The thick, smoky smell of burning paper wafts up and down the streets of Taipei, Taiwan, as people gather to honor their deceased friends and family. This ancient custom is done as a community in August, the Ghost Month. Dozens of neighbors gather on the sidewalk, clustered around tables of offerings laden with food, fruit, and flowers.
Just a few blocks away at the Taipei 101, giggling teenagers slurp up the tapioca pearls in their bubble tea and snap photos of each other with their smartphones. Taipei’s dozens of enormous, air-conditioned malls are paradise for avid shoppers.
A small Switzerland-sized island 112 miles off the coast of China, Taiwan is a clash of tradition and technology. Taipei is a fascinating city but is not the most obvious tourist destination. If you're a visitor, you will stand out, and people will go out of their way to help you.
City slickers will fall in love with the world-class shopping, museums, food, and night markets. There is also plenty of beautiful scenery nearby for nature lovers, and getting around is easy: the immaculate public transportation is an experience within itself.
Getting Around Taipei
Taipei’s clean and organized MRT is among the best in the world.
At the downtown Main Station, four different levels of trains head in different directions. Don't despair, though; color-coded signs -- both in English and Chinese -- make the system easy to navigate.
Clearly marked walkways maintain the order; no one pushes or rushes. Computerized signs tell you exactly when the next train is coming, and they are always on time -- to the second. During rush hour, a train comes every two minutes. The Main Station kiosk has plenty of free maps and tourist brochures to offer.
TIP: Pre-paid SmartCards are a good choice for anyone planning to stay for more than a few days. Just swipe your card when you enter and leave each MRT station and the machine will automatically deduct it from your account. These SmartCards can also be used at 7-11s or other convenience stores to make purchasing a drink or snack almost too easy.
Museums in Taipei
Taipei has a plethora of great museums but check before you go if the museum of your choice has displays in your preferred language.
The National Science Museum is a good choice for international travelers: it has dozens of interactive displays, movie rooms, and exhibits mostly in English. The impressive National Taiwan Science Education Center, designed like a five-story mall but with science exhibits instead of stores, boasts hundreds of exhibits; unfortunately, they’re only in Chinese.
The most spectacular museum in Taipei, however, is the world-renowned National Palace Museum: an art-and-history museum, which houses almost 700,000 ancient Chinese artifacts.
From cheap night market grub to fancy dining, Taipei’s eateries have options for every budget.
Be sure to try the bubble tea, which many locals drink daily. At the front counter of the colorful stores, you can customize the amount of sugar and tapioca pearls to create your personalized drink.
Traditional tea shops abound, selling special Taiwanese tea such as oolong, green, and jasmine; a charming tea maker will invite you to sit down and offer samples, tastings and explanations.
Go to one of the many night markets to try Taiwanese street food, from the stinky tofu -- you can smell it from a block away! -- to the less intimidating bao. Many stores and restaurants sell the soft, chewy buns with pork, bamboo, beans, or vegetables inside. Convenient and cheap, these filling, baseball-sized steamed buns cost around 50 cents each and are the perfect meal on the go.
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If you ever get tired of the delicious street food and want to dine in, try Din Tai Fung, an expensive-but-well-known restaurant with multiple locations. The restaurant is famous for its delicious dumplings: meat and veggies wrapped in a moist shell and steamed in a bamboo basket. Dip them in a vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, and chili mixture, and then bite into a corner, slurp out the soupy juices, and stuff the rest into your mouth.
What to See in Taipei
Don’t miss the Taipei 101 tower, an impressive icon that until 2010 was the tallest building in the world!
Night markets are a fun place to try local fruits and foods, and to shop for the latest fashions. These stay open late and are a fun way to see the stylish locals browsing the nighttime boutiques.
For those more keen on nature, get out of the city and enjoy the countryside in the outskirts of Taipei or beyond. For local excursions you can take the MRT to the end of the line in any direction to beautiful, green mountains adorned with trails and butterflies. If you have extra time, try exploring the country by train, motorbike, or bicycle.
Three types of trains depart daily from the Taipei Main Station. The speed rail zooms 185 miles to the southern city of Kaohsiung in just 96 minutes. The slower options have more to offer for the sightseer with stunning ocean views.
For the adventurous traveler, a big trend is to go around the country on two wheels. Many choose to cruise down the east coast, a beautiful and safe road that hugs the coastline. The highways have large lanes for bicycles and motorbikes, and there are plenty of shelters and rest stops made for weary cyclists in mind.
Nature lovers will revel in the amazing coastline, mountains, gorges, waterfalls, birds, and butterflies in Taiwan’s eight national parks. One of the best is Taroko National Park, where winding tunnel roads take tourists on a journey alongside a 300-meter-deep gorge carved into the marble mountains.
If you have a few days to spare, take the train down the east coast from Taipei to Hualien, and then rent a scooter for about US $10 per day to explore the local mountains or seaside. In Hualien, try the mooncake; if you’re there in summertime, visit the famous Alishan Mountain when the orange montebria flowers are blooming.