
“Coffee shops are opening up everywhere, but it’s a fad. Tea has stood the test of time,” says Jason Wang, whose family founded the Wang Tea Company in 1890. “It will always be a part of our culture.”
I buy a packet of Wen Shan pouchong tea: golden green in colour and with a light floral scent. I can’t resist browsing the shelves of delicate teapots, intricately engraved with tiny Chinese characters.
Nearby Datong District also offers good retail therapy in the shape of numerous independent, arty shops. In Bloom, for example, stocks beautiful tapestries and cushions as well as journals and jewellery by up-and-coming local artists. The adjoining bookshop, meanwhile, has an interesting collection of titles on Taipei.
Around the corner is Art Yard, but don’t pop in unless you have a lot of spare kitchen cupboard space at home. The contemporary pieces here — Chinese-style crockery and Hakka-style tableware — are so exquisite you’ll be too scared to actually use them, although the dim sum-shaped salt and pepper shakers may prove irresistible.
Once upon a time, a lacklustre gastro scene in Taipei was monopolised by its most notorious street, Snake Alley. Here, cobras would wait to be skinned alive for the benefit of tourists brave enough to sample warm blood/bile or snake soup. While it’s still possible to sample these controversial delicacies here, it’s no longer the sadistic circus it once was. “Killing them in public and so cruelly has been outlawed,” Michelle tells me.
Away from Snake Alley, Taipei serves up some of the most varied and innovative food in East Asia. At Taihodien Restaurant — a modern Sichuan restaurant with Cantonese calligraphy daubed on the black walls — diners sit hunched over steaming hot pots placed in the centre of the table. Following their lead, I dip my chopsticks into the bubbling red broth and retrieve clumps of Chinese spinach and spicy slithers of marbled pork and Taiwanese beef.
Getting a table at dim sum restaurant Din Tai Fung can be tricky. Despite calling ahead and booking a table, we have to join a long queue of hungry locals outside.
Finally inside, it quickly becomes clear why Din Tai Fun is so popular: the dumplings are plump and juicy, and filled with morsels of goodness like pork and truffles, and ground taro (a root vegetable).
The award for Taiwan’s (and arguably the world’s) strangest eatery goes to Modern Toilet, a themed restaurant where diners sit on unplumbed ceramic toilets (lid down) and stifle giggles as they tuck into curries served on converted sinks. Drinks come in urinal-shaped cups and desserts include — brace yourself — poo-shaped chocolate ice cream, served, naturally, in a mini faux squat toilet. Consider yourself warned.
Of all the grub on offer, street food still rules supreme in Taipei, particularly at Shida Night Market and Raohe Street Night Market. Woks spit, steam oozes from pots, mounds of fig jelly wobble wildly — the air positively sizzles with pepper, chilli and spices.
Some people slurp on clam noodles and munch on crunchy fried chicken. Others nibble on skewers of duck hearts and lick scoops of taro ice cream. Some even brave the fetid smell at the hugely popular, yet stinky, steamed tofu stands.
Taipei transforms once the sun sets and the bright neon lights flicker into life. But with a nightlife scene that’s constantly evolving — places can be all the rage one minute and gone the next — it can be hard to keep up.
One hotspot that’s managed to remain very ‘of the moment’ is a Champagne bar called, imaginatively, Champagne Bar. Dimly lit and über trendy, the plush leather booths attract a hedonistic crowd with 250 choices of bubbly and a number of delicious Champagne cocktails.
The bar directly next door, meanwhile, is somewhat of a contrast. China White’s minimalist interior of white sofas and birch walls creates a relaxed and jovial environment, but it’s the smiley staff that really make it special. Finishing my expertly mixed smoked plum daiquiri with spiced rum, the chatty barman happily serves another despite it being past the 2am closing time.
Elsewhere, beer lovers descend on the industrial style 346 Taiwan Beer Bar for a pint (or a barrel) produced in the local Chien Kuo Brewery that very day.
And if you’re into live music, sink into one of the cosy armchairs for an evening of jazz at Brown Sugar. Or, if rock is more your thing, stop by at Underworld in the Shida District. With live bands and DJs most nights, this small venue has been championing alternative music since 1996.
For years, accommodation in Taipei has been monopolised by large-scale hotels. Chief among them is the palatial Taipei Grand Hotel, a 487-room property located on the site of a former Shinto shrine. Transformed into a luxury hotel in 1952, it’s one of the most historic in the city and something of a landmark, with bronze dragons and century-old stone lions giving the place a traditional Asian feel. The rooms are a little tired but redeemed by the fine mountain views.
Hotels in Taipei have a new buzzword, though, and that’s ‘boutique’. Recent years have seen an influx of smaller properties that deliver on design and comfort. The daddy of them all is Home Hotel, in the heart of Xinyi. A team of Taiwanese interior designers have created sumptuous rooms using natural materials — think wooden panels and marble walls — furnished with pieces crafted on the island. The hotel also hosts ‘Orientation Sessions’, passing on useful phrases and cultural insights to guests.
With only a curtain separating the bathroom and the bedroom, stylish Hotel Quote Tapei is definitely geared towards couples. Chic rooms feature king-size beds, Bose sound systems and bold feature walls.
Budget travellers are also catered for with a number of inexpensive but surprisingly swish options across the city. The Dandy Hotel chain has three properties in its portfolio, the best of which is the Tianmu Branch. It’s mercifully close to Shilin Night Market, so you won’t have far to carry back all your impulse buys. The 54 rooms are simply decorated with neutral tones and clean lines but the flatscreen TVs and heated toilet seats are a nice touch.
EVA Air flies from Heathrow to Taipei daily via Bangkok. Cathay Pacific flies there via Hong Kong from Heathrow. KLM flies via Amsterdam from Aberdeen, Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff, Durham, Leeds Bradford, Heathrow, Manchester and several other regional airports.
www.evaair.com www.cathaypacific.com www.klm.com
Average flight time: 16h.
From Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, a taxi to downtown Taipei costs around TWD1,200 (£26) and takes about 45 minutes. Alternatively, buses leave every 15-20 minutes bound for Taipei Main Station (a 55-minute journey) and cost from TWD125 (£2.75).
Taipei’s subway system is comprehensive, reliable and easy to use, with trains every few minutes and signs in English. One-way fares from TWD20 (45p).
A river cruise along the Danshui is a lovely way to see the city. A 50-minute trip costs from TWD150 (£3.30) and departs hourly from 10am-3pm from the Dadaocheng Wharf.
When to go
Autumn (September-November, with average temperatures of around 28C), when Taipei shakes off another humid summer, and before the chill of winter.
Need to know
Visas: Not required by British passport holders.
Currency: Taiwan New Dollar (TWD). £1 = TWD45.
International dialling code: 00 886.
Time difference: GMT +7.
Longshan Temple. 211 Guangzhou St.
Lin Family Teahouse. 156 Dihua St.
Taipei 101. www.taipei-101.com.tw
National Palace Museum. www.npm.gov.tw
National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall. www.cksmh.gov.tw
Shilin Night Market. 101 Jihe Rd.
Wang Tea Company. No.26, Lane 64, Sec. 2, Chongcing N. Rd
In Bloom. Lane 32, 1 Dihua St.
Art Yard. Dihua St., Taipei 103.
Snake Alley. Huaxi Street.
Taihodien Restaurant. www.taihodien.com.tw
Din Tai Fung. www.dintaifung.com.tw
Modern Toilet. www.moderntoilet.com.tw
Shida Night Market. Shida Road.
Raohe Street Night Market. www.raohe.com.tw
How to do it
Cox & Kings offers four-nights in Taipei from £1,495 per person, including flights from Heathrow with Eva Air, B&B accommodation and transfers. www.coxandkings.co.uk
Expedia offers four nights in Taipei from £808 per person, including indirect flights and accommodation at the Have Fun Suite & Budget Hostel. www.expedia.co.uk
Published in the Jul/Aug 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)