Visitors order the oyster omelet and the Taiwanese sausage at Taipei’s famous Shilin Night Market. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Located at the top of Taiwan like a crown, Taipei doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Though also modern and global, Taipei city — home to more than 2.6 million — is consistently overshadowed by the likes of Tokyo and Hong Kong. That’s a shame for tourism, but a treat for visitors, who will find that the underrated national capital hits all the right buttons for a balanced urban adventure.
For culture, spirituality and history, the city’s popular museums and immersive culinary experiences teach visitors about Taiwan’s unique past. And even with so much living tradition, the city’s modern advances and attractions are equally exceptional, with special options for all sorts, from the closet singer to the night owl bookworm.
The National Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall
After arriving to Taipei via public transit (consistently voted one of the world’s best transportation systems), make the short walk to Memorial Hall Square. Home to the city’s most grandiose architecture, the square features the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, flanked by the National Theater and the National Concert Hall.
As the start of the hour approaches, head to the top of the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial for a changing of the guards ceremony. Then take the elevator into the museum, which documents key moments in Chiang Kai-Shek’s life.
Understanding Chiang Kai-Shek’s rule over Taiwan is due diligence for any visitor to Taiwan, and provides rich insight into the country and its people. Artifacts include paintings, preserved automobiles and even Chiang’s old office — including matching light pink furniture and an eerily lifelike replica of Chiang himself.
Mengjia Longshan Temple
Built in 1738 by immigrants from China’s Fujian province, this polytheistic temple is one of Taiwan’s oldest and most ornate buildings, featuring a waterfall at its entrance. Natural disasters and wars have led to several restorations, but the temple still teems with life, prayer and various scents, coming from sacrificial food and thick clouds of devotional incense.
Din Tai Fung
After visiting one of the oldest parts of town — perhaps with a detour to the infamous Snake Alley — head to the newest part of town surrounding Taipei 101 for lunch. Din Tai Fung just opened its fourth location in the U.S. — a third Southern California storefront in the city of Glendale — but that doesn’t mean the Taiwanese chain’s Taiwan locations are any less popular.
Located in the shopping area of the Taipei 101 building, Din Tai Fung is surrounded by several shops and kiosks. Even with reservations, it’s likely that you will have to wait for your table, so try out some signature milky teas at Deli 101, which pair well with bite-sized samples of pineapple cake.
Save plenty of room for Din Tai Fung’s famous xiaolongbao (soup dumplings,) oversized stuffed buns and other perfect combinations of carbohydrates, proteins and vegetables. There is so much fanfare over the dumplings that diners even watch and photograph the chefs in the middle of the room. Clad in white aprons, face masks and chef hats, they hardly look up — kneading, rolling and steaming with the same focus of the devotees at the temple.
You might want to allow your meal to settle before heading to the observation deck of Taipei 101, Taiwan’s tallest building. Though no longer the tallest building in the world, the LEED-certified building is home to the world’s fastest elevator. A live electronic panel counts the seconds it takes for the elevator to make its climb.
After the 30-second journey up, visitors are treated to the best views of the city. Audio sets are available to rent, and can be helpful for spotting local attractions. If you can’t avoid ascending the tower on a day with poor visibility, don’t despair — there are photo exhibits, a coral museum and shop and a close-up view of a 730-ton steel ball, the building’s noteworthy tune massed damper. Said to cut down on the building’s swaying by 40 percent, the damper keeps the building seismically safe and exciting to be in during an earthquake, apparently.
Shilin Night Market Dinner
There are night markets throughout the neighborhoods of Taipei, but the most famous market in the city is the Shilin Night Market. Occupying several streets and a new centralized food court, the market is perhaps the most exciting food and nightlife experience in all of Taiwan. Visitors are only tasked with trying as much food as possible — a deceivingly difficult task if you are not spacing out portions, sharing dishes and devouring the eye candy: swarms of locals and tourists ordering, eating and socializing.
Try the stinky tofu, and avoid the ripe pineapple. Here’s my somewhat surprising advice on what to eat and what to avoid at the night markets in Taipei.
Singing may or may not be your thing, but luckily only your close friends need to know at KTV (karaoke television). There are several different KTV chains located throughout the city, but the premise is the same: private rooms equipped with a television, a microphone and a list of songs, with plenty of food and liquid courage available to order.
Occupying huge office-looking buildings nearly everywhere, KTV is a very popular pastime in Taipei. Many opt to conclude their night at KTV, and the chain Cash Box KTV is even open 24 hours.
The National Palace Museum
Depending on what time you start your day, you might want to go somewhere for a proper Taiwanese breakfast of salty soy milk, fried dough sticks and egg pancakes, or for a lunch of Taiwan’s famous beef noodle soup.
Then clear a few hours what some consider the Louvre of Asia, the National Palace Museum. The seemingly overwhelming permanent collection of 696,000 pieces is well managed, allowing visitors to appreciate more than 8,000 years of Chinese history, as well as a variety of art forms, from calligraphy to jade carvings.
There’s something for every interest, as well as some truly engaging pieces. My favorites were those that seemed a little low-brow — a glass display case showcasing what looks like a slab of raw meat, “The Meat-shaped Stone” was a must-see, along with the Jadeite Cabbage, a vast collection of snuff boxes and one of the most amazing displays of human talent I have ever seen: detailed figures carved out of real (read: very small) olive pits.
Witnessing a huge group of mainland Chinese tourists in headsets encircling “The Meat-shaped Stone” was rather bizarre, but perhaps the most eccentric element of Taipei is its themed restaurants.
At Barbie Cafe, Barbie’s silhouette towers over everything, and is even stamped onto the pastel colored macaroons. Catering to tourists and, oddly enough, local couples, the rest of Barbie Cafe’s menu is pretty typical and overpriced with a minimum meal spend. But, then again, the chairs are pink and adorned with ballerina-like tutus and the daintily costumed servers’ sport white face masks. In other words, Barbie Cafe is a sight to behold — whether or not you’re a Barbie fan.
On the other end of the spectrum of themed restaurants is Modern Toilet, which is, as you may have guessed, potty-themed. More kitschy than disgusting, Modern Toilet also caters to tourists. Giving us directions, a teenage girl on the street said “Oh, that restaurant is terrible.” But, we had to see it for ourselves, and we knew there was no turning back when we spotted the building. Even in Ximending, where funky youth culture prevails, a giant plastic toilet sticking out from a facade is hard to miss.
Our server guided us through the menu of curries, teas and ice shavings in nearly perfect English as we got comfortable on our own (non-functioning) toilet seats. We ordered three ice shavings and received three gigantic squat-toilet-bowls of ice, topped with jellies, wafers, ice cream, frozen yogurt and other candies. Each serving followed theme and, much to our horror/delight, a color scheme: one was red, one was yellow and one was brown.
Though there are other themed restaurants in Taipei — including a jail-themed cafe and a hospital-themed restaurant — two was more than enough for my group. And, while the themes certainly make for a novel way to spend some time, it really isn’t worth it to quench more than your curiosity at these venues. Save your appetite for the high-quality dining options found pretty much everywhere else.
After subjecting yourself to pee-colored ice, the largest bookstore chain in Taiwan, Eslite Books is a perfect retreat. The Dunhua Road location is a cozy, laid-back spot to spend a few hours or perhaps the night, as it is open for 24 hours. Scattered among the titles are some English books and magazines, and you’ll be doing as the locals do by picking out your book, finding a free spot on the ground and reading as much as you like. It’s a great cover for fantastic people watching, not to mention a nice break from seeing the sights. And, just like in American bookstores, the magazine section is the most densely populated area, and there’s a well-appointed cafe if you never want to leave.