Taiwan’s striking natural beauty is never far from its lively streets. Although 23.4 million people live on its 36,191 square kilometers (an area equal to Maryland plus Rhode Island), three quarters of Taiwan’s population live in just one eighth of the land area.
This is why Taiwan has bustling cities, yet also stunningly wild mountain forests and world-class national parks.
For most Taipei residents, home is an apartment. Local manufacturers cater to the general lack of space by marketing household appliances a few sizes smaller than those found in North American homes. Head beyond the cities and you will see mini planting and harvesting vehicles, nimble enough for the smallest rice field.
At the same time, Taiwanese entrepreneurs have had great success making products for export throughout the world. But as Taiwan has transitioned to a higher-wage, higher-cost economy and much manufacturing has moved offshore, “Made in Taiwan” has given way to “Designed in Taiwan.” Recognizing the achievements of Taiwanese designers in multiple fields – and the immense progress Taipei has made in becoming a convenient and culturally rich place to live – the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID) has honored the city with the title of World Design Capital 2016.
Each of Taiwan’s regions has unique attractions, but those who know Taipei well are not surprised when short-stay visitors stick within an hour’s traveling time of the capital. This year, that is especially true for anyone with an interest in design. Full details of World Design Capital events are available at http://wdc2016.taipei.
Many tourists say one of the best things about Taipei is that it offers all the conveniences of an international business city, yet the people are as friendly and helpful as country folk.
Bilingual timetables and clear signage mean finding your way around Taipei is seldom difficult – and a visitor who spends a minute examining the schedule posted at a bus stop or stands scratching his head before a train-ticket vending machine will likely be offered help by an English-speaking local.
That said, tourists riding buses, trains, or using the sleek MRT (mass rapid transit) rail system have reason for occasional disappointment. The transportation network is designed to serve the needs of commuters, not excursionists. Much of the MRT network is underground. And even above ground, when you do see something interesting, you may have no idea what it is.
In recognition of this shortcoming, Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau has set up the Taiwan Tour Bus system (www.taiwantourbus.com.tw). These services enhance the tourist experience by providing not only transportation to scenic and cultural spots, but also guides who introduce places along the way in English, Japanese, and Chinese.
Taipei is the starting point for a number of Taiwan Tour Bus services, among them long-distance jaunts as far afield as Taroko Gorge or Taian Hot Springs in Miaoli County. For travelers more interested in Greater Taipei, there are several good options, each of which lasts half a day.
For those who want a quick introduction to the capital’s main attractions, morning and afternoon tours are available for NT$1,100 per adult and NT$900 per child (includes admission fees). The buses pick up travelers from major hotels, the Taipei Main Railway Station, and Taipei Songshan Airport.
The first stop is the National Revolutionary Martyrs Shrine, which honors heroes who fell in the Nationalist Chinese cause before, during, and after World War II. Even if the historical angle doesn’t interest you, the hourly changing of the guard – done with astonishing precision – is sure to grab your attention.
No tour of Taipei is complete without a good look inside the National Palace Museum. As everyone in East Asia knows, the NPM houses the finest part of the immense art-and-curio collection built up over almost a millennium by scores of Chinese emperors.
Next up is Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. As its name suggests, this edifice exalts the man who led China during World War II, and ruled Taiwan from 1949 until his death in 1975. The tour then takes in a temple where tourists can witness local religious practices, before passing the Office of the President. The latter is one of the city’s many architectural treasures that date from Japan’s 1895-1945 colonization of Taiwan.
Taipei is surrounded by mountains, and those due north of Taipei 101 form the core of Yangmingshan National Park. Regular buses access parts of the park, but to see the best of this marvelous domain, sign up for a Yangmingshan National Park and Hot Springs Half-Day Tour. The charge of NT$1,500 per adult and NT$1,200 per child includes admission to hot springs.
Taipei is a city for night owls. In addition to an excellent selection of cocktails bars and dance venues, it is one of the best places in the world for those who enjoy a midnight snack. One option is to hail a taxi to Shilin Night Market or the Raohe Street Night Market, but visitors might instead explore the neighborhood around their hotel. Almost certainly they will find some snack vendors, not to mention an all-night eatery or two where savory crullers can be washed down with hot or cold soymilk.
Those who would like to see the capital after dark, but have no idea where to begin, should consider taking a night tour (NT$1,500 per person; includes dinner and admission charges). The starting point is a Mongolian barbecue restaurant, after which visitors will have a chance for a an after-dinner stroll at Longshan Temple.
Like many places of worship in Taiwan, Longshan Temple is lively well into the evening. Among the deities worshiped here is the Old Man under the Moon. Because he is believed to connect each person with the man or woman he or she is destined to love, the Old Man draws offerings from the lonely-hearted. The tour then proceeds to the nearby Huaxi Street Night Market, where souvenirs as well as various delicacies are sold.
For many, the final stop on the tour is the highlight. The 509-meter-tall Taipei 101 building, once the world’s tallest structure, is visible from almost every part of the capital, and the observatory on the 91st floor provides stirring views over the neon-lit city.
Further details of these and other tours, including how to make bookings, can be found on the Taiwan Tour Bus website. In all cases, the price includes insurance and the services of a guide. For general travel information about Taiwan, visit the website of Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau (www.taiwan.net.tw), or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline 0800-011-765 (toll free within Taiwan).