Taiwan’s capital Taipei is one of East Asia’s most vibrant metropolises. It's is famous for its night markets; Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest buildings; and the National Palace Museum, which holds a vast collection of imperial Chinese treasures. But beyond that, there are many more things to do in Taipei including urban hikes, historic neighbourhoods, hot springs, and a volcanic mountain park on the outskirts.
Things to do in Taipei off the beaten track
Explore the many hiking routes
Taipei is surrounded by rolling hills and mountains. No matter what part of Taipei you’re in, there is always a nearby hill to hike. The most popular one, Xiangshan, or Elephant Mountain, provides a great up-close view of Taipei 101 as well as sweeping views of the city. Another well-known hike is Jiantan Mountain, where a long ridge walk lets you enjoy fine views of Taipei to the north and south. For a good lesser-known alternative, try Fuzhoushan which also features great views of the city but is often less crowded. Fuzhoushan is a relatively easy hike, and is especially kid-friendly with playgrounds on the top of the hill.
Explore Dadaocheng, Taipei’s historic trading hub
Dadaocheng is one of Taipei’s most historic neighbourhoods. Built on the banks of the Keelung river, it was a busy shipping district during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While no longer a bustling river port, the area has seen a resurgence in recent years. It has Taipei’s best collection of heritage shophouse buildings, with many featuring Western-style facades that reflect its historic trading links with the West.
Centred on Dihua Street, the area is filled with traditional stores selling dried foods and herbal medicine as well as contemporary boutiques and cafes. There are also several tea emporiums – once one of Dadaocheng’s biggest exports. Dihua Street is particularly festive during the Lunar New Year when it hosts the city’s annual New Year market selling holiday foods and goods.
The area is also home to several unusual museums and temples. Museum 207 showcases Taiwanese traditions and terrazzo art, while the Ama Museum tackles women’s rights and pays tribute to the “comfort women,” who were coerced by the Japanese during World War II to serve as prostitutes for the military. The area’s most prominent temple is Cisheng Temple, which honours the sea goddess Mazu. It’s an attractive temple, but perhaps more interesting are the many food vendors in the temple’s front courtyard serving up sumptuous Taiwanese street food. It’s a charming reminder of the neighbourhood’s folksiness that is not too common in Taipei.
Climb to the top of a volcano
To the north of the city, Yangmingshan National Park is a sprawling mountain park circling several dormant volcanoes and active fumaroles, plus hiking trails, gardens and even tea plantations. Seeing large plumes of hot smoke belching out of giant fumaroles located in the side of the mountain is fascinating, though you might be less thrilled by the smoke’s sulphuric smell which is not dissimilar to rotting eggs. You can also hike Mount Qixing, Taipei’s highest mountain at 3,674.5 feet (1,120 meters) or meander through grasslands with wild cattle (usually quite docile). Yangmingshan is free to enter and you can take paid shuttle buses to get to the park’s various different sites.
Relax in hot springs
If you enjoy relaxing in soothing hot springs, Beitou is the place to visit. There's a natural outdoor hot spring plus numerous hotel spas if that's more your style. And if that’s not enough thermal action, make a beeline for Thermal Valley, a hot spring lake that is usually covered by thick cloud of sulphuric steam. This one is just for looking at–anyone jumping in would be boiled alive. The area also boasts one of Taipei’s coolest buildings, the all-wooden Beitou Public Library, as well as some handsome early 20th-century buildings that were built by the Japanese during the colonial era.
Birdwatching, biking and a great temple in Guandu
Also in Beitou, near where the Tamsui and Keelung rivers meet, is Guandu Nature Park. This pleasant birdwatching reserve is home to ducks, herons and waterfowl as well as several crab species. A circular path leads through ponds, streams, rice fields, and mudflats with several stations set up for birdwatchers.
Also near the park is one of the oldest and most impressive temples in Taiwan. Guandu Temple was first built in 1661 and is another holy site dedicated to the sea goddess Mazu. The Guandu Temple complex is well worth exploring. At the front is a shrine while the multi-level main building features a large worship hall with exquisite wooden furntirefurnishing. A cave tunnel next to the temple leads to a small shrine at the rear, while above the temple is a hill garden with good views of the surrounding area.
From Guandu, you can cycle on a path along the Tamsui River further north to Hongshulin mangrove swamp and all the way to Tamsui, where the river meets the sea.
Take a break in the city
If you want to enjoy wide open green space in the middle of Taipei, Daan Park is probably the best venue. Taipei’s largest park features walking and jogging trails, manicured gardens, and ponds. Daan Park, at 64 acres, is like a compact version of London’s Hyde Park or New York’s Central Park. While you’re there, check out the park’s subway station and its outdoor sunken garden. Don’t let the station’s interesting power turbine design fool you as it’s actually a welcoming place to gather in.
Top image: Skyline of Taipei © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock