A few weeks ago I was in Taiwan and had the chance to explore this island – and there was a lot to discover. We drove from the Northern tip of the country into the heart of it and saw incredible places along the way. I am still overwhelmed by the impressions I gathered in Taiwan.
We were fortunate to have an awesome travel guide who showed us the most beautiful spots, but we also had a few days to let ourselves drift through the scenery on our own. That way we saw the most important sights but also had a sense of adventure and real exploration. I took tons of photos and learned so much during this trip that I decided to split up my Taiwan guide into three installments.
– 11 Things, you need to see in Taiwan, which includes the 10 things that left the strongest impression on me
– A Taiwan guide with all the important information and tips you need for a successful trip
funny/beautiful/strange/impressive – random facts on the country, its people and our trip
So, without further ado, let’s jump right in while the memory is still fresh!
These 11 tips will make your Taiwan trip unforgettable:
One of my personal highlights, hands down, was the Taroko National Park in the east of the island. The road trip to that destination itself is worth a mention – it’s absolutely beautiful how the street follows the Pacific coastline. You cruise with the ocean on one side, and high mountains on the other. It’s a little bit like Highway 1 in California, only with an Asian touch and more curves – much more curves.
Taiwan is a mountainous island, which means you can find yourselves in quite high altitudes, The Taroko National Park is located 3700 meters above sea level.
But what makes this sanctuary so special?
Well, first of all there are these gigantic, incredibly steep canyons and marble mountains. The whole park is actually named after one of them – the Taroko canyon. It’s a deep gorge, hollowed out by the Liwu river at its bottom, which cut its way through the marble stone. Crossing it is an adventure!
The impressive marble landscape is dotted with shrines and pagodas. One of these, the Shrine of Eternal Spring, stands out in articular. It was built above a waterfall to honor the workers that died during the construction of the close by motorway. This entire leg of our journey was among the most beautiful for me, as we really saw a lot of the island itself.
By the way: even though the Taiwanese literally sit on all this marble, they refuse to exploit it economically. Marble quarrying just would not be compatible with the islanders’ principles and their sense of deep connection with nature. They choose to leave the landscape as it is. How fantastic is that?
The cat village had a top spot on my list – not very surprising, I know you know how much I love cats. Houtong used to be a town that lived off coal mining, until that industry slowly declined, and with it the place itself. And then came the cats. The took over this little village close to Taipei, and over time word of this invasion spread and the village became a popular tourist destination. There were cats everywhere, tame and unimpressed with their visitors, just doing their thing.
Initially I was a bit concerned and wondered whether the cats there would be exploited or somehow mistreated, but if anything it’s the other way around – they pretty much do what they want! One meow and food is served. It’s always clear that the inhabitants of the village are real cat lovers, the whole place is full with stalls selling cat souvenirs ranging from pastries to socks. Even the actual village planning reflects the special relationship the place has with its furry co-inhabitants: cat lamps, cobbled stones with little paw tracks and cat sculptures on the roofs – it’s a theme world. The place was paradise for me. If I ever turn into a crazy cat lady this would be the village to settle, among people who understand me.
Jiufen is a little mountain village just outside of Taipei. It’s a tiny settlement with an unbelievable view over the ocean and close by mountains, pretty much exactly what I envisioned an Asian village to look like: small, narrow alleys, temples and tea houses. I’m not alone with that assessment, apparently the place is a popular filming location and featured in many productions, which also makes it a popular destination for film buffs. While I didn’t know any of the films that were shot here, the beauty of the village was undeniable. Above all I highly recommend a visit to one of the plentiful tea houses with their nice terraces. Drink a cup of precious tea, and experience a tea break that feels more like a ceremonious ritual!
By the way: the village is extremely photogenic, the perfect spot for some pictures. And it’s just a stone’s throw from the cat village! :)
Taipei Financial Center (Taipei 101) is the seventh highest building in the world. Until 2007 it actually claimed the top spot, and until 2013 it held the record for the fastest elevators worldwide. The building houses mainly offices, with a little viewing platform on the 89th floor. In addition to the 101 floors the building also has 5 underground floors.
What really stands out about this building is the architectural feat of its construction. Taiwan is located between the Eurasian and the Philippine tectonic plates, which makes it particularly prone to heavy earthquakes. The skyscraper needed to be constructed in a way that would absorb these shockwaves and to withstand occasional typhoons on top of it. To call that a challenge would be putting it lightly. But the architects found a great solution: the supporting frame of the building was modeled on a bamboo cane, and a huge steel ball on the inside balances out any shocks the building is subjected to. It is also interesting to note that the structure itself resembles a pagoda, and was constructed in accordance with Feng Shui principles. Tradition meets technology, indeed.
By the way: if you’re there, don’t miss the dumpling restaurant at the ground floor. We heard they make the best dumplings in town, and I can only confirm it from our personal experience!
If you are in Taiwan, you should definitely visit one of the bustling night markets. Unlike in many parts of Europe, the Taiwanese seem to really come alive when it gets dar. What we know as the occasional street food market in the western world is a daily occurrence in Taiwan, a lively celebration of a wide range of cuisines. The Taiwanese have a big thing for neon signs, which literally turn the night into day over there. The markets are known far and wide for their excellent quality of food, which is strictly regulated. Vendors are in fact subject to stringent and frequent controls. Obviously there is a plenty of tasty food on offer (sweet potato flakes!), but also all kinds of merchandise. One of the best night markets is the one in Shilin.
By the way: If you ask yourselves what’s up with the sometimes slightly foul smell: that’s stinky tofu, sort of a specialty, loved to bits by many Taiwanese. I was courageous enough to try it. Maybe that’s how a Taiwanese person would feel about Gorgonzola :D
Sun Moon Lake
This lake is named after its shape: the eastern part brings up association of the sun with its rays, while the western part narrows into a moon-like crescent shape. The lake is very large and located in the center of the island, 760 meters above sea level. The water has an intense emerald or turquoise color which is so radiant that it almost seems artificial. I have never seen anything like it.
This unique, romantic atmosphere and the pleasant climate are the reasons why the lake is the most popular domestic destination among Taiwanese people. It is especially popular for honeymoons. Can’t blame ’em, they know what’s pretty on their island!
Snowflake Ice Cream and Bubble Tea
Apart from the famous dumplings, snowflake ice is probably the best known Taiwanese food specialty. And then there is bubble tea, of course, which was invented in Taiwan. Snowflake ice has a very soft texture consisting of thin fibers that somehow look like snowflakes. I loved the variant with mango sauce and chunks. Tasty!!
I think bubble tea probably doesn’t need much of an introduction at this point. If you’re looking for the real deal, the original, then Taichung is the place. I’m not a huge fan when in Germany, but it was just obvious that it’s much tastier in its country of origin
Taiwan is part of a volcanic island chain, which explains the many hot springs, which are a real attraction. The water in those hot springs is crystal clear and is said to possess healing properties. Especially the north of the island boasts many of these springs, and it’s an integrated part of local culture to visit them once in a while.
There are a number of public ones, and sometimes hotels have integrated hot springs as well. During our stay at Sun Moon Lake we were in a hotel that even pumped hot spring water all the way into the rooms, so we could enjoy a proper hot spring bath with a view over the lake. Relaxation level: 1000.
After the civil war in China, the entire government of the losing side fled to Taiwan, and took with it the most precious treasures. That’s why the National Palace Museum is one of the most impressive museums for Chinese art in the world today, housing one of the biggest collections in the field. Even though the exhibition is huge and spans many floor, the collection is so big the items on display are regularly changed.
I was particularly impressed with the small-scale artisanal works that were done so skillfully and at such a tiny scale that they almost seemed like 3D printed objects. Hard to believe that they were handmade. The production processes for some of these items are so arcane and difficult that they are in fact lost – no one would be able to produce similar work without the help of technology these days. Little insights like this make this collection spanning almost 8000 years of history all the more impressive and rewarding.
Did you know that two thirds of Taiwan consists of mountains, some of them really steep and almost 4000 meters high? As a point of comparison: the German Zugspitze is less than 3000 meters high. Taiwan is a paradise for hikers and adventurers. There are plenty of hiking routes, but it makes sense to do some research while planning your trip – for some of the routes it is mandatory to have a free Mountain Pass, which are issued as a means to monitor who is using the more dangerous paths.
But I guarantee you: the spectacular view on the landscape, the mountains ans the ocean is completely worth the effort, trust me!