From fancy eateries to back alley bars and cafés to verdant mountain peaks, Taipei has a lot going for it
Taipei used to be one of Asia’s most congested and smog-ridden cities. But those days are long gone thanks to the city’s Swiss-watch precision and ever-expanding metro system. While taxis are relatively inexpensive, the fastest, greenest and still cheapest way to get around the city is what the locals call the MRT. The 48-hour Taipei Metro Pass costs about USD9 (RM39) and is good for unlimited use throughout its coded technicoloured spaghetti string route map.
The Big Ride
For a more leisurely street view look at Taipei’s byzantine food and shopping back alleys, ditch the MRT for YouBike. The public bicycle sharing service is one of Asia’s best. It costs only about USD0.15 per half hour and has hundreds of bike stations littered throughout the city to drop off and pick up bikes.
Taiwan’s capital is lodged in a valley ringed by surprisingly pretty mountains. Walking and hiking treks are ubiquitous, but some of the best and most readily accessible spots are in Yangmingshan National Park in the north of the city. Get your primal on by heading into the jungle and conquering day hikes with names such as Seven Stars Peak, Elephant Mountain and The Four Beasts.
WHAT TO DO
For Art’s Sake
The National Palace Museum is the less-known museum of the ‘Big Four’, with the others residing in New York, London and Paris. It is home to the world’s greatest Chinese art collection and is a compulsory destination for anyone experiencing Taipei for the first time. The museum only contains about three percent of the collection, and exhibits are changed on a seasonal basis. Guided tours are available every day.
Oh, What A View!
Taipei 101, which briefly held the title of the world's tallest building, provides dramatic views of the city and the rivers that dissect it below and the mountains that ring it in the distance. It has the usual conveniences for tourists such as an observation deck, a café, souvenir shop and others.
If fine-quality locally grown tea, mountains and Crystal Cabin gondola rides are your thing, head to Taipei Zoo in Mucha and catch one of the cabins with being pulled up to the Maokong village. Here, stunning views, good food and sublime organic teas await.
The Big Reel
Spot Theater in Huashan Creative Park was built from the husk of an old packaging factory and is run by Malaysian-born Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, a seminal Venice, Berlin and Cannes Film Festival favourite who has a well-deserved reputation for pushing cinematic boundaries. The theatre runs festival, art-house shorts, animation and documentaries from around the globe.
RAW is an eatery by local boy-cum-Singapore transplant André Chiang. Chiang, whose Andre’s eatery is often listed at the top of Asia’s Top 50, opened the 60-seat spot, which is packed throughout the week as chefs reinterpret many of Taiwan’s most recognisable mom-and-pop offerings. RAW bills itself as a champion of Taiwanese produce and serves up pretty little plates and semi-seasonal tasting menus.
Check out 22 Design, which worships steel and concrete so much its entire line is stocked with bespoke timepieces, writing tools and jewellery made from the hard stuff. Its Contour Mechanical Pencil is as rigidly beautiful as it is unbreakable.
Visit A Night Market
The granddaddy of all Taiwanese Night Markets is in Shilin. While it's a fantastic sight to behold with all the noise, colour, food and people you would expect from a city that seems to be constantly eating, head to the smaller and better Tonghua Night Market in Da An District. Favourites include stinky tofu, handcrafted Taiwanese sausage and Tainan oyster omelettes.
Aloft Taipei Beitou Hotel, the second to open in the capital, is nestled in the century-old hot spring destination of Beitou. The 292-room tech-heavy hotel is a stone’s throw from some of the city’s best hot springs and mountain trails but close enough to reach the city via the MRT within 15 minutes.
Da An District
A maze of crisscross alleys in the beating heart of Taipei that is home to French patisseries, film studios, eclectic boutiques, outdoor cafés, and 24-hour bookstores. By night, it comes alive with craft cocktail bars and Japanese whiskey spots.
Xin Yi District
This steel and glass central business district literally sprang up from rice paddies. Its now home to Taiwan’s most expensive real estate, where billionaires live side by side with tech moguls and pop stars. It’s also a thriving shopping district by day and flashy clubbing spot when the sun goes down.
MIND YOUR MANNERS
Keep Calm And Move On
Buddhist and Taoist notions are omnipresent. Generally speaking, the capital’s residents are a mild and unassuming lot, who are averse to confrontation or public displays of anger. If you find yourself in a disagreement, keep your cool and move on. While eating, make sure to not place chopsticks in bowls, which represents incense to the spirits, and try and hold off on taking the last piece of food on shared dining plates – no matter how good it is.
The Long Line
This is a city where people seem to take some public etiquette seriously and others with a large grain of indifference. For example: always queue up and wait your turn at restaurants and stores and say, “excuse me” if you bump into someone. However, drivers waiting for pedestrians on crossings or people holding doors open for you are as common as Full Moons.
One New Taiwan Dollar equals about 3.3 US cents. Coins start at $1, then $5, then $50. Notes are available in $100, $500, $1,000 and rare $2,000 denominations.
Beat the Heat
Taipei is one of the wettest and most humid cities on the planet. Summer runs from June to August, with average temperatures hovering around 30°Celsius. Always carry an umbrella because, as they say, when it rains, it pours.
Ultimate Travel App
Taipei Maps and Walks offers self-guided walks featuring the best of the city, from world-famous attractions to hidden gems. Highlights include Zhongzheng District; Taipei’s museums and art galleries; city orientation tours and shopping guides. Anyone who doesn’t speak Mandarin should download Pleco. It not only acts as a dictionary but also serves as a document reader and has a flash card system to help you learn the language throughout the process.