A guided tour off-the-beaten-path in old Tamsui.
The historic town of Tamsui (sometimes spelled Danshui), which stretches along the northeastern shore of the Tamsui River, is taking on a new on life from efforts to preserve its past while creating new opportunities for tourism and cultural development. With a little planning, a visitor can escape the large crowds of tourists congregating on its popular “Old Street” and instead explore the small lanes, beautiful buildings, and historic features that have been spared both the tourist onslaught and the wrecking ball.
Tamsui is best enjoyed on foot. This article introduces a walking tour of about 6.5 kilometers in length, though those looking for a shorter visit can pick and choose what they would like to see.
We begin our tour at Tamsui’s MRT station, with its golden roof and red-brick façade. The station has an excellent visitors’ center, which can provide maps and other useful information. After exiting the station, turn left and head north toward “Old Street,” officially known as Zhongzheng Street, until reaching the Fuyou Temple (1). The temple was the heart of the early Chinese settlement of the area. As you face the temple, the steps on the right (between the temple and the tea shop) lead up to what locals consider to be the oldest street in Tamsui: Chungjian Street. Ascend the steps to escape the crowds and enter Tamsui’s true “Old Street.”
Community activists helped spare this street from the ever-present developers, and are working hard to keep it a living and vibrant lane. On the second weekend of each month (sometimes the third), Chung-jian Street hosts a popular street market. For those events, local residents set up small stalls filled with a broad array of items. People of all ages scramble up and down the rather steep hill on which the street is built, chatting, taking pictures, and generally having a good time.
As you walk up the steps and reach about the midway point on Chungjian Street, you’ll see a sign in English on the right identifying the “Lane of Love.” Proceeding down the Lane of Love past two old brick residences, you’ll quickly arrive at Qingshui Street.
A right turn on Qingshui Street will bring you to the intricately designed Qingshui Zushi Temple (2), which overlooks the old small lanes of Tamsui. By continuing to walk in a circular direction around the temple, you’ll come to a split in the path on the other side. The path next to the temple that rises slightly will complete a loop that comes out at Chungjian Street, very near where you entered the Lane of Love. Be sure to take a look back at this point to see the gentle roofing of Fuyou Temple below, framed by the Tamsui River and Guanyin Mountain in the distance.
Along all of these paths, the walls lining the streets are decorated with photographs, chalk drawings, and murals – all reflective of the activist artistic spirit of this small but energetic neighborhood.
Continuing the walk up Chungjian Street will bring you to several small shops that line this narrow roadway. These include an artistically oriented teahouse at #28, and the delicately named “Herbs Maison.” An old structure at #31 serves as a Chinese medicine shop. Walking down this street provides a glimpse of what Tamsui’s neighborhoods looked like before the modernization wave.
Chungjian Street eventually reaches Wenhua Road. Although you may continue on up Chungjian Street to enjoy additional older buildings, for this tour take a left from Chungjian onto Wenhua. At the first intersection you reach, head uphill on Zhenli Street.
At the top of the hill, you’ll see several shops selling one of Tamsui’s most famous confections, a dish known as agei that consists of a hollowed fried tofu shell filled with cellophane (glass) noodles and flavored with meat paste and broth. One agei and a serving of doujiang (soy milk) should cost you about NT$50. Most of the shops close shortly after lunch time.
Just beyond the shops on the left side is one of the most beautiful buildings in Tamsui, the Tamsui Customs Officers’ Residence (3), nicknamed the “Little White House.” Residences for customs officers were first built on the site in 1866. This colonial-style building was scheduled for destruction by the Ministry of Finance in 1995, but local citizens rallied to save it. The site has been beautifully restored, and is the background for many a wedding photo. The elegant arches and red brick walls call to mind the grace of an earlier time.
From the front lawn, one has a beautiful view of the Tamsui River and the gentle slopes of Guanyin Mountain beyond. Three large holes in the ground behind the residence carry the modern interpretation that they were caused by the explosion of French shells fired from ships in the river. Large banyan trees in the back offer a comfortable place to rest.
Facing you on the other side of the road, from right to left, are an elementary school, junior high school and senior high school. The New Taipei Private Tam-Kang High School is of particular interest. If lunch time or other school activities don’t prevent you from entering, register at the front gate (a passport or Taiwan ID is generally needed) and head toward the back of the school grounds.
You’ll walk down a beautiful tree-lined lane. The buildings on the campus are both historic and attractive. On the left you’ll see the Octagonal Tower, built by the Japanese in 1925. At the very back of the grounds is a gymnasium, and to the right are the burial plots of Dr. George Leslie Mackay and his family. Dr. Mackay was a Presbyterian Minister who began his work in Tamsui in 1872, and is an important figure in Tamsui’s, as well as Taiwan’s, history. Adjacent to the Mackay family cemetery is the “Foreigners Cemetery”. This is a small cemetery, with the first grave tracing back to 1867.
After going back to the school’s entrance, across the street you’ll see an old Chinese building with a swallow-tailed roof. Continue down the road, and on your right you’ll soon see a series of buildings that trace their origins to Dr. Mackay. The first is the Missionaries Residence, at which male missionaries stayed. The second is Dr. Mackay’s residence. Finally, one sees the “House of Maidens,” which housed women, primarily those working at the church-sponsored female schools. The far side of the House of Maidens has a nice coffee shop with an outdoor area at which you can take a break and have some coffee and cake.
While you’re having your coffee, you can also look at the church of neighboring Aletheia University (4) (formerly Oxford University), which was founded by Dr. Mackay. If you are there between noon and 1 p.m., you may be able to enter the church in order to see and listen to its large gothic pipe organ, one of only two in Taiwan. At most times, the church is closed. Aletheia University has a beautiful campus, and also has a small museum and visitor center called Oxford College that documents the life and contributions of Dr. Mackay.
After completing your walk around the university, head down the lane in front of the church. You quickly come to a divide in the road. Here we suggest doing a loop that will allow you to see historic Fort San Domingo (5). Continue straight down the hill to the fort entrance.
Entering Fort San Domingo in Tamsui allows one to step back through 400 years of Taiwanese history. Spanish adventurers built the first Fort San Domingo on the site in 1628. In 1642 the Dutch ousted the Spanish from Taiwan, and replaced the original fort with a more robust structure. In 1661, Zheng Chenggong, also known as Koxinga, a supporter of the declining Ming Dynasty, expelled the Dutch from Taiwan and established an independent kingdom on Taiwan’s western plains. Following the death of Koxinga’s heir in 1683, the Qing Empire in China then conquered the settled portions of Taiwan, including the fort. Two centuries later, in 1863, the fort fell to the British in the Second Opium War, becoming part of the British concession, and consulate facilities were added. The British Consulate was closed by Japan during World War II. After the war, changing diplomatic structures resulted in the consulate being transferred first from Great Britain to Australia and then the United States. It was finally returned to the Republic of China in 1980. In front of the fort, the flags of all the “owners” of the site are presented in chronological order.
The fort and the associated consulate building offer an interesting glimpse back in time, with informational plaques to help visitors better understand their histories. The consulate building will also often have special exhibitions. On the pillars framing the door of the consulate building one can see the inscriptions “VR 1891,”with “VR” standing for “Victoria Regina (Queen).” The consulate has been reconstructed to look much as it did during the British period of occupancy.
Once you complete the tour of both buildings, you can continue up and to the right on the grounds. This will lead to a very small rear exit that leads you back to the Aletheia University church, and saves the effort of walking down and back up this hilly area. Walk around the front of the church and out the main exit of the university. Taking a right, you’ll have completed the loop we mentioned earlier.
As you walk down the hill again, this time you’ll take a left onto Zhenli Street, lane 4, rather than continuing down to the fort. This quiet and tree-lined street takes us behind many of the historic residences that we passed on the inward route, and allows us to avoid the crowds on the western part of Zhongzheng Street. Following the lane, you’ll reach a quaint footbridge over Wenhua Road that offers a nice view of the Tamsui River and the roofs of the city.
After crossing the bridge, the road becomes Mackay Street. Head downhill and you’ll come to a fork in the road, where actually the road in both directions is called Mackay Street. You’ll see busy Zhongzheng Street at the bottom if you go straight here, but take a left onto the other “Mackay Street” instead.
This will take you past historic buildings associated with Dr. Mackay, including Tamsui Church (6) and the old Hobe Mackay Hospital, which is now home to a coffee shop. As you come to the end of Mackay Street, which is where it meets San Min Street, you’ll see a small island in the middle of the intersection. It has benches as well as a large bust of Dr. Mackay. Feel free to sit on a bench and look at the bearded face of the good doctor.
If you look above his left ear, you’ll see wooden paneling in front of steps that lead up to a building called the Red Castle (7). The Red Castle was built during the Japanese era, and now serves as a café and restaurant. It provides a nice view of Tamsui, especially near sunset. The smoothies on the third floor are particularly good. Facing the river from the Red Castle, take the lane that goes down the hill on the left. The lane exits out near the Fuyou Temple. Taking a left here will take you back to the MRT Station.
However, rather than going directly back to the MRT Station, we suggest one more stop containing historic buildings, an arts scene and a coffee shop along the river. You can walk either down Old Street or take a lane toward the river and the riverfront walkway, which often is less crowded and more scenic. Proceed as close to the river as you wish as you go behind the MRT Station. Just past the station, the riverside walk will turn to the left as it encounters a small stream.
Continue along the walking route, and you’ll see the bike paths that come in from Hongshulin, and on the right the stone horses that welcome you to what is generally called the “Tamsui Arts and Cultural Park,” but also the “Shell Museum and Cultural Park” and also the “Shell Ware House (and Cultural Park).” If you’re thinking “shell” as on the backs of snails, you’re slightly off target. This entire area was once an oil product depot for the Royal Dutch Shell group, extending back to the late 19th century.
Once again, this is a case where community activists helped avert wholesale destruction of a historic site. The area has been turned into a rather eclectic mix of artist colony, cultural exhibit and museum of 130 years of business activities on the site.
To the right of the first building on your right, you’ll see a line of statues of gods and goddesses from Taiwan’s mix of the Buddhist and Daoist religions. Inside this rather long building one can often find a cultural exhibition.
Nearby, you’ll see several smaller buildings that house small shops and parts of the Tamsui Community University. Beyond these are some remnants of the railroad tracks that used to serve the facility, as well as a large quiet area of trees and benches that beckon one to rest and contemplate the day.
If you walk toward the river, the last of the large buildings serves two purposes. The front part is a museum detailing the history of the site, from its earliest days as a trading platform for tea and other products through its leasing to Shell for importation and distribution of oil products. It discusses Japan’s acquisition of the site after Taiwan became a Japanese colony in 1895, and the extensive bombing of the facilities in 1944 by American planes during World War II.
In the rear of that building, and leading out to a deck right on the river, is a very pleasant coffee shop. They also serve tea, beer and a good selection of cheesecakes. After a full day experiencing old and new in the historic streets of Tamsui, it offers a very relaxing (and less crowded) place to watch the sun gracefully set over the Tamsui River.
As you drink your coffee, you may also find yourself reflecting on the good people of Tamsui with whom you have spent your day. Through their vigilance and care for their city, much of what you have seen was saved from destruction. With their continued support, the old buildings of Tamsui should be around for many beautiful sunsets to come.