Mention the word ‘Taiwan’ to most people, and they’d imagine a progressive island nation renowned for its fierce independence, liberal values, technology, and entertainment. But there’s other magic to be unearthed within the limits of its busy cities and its rural countryside. We’re peeling back layers to reveal a mix of places to visit, both off- and on-the-beaten track.
Night markets are deeply rooted in Taiwanese culture – it’s where locals go to buy their daily needs. But you should know how to distinguish the touristy markets from the authentic ones; if you’re at a bustling market that’s fairly clean, closed off from traffic, and full of tourts being dropped off by the busload, chances are you’re at a ‘hotspot’ (famous ones include Shilin Night Market and Raohe Street Night Market). While there’s nothing wrong with these ‘pimped up’ versions, they are catered to the tastes of tourists, so you might not get a truly local experience.
The real night markets that locals visit are grittier, with narrow lanes not without the occasional motorcycle zipping through the crowd. But putting up with the chaos is part of the charm, bringing you one step closer to living like a true local. Nanjichang Night Market is one such place that locals flock to for some of Taiwan’s best street eats – long queues are the norm here, with some even snaking all the way out to the main road.
Located on the former site of a military airport strip, Nanjichang may be off-the-beaten path, but some of its stalls and restaurants have certainly caught the attention of Michelin Bib Gourmand over the years, namely Sung Ching Taiwanese Burrito (松青潤餅) and Unnamed Clay Oven Roll (無名推車燒餅) – both are included in the Michelin Guide Taipei 2019. Other popular bites here include Hainanese chicken rice from Shan Nei Chicken (山內雞肉), fried chicken from (the aptly named) Yummy Fried Chicken, oyster fritters from Haojia Orh Teh (好佳蚵嗲), and steamed stinky tofu from Stinky Tofu Boss (also Bib Gourmand-recommended).
If you can’t choose between savagery and serenity, go for both by visiting the Taipei Zoo and Maokong town in the same day.
With a total of 14 different animal display areas to visit, the Taipei Zoo will spoil you for choice when it comes to visiting creatures (cuddly and otherwise) from all seven continents.
The Zoo isn’t just a wildlife haven for pandas, koalas and penguins – it’s also the starting station of the Maokong Gondola, a half-hour cable car ride that saddles Mount Ejiaoge up to the village of Maokong, a quaint tea village. Maokong’s elevation makes it perfect for tea cultivation, and you can have a quiet sip in one of its many teahouses with stunning views of Taipei.
If you have the time, you can also casually spelunk through the nearby Yinhe Cave Hiking Trail that leads itself back to the Gondola line, just in time for a ride back down.
Tip: Start early at the Taipei Zoo before riding up the Gondola. You’ll be able to enjoy awesome aerial views of Taipei, and you’ll also want more time to soak in Maokong’s placidness.
If heights aren’t an issue with you, enter one of the 31 ‘Eyes of Maokong Gondola’ Crystal Cabins equipped with a transparent, tri-layered glass floor. But be warned: we don’t recommend riding the Gondola if you’re squeamish, or if you have a health condition. (You can still take a bus from the Taipei Zoo Station up to Maokong!)
It shouldn’t matter that Jiufen bears a resemblance to the town featured in Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away – that’s only a small part of its charm. Ignore the comparisons to the world that Hayao Miyazaki imagines, and you’ll see the old-school splendour that makes it an experience in its own right.
Jiufen went through a literal gold rush during Japan’s occupation of Taiwan in the late 1800s, which morphed it from an isolated village to a bustling gold mining town. Despite its mixed fortunes over the last few decades, it still attracts busloads of visitors thanks to its unique buildings and quasi-Japanese aesthetic.
The soul of Jiufen can be found in its Old Street (or ‘Dark Street’ for its perpetual shelter), a twisting alley adorned with shops, stalls and teahouses. Traditional food is easily accessible, and you can sample taro balls, stinky tofu, dumplings, and broth noodles, among other local delights.
Determined and unashamed ‘grammers will fight for a place at the infamous A-Mei teahouse; its ambience (both inside and out) is on point. If you’d rather avoid crowds, tread along the town’s high roads and be elevated for great unblemished views of Taiwan’s east coast.
As a blast from the past that’s drenched in nostalgia, Jiufen deserves the unwinding of your clock.
Violins aren’t the first thing that would come to mind when thinking about Taiwan…but the Chimei Museum houses the largest collection of the instruments on Earth. With over 1,370 violins kept – some of them being the earliest instruments crafted by luthiers – this collection is unparalleled.
It’s not just about violins, though. Among the museum’s permanent exhibits are historic weapons and armour, priceless art spanning from the 13th century until today, the work of the 19th century French sculptor Auguste Rodin, an in-depth selection of musical instruments, and natural history items.
Located within the sprawling lawns of the European-inspired Tainan Metropolitan Park, which is a sight to behold, the museum is an unexpected gem that showcases creative history at its finest.
The Japanese occupation of Taiwan made Gukeng the focal point of providing coffee that was sent back to Japan’s Emperor and Imperial elite. After the Japanese left, across the nation, coffee crops gave way to tea – but Gukeng held out, believing in the power of the bean.
The Taiwanese coffee industry found new wings in the 1990s, and naturally, Gukeng spearheaded the movement with its coveted Arabica beans.
As one of the hearts of the Taiwanese coffee industry, various venues around Gukeng offer coffee education tours that highlight the uniqueness of its beans; there’s also the annual Gukeng Coffee Festival, which celebrates the township’s coffee industry, farming history and coffee culture via workshops, competitions, tasting sessions and other coffee-related events.
You could stay in Taipei and sample Taiwanese coffee from relative comfort, but many folks trek to Gufeng to assure themselves of a genuine coffee experience. The rustic town is the real deal when it comes to first-class java and should be at the top of the list of bean aficionados everywhere. Our prime pick: the Bar-Den coffee shop, a longstanding Gukeng café.
If coffee doesn’t perk you up enough, Gukeng is also the home of Janfusun Fancyworld Theme Park, an amusement park with rides that will literally leave you hanging in the air. If you’re a traditionalist, you can take an hour-long drive to neighbouring Zhushan county to view the Ba-Gua Tea Garden.