North Taiwan is the most scenically varied part of the country. Wild terrain, fierce indigenous tribes and even wilder weather terrified early settlers, making it one of the last parts of the island to be colonized by the Chinese. In 1949 the region was swamped by a huge influx of refugees from China, and today its jam-packed cities contain more Mandarin-speaking “mainlanders” and their descendants than anywhere else in Taiwan, providing a high proportion of Kuomintang (KMT) support.
The region encompasses Hsinchu, Miaoli, Taoyuan, Taipei and Yilan counties, part of a densely populated urban corridor stretching from Keelung on the northeast coast to the fast-expanding cities of Taoyuan and Zhongli further west. Proximity to the capital makes the whole area highly accessible and much of it can be visited as a series of extended day-trips. Beyond this urban core lies a dramatic coastline, one of the north’s most appealing features: the North Coast and Guanyinshan National Scenic Area and, further south, the Northeast and Yilan Coast National Scenic Area offer spectacular scenery and some decent beaches. Between the two areas, the port city of Keelung is set in a strategic harbour surrounded by ruined fortresses and is home to Taiwan’s best night market, as well as its biggest annual Ghost Festival. Inland, the Pingxi Branch Rail Line winds its way through a lush mountain valley, past scenic Shifen Falls and Pingxi itself, home of Taiwan’s most magical event, the release of hundreds of “heavenly lanterns” during the Lantern Festival. Nearby, the once booming mining towns of Jiufen and Jinguashi have been reinvented as tourist attractions, sporting atmospheric teahouses, snack stalls and museums.
Further south, Hsinchu and Miaoli counties form the Hakka heartland of Taiwan, with Beipu providing ample opportunity to experience Hakka food and culture, and Sanyi, renowned as the country’s foremost woodcarving centre. But beyond all of this, and never far from view, lies an untamed interior of giant peaks and isolated valleys, home to the awe-inspiring Shei-Pa National Park and Taian Hot Springs, a tranquil spa retreat surrounded by great hiking country and Atayal tribal villages. With more time and preferably your own transport, you can traverse the winding Northern Cross-Island Highway, connecting the historic streets of Daxi with Yilan on the east coast. Yilan county contains a handful of worthwhile stops, especially the plunging Wufengqi Waterfalls.