The final stop of my spring break trip was Taipei, Taiwan. All (cheap) flights back to Tokyo from Vietnam required a stop in Taipei, so Peter and I decided to extend our layover and spend a couple days in the city. A modern metropolis of 2.7 million people, Taipei is known for its night markets, shopping, beef noodle soup, and the iconic Taipei 101 skyscraper. For such a large city, Taipei is very calm, clean, and peaceful. It reminded me of Tokyo in a lot of ways – spotless subways, polite, quiet people, wide boulevards, tall buildings, and lots of shopping – but with less people and a more chilled-out vibe. It was all so orderly and modern, and a bit of shock to the system coming from the chaotic sensory overload that was Vietnam.
We had a day and a half in Taipei. We bought a 24-hour subway pass and saw as much as we could of the city. We weren’t able to see everything, but we managed to squeeze in a lot!
Taipei 101 is easily the most famous landmark in Taipei. Named in part for its 101 floors, the massive skyscraper stands at 508 m (1,666 feet). At the time of its completion in 2004, it was the tallest building in the world (until it was beaten out by the Burj Khalifa in 2009). It is built with elements of traditional Taiwanese design, and is an icon of modern Taiwan. It is also considered the world’s toughest building, and is constructed to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis.
A trip to Taipei wouldn’t be complete without ascending to the top of the famous building. It felt a lot like visiting Skytree in Tokyo or the Empire State Building in New York – super touristy and a little pricy but definitely worth the experience. The view from the top was phenomenal, and we were lucky enough to have clear weather. The building is protected against strong winds and weather by a 660-tonne steel pendulum, or tuned mass damper. You can view the giant damper, and there are even “Damper Baby” mascots created in its honor.
City meets jungle at Elephant Mountain. Taipei is built right up into the jungle-covered mountains that surround the city, and the urban area crawls directly up to the base of Elephant Mountain. Located at the southeast edge of the city, the mountain is named for it’s likeness of an elephant’s trunk, reaching out into the city. A pleasant walk up the Nangang District Hiking Trail takes you to the top and offers a picture-perfect view of the city. Taipei 101 dominates the skyline, more than twice as tall as all the other buildings around it.
The trail has numerous different routes and viewpoints. It was a lovely hike through lush jungle foliage. There were sweet-smelling flowers, birds calling, and butterflies floating about. It was the perfect way to get a taste of Taiwan’s natural beauty, right from the city. You could stand facing one direction and see nothing but jungle, and turn around and see nothing but city. I loved the fact that nature is so accessible from the city. Hiking Elephant Mountain was my favorite part of Taipei.
Liberty Square & Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall
Liberty square is a massive public gathering space framed with three colossal landmarks: the Chiang Kai-Sheck Memorial Hall to the east, the National Theatre Hall to the south, the National Concert Hall to the north, and an impressive Entrance Gate to the west. The Memorial Hall was built in memory of Chiang Kai-shek, the former President of the Republic of China – Taiwan’s equivalent to the Lincoln Memorial. The mammoth scale of the structures astounded me. I thought back to my college world history professor explaining how government buildings and public spaces in China are intentionally built to make you feel small as an individual, and to feel the power of the government. Standing there, in the center of these four imposing structures, I definitely got that feeling.
Taiwan is famous for its night markets. Regular streets by day are transformed into lively outdoor markets at night, selling clothing and goods, fresh fruits, veggies, and seafood, drinks, and all different varieties of street food. We went to the Yansan night market, which was labeled as a “Tourist Night Market” on our map, but turned out to be the opposite. There was not another tourist in sight – it was all locals and everything was in Mandarin. It’s always a humbling experience to be completely illiterate. We pointed and gestured to order some kind of food from a friendly old man with no teeth. To this day I’m still not sure what I ate (maybe some kind of squid?) but it was strange.
Next we visited Shuangcheng Food Street, where we were able to find some slightly more familiar foods. We ate grilled meat and vegetable skewers and drank beer. Finally we visited the Ningxia night market, one of the more famous night markets in Taiwan. We were still some of the only tourists around. Ningxia night market is a little bigger and also has clothing, trinkets, and games. We ate hot dogs and grilled scallion pancakes, and fresh drank sugar cane juice. I enjoyed the night markets. It’s such a fun way to eat – you can try a bunch of small things, and the atmosphere is lively and friendly.
Temple of Confucius and Dalongdong Baoan Temple
There are more than 15,000 temples in Taiwan. In our 48 hours in the country, we made it to two: the Taipei Temple of Confucius and the Dalongdong Baoan Temple. The Taipei Temple of Confucius is modeled after the original Confucius Temple in the Shandong Province of China. It was built in 1879, demolished during Japanese rule, and rebuilt in 1930. The temple had interactive exhibits to learn about Confucianism, an area to try your hand at writing Chinese kanji characters (I was terrible).
The Dalongdong Baoan Temple is one of the most colorful and ornately decorated temples I’ve ever visited. It’s a Taoist temple dedicated to the Emperor Paosheng, the God of Medicine, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The colors were rich and the intricately detailed decorations were and beautiful.
I enjoyed my visit to Taipei, but I’m not dying to go back. For me it was just too similar to Tokyo to be all that exciting. We visited some worthwhile sights, but walking around the streets was nothing special. The city lacked the charm and character that I found and adored in Vietnam. I’d love to return sometime and see the natural side of Taiwan, but for now I’ve got my fill of this little island!