Planning Your Trip
Guide to Taipei
When it comes to Western tourists, Taiwan is still under the radar when compared to Japan, Mainland China, and Hong Kong, yet it manages to take the best of all three and jam pack those into a tiny island. From Taipei's pulsing, future-forward districts of Xinyi and Ximen and nightlife, to lush swathes of nature, outdoor activities, and mineral-rich hot springs, stunning arts, creativity, and culture, to excellent transportation options including a bullet train, and wide array of Chinese, Japanese, and indigenous cuisines, Taiwan offers something for every traveler.
Planning Your Trip To Taiwan
- Best Time To Visit: While the majority of Taiwan falls into the subtropical category climate-wise, the winters can be substantially drier, pleasant, and even cold enough during January and February to require a jacket and other winter apparel. Fall's October and November months are a sweet spot when it comes to weather, while March through May are warmer and see cherry blossoms, and are also hot enough to hit the beaches in Taiwan's tropical south.
- Language: As with Mainland China, Taiwan's official language is Mandarin, which became the case post-WWII. However, Taiwan is multilingual thanks to both its indigenous cultures and periods of occupation, and other common tongues include Taiwanese Hokkien and Hakka.
- Currency: The New Taiwan Dollar (TWD).
- Getting Around: The Taiwan High Speed Rail system runs almost the entire length of the island from North to South, with stops in a dozen cities including Taipei, Taichung, Tainan, and Zuoying/Kaohsiung (there may be line extensions in the future as well). A robust assortment of public transportation routes also exist for bigger cities, like Taipei's MRT subway/rail, and buses to and from airports, while taxis are also readily available and not expensive. Conveniently for those who can't read Chinese characters, Uber is present in Taipei (again), while the Taiwan ride hailing app Find Taxi also has an English language option.
- Travel Tip: The Chinese New Year is the equivalent of the West's holiday season, and for as long as several weeks locals take leave of their jobs, close up small businesses and restaurants, and return to their hometowns or head overseas on vacation. It's a double-edged sword for tourists to visit during this time, since on one hand, you'll avoid crowds and lines, and can experience the colorful Lantern Festival and parades, but you'll also find some attractions, activities, restaurants, and stores closed, especially on the New Year itself.
Things To Do
Like Japan to the north (albeit without the snow and subtropical temperatures!), Taiwan offers a diverse and distinct combination of city, nature, culture, and adventurous activities including relaxing, natural hot springs, and more blended all together in the same city! Just Taipei alone can serve as a holistic sampler of everything Taiwan has to offer, yet it's so easy to traverse other cities all over the island thanks to the high speed rail, you can curate an extensive sampler itinerary from North to South.
- Explore Taiwan's Famed Night Markets: If you ask a Taiwanese expat what they miss most about home, chances are they'll say the vibrant night market culture of their homeland. Spread all over the country, with dozens in major cities, these markets offer a wide array of street food and trendy delicacies, including the aptly named stinky tofu, frisbee-sized tapioca flour crispy crusted chicken cutlets, "coffin bread," and much more including clothing, gadgets, and other goods.
- Soak in Taiwan's Natural Hot Springs: Like Japan, Taiwan boasts mineral-rich hot springs and resorts built around them (as well as more humble, public access, low-cost facilities). Conveniently, a handful can be found in the Beitou district in Taipei (which is home to a Hot Spring Museum as well!) while other popular hot spring destinations include Hualien County's Wenshan, Miali County's Tai'an, and Jiaoxi's Tangweigou Hot Spring Park.
- Take in The City Views From Taipei's 101 Tower: The world's largest tower when it first opened in 2004 (and now ranking number 10), this stacked cup-shaped skyscraper features an incredible multi-level observation deck from which you can see both the modern cityscape and natural wonders it's nestled in, plus a xiao long bao (soup dumpling) lunch afterwards at the ground floor's Din Tai Fung restaurant.
- Enjoy the Splendor of Taroko Natural Park: Once you've had your fill of modern metropolis delights in Taipei or another larger city, explore the stunning glory of Taroko through its many trails and iconic gorge.
What To Eat And Drink
The past decade has seen an evolution of Taiwanese cuisine thanks to innovative fine dining chefs who take earthy local, seasonal ingredients to technique-forward Michelin star levels at restaurants like Taipei's RAW and Mume, and Taichung's Singaporean-Taiwanese fusion venue JL Studio. Some of the foods most often associated with Taiwan are accessible, unpretentious, and delicious; most famously, "bubble/boba tea," which entails a tea, juice, or even milk beverage served with a scoop of chewy tapioca pearls. Although only invented in the 1980s, it's now an international phenomenon, and Taiwan sees all kinds of innovative, creative new takes and artisanal brands as well as big chains making the beverage.
Stinky tofu is one of the most popular—and aptly named—street foods in Taiwan, so much that there is even an entire street dedicated to it. Shenkeng Tofu Street is located in New Taipei's Shenking district, and offers many takes on the odious acquired taste and smell, as well as non-stinky tofu iterations and even deserts.
Xiao Long Bao is another Taiwan must-eat. Known in Western countries as "soup dumplings," this staple may have originated in Mainland China and its Shanghainese iteration is found all over the world (a bit flabby, with a thick dough skin that contains soup and usually succulent pork), but Taiwan's Michelin-starred chain Din Tai Fung helped popularize Taiwan's daintier, thinner-skinned, one-or-two-bite sized version both domestically and abroad. You'll find twists on Din Tai Fung's formula and fillings in restaurants all over Taiwan.
Bubble tea aside, the Taiwanese also satisfy their sweet tooth with the signature local snacks, Pineapple Cake and nougats. The former can be found everywhere, including airport shops and 7-Eleven, but for the good stuff, the handmade, real pineapple-filled shortcakes from SunnyHills are a must (but do note their limited shelf life, as with all preservative-free foods). Nougats are also found all over Taiwan, but local gourmands feel the yummiest can be snagged at Taipei's Okura Prestige Hotel shop (they get snatched up fast during holidays for gifts).
Where To Stay
Taiwan offers a pretty wide range of accommodations and price points, from international chains to local luxury and boutique properties. Taipei's Chinese palace-style Grand Hotel is an architectural icon (albeit inconvenient to public transport) and classic. More contemporary, newer properties like Mandarin Oriental, W Taipei, and Hotel Proverbs offer primo city district locations and gorgeous modern decor.
In contrast to Hong Kong, Taipei's hotels are a steal price-wise, especially its local boutique properties (unless there's some major convention or function). Although heavily regulated, Airbnb does have a Taiwanese presence and is currently legal. However, as with some other destinations the legal lines get blurry over specific kinds of stays, some hosts only speak/write in Chinese, and their house rules can be more strict than in other Asian countries. However, price-wise they are extremely reasonable.
For TripSavvy's current top hotel picks, check out the best Taiwan hotels.
Located outside city limits and requiring a chunk of time to commute a la Tokyo's Narita, Taipei's Taoyuan International Airport (TPE) is the country's biggest, busiest air transportation hub and home base for EVA Air and China Airlines (both offer direct flights to and from U.S. cities). Two terminals, with a third in the works, feature oodles of places to eat and drink, from Taiwanese fare to Starbucks and even some local craft beer.
There's a second, conveniently located but smaller area airport, Taipei Songshan Airport (TSA), which services cities within Taiwan and China, and a couple of other Asian countries. Southern Taiwan's Kaohsiung International Airport (KHH) is the second largest/busiest air hub, with more than two dozen Asian airlines and destinations, including Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Macao serviced.
Culture And Customs
Although any business with an international or Western clientele, especially five-star hotel brands, will generally have an English-speaking staff and wording on map apps, English isn't that prevalent on a whole in Taiwan (and English translations for the same road or business can be phonetically spelled out in many different ways). A Chinese-English translation app can be extremely valuable for communicating, and having locals enter the Chinese letter names of destinations directly into your favorite map app is also an extremely helpful tool for finding places and getting around independently of tours, guides, etc. Taiwanese people are typically friendly, unpretentious, and polite, so don't be afraid to ask for assistance!
Money Saving Tips
- The food choices are plentiful and prices are cheap at Taiwan's night markets, making these a perfectly thrifty way to fill up your belly with authentic local fare.
- Another unique Taiwan attraction is its creative art parks: imminently walkable and photo-friendly districts (often comprised of abandoned factories or military facilities) now filled with murals, galleries, craft shops, cafes, and exhibitions (though some of the latter do charge admission). These include Taipei's Songshan Cultural and Creative Park and Huashan 1914 Creative Park, Tainan's Blueprint Cultural & Creative Park, and Kaohsiung's Pier-2 Art Center.
- Book a trip during low season, which is usually both during the chillier winter months and late summer's hot, monsoon-plagued time, which also happens to be the "Ghost Festival," which is when the entirety of Taiwan is believed to be haunted by spirits and it's considered ill-advised to travel (August to September).