With Japan to the north, the Philippines to the south and China to the west, the little island of Taiwan occupies a unique position as a crossroads of the east, and is relatively uncharted territory for backpackers. Yet its reputation for cultural diversity and openness to travellers means it should be a lot higher on the list of places to see and go in Asia.
Little bit of background
Taiwan is an independent sovereign state of 23 million just off the coast of mainland China. The country is also known as Ilha Formosa, ‘the Beautiful Isle’, thanks to the Portuguese explorers who named it so when they first came across it in the 16th century. One look, and it’s easy to see why. Pristine white beaches give way to tropical woodlands and marble-walled gorges cut through misty mountains. Step back in time in temple-centric towns, scale natural wonders, shop until you drop in dizzying street markets and experience a vibrant, contemporary capital city. Taiwan has all the makings of a really great backpacking destination.
Where to go and what to see in Taiwan
Taiwan’s several thousand-year history has been moulded by progress, regression and oppression. It’s currently undergoing a cultural revolution which makes it a really exciting place to be. The culture there is a heady blend of traditional Chinese values, rampant commercialism, Japanese colonialism and impressive technological advancement.
A visit to Longshan Temple, in Taipei, the capital, is a great way of experiencing this melting-pot of cultures in one place. Built over 200 years ago and home to more than a hundred gods, it’s the beating heart of Taiwanese religious beliefs. The stunning temple and its enclosures are an eclectic mix of architectural styles, testament to past conquerors and an ongoing battle against the elements – it’s been destroyed by monsoons and earthquakes many times.
The shopping district of Ximending in Taipei is definitely worth a few hours of exploration – not even to buy anything but just to soak up the atmosphere and surroundings, some of it totally bonkers. The nearby Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall is impressive, as is the Huaxi Night Market – the place to be if you want to try the local snake’s blood delicacy. I declined, but you go ahead.
Other cities and towns
Taiwan’s many smaller cities and towns are wonderful places to experience a softer side to the country.
Taichung, on the west coast, is Taiwan’s industrial capital but it’s also home to some interesting attractions, like the science and earthquake museums, and enjoys some of the best weather anywhere on the island.
Not far from Taichung is one of Taiwan’s oldest towns, Lukang,commonly called a ‘living museum’. Frozen in time, this little town is a maze of cobbled streets, Aladdin’s cave shops and some of the most beautiful temples you’ll ever see. It’s a great place to spend a day and you’ll come away feeling thoroughly cultured!
My number one recommendation for sights to see in Taiwan, is the Taroko Gorge. It is incredible. This phenomenon of nature, near Hualien, had me all emotional at the beauty in the world. I went on a tour, but you could rent a moped and make your way up there yourself. More than a few times we were right on the precipice, and I wouldn’t recommend looking down.
My second favourite thing was to hire a moped in Kenting, in south Taiwan, and ride around the beachside towns, lookout points and temples. It was awesome. I went for sushi down at the Houbihu Marina – you can’t get it fresher, or better – and had dinner at the Kenting Night Market. There was barely any traffic on the roads and just beautiful scenery every way I looked.
And the third favourite was to hire a bike and cycle round Kenting. I found a natural spa where I bathed in the different pools in the heat of the February sun, and just lazed about garnering the energy to cycle home.
When to visit Taiwan
Most travellers visit Taiwan during the British autumn and winter months. At this time of year monthly average temperatures are still a respectable15 to 20°C across the island. Over the summer months highs of 35°C are quite common, making May to July a good time to visit if you’re planning to hike and bike in the mountains or get out on the water.
Getting around Taiwan
Taiwan has two international airports, one very close to the capital, Taipei. The Taiwanese regularly fly between the island’s major cities but it’s expensive so backpackers tend to use the efficient and good-value train or bus networks.
In Taiwan’s cities, taxis are plentiful and cheap but away from the bright lights they are scarce – get a driver’s number in case you need it. The Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) metro in Taipei and Kaohsiung is clean, safe and reliable. Owing to massively congested roads it’s also a much quicker way to travel. Operating from 6am to midnight, seven days a week, fares start from 20 TWD (about 40p) up to 65 TWD (around £1.30) providing a really cheap and easy way to get around.
Finding accommodation in Taiwan
In Taipei, most hostels are centrally located around Taipei’s train station, meaning backpackers are just a few minutes walk from all the city’s main attractions.
Prices start from just £6 (300 TWD) for a private room at the Fun Taipei (Wenlin Road) at Shilin Night Market, with air conditioning, complimentary toiletries and breakfast.
If you crave home comforts, stay at the Flip Flop Hostel on Huayin Street. For £15 a night (750 TWD) you’ll get a private room with free wifi, freshly ground coffee (whoop!), air-con, a locker, round-the-clock hot water and communal kitchen facilities. Situated in an old railway building, the hostel has been thoughtfully renovated into a flash and funky space.
Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second city, is 220 miles from Taipei on the direct opposite side of the island. Chez Kiki (from 850 TWD / £17 per night for a private room) is a great alternative for those wanting to get away from the thrum of the city. All Kaohsiung’s major attractions, including the night markets and the famous 250m tall Sky Tower, are within 15 minutes walk. Rooms in this spotless hostel all have air conditioning, WiFi and lockers, plus four communal lounges, a rooftop terrace and two well-equipped kitchens.
Eating in Taiwan
With Chinese, Japanese and Singaporean influences, you’ll be overwhelmed with the vast choice and outstanding quality of food on offer. It’s a gastronomic paradise!
For the Taiwanese, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Distinctly Chinese in their breakfast traditions, they fill up on toast, buttermilk pancakes, fried crullers (a type of pastry) with hot soya milk, and steamed pork dumplings. Breakfast shops are a bit of a thing in Taiwan and you’ll see them everywhere. In Taipei, the YongHe Dou Jiang Da Wang chain (look for the red and white signs) offer delicious, good value breakfasts 24 hours a day.
By far the cheapest way to eat out is to eat at the night markets or from street vendors – dishes cost around 40 TWD (around 80p) each. Most vendors sell only one or two dishes, but they are freshly made to order. You’ll soon find your favourite.
Beef noodles are really popular and some of the best can be sampled in Taipei at Lin Dong Fang (BaDe Road) or the famous Ay-Chung Noodle Shop (Ximen, Emei Street) where locals queue round the block for their noodle fix.I queued for ages, I tried it, and I’d happily do it again.
Shopping in Taiwan
The shopping in Taipei is easily on a par with Western cities; expensive boutiques and vast shopping malls abound. But you’re in Asia, you’re on a budget, you should experience something you can’t at home… forget the palpitation-inducing price tags and do something different.
Night markets are a uniquely Asian phenomenon not to be missed. At a night market, it’s not about splashing the cash, it’s about feeling the unique vibe – they’re crazy, thrilling, special places unlike anywhere back home.
Taipei is home to several night markets but my favourite was Shilin Night Market. Unlike many open air night markets, much of Shilin is underground – its sheer size drove it off the streets a few years ago. It’s a great place to spend an evening people-watching, browsing for souvenirs and munching on an endless supply of street food. Located opposite the MRT Jiantan stop, it opens at 4pm until late.
For a unique memento of your trip, Taipei’s Holiday Jade Market (Jianguo Overpass) is a fascinating place. If you like jewellery, trinkets or religious keepsakes, give it a go but remember to barter for any purchases. The jade market is open daily but if you go at the weekend you can visit a weekly flower market here too.
Top five experiences in Taiwan
1. Take tea overlooking the sea in the pretty mountainside town of Jiufen – you’ll soon understand why it’s called the Santorini of Taiwan. It’s super busy though so be sure to go on a weekday.
2. No trip to Taiwan is complete without a visit to the world-famous Sun Moon Lake (Yuchi Township, Nantou). Yes, it’s touristy but it’s well worth braving the crowds as beyond the usual haunts there’s space for everyone to enjoy the beautiful views and grab some ‘me time’.
3. Take the MRT from downtown Taipei to Beitou and follow the hot river to the thermal spring, then choose a hotel spa and enjoy a luxurious dip for less than £20 for two.
4. Take the train to Haulien, stay overnight, and hike or bike the exotic and amazing Taroko Gorge. A word of advice: on the way there, don’t look down!
5. Have coffee at the highest Starbucks in the world – if you can find it. Located at the famous Taipei-101 shopping mall it’s on the 35th floor and can only be accessed by using a special free pass you can obtain from the lobby of the building. Clue: use the SongZhi Street entrance!