More a multifaceted enigma than a city of contrasts, Taipei is the exuberantly diverse capital of Taiwan.
A country of arguably four major cultural influences: Japanese, Chinese, American and Aboriginal, each legacy runs deep, resulting in a capital city of eclectic architecture, urban character and ways of life. From Xinyi’s gleaming skyscrapers (main photo) and Tianmu’s vast family mansions through Zhongshan’s quaint alleys to the citywide cement and corrugated iron homes and fantastically elaborate traditional temples, Taipei is a kaleidoscope that nevertheless harmonises into one.
Taipei is known for its low cost of living, efficient transportation system, plenty of locally grown produce, exciting arts scene, creative dining scene and last, but not least, a stunning natural environment. A basin bordered by mountains, such as the Four Beasts Mountains and volcanic Yangmingshan, Taipei has long been one of the world’s best-kept secrets for lovers of nature and the great outdoors.
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110 volts, a 2-pin plug is the most prevalent (although Type B plugs can sometimes be used)
When to go
Taiwan is a popular destination all year round, however, there are some things to consider. In May, during the Plum Rain season, the biggest rainfall of the year is experienced. In July and August during summer, Taiwan can get very hot and humid, reaching 39 deg C.
In May, Taiwan celebrates the Dragon Boat Festival with a public holiday, boat races (above) and plenty of zong zi (rice dumplings), which are parcels of sticky rice and meat wrapped in bamboo leaves.
In September or October, the Moon Festival is all about barbecuing on the street and the giving and eating of delicious treats.
Winter is both the start of ‘hot spring season’ and ‘hot pot season’ when many establishments offer special deals to entice customers.
Travel peak periods
Spring to Autumn (March to November).
Tourist transport passes
TaipeiPass provides unlimited travel on the Taipei Metro as well as Taipei City and New Taipei City buses and can be bought for durations of 1, 2, 3 or 5 days.
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Value for money
Folio is a chic boutique hotel in the heart of Daan District that caters to visitors with a penchant for art. A former dormitory for bank workers, now housing an art gallery and studio, its rooms have parquet flooring, pristine bathrooms, geometric bed heads, and photos of Taipei. Folio offers a Red Eye Recharging Plan, with a 6am check-in and 6pm check-out.
Green World Songshan is one of Taipei’s best new hotels commanding a surprisingly low room rate. Located next to Houshanpi MRT, a few stops from City Hall, this business-standard establishment has fresh, clean rooms with balconies, featuring discreet monotones, beech finishes and marbled stone veneers.
The elegant Eslite Hotel Taipei (above) next to Songshan Cultural and Creative Park is owned by Eslite Bookstore and celebrates Taiwan, books and learning. Cleverly incorporated into interiors such as the feature walls in the ‘library halls’ and guest bathrooms are Taiwan’s traditions in red brick- and terrazzo tile-laying. Rooms are large and equipped with Bose speakers and Minotti chairs.
Hotel Royal Nikko in bustling Zhongshan District is the darling of Japanophiles, of which Taiwan has many. The pearly, marble lobby creates a gleaming, polished impression that lasts throughout your stay. Along with the Japanese attention to detail, Nikko offers the highly rated Cantonese Ming Court and Japanese Nakayama restaurants.
Setting the bar for top-end accommodation in the capital is the Mandarin Oriental, Taipei, which was established in 2014. Its Regency-style building, 7m high ceilings, suites that extend over 300 sq m, Oriental Club, and a luxury spa occupying an entire floor ooze prestige. While for the guestrooms, walk-in wardrobes, chaises longues and luxury 480-threadcount linens are de rigueur.
For a sanctuary away from the madding crowd, spend a night at the exclusive Villa 32 in the hot spring district of Beitou, nestled in Yangminshan mountain’s leafy foothills. Voted one of Asia’s top spas in 2016, this Relais & Chateaux retreat has world-class fine dining and displays a fusion of modern European and traditional Japanese architectural styles.
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Value for money
King Beef (老牌牛肉拉麵大王; No. 7, Lane 46, Section 1, Chongqing South Road, Zhongzheng District) has been around for 100 years and its honest, home-style beef dishes are testimonies in themselves. Incredibly popular with locals, this soul-food canteen is in the style of a family kitchen. Don’t miss the tendon soup, turmeric kidneys or livers, and spicy hot ginger-fried beef.
Maji Square, on the former Taipei Flora Expo site, always has a carnival feel. A vast complex of farmers and crafts markets as well as restaurants and boutique shops, Maji Square also offers fun, fast and cheap global fare (such as boneless salty crispy chicken and British oysters) eaten on shared wooden tables courtesy of its Oneworld Snack Stalls (above).
As a subtropical island, Taiwan enjoys some of the choicest, freshest seafood in the world, and Addiction Aquatic Development near Songshan Airport takes full advantage of this. It’s Taipei’s largest upmarket seafood market, with adjoining restaurants serving upmarket and top-rate food. You’ll find a charcoal grill, seafood bar, sashimi restaurant, and hotpot kitchen, all housed under the same roof.
Igor Macchia, chef of the one-Michelin-star La Credenza in Piedmont, Italy, once came to Taiwan on an exchange organised by the Far Eastern Plaza Hotel. Then in 2016, he set up his L’Origine La Credenza restaurant (above) in Nangang, which has become a trusted Taipei establishment, offering reliably fine dining at a very good price.
Taiwanese Andre Chiang’s RAW in Neihu is Taipei’s finest dining establishment. Included in the Diners Club World’s 50 Best Restaurants, RAW exemplifies world-class Taiwanese haute cuisine. French-trained Chiang weaves his magic by reinventing traditional Taiwanese dishes throughout his eight-course tasting menu. Showcasing the island doesn’t just end at the food, the restaurant’s minimalist decor spotlights Taiwanese timber.
The loftiest place you can eat Taiwanese cuisine in Taipei is Shin Yeh Dining, perched on the Taipei 101 skyscraper’s 85th floor. It’s the flagship restaurant of this household brand, backed by a 40-year history. Here, you can pair the stupendous views with outstanding local cooking in an exceptional setting, and indulge in abalone, braised pork belly, chicken soup, and fried rice noodles.
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Want to know what locals think is the best cocktail bar in Taipei? Wootp (above) was set up by friends who hail from Kenting, which would explain its laid-back vibe. World-class bartenders adapt the classics, such as the Zen Sazerac where the rye whiskey has been replaced by Yamazaki whisky and sandalwood-infused vodka.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to drink with Taipei’s broadest mix of nationalities, then visit the two-storey Revolver at Chiang Kai Shek MRT. Set up by four Brits in 2010, and named after a Beatles album, rock ‘n’ roll Revolver has live music gigs, draft and craft beers, and a no-Coldplay policy.
The Marco Polo Lounge at Shangri La’s Far Eastern Plaza Taipei is reserved for those in the know. From the 38th and top floor, it has mesmerising views of Taipei including Taipei 101, which it exploits through magnificent windows that curve upwards from the floor to the bar’s double ceiling. It is rather like sitting on an observation deck looking on the world.
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The lesser-known Fujin Street is one of Taipei’s leafiest neighbourhoods, characterised by exquisite boutiques, lush pocket parks, and romantic European-style cafes with alfresco seating. It has the air of somewhere other than Taiwan and is shaded by huge, 80-year-old banyan and gum trees. Home to Taiwanese designer group Fujin Tree, which sells clothes, accessories, interiors and coffee; Beher cooking school and locally sourced food store; vintage curiosity shop Fun Fun Town (above); and tea, coffee and wine emporium Aroma Corner, this delightful pocket of Taipei is bordered by Guangfu South Road, Sanmin Road, and Minquan East and Minsheng East roads. It also includes one of the few community gardens in Taipei.
Shop till you drop on Songzhi Street in Taipei’s glitzy Xinyi commercial district. Almost anything you could desire can be purchased, drunk or eaten along this street, stretching past the high-end Taipei 101 Mall and the middle-range Att4Fun Mall with its pedestrianised boulevard to the funky Commune A7, a community of alternative bars and restaurants housed in shipping containers.
For Taipei’s best souvenirs, quirky gear and designer stationery head to the phenomenal Eslite Bookstore in the Xinyi district. It’s Taiwan’s largest bookshop with more than a million books and exquisite gifts. Although it calls itself a bookstore, it is more than that, with lifestyle and fashion items offered as well. With restaurants on the top floor and a food court in the second basement, you could find it all too easy to spend a full day here.
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The world’s tallest tower until 2010, the iconic Taipei 101 is the capital’s defining landmark. It was listed as one of the BBC’s eight most beautiful skyscrapers in 2015 and, with an earthquake-proof 508m height, is an engineering feat. A food court and Din Tai Fung restaurant are in the basement, with high-end retail and dining across another four floors. Owning the single largest collection of Chinese art anywhere in the world, the National Palace Museum is a must-see for anyone interested in Chinese culture. The precious artefacts dating from the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties were originally housed in Beijing and Nanjing in China, and then shipped to Taiwan in more than 3,000 containers by the Chinese Nationalists after the World War II.
Taipei’s two Cultural and Creative Parks, called Huashan 1914 and Songshan (above), showcase Taiwan’s most progressive new arts and aim to preserve its cultural heritage. Huashan 1914 occupies a disused Japanese wine factory, while Songshan is housed in an old tobacco factory. Both offer dining and wonderful open spaces to hang out in.
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A visit to Taipei isn’t complete without jostling through a heaving, chaotic night market. At foodie-blogger heaven Raohe Night Market (above), you can easily eat a three-course meal on your feet, including the famous “burn-your-mouth” pepper buns. The Rainbow Bridge, Ciyou Temple, and wholesale clothing district Wufenpu nearby make this an entire evening out.
About an hour from central Taipei, Danshui was Taiwan’s largest port until the 19th century. Locals love Danshui for its river, sunsets, wharf, waterfront cafes, and Old Street, which make it the perfect place for an evening stroll. Street food and souvenirs are aplenty. A Danshui speciality is tie dan (“iron egg” in English) – quail or chicken eggs which have been stewed for hours in fermented bean paste, soy sauce, sugar and spices until they turn black. Boat trips to Bali and the Dutch Red Fort are also draws.
Take a break from the city and jump on the Maokong Gondola – a 4-km funicular stretching from Taipei Zoo in Muzha up to the capital’s largest teahouse and tea-growing community of Maokong on Getou Mountain. The elevation reaches about 300m and the glass-bottomed ‘crystal cars’ provide spectacular, uninterrupted bird’s-eye views of the surrounding mountains. Take some time out to sip on cold tea infusions or traditional tea in one of the quaint teahouses on the mountain.
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Singapore Airlines flies twice daily non-stop from Singapore to Taipei.
By Yin Khvat, SilverKris.com, January 23, 2018
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