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.