Beginner's Guide to Taiwan
Taiwan - the land of night markets, street food, Chinese culture, and drama series with 139762 episodes. My friend and I visited Taiwan recently, and even though the summer heat could easily rival that of Singapore, we enjoyed ourselves tremendously.
If you’ve never been to Taiwan before, this guide is for you - a comprehensive list of the best things to do, eat and see in Taipei and Hualien. See the alleys and walkways that inspired the film Spirited Away, watch the change of guards at Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall or seriously pig out at every street market here.
With this guide, you’ll want to book a ticket right away!
Did you know that Jiufen was the inspiration behind Spirited Away? Not only do the winding alleyways look familiar, but even the food which Chihiro’s parents gorged on are Taiwanese delicacies! A little town set on the hill, Jiufen is full of old-world charm - look down from a vantage point, and admire the rows of houses, rolling hills, and the coast beneath you.In Jiufen, you must visit Jiufen Old Street - stall after stall of food, snacks, and other paraphernalia. Jostle with fellow tourists as you walk past stalls selling pineapple tarts, street food, and souvenir shops. Along the old street are many snaking side paths - I was wandered along the houses, climbed up a flight of stairs, before I found myself emerging in the old street again!Many tourists leave Jiufen before the sun sets for Keelung, but Jiufen is actually prettiest at night. When the sky darkens and the lanterns are lit, Jiufen looks nothing short of magical.
2. Tea House
Jiufen is full of tea houses, and if you liked Spirited Away, it’s mandatory to visit one. I visited Ah Mei Tea House, which inspired the bathhouse in the film. After a long afternoon pounding the streets and walking along the highways, we were in need of some rest. Many of the teahouses in Jiufen offer a spectacular view of the town. At Ah Mei Tea House, while sipping on iced tea and resting our tired legs, we were greeted by a view of Jiufen basked in the glow of sunset.
Ah Mei Tea House
224, Taiwan, New Taipei City, Ruifang District
Telephone: +886 2 2496 0833
3. A-Zhu Peanut Ice Cream Roll
A sweet-salty combination, this was actually popiah skin wrapped around scoops of ice cream, complete with peanut shavings. Perfect in the warm weather, this inexpensive snack is great when you’re hot and sweaty from all that walking.
4. Lai Ah Po Yu Yuan
A stone’s throw away from Jiufen, Shifen is the magical place where your wishes come true. Use a mao bi to pen your wishes on sky lanterns, before standing on the railway tracks and watching them float upwards into the heavens. Be careful, as the train rushes by from time to time!Not to be missed is the Shifen Waterfall, also known as Taiwan’s Niagara Falls. Watch as the water from the seemingly peaceful river cascades and strikes the rocks below. As I leaned over to look, I saw many fishes in the waters near the edge, effortlessly swimming against the strong current. Suspension Bridge
When I caught the local train from Shifen to Jiufen, I stood at the front of the train, watching as the train chugged along the tracks, passing through stone tunnels and navigating the countryside. An experience you wouldn’t get on the MRT here!
As I exited Ximen MRT Exit 6, my first thought was: this looks exactly like Japan’s Harajuku or Shibuya!The shops are open from late afternoon, but the area truly comes alive at night. Neon signboards, street performers, in-your-face advertisements and people peddling their wares along the street - this is the place to shop in Taipei!
I was lucky to have stayed in Ximending. Ximen station is right in the heart of Taipei, and if I happened to be back early, I’d continue exploring Ximending. Encompassing a huge area, there are endless streets to explore, a gazillion different shops, and street food around every corner.
7. Mango Snow Ice
Taiwan’s ‘national dessert’, everybody should try Mango Snow Ice at least once. Taiwan’s mangoes are extremely sweet and ripe, dolloped onto shaved ice in generous amounts, and finished with a scoop of mango ice cream. Perfect for beating the heat in summer!
8. Ah Zong Mian Xian
Ah Zong Mian Xian isn’t a posh stall - there aren’t any seats at all, and in the summer, it’s sweltering. Yet, the queues are never-ending. A bowl of mian xian is cheap, and be sure to add chilli, garlic and vinegar before tucking in. Needless to say, if you’re a mee sua fan, this is the one of the best in Taipei.
9. Hot Star Chicken
How many times have you had Shilin’s fried chicken in Singapore, and wished you could have had the authentic one from Taiwan? Hot Star Chicken is Taipei’s most famous ji pa - imagine a gigantic XXL slab of chicken, deep fried to perfection, and steaming hot. Don't be too greedy - when you eat this, you'll be able to feel your arteries clogging. Save this to share with your friends.
10. i973 Chicken (Ji Guang Xiang Xiang)
Besides Hot Star Chicken, the more unknown Ji Guang Xiang Xiang is equally good, if not better. I spied a long queue, and since the locals know their food best, I decided to grab a bite. Meaty, with just the right amount of flour, I devoured the whole packet even though I usually run away from deep-fried food. You know it’s the real deal when there are even small bones!
11. Yong He Dou Jiang
Xian dou jiang Source
Featuring the best of traditional Taiwanese breakfasts, there’s no need to queue at Yong He Dou Jiang as it’s open 24/7. I had the Shao Bing with Youtiao and Egg - baked flat bread, stuffed with egg and multiple pieces of youtiao. Light and airy, it was a wonderful combination we Singaporeans haven’t thought of. They’re also famous for their dan bing (egg crepe) and dou jiang (soy milk) - also try their xian dou jiang (salty soy milk) if you’re up for it!
The Bugis Street of Taiwan, Wufenpu is where shop owners in Ximending get their wares from. With row after row of shops, it’s easy to get lost here. The clothes are cheaper than in Singapore, although it’s pretty difficult to bargain here. Refuel yourself for more shopping with the numerous street food and bubble tea shops along the way!
13. Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall
A visit to any country is incomplete without learning some of its history. At Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, besides admiring the famous white and blue gate (which was unfortunately under construction when I visited), learn more about President Chiang Kai Shek and his illustrious past. Be sure not to miss the changing of guards, which happens at the start of every hour.
14. National Palace Museum
National Palace Museum has one of the largest collections of Chinese antiques in the world. From ceramics and calligraphy to the famous Jadeite Cabbage, admire the beautiful craftsmanship of the Chinese throughout the different dynasties, spanning over 10,000 years of history. As I admired the artefacts, I couldn’t be prouder to be Chinese.
15. Yang Ming Shan
One of Taiwan’s national parks, Yang Ming Shan houses a whole range of mountains, including Taiwan’s highest dormant volcano, Mount Qixing. Highlights of Yang Ming Shan include the flower clock and zhu zi hu (Bamboo Lake). There are many trekking trails too - spend 2 hours trekking up and down Mount Qixing, and walk past the many fumaroles on your way down to xiao you keng. A word of caution: as the fumaroles emit sulphur and other gases, linger long enough just to take a picture!
Danshui is a laid-back seaside city by the Danshui River. Besides admiring the sunset along Lover’s Bridge or Fisherman’s Wharf, grab some street food and sit down to admire the bobbing boats and people fishing along the river. Similar to the Jiufen Old Street, Danshui Old Street is a collection of street food and souvenir shops, but more spacious and less crowded. I spotted several shops selling handmade goods and souvenirs, all with adorable designs!
17. Ah Gei
One of Danshui’s famous foods, Ah Gei is a gigantic tofu containing glass noodles, sealed shut with a slice of fish cake on top. Break open the tofu, scoop up the glass noodles, and slurp them up with a generous accompaniment of the pinkish sauce. This dish is intentionally filling - fishermen would eat them to refuel their energy before spending a day at sea!
18. Tie Dan
If there’s one thing to buy from Danshui, it’d be its tie dan (iron eggs). Slightly tough and rubbery, these eggs are reminiscent of Singapore’s tea egg, but much more flavourful. The egg goes through a week of braising and drying, using five-spice powder, rock sugar, soy sauce and salt, and no chemical preservatives at all. I recommend the san wei dan as well - a cross between a braised egg and century egg, your parents and grandparents will love it!
19. Tower Ice Cream
When I was younger, one of the first impressions I had of Taiwan was the tower ice cream. Taller than multiple vanilla cones, the ice creams are cheap and come in different flavours!
Taiwan’s biggest county, Hualien is located along the east coast. Surrounded by mountains on one side and the coast on the other, Hualien is very picturesque. Even in the town, I could see the misty mountains in the distance. It’s best to navigate Hualien by renting a motorcycle if you have a license.
20. Taroko Gorge
99% of tourists visit Hualien for one place - Taroko Gorge. The landmark gorge of Taroko National Park, it boasts an abundance of marble and is one of Taiwan’s biggest producers of marble. I spent 2 days at the Taroko Gorge, just to complete all the scenic trails.The start of the Shakadang TrailTaroko Gorge’s best trails are the yanzikou (Swallow’s Grotto) and baiyang waterfall. Watch as the swallows swoop in and out the holes in the grotto, and venture into the waterfall cave at baiyang waterfall to interact with nature first hand!
There are various ways to get around: hire a taxi driver, join a tour group, buy a one-day pass, or take their shuttle bus to the gorge itself. Remember to grab a copy of the bus schedule and note down the timings! Also, slather on the sunblock, and bring along a raincoat, umbrella, and torchlight!
21. Mua Chee
Upon exiting the train station and walking a short distance, I was delighted to discover not just one, but two mua chee stalls facing the road! Being a mua chee fan, I just had to go in. Hualien is famous for their handmade mochi - the skin is thin and soft, and the mua chee is bursting with filling. Definitely a must to eat on the spot!
22. Ziqiang Night Market
One of the two night markets in Hualien, with the other being Nanbin Night Market, Ziqiang Night Market is quite small, but is still full of people. The fruit juice and BBQ corn stalls have snaking queues, and grab your fill of BBQ squid and other street food. There are stalls selling Japanese or local cuisine if you’re in need of some carbs. Otherwise, stop by the games stations and channel your inner child!
23. Coffin Bread
There is more than one coffin bread stall, so head to the more crowded ones. Coffin bread is essentially a slice of deep-fried bread with the middle hollowed out, then filled with your choice of sweet or savoury filling: BBQ pork, chicken etc. Like a sandwich, but better!
24. 北港春捲 (Bei Gang Spring Roll)
The Taiwanese version of popiah: choose your desired filling (pork, chicken etc) and watch as they pile on vegetables and filling, before rolling it up.
25. Raohe Night Market
Raohe was the first night market I’d visited in Taiwan. A short distance from Wufenpu, Raohe Night Market is a long stretch of road, with food and clothing stores squeezed side by side. All sorts of Taiwanese street food can be found here: hu jiao bing, bubble tea, flaming beef cubes, BBQ squid, lu rou fan, oyster omelette etc. If you’re thirsty from the heat, try their Aiyu jelly drink, fruit juices, or lemon tea drinks! Flaming beef cubesAiyu jelly drinkDeep fried milkCheese potato Hu jiao bing (‘black pepper biscuit’)
The clothes here are considerably cheaper too, and if you’re looking for those cute socks, they’re selling 6 pairs for NT100 (S$4)!
26. Shilin Night Market
The famous Shilin night market. Given its fame, it was extremely crowded when I visited, and you’re guaranteed to walk past a dizzying array of clothing shops and street food. Glitzy with huge signboards and bright lights, you can find the usual street food here: deep fried milk, da chang bao xiao chang, Hot Star chicken. Walk around and brace yourself for many chance discoveries: a modern toilet-themed restaurant, an underground food street, foot massages etc!
27. Taipei Fish Market
Originally a traditional fish market, Taipei Fish Market has been redeveloped into one which sells fresh seafood and a whole variety of Japanese food. From salmon and sashimi to frozen seafood and sushi, everything’s the freshest it can be, and cheap too! Grab some fruits home if you wish, and even satisfy your sweet tooth with cakes and macarons.
28. Yong Kang Street
Yong Kang Street is the food paradise of Taipei: trendy cafes, restaurants, eating houses, and even Din Tai Fung’s flagship stall is located here! Not to be missed is Taipei’s famous Yong Kang Beef Noodles and Smoothie House, for your serving of mango snow ice after a bowl of beef noodles. If you’re into cafe hopping, the large variety of cafes along the alleyways will take up your entire afternoon.
Kickstart Your Adventure
Taiwan is the perfect holiday destination - the locals and super helpful and warm, the food and scenery is unbeatable, and it’s so easy to get around by public transport. If you’re ever lost, just approach anyone for help. After all, my friend and I got by just fine communicating in broken Mandarin!
There’re so many things to do in Taiwan,. This guide merely scratches the surface of it all, but it’s a pretty darn good start for anyone who has never been here! Have tons of fun wandering about, exploring the city and most importantly, eat to your heart’s content.