Before traveling to Taiwan I didn’t know a lot about it. Well, that’s not quite true, I knew of its recent history and had a vague idea of the politics, but the food, culture and people were all mysteries to me. For whatever reason we just don’t hear a lot about it here in the U.S. and even fewer people travel there on vacation. I want to change part of that at least; I want to share some insights into a country that I firmly believe should be on everyone’s travel bucket list.
I was in Taiwan as part of a special project with AFAR Magazine and Taiwan Tourism; more on that later. But my thoughts here are completely my own and hopefully my honest look will inspire some curiosity to learn more about this beautiful country.
1. So, where is it exactly? Is it big? What’s the weather like?
Taiwan is an island nation located in East Asia about 112 miles off the southeastern coast of China across the Taiwan Strait. To the south the Philippine Strait separates Taiwan from that nation of islands, Manila is only a two-hour flight from Taipei. To the north is the East China Sea and Japan and Korea. It’s not a large island, about the size of Belgium and is easy to get around thanks to a comprehensive road system and high-speed train network.
The Tropic of Cancer bisects the country and the island has a tropical marine environment. That means it’s usually on the warm side and it’s typically humid. The heat isn’t brutal though as in some other Asian countries, mid-high 70s seems to be the average. Typhoon season runs from June through October, so expect a lot more rain than normal during those months.
2. Are there things to see?
While it’s true that Taiwan doesn’t have an attraction as iconic as the Eiffel Tower or the Sydney Opera House, there are plenty of things to see, especially in its two major cities of Taipei and Tainan. Start your adventure in Taipei with a view from Taipei 101, one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world. There you’ll get a good idea of the layout of the city and its geography. Then be sure to explore some of the many temples, including Longshan Temple, which always seems to be packed with worshipers and the smell of sweet incense. The National Palace Museum though is the #1 attraction in town, housing priceless artifacts from China’s emperors. Unusual and intricate treasures are found there, including a jade cabbage that seems to be the most popular item on display. For a more relaxed attraction, Memorial Square Hall is a good way to escape the crowds at the temples and museums. The square is home to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, the National Theater and the National Concert Hall. But the best thing to do in Taipei is just explore on your own, from the super wealthy districts to the more traditional ones full of markets and delicious street food stalls.
If you like snacks though, Tainan is the unofficial snack capital of Taiwan. Along the streets of this ancient city, the country’s original capital, you can find everything from traditional night markets to simple vendors selling iced black tea, shrimp rolls and mango shaved ice. Food isn’t the only attraction in town though; Tainan has even more temples than Taipei, including one of my favorites Tinhou Temple where people from around the city come to cast their wishes for true love at the matchmaker shrine. Tainan was started by the Dutch and vestiges of this brief colonial era can be found at both Anping Fort and Chihkan Towers, a temple complex built on the foundations of an old Dutch East India Company fort. The most popular temple in town though is an unlikely one, the 17th-century Confucius Temple where devotees of the Master come to pay their respects and even pray for better grades at school.
Attractions in Taiwan aren’t limited to its cities of course, but I’ll talk more about that in a moment.
3. Is it a developing nation? Is there a lot of poverty?
I was unclear on this point before my trip and I was constantly surprised throughout my travels around the island nation. The fact is that Taiwan is one of the four so-called Asian dragons, economies in Asia that have advanced quickly and successfully. Taiwan enjoys one of the most robust economies in the world now, thanks in large part to its technology sector, and this is reflected almost everywhere. It’s not on par with a country like Singapore, at least not yet, but it’s certainly not a developing nation like Vietnam or Laos.
Walking around Taipei feels a lot like Tokyo or what I imagine Seoul to be like. In some neighborhoods the Fendi store is across the street from Louis Vuitton and you can buy a Starbucks on the corner. In more traditional neighborhoods markets filled with dry goods like mangoes and plums can be found and while the living there is more modest, I wouldn’t say that they live in poverty. Touring around the country one finds all levels of wealth, as in most developed nations but on the whole the economy is robust and even thriving in some cases.
Prices for some things were very good, like food. It’s very easy to enjoy excellent meals without spending a lot of money. Even at the most expensive restaurants in Taipei diners don’t spend a lot, compared to similar restaurants in Europe or North America. As in most countries, the best food is the simplest and that is very cheap indeed. Hotels tend to be average for Europe or North America, at least the ones I stayed in. The heavy presence of business travelers is most likely the reason for that phenomenon. Still, I think it’s easy to get around the country and enjoy oneself without spending a lot of money, especially when compared to Europe.
4. What do you do exactly when you visit Taiwan?
Excellent question and the answer is a lot. I’m going to cover this in a separate post, but I personally think Taiwan is not only ‘undiscovered’ by tourists but that it is also one of the great adventure travel destinations in the world. Thanks to a violent geological past, the natural side of Taiwan is varied and devastatingly beautiful. Sun Moon Lake, located in the center of Taiwan, is one of the most popular retreats and is a beautiful way to relax and get back to nature. Biking and hiking paths circle the lake and natural hot springs hotels nearby offer a great combination of activity and relaxation. One of the best natural escapes in Taiwan though is Taroko Gorge National Park. This massive park really is one of the natural wonders of the world, the shear cliffs dropping into the river below and the huge boulders made of pure, white marble are stunning to see. There are scores of hiking trails in and around the park, from easy to challenging giving visitors the chance to explore and experience this natural phenomenon firsthand.
In the south the mountains disappear and vast plains appear, home to rice paddies and other farms. But adventure travel can be found here too, from white water rafting to exploratory biking paths that run right through the rice paddies. The paths are organized routes and a great way to fall into the middle of a postcard. Taiwan is an island, so the marine activities are plentiful as well. There’s some great scuba diving and snorkeling options off the coast and if you’re a surfer, then the island’s southern coast is the place to be.
The adventure and natural travel aspect to Taiwan surprised me a lot, but I have the smiles and bumps and bruises from great hikes to prove how much fun the various activities really are.
5. Is the food approachable for a Western palate?
A good friend of mine who is a big foodie warned me before I left, saying that she heard real Chinese food was nearly inedible. Here’s an opportunity for me to make an important distinction without getting too mired down in politics. Taiwan is very close to China. Taiwan’s history includes several hundred years of incorporation into mainland Chinese culture. But Taiwan is currently independent and has also been influenced by other cultures that have called Taiwan home, from the Dutch to the Japanese. Taiwan has a very unique past and that has greatly contributed to its modern culture. Is it influenced a lot by Chinese culture? Of course, without a doubt, from language to cuisine. But that cuisine has also evolved on its own.
Ok, now that I’ve said that, I should also mention that I’m a very picky eater and even wrote a whole post on how I approached the food in Taiwan. But, the short version is that yes, it is very approachable for the Western palate. There’s a little bit of everything, and you can ease your way into the food culture without a lot of effort. Night markets are a great way to taste and sample of lot of different things cheaply and without feeling bad if you don’t like something. Pork, vegetables and seafood comprise a lot of dishes, but are easy to avoid if you want. I ended up loving the food in Taiwan for the most part, eating just what I liked and experimenting here and there. If food is the reason why you aren’t considering a trip to Taiwan, it shouldn’t be. If anything, food is the reason you SHOULD consider a trip to Taiwan.
6. Are the people nice? Is it easy to get around if you don’t speak Chinese?
If I’ve learned one thing during my travels, it is that on the whole most people everywhere are nice. I haven’t been anywhere where an entire populace is mean and cranky. In fact, it’s usually the opposite; they’re usually excited that I’m visiting and want to teach me more about their culture. That was definitely the case in Taiwan, which sees a lot of Western business travelers but not as many leisure travelers. When I asked to sample some fruit, it was given to me, my money not accepted. When I asked a lot of questions about aspects of the culture, my queries were answered even though I know I accidentally embarrassed them. The people were warm, hospitable and overly friendly.
Language in the major cities really wasn’t a problem and even in the countryside it’s possible to get around. That being said, hiring a guide for a few days is not a bad idea at all. Even if you just hire them to be your translator, you’ll get a lot more out of the experience and a good guide is very affordable. But of course you don’t need it and the adventure of figuring out menus based on pictures and hand gestures is part of the adventure as well.
7. I’ve never known anyone who has visited Taiwan – why should I go?
Good question, I don’t know many people who have been myself and many of my friends are travel bloggers. I think when people consider taking a trip to Asia, Taiwan is often forgotten in the flashy lights of Bangkok and Tokyo. Because not many people go there from the West, we don’t hear as much about it, we don’t see many photos and that longing, that desire doesn’t have a chance to build. It’s just not an aspirational destination; not yet anyway.
I think that as more and more people want to experience Asia but don’t necessarily want to go through the chaos of Bangkok or the enormity of Tokyo that Taiwan will start to be visited more often. I hope that the information and photos I share is part of a larger picture, one told by many, that Taiwan enjoys a rich diversity of things to do and see and that it is absolutely well worth a visit. If it’s your first time, maybe combine it with a visit to another country, spend half your time in Taiwan and half your time somewhere else. But I guarantee you, that brief visit will make you want to return, I know it has for me.
So I’ve tried to answer some of your questions about Taiwan, what else would you like to know?