TAIPEI -- With the recent lifting of tourist visa requirements for Filipinos, Taiwan is sure to become a favorite destination for local travelers satisfying their wanderlust.
And why not? With budget airlines having more flights to Taipei -- AirAsia, for one flies daily from Manila to Taipei and three times a week from Cebu to Taipei -- and with Taoyuan International Airport just a two-hour flight away from Manila, it’s an easily accessible destination for a quick trip to shop, to sightsee and to chill over a long weekend.
From towering feats of engineering to cherry blossoms and azaleas on a mountain top, busy cityscapes to heritage hillside to villages out in the rural areas, street food in the night markets to whiskey distilleries that rank among the best in the world, augmented reality (AR) gaming arcades to the secluded shrines that peer into a celebrated past, Taiwan is a place of contrasts and has something for every sensibility and for every bucket list.
One of the best ways to experience Taiwan for first timers is to consult travel sites. They often have a menu of activities recommended for tourists. This is particularly convenient if you have attractions that are a distance from your hotel as these are often packaged with a shuttle that picks you up from the hotel and brings you back afterwards. AirAsia and KKday, for instance, have joined forces to provide as much as 50% off on selected tours and packages to passengers flying on AirAsia to Taipei.
High-speed internet is recommended as English-Chinese translation apps like Google Translate will be a tourist’s best friend. Download the Chinese language pack while you have a decent internet connection so you can still use the translation features offline. Aside from this, you can use the AR function to read signs and to type out English words and show to merchants, waiters and taxi drivers.
If you cannot live without an internet connection, you can get a tourist SIM if you have an open line phone with unlimited 3G for three days or five days. 4G with a datacap will cost a little more, just go to a telecom shop with your passport to avail of this.
If you have a SIM-locked phone, you can search for routers for rent in Taiwan. You can pre-book this on travel sites, pick this up at booths in the airport. These booths close at around 12 midnight. If your flight gets in after midnight, you can have the router delivered to your hotel. If you are just planning to stay in urban areas and in the malls, you can sign-up for free iTaiwan wi-fi at https://itaiwan.gov.tw/en/. However, service is scarce the moment you step out into the streets or out into the countryside.
Arranging transportation from Taoyuan airport to your hotel in Taipei is also very important. Trains to the Central Taipei train station depart at regular intervals. However, chances are that you may arrive after midnight, specially if you’re flying on one of the budget airlines. For travelers traveling on AirAsia, the airline has linked up with Experience Taiwan to provide coach services from the airport to your residence in the city. Visit experiencetaiwan.asia for details.
Getting an MTR card for tourists is highly recommended. Once you get to Taiwan, go to the nearest MTR station and you can get a tourist three-day pass that gets you unlimited train rides. Though taxis are available and not as expensive as other tourist destinations, the best bang for your buck is still a combination of walking and taking the train.
Taiwan features cities built for walking. Make sure you have a decent pair of walking shoes. While the bus and train system are first rate, there is still a decent amount of walking to do from the stations and bus stops to where you will eventually be going. Night markets like Shi Lin are massive and will cause your feet a lot of pain if you aren’t prepared.
Here are some things to do in Taiwan:
1. Visit Taipei 101
Taipei 101 has become a symbol for Taiwanese engineering and design. Building one of the tallest buildings in the world in an area known for earthquakes and typhoons is no joke. It’s just awe-inspiring to be on ground level and looking up and appreciating how tall and massive this building is. You can roam around the mall on the lower level then take a trip up to the viewing floor on the 89th floor.
Before you go to Taipei 101, check if the outdoor observation deck is open. It is usually closed during bad or cloudy weather. If you do go up, stop by the three-story spherical damper. This keeps the Taipei 101 stable during typhoons and earthquakes by counteracting vibrations and ground movement. The damper is such an attraction that there are cute dolls that visitors can buy as souvenirs.
After seeing the view from the inside, hike up Elephant Mountain to see an alternative side of Taipei 101’s magnificence. This offers the best view of Taipei 101 with the Taipei cityscape in the background.
The view from the 89th floor of Taipei 101. Photo by author
2. Attend a trade exhibit
Taiwan is home to massive exhibition halls. There is always a commercial show being held at any one of its gigantic exhibition halls. From electronics to sports equipment like bicycles, this is where original equipment manufacturers from China and across Asia come and display their newest wares looking for global distributors. The shows are often free for overseas guests (you just have to register ahead of time) and sometimes have great deals and sale items for visitors. The video above is from the Taipei Cycling Show. https://www.instagram.com/jokoness/
3. Take a bus and go to Jiufen
Jiufen is a heritage village built into the mountainside easily accessible by a two hour bus ride from Taipei. It is well worth the time to go here as it is like stepping into a time machine and wandering into a gorgeous heritage village. This is built on three levels - the lower level for shops, and the mid level has the oldest cinema in Taiwan with a preserved food shop and a preserved movie projector.
This tea shop should look familiar to 'Spirited Away' fans. Photo by author
4. Learn the proper way to drink tea
A few steps above is a beautiful two-story building which anime fans of Studio Ghibli will recognize as the tea shop from "Spirited Away." Stop by here for Taiwanese specialties, food and their mochi. Hiking up the upper levels will reward you with a beautiful view of the Taiwan shoreline and the surrounding mountainside. https://www.instagram.com/jokoness/
5. Take a selfie with the flowers
Japan isn’t the only place to find cherry blossoms. You can find this around Taipei but the locals will recommend going up to Yangmingshan park to see these beauties in bloom. Take a bus from the Jiantan station to take you up to the Yangmingshan bus terminal. It is a bit of a hike up to the path the cherry blossoms. For an added workout, you can also climb up to the observation pagoda and the azalea garden from here.
Cherry blossoms at Yangmingshan park. Photo by author
6. Catch the 'changing of the guards'
History buffs should pay a visit to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. This massive structure dedicated to Chiang Kai Shek, the first president of Taiwan, rests on an enormous estate flanked by two national theaters, one dedicated to local productions and the other, to visiting productions from overseas. At the bottom of the memorial hall is a museum that has exhibits that commemorate Chiang Kai Shek ending a with a reconstruction of his office and lifelike wax figure of the first president at work.
Take an elevator up to the main hall. This huge open space is dominated by gigantic statue of Chiang Kai Shek. Try to get here at the top of the hour to witness their own version of the changing of the guard.
Witness the hourly changing of the guard at Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. Photo by author
7. Channel your inner hipster
Check out the Eslite Spectrum branch at the Songshan Creative Park for a taste lof Taiwan’s artsy and creative side. Besides housing a 24-hour bookstore, this branch has an assortment of spaces to satisfy your most eclectic pursuit. Growing hydroponic plants? Leather working? Glass blowing? photography with film and a dark room? You’ll find it here alongside high end boutiques for bags, tea and Taiwanese delicacies.
A glass-blowing workshop at Eslite Spectrum. Photo by Joko Magalong-De Veyra
8. Go on a whisky tour
A visit to the King Car distillery in Kamalan is a must for whisky aficionados. King Car distillery produces Kavalan whisky, one of the world’s best labels and has won over 100 medals in international whisky competitions. From the Taipei Central Bus Station, take a bus to Kamalan then take a taxi to the King Car distillery. The bus ride takes you through the longest tunnel in Taiwan and breathtaking vistas of Taiwanese rice paddies. Once you get to the Kamalan station, take a cab to the King Car Distillery.
You might want to arrange a return trip to the bus station with the taxi driver before starting the tour. The tour itself takes about two hours, or more if you want to go around the grounds. The tour starts out with a video of the parent company and then a short walk to the distillery itself. It is a must-do for whisky lovers as every step in the turning of barley into the golden elixir is covered.
The tour ends at the Spirit Castle with a whisky appreciation session where visitors are given tasting notes to sample small portions of different varieties.
A tour of King Car Distillery. Photo by author
9. Sample the food
Taiwan has been regarded as the street food capital of Asia. And no wonder, as the variety of food that can be found just around any street corner is amazing. You can even get good eats at the convenience stores with microwaveable Chinese meals, bottled milk tea and coffee and exceptionally good soy milk.
Yongkang Street in Taipei is a nice slice of Taiwanese culinary life. Take the MTR to Dongmen Station. Take a few steps from the station to take a pilgrimage to the first branch of xiao long bao giant, Din Tai Fung. Yongkang Street is just around the corner. Check out the scallion pancakes being sold at Thanh Ky Vietnamese restaurant around the corner.
Then saunter about the area to find quaint shops and a school. Across the schoolyard, you’ll find Yong Kang Beef Noodles. Order the spicy beef noodles and you’ll get fiery-red soup with beef that just seems to melt in your mouth. Wander about the area a little more to find Boba Milk Tea to wash all of the calories down.
Scallion pancakes sold at Yongkang Street. Photo by author
The best place to find good food in Taiwan are the night markets. But that’s another article altogether.
For Part 2, we list down the food that wowed us on the streets of Taipei.