There’s no place quite like Taiwan. Located 100 miles off the coast of China, Taiwan is home to enviable amenities that are a feast for the senses: misty and soothing hot springs, majestic mountains populated with tea plantations, bustling neon-lit night markets open until the wee hours, and remarkable points of interest like the massive marble Taroko Gorge, mesmerizing Sun Moon Lake, and the memorable National Palace Museum, which houses the world’s largest collections of Chinese art.
A trip to Formosa (“Beautiful Isle”) is akin to combining a variety of vacations together in one: the glittering metropolis of the capital, Taipei, gives way to quaint traditional villages, charming seaside towns, unspoilt sandy beaches, and verdant mountains. With so much to see, do, eat, and enjoy, even intrepid travelers will need more than one visit—and possibly a lifetime—to experience all that Taiwan has to offer. Here are our favorite things to do in Taiwan:
No visit to Taiwan is complete without visiting the 11,455-hectare Yangmingshan National Park. Formed from volcanic activity 2 million years ago, the mountains overlooking Taipei were home to Taiwan’s earliest settlers, the Ketagalan, one of nine plains people tribes in Taiwan who mined sulfur here 2,000 years ago. During the Japanese Occupation (1895-1945) of Taiwan, the Japanese used the sulfur to make delightful hot springs. We love Yangmingshan for its varied hiking paths and nature, including sakura (cherry blossoms), calla lilies, over 100 species of butterflies, and waterfalls.
Invented by Liu Han-Chieh, owner of famous Taiwanese tea shop Chun Shui Tang, bubble tea is a ubiquitous beverage of brewed black tea, powdered milk, caramelized liquid sugar, crushed ice, and a ladle of chewy pea-sized black tapioca balls, served all over Taiwan and beyond. There are Chun Shui Tang tea houses all over Taiwan, but the original spot is in Taichung in Western Taiwan.
Located on a cape in Wanli, a 45-minute bus ride from Taipei, Yehliu Geological Park is a unique sight to behold. Strong winds have forced the amber-colored volcanic rock and shale into odd formations that resemble mushrooms, a queen’s head, a drum stick, a lion’s head, and more.
The forested Alishan and its nature preserve is the highlight for most travelers to Taiwan. Watching the sunrise or sunset over a sea of clouds high atop Alishan is a highlight for locals and visitors. Rapidly moving layers of fog and clouds yield breathtaking moments that are hard to capture in photos. Sipping the area’s famous gāoshān chá (high mountain tea) is a quintessential Taiwanese experience.
No matter when you visit Taiwan, there is bound to be a festival of some kind. Some of the most unique include Bombing the Dragon, a Hakka Festival in Central Taiwan in which firecrackers are thrown at human dancing dragons, and Grappling with the Ghosts, a festival in Toucheng in which contestants race up oil-slicked bamboo poles to reach platters of food that are thrown on revelers.
Thousands of singletons head annually to Taipei Xia-Hai City God Temple on Dihua Street to up their odds of finding “the one” via a series of rituals that include lighting incense sticks, offering sugar to the gods, drinking sweet tea, and eating wedding cookies. You’ll leave with an embroidered pouch with a tiny Buddha and paper inscribed with your wish inside to carry until your wedding night.
Most people visit Pingxi during the Lunar New Year when thousands descend on this tiny hamlet an hour from Taipei for the annual Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival. During the festival, thousands of colorful, fiery lanterns with freshly painted wishes are launched into the night sky. This magical experience is on offer year-round from the lantern shops that flank Shifen Old Street. Pick a lantern color, add your wishes, launch the diamond-shaped lantern, and hopefully your dreams will come true.
With more than 600,000 artifacts in its collection, the National Palace Museum in Taipei and Chiayi is home to one of the world’s largest collections of Chinese art, ceramics, jade, calligraphy, and more. Two of the most famous pieces are the cuìyù báicài (carved jadeite cabbage) and the ròuxíngshí (meat-shaped stone).
Arguably Taiwan’s most prominent national park, Taroko National Park on Taiwan’s east coast is famous for its iconic Taroko Gorge, a 19-kilometer ecological wonder that was formed more than 2,000 years ago from the rushing Liwu River. Established in 1986, Taroko National Park is emblematic of Taiwan’s late 20th century environmental protection movement. Take a scooter, car, or bus along the Central Cross-Island Highway and stop along the way to trek trails like the 1.37-kilometer Swallow Grotto trail with its famous Indian Head Rock formation and the 1.9-kilometer Tunnel of Nine Turns that provides fantastic views of the marble gorge, river, limestone cliffs, and tunnels.
Whether you want to know if you’ll find love, get rich, or just get lucky, get your fortune told on Taipei’s Fortune Teller Street. The “street” is actually an underground alley with a dozen or so fortune telling staffs beneath Taoist temple Hsing Tian Kong. Inside, fortune tellers, who speak Chinese, English, Japanese, and Taiwanese, use a variety of fortune telling methods like rice and coin divination to see into the future.
A stop at Din Tai Fung on Xinyi Road in Taipei is a must at least once (we bet you’ll go more than once!). What began as a mom-and-pop cooking-oil shop has evolved into the world’s best purveyor of xiǎolóng bǎo (soup dumplings). Each round, soupy bun is hand folded with exactly 18 perfect folds. There are plenty of other excellent dishes on offer, but it’s these humble dumplings that have made this a famous international chain.
Teens dancing in the streets is a fairly common sight in Taiwan. In train and subway stations, on sidewalks, and even at the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, you’ll see youngsters practicing synchronized moves into the late night hours. The memorial hall, in honor of the Republic of China’s National Father, is worth a visit to see exhibits about Sun’s life.
Soar to new heights in some of the world’s fastest elevators and ascend to the top of the former world’s tallest building, Taipei 101. The bamboo-shaped skyscraper has a multi-floor shopping mall at its base, sky-high restaurants, and an observation deck at the top that features glass bottom floors. Look down if you dare!
Akin to Harajuku in Japan, Taiwan’s first pedestrian zone is the place to stroll. Ximending is sleepy by day, but its neon-lit shops and restaurants are packed at night and on weekends with teens and hipsters. Pop-up food vendors, roving street performers, and Taiwanese dressed to impress make this an excellent place to witness Taiwan’s subculture and creativity.
There are so many great night markets in neighborhoods across Taipei, but Shilin Night Market is one of the largest and our favorite because it has the best xuě bīng, finely shaved ice topped with condensed milk, caramelized sugar, fruit, and red beans. Come hungry and sample the cōng yóubǐng (scallion pancakes), Taiwanese sausage, and other treats and peruse the shops and stalls selling inexpensive clothes and accessories, plastic toys, and housewares.
Since the first hotspring resort opened in 1896, the Japanese-style, sulfuric hot springs have served as a retreat to de-stress and renew. Accessible via the Taipei Metro, Beitou is home to more than a dozen hot spring resorts. Our favorites include Spring City Resort’s outdoor hot tubs and the ultra luxurious Villa 32, which has separate male and female sections where guests soak in the nude.
The last stop on the red subway line R leads to Danshui, a fisherman’s wharf lined with barbecue restaurants where locals grill meats and veggies table-side. The restaurant rooftops provide the perfect spot for admiring the sunset over dinner. Below, handicraft shops, food stalls, and arcades make for a lively evening stroll.
Stinky tofu (chòu dòufu), ubiquitous at night markets across Taiwan, tastes much better than it smells. The best place to try this fermented tofu dish with an unmistakable pungent odor is in the foothills of New Taipei City in Shenkeng. The shops along Shenkeng Old Street are famous for their Hakka cuisine and fried stinky tofu served with a heap of pickled vegetables.
The quaint tea shops of Jiufen, a former gold mining town, offer dreamy panoramas of Mt. Jilong and Shenao Bay, particularly at sunset. Located 45 minutes by bus and train from Taipei, Jiufen offers nostalgia and a glimpse into yesteryear. Jiufen, which means ‘nine parts,’ a reference to the nine families that lived in the seaside town before gold was discovered in 1890, offers a respite from bustling Taipei. We love walking down Mt. Jilong via the winding Jishan Street and then exploring the stores, tea shops, and food stall vendors that populate the laddered, cobblestone Shuchi Street, which is lit nightly by round, red lanterns that helped the area gain the nickname “Little Shanghai.”
Across the street from Ximending is the octagonal-shaped landmark called The Red House, a former public market that now houses a tea shop and a collection of micro boutiques with goods made by local artisans, including clothing, accessories, and housewares.
Head to Taipei City Mall for a massage you won’t soon forget. Here, the massage therapists use knives during therapeutic dāo liáo (knife) massages. Blunt meat cleavers are used along qí meridien lines to pound out stress using techniques that are thought to be at least 2,000 years old.
Around the corner from Din Tai Fung’s Xinyi Road location is the start of Yongkang Jie, a street filled with small eateries beloved by locals, bubble tea shops, trendy dessert places, and tiny boutiques. While Din Tai Fung usually gets all the attention, delicious homestyle Taiwanese fare is served at the restaurants and cafes that line Yong Kang Street. Favorites include the lǔ ròu fàn (Taiwanese braised pork over rice) at Lv Sang (呂桑食堂), dànzi miàn (noodles topped with bean sprouts, minced pork, shallots, bok choy, and garnished with one boiled shrimp) at Du Hsiao Yueh, and freshly brewed and shaken iced tea at 50嵐.
Just a 30-minute bus ride from Taipei, the rural mountain village of Wulai is a must-visit. An easy day trip, it’s a great way to experience aboriginal culture as Wulai is the northernmost settlement for Atayal, Taiwan’s second largest indigenous group who have called Wulai home for over 7,000 years. We love the wonderful Wulai Falls and soaking in the rustic, natural hot springs. Perched on the Nanshih River’s edge, the trio of pools formed from the river’s banks are some of the best hot springs in Taiwan (and they’re free!). Make sure to spend time on Wulai Old Street, to sample aboriginal fare like mountain boar, millet, and zhútǒng fàn (rice steamed in bamboo tubes).
Surfers and beach lovers flock to Kenting in Southern Taiwan, where the weather is almost always sunny and warm and the golden sand beaches are pristine and inviting. Take time to visit picturesque Kenting National Park. A trip here isn’t complete without stopping by the Eluanbi Lighthouse, which marks Taiwan’s southernmost tip.
Starting at Nangang in Northern Taiwan and ending at Zuoying in the south, the bullet trains of the Taiwan High Speed Rail whisk riders across Taiwan in under two hours. The ultra smooth, whisper quiet trains are clean, efficient, and comfortable, plus they save precious time for enjoying all Taiwan has to offer.
A two-hour train ride from Taipei, Taichung is populated with theme hotels, which are some of the quirkiest, craziest hotel rooms you will ever experience. One of our favorite “love” hotels is Eden Motel, which has a Batman-themed room and a heart and flower adorned suite, but it’s temporarily closed. Our second favorite is RedDot, which features stylish modern rooms and a massive slide, so you never have to take the stairs back to the lobby.
Explore another side of Taiwanese culture and beauty by visiting one of the offshore islands. The most popular include Kinmen, located two kilometers from Mainland China that was a Cold War flashpoint, Matsu, an archipelago in the East China Sea known for its stone houses set against the sea, Orchid, an island off the southeast coast mainly inhabited by the Tao people that is famous for its Lanyu Flying Fish Museum, and Penghu, an archipelago in the Taiwan Strait whose main source of income is fishing and tourism.
Get a glimpse of Taiwan’s democracy at work by touring the Office of the President. Grab your passport and register for a guided tour of the offices, meeting rooms, and halls that are within the ornate Japanese-era building, which is surrounded by a verdant, finely manicured lawn. The street in front of the Office of the President is often the location for peaceful protests and presidential campaigns.
The white marble Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial to Taiwan’s one-time dictator Chiang Kai-Shek features a museum at its base that includes artifacts from Chiang’s life, including his bulletproof Cadillac. Atop the 89 steps is a bronze statue of Chiang, which is guarded by two soldiers who switch off every hour after a brief marching ceremony.
Start your morning (or end your late night) with a comforting cup of hot or cold dòujiāng (soymilk) from Yonghe Doujiang. The original, located in Yonghe, a district across the river, Yonghe Doujiang is where locals go (Madame Chiang Kai-shek was a patron). Order a yóutiáo (fried stick of dough) to dunk in your dòujiāng.
Nestled in Central Taiwan, Sun Moon Lake is a romantic spot for catching the sunrise or sunset after a day of hiking and fishing. The massive lake 748-meters above sea level gets its name from an island in its center that separates the alpine lake into two parts: one shaped like a crescent moon and the other like the sun. One of our favorite ways to enjoy the lake is bicycling along the Xiangshan Bike Trail.
The 7-Eleven convenience stores in Taiwan are a model of efficiency that must be seen. Each of the island’s 5,000+ 7-Elevens have an ATM and photocopier, a range of heat-and-eat meals, and prepared snacks like tea eggs, and a multitude of services on offer, from postal services and package pick-up to film developing to utility bill payments. It’s rare, even during a typhoon, to see a closed 7-Eleven; the convenience store chain is so popular it even has its own mascot, a dog from outer space named Open Chan, who has his own line of trinkets and memorabilia.
Located on the fan-shaped Lanyang Plain and nestled between the Central and Shuehshan mountain ranges, Jiaosi is an idyllic township on Taiwan’s northeast coast 50 minutes from Taipei. Here, the therapeutic colorless and odorless sodium bicarbonate hot springs are adjacent to the coast, offering soaking opportunities at Jiaosi Hot Springs Park or in the privacy of a hotel room. Jiaosi is also a launching point for day trips to Turtle Island, a turtle-shaped island nine kilometers off the coast.
Singing karaoke is a pastime not to be missed. PartyWorld is one of the best KTV chains in Taiwan. Its fancy private rooms are appointed with comfy couches and a large TV and stocked with mics and thick volumes of Chinese and Western songs.
The northeastern port city of Keelung, about an hour from Taipei by bus or train, is famous for its expansive Keelung Night Market. The lively market is packed with food stalls selling everything from Taiwanese beef noodles to Taiwanese sausage to tánghúlu (candied fruits on a stick). The city is a popular destination during the Hungry Ghost Festival, which is held on the 14th day of the seventh lunar month (August or September), when boats and lanterns are released into the harbor to help wayward spirits find their way.
The southern port city of Kaohsiung is easily accessible via Taiwan High Speed Rail. There’s much to see and do, from hiking Mt. Shou to strolling Love River (named for the scores of couples who come here for romantic sunsets) to indulging in Taiwanese street snacks at Liuhe Night Market.
Traditional Chinese massage is effective at relieving tension. In Taiwan, many masseuses are blind as masseuse jobs are mostly reserved for the blind. One of the best places for a blind massage is Blind Massage, a massage parlour in Taipei, where the inexpensive massages are firm, highly therapeutic, and addictive.
Perched in the mountains on the outskirts of Taipei, Muzha’s tea plantations produce some of the best tiěguānyīn (oolong tea). The tea shops in Maokong, a valley in the hills of Muzha, offer the best views of the city. Watch the sun set (and rise) from cozy tea shops that are open 24/7. The Maokong Gondola is a great and scenic way to access Makong.
Experience Hakka culture in Miaoli in Western Taiwan, which is about 90 minutes from the capital. The area is famous for its wood sculptures and furniture that are on display at the Sanyi Wood Sculpture Museum, and for léi chá, a powdered green tea that is served in nearly every restaurant. Most restaurants will provide a mortar and pestle and show you how to prepare a perfect cup of léi chá.
Head to Taiwan’s pottery capital, which has been producing exceptional ceramics for more than 200 years. Visit the New Taipei City Yingge Ceramics Museum, the island’s first museum devoted to ceramics, and Yingge Old Street to see artisans at work in their shops. You can even make your own pottery.
Rectangular, palm-size pineapple cakes are easy to find in Taiwan, but some of the best come from Chia Te Bakery. Golden, sweet, and slightly crumbly on the outside and stuffed with gooey pineapple in the middle, these two-bite sweets are not to be missed. Be sure to stash a box or two in your suitcase as a sweet reminder of Taiwan.