Ten Days in Taiwan: Things to Do, Places to See

Taipei, Taiwan is the perfect “starter city” for newbie tourists totally unfamiliar with Asia. The public infrastructure is incredible, the amenities are cutting edge, the people are friendly and there’s just the right amount of foreignness (shrimp fishing, hot springs!) to entertain but not overwhelm fresh-faced visitors. After all, there’s always a Starbucks or McDonald’s nearby. My friend and I came to this conclusion after spending a few days in Taipei. It was a fun trip, but I wanted to get out of the Taipei bubble and see the rest of the island of Taiwan.

Selfie with Mark (left) and I on the Maokong Gondola.
Mark (left) and I on the Maokong Gondola.

I returned to Taiwan six months later – this time with my brother Mark – for a ten-day trip that covered the entire loop of the small island. I was spoiled, as my brother is fluent in Mandarin and made all the arrangements super simple. For more about him, you can read about his experience on a Chinese dating show. His Chinese language skills made ticket purchases and other things that would be a hassle extremely easy. Others might not be so lucky if leaving the city of Taipei.

For this trip, I expanded my horizons and planned our more than one-week itinerary with lots of things to do: Taroko National Gorge in Hualien, Tainan City and some day trips around Taipei. After all that, we’d love to come back and see more.

 

The Route

  • 2 nights in Taipei
  • 2 nights in Hualien/ Taroko Gorge National Park
  • 2 nights in Tainan
  • 3 Nights in Taipei

Some Stats

  • 861 kilometers traveled by train in a loop around Taiwan
  • $30 is the cheapest hotel we had (Lien Jan Hostel, Hualien). Recommended.
  • $71 is the most expensive (Metro Hotel, Taipei). It was alright.
  • The twin room at the Cube Inn hotel was 53 square feet. We’re both six feet tall. It was cozy.
  • 2 meals eaten in proper restaurants (Subway doesn’t count). The rest was street food or 7 Eleven.

Day 1: Landing in Taipei, Eating at the Shilin Night Market

As soon as we departed from Taoyuan International Airport by bus, I knew I was in a whole different place compared to my home of Cambodia. Every seat on the bus into the city had screens, complete with Hollywood films, Internet, and charging ports for devices. It was the most comfortable bus ride I’ve ever been on and I was almost disappointed that it was just 30 minutes to get to the central Taipei Railway Station.
Penis cakes at Taipei's Shilin night market

After some confused wandering within the massive railway station as the sun was setting, we found the brilliantly located Inn Cube located just next to the station. I don’t think there’s a more centrally located hotel in the entire city. The rooms are inspired by those tiny Japanese sleeping hotels, and we had 5 square meters all to our self. Just enough space to sleep and put our suitcases. Still, the beds were comfortable and the prices were cheap. We’d recommend it for a short stay.

With a quick rest, we went to the famous Shilin Night Market via subway. Taiwan – and especially Taipei – has night markets aplenty, which are best for odd snacks, clothes shop and an almost carnival-like atmosphere. The Shilin Night Market is one of the biggest in the country and engulfs several city blocks when the sun goes down. We stuffed our faces with enormous pieces of fried chicken, dumplings, sausage, corn on the cob and more. We didn’t opt for the giant waffle penises. Maybe next time?

Day 2: Stranded by the Maokong Gondola

One of the best things about Taipei is the amount of easily accessible day trips. The public transportation system is incredibly efficient, with clearly marked bus routes and a far-reaching subway system that takes you almost anywhere you need to go. The EasyCard, which can be refilled at all the stops, lives up to its names and is a quick way to get around since any amount of value can be added. It even works at Starbucks, 7-Eleven and other stores.
My brother enjoys the view on the Maokong Gondola in Taipei

We took the elevated subway south, passing modern skyscrapers that gave way to tiny villages in the countryside, to the Maokong Gondola. This 5-kilometer lift costs just $1.60 (USD) for the entire trip. We were expecting large crowds, but the wait was just 10 minutes. The forest views were incredible as we made our way to the town of Maokong.

The area is known for its tea growing, and tea shops were in abundance as walked along the scenic path. We walked through the forest all the way to the previous gondola stop of the Chi Nan Temple. That’s when things went bad.

A huge downpour started and we sought refuge in the temple. This was a hard rain that relented maybe 45 minutes later. By then, the Maokong Gondola shut down due to the weather. Huge crowds were waiting outside the gift shop and cafe by the stop. We were given numbers and waited for our spot in the slow-moving buses that ferried people down from the mountain. After two hours we made it down. Despite the hassle, we liked the area. You’d never know it’s just on the outskirts of city of several million.

Heavy rain at Chi Nan Temple in Taipei, Taiwan.
We planned to see a baseball game that evening, but the rain would start and stop for the rest of the night and we opted for a dryer activity. We caught a movie at the high-end Q Square mall next to the Tapei Main Station. The $10 ticket price was triple what I’m used to in Phnom Penh. My brother, hailing from Beijing, said it was a deal.

Day 3: Taking the Train to Hualien

We left early in the morning to head to Hualien, which is the base city to visit the Taroko Gorge National Park. The three-hour train ride was scenic, with steep, green mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. Really good value tickets for just $11 each. The city is small, with just 100,000 residents, but quite “developed” with a casino, fancy shopping areas and a grocery store selling 24-ounce cans of Miller High Life. There was even a Subway and I insisted that we eat there for my first – and only – sub sandwich of 2013. My favorite part of the city was the imposing mountains in the background.
We stayed in the Lien Jan Hotel (which confusingly is called the I Love You Hotel on the sign). It was just $30 a night and probably our favorite hotel we stayed in. The only downside was that the staff weren’t the best English speakers, but my Mandarin-speaking brother made that not a problem for us.

Day 4: Exploring Taroko Gorge

Taroko Gorge is a highway and a national park all in one. We bought a one-day pass for the tourist bus and after an hour of riding, we made it to one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. The views at every turn were incredible, with sheer cliffs, greens trees and lots of hiking trails off the main road. We walked for about 20 kilometers, passing through ravines, man-made tunnels, suspended bridges and a slow trickle of cars and buses. I really don’t have much else to say, as these photos say it all. This is a must-see attraction for anyone coming to Taiwan.

Day 5: Cruising Down Highway 11 and Departing Hualien for Tainan

Mark and I rented motorbikes and found the perfect route for novice riders such as our ourselves. Highway 11 isn’t used that much anymore, but it’s in perfect condition and sits adjacent to the coastline. Like most of Taiwan, steep mountains sit on the other side of the road. The ride was perfect, with no traffic at all and a pretty view of the ocean for as far as we could go. There are some small villages and many nice-looking bed and breakfast places along the road. With more time, riding along this highway for a couple days would be a dream trip.

After a couple hours of riding, we went to the train station to catch a ride to Tainan, the oldest city in the country. The trip took about 6 hours and cost $30. We stayed at the Fude Lime Hotel, which was like stepping into a time machine. The garish decor, complete with a “classy” portrait of a nude woman, seems to come directly from the early 1980s. The included breakfast was pretty good though and despite the tacky look of the hotel, it was decent for $40 a night.

Day 6: Exploring Tainan and Anping

Our hotel offered free bike rentals, which were in dubious condition and a bit unwieldy for taller people like my brother and I. We made the best of it and peddled about 6 kilometers to the old section of town called Anping. Here, old forts and re-purposed merchant houses from the 19th century stand out as landmarks. My favorite was the Anping Tree House, which was an old warehouse that has been left to nature and become enveloped in roots. Some walkways provide excellent views of the crumbling – yet beautiful – building.
After cycling around and seeing the sights, we rode back to the hotel. At night, we checked out some of the historic temples within the main part of the city. The most impressive of them all was the Chikator Tower, where some traditional musicians were putting on a free concert. The highlight of the evening was the incredible mango shaved ice we ordered and from a vendor.

Day 7: More Tainan and Back to Taipei

With a few hours to kill before our train departed, Mark and I dropped our bags off at the train station and wandered around the main part of the city. My mission was to find a pair of running shoes, but not one store had a pair that could fit my American-sized feet. We stopped in the Literature Museum, which was also a library. There was a meteorology museum that was pretty much empty.

We both liked Tainan, but we weren’t overly impressed. It may be the oldest city in Tainan – and many of the landmarks have been remarkably well preserved – but it’s overwhelmed by the rest of the city. The Anping section was more interesting but everything can be seen in just a few hours. I guess our expectations were higher than they should have been.

We boarded our train and after six hours ended up back in Taipei at night. For our final leg of the trip, we stayed at the Metro Hotel, which was a generic but well-maintained business hotel for $70 a night. The WIFI was terrible yet the breakfast was good.

At the last moment, we decided to go to Taipei 101, the second tallest building in the world. We were lucky because the constant rain and overcast sky relented when we returned to Taipei. We were a little leery of going to such a tourist trap that costs as much ($30 per person) as some of our hotel rooms. Seeing the city from the perspective of 101 floors up and learning about the incredible engineering of the building was pleasant enough, but this it isn’t really a thing someone does twice.

Taipei 101 in Taipei, Taiwan

Day 8: Mark’s Birthday

I had been holding on to a package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups that I bought in Phnom Penh. It’s my brother’s favorite candy and can’t be found in his city of Beijing, so I thought it was an appropriate gift for his 25th birthday. Unfortunately, the candy had melted into a lumpy mess. It’s the thought that counts, right?

After all the traveling we did in the previous week, we decided to take it easy and take the subway to the Beitou Hot Springs on the outskirts of the city. I had been there during my previous trip and felt refreshed for days after. Admission costs just a dollar or two to the public springs, so crowds can get heavy. It wasn’t too bad when we were there, with lots of retired old timers soaking in the three tiers of pools.

Beitou Hot Springs in Taipei, Taiwan
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Stepping into the pool was heavenly and timed passed quickly. The people were incredibly friendly and were happy to practice their English skills on us. Mark and I were both big fans of the cold tub, and we’d switch between the different temperatures regularly. The hottest pool is fairly extreme and I only spent a few minutes in that one. During my first trip, my friend who accompanied me lasted all of 5 seconds before getting into the cooler pools.

I took Mark out to a movie after the springs. At night, we went to the Taiwan Brewery for some brews. This massive beer garden is in a warehouse in the headquarters of Taiwan’s biggest brewery. If it looks like you’re going the wrong way, odds are you’re going the right way as it kind of feels like you’re sneaking around the massive headquarters until you come across the beer garden. It was a weeknight, so the place was fairly quiet. The beer was good, as were the steamed peanuts.

Day 9: Daytrip to Jiufen and Jinguashi, Plus a Baseball Game Fail

About 90 minutes from Taipei by bus is the incredible coastal town of Jiufen nestled in the mountains. The views are spectacular and the area was the inspiration for some of the scenes in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. We climbed a mountain near the center of town. The views were well worth the price of becoming hot, sweaty messes during the ascent.

The next town over, Jinguashi, is also beautiful. The area fell on hard times when the gold mine shut down several decades ago, but tourism has taken over and you can now walk through the old mines and hike around the mountains. After living in Phnom Penh, I forgot a place could be so green and mountainous.

We could have spent more time in the two towns, but I was keen to head back into the city and see a baseball game since the weather was agreeable. We rushed onto the subway and then caught a cab the rest of the way to Tianmu Baseball Stadium. Alas, we must have read the schedule incorrectly. The stadium was closed and there was nothing going on that day. My dream of seeing a baseball game in Asia is sadly on hold (update: I did catch a game in South Korea and loved it).

Day 10: Goodbye Taiwan

I had an earlier flight than Mark, so we walked together to the bus stop and I said farewell. Saying goodbye to family is always difficult, but he visited me in Cambodia four months later. However, departing from Taoyuan International Airport is always a pleasure, because despite some big crowds it’s probably the most passenger-friendly airport in the world with a library, lounges aplenty and free samples of whiskey. Taiwan knows how to make both a first and final impression.

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Karge

Karge

I'm an American freelance writer who spent a couple years living in Cambodia. Now I'm on the move again and traveling all over the place. I'm willing to try any bizarre liquor that's presented to me. Any recommendations?