I grew up on Japanese pop culture and as I got older I developed a love for the culture and history surrounding the country. I have studied both Chinese and Japanese languages in school, but until I met my husband, Taiwan was not a place I thought about much. It was always a place I wanted to visit, but it certainly wasn’t a place whose mention brought me into a thirty minute monologue about exactly why this and that were how they were while my speaking partner’s eyes glazed over the way I did with Japan.
That changed when I met my husband. I knew very little about the nuances of Taiwanese culture outside of the bits and pieces picked up by my high school Chinese teacher who grew up there. With my husband it was different: it wasn’t strictly because he wanted to educate me on his homeland, he wanted to share it with me. He wanted me to know, understand, and love his culture the same way he does. His pride in Taiwan is infectious, and I certainly caught that fever from him.
But many people still don’t know much about this island nation. COVID-19 brought the country into the limelight with the way they handled the pandemic, preventing the spread of the virus for far longer than most of the world could. And there is certainly no shortage of news about them now that China’s aggressive tactics have become the latest news (even though it is not at all new). Despite this, I will still tell people my husband is from Taiwan and get “I love Thai food” as a response. That’s great, but they aren’t the same country.
I got the opportunity to visit Taiwan before they opened to the public. I spent time with my in-laws, I got married, and I explored the island over the course of 4 ½ weeks. And how much did I get to see? Not nearly enough.
Taiwan is an East Asian cultural playground. There are seemingly endless historical sites, landmarks, museums, festivals, and so much more to explore. Something is always happening, whether it’s running into a convention on your way to Taipei 101 or watching some indigenous Taiwanese performances on the shores of Sun Moon Lake. Food options are endless, museums of all types are everywhere, and even in the city nature is only an MRT ride away.
My personal experiences were absolutely incredible, but why do I think that you should go?
Taiwan’s #1 Tourist Attraction: Night Markets
Food isn’t just a part of life in Taiwan. Food is everywhere. The Taiwanese live to eat, and it shows. Taiwanese greet each other with “Jiă bà buāi” (吃飽了嗎) or “have you eaten,” as it is a bad day if you haven’t eaten yet. There is a surplus of food from breakfast shops to fast food and convenience store meals to dining experiences. And there aren’t just a lot of store fronts either, but there is massive diversity in the selection.
Night markets are an essential part of any trip to Taiwan. With around 30 night markets in the Greater Taipei region alone, these are an easy, accessible, and fun way to experience Taiwanese street foods. Each market has its own features they are known for, from Raohe’s shopping and Shida’s fashion to Shilin’s size and creativity or Ningxia’s famous mochi.
Night markets in Taipei are mainly organic, community-run events with mobile carts, built around temples. Most function this way, but Taiwan has a few special night markets to look out for outside of the city. If you take a trip to Hualien, I highly suggest you spend some time at Dong Da Men night market. Unlike the Taipei night markets, Dong Da Men is a very permanent location with constructed stalls. While this may not have the same organic feel, this particular night market has a number of indigenous inspired dishes and serves as a center for uniting and sharing cultures.
The selection at night markets can be overwhelming, but don’t let that discourage you. Many night markets also offer tours, so you have guidance in where to begin. And if you want a few of my suggestions for what to try, here they are:
For the adventurous eater
- Stinky Tofu/stinky tofu fries (most are Vegan, but not all)
- Taiwanese Barbeque – great food, but lots of offal!
- Pig’s blood cake
- Taiwanese meatballs
- Oyster vermicelli (and oyster omelet)
For the less adventurous eater
- Taiwanese popcorn chicken or giant fried chicken cutlet
- Guabao (割包) – The Taiwanese hamburger
- Small sausage in large sausage (大腸包小腸)
- Braised pork rice (lu rou fan / 炕肉飯)
- Fish balls
- Beef noodle soup
- Scallion pancakes (also popular for breakfast) (Vegan Options)
- Cubed beef
- Pepper cakes
- Taiwanese sausage (with raw garlic on the side – trust me on this!)
- Grilled corn (Vegan options)
- Oyster mushroom (V)
- Coffin bread
To satisfy your sweet tooth
- Sweet potato balls (V)
- Shaved ice
- Ice cream burrito
- Egg cake
- Aiyu Jelly drink
- Bubble tea (of course!)
- Grass jelly (V)
- Tofu pudding (V)
- Sweet soy milk (V)
More Than Just Night Markets
Much like Japan, Taiwanese food is known for its quality. And you are quite spoiled for choice. There is a diverse culinary world within this little island, where popular options for Taiwanese, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, American, French, and Italian most certainly exist.
For the most affordable options, look for those little hole in the wall shops like the breakfast shops that seem invisible until they open to serve scallion pancakes to the populace. There are plenty of other options as well, so find out what their specialty is and go with that. Also, many shops make their own soymilk, so you may want to give it a shot. Nothing beats homemade soymilk!
Most Taiwanese food is more affordable, just as American fare tends to have lower costs in the United States. Familiar fast food is also quite affordable, though those you already know may be a little more costly due to their foreign origins. KFC, McDonald’s, and Burger King are common chains you’ll find from home. KFC serves breakfast, and I highly recommend giving it a try sometime. If you want to try something more unique, look for TKK Fried Chicken for Taiwanese, or Yoshinoya and MOS Burger for Japanese flavors. Bakeries are also quite popular for snacks and breakfast. They serve both sweet and savory breads and treats.
Sushi is also fairly affordable in Taiwan at conveyor belt and budget shops. Omakase sushi is also available, but just like everywhere else, you will pay a premium for it. You can also try teppanyaki, a Japanese-style of stir-fried meat and vegetables similar to the hibachi you might find in the United States. While a bit pricier, you should also make sure you stop into a world-famous Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐) for some incredible soup dumplings.
You’ll also find that barbecue is popular in Taiwan. While Taiwanese barbeque is a street food served at night markets, Korean Barbecue and Yakiniku (the Japanese equivalent) are both popular as well. In other make-it-yourself style eateries, you’ll find hot pot is another option and some smaller food vendors (such as those serving their own catch) might have customers cook their food themselves. Another fun food experience is shrimping, where you can catch your own shrimp before grilling them. This activity is often paired with beer.
For fine dining, omakase and kaiseki are quite popular, as is foreign cuisine. Chili’s and Texas Roadhouse may be casual spots in the United States, but in Taiwan American chains like this are considered more upscale than one might expect. Italian and French options tend to also fall into the high end category. I personally prefer finding local foods to seeking what is familiar.
A big tourist attraction in Taiwan is the Modern Toilet. Yes, that is the name of the restaurant. This exclusively non-Taiwanese restaurant has quite a quirky way of poking fun at other countries’ “inferior” food.
When it comes to food, there are so many options it is easy to get lost in the chaos. The best thing to do is find their local specialties and go with the regional experience you can’t get anywhere else.
Natural Beauty and Human Spirit
If you look up Taiwan, you may see a lot of references to the word “Formosa”. This refers to the island’s brief encounter with the Portuguese, who charted the island as “Ilha Formosa”, the Beautiful Island. The name stuck, and was commonly used to refer to this East Asian land mass until the 20th Century. Venture just a few steps away from the city and it is easy to see why the Portuguese endowed it with that name: The thick jungle cascading down high mountaintops is quite a sight to behold.
There are plenty of places to see in Taiwan, each with unique character and their own form of beauty. One of the first you might encounter is Elephant Mountain (象山). Just outside Taipei proper, this popular scenic site consists of hiking trails leading to viewing platforms that overlook the city. The breathtaking views are absolutely incredible.
You would also be hard pressed to miss taking a trip to Maokong (貓空). This is a popular place to try some of the most expensive and delicious teas you can find: Taiwanese High Mountain Tea (高山茶). Take the gondola to the top for tea shops and tea farms, with tours offered and even soft serve ice cream made from high-quality teas. Tours are also available of the area, and the ride up the mountain alone is worth the trip. While there, also visit the Taipei Zoo, which can be accessed by the gondola or at the base of the mountain.
Taipei has some incredible sunsets and there is one spot in New Taipei City that tops them all for watching the sun go down: Tamsui Fisherman’s Wharf (淡水漁人碼頭). It’s a bit out of the way, but truly does have some incredible views of the fantastic colorful sky as the sun sets over the water. There are also shops and restaurants nearby for some fantastic seafood while you are out.
Make sure you also stop in Beitou (北投) to see the natural hot springs which run through the park. See the origin at Hell Valley (地獄谷), then take a trip up to Yangmingshan National Park (陽明山國家公園) where you will find fumaroles, hike the mountain, and even visit the National Cemetery. This area is not only beautiful, but holds significant spiritual significance to the Taiwanese. Beitou’s Hot Spring Museum also offers some insight into the history of the thermal valley from a cultural perspective and speaks to the bath house traditions associated.
Outside of Taipei, you’ll find even more incredible sights. Sun Moon Lake (日月潭) is a popular attraction, so named for its shape. The walking paths are lovely and the view of the lake from above is stunning. There are also several fantastic temples nearby. Most famous are the Wen Wu Taoist Temple (日月潭文武廟) honoring the gods of civil and martial affairs and the Xuanzang Buddhist Temple (玄奘寺) which honors the monk Xuanzang (玄奘) who is famous for his seventeen year journey to India by foot and is the inspiration for the acclaimed classic tale “Journey to the West” (西遊記) . Several artifacts are on display on the upper floors, but no photography is allowed. There is also a small museum next door which chronicles Xuanzang’s journey.
South of Sun Moon Lake you can climb the steep, winding roads up to Alishan (阿里山), one of Taiwan’s famous mountain top scenic views. If you are lucky enough to catch a clear day atop the mountain the views are incredible. There is also a well-known narrow-gauge forest railway which runs a few lines between scenic areas and an early morning line which takes you to one of the many scenic areas to watch the sun rise over Jade Mountain (玉山) for the perfect morning view. Despite Taiwan’s typically sub-tropical climate, the Alishan region is rather cool even in the warmer months, so make sure you pack appropriately.
At the southern tip of Taiwan’s main island is Kenting National Park (墾丁國家公園). The tropical climate, beautiful white-sand beaches, and rich biodiversity make Kenting an immensely popular vacation spot. Animal species which have become extinct in the past in Taiwan, or those previously thought to be extinct have been spotted or reintroduced in the park. Kenting also became a hotspot for surfing after American Vietnam veterans brought the sport to Taiwan. The Eluanbi Lighthouse (鵝鑾鼻燈塔) is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area. This fortified lighthouse has a rich history and is well worth a visit.
Yehliu Geopark (野柳地質公園) is a unique sight of hoodoo stones which were formed as the Datung Mountains (大屯山) were pushed out of the sea by geological forces. Erosion has given these formations their distinct shapes, most notable of these is the “Queen’s Head”, so named for its shape resembling a distinguished feminine profile.
Perhaps the most famous scene in Taiwan is that of Taroko Gorge (太魯閣國家公園). You may have seen photos of the memorial shrine set into the mountain or the famous red bridge which crosses the gorge on your Microsoft login page. It spans across three counties, but the main entrance into the gorge’s trails is through Hualien County (花蓮縣). Parts of the trail are formed by natural erosion over time, and the trails also serve as transportation routes for the Truku Indigenous People (太魯閣族), who reside within the park and the surrounding area. The Taroko Eternal Spring Shrine (長春祠) is built into the side of the mountain and serves as a reminder of those who sacrificed their lives to build the tunnel nearby which links the two sides of the island.
Outside of the main island, you will also find a number of smaller island which offer plenty of scenic views and rich culture to enjoy. The Penghu Islands (澎湖縣) are known for the unique rock formation created by their unique geological location which results in high erosion. Giushan (龜山), or Turtle Island, is the only active volcano in Taiwan and the trip to the island is also popular for whale watching. Ludao (綠島), or Green Island, is a popular diving spot and hot spring destination with unique natural elements and local fauna. Lanyu (蘭嶼), or Orchid Island, is another volcanic island which hosts coral reefs, incredible mountain and sea views, and the Tao tribe, whose traditions are still very much alive on the island. Liuqiu (琉球) is a coral island is known for some of the best sunset views and its high number of coral species.
History is Everywhere
Taiwan has an extremely unique history. The island has been occupied on and off by the Chinese, Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese, and Spanish over the years. While modern Taiwan was largely formed by the retreat of the Kuomingtang (KMT / 國民黨) from the mainland shortly after World War II, traces of a much older history still prevail as well.
Taiwanese cities are certainly unique: when walking through Taipei, you may notice older apartments with tin roofs, rusting barred windows, and a seemingly makeshift overall build beside brand new buildings. While some may see this as a rather unprepossessing feature of Taiwanese cities, the history behind it lends an insight that makes this a much more beautiful sight.
With Taiwan’s sudden influx of some 1.5 million KMT refugees to the main island in 1949, rapid expansion became a priority. Buildings were erected quickly, with little regard to their appearance. People simply needed a place to live at the time and, with so much turmoil as martial law was declared to prevent communist rebellion and rising military tensions between the newly-established nation and the Mainland, priorities were focused elsewhere. It wasn’t until martial law was abandoned in 1991 and the country began to stabilize that they were able to focus on industry and architecture. Many new buildings and apartments are focused on design, with newer buildings having an air of modernity and character that was absent when tensions were at their height.
I don’t want to make this too much about the history, but I feel it is important to understand the way Taiwan rose to become the place it is today through their past. Taiwan went from their first traffic light in the late 90s to constructing the tallest building in the world at the time only a few years later.
There is plenty more history to explore as well. Forts can be found across the islands. Fort San Domingo in Tamsui was built and destroyed by the Spanish before being reconstructed by the Dutch. Fort Zeelandia, or Anping Old Fort (安平古堡) in Anping, Tainan (臺南市) was built by the Dutch East India Company as a central business hub. The Xiyu Forts (西嶼臺) in Penghu served as strongholds against the Qing Dynasty in the 17th Century. And this is only to name a few of the many military history landmarks that dot the main and surrounding islands.
If you are interested in Taiwan’s recent history, or interested in military history in general, add Kinmen (金門縣) and nearby Matsu (連江縣). These islands are the closest land masses owned by the Republic of China to Mainland China and serve as a stronghold against a potential attack. If you want some insight into Taiwan’s defenses against the People’s Republic during their early years, both islands have a number of military museums, military landmarks, and wartime tunnels to explore. In Kinmen, make sure you visit the Guningtou Battle Museum (古寧頭戰史館) for some military history, Oucuo beach (歐厝沙灘) during low tide to see the abandoned battle tank, and Mashan Observation Station (馬山觀測站) to see Taiwan’s water defenses at the closest point of Mainland China and view life in the mainland fishing villages through binoculars.
Chiang-Kai Shek Memorial Hall (國立中正紀念堂) is one of Taiwan’s best-known landmarks. Not only is this where you will see the hourly Changing of the Guards Ceremony, but the interior serves as a museum dedicated to Chiang-Kai Shek’s controversial life and accomplishments. It provides insight into Taiwan’s history with the Mainland and gives better insight into early life in Taiwan. CKS Memorial Hall is not the only place dedicated to the nation’s first president, however. Other notable areas of interest surrounding the ROC founder include approximately 30 guest houses, his official residence in Shilin (士林區), The Cihu Mausoleum (慈湖陵寢) in Daxi (大溪區) where his remains are kept, and the nearby park which now holds approximately 150 of the thousands of statues that were removed from various locations across Taiwan in the early 2000s.
Culture Permeates the Cities
Many of the residents in Taiwan came over from Mainland China during the KMT exodus, but there are other influences as well. Japan spent a great deal of time on Taiwan, for better or worse. Despite the trouble their presence caused during their controversial time on the main island, their presence left a lasting mark on the country. Relations between the nations are currently quite friendly, with Taiwan-Japan Friendship Centers even being established throughout Taipei. Taiwan is also a popular destination for Japanese tourists, and vice versa.
The clearest Japanese influence may be in pop culture found in Taiwan where anime, manga, and Japanese games are just as popular as they are in their home country. But there are plenty of other areas heavily influenced in a much more significant way.
Jiufen (九份) began as a mining town when gold was found on the mountain, with the Japanese taking full advantage of the riches it offered. POWs were used in the mines during World War II. Outside, this cascading town looks like something out of a fable, almost mystical the way the city is built angling down the mountainside. Once you step into the alleys leading to Old Street, Jiufen’s biggest tourist attraction, Japan’s presence becomes clear. Red lanterns line the shops and float overhead. Japanese-style buildings blend with Taiwanese shops, giving the area an eclectic aesthetic. There are museums surrounding the area, and you can explore some of the old mining tunnels while on the nearby hiking trails. The mythical feel of the town is said to be quite reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” and if you are a fan of the Ghibli film, nearly every gift shop has memorabilia from the film as it has become synonymous with the animation over the years.
If you’ve seen photos of Taiwan, you have likely seen at least one of their temples. They are everywhere, even in the dead of the city. In fact, as previously stated, night markets are often built around them. You may find a handful of Confucius Temples, and there are quite a few Buddhist temples as well, but Taoism seems to dominate across the country. These temples are often notably colorful and ornate wooden structures with carvings of various Taoist imagery. There are often sculptures resembling gods or spiritual figures, and dragons and phoenixes also jut from the roofs. These two creatures together represent the complementing forces of Yin and Yang, used in Taoism to represent unity. There are quite literally thousands of temples in Taiwan, So listing them here would be impossible. I have mentioned a few earlier, but to name a few worth checking out:
- Bao’an Temple (臺北保安宮)/Tongliang great Banyan (Penghu)
- Tianhou Temple Magong (天后宮) (Penghu)
- Taroko Eternal Spring Shrine (長春祠) (Takoro Gorge, Hualien)
- Tung Tai Chan Monastery (中台禪寺) (Puli)
- Longshan Temple (艋舺龍山寺) (Taipei)
- Sanzhi Seashell Temple (三芝貝殼廟) (New Taipei City)
- Wuji Tianyuan Temple (無極天元宮) (New Taipei City)
- Guandu Temple (關渡宮) (Taipei)
- Xuanzang Buddhist Temple (玄奘寺) (Nantou)
- Dragon and Tiger Pagodas (龍虎塔) (Kaohsiung)
Make sure you visit the National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院) while you are in Taipei. It is on my list for our next trip, as last year we ran out of time (5 weeks was still not enough). The museum holds the largest collection of Chinese art and artifacts, which were sent to Taipei shortly after the KMT fled the mainland during China’s Great Leap Forward, as several museum’s in Mainland China wanted to protect the pieces from destruction as cultural purging included the destruction of artifacts.
I recommend making time to relax at the hot springs at least once. On our trip, we stayed at a hot spring hotel in Beitou and it was a great way to relax after running around town all day. The minerals in the water are great for your skin and overall health, and the sights nearby are gorgeous. But Beitou is not the only hot spring in Taiwan. There are other hot springs to visit in the Yangmingshan region. Also check out the hot springs in Wulai (烏來), Jiaoxi (礁溪鄉), Ruisui (瑞穗鄉), or any number of other hot spring villages within the country’s borders.
Indigenous populations have pockets everywhere, and some of these sites are well worth checking out as well. Ketagalan Culture Center (凱達格蘭文化館) offers exhibitions on Taiwan’s indigenous tribes, including the now extinct Ketagalan people. Hualien (花蓮縣) is also known for its indigenous presence and offers food and activities centered around indigenous cultures. Taitung (臺東市) is also largely centered around indigenous culture. This remote farming town offers cycles and tuk-tuks to rent for guided and unguided tours around the farmlands, though parts may be inaccessible due to damages from September 2022’s major earthquake which directly impacted the area.
Here we are, well over 3,000 words later and I still haven’t scratched the surface of everything Taiwan has to offer. Every place I mentioned here can (and probably will) have its own post, with many more on my list. I know I am biased, having married a Taiwanese man and learned all about their customs and traditions through the passion of the very nationalistic man presiding in my home. I always knew I wanted to see Taiwan, but I didn’t know the impact my trip would have on me, or that I would fall in love with this little island so much.
Taiwan doesn’t get nearly as much attention as other East Asian destinations like Korea and Japan, so I really hope this offers some more insight into everything this incredible little island has to offer. Safe Travels!