For most citizens and long-term residents, Taipei 101 is likely not on their radar as a source of leisure and entertainment, though some recently added attractions may convince even the pickiest of fun-seekers to pay a visit.
Photos courtesy of Taipei 101
If you ever get lost in Taipei, you can always orient yourself by locating Taipei 101 on the horizon. Its steely spire and distinctive shape resembling a staggered bamboo shoot rise above the capital’s largely low-rise skyline. It is one of the first recognizable buildings to come into view on return trips to Taiwan, signaling that “home is not far away now.”
For those of us who call Taipei home, Taipei 101 is just that: a beloved symbol of the city and a fixture on the urban landscape. But unless we’re hosting out-of-towners, it’s not the first place that comes to mind as somewhere to visit. Over the past couple of years, however, in response to the challenges of COVID-19 and the growing number of new high-rise competitors such as the Taipei Nan Shan Plaza next door, Taiwan’s best-known skyscraper has been enjoying a bit of a spruce-up that might just convince you to head over there for a look.
A walk in the clouds
The most notable change to take place at the tower is the opening of Skyline 460 (the 460 referring to its altitude – 460 meters above sea level). Previously accessible only to VIP guests, fireworks engineers, and window washers, this outside deck with a chest-high barrier can now be visited by the general public. Advertised as the world’s highest outdoor platform (the Burj Khalifa in Dubai boasts a 555-meter-high outdoor platform, yet it is ringed by a tall glass screen, while Skyline 460 is completely open air), it promises a different experience from that provided by Taipei 101’s two other observation platforms on floors 89 and 91. That’s because not only are you at least 10 flights higher up, but you are out there in the elements with the whole city spread out before you. There is no pane of glass or tall slatted fence to obscure the view or muffle the sounds of life far below.
Visiting Skyline 460 is a bit of an adventure. On the 101st floor, guests are first secured in a body harness, its straps looped over the shoulders and around the thighs. Belongings are placed in a locker; phones may be kept on one’s person but must be slipped into a bright yellow sheath and hung around the neck. The actual outdoor platform is up another flight of steps (technically placing Skyline 460 on the 102nd floor, although they call it 101RF), along a short corridor carpeted with dry ice for that “walk on the clouds” feeling, and through a heavy door. A guard buckles a large carabiner hanging from one of your straps to a railing that runs around the perimeter, and thus, tethered like a donkey, you are now free to roam in circles below the building’s spire.
Peering over the edge, you might be forgiven for thinking the harness and buckling are all a bit unnecessary. There is no sheer drop, as a broad ledge – about two meters wide – juts out just below. Yet getting strapped in is fun, adds peace of mind, and it does get very windy up top (skirts are not recommended unless you are planning to execute a Marilyn Monroe number during your visit). However, you would have to be featherlight or very determined in order to fall off.
From this lofty perspective, Taipei finally makes sense – and that’s probably what makes coming up here worthwhile: it brings you closer to the city. The sensation of surveying the puzzle of streets; the orange-topped Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall standing out among the grays, pinks, and browns of the urban sprawl; the glinting towers of Xinyi District, still so far below; the winding pattern of the Tamsui and Keelung Rivers; and the planes descending to Songshan International Airport is rather magical. On an especially clear day, gaze northeast and the gleam of the ocean on the horizon next to Jiufen should be visible.
Directly below, the diagonal stab of Keelung Road heads southwest. “It used to be the runway for the Japanese military during World War II,” my guide for today, Customer Service Leader Ivy Chang, points out.
The experience can be quite exhilarating on a windy day. Today there is only a gentle breeze but it’s enough to make haunting flute-like whistles around the spire extending above you. Amazingly, the thrum of traffic and shriek of ambulance sirens also reach up here – almost half a kilometer up in the sky.
Once untrussed, slip down to the 91st-floor staircase and peer through the gap in the banisters at the dizzying view of 91 flights of stairs below – that’s 2,046 steps – winding in oblongs all the way down. If your vertigo wasn’t triggered on Skyline 460, this should do it. Here is the end-point for the annual Taipei 101 Run Up, a vertical sprint that attracts international athletes during non-COVID times. The record is a fraction of a second short of 10 and a half minutes by Australian Paul Crake in 2005, the Run Up’s inaugural year.
Entrance to Skyline 460 costs a fairly hefty NT$2,700 (NT$3,000 for a couple) on weekdays and NT$3,000 (for single or couple) on weekends. Visits consist of 50-minute time slots that run between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., weather permitting. The ticket also includes access to floors 88 to 91, which house the skyscraper’s other two observation points, as well as its mass damper. These floors can be visited independently for NT$600 – or NT$300 on weekdays and NT$420 on weekends for locals and foreigners with a Taiwan residence card.
Mass damper and other attractions
In addition to panoramic views of the city, the iPilot flight simulator (a guided glide from Taoyuan to Songshan airports), and the wickedly fast elevators, speedy enough to make your ears pop, the most interesting part of the tower is the tuned mass damper (TMD). Situated in the uppermost part of the building and available for public viewing on the 88th and 89th floors, this giant golden ball weighs 616 metric tons – about the same as 2.5 Boeing 747s – and is what keeps such an immense structure as Taipei 101 safe in the event of an earthquake or brutal typhoon. On a calm day, the TMD just sits quietly, balanced on its eight hydraulic legs, looking a bit like a spaceship. However, when a quake or typhoon strikes, it will begin to swing on its restricted orbit, preventing the tower from toppling. The sight is so impressive that some people head for Taipei 101 during a storm just to witness the big ball in motion. A screen near the TMD plays footage captured during a recent typhoon when the damper did indeed swing like a pendulum.
The TMD is such a star attraction that it has its own mascot. Damper baby, a bulbous-headed figure that comes in one of five colors, can be bought in various incarnations in the Taipei 101 souvenir shops – bobble-head desk ornaments and figurines trapped in snow globes or posed jauntily against Taiwan’s popular tourist sites. The other souvenirs for sale almost all feature the building’s distinctive silhouette, including mugs, chocolates, fridge magnets, money boxes (my favorite), EasyCards, and even a 101-shaped plastic bottle of distilled water.
Then there are the free parts of Taipei 101. If you don’t have the money to spare to go up to the top, the fifth floor houses a small cinema where a mesmerizing 24-hour time-lapse clip shot from the top of the skyscraper plays on a loop. The footage starts from dawn with a pale blue sky. The shadow of Taipei 101 moves jerkily as the day unfolds until the sunset bathes the cityscape in an orange glow. After nightfall, the lights of city traffic move through the darkened streets like molten lava, patches of gray clouds scudding madly across the starless sky.
The shopping mall is three floors of mostly top luxury brands – Chanel, Cartier, Miu Miu, and Fendi – the kinds of shops that are fragrant with expensive perfume and have leather armchairs for customers to rest their weary feet between purchases. Hardly family shopping, but it’s a welcoming space because of the atrium, which allows daylight to filter in, filling the area with natural lighting. If you crane your neck, you can spot Taipei 101’s upper floors through the glass, spire slanting into the sky above. Looking down from the fourth floor, the mall resembles a giant cruise ship. Il Mercato, a pleasant fourth-floor outdoor wine and coffee bar, is worth a visit. Its prices (NT$120 for an Americano) are reasonable considering the location. Mall patrons will also find more than enough spotless restrooms, as well as a jumbo-sized Apple store.
The basement food court is one of the city’s most elegant, with wood paneling, soft spotlights, and walls covered with tapestries of real plants. Michelin-level dining offerings consist of dumpling master Din Tai Fung and Singaporean street food Hawker Chan. On top of the usual suspects for Asian cuisine, Soup Spoon offers chunks of bread and hearty Western soups. Located just outside the food court is the Buckskin Taproom, where thirsty shoppers can purchase glasses of fresh draft beer for as little as NT$99.
When the godfather of Taiwan’s democratic system, former president Lee Teng-hui, passed away at the grand old age of 97 last summer, a message of condolence lit up the sides of Taipei 101. The LED display panels also shone to mourn the victims of a recent train crash in Hualien and to thank medics for their care of COVID-19 patients during the pandemic. The spire is like a town clock; it lights up in one of seven colors that follow the hues of a rainbow, indicating the day of the week – from red for Monday to violet for Sunday. Every New Year’s Eve, all eyes are trained on the skyscraper’s choreographed fireworks show. Taipei 101 is not only an emblem of the capital; it is a national symbol.
But that doesn’t mean it can stop trying. The coronavirus pandemic has decimated overseas tourist numbers, while futuristic skyscrapers seem to be breaking ground at an ever-faster rate. Nan Shan, finished in 2018, reaches 271.5 meters to its sleek tip, second in line to Taipei 101 in the city. The twisty structure of the Agora Garden houses luxury condos and more shrubbery than you normally expect to see on a building. Also located in Xinyi District, it is a mere 100 meters tall but is visually arresting as a result of its crazy corkscrew design. Meanwhile, Taipei Sky Tower, planned to reach 280 meters with a shape that looks like a giant silver lipstick case, will house a pair of five-star hotels. Construction of the Tower, which is just across the street from Taipei 101, is scheduled to be completed next year.
Richard Wu, senior director and head of corporate branding and communications for Taipei Financial Centre Corp. (TFCC), the owner of Taipei 101, says that the firm’s focus during these challenging times is to keep its commercial tenants happy and attract more domestic tourists.
The 35th-story Starbucks, which used to be the place to go to get a free high-rise view, is now gone. The entire floor has been remodeled into Sky Park, a relaxed food and lounge area –complete with Taiwan’s tallest urban branch of 7-Eleven – that is open only to staff working in offices in the commercial tower. Among Taipei 101’s tenants are 12 AmCham Taiwan member companies, including AllianceBernstein, Google Taiwan, Jones Lang LaSalle, KPMG, McKinsey, and the Taiwan Stock Exchange.
Local visitor numbers over the past year have grown “significantly,” says Wu, though he declined to give any figures. Before local COVID-19 transmission broke out in Taipei in mid-May this year, the tower had been offering everything from classroom tours for kids to picnics for the whole family on the 91st-floor outdoor observatory.
As for high-rise competition, Wu is not fazed. The technical barriers are just too formidable to worry about being overshadowed by a taller tower in Taipei. “It’s really difficult to have the knowledge to build a taller building, especially since we are in an earthquake belt and also there is limited space now to build more skyscrapers in Taipei,” he says.
In fact, building Taipei 101 in the first place was no easy matter. In 2002, in the middle of construction, a 6.8-magnitude earthquake jostled two cranes off the roof, killing five people.
“If you look at the height, Taipei 101 is still the tallest building in Taiwan,” explains Wu. “There’s always going to be a newer building in the city. We can’t predict what will happen, so we just keep on doing what we do best.”