A compact 245 miles from its northern to southernmost tips (and 90 miles wide at its thickest section), it's easy to traverse the entirety of Taiwan in a day thanks to its sleek High Speed Rail system. But why rush it? There are plenty of cities and natural wonders alike to take in here including Jiufen—the picaresque cliffside village that inspired Studio Ghibli's "Spirited Away"—and coveted wedding and honeymoon destination Sun Moon Lake.
While there are hundreds of activities, places, and things to see and do in Taiwan, here are our current 15 musts.
Frankly speaking, Taipei lacked the sophisticated, modern city planning and grandeur of Hong Kong and many of mainland China's capital cities until the early 2000s. Oh how things have changed! Now you can take in the glorious skyline and juxtaposition against nature from 1,474 feet in the air via the Taipei 101's observation deck.
The world's tallest skyscraper when it opened in 2004 (as of 2020, it ranks as 10th), it also has a unique, suspended golden-hued 730-ton damper globe (which keeps the tower balanced in event of an earthquake). On the lower levels, there are shops and restaurants like Din Tai Fung, the gold standard for Taiwanese-style soup dumplings.
Enjoy Tea and Cinematic Views in Jiufen
It's not often a Japanese animated classic comes to life, but wandering the winding, sloping hillside alleys and stairways of Jiufen is just like entering the world of Studio Ghibli's fantastical, Oscar-winning film "Spirited Away" (albeit without the spirits and dragon). A former gold rush town—and actual setting for 1989 historical drama, "A City of Sadness"—Jiufen is equal parts tranquil, picaresque, and bustling thanks to its ocean and lush mountain views, rustic architecture, historic (and wonderful) teahouses, and endless vendors of street food, crafts, and souvenirs.
Chill Out in a Hot Spring
Like Japan, Taiwan is peppered with mineral-rich natural hot springs, ranging from economical and no-frills to family-friendly to luxurious, exclusive resorts nestled by nature. To experience a hot spring without leaving Taipei, you only need to visit the Beitou district. Consider the appropriately-named Grand View Resort (which boasts indoor and outdoor white sulfur springs or the comparatively low-frills 24-hour Kawayu hot springs.
Elsewhere in Taiwan, Yilan County's Jiaoxi Hot Springs entails a large range of facilities including a giant public pool for soaking one's feet. Zhaori Hot Spring on Green Island—accessible via a 50-minute ferry ride from the southeast coast's Taitung—is one of the world's three saltwater hot springs, heated by volcanic lava and surrounded by glorious ocean views.
As with a Japanese onsen or a Korean spa, Taiwan's same-sex facilities have a mandatory no-clothing policy.
Savor Taiwan's Distinctive Soup Dumplings
Although the steamed soup dumplings (xiaolongbao) hail from mainland China—and are most frequently associated with Shanghai–Taiwan put its own spin on things. Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung has perfected and defined Taiwanese-style xiaolongbao: a fig-sized pouch with a precise 18 folds in its chewy dough skin, which contains a succulent nugget of pork and savory broth.
Of course, there are many varieties of xiaolongbao at hundreds of venues across Taiwan, from decadent truffle to bitter melon to shrimp, although none are as literally colorful as those at Paradise Dynasty. A Singapore-born chain, the Taipei location must have poached its staff from a Din Tai Fung, since their signature eight varieties, all featuring different colored skins,are utterly precise, consistently excellent. Don't miss the black garlic, red Sichuan pepper, and yellow cheese—its pork bursting with gooey, stringy cheese.
Hike Taroko National Park
This national park, located in Hualien county just south of Taipei, is a gem for outdoorsy types and nature lovers. There are dozens of trails for hiking, mountaineering, bicycling, and simply taking in scenic views. The most famous are the dramatic Taroko Gorge and the stunning, Tunnel of Nine Turns trail (which was reopened in 2019). Longer, more advanced trails include barrier- and rail-free Zhuilu Cliffs' hiking trail. These trails are indeed difficult so be sure to consult the Park's website or consider a guided tour in advance: several are offered by Silks Place Tarako, a five-star hotel located within the park itself.
Get Zen At Kaohsiung's Fo Guang Shan Monastery
Southwest Taiwan's major port city of Kaohsiung (population over 2.773 million) is a draw for Buddhists and temple seekers thanks to its Fo Guang Shan Monastery and Buddha Museum. Highlights of Taiwan's largest Buddhist temple and campus include a towering 120-meter high golden statue of Buddha Amitabha and more than one thousand additional Buddha incarnations, deities, and other statues spread across its shrines, four temples, and other buildings. The museum's pagodas include fantastic selections of relics, exhibitions, and more.
Experience Taiwan's Annual Lantern Festival
Taiwan's annual lantern festival sees thousands of imaginative and colorfully decorated floating paper lanterns take to the skies in cities and towns all over the island. However, the most famed and oldest incarnation—the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival—which takes place an hour or so east of Taipei in the hillside town of Shifen, is a truly magical experience thanks to its tradition of releasing lit rice paper lanterns into the sky with your wishes written on them. Summertime's Taitung Hot Air Balloon Festival is also quite the Instagram-worthy spectacle.
Eat Your Way Through Taiwan's Incredible Night Markets
Reportedly dating back to the Tang Dynasty in the 9th century, Taiwan's night markets are filled with the scents of street food, from frisbee-sized crispy chicken cutlets to "coffin bread" stuffed with various fillings, and the unmistakable national favorite stinky tofu. You'll also be able to find trinkets, clothing, craft beer, and home goods at these markets. Everyone has their opinions on which night market is the best, but a few essentials for your list include Taipei's Shilin and Raohe, Taichung's Fengjia and Yizhong, and Kaohsiung's Ruifeng. No matter which local night market you visit, however, you're guaranteed at least a few tasty bites!
Take in Taiwan's Creative Art and Culture Parks
Taiwan has seen former factories, abandoned industrial eyesores, and government compounds transformed into vibrant, creative, family-friendly destinations in a growing number of cities. In Taipei you'll find the trailblazing Huashan 1914 Creative Park; Songshan Creative Park, which boasts a boutique hotel, bookstore, and arthouse cinema from Eslite; and Taiwan Contemporary Culture Lab, opened in 2018 in the former Republic of China Air Force headquarters.
Opened in late 2015, Tainan's Blueprint Cultural & Creative Park is chock full of colorful contemporary murals and installations, and shops within former heritage houses. Mural lovers will also enjoy a stroll and plenty of selfies around Kaohsiung's Pier-2 Art Center. In Taichung's South District, an early 1900s brewery is now The Cultural Heritage Park, largely dedicated to culture-related exhibitions and activities in its dozen-plus buildings.
Explore Quirky Themed "Villages"
Some quaint and heritage villages throughout Taiwan have been turned into quirky attractions worth a detour. Taichung's Rainbow Family Village lives up to its name thanks to village elder and erstwhile military man Huang Yung-Fu, who painted streets, houses, and pretty much every surface with all types of critters, people, and patterns.
Taipei's rustic and cliffside Treasure Hill Artist Village (built during a housing shortage circa the 1940s for immigrants) is now home to dozens of artists, who transform the winding lanes and houses into murals, ever-changing art installations, and shops.
A bit off the beaten track but worth it for retro architecture lovers, Wanli UFO Village is populated by flying saucer-esque, abandoned 1960s Futuro and Venturo houses, while Nantou's lush and comparatively lively Xitou Monster Village draws its inspiration from Japanese ghosts and creepy creatures (and even boasts a boutique hotel or two for overnighters).
Explore the History of Taiwan's Former Capital
Taiwan's capital city from 1683 to 1887, Tainan is home to the National Museum of Taiwan History, which explores its indigenous culture and history of occupation by the mainland Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Dutch. The Dutch influence can be found and explored at Fort Zeelandia, aka Anping Old Fort.
Try Some Stinky Tofu
Exactly what it sounds like, this soy-based delicacy is to Taiwan what durian is to Thailand and what stinky cheeses are to France. Fermentation gives the tofu a funky, pungent stench and it's a staple at Taiwan's many night markets. If you're a fan, or adventurous eater, be sure to visit New Taipei's Shenkeng Old Street, which is basically dedicated to an endless array of variations, including spicy, fried, filled, and even some non-stinky tofu treats like ice cream and cake.
Experience Taiwan's Booming Craft Beer Scene
Still under the radar internationally, Taiwan's craft beer makers have nonetheless received recognition and awards, including a World's Best Dark Altbier honor in 2020. Taipei in particular is booming with dedicated craft beer bars and restaurants with local selections on tap, including the excellent Sunmai (the longan honey lager is a must). Yet surprises await all over Taiwan. Northwest Taiwan's Dahu township is best known for its abundant, delicious, oversized strawberries—January and February are peak tourism times for visiting and picking—and its Dahu Wineland Resort produces a juicy seasonal strawberry beer.
Relax at Sun Moon Lake
Almost smack dab in the middle of the country in Nantou County, Sun Moon Lake is a major destination for wedding portraits, romantic and family getaways, and outdoor activities. Sun Moon Lake got its name from sections shaped like a round sun and crescent moon and is Taiwan's largest natural alpine lake. It's nestled within lush mountains, features a small island in its middle, while a bikeway weaves around the perimeter. Another unique aspect of Sun Moon Lake is its indigenous tribes, the Thao and Bunan who share their cuisines and various cultural experiences with visitors.
Snap a Picture at High-Heel Wedding Church
Located between Taichung and Tainan, Chaiyi County features an offbeat treat in this striking, high heel shoe-shaped 17-meter high wedding venue. Constructed from 320 panes of blue glass in Chiayi Budai Seascape Park, this secular "chapel" pays tribute to a comparatively somber bit of history: the blackfoot disease epidemic that struck Taiwan's southwest coast circa 1969, which resulted in many young women's feet being amputated. Opened in 2016, now people of all identities can enjoy a wedding inside glamorous high heel, or just snap a photo of it.