since I watched Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover, it was sure that I need all the incredible food and hair treatment what Taipei has to offer. Erwan Heussaff confirmed this feeling with his Overnight Guide, so when I booked my flights it was no question that my first stop would be Taiwan.
if you are first time traveler to Asia don’t choose Taiwan. the main reason being, Chinese people have a particular biosphere – call it public transport – and if you are not used to their mass rhythm, you can be easily shocked.
we can clearly state that they don’t have a sense of direction. :) everyone is on their phone, but most of them are not playing or texting: the truth is they are looking at maps and local PT apps. it’s okay that I was on GPS all the time, but I was surprised that we had this in common.
few times I asked for direction, but not even halfway through the question realised the irony. the good point that at least they try. Taiwanese people are mostly kind.. just they don’t really speak English. of course there are a few who do, but the majority got embarrassed when I just appeared (as tall white female in the crowd) and started talking to them. somehow it was sweet, especially after they realized that all I wanted was food. :)
btw white people are so rare, that if you see one you greet each other. during my stay in Taipei I only saw about 10 non Asians and it’s not much as I thought Taipei is more international. maybe it is and just I kept myself away from main areas, however locals are not really prepared for western tourists (needless to say that Chinese tourists are everywhere ;)).
the mustseemustdo is for me not a must. of course I had my bucketlist too – like relaxing in Beitou Hot Spring, drinking a coffee at the highest Starbucks in the world or watching the Zombie run – but this is why travelling alone is so great: I can change my mind anytime without frustration or commitment. honestly, this is still new for me and I’m loving it. on the other hand (and maybe it makes my trip more clear) I’m an introvert traveler. I don’t have the addiction or pressure to talk to people or feel bad to miss all the parties and stories and crazy common things. when I’m interested then let’s do it, but it feels so good to be on my own and just enjoy where I am.
2 days in Taipei are totally enough. you can spend here more time with shopping and with much more food, but the city seems pretty simple: there aren’t too many attractions, you can easily walk through the trendy areas and food is everywhere. there are several museums to learn about the culture, but I personally am more enthusiastic about street art and thanks to POW! WOW! Taiwan could catch also some awesome walls. anyway this time I was more lazy to hunt all the coolness, instead just enjoyed my time with my personal Taipei-music:
before arriving to a brandnu place I like to check the map and some essential info to localize what I need, so my base was in Zhongzheng district, close to Ximen. I stayed in the Space Inn hostel and can highly recommend it: perfect location, clean areas, comfy bathroom and most important they have privacy curtains in the dorms (up to 10 beds I can stay everywhere till I have my separate little world in my bed).
as Zhongzheng is in the central, many popular areas are in a walking distance. the Wanhua district with the Lungshan temple was about 15 minutes and good for a first day walk and acclimatization. the temple itself is really nice and active: I liked just to sit there and watch the school groups in their jogging uniforms, see people to pray with incenses and leave their offerings or how they ask for answer with Jiaobei blocks. Jiaobei is like the 8Ball for me – it works with yes-no questions – and looking at the number of people and the noise of the wooden blocks on the stone was interesting how much Taiwanese believe in it.
the Ximending with all the local shops and cafés and colorful-crowded-loud streets was just on the other side of the Zhonghua road. this is the real nightlife area where local young people spend their time too. it’s super-busy on the weekend, if you want to enjoy a bit more space visit it on weekdays before sunset.
little further to the north in Datong district is the Dihua street, the old market street with those awesome and #noideawhatallthisstuffis Chinese grocery shops. really, I love them with the stifling smell and weird looking things while imagining the ancient secret witchcraft behind what I want to learn too. of course in reality it’s just some sea cucumber or dried fish maw.. or better not to know (?). :)
the Songshan (hipster & fancy art) and Da’an (business & shopping) districts are bit more far from here, but the Taipei MRT is pretty cool and I used it a lot. btw to get to the city from the airport (Taoyuan Intl.) is easy by public transport too, don’t need to spend extra time and money on taxi (especially since they do not seem to be good drivers ;)). if you don’t know which bus to select the staff in the kiosk can help you, the buses stop at main metro stations (or the best at Taipei Main station) and from there everything is easily accessible (except if you booked your stay behind nowhere.. but in this case I guess you still can take a train).
when I’m abroad I like to use the local transport (it’s always fun to see the differences) and have to say that the subway in SEA is awesome: clean, fast (waiting times are just about 2-5 mins) and organized (yes, people adore to stand in line). it helps a lot if you know where you want to go and find the correct connections and exits, but every station is full with signs you need (luckily not only in Hanzi).. or there’s the GPS. actually I used the GPS most often on my phone and now I have an addiction to it. :) it works perfectly: I can pin all my interests and check routes, it locates me really fast and most importantly it works offline too. after this trip I agree that all you need on a travel is a reliable mobile with offline GPS – flashlight – good camera – extra memory card and your preparedness to download the necessary apps.
earlier I was a kind of checklist-tourist: I wanted to see and experience as much as I can, even with a time pressure and the sad feeling of missed attractions (and untaken photos). now I let all this go and focus on simple things, easy walks and don’t push myself into rush. of course I’ve scrolled through blogs and travel sites to get an idea about the possibilities, but in the end – after changing my way all the time – I just picked the highlights.
I dropped the Beitou Hot Spring (because it seemed pretty crowded and I didn’t feel the tiredness to put myself in hot water for hours) but I got the Taiwanese hair wash, because definitely wanted to try that fantastic hair treatment and head massage that everyone raves about. I chose the In% HAIR CAFE (it has good ratings and was really close) and spent there 2,5 hours. at start I had my first 3D latte art ever: an awesome cute panda with banana taste.. it was really hard to take the first sip :). then the head massage, shampooing and blow-drying was all nice – at the beginning bit slow because of the language barriers – but honestly, I haven’t got that WOW feeling. the result was really fresh and shiny and I liked it, but considering that it was my most expensive hair wash ever (total 1600TWD) I cannot say it was worth it – actually I have a really nice hair treatment with awesome massage every time in Budapest, so I don’t see why the Taiwanese version would be so special. and I missed the Zombie Run too: first because it was at the same time and in New Taipei (not even sure I could just stand there and watch :)), second because I was more hungry and if I have to decide, food is always the better choice.
Taipei’s no.1 tourist spot is definitely the Taipei IOI – I love architecture and specially skyscrapers so it was a musthave for me too. for the tower I would recommend to book your ticket online or as in my case, I got discount from the hostel so didn’t have to queue for an hour to buy a ticket – with my voucher it was only 10 mins (of course at the elevator is another queue but it goes pretty fast). the building, the view and all.. well.. it’s not so mesmerizing. I mean really nothing special and so trite – the Petronas are more impressive. I spent there about 15 mins then left due to lack of interest. Taipei IOI is more a checklist place than a cool experience. ohh and this Starbucks thing: the world highest Starbucks is on the 35th floor. before arriving I tried to find out where it is and how to go there but the blog posts are really confusing: most of them say that you have to make a reservation (usually for next day) then have max. 1,5 hours and min. 200TWD to spend here. as it seems for me even more rat race business than Starbucks in usual, I didn’t want to have it anymore. as I can see on pictures the view doesn’t really differ from the top and it’s still cheaper, so you can freely decide which one to choose (anyway not Starbucks, but there’s coffee on the top too ;)).
after a little disappointing observatory visit I made a really cool switch. first planned to see a sunset from Maokong, but I changed this for Xiangshan – better known as the Elephant Mountain. a hiking trail leads up to the big rocks from where you can have an amazing view. of course you have to climb some stairs but it totally worth it (awesome booty and legs rulz ;)). the best time to go is late afternoon to enjoy the full sunset. I was a bit late and arrived already in the evening, but it’s no issue as the trail is lit and the neon city looks really cool. (additional info: if you are confused where to start from the Xiangshan station, just follow the people straight ahead. ;))
and finally let’s talk about the most exciting part of Taipei: the food.
before visiting a new country it is totally worth to follow local foodies (start searching with simple hashtags like here: #taiwanfood #taipeifoodie #taipeieats ;)), because they know well the secret places and the real taste of the current city. for me it was a nice push to know what I want and where to find it – like the significant dishes -, but this is just an extra help, as I always follow the smell and decide by intuition (till now I can state it works perfectly). in Asia I avoid to visit restaurants; Taipei has from street food to Michelin restaurants everything, but who want to try oversophisticated cuisine when they have the best dirty pork on the street?
after arriving and check-in to the hostel of course I needed something to eat. luckily the cross streets in my district were full with local food vendors but had to learn right away that after 9PM is hard to find anything open.. or not dumpling. unsurprisingly they only accept cash and if you don’t speak Chinese (sorry, Taiwanese Hokkien) and no idea what they offer to eat (not all of them has pictures or written menu) a smile can help a lot and just eat what they set before you – I promise it will be delicious. so happened with me on the first night when I could find a soup place right before closing: without common language they were really kind, tried to understand me some parameters, then presented a huge hot beef noodle soup.. with mushrooms and clams. well, these 2 things are generally on my banlist, anyway I was not freaking out, in the last time I’m pretty okay with some mushrooms (no, still no clam) so had a very tasty welcome to Taipei dinner. extra info: usually the soups are basic, but they have a bunch of chili and other stuff to upgrade it according to your taste. use them!
one of my favourite meal during my stay was the first breakfast. the Taoyuan was the closest food street to my hostel and there’s really everything: from soups and noodles to sweets and coffee.. I got here a matcha latte and an egg pancake (dan bing) for take away. some smaller vendors don’t have chairs to sit down and eat there your meal, but as I saw many people just come and run with bags so I picked up mine too and searched for a bench on the main street to enjoy the sunshine and the view of the Friday rush. the pancake was made with spring onion and lot of cheese and of course soy sauce besides. it’s a very typical Taiwanese breakfast and so simple and delicious. I remember exactly the feeling while opening my cute little box and see the smiling slices, then the smile on my face while eating them. after this the matcha latte was the crone of perfection. btw matcha is used here in everything and I love it so tried to eat and drink that much as I can. :)
with this very good and strong first impression about everyday food I wanted to have more.. and I was eating really nonstop. if not a main course, then small things while walking. after a point I even couldn’t stop eating, but who cares. :) other hands I’m a huge fan of 7Eleven in Asia. unfortunately not all the countries have that crazy selection of drinks and snacks, but luckily Taiwan has.. so shops made sure that I got always something in my hand.
the top 3 significant dishes in Taipei are: dumplings, braised beef noodle soup and minced pork rice. each of them is very common, can be found everywhere, served pretty fast and really tasteful. of course there are differences in quality and prices, but to find the best places just follow the one simple rule: where’s queue, it must be good.
dumplings are like the matcha: everywhere and in every form. and even when all food vendors are closed you still can be sure to find an open place with dumplings. :) I tried to taste them all and my absolutely favourite is the simple pork dumpling, preferably on the street. it was a funny feeling just stop and stand in the line, without knowing what are you waiting for: the list was in Chinese only and it was so crowded around the lady who packed the food that I didn’t want to intrude to check. so I waited patiently for my turn then a costumer before me helped to order (as the vendor didn’t even understand the word “pork”) and finally got the juicy-spicy dumplings. my only shame that I bought only 2 pieces, till everyone else left with 12-30. this vendor is located on the Fuxing South Road (at the SOGO) and it’s a real afterwork-stop for locals. stop here too if you’re around!
the braised beef noodle soup (niu rou mian) is here a real hit. I had the best one in Wanhua district (the exact address to find it: No. 69, Luoyang St, Wanhua District) where the lady asked only one thing: “small, medium or large?” I guess this vendor is always crowded but you can find anytime a free place. they are specialized for the beef noodle soup and make it very well. I took a medium one and this picture tells everything – it’s full with meat and noodle, perfectly flavored (if you want you can add extra chili, in this case I didn’t need it), smells and tastes heavenly:
the minced pork rice (lu rou fan) is one of the most simple dishes, but the flavor of the meat and sauce is awesome and perfect with the sticky rice. the Jin Feng (address: No. 10-1, Sec. 1, Roosevelt Rd., Zhongzheng District) is pretty famous and it was my favourite too. you can ask small or large and they have a sort of other dishes too (all looks and tastes delicious). they don’t really speak English but according to my experience in Taipei there’s always someone who helps you. :) maybe this meal shows the most clear quality differences: many places serve mostly fat and oil, but the minced pork rice is best when it’s more meaty. at Jin Feng it is, so let’s try it!
in Taipei you can find a bunch of different sweet things too. my absolutely favourites are: mochi & pineapple cake.
well, with mochi I already have a long-term relationship as it is the best food invention ever. mochis in Taipei are extremely delicious, just not to easy to find; at main stations and food points you can grab them, but of course I want to have my daily mochi even while walking in hidden neighborhoods. anyway if you haven’t tried mochi yet – or are addicted like me – Taipei is a perfect place for that.
SunnyHills pineapple cake is mentioned everywhere to try, so it was a mandatory round. this cake is very common and usually brought as gift, totally mainstream-hipster-fancy, but damn.. tastes so good. everyone can have a taster (one set cake and tea) for free then buy a box of cakes if liked it. the small box has 10 pieces of the soft buttery cake filled with sweet and tangy pineapple and as it has a best before date, for me was not an option to take it home as souvenir – I had to eat all.. and I think it’s started here. I haven’t been a huge fan of pineapple, mainly as it’s not a local fruit in my country. first time I really enjoyed it was in Thailand on a boat trip and since that I appreciated it more and more. now, after I got a pineapple cake every morning (later pineapple juice and so on), I became an addict. comeooon, I get a tattoo too :) I never would have thought that a fruit will mean so much for me, but if I should draw my trip with only one thing, it would be a pineapple.
Taipei clearly offers a lot more: stinky tofu, bubble tea, all kind of seafood and it’s a leader in night markets too.. it would be a pity to miss them. for my part I’m not a huge fan of those markets, simple because I always feel the rush there or the abundance of food makes me crazy. food markets are the best when I stay for longer in the city and have the time to explore everything. now I had time only for a preview, but Taiwanese cuisine totally convinced me.
in summary it’s tricky but I’m not deeply impressed by Taipei. the city is okay, I could walk around like locals, but excluding the food it’s nothing special. I was prepared for the Lucy experience and wanted to have it too, and I can imagine to come back once and sure will have a good and tasty time, but it haven’t caught my soul. (and if after reading this you don’t feel to book your ticket immediately to Taipei don’t be surprised, it means only that you have understood my feelings and impression about the city.)