As the political capital and commercial center, Taipei in northern Taiwan is well-known throughout Asia. Many frequent visitors are familiar with Kaohsiung, the major port and industrial powerhouse in the south. Taichung, roughly equidistant between the two, has long been seen as Taiwan’s “third city.”
Population statistics suggest a different pecking order, however. The municipality that surrounds Taipei – what was formerly Taipei County and is now called New Taipei City – has far more residents than Taipei itself: almost four million residents, compared to just under 2.7 million in Taipei proper.
More surprising is that Taichung is also more populous than Taipei. In the next year or two, Taichung’s population (2,767,239 as of December 2016) is also likely to overtake that of Kaohsiung (currently home to 2.78 million people).
As Taichung thrives, an increasing number of international visitors are choosing to arrive in Taiwan via the city’s airport. Scheduled flights link Taichung with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macao, and a dozen cities on the Chinese mainland.
Getting around Greater Taichung is not yet as convenient as exploring the Taipei area. Taichung’s metro system is not due to commence operations until 2018, but the recent upgrade of the Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) line – not to be confused with the high-speed railway operated by THSRC – added five new commuter stations.
One of these stops, Wuquan, gets you within walking distance of the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts and the Natural Way Six Arts Culture Center. The former, located in a neighborhood filled with excellent restaurants, has 24 galleries of Western art, traditional Chinese ink paintings, and modern sculptures. The latter is worth visiting for its architecture alone. The key attraction is a beautifully restored butokuten (hall for practicing martial arts) built during Japan’s 1895-1945 colonial occupation of Taiwan.
For the time being, city buses are the backbone of public transportation in Greater Taichung. Journeys usually cost less than US$1. If you have a valid EasyCard – and you should, if you expect to use public transportation more than a few times while in Taiwan – the first 10 kilometers on any route numbered between 1 and 999 is absolutely free.
Route No. 50 is a good way to get from the Taichung TRA Station to the 921 Earthquake Museum, 15 kilometers away in Wufeng District. Various buses stop near Fengjia Night Market, the dusk-to-midnight snacks bazaar said to be Taiwan’s biggest agglomeration of food vendors. Of those buses, No. 35 can be caught very near the Taichung TRA Station, and is both frequent and direct.
Most of Taiwan’s public transportation systems now include a good amount of English-language information, yet some independent visitors lack the confidence to navigate on their own. Recognizing this fact, the Taiwan Tourism Bureau has for several years been running the Taiwan Tour Bus system (www.taiwantourbus.com.tw). These bus-based expeditions 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.
Taichung is the starting point for a number of Taiwan Tour Bus excursions. Among tours which pick up at major hotels and transportation hubs in the city is the Lin Family Mansion and Gardens half-day tour (NT$1,000 per person).
This tour is a real treat for culture vultures. The mansion, a sprawling compound built between 1864 and 1893 by a family which at that time was one of Taiwan’s most influential, evokes the glories of ancient China. After an in-depth tour of the Lin estate, the bus heads for Tunghai University where the key attraction is the Luce Memorial Chapel. The church was designed by superstar architect I.M. Pei and sponsored by TIME magazine founder Henry R. Luce to honor his father, an early 20th-century American missionary in China. The final stop is a quick look at the Taichung Metropolitan Opera House, also known as the National Taichung Theater. This very recent addition to the cityscape is the work of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Toyo Ito in collaboration with Cecil Balmond.
As with all Taiwan Tour Bus trips, the price includes insurance, and the tour must be booked at least one day in advance. The Tour Bus website carries contact details for the various travel agencies that operate the tours. The company charged with running the Lin Family Mansion tour is based in Taichung, and is happy to discuss customized tours and related services in the region.
Thanks to its position on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, Taiwan offers world-class birdwatching – and one of the best places in Greater Taichung for cool-season birding is Gaomei Wetlands. This internationally recognized Important Bird Area is inaccessible without your own vehicle, but it does feature in one fun-packed Taiwan Tour Bus jaunt.
The Gaomei Wetlands one-day tour (NT$1,700 per adult or child over three) differs from most Taiwan Tour Bus outings in that it kicks off after lunch and goes on into the evening. The first stop is in Dajia, a town known for folk religion and foods made from taro, the tropical tuber.
At the heart of Dajia lies Jenn Lann Temple, one of Taiwan’s liveliest and most important houses of worship. But the tour is not all prayer and piety, as passengers can try their hand at making taro cookies before heading to the wetlands.
The three stops that follow – the wetlands, Wuqi Fishing Harbor, and sunset-viewing from the ridge at Wanggaoliao – are tranquil and calming. But there is no chance of dropping off to sleep at the next stop: bustling Fengjia Night Market, where good-natured crowds rove, shop, and munch on a wide assortment of things to eat.
Another Taiwan Tour Bus option for visitors basing themselves in Taichung is the one-day Atayal Resort and Puli expedition (also NT$1,700 per person, including lunch and admission tickets). This is an escape from the city, into the hill country that dominates Taiwan’s interior, and where indigenous communities still follow Austronesian traditions.
After guided tours around a paper mill and a landmark Buddhist monastery, the tour stops for three hours at Atayal Resort, a spacious park with hot springs and gardens named for and founded by a member of one of Taiwan’s 16 indigenous tribes. Excursionists can soak in eight outdoor pools of varying temperatures (bring your own swimsuit) before enjoying a repast featuring aboriginal delicacies.
Mention should also be made of Taichung’s bike-sharing system, called iBike. You can rent at any one of the 120-plus stations and return the bike at another location.