By Jonathan Evans
In 2017 the number of visitors to Taiwan reached a new high of almost 11 million – seemingly proof that word has finally got around about this undervalued country’s many, diverse attractions. At less than two hours’ flight time, with frequent direct services, the buzzing capital Taipei is perfectly positioned for weekend visitors from Macau.
Cultural diversity is key to understanding the appeal of Taipei. Depending on which area you visit, the landscape is redolent of Formosa’s surrounding cities – not least Tokyo, Hong Kong – while some more modern inner-city districts echo the manicured elegance of Singapore or even Bangkok’s breathless bustle. Ultimately though, far from being a composite metropolitan patchwork, the dynamic Taipei’s own spectacular landmarks and cultural signifiers add up to a richly rewarding weekend that should be enjoyed on its own terms.
Photography: Taipei 101 - The Tallest building in Taipei
A highly efficient and affordable public-transport system means that visitors with limited time can see all the key areas in one weekend by making short hops on the Taipei Metro. While many people start at the city’s towering symbol, the Taipei 101, within a few stops you can transport yourself to a different world entirely – Daan Forest Park, with its Ecological Pool, home to scores of birds – while a short stroll from here is the rarefied enclave of Yongkang Street, full of boutiques, restaurants and galleries. An unmissable sight one stop further is Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, which commands the east end of Liberty Square. This vast public plaza also contains the National Concert Hall and National Theater.
Photography: YongKang Street
Photography: Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall
From here, a walk through the neighbouring 228 Peace Memorial Park – where a monument and museum commemorate those who died during the 1947 massacre – leads directly to the crowning glory of a city brimming over with destination architecture, the baroque, Japanese-era Presidential Office Building. By way of contrast, end your first afternoon with a visit to Longshan, Taiwan’s best-known shrine, where you can lose yourself in the ornately carved eaves and fragrant incense as devotees offer prayers around sundown at this atmospheric temple first built in 1738.
Photography: Long Shan Temple
Once your history fix is complete, make a beeline for Wanhua district and the bright lights of Ximen, Taipei’s undisputed number-one nightlife nexus. This sprawling area will remind any Japanophile of Shibuya or Shinjuku, with its splashes of neon and super-size malls, but Ximen’s backstreets reward further exploration. Right next to the historic Red House, a row of alfresco bars such as SOL Bistro and Café Dalida is packed with international revellers enjoying dinner and cocktails, while across the main Chengdu Road drag lies a network of hipster-frequented lanes enlivened with street art and characterful resto-bars like Ximen Jimmy. In between, take your pick of street food from the numerous bright stalls serving local favourites like mochi, noodles and, of course, bubble tea.
Photography: Ximen Ding (Top), Taipei Assorted Street Food ( Smelly Toufu, Oyster Noodle, Beef Noodle)
Although Taipei’s greater metropolitan area (New Taipei City) covers a vast area, its essential sights and chief commercial centres are conveniently close together. A fascinating place to start day two is Dihua Street, where shops selling arcane Chinese provisions and TCM remedies are installed among eclectic architecture testifying to Taiwan’s years of foreign occupation; past the Xiahai City God temple, the road is now also home to hip European-style cafés and outfitters.
Photography: Dihua Street
From here, veer into the north-central area, where the cosmopolitan district of Zhongshan holds numerous attractions ripe for investigation. Among them are SPOT-Taipei Film House – a former US consulate that’s now an all-in-one cinema, bistro, gallery and craft store – and a neighbouring lane of chi-chi cafés, artisan outlets and lifestyle boutiques. Close by, both Songjiang Nanjing and Zhongxiao Xinsheng combine large-scale retail and office blocks with enticing alleyways full of delightful coffee shops and restaurants, while Huashan 1914 Creative Park’s repurposed Japanese warehouses – once the industrial base of a winery – now hold design and clothes shops as well as a film theatre.
Photography: Huashan 1914 Creative Park
Visiting a night market is one of Taiwan’s essential rites of passage, and in Zhongshan you’re ideally placed to finish your weekend in time-honoured local fashion by patronising Shilin, the largest and best-known of them all. Like many night markets, this is a showcase for far more than just food; don’t be surprised to find an eccentric array of T-shirts, phone accessories and souvenirs alongside the covered market’s decidedly different xiaochi (small bites) such as oyster omelettes and black-pepper buns.
Photography: Street Food (Top) Fried Chicken Fillet, Black- pepper Bun (Below) Grilled Chinese Hot dog wrapped with Glutinous Rice, Grilled Octopus