The mountains and river valleys that surround the capital are loaded with attractions, making for an enticing series of day-trips or short breaks. Beitou’s hot-spring spas are some of Taiwan’s best, while hikers should find plenty to keep them busy in Yangmingshan National Park. The old port towns of Danshui and Bali contain a smattering of historical sights, while Wulai and the towns to the southeast offer a taster of the island’s mountainous interior. Yingge is a must-see for anyone with an interest in ceramics, and the temple at Sanxia is one of Taiwan’s most beautiful.
The northern Taipei district of BEITOU (北投; běitóu) nestles in the shadow of Yangmingshan, twenty minutes from downtown by MRT. The name derives from “Patauw” or “home of witches” in the Ketagalan language, an allusion to the area’s bubbling sulphur carbonate hot springs. Osaka merchant Hirada Gengo opened Beitou’s first hot-spring inn in 1896, and during the Japanese occupation it became one of the island’s most prominent resorts. The Japanese were particularly attracted to hokutolite, a mineral-laden stone formed by the springs, and bathers still come here to enjoy its therapeutic qualities. Most visitors come for the day, taking a dip in one of the many spas in the area (as in much of Taiwan, you can’t actually bathe in the hot springs at source – water is piped into spa pools and hotels), but it’s also worth exploring a smattering of sights recalling Taiwan’s Japanese past.
Lying in a valley 25km south of Taipei, WULAI (烏來; wūlái) is a popular day-trip from the capital, offering magnificent mountain scenery and northern Taiwan’s highest waterfall. It’s also a traditional home of the Atayal tribe, though the mixture of kitsch stores and dance shows on offer are aimed squarely at tourists. The museum is definitely worth a visit though, and a short walk beyond the tourist carnival lie quiet valleys and rivers offering some beautiful hikes and genuine Atayal villages. Wulai is also one of three popular hot-spring areas near Taipei (with Beitou and Yangmingshan), though the main difference here is that it doesn’t have that rotten egg smell. “Wulai” loosely translates as “hot spring”, and comes from the Atayal word urai meaning poisonous.
A comfortable day-trip from Taipei, Yangmingshan National Park (陽明山國家公園; yángmíngshān guójiāgōngyúan) sits on a geological fault line sprinkled with dormant volcanoes, hot-spring spas and well-marked hiking trails. The highlight is the climb up Mount Qixing, the park’s highest peak, but it also contains important historical sights – Chiang Kai-shek built his first and last homes in Taiwan here. Minibuses race between the main attractions making it unusually accessible to non-hikers, so try to avoid visiting at weekends and during holidays, especially in the spring and summer flower-viewing seasons, when the park is at its busiest.