Tainan (the place name simply means “south Taiwan”) is already well known to tourists because of its fabulous temples, fascinating fortresses, and delicious street food.
When the summer rains cease and daytime temperatures sink from the 30-plus degrees Celsius (86-plus degrees Fahrenheit) that characterize its hot season, Taiwan enters what many consider to be the best time of year for traveling on the island.
The Tropic of Cancer crosses Taiwan just north of Tainan, the historic city that served as the political and administrative center from the arrival of the Dutch East India Company in 1624 until 1885, by which time Taiwan had long been part of China’s Qing empire. South of that line, the weather is reliably dry and comfortably sunny from October until at least March. For anyone who likes to be outdoors – whether in an urban setting or deep in the countryside – this region during this season is a perfect fit.
Tainan (the place name simply means “south Taiwan”) is already well known to tourists because of its fabulous temples, fascinating fortresses, and delicious street food. The pace of life here is far slower than in Taipei, and a great many visitors are happy to do little more than wander at random, on foot or with a hired bicycle. But of course those who explore with the assistance of a knowledgeable guide, or read up before setting out, will come away with a far better understanding of this ancient city and its many treasures.
To help visitors get the most out of their time in Taiwan, and peek into geographical and cultural corners they might not otherwise experience, Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau has devised the International Spotlight program. The program brings together dining suggestions, routes along which tourists can guide themselves, plus activities such as walking tours and crafts demonstrations.
Tour descriptions and special offers can be found on the International Spotlight’s Chinese-Japanese-English website (http://intlspotlight.taiwan.net.tw). There are two nationwide routes and five regional programs. Of the latter, two focus on the Taipei area, one covers the central cities of Taichung and Chiayi, while another introduces spots in the eastern counties of Hualien and Taitung. The fifth covers the south, offering a selection of Greater Tainan’s scenic, culinary, and shopping highlights.
The International Spotlight Southern Region has its own trilingual website (www.nanspot.tw), where anyone considering a trip to the area can find theme routes and descriptions of historic neighborhoods. One such zone is in the vicinity of Tainan’s Zhongzheng Road and Hai’an Road. A must-see here is Shennong Street, perhaps Taiwan’s most traditional thoroughfare. As recently as the 19th century, before human land-reclamation efforts and natural sedimentation pushed the coastline further west, this part of the city was a stone’s throw from the ocean. A few of the old two-story houses, built by merchants to serve as both homes and warehouses, have been turned into shops or bars.
More modern, yet still of considerable historic interest, are the landmarks that date from Japan’s 1895-1945 occupation of Taiwan. What is now the Tainan Meteorological Observatory is likely the oldest Japanese-era official building surviving in Taiwan. Locals have nicknamed this 1898 structure “the pepper pot” on account of its circular shape. Among the items displayed inside are old seismographs.
The Old Union Hall (also known as the Former Tainan Meeting Hall), adjacent to Wu’s Garden, is a superb spot for a picnic. The Hall is a 1911 French-influenced structure that hosts occasional exhibitions, and the Garden dates from the 1820s and is named for Wu Shang-xin, a salt tycoon who owned the land and commissioned the garden’s creation.
Tainan residents are barely exaggerating when they say their city “has a small shrine every three steps, and a major temple every five steps.” The Confucius Temple offers a sense of eternal tranquility, while the Wu Temple (also called the Martial Rites Temple or Official God of War Temple) is just as gorgeous yet always livelier. The contrast is possibly because the former is dedicated to the thoughtful sage now regarded as China’s greatest philosopher, while the latter honors Guan Di, a general who lived and fought in China more than 1,800 years ago and is now worshipped as the God of War.
To the delight of those who have several days to explore Tainan, the website nanspot.tw goes well beyond the usual tourist haunts. There are directions to Xi Hua Tang, an ancient Buddhist house of worship, Dananmen (“Great South Gate”), a holdover from when Tainan was encircled by a protective wall, and Bei Ji Temple, where the Lord of the North Pole is worshiped.
The majority of Tainan’s attractions are within 20 minutes’ walk of the Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) Station, which itself is linked to the high-speed railway by frequent shuttle trains. However, visitors should make at least one trip beyond the downtown area, to Anping.
Anping is where the Dutch established their trading colony in the early 17th century, and the bastion they called Fort Zeelandia is now a captivating ruin. This part of the city abuts the Taiwan Strait, so it is no surprise that oysters and shrimps feature in many of the dishes served up in the district’s restaurants.
Riding a bicycle from the Confucius Temple to Fort Zeelandia takes around 20 minutes. An alternative form of transportation is city bus number 2, which stops at the Tainan TRA Station, the National Museum of Taiwan Literature, and Confucius Temple en route to Anping.
As part of their efforts to welcome tourists to the city, the Tainan City Government is sponsoring a series of free weekend live-music concerts at Fort Zeelandia, Confucius Temple, and Fort Provintia. Information about these and other local events can be found at www.tainan.gov.tw.
Having reached Anping, visitors may wish to further explore the nearby coast, parts of which have been incorporated into Taijiang National Park (www.tjnp.gov.tw). Human tourists are not the only outsiders drawn to the park’s lagoons, mudflats, and mangrove swamps. Migrating birds also love Taiwan’s southwestern coast, and not only because of fall’s pleasant weather. The area has an abundance of crustaceans, snails, fish, and other creatures on which waterbirds feed. The best-known avian visitor is the Black-faced Spoonbill, an exceptionally handsome endangered species. At least half the global population of fewer than 3,000 spends the colder months within the national park or nearby in parts of the Southwest Coast National Scenic Area (www.swcoast-nsa.gov.tw).
Visitors seeking some unusual souvenirs would do well to look through the shopping pages found on nanspot.tw. Among the more unusual items available in Tainan are handcrafted clogs like those often worn during the Japanese colonial period.
General travel information about Taiwan is available on the Tourism Bureau’s website (www.taiwan.net.tw). Visitors with questions can call the 24-hour tourist information hotline 0800-011-765 (toll free within the country; English, Chinese, and Japanese spoken).