A first trip to Asia usually focuses on well-known countries—China, Japan, Thailand—but that’s not always the best way to go. Lilit Marcus shares why Taiwan is a smart landing place for first-time travelers to Asia.
Taiwan is not the first destination that most people hit when they visit Asia for the first time. But this small, modest island is a perfect place for a newbie visitor. The country—whose residents say is shaped like a sweet potato—has a little bit of all the things the continent is famous for, but on a small and manageable scale. Many of the clichés are there, like Hello Kitty-print everything, steel-nerved teens navigating their scooters through traffic, 24/7 dumpling places (Din Tai Fung has multiple locations, English-language menus, and impeccable service), and beauty bargain emporiums (the ubiquitous Watson’s chain has everything a BB cream/face mask junkie could dream of) on every corner.
But what makes Taiwan so special is the contrasts. Longshan Temple, Taipei’s most popular Buddhist site, is a place of quiet contemplation in the center of a busy business and shopping area. The Ningxia night market has vendors hawking everything from spicy fish ball soup to taro ice cream, but also provides a meeting spot for elderly couples to stroll together and enjoy the night air.
Start off in the capital, Taipei. The Taipei subway, known as the MRT, has signs in Mandarin Chinese—and in English—and is quite easy to navigate. Casual riders can buy cute blue poker-style tokens that are valid for individual rides. (Like London, Washington, DC, and other cities, Taipei metro fares are based on distance and you must save your card/token to get out of the station at the end of your ride.)
Another can’t-miss spot in the capital is the National Palace Museum. Depending who you ask, Taiwan’s first president Chiang Kai-shek and his supporters either rescued or stole many famous Chinese artworks from the mainland before leaving. Many of these pieces are on display alongside more recent works that the museum has acquired since its founding. The museum is huge, so if you have a limited amount of time to see the large Buddha and the more modern exhibitions, then get in line to see the most famous piece in the entire museum, the carved-jade cabbage. There are also daily tours in several languages, as well as audio guides.
Across the street from the Regent is SPOT, an impossibly cool boutique, café, and indie movie theater housed inside the former US Embassy. If you’re having trouble deciding what to buy friends back home as souvenirs, come here to stock up on goodies like homemade soaps inspired by Buddhist principles, Pop Art-style accessories, and “story tape”—decorative rolls of tape that are printed with cool designs that tell a narrative.
Once you’re ready to get out of the city, there are several hot springs resorts within a short driving distance of Taipei. The Yangmingshan Tienlai is about an hour out of town. Although it’s a resort, day visitors can take advantage of all of the amenities, which include a coed area (where you wear swimsuits) or gender-divided areas (where you can go nude), a variety of hot and cold pools, and gently heated massage rocks. Jet lag? What jet lag?
Next, it’s time to daytrip like a local. The village of Jiufen, which is at the northernmost tip of the island overlooking the sea, can be easily reached via public bus from the capital. The town is famous for its beauty, and luckily I arrived on a clear day, able to enjoy the gorgeous views. This isn’t a tourist trap—Jiufen is so locally beloved that Taiwanese pop singers have songs about going there on vacation.
Jiufen is known for two things—tea houses and food stalls. Once the bus drops you off, follow everyone up the hill to the main street of Jiufen, which is jam-packed with food and souvenir stalls. In less space than a city block, you can try almond tea, ginger tea, taro ice cream rolled in peanuts and folded in a mochi wrapper, noodles in duck broth, pickled cucumber, red bean soup with rice balls, nougat candy, and gummy peaches. If it’s shopping you’re after, there are places to get custom-fitted sandals or kitty-themed memorabilia from one of several shops dedicated to cats. There are several famous tea houses, but the jewel is the aptly-titled Jiufen Tea House, which overlooks the sea and features beautiful teaware made by the owners, who are also artists.
Next up: Taroko National Park, located in the eastern coastal province of Hualian. Hualian is accessible via multiple daily local and express trains from Taipei. To get the full experience of the landscape and its beauty, stay in the Silks Palace Taroko hotel, which is the only luxury hotel located within the park. It boasts a world-class spa, a rooftop hotel, and beautiful views of the park from almost every angle.
The park gets its name from its biggest attraction, Taroko Gorge, and you can see the landscape shift from creek to mountain to woods with just a few minutes’ walk. In the morning is the real treat—guests often wake up to spy a macaque hanging out on their room’s balcony. These monkeys are native to the area but are most active in the morning, and guests of the hotel are known to throw apples and other snacks out to them. The monkeys feel more comfortable around humans than they should. In other words—they’re fun to watch, but keep your door locked.
At times, Taiwan can feel like a simulacra. Though it’s small, there are so many different kinds of landscape that it feels like you’re in several places at once. If you’re planning to head off to other parts of the continent from here, Taiwan will prepare you well for your journey. But, if the beautiful island is all you have time to visit for now, you’ll go home feeling that you haven’t missed a thing.
For more information about Taiwan, check out:
- Taiwan Highlights and Lowlights
- Peter’s Taichung, Taiwan Radio podcast
- Slideshow: A Foodie’s Tour through Taiwan
- Slideshow: Taiwan’s Regional Festivals
- Off the Brochure Taipei, Taiwan
Lilit Marcus is a New York City-based travel writer and tea addict. Her first book, Save the Assistants, was published by Hyperion. You can also look for her work in the Wall Street Journal, Teen Vogue, and The Forward. You can find her on Twitter @lilitmarcus
***trip organized by Taiwan Tourism