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.
Top image © FenlioQ/Shutterstock
Taipei’s second oldest neighbourhood after Wanhua, Datong (大同; dàtóng) lines the Danshui River north of Ximending. The district evolved from two villages; north of Minquan Road, Dalongtong was established in the early eighteenth century while to the south Dadaocheng was created in 1853 by refugees from Wanhua. The latter flourished in the 1870s as tea exports boomed and foreign companies established bases on the wharf. Today it’s a enticing place to wander, its narrow lanes littered with historic buildings, traditional shops and temples.
Baoan Temple (保安宮; bǎoān gōng), a few metres north of the Confucius Temple on Hami Street (and signposted from Yuanshan MRT Station), is Taipei’s most beautiful shrine. Though there are many deities enshrined here, the principal figure is Baosheng Dadi, regarded as a god of medicine or healing. Tradition maintains that immigrants from Tongan began worshipping here in 1742 and a simple shrine was completed in 1760, but the first official temple was constructed between 1805 and 1830. The temple won a UNESCO conservation award in 2003 in recognition of the incredible restoration work completed in the 1990s.
Before you go in, check out the painted wall carving inside the East Gate to the right of the Entrance Hall – it features Chinese hero Yue Fei having the words “Serve Your Country” being carved onto his back by his patriotic mother. Once inside you’ll see the Main Hall across the courtyard, packed with numerous images of Baosheng and surrounded by statues of the 36 celestial officials, carved between 1829 and 1834 and exceptionally rare pieces of temple art. Hard to spot, but there are slight differences between the left and right sides of the hall, a result of the rivalry between the two master craftsmen hired for the restoration of 1917. You won’t miss the seven eye-catching murals that adorn the outer walls of the hall however – they depict various Chinese legends and were completed in 1973. The Drum Tower on the left (west) side of the courtyard houses a shrine to the Birth Goddess, while the Bell Tower on the opposite side is a shrine to Mazu. Shennong Dadi, the god of agriculture, is worshipped in the Rear Hall. The Baosheng Cultural Festival is usually held April to May and comprises several weeks of traditional performances to celebrate Baosheng’s birthday (Lunar March 15), including an extensive programme of Chinese opera and music in the evenings. The birthday is marked by a solemn ceremony in the temple, while a boisterous parade usually takes place the day before.
Historic Dihua Street (迪化街; díhuà jiē) cuts through the southern half of Datong, crammed with photogenic shophouses built in Chinese Baroque style, many dating from the 1920s; at Chinese New Year the street expands into an open-air emporium for traditional gifts and snacks. Start exploring at the Nanjing Road end, thirty minutes’ walk east of Zhongshan MRT Station (or NT$90 by taxi). North of here, the road is lined with silk and cloth stores, followed by Traditional Chinese Medicine, herbs and dried-food sellers.
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.
East Taipei, comprising Songshan, Xinyi, most of Daan and the suburban district of Nangang, is the modern commercial heart of the city. Best known for Taipei’s premier shopping malls and its hippest restaurants and nightlife, it also has a handful of worthwhile sights tucked in between the office towers.
Looming over Xinyi, and indeed the whole of Taipei, Taipei 101 (台北一零一; táiběi yīlíngyī) became the world’s tallest building on completion in 2003 – it was overtaken by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (828m) in 2009. Designed by Taiwanese architect C.Y. Lee to resemble a stalk of bamboo, it is 508m (and 101 floors) tall. The entrance is on the fifth floor of the shopping mall on Xinyi Road (see p.101), where the world’s fastest elevators shoot to the top in just 37 seconds. Up on the 89th floor, the indoor observatory provides unparalleled views of the city and the surrounding mountains, while you’ll get a hair-raising perspective from the outdoor gallery on the 91st floor. A free audio-guide provides commentary on the views, but don’t miss the massive steel-plated damper in the centre, which at 660 tonnes is the world’s largest and helps stabilize the building in case of typhoons.
The suburb of Yonghe (永和; yǒnghé) has become synonymous with delicious soybean milk (dòujiāng) and associated breakfast snacks not just in Taiwan but throughout the Chinese-speaking world. In fact so many soybean shops in Taiwan and Asia use the word “Yungho” in their name that even many Chinese don’t know it’s actually a place near Taipei. Soybean milk originated in China in the nineteenth century, becoming popular as a drink in the 1930s and imported to Taiwan when the Nationalists fled the mainland in 1949; Donghai (“East Ocean”) was the original store, established in Yonghe in 1955. It became so successful that today, even in China, thousands of stores call themselves “Taiwan Yungho Soybean Milk” in deference and it’s become one of the country’s most successful examples of what the Taiwanese call “selling back” to China. Donghai was renamed “World Soybean Milk Magnate” in 1968 (世界豆漿大王; shìjiè dòujiāng dàwáng), and can be found a short walk north of Dingxi MRT Station at 284 Yonghe Rd Sec 2.
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.
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.
The valley south of Taipei is known as MAOKONG (貓空; māokōng), one of Taiwan’s oldest tea-growing areas and beloved for its teahouses, temples and romantic night views of the city. Production of Tiěguānyīn (a high-quality, semi-fermented oolong tea) began here in the 1880s, though Bāozhŏng (another type of oolong) is just as prevalent. In both cases production is relatively small and it’s “tea tourism” that brings in the cash today. In 2007 the 4km Maokong Gondola (貓空纜車; māokōng lǎnchē) linked Maokong and Zhinan Temple with Taipei Zoo, further boosting visitor numbers. It’s definitely the most appealing way to get there, with gasp-inducing views of the jungle-smothered slopes and city beyond.
The district of Shilin (士林; shìlín), north of the Keelung River, is noted principally for being the home of Taipei’s biggest night market and the National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院; guólì gùgōng bówùyuàn), one of the world’s finest collections of Chinese art and historical artefacts. It’s obviously one of the city’s highlights and needs several hours to do it justice, though there are a couple of other sights near Shilin MRT Station to keep you occupied for a day or so.
The museum pulls in over two million visitors a year with its unparalleled collection of Chinese art, a priceless treasure trove going back five thousand years, and also owns hundreds of documents, pieces of furniture, rare books and official decrees issued by the Imperial Chinese government, as well as masses of everyday items that provide a fascinating insight into life at court. Very little of this has to do with Taiwan of course – the contents are a legacy of Chiang Kai-shek’s retreat from China in 1949, when the former Imperial art collection was shipped, crate by crate, across the Taiwan Straits. While the Forbidden City in Beijing (also known as the Palace Museum) has more items, the finest pieces ended up in Taipei, becoming a contentious and often heated political issue between the two countries. Note that parts of the museum can be utterly swamped by tour groups throughout the day; your best chance of avoiding the crowds is late on Saturday evenings.
While the museum continues to expand (mostly from donations), at its core remains the priceless collection of art and artefacts once owned by the Chinese emperors. The Imperial collection was formally established in the reign of the first Song dynasty emperor, Taizu (960–975), who seized the artwork owned by rulers he had defeated in battle; his brother and successor, Taizong (976–997), expanded the hoard considerably, commissioning new pieces and collecting ceramics, artwork and statuary from all over China. This very private collection ended up in Beijing’s Forbidden City, and it wasn’t until the last emperor Pu Yi was forced to leave in 1924 that it was opened to the public: it became the National Palace Museum one year later. After the Japanese invaded Manchuria, its precious contents were carted around the country by the Nationalist government, on and off, for almost sixteen years, but by 1949 defeat at the hands of the Communists looked certain. During one, tense night in February of that year, most of the collection was packed into crates and shipped from Nanjing to Taiwan, just weeks before the city fell. It’s worth noting, however, that although the most valuable pieces were spirited across the Taiwan Strait, much was left behind. The retreat was meant to be temporary, and it took another fifteen years before the authorities, resigned to the status quo, decided to unpack the boxes and build a museum in 1965.
China, where many see the removal of the collection as looting, would love to see it returned to the mainland. There’s little chance of that happening any time soon: most Taiwanese point to the destruction of artwork during China’s Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and claim that they have worked hard to protect important treasures that might otherwise have been lost. Meanwhile, as Taiwan gradually sees itself as part of a wider East Asian community, a new branch of the museum, opened near Chiayi in 2012, centres on Asian art, and emphasizes the foreign traditions that have influenced Chinese culture.
The museum’s collection of over 654,500 pieces is still too large for everything to be displayed at the same time, but thanks to the completion of a major renovation project in 2006, more can be exhibited than ever before. The museum is arranged thematically, but galleries tend to be grouped in chronological order: start on the third floor and work down. The daily tours in English (free) at 10am and 3pm offer a more digestible introduction to the main exhibits, while the Sanxitang Tea Room on the fourth floor is the best place to take a break.
Early China: the third floor
The third floor charts the beginnings of Chinese civilization in the Neolithic period, through to the end of the Han dynasty in 220 AD. The museum’s remarkable ensemble of Neolithic artefacts (gallery 303) primarily comprises early pottery and exquisite jade pieces – at this time jade was believed to be a medium for spirits, and as such was given special reverence.
The real highlights, however, are the collection of stunning bronzes from the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1600–221 BC; gallery 305), principally ritual vessels owned by the wealthy. Typical pieces include the cauldron-like dǐng, and sets of cast bronze bells (zhōng), which had a ceremonial function. The most celebrated exhibit is the San P’an Basin dating from the late Western Zhou dynasty (700–900 BC), a ritual water vessel with an invaluable 350-character inscription inside. Another illustrious piece, the Maogong Ding (máogōng dǐng), named after the Duke of Mao and engraved with five hundred characters from the Zhou Dynasty, has its own special gallery to the side (301). The innovative, multimedia Mystery of Bronzes exhibition (gallery 300) is an enlightening introduction to the relatively advanced technologies of the era.
The Qin and Han dynasties (221 BC–220 AD; gallery 307) were the last to use ritual jades and bronzes, represented by the highly ornate zūn, or wine vessel. The gallery also contains some rare glazed ware, used by the rich, and “grey pottery”, often used by commoners to store burial goods.
The third floor also contains temporary exhibit galleries (304 and 306) as well as the “Dazzling Gems of the Collection” gallery (308), which features a selection of the museum’s most famous pieces: you’ll probably have to wait to get in. The biggest crowd-pleaser of all has its own room (302), the exceptional Jadeite Cabbage with Insects, a delicate Qing dynasty jade carving made to look like bok choy.
Han to Qing dynasty: the second floor
The second floor covers the flowering of Chinese civilization from the end of the Han to the Qing dynasty (221–1911). Here the range of artwork, media and materials expands dramatically from porcelain and ceramics, to fine art, jewellery and sculpture. The museum’s rare collection of silk-screen painting and calligraphy (West Wing galleries) is truly magnificent, beginning with masterpieces from the Song dynasty (960–1279), when landscape watercolour painting was reaching its zenith: highlights include Fan K’uan’s Travellers Among Mountains and Streams, the lyrical Storied Mountains and Dense Forests by Chu-jan and Early Spring by Guo Xi (note that paintings are usually on display for no longer than three months at a time to prevent light damage). The museum also has an extensive collection of Ming and Qing dynasty artwork.
China’s golden age, the Tang dynasty (618–907), is best represented by the first ceramics gallery (201). The era is one of the few in Chinese history when plump women were considered attractive: the earthenware figures of suitably curvaceous court ladies are indicative of the period. Porcelain and ceramics also flourished in the Song dynasty (960–1279). Don’t miss the rare rŭ yáo ceramic Narcissus Basin in bluish-green glaze (gallery 205), a container dating from Northern Song dynasty.
The Ming dynasty (1368–1644) galleries (205 and 207) feature the best of China’s porcelain and ceramics, much of it from the famous kilns at Jingdezhen. The intricate Doucai Cup with Chickens and Blue-and-white Flat Vase with Figures are considered the most accomplished pieces from the early part of the era (gallery 205).
The Qing dynasty (1644–1911) collections (galleries 209 and 211) contain a staggering number of artworks from elaborate cloisonné and high-quality porcelain to ornate jade and stone carvings (note that some of the most spectacular olive stone carvings are usually on display in gallery 304).
The first floor
The first floor has permanent galleries dedicated to Qing dynasty furniture (108), a vast array of religious sculptural art (101) and arts from the Qing Imperial collection (mostly intricate curio boxes; 106). Galleries 103 and 104 show rotating exhibits from the rare books and documents departments.
The Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines (順益台灣原住民博物館; shūnyì táiwān yuánzhùmín bówùguǎn), 100m up Zhishan Road from the Palace Museum, is one of Taipei’s most appealing museums, providing a thorough introduction to Taiwan’s indigenous population. As of 2010 there were fourteen formally recognized tribes, though the museum focuses on the nine most prominent: the Ami, Atayal, Bunun, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiyat, Tao and Cou (Tsou). The collection isn’t particularly large, but it’s well presented in English and Chinese, and videos covering the origins and current social situation of the various tribes on the first floor are excellent – just make sure you avoid school parties and tour groups because you’ll miss most of the commentary. The basement is the most intriguing part of the museum, highlighting festivals, myths and rituals, with a special area dedicated to head-hunting and a selection of ceremonial weapons.
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.
Wanhua (萬華; wànhúa) district, bounded by Zhongzheng to the east and the Danshui River to the west, is the oldest part of the city. Founded by immigrants from China in the early eighteenth century, the village was gradually absorbed by newly created Taipei in the 1890s. Originally known as Bangka or Manka in Taiwanese (from the Ketagalan word for “canoe”), its name was changed by the Japanese in 1920: the new characters read “Manka” in Japanese but “Wanhua” in Chinese. It’s best explored on foot – some of the city’s most famous temples and markets remain squashed between modern apartment blocks and to the north, Ximending is one of Taipei’s funkier neighbourhoods.
The most important of Wanhua’s “big three” temples (the others being Qingshui and Qingshan), Longshan Temple (龍山寺; lóngshān sì) is the ideal place to soak up Taiwan’s vibrant religious traditions. Located a block north of Longshan Temple MRT Station across Mangka Park, the temple was established in 1738 (making it Taipei’s oldest), renovated 1919–1924 and partially rebuilt after US bombing destroyed much of the complex during World War II. It’s principally a Buddhist temple dedicated to the Bodhisattva Guanyin, but there are more than a hundred deities worshipped here, mostly from the Taoist pantheon.
The main entrance on Guangzhou Street borders a pleasant courtyard, replete with artificial waterfall on the right-hand side. Before entering the temple proper, take a look at the two dragon pillars outside the Front Hall, the only bronze pair in Taiwan. Once inside you’ll see prayer tables and worshippers facing the Main Hall in the centre where Guanyin is enshrined – the principal image of the goddess has proved virtually indestructible over the years, surviving local conflicts, earthquakes and even the US bombing. Note the two gold censers (incense burners) in front of the hall, with their vivid cast images of “silly barbarians lifting a corner of the temple”, supposedly eighteenth-century depictions of the Dutch. This is the busiest part of the temple, but the deity-packed Rear Hall also receives a steady stream of visitors. The goddess Mazu is worshipped in the centre and fringed by guāngmíng lights, each representing a donation made in the hope of attracting good fortune. To the far right is a separate shrine dedicated to the gods of literature, primarily Wenchang Dijun in the middle, patronized by students and anxious parents at examination time. Guan Di occupies the shrine on the far left and in front of this in a side hall is a newer altar dedicated to the Matchmaker, a sort of Chinese cupid.
Bounded by Fuxing Road in the east and maple-lined Zhongshan Road in the west, one of the city’s more pleasant thoroughfares, Zhongshan (中山; zhōngshān) is a lively modern district covering much of the northern part of central Taipei. Though there’s plenty to see, especially in its northern half, Zhongshan is primarily a collection of residential neighbourhoods, shopping streets and offices with no discernible centre, its sights spread out and often best combined with attractions in other areas; Taipei’s excellent Fine Arts Museum is close to Yuanshan MRT station and the temples in Dalongtong, while the Su Ho Memorial Paper Culture Foundation lies much further south, best approached from Songjiang Nanjing MRT Station.
Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925) made just three brief visits to Taiwan: in 1900, 1913 (for a day) and 1918 (when he was turned away at Keelung harbour). Despite growing apathy among younger generations, he is still officially regarded as the father of modern China on both sides of the Taiwan Strait; every town in Taiwan (and China) has a “Zhongshan” Road or building, recalling Sun’s preferred Chinese name, and his mausoleum in Nanjing is a pilgrimage site for all Chinese. Sun’s popularity stems from his crucial role in the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911, and the formation of the Republic of China. He was also one of the founders of the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist party in 1912. In Taiwan, many pro-independence politicians object to his title as “founding father” (used in school textbooks) for the obvious reason that he had little to do with the island, but while Taiwan remains the “Republic of China” they have little hope of changing his formal status.
Renamed to commemorate Chiang Kai-shek in 1990, Zhongzheng (中正; zhōngzhèng) district is where Taipei was born in the 1880s. Little remains of Liu Mingchuan’s old walled city (城内; chéngnèi) today, as the walls and most of the early buildings were demolished by the Japanese after 1895. Indeed, it’s the Japanese period that gives the area much of its historic character, most evident in its numerous government offices and the particularly distinctive Presidential Building southwest of 2-28 Peace Park, another colonial legacy. Today’s Zhongxiao, Zhongshan, Aiguo and Zhonghua roads follow the line of the old walls.
Further south are the National Museum of History and Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, one of Taipei’s most famous landmarks. The area is easily accessed by MRT, though distances are not great and it’s possible to walk between the main sites.
Ten minutes’ walk from the southern end of 2-28 Peace Park is one of Taipei’s grandest sights, the collection of monumental architecture surrounding Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (中正紀念堂; zhōngzhèng jìniàntáng). It doesn’t seem to matter that all this was completed in the 1980s – these buildings are some of the largest examples of classical Chinese architecture anywhere in the world.
Built as a shrine to commemorate the man that – admire him or loathe him – did more to create modern Taiwan than any other, the memorial hall sits at the centre of a grand plaza (known as “Liberty Square” since the DPP renamed it in 2007), its striking 70m octagonal roof designed to resemble the Temple of Heaven in Beijing and covered with blue glazed tiles. Start by climbing the 89 granite stairs to the main hall, which contains a giant bronze statue of the Generalissimo under an elegant red cypress wood ceiling; though it seems a bit like a mausoleum, Chiang isn’t buried inside. Inscribed onto the marble wall behind the statue are the three pillars of Chiang’s political thought, loosely adapted from Sun Yat-sen’s “Three Principles of the People”: Science (科學; kēxué), Democracy (民主; mínzhŭ) and Ethics (倫理; lúnlǐ). The hourly changing of the guard here is an elaborate ceremony that takes around ten minutes. Downstairs at ground level you’ll find a series of renovated art galleries and a special section of exhibition rooms that tell the story of Chiang’s life through photographs, paintings and personal effects, all labelled in English, though you might tire of the predictably flattering commentary. His two shiny Cadillacs are also on display. Don’t miss the gift shop either, where Chiang’s image – rather like Mao’s in China – now adorns designer T-shirts, bags and trendy cards.
The old city originally had five gates but only four remain today, the West Gate being destroyed by the Japanese. Five minutes' walk west of Taipei Station along Zhongxiao Road stands Taipei’s modest North Gate (北門; běimén), the only example of the original south Fujian style of the gates, though its location in the middle of a roundabout overshadowed by a concrete overpass is hardly picturesque. The Zhongxi Gate (重熙門; chóngxīménxīmén; Little South Gate), Lizheng Gate (麗正門; lízhèngmén; South Gate) and Jingfu Gate (景福門; jǐngfúmén; East Gate) were substantially altered in 1966 as part of a restoration programme and now reflect Chiang Kai-shek’s penchant for northern Chinese architecture.
The building you’ll see heading south at the end of Guanqian Road from K Mall is the beautifully restored National Taiwan Museum (國立臺灣博物館; guólì táiwān bówùguǎn). The museum was completed in 1915 to house artefacts dug up by Japanese archeologists, and today the museum is one of Taipei’s finest colonial buildings, with a Neoclassical facade and 32 Corinthian columns flanking a magnificent whitewashed lobby.
Despite containing four floors of exhibition rooms, only a small part of its huge collection can be displayed at one time, mostly through temporary exhibits in the basement and on the first and third floors (these almost always have English labelling). The only permanent displays are on the second floor, with a marginally interesting area dedicated to Taiwan’s animals and plants, and the far more absorbing original collection of aboriginal artefacts. Highlights include some rare píngpŭ finds, such as tools and wood carvings, as well as a small prehistoric area containing a remarkable ensemble of Neolithic pottery and tools, many from the Beinan site, and a replica of the skull of Tsochen Man, unearthed in Tainan County and estimated to be between 20,000 and 30,000 years old. At the time of writing this section had only basic labelling in English.
On Ketagalan Boulevard stands the imposing redbrick Presidential Building (總統府; zǒngtǒngfŭ), its 60m tower for years the highest point in the city. The president and vice-president still work here and security is understandably tight: the entrance is at the back of the building at Boai and Baoqing roads, where you must show some form of photo ID (passport preferably). English-speaking guides are provided free of charge – it’s not possible to tour the place without one and many exhibits have Chinese-only captions.
Constructed between 1912 and 1919 by the Japanese to mimic British imperial architecture, the building served as the office of Japanese governor-generals until 1945, assuming the function of Taiwan’s presidential office from 1949. The first-floor rooms are arranged around two inner gardens that form the Chinese character for “sun” (日) when viewed from above (also the first character for “Japan”). Here you’ll find an informative exhibit on all nineteen Japanese governor-generals, including the fourth governor, the Kodama Gentaro – the Taiwanese used to say “his spit is law,” a fairly vivid indication that colonial rule wasn’t all green tea and sushi at the time. The building also contains exhibits on Taiwan’s five post-Japanese-era presidents, the history of the site itself, a basic history of the island and temporary art displays.
On eight or so Saturdays and Sundays throughout the year the building has an “open house”, which means you get to see some of the other areas (including the impressive Entrance Hall and Presidential Reception Room), wander around the first floor independently and take photographs (forbidden on weekdays).