by Juanico Fernandez
Taiwan has always had a special place in my heart. I remember visiting Taipei 10 years ago, back when Taiwan was still under everyone’s radar and Taipei 101 was still the tallest building in the world.
I remember traveling around this tiny island nation that has a little bit of everything, from mountainous landscapes and beautiful beaches to a sprawling nightlife in the metropolis. No to mention the country has four seasons, meaning it gets hot during summer and it can snow on some parts during winter.
All this combined makes Taiwan the perfect travel destination for Filipinos.
Fast forward 10 years and Taiwan is now considered the “Hidden Gem of Asia”.
While everyone is busy planning their trips to Japan and Korea along with thousands of other tourists, Filipinos are missing out on what Taiwan has to offer, especially being just 1 hour and 30 minutes away from Manila. Taiwan remains relatively unknown to most Filipinos, despite them being our closest neighbor.
If you plan on visiting Taiwan but aren't sure where to start or where to go, don’t worry--I’ve narrowed down my list and compiled the eight must-visit destinations around Taipei for first-time visitors.
1. Wish upon a Sky Lantern at Shifen
Just 1 hour away from Taipei City, Shifen Old Street is one of the most famous day-tour attractions outside Taipei. Originally built as a train station to transport coal, this small picturesque town is now famous for its Sky Lanterns.
Built around a still functioning old Rail Station high up in the mountains, the place provides tourists with the opportunity to write down their wishes and release sky lanterns all day long for only NT$100 to 200. Back in the day, it is believed that writing your wishes on Sky lanterns would carry your prayers to the sky.
Aside from releasing sky lanterns, tourists can also shop for interesting souvenirs and snacks from the antique looking shops that run along both sides of the train track. Shopping here is perfect if you plan on buying souvenirs for your friends and families back home.
Another cool thing about Shifen is its railway. If you wait long enough, you might catch a glimpse of a train running right through the old street.
How to Get There:
By Train: Take East Line train to Ruifang Station -> Pingxi Branch Line -> Shifen Railway Station
By Bus: MRT Muzha Station -> No. 15 Taipei Bus -> Shifen
Read More about Sky Lantern: http://www.ourawesomeplanet.com/skylantern
2. See the Niagra Falls of Taiwan
Located just half an hour away from Sky Lanterns, Shifen is also home to the famous Shifen Waterfalls also known as the Niagra Falls of Taiwan. Although much smaller than the actual Niagra Falls, the scenic waterfall itself looks like a scene out of an old traditional Chinese painting.
Entrance is free, but before you reach the waterfalls, you first have to hike down several paved walkways and pass through a creaky suspension bridge that was also used to transport coal back in the day.
The hike was fairly easy, and the surroundings certainly made it feel like a walk in the park, plus you could hear the sound of the soothing waterfall from a mile away.
We spent almost an hour at Shifen Waterfall, and along the way, there were a bunch of souvenir shops, food stalls, and scenic resting spots.
3. Eat at a Michelin Star Restaurant
We’ve all heard about the Legendary Xiao Long Bao (steamed dumpling) in Taiwan that a lot of Pinoy foodies are raving about. Established in 1974, Din Tai Fung was among the "Top 10 Restaurants of the World" by New York times and was awarded One Michelin star three times in its branch in Hong Kong.
Simply lining up to get a seat in any Din Tai Fung is part of the experience. We’ve been told that the waiting can vary from 30 minutes up to 2 hours depending on the day and timeslot, so be sure account for that in your itinerary.
You can decide to eat at the Din Tai Fung inside the Taipei 101 Mall branch to make it convenient to go to Taipei 101 observatory after lunch.
A centerpiece of the restaurant is the see-through Xiao Long Bao preparation kitchen where you can see how each dumpling is meticulously prepared. Din Tai Fung's original shop is located next to Yongkang Street.
A must-try and my personal favorite is the oozing Chocolate Lava Xiao Long Bao. I love eating it in one bite to enjoy the liquid chocolate with a sticky bite from the Xiao Long Bao skin. As always, best eaten while hot.
Read More about Din Tai Fung: http://www.ourawesomeplanet.com/dintaifung
4. Stand on top of the World
Once hailed as the tallest building with its 101 floors, Taipei 101 is currently the 10th tallest man-made skyscraper in the world. It is still considered a marvel of engineering up until now. (General Ticket starts at NT$600)
In 2004, it also won the Guinness World Record for the world's fastest high-speed pressurized passenger elevator with a top speed of 1,010 meters per minute. It was so quick we could feel our ear drums popping, and in a matter of 37 seconds, we already arrived at the 89th floor.
You also get to visit the world's biggest mass damper that is suspended from the 92nd to the 87th floor and weights 728 tons. The massive steel ball acts as a giant pendulum that sways to counteract the building’s movement caused by strong winds and earthquakes that are common in the country.
A lot of people have been asking me if it was worth paying a small fortune just to go up and have an excellent view of the city. And my answer is 100% YES! But only if the weather is clear. I feel that visiting Taiwan would not be complete if you did not go up the Taipei 101, at least once. There are a lot of things to learn and do while you're up there and I think the best time to go up is around 5-6pm to catch the sunset.
Read More about Taipei 101: http://www.ourawesomeplanet.com/taipei101
5. Witness the changing of Guards at Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall
A visit to Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall is a must for any tourist to understand the culture and colorful history of Taiwan. The Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall is the most prominent historical landmark in Taiwan.
It was built as a tribute to the founder of Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek. It opened in 1980, four years after his death in 1975.
The iconic ceremonial changing of the guard happens every hour and the best time to go is around 10am on a weekday. The guard duty rotates among members of the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Military Police and lasts for about 15 mins. Be sure to reserve your spot at the center as early as you can for the best view of the ceremony.
The Memorial Hall is 76 meters (249 ft) above ground, with 85 steps + 5 steps = 89 steps (symbolic of Chiang's age when he died) going to the Bronze Statue of Chiang Kai-shek.
There is also a museum below the hall that documents Chiang's life and career, as well as exhibits about Taiwan's history.
The entrance is free inside this huge picture perfect place, and it requires lots of walking to get around. They say the best time to visit is around March when cherry trees bloom all over the memorial.
Read More about Chiang Kai Shek Memorial: http://www.ourawesomeplanet.com/chiangkaishekmemorial
6. Walk The Streets of The Real Life Spirited Away Anime
I've fallen in love with Jiufen, an old mining town in the Northeast Mountains of New Taipei City that is now home to artist shops, authentic tea houses, and yummy artisan stalls.
The 100-year old A-Mei Tea House in Jiufen inspired the Japanese anime Spirited Away, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards in 2003 and is regarded as one of the greatest animated films of all time.
Jiufen is a haven for these cute home stuff and accessories like the iconic masks from the anime and all the other random cheap stuff you could buy.
I just love the playful stairs and graffiti, Chinese characters, and Japanese-Chinese feel of the whole town. Jiufen is now my favorite place in Taiwan, and I can't wait to go back...
Read More about Jiufen: http://www.ourawesomeplanet.com/jiufen
7. Participate in a Hand Puppet Show
Hand puppet shows have been performed for over a hundred of years all over Taiwan, and it is no doubt a big part of their culture.
But in this new age of technology, this age-old tradition is slowly fading, and there are only a bunch of places left in Taipei where you can enjoy this traditional performance.
Like the “See-join puppet theater restaurant,” a small hidden gem tucked away in a small street in Nanjing Road, Taipei.
This 2-in-1 theater and restaurant is a one-stop shop for locals and tourists who want to have a good laugh while enjoying their dinner with the family.
The whole show lasted for about an hour, and we had good laughs all throughout. The owner/puppeteer also narrated the story quite well in English, which was a big plus because Taiwan isn’t that English-friendly.
He also interacted with the whole crowd during the performance and even called guests upstage to come and join him during the show.
We genuinely enjoyed the overall vibe of the place and the interesting history and story behind this ancient craft.
And honestly, at first I didn’t expect myself to enjoy it because I was never a fan of stage performances, but as it turns out, it was the most enjoyable thing that we did during our Taiwan trip.
8. Splurge in the Night Market!
No trip to Taiwan is complete without a visit to one of their Night Markets. Taiwan has many night markets, and Raohe is just one of the notable ones, others being Ximending and Shilin night market.
Night markets are the life and blood of Taiwan, and if you don’t know what a night market is, they are pedestrian friendly streets packed with tourists and locals. They only open at night and the main aisle would mostly be filled with cheap food and shops as far as your eyes can see.
They sell just about everything you can imagine, from the latest fashion clothes, accessories, and gadgets, to souvenirs and mouthwatering street food. Like this famous stinky tofu, which you could smell from a mile away.
Most Night markets are open from 5pm up to 2am in the morning, and in my opinion, they are the perfect place to start and end your Taiwan trip. But night markets aren't just all about food and shopping--they also offer a peek into Taiwan’s culture, lifestyle, and people.
Night markets like Raohe are something that are uniquely Taiwanese and visiting one might just give you a whole new perspective of what traveling is for you.
Where to stay: There are a lot of affordable hotels in Taipei city, but if you really want to enjoy and splurge, then you can book a room at the famous Grand Hyatt Hotel, located right smack in the center of Taipei and just right beside the Taipei 101.
Who wouldn’t want to wake up with a view of Taipei 101 from their Windows?
Overall, Taipei is an awesome city, and there are much more undiscovered places to visit. It certainly is different from most of its neighboring countries and has definitely something special to offer. Taipei is just a small part of Taiwan, and there are much more things to do and explore, so if you plan on staying longer, be sure to visit the southern part of Taiwan for a more culturally rich experience.
Link to: South Taiwan Tour (to be continued...)
Link to: Omnibus / Video (to be continued...)
Live an Awesome Life,
NICO of Team Our Awesome Planet
Disclosure: Out Taiwan trip was courtesy TECO (Taipei Economic Cultural Office) and Eva Air. I wrote this article with my biases, opinions, and insights.
Ps: Taiwan’s Visa free policy for Filipinos will be announced sometime this October 2017. In the meantime, existing Japanese and Korean Visa holders can apply for a free travel authorization certificate on their website.