After Hong Kong we decided to fly to Taipei instead of Bangkok, because flying to Thailand would have cost us almost 4 times as much money. This put a real wrench in our February travel plan as it stuck us in Taipei right around Chinese New Year, which we had originally wanted to avoid due to business closures that week. But we’ve learned to trust in the adventure, so we booked the tickets hoping things would work out.
At this point we’d been in three wildly different destinations in about two weeks - Indonesia, the Philippines, and Hong Kong - and we were mentally and physically exhausted beyond belief. We were (still are!) wildly behind on the blog and photo editing, bickering a lot, and as we’d soon find out, both coming down with the flu. Yeah. Things were rough in Screw the Itinerary land.
When we arrived in Taiwan we had a tentative two-week itinerary, which would have us hitting four cities in different parts of the island. But to be honest, after three or four days in Taipei our mutual exhaustion caught up with us, and neither of us felt like doing ANYTHING. We were sleeping 10+ hours a night, napping every afternoon, and struggling with motivation. We each went through nasty bouts of the flu. We continued to fall behind on work, and the few photos and videos we managed to take during this period just added on to the pile of stuff we needed to do.
Plus, as I said before, it was Chinese New Year. This meant that almost everything in Taipei was shut down as people headed back to their hometowns to celebrate with family. Businesses were closed, markets were empty, and tourist attractions were shuttered. This really cramped our style when it came to sightseeing.
What it all boils down to is this: by the time we were scheduled to leave Taipei and start exploring the rest of the island, we were beyond burned out. Our bodies and minds were begging us to stop, so for once we actually decided to listen. We extended our stay in Taipei at the expense of seeing the rest of the country. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the right one for us, and we wound up relishing the chance to actually ‘live’ in a city for a while - especially a city as vibrant and huge as Taipei. Staying also gave us the opportunity to experience the city as it usually is instead of the quiet, empty concrete jungle it became during Chinese New Year.
It helped that most of the people staying in our hostel were effectively residents, some gainfully employed as English teachers on legit working visas, and some just slow travelers fluent in Chinese taking advantage of the long visa exemptions Taiwan offers American tourists. Having the same crew of people around imparted a sense of permanence and belonging. I really feel like we could have stayed for months if we didn’t have the allure of our upcoming Vietnam trip right around the corner.
We stayed at Smile Taipei Hostel, located in Datong district. It was a pleasant residential area well removed from the city center, which we appreciated. Taipei is a huge city and I’m not sure where the main backpacker section is located, if there is one. There aren’t as many Western tourists here as there were in, say, Hong Kong, or in fact any other major Asian city we’ve been to. It was a nice change, to be honest - that’s probably half the reason we liked this city so much.
Taiwan’s beautiful light-rail transit, the MRT, made navigating Taipei a breeze despite the city’s huge size, and Smile was located just a few blocks from the Yuanshan stop. Pretty much all major points of interest are close to a train stop, and buses, Uber and cabs (all cheap) can act as a supplement when needed, though we only took cabs when we were with someone fluent in Chinese as most taxi drivers don’t speak English. Single-rider tokens are available from machines or you can buy a reloadable fare card at the ticket counter. We never took a ride that cost more than 40 NTD (about $1.25) even when we were traveling to the far outskirts.
We did find that Taiwan had a slightly higher language barrier than other countries we’ve visited, likely due to the generally low number of Western tourists here (I realize not every Western tourist speaks English, but generally it’s the lingua franca in touristy areas). Road signs and public transport were posted in Chinese and English, but pretty much everything else was in Chinese only, and even in the most touristy parts of town we found that most people spoke little to no English. We picked up a few basic phrases in Chinese (hello, thank you, etc) but Chinese is a hard language to learn. Fortunately the locals are sympathetic of that and most menus have pictures, so we got by with a lot of sign language, pointing, and smiling. A lot of the other guests at Smile were fluent in Chinese which helped a lot when we’d go out to dinner together, but even when we were alone we got by just fine. If anything, being in Taiwan made me want to learn Chinese more than ever before!
One of the most awesome things about Taipei is the huge variety of night markets spread across the city. There’s at least one going on any given night, and they’re a great place to sample local food and drink, people-watch, or shop for souvenirs. Shilin Night Market is the most famous, located just one MRT stop north of Smile Hostel. It’s pretty touristy, and prices are higher here than at other markets, but it’s huge and vibrant, and there are tons of food and drink options available so it’s totally worth a visit.
Our hostel was just up the street from the Datong Night Market, which is much smaller than Shilin but very local and authentic, with hardly any tourists outside of folks staying at Smile. Prices were also lower here, and the pork steamed buns (one of my favorite Taiwanese snacks) were better here than at Shilin.
The streets of Taipei are constantly bustling - apart from the first couple days of Chinese New Year, there seemed to be a flurry of constant activity on every street, and we enjoyed just strolling around and taking in the sights and sounds around us. We loved visiting Ximending District which is sort of like Taipei’s version of Harajuku (in Tokyo). It’s the counterculture/youth capital of the city and it’s full of arcades, hipsters, anime, and tattoo shops.
One thing I really love about Taiwan - and I noticed this in Hong Kong too - is the adoption of kawaii culture, the Japanese concept of cuteness. Everything is a cartoon: safety signs in the MRT, advertisements, and even restaurant signs often had cute little mascots, and we saw lots of Hello Kitty and similar Japanese cartoon characters decorating people’s clothing and accessories.
A side effect of this obsession with kawaii is the prevalence of themed cafes. There’s a Hello Kitty cafe, a Gudetama (a little cracked egg character) restaurant, and more, but chief among them is the Rilakkuma Cafe, and that was our destination one afternoon. Rilakkuma is a little bear cub whose name literally translates as “relaxed bear.” The cafe that bears his name is fully themed after this cute little guy - everything from the wallpaper to the latte art to the bathroom mirrors depict Rilakkuma and friends getting up to various adorable hijinks. We got coffees and cheesecake, and everything was delicious and SO adorable. I was literally squealing with delight the entire time, and now I’m definitely obsessed with Rilakkuma and trying to collect as much merch as I can responsibly fit in my suitcase.
Despite the fact that we spent a full two weeks in Taipei, we did very little in the way of sightseeing or tourist activities. We did go see the Taipei 101, formerly the tallest building in the world and definitely my personal favorite skyscraper (it’s so pretty and symmetrical!) though we didn’t go to the observatory due to a very long queue! We also got the best skyline views by hiking up Elephant Mountain which is really just a hill (no elephants to be found) - it’s less a hike than it is a long trot up some stairs, but the views are quite nice.
Smile Hostel was just up the road from two of Taipei's most well-known temples - the Confucius Temple, which was unfortunately closed during New Year, and the Dalongdong Baoan Temple, which was open. We also visited the memorial halls for Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek, which are both gorgeous and impressive, though very crowded (we advise going either early morning or late afternoon, not midday as we did).
One of the best things we did was spend a day at the Beitou Hot Spring on the outskirts of the city. It’s easy (and cheap) to get there via MRT - just take the red line to Beitou and from there it’s a 15-minute walk up a gentle incline. This area sits on natural thermal pools and as a result has become a popular resort destination. There are fancy spa hotels but the best thing to do is visit the public baths - entry only costs NTD $40 ($1.25 USD).
The system is a bit weird: it’s open a few hours at a time (like 5am-7am, 10:30-1pm, 1:30-4pm, etc), and between those periods everyone must leave so they can clean. You buy your tickets from a machine and queue up for the next session, and once the baths are open everyone files in and gets changed. One thing to note is that there’s a rather strict dress code. Regular bikinis are technically verboten as you should wear something more full-coverage, but fear not, they sell plenty of options at the onsite shop and I picked up a nice ‘bathing costume’ (it looked like a tennis outfit) for around $10. Alex got a pair of form-fitting Speedo trunks, as boardshorts with pockets are a no-no.
Once you enter and get changed (it’s NTD $10 for a locker), you can proceed to the thermal baths. There are several pools of varying temperatures ranging from 38 to 46 degrees Celsius, as well as two cold pools. The crowd is mostly older locals - if you’ve ever been to the Szecheyni Baths in Budapest early in the morning, you know the drill. We had fun going to all the different pools, alternating between hot and cold, and by the time we left a couple hours later we felt completely rejuvenated. We would definitely recommend this to anyone visiting Taipei. Unfortunately, photography was forbidden so we couldn’t get any pics.
Probably the number one reason we wanted to come to Taiwan was for the food - this place is a foodie destination like no other: dumplings and sweets and baked goods and soups galore - there’s something for every palate here, from the approachable to the decidedly weird. As I said earlier, the night markets are an amazing opportunity to go crazy trying new and strange-looking foods. Even at Shilin, where prices are higher due to tourism, nothing is that expensive and you can have a veritable feast for less than $10.
For restaurants, Din Tai Fung is an obvious winner - the Michelin-starred dim sum chain was founded here, and we found the Taipei locations to be about 50% cheaper than the Hong Kong ones. You will have to wait no matter what time of day it is, but the numbering system is efficient and easy to understand. DimDimSum, which we also visited in Hong Kong, is another amazing option. One of Taiwan’s most beloved dishes is beef noodle soup, and our favorite version can be found at C.E.O. Beef Noodle.
We also loved Bafang Dumplings, a chain that serves incredible fried and steamed dumplings as well as soup. Try the curry flavor! For a caffeine fix, we loved Louisa Coffee which has several locations around Taipei and serves amazing, aromatic coffee. Norma Coffee is Scandinavian llama themed, which would be enough for me on its own, but it also has delicious lattes. Taipei has an incredible cafe scene and there are amazing options on every corner, just walk into one that looks appealing!
Near our hostel, the Maji Square food court (located near the expo center by the Yuanshan MRT) is an amazing open-air food court serving everything from beef noodles to empanadas. Yes, empanadas. We came here three times because it’s easy, convenient, and SO delicious. There’s also a craft beer bar with a surprisingly good selection of American beers.
Honestly, in Taipei we found TripAdvisor to be sort of unhelpful, probably just because there are fewer Western tourists here, so we actually just winged it and strolled into random restaurants or ate at the markets. The food is consistently good, and hygiene is exceptional, so you really do not have to worry about getting sick from eating at a sketchy place. It’s part of the adventure!
We spent our last two nights in Taiwan in a small town called Jiufen located just an hour and a half north of Taipei. It’s a little village nestled up in the mountains but it’s wildly popular with tourists, due in part to the fact that it was the inspiration for a lot of the visuals in the animated movie Spirited Away.
It’s an incredibly charming little place - the mist covering the whole city lends an otherworldly atmosphere, the architecture is incredibly colorful and detailed, and the narrow alleyways of the Old Street are crowded yet cozy. But the overload of tourists, mostly day-trippers and tour groups coming in from Taipei, tend to overwhelm the narrow streets. Especially at dusk, when the red lanterns all over the city light up, people crowd the alleyways clamoring for a photo op, and trying to get through the madness to go to dinner or get back to the hostel was inevitably a stressful and overwhelming experience.
The food here is wonderful, though - taro balls (sweet tiny dumplings covered in syrup) are the local specialty and can be found all over, along with all manner of soups, dumplings, and other treats both savory and sweet. Finding a calm restaurant amid the pedestrian traffic can be challenging. Still, Jiufen’s charming and we can see why people love it, but we recommend a) visiting on a weekday and b) not spending two nights - it’s just too much. If you choose to stay, though, we loved our stay at Flip Flop Hostel and definitely recommend it.
All in all, what started as a rough patch ultimately turned into an extended stay in one of our favorite cities in Asia. Taipei has so much to offer and I firmly believe that this is a city best experienced slowly and patiently. Despite some linguistic challenges, we never had major problems getting around or doing anything we wanted to do. I’m not sure why Taiwan seems less popular with Europeans/Americans than, say, Hong Kong, but we felt that it offered everything HK does with a lower price tag and fewer hassles. After two weeks here, leaving Taipei made us pretty emotional, and I know we’re eager to come back and explore the rest of Taiwan.