Ten Tips for the Taipei Tourist

It’s been far too long since I last wrote on this blog. I am pleasantly surprised it is still available. Since then, I’ve already been to many other places, watched many other movies, which were very blog worthy but I never had the time (nor patience) to write about.

I recently realized that I must start being a media active contributor rather than being the usual voracious media consumer, as most millennials are wont to do. So, after my recent trip to Taipei, I got the brilliant idea of re-starting this blog again. Yay.

Why Taipei? First, when I was looking for a flight under the 75% off promotion of a local airline, I immediately crossed out other destinations, mainly because I have been to these other places (local and within the region) and anything else out of the continent was out of the question (even with a 75% off promo, it would still be way too expensive) so Taipei were one of the places which fit the bill. Second, I was travelling with cousins, M and C (C ended up not joining us due to work commitments – damn responsibilities always get in the way of fun!), and I wanted to go somewhere none of us had experience with. Lastly, I was so enamored with stories about how good food-tripping was in Taipei, and what better reason was there than great food. Taiwan ended up more than what we expected.

We only stayed for 3 days, 4 nights because we arrived at midnight of Saturday and left Monday evening. But those 3 days, wow, were they full. If we had more energy, we would have stuffed a lot of other activities in there, but we chose not to overextend ourselves.

My first impression: it’s a good hybrid of Japanese and Chinese. The Japanese had control of Taiwan for 60 years, but one can tell that Chinese influence is paramount (the language and script kind of gives it away). My friend’s description is spot on: Taipei is a version of Tokyo.

Without further ado, here are some tips for those thinking of going to Taipei.

  1. Get to know the subway system.

This is true for all cities with efficient train systems. Taipei is one of those. The Taipei Metro (MRT) has 5 lines, and the whole island is easy to navigate using their nationwide rail. Make sure where you’re staying is near a subway station. We stayed at Check Inn Songjiang, a mere 30s away from Xiantian Temple station.

One ride costs anywhere from 20-40 NT$, but weekly passes are available which might be useful if you feel like just staying within city limits.

While we’re at it, props to Check Inn. It may be a bit too hipster for an older person (definitely not my choice if I were traveling with the parentals) but it was warm and cozy, accessible, and cheap. Breakfast was BIG. Breakfast of Champions! Not too shabby indeed.

  1. Bring an umbrella. And sunscreen.

Again, another “the usual.” We visited mid-October, and while monsoon season was over, a week prior to our trip, heavy rains poured in Taiwan. We made sure to bring umbrellas. We did not expect that the weather would be so unpredictable! While just waiting for the bus in Bitou, we experienced: heavy rain, drizzle, intense sunshine, and clouds. All this in a span of 20 minutes. It was all crazy weather the whole we were there (which we partly blame for not having visited all the night markets. HA!) In some subway stations, free umbrellas are available (just get one and return in the next station, if you’re so inclined) but I never saw an umbrella there, so better bring your own.

  1. Send yourself a postcard.

I love getting snail mail, and I think sent postcards are an underrated souvenir. It helps if the place where you’re travelling, like Taiwan, mail service is great. Postage is cheap and post offices are very accessible. A post office was about a 2 min. walk from Check Inn, so that was great. Nevertheless, since the hotel had its own mailbox, I just stuck my postcard in there and the hotel handled the rest. Mail arrived a mere 3 days from mailing, and because I distrust our very own post office, I give a lot of credit to Taiwanese post. Cute postcards are available everywhere, but I especially love those in Jiufen and Pingxi.

Almost all Taiwanese stops also has stamps (think rubber stamp and stamp pad) so your postcards are a nice way of having all these stamps, and a real postage stamp to boot.

  1. Take advantage of the city-wide, even island-wide, free WiFi for tourists.

Yes, they have FREE WiFi! All you have to do is register at any of the Visitor Centers. Online registration is likewise available. I did the online thing before flying in, but you still had to go to a Visitor Center anyway to verify, so better do it all in one go. More information can be found here: Taipei Free WiFi and Taiwan Free WiFI

Please take note that it only works for public buildings, and not outdoors. Still, most if not all train stations have it, and it’s always handy whenever you feel like you need some guidance from the internet.

  1. Go to the Visitor Centers.

Main subway stations have Visitor Centers, where you can register for WiFi (see above) and ask for almost anything touristy. I recommend the Visitor Center in the World Trade Center/Taipei 101 Station, as they were so friendly and helpful, and spoke very good English. M and I went there to ask questions about where to go on our 2nd and 3rd days, and we got well thought out itineraries from the wonderful Piouyuiop (not her real name). They also give out maps, give ideas as to what to eat and where to get them, fastest routes and times of buses and trains, and all sorts of information a tourist might need to navigate Taipei and beyond. Very useful indeed, especially if you have no idea what you’re doing.

  1. Be carefree and ride a bike.

Taipei has a bike sharing program called YouBike and for just NT$5 you can get one of the orange bikes lined along the streets and ride for 30 minutes, then return the bike on any YouBike rack. You can explore lesser known neighborhoods and get in some exercise while on vacation. Just make sure you ride safely (I didn’t see bikers wear helmets and knee pads, but sure, you can do that for safety) and on the right side of the road. From what I saw, Taiwanese drivers are fairly disciplined but since there are many bikers and motorcycle riders, one just has to be extra careful. Also, make sure you pre-planned your route, especially if you can’t speak and read Mandarin.

  1. Skip the mandatory “city tour.”

Because we booked our accommodations through a travel agent, we were subjected to a mandatory city tour, which went to the Presidential Palace (just the front), Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, Martyr’s Gate, a “local temple”, “handicraft store,” and the National Museum. From these, only the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, Martyr’s Gate, and National Museum are worth a visit. There are so many other things in the city that merits a go other than the “local temple” and store. I regret not visiting the Longshan Temple and Ximending, the oldest temple and the premiere shopping district. I kept putting it off, thinking that because of its popularity, it will surely be part of the tour. Apparently not, as it was in a totally different side of the city. Still, I feel like they are worth the visit.

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, Taiwan’s version of the Lincoln Memorial, opens at 9am. If you get there in time, you’ll see the changing of the guard ceremony. Same goes for Martyr’s Gate. The changing of the guard ceremony in the Martyr’s Gate is much more spectacular, though, as the soldiers walk the full length of the temple to the gate to do the change. It’s longer, yes, but deserves the wait. The National Museum is also worth the visit as it houses nearly 700,000 pieces of ancient artifacts. Entrance to the Museum is at NT$250.

  1. Taipei 101. But be prepared.

Taipei 101 is the ultimate icon of the city, overshadowing every other landmark, and for good reason. It towers over the city in such a magnificent scale, it’s very easy to see why that’s all some people know about Taipei. Going there is easy enough, thanks to the subway, but a gameplan is a must to fully make use of your time in that district. Note that the building also has a 5-floor mall (with a nice view of the top) attached to it, and an office tower, so there’s really much to see and do in the building. Not to mention the numerous other malls around the area.

You can go to the observatory, of course, but you can also explore the restaurants (and Starbucks) on the 86th floor. For that though, reservations are a must.The building also has a nice food court, stores to buy the famous pineapple cake and other local delicacies to bring home, and a grocery, for more mundane stuff. Plan wisely, so you can still have time to line up along with everyone else at the building’s Din Tai Fung (located near the subway exit).

  1. Go outside the city.

While there are so many things to do and places to see in Taipei, exploring beyond the confines of the city would do you well, too. Beitou is technically still within the city but it is in the outskirts, and is a good place to go to relax and experience the Taiwanese hot springs. Yangmingshan National Park is also worth a visit for all nature types out there, as is the Taipei Zoo and Maokong (tea farms). M and I chose to go to Jiufen and Pingxi (jump off point is Ruifang), about two hours travel time from Taipei. Jiufen is an old community by the mountainside in the east part of the island, which is the jump off point to get to the Golden Waterfall, etc. Jiufen Old Street is chockfull of street food and souvenir stores as well. Pingxi, on the other hand, is along the old coal mine rail, as is Dahua, famous for its cat cafes and other cat-related novelties, and Shufen, just two stops away from Pingxi. In Pingxi and Shufen, the most famous activity is releasing lit lanterns to the sky, where you can write and draw all your heart’s desires. We went there just when all the shops are about to close (not a bad idea as you can see the lighted lantern go up, and it was a full moon, so it looked extra special) but you wouldn’t be able to see and do anything else. Going in the afternoon might be better so you can still explore and go to the Shufen waterfalls. Another day trip to consider is the Taroko Gorge, a bit farther south from Pingxi.

  1. Fear not the street food.

Finally, the main reason why we went there: FOOD TRIP! While of course xiao long bao is a must try in Taiwan, as is their milk tea and shaved ice desserts, street food is the way to go. And the best way to experience these gastronomical delights is to explore the night markets, which abound. Try Rahou, the oldest, and they have pork buns, seafood, beef soup, braised pork rice, name it. Other street night markets to try are the Shilin Night Market (get off at Jiantan station, not Shilin station), and those markets near Longshan Temple. Those who are picky about food and fussy about presentation need not try. This is one big culinary adventure.

Xiao long bao recommendations include Hangzhou and Jin Din Rou. Not to mention, the very famous Din Tai Fung. I got the recommendations when I asked the people manning the Visitor Center: If you were to eat XLB right now, where would you go? I’m sure their answers would go beyond DTF every time.

Taipei street food scene is very interesting, and language is definitely a barrier. Just point and it should be fine. Just be ready to be surprised!

All in all, Taipei, and Taiwan in general, really surprised us! We did not realize the great number of things we can do and taste there. It would’ve been better if we planned more and used our time more efficiently, but still we got to do a lot of new things. It was a great trip, to say the least.

Here’s our itinerary:

DAY ONE

8am: Breakfast

930am:  Ride subway to Beitou – transfer to Xinbeitou

1030: Beitou hotsprings,

1pm: Lunch at Mankewu Ramen, ride subway from Xinbeitou to World Trade Center/Taipei 101

2pm: Taipei 101

630pm: Rahou Night Market

DAY TWO

7am: Breakfast

830am: subway to Taipei Main Station, train to Ruifang

11am: Ruifang going to Jiufen

4pm: Jiufen to Ruifang, catch train to Pingxi

7pm: Pingxi to Ruifang

835pm: Ruifang to Taipei Main Station

DAY THREE

7am: Breakfast

8am: City tour (Presidential Palace, Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, a local temple, handicraft store, Martyr’s Gate, National Museum)

1230: Lunch at Golden China buffet (there’s a back story here)

2pm: Taipei 101 (again)

330pm: Din Tai Fung, Taipei 101

5pm: To airport!

Overall expenses: less than PhP 27,000.00 (US$550), including airfare to and from Manila, food, and souvenirs.