Taiwan’s political and financial heart, Taipei (台北; táiběi) is one of the most densely inhabited cities on earth. Surrounded by mountains at the northern tip of the island, the capital is a melee of motor scooters, markets, skyscrapers and temples, with almost three million people packed into the Taipei Basin. Don’t be put off by first impressions: much of its architecture is shabby and unattractive, the result of slapdash construction in the early years of Kuomintang (KMT) rule, primarily to accommodate almost one million new arrivals from China in 1949. The KMT government (and many residents) regarded Taipei as a temporary home, a base from which to launch the recovery of the mainland. Not anymore – Taipei’s newest buildings are smart, stylish and built to last, and it’s the most international place on the island.
Though you could spend months here and still not absorb all the city has to offer, a week is usually enough to get a decent taster. Many tourists come solely to visit the mind-blowing National Palace Museum, but they risk missing out on a host of other attractions. Grapple with Taiwan’s complex history on a tour of the Presidential Building, National Taiwan Museum and Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, located in Zhongzheng district, the city’s historic and political core. It’s well worth exploring the old districts of Wanhua and Datong, home to Taipei’s dwindling stock of ramshackle wooden houses and early twentieth-century facades, as well as venerable Longshan Temple, the best introduction to the country’s religious traditions. Further north, Dihua Street is packed with traditional stores, while Baoan Temple is one of the country’s most elegant shrines, and the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines is an excellent introduction to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. East Taipei offers a change of pace and scenery, with Xinyi district a showcase of gleaming office towers and glitzy shopping malls, all of them overshadowed by cloud-scraping Taipei 101. Eating in Taipei is always memorable, with a huge choice of exceptional restaurants, teahouses and some of Taiwan’s best night markets, while a vast range of department stores, specialist shops and antique stalls makes shopping in the city just as rewarding. To the north, Yangmingshan National Park and Beitou are where the best hikes and hot springs are located, while Maokong and Wulai to the south provide a taster of Taiwan’s wilder hinterland.
People have lived in the Taipei Basin for thousands of years, but the modern city is an amalgamation of several villages brought together little over a century ago. The region’s original inhabitants were the indigenous people known as the Ketagalan, but the Qing government in Beijing, having assumed control of Taiwan in 1683, granted farmer Chen Lai-zhang (from Quanzhou in Fujian), the first official licence to settle the Taipei area in 1709. More immigrants followed, leading to the creation of Bangka, Taipei’s first Chinese settlement and today’s Wanhua district. In 1853, new arrivals from Tongan in Fujian clashed with more established settlers from Zhangzhou in what’s known as the Ding-Xia Feud. The fight left 38 dead and led to the establishment of Dadaocheng (today’s Datong) by the aggrieved Tongans.
Taipei (literally “North Taiwan”) Prefecture was created in 1875. The location of the city (initially refered to as “Chengnei” or city centre) was carefully chosen midway between Bangka and Dadaocheng so as not to provoke the rival clans. Construction of the city walls began in 1879, but, hampered by lack of funds, they weren’t complete until 1884, marking the official founding of the city. When Taiwan was upgraded to a province of China in 1885, first governor Liu Mingchuan was already living in Taipei, but Dadun (modern Taichung), was chosen as the provincial capital. Liu started to develop Taipei regardless, building schools, establishing Taiwan’s first railway and commissioning a British architect to construct the first bridge over the Danshui River in 1888. Taipei was finally made provincial capital of Taiwan in 1894, on the eve of the Japanese occupation a few months later. The Japanese era (1895–1945) saw the emergence of modern Taipei – many of the capital’s finest buildings were constructed in the first half of the twentieth century, and with the destruction of the city walls between 1900 and 1904, Bangka and Dadaocheng were gradually absorbed.
In February 1947, the 2-28 Incident began here and in 1949 Taipei became the capital of the Republic of China, its population swollen by an influx of mainland Chinese – by 1967 it had topped 1.5 million. These days being Taipei mayor is one of the nation’s top jobs; President Ma Ying-jeou and former presidents Lee Tung-hui and Chen Shui-bian all held the post.Read More
Taipei has a plentiful supply of mid-range and luxury hotels scattered all over the city, with hefty discounts available year round – however, beware of major trade shows such as Computex (May/June), which can lead to a shortage of rooms. Budget accommodation is also easy to find, with Taipei the only city in Taiwan that offers a decent choice of hostels. Most of the cheap accommodation is concentrated in the old city centre, but in recent years a new crop of hostels has emerged in Shida, near the major universities and plenty of nightlife.
With a bigger budget, where you stay will largely depend on your priorities: Zhongzheng and the area around the train station is the best base for getting around and convenient if arriving by bus or train, but Zhongshan is where you’ll find most of the mid-range hotels and several five-stars. This district is not quite as convenient for transport, but there’s plenty to eat and Zhongshan Road is one of the city’s more leafy (and upmarket) thoroughfares. Wanhua and Datong are historic neighbourhoods, good for temples and traditional food, but with less choice when it comes to hotels and a long way from the nearest nightlife. East Taipei, which includes Songshan, Xinyi and most of Daan district, is where the majority of luxury hotels are located – this is the modern financial and commercial heart of the city, as well as the location of its trendier restaurants and bars, and beds are priced accordingly.
Taipei is one of the world’s greatest showcases for Chinese cuisine. Be adventurous; many places have English menus or at least photographs of food, and where one dish is the main feature, pointing will usually suffice. In addition to a vast array of restaurants, the city’s teahouses (cháguǎn) are atmospheric places to eat light meals and sip Chinese-style tea. For a cheaper, more local experience try Taipei’s vibrant night markets (yèshì), which offer a bewildering range of dishes and excellent value for money. Another budget favourite is the “Taiwan Buffets” (自助餐; zìzhù cān), which you’ll see in every neighbourhood – these canteen-style places allow you to pile up as much food on your tray as you like, with each dish incurring a small charge (it’s rarely more than NT$120 for a huge plateful). In the summer make for a shaved ice stall (bào bīng or more commonly “tsua bing” in Taiwanese) – the sweet, tasty toppings make sumptuous desserts. If it’s too hot, almost every department store has an air-conditioned food court in the basement, with the biggest under Taipei 101.
Drinking and nightlife
Drinking and nightlife
In recent years nightlife in Taipei has expanded from a small cluster of mainly expat pubs and local beerhouses to a variety of lounge bars and a decent selection of live music venues. Taipei’s nightclubs have also taken off in a big way – though the situation is constantly changing, the scene here is as good as any in Asia, regularly attracting top DJs from Japan, North America and Europe.
Taipei’s bars and clubs are scattered throughout the city in much the same way as everything else, but there are enough clusters to allow some stumbling around on foot. For years the area around Shuangcheng Street north of Minquan Road (in Zhongshan district), was considered the centre of Taipei nightlife, particularly for foreigners. US soldiers on R&R frequented the area until the late 1970s and it’s still known as the “Combat Zone” today. Though it’s packed with over twenty pubs it’s decidedly tired compared to more hip parts of the city and tends to be frequented by an older crowd. The university districts of Shida and Gongguan in the southwestern half of the city are funkier hunting grounds for cheaper pubs and clubs, while upscale East Taipei is where you’ll find many of Taipei’s top lounge bars and clubs. Taipei’s live music scene continues to evolve, with a growing number of venues hosting everything from local rock bands and Mando-pop to international jazz and blues acts.
Entertainment and the arts
Entertainment and the arts
Taipei has an incredibly vibrant cultural life, with a daily feast of exhibitions, shows, gigs, plays and traditional performances. Performance groups such as U-Theatre, Cloud Gate and Han-Tang Yuefu, all based in the city, are world class. The best way to buy tickets is to approach the venue directly or visit one of the ERA ticket offices located in Eslite or Kingstone bookstores. You can also download an English order form from ERA’s Chinese website (wwww.ticket.com.tw; scroll down to the end of the page).
Taipei is one of the world’s best places to see various styles of Chinese opera – it’s not unusual to have ten or more productions running each month in various locations – while Western classical and Chinese music, especially nanguan is usually performed somewhere in Taipei year round and the standards are generally high.
Taipei is also loaded with cinemas, most of them packed at the weekends. All the major Hollywood movies arrive in Taiwan soon after their US release dates and are rarely dubbed into Chinese: Ximending is where you’ll find the older and larger screens – check times in local English newspapers.
Contemporary and classical art is booming in Taipei, too, with numerous galleries, museums and shops displaying everything from traditional Chinese paintings to installation art and glass sculpture.
Taipei is packed with huge shopping malls, most of them upmarket affairs located in East Taipei, while traditional shops tend to be in the older, western parts of the city. In addition to night markets and the shops listed below, Ximending is the place to check out Taipei street fashion. Elsewhere, the weekend Jade Market is a definite highlight, while Guanghua Market is computer-geek heaven.
Taipei has several craft centres firmly targeted at tourists, though prices and quality aren’t bad and they are the most convenient way to stock up on gifts and souvenirs. If you’re a serious buyer, the antique shops around Jianguo Road between Renai and Xinyi make fascinating browsing, with Lane 291 lined with posh stores full of jewellery, paintings, carvings, and statues (many are closed Mondays). Heping East Road Section 1, east of Guting MRT Station, is home to traditional Chinese calligraphy equipment stores.