I’m going to preface this by saying that there are tons of things to do in Taipei which you can find in guidebooks and everything, and when I was looking things up, I was a bit overwhelmed with prioritizing things. In retrospect, the places that stuck with me the most were places that my friends recommended to me, rather than places that guidebooks and sites touted as being “must-sees.” Sometimes they lined up, sometimes they didn’t. The FOMO streak in me is often worried about missing crucial stops, but over the past year I have been trying to get better at choosing things that are in line with what I’m interested in… and I have a lot to work on still.
My trip to Taiwan was definitely missing some of the “must-sees,” but it ended up being shaped by our feelings, the situations we were dealing with, and opportunities that popped up. I may not have loved all of these places that I am going to talk about below, but they were memorable experiences for different reasons, sometimes just for a few precious moments. :)
1) Hiking Elephant Hill and watching the sun set over Taipei
I’m listing this first, because this was my favorite thing to do in Taiwan!
As much as I would like to say I am a hiker, I don’t think that owning a pair of unbroken in hiking shoes and doing moderate trails every few years qualifies me as one. However, my friend Dawn had been to Taiwan and gave a lot of great recommendations, one of which was Elephant Hill. She described it as an easy hike, one that she was able to do in a state of post-food-poisoning, so I decided to put it on my list of must-dos!
As recommended, we headed there in the late afternoon, hiked up to a spot we liked, and sat there drinking our bubble tea that I had packed while watching the sun set over the city.
One of the main attractions of Elephant Hill is seeing Taipei 101 light up, and while we could kind of see Taipei 101 through the trees, we were not at the main vantage point, but rather at a little clearing with a gazebo (if I remember correctly?). There was a path or two that connected to this little rest-stop, and we saw many people passing through jogging or walking their dogs. We were honestly not sure how much farther we had to go up, but the sun was setting, Justin was tired, and we this place seemed like a nice and quiet place to stop.
We sat on a little stone wall for I don’t know how long (20 minutes? an hour?) and took pictures the setting sun, ourselves, and Taipei 101 through the trees. There were moments we just sat in silence looking out at the city. I can never plan for these moments, but when they come, I really try to treasure them. :)
After watching the sun set, we climbed a bit farther and found the official vantage point, where there were, of course, a ton of people crowding around for pictures.
After trying to take a selfie a few times with the straps of my DSLR wrapped around my wrist, a friendly guy and girl asked us if we wanted our picture taken. We quickly said “YES PLEASE!” and before he took the picture, he asked if he could adjust the view finder. I didn’t really understand why, so I said sure, go ahead. It turned out that I had accidentally hit the cog that changes the focus of the view finder for people who wear glasses, etc. I had done this MONTHS ago and not even noticed! I thought that I had somehow smudged it beyond help and just accepted not being able to see clearly through it!
Thank you kind stranger! :) <3 I can finally see clearly through my viewfinder!
2) Looking at crafts and clothes at Ximen Red House
If you are into local art and design, this place is great! The Red House is a creative space that holds a theater, as well as many small shops, boutiques, and apparently even a cafe (that we didn’t see). Outside, you can even find a pop-up arts market that appears on weekend nights, which in my opinion is worth hitting up.
On our first night in Taipei, we noticed the weekend market as we got off the subway, and once we had gotten settled in our hostel, we headed back to the market. I saw a lot of handmade key chains, postcards, purses, journals, clothing, jewelry and other things up for sale. It was a great place to get unique souvenirs and gifts! I bought a postcard, a gift, and headed inside the Red House to check out what they had in there. The shops in there were super interesting as well! I went ahead and bought a tapioca shirt that makes me smile every time I wear it. :)
Now, to be honest, while a lot of these shops seemed to be handmade things crafted by the artists there, I did see some similar products in other places (along the boardwalk in Tamsui). I tend to be kind of skeptical when things are “handmade” but many of these vendors spoke English, and were interested in talking with you about how they made their products! One man made bags with his mother and had a little binder of the process and journey they took to get to where they were now.
Living in a small town in Japan, without a car or a good grasp of the Japanese language, has made finding and getting to these kinds of things difficult. That’s why visiting the Red House and it’s outdoor market was really special to me! I loved the atmosphere, the products being sold, and the ability to talk with the vendors a bit!
3) Taking a break at Longshan/Lungshan Temple
This is one of the most famous temples in Taipei, and was conveniently a few blocks away from our hostel! :) It was built in the 1700s, and was originally built by Chinese settlers. Over the ages, it grew to incorporate many other deities located in the side and rear halls, and has also been rebuilt several times due to natural and man-made disasters (such as a bombing during WWII).
It was beautiful when I visited! I came in the morning, and there were only a few Japanese high school groups exploring the area, as well as some locals. I really like visiting places of worship! There is so much love and attention that is poured into these places, and they are so closely woven into the history of their areas.
When I was there, there were many people quietly worshiping and leaving offerings, which created a hushed and solemn atmosphere. I was actually surprised to see so many people visiting the temple as a site of worship rather than a tourist destination! I spent my time there slowly walking around and taking in the smell of incense and the colorful and intricate art built into the architecture.
4) Eating nachos and strolling along the river in Tamsui/Danshui
Fun (and maybe sad?) fact: I wrote both romanizations up there because originally I thought these were two different places!! D: Be careful!
Anyway, Tamsui is an area north of Taipei that stretches along the Tamsui River up to the sea. This was a place my friend Chienyn suggested that I visit! :) It is a really nice place to catch a break from the rush of the city, and has a laid-back, beach town feel to it. I really enjoyed walking along the river – they have a boardwalk-like area there, with lots of little shops and restaurants you can step into.
We found a really chill, eclectic restaurant that served everything from nachos to falafel, and we decided why not! The food wasn’t bad!
(If you knew how hard it is to find decent international cuisine in our area, you would understand why we decided to eat falafel and nachos in Taiwan!)
We originally headed up to the Tamsui area with the intention of visiting Fort San Domingo (which is a fort built by the Spanish in the 1600s), but that (of course) turned out to be closed on the one day of the week we were there. :’)
Instead of Fort San Domingo, we headed to Aletha University, which has what has got to be the BEST mascot I have ever seen:
Their campus had a really nice garden that we caught some students taking pictures in. Turns out there are quite a few universities in this area!
Unfortunately we did not really time our visit well and ended up rushing back to the subway – but I guess it is sometimes really hard to tell exactly how long each place will take to explore!
Honorable mention: Confusing times in the Bo-Pi Liao Historical District
Bo Pi Liao Historical District is an area with buildings that date back to the 1600s, and another suggestion from Dawn! :) It has recently undergone (and seems may still be undergoing) some serious renovations and revitalization attempts. Buildings that used to be homes and shops have now been transformed into creative spaces.
We had some very interesting experiences while we were there… We expected a Colonial Williamsburg, open air museum type thing, but what we got was completely different.
First off, we almost missed the renovated area of the district. We were following Google maps, and were confused because what we thought was Bo-Pi Liao looked run down and abandoned from the street… However, once we turned the corner, we saw the diagonal pedestrian street open up before us. What was even more confusing was that many of the spaces/buildings/rooms seemed to be empty. We saw a few rooms with exhibits and a person or two staffing them, and we sheepishly began exploring.
One of the rooms we entered was decorated with plants, and playing instrumental music and the sounds of birds. The name of this exhibit was called “I can fly, I am also Taipei Citizen.” Curious, we went further into the room and sat down in front of the large TV which was playing HD videos of various birds in Taiwan. Justin and I decided the appropriate thing would be to whisper voice overs to each other (there was nobody else in the room except for the staff at the door), and to be honest, I was sad to leave that exhibit! They really transformed the space and atmosphere!
Another room was an exhibit focusing on Taiwan’s stages of night. They had photographs from various parts of the city at all hours of the night, from garbage trucks collecting trash, to people eating at night markets, to late night basketball matches. In the corner, there was a monitor playing video from which these stills had been taken.
Other areas of the district were also beautiful – such as painted walls and more empty studios.
As we continued to explore the area, we found a museum-like space, which turned out to be the Local Education Center in Taipei. There were VERY few people there as well, which deepened our confusion. We were able to play some old style games there, and try our luck by walking on stilts! I couldn’t do it!! Justin said that one of the ladies watching us said I had no courage… :(
Overall, between being tired from being on our feet, to entering the museum through a side door not meant to be opened, to being hungry, to being confused at why there weren’t any people there, we unfortunately didn’t get to experience it at our best. However, as confusing as it was, it was an interesting place to visit! Should I recommend it to anybody in the future, I will advise them to arrive with well-rested feet and a full stomach. :)
Guilt Fueled Mention: Losing steam in the National Palace Museum
Alright, to be honest, while I love learning about the culture of a place through visiting its museums, I am a cranky museum-goer. If I stay inside a museum for more than a few hours, I get grumpy, snappy, and impatient… I get very quiet and start to go off on my own, and am generally miserable to be around. D:
That being said, I try to take frequent breaks by sitting down near/in any exhibits that have seats, bringing snacks, and going into museums with a time limit in mind. Because of this, I tend to be intimidated by big museums, and the National Palace Museum (NPM) in Taipei is a BIG museum… Just like the Louvre in Paris, the MET in New York… These are all huge museums, and honestly, from now, I am going to start looking into English tours and ONLY English tours. It is SO easy to get overwhelmed, which as usual, happened at the NPM.
I think we heard somewhere that to see every exhibit, it would take a few years to see everything, so we downloaded the museum’s app (Discover NPM), and tried to follow along with the guide. The app is pretty cool – it had a few guides you could follow, and they gave you physical instructions on where to go. There was no audio from what I could see, but it showed you pictures of each item. We went with the 1.5 hour guide, but even then we lost steam halfway through… D:
Despite my fatigue and sensory overload, and despite how long it took to get to the museum, I still was really impressed by the exhibits! I saw a lot of beautiful jade artifacts, and learned about different kinds of jade and their uses in jewelry and accessories. Afterwards, we rested in the garden. I still think I will plan for that tour next time though.
And that’s that! Just as I had great moments, I also had some not so great moments… However, the spirit of this post is focusing on my favorite memories, so I won’t take away from that! I’ve said this once and I will say it again – I really enjoyed Taiwan! If I had more time out here I would go back, hands down. :) I would probably rearrange my time a bit, try even harder to line up my time there with my friend Chienyn’s, and do some other things differently of course, but overall I enjoyed the atmosphere, the relaxed vibes, everything. Nice place to get a breath of fresh air from Japan.