5 reasons to visit Taipei

by Cathy Rose A. Garcia, ABS-CBNnews.com

Posted at Dec 26 2012 10:50 AM | Updated as of Dec 27 2012 10:56 PM

TAIPEI, Taiwan - Taiwan is not on the top of most Filipinos' list when it comes to travel destinations, even though it's just a two-hour flight away.

It's puzzling why more Filipinos don't visit Taiwan, which is also known as Formosa or beautiful island. The small country has a lot to offer from shopping that can rival Hong Kong and Singapore to beautiful temples to relaxing hot springs. From December to February, Filipino tourists can also experience cool winter weather in Taipei, although temperatures rarely drop below 10 degrees Celsius.

Even though a visa is required, getting one is not as difficult as many think. If you have never worked as a blue-collar worker in Taiwan and you already have a valid visa or permanent residence certificate issued by the US, Canada, Japan, UK, Schengen Convention countries, Australia or New Zealand, you can just register your documents online without going to the Taiwan embassy.

Flights between the Philippines and Taiwan are also increasing. While most of the flights going to Taipei's Taoyuan International Airport are from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), Philippines' AirAsia recently launched 4x weekly flights from Clark International Airport, which makes it more accessible for residents in northern Luzon. AirAsia is planning to increase the number of flights to daily starting January.

Here are five reasons why you should visit Taipei:

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall

1. Learn about China's cultural heritage

Some 650,000 artifacts, rare books and documents were moved from China to Taiwan in 1949 during the war between the Nationalists and Communists. This is why Taiwan's National Palace Museum boasts of the greatest treasure vault of Chinese cultural artifacts.

The museum's collection offers a glimpse of 5,000 years of Chinese heritage. At the time of our visit, there were crowds of tourists (mostly from mainland China) who lined up to catch a glimpse of famous works such as the Jadeite Cabbage (carved to match the white and green colors of the jadeite block) and the Mao Gong Ding (Cauldron of Duke of Mao).

Another famous landmark in Taipei is the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. Completed in 1980, the memorial hall pays tribute to the late leader Chiang Kai Shek. There exhibit hall shows memorabilia related to the former president's life, including a 1955 Cadillac donated by Chinese living in the Philippines and the Grand Collar of the Order of Sikatuna awarded to him by the Philippine government.

The Discovery Center of Taipei, located at City Hall, gives tourists an introduction to the city's history, art, technology and ecology. Visitors are treated to a film showing Taipei's past and present at the Discovery Theater's 360 degree screen.

Many beautiful temples can be found around Taipei. Taiwanese people practice Buddhism and Taoism, but Confucianism "provides the daily code of ethics."

One of the temples you should visit is the Confucius Temple, with its elegant carvings and colorful paintings. Students usually go to the temple before their exams to seek help from Confucius, who is known as the Great Teacher. The temple also has a 4-D theater, where you can watch a 3-D film about Confucius' life and the development of the temple, complete with special effects.

Located near the Confucius Temple is the Dalongdong Baoan Temple, an architectural masterpiece that is popular among tourists and locals. The Baoan temple is known for the seven murals made by "national treasure" master painter Pan Li-shui.

Taipei 101

2. Get a bird's eye view of the city from Taipei 101

At 508 meters, the iconic Taipei 101 was the world's tallest when it was completed in 2004. Even though it has been overtaken by Burj Dubai, Taipei 101 still attracts many tourists who want to enjoy panoramic views of the city.

Expect long lines to go up the 89th floor observation deck.
However, the elevator is one of the world's fastest (2004 Guiness World Record holder) - going from the 5th floor to the 89th floor takes only 37 seconds.

There's an outdoor observatory on the 91th floor where you can feel the strong winds and even see the building's spire up close. On the 88th floor, you can take a closer look at the world's largest and heaviest wind damper with weight of 660 metric tons.

Taipei 101's annual New Year's fireworks display is one of the most anticipated events around the world. In 2012, the fireworks show lastes 202 seconds with 30,000 individual fireworks. (Visit www.taipei-101.com.tw)

There's also a shopping mall at the first 6 floors of Taipei 101. Louis Vuitton, Prada, Burberry and other luxury brands can be found here.

Shilin Night Market

3. Shop 'til you drop at the night markets

Taipei can probably rival Hong Kong and Singapore when it comes to shopping for electronics, luxury goods and other items. Luxury goods are said to cost 15% to 20% less than Manila prices, as well as consumer electronics especially those made by Taiwanese companies.

For bargain hunters, Taiwan's night markets are a real treat. The Shilin Night Market is the biggest and most famous among tourists. Here you can find clothes, shoes, accessories, snacks, hats, bags and souvenirs at low prices.

Most of the shopkeepers are nice and polite, even when you're haggling to lower the price. Some shopkeepers emphasize their products are "made in Taiwan," adding that the quality is much better than China. Since it's made in Taiwan, the prices are a little higher than China-made goods.

For booklovers, make sure you visit Eslite's flagship Xinyi store, the biggest 24-hour bookstore in Asia. It has over 200,000 different book titles, as well as clothing, accessories and toys.

If you're looking for electronics, head to the Guanghua Digital Plaza with its 6 floors of stores selling computers, video games and other electronic products.

Xiao long bao
4. Get a taste of Taiwanese cuisine

Taiwanese cuisine has influences from the culinary traditions of Fujian province in southern China, as well as Japanese, Cantonese and Shanghainese cuisines.

At the Silks Palace restaurant, a wide array of Taiwanese dishes were served -- steamed shrimps, sliced chicken and squid with XO sauce, assorted mushroom and chicken soup, braised pork knuckles, steamed fish with soy sauce, steamed glutinous rice with preserved meat and braised Chinese cabbage.

However, no trip to Taipei is complete without having Din Tai Fung's famous xiao long bao (steamed dumplings). Din Tai Fung was originally a cooking oil shop when it opened in 1958, but turned into a xiao long bao restaurant in 1972. Since then, the restaurant has become synonymous with the best dumplings in the world. Its branches in Hong Kong were thrice awarded with one Michelin star.

Aside from the xiao long bao, other must-try dishes at Din Tai Fung include truffle and pork xiao long bao and hot and sour soup and spicy shrimp and pork wonton.

Taiwan is best known for its "xiaochi" or small eats, which are best sampled at the night markets. At Shilin Night Market, there are many dishes to try from jumbo-sized sausages and scallion pancakes to noodle soups and deep-fried crabs to fresh fruit shakes and milk tea.

Long lines usually form at the Hot Star stall selling deep-fried peppery pork cutlet. The huge piece of pork cutlet is quite tasty but you have to be really hungry to be able to finish it all.

Stalls at the night market also sell fresh fruits such as pears, custard apples, guava and dragon fruit. Free samples are available so you can taste if the fruits are as sweet and succulent as the sellers say it is.

Don't forget to try the fried milk skewers - milk covered in light batter and deep fried. It tastes like a cream puff but without the pastry.

Hot springs

5. Take a dip at Beitou hot springs

After a tiring day of sight-seeing, there's no better way to relax than at the hot springs. Beitou's Thermal Valley is known for its green sulfur springs, which can only be found in Taipei and in Akita, Japan.

Beitou used to be inhabited by the aborigine Ketagalan tribe, who called the sulfur place "patauw" which means witch. The place became popular during the Japanese occupation, and the Japanese influences can still be seen in some of the inns' structures.

The Beitou Hot Springs Museum, built in 1913, was once the largest hot springs bath in East Asia. Here you can find a rare hokutolite or Beitou stone on display.

Aside from the hot springs, you can also visit Plum Garden, the summer home of famed Chinese calligrapher Yu You-ren; and the Taipei Public Library, the country's first eco-friendly library. The library uses solar power and collects and recycles rainwater.