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The original explorers called Taiwan, “the beautiful island,” for its lush greenery, craggy coast, and volcanic landscape, but the country has so much to offer travelers beyond breathtaking nature. With one of the most fascinating histories in the world, Taiwan was originally discovered by the Portuguese, colonized by the Dutch and Spanish, and ruled by Japan, creating a far-reaching melting pot of influences and a culture unlike anywhere else. Less reliant on tourism than many other Asian nations, the island is authentically their own so if you’re into traveling locally and getting off the beaten path, Taiwan may just be up your alley. Here’s what to do once you get there:
Explore the Markets
If you’re in search of the stereotypical Asian maze of alleys, bustling vendor stalls, and red lanterns blowing in the breeze, Jiufen was the setting for Spirited Away and a great place to get a taste of the culture. But after dark is when the markets come alive. Shilin Night Market in Taipei is one of the most famous, but there’s a night market on virtually every corner of the country (over 300 to be exact). Challenge your plate with regional delicacies and street food like stinky tofu, red bean cake, baobing (shaved ice), and squid on a stick, while playing carnival games, hunting for souvenirs, and catching local dance and musical performances.
Take in the Views
Once the tallest building in the world, Taipei 101 is the tallest skyscraper in Taiwan, which you can see from the observation deck on the 91st floor. To get the best view of the skyline, hike 1.5-km up Elephant Mountain, which is especially beautiful at sunset. Maokong Gondola also offers sweeping views over downtown Taipei.
Try Traditional Food
With cuisine distinctly different than China, the primary dishes of Taiwan are soup dumplings (Din Tai Fung’s are famous the world over with Bourdain calling it, “A deeply religious experience”) and braised beef noodle soup (as spicy as you can handle). Medicinal cuisine is also an interesting subset of culture made with special herb and spice blends believed to have healing properties.
Learn about Tea Culture
Tea in Taiwan is like wine elsewhere in the world, which is one of their major sources of pride and big exports. One of the first countries to smoke tea to coax out its flavor, you’ll learn about the differing levels of caffeine and fermentation in green, black, and their signature oolong and traditional preparation techniques. There are plantations to peruse, a tea museum, dishes made with tea (try the tempura tea leaves), and traditional tea ceremonies to experience.
Hit Up the Instagram Spots
From Hello Kitty shaped foods to Modern Toilet where you literally eat out of a toilet bowl and mermaid ice cream, Taiwan has plenty of attractions made for the ‘gram. Want to try something new? Hit up Snake Alley. Love color? Rainbow Family Village is a vibrant architectural gem. Love kitsch? Visit the theme restaurants and cat cafes.
Marvel at the Temples
Unlike most places where religion is a singular practice, temples in Taiwan are largely a mix of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism with a variety of beliefs and traditions under one intricate, ornate roof. Make sure to visit Dalongdong Baoan Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Mengjia Longshan Temple, one of the most interesting cultural sites in Taipei. My personal favorite was the Dragon and Tiger Pagoda at Lotus Lake in Kaohsiung, which had an entire boardwalk of oversized characters and symbolism.
Hot Springs Hop
With over 150 hot springs sprinkled throughout the country, Taiwan is a great place for rest and relaxation. The north is full of dense forests and river gorges with both developed spas and naturally heated mineral pools believed to have natural healing properties. Beitou is one of the most accessible from Taipei, but the town of Wulai is really where it’s at for a spa-aaah day.
Explore the Country’s Natural Beauty
With nine national parks, Taroko Gorge is one of the most famous for its breathtaking limestone canyons. Hiking, biking, and river tracing (hiking through streams, similar to canyoneering) are popular area activities, but you can also hike to a secret tribal village hidden deep within the park. Sun Moon Lake is another popular spot for kayak tours, while Kenting National Park down south is known for surfing and water spots. You could also cycle the entire circumference of the country in 7-12 days (around 1000 km) if you’re really ambitious.
Visit the Islands
Many don’t know that Taiwan is actually comprised of dozens of islands and archipelagos, some developed, some not, each with their own nature and attractions. The two popular offshore islands to visit are Green Island and Turtle Island, which can be reached by ferry from the mainland. I was taken to one of the more remote ones, Liuqiu, which is comprised entirely of coral, to snorkel with sea turtles and explore by scooter.
Release a Lantern
The Lantern Festival (around February) is one of the most celebrated and photogenic events in the world, but you can actually make and release your own wish lanterns year-round. Set off on train tracks of the town of Pingxi, the scene is fiery and beautiful as the sky comes alive with hopes and wishes sent up to the heavens.
Meet the Locals
I’ve said plenty of times it’s the people that make a trip memorable and aboriginal culture is huge in Taiwan. There are a number of tours where you can immerse yourself in the culture and get to know the natives. See a dance performance at Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village, peruse the crafts at Meinong Folk Village, or take a cooking class to learn about traditional techniques like earth kiln cooking where food is buried underground.
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