Welcome to my series of under-rated travel destinations! Here I explore the cities and countries that don’t get enough attention as places to visit. These destinations are typically not inundated with tourists, thus preserving their original charm and allowing you to truly experience the culture.
Okay, I am probably a little biased since I was born and raised in Taiwan. Still, after traveling to many cities and countries around the globe, Taiwan truly brings unique values and perspectives that make me appreciate this island more and more whenever I come back to visit. Whether you are a history junkie, nature enthusiast or city socialite, Taiwan has a lot to offer.
Where: Taiwan is an island country southeast of China, though people often confuse it with Thailand, which is in southeast Asia.
Brief History: Taiwan or Republic of China (ROC), was mainly inhabited by Taiwanese aborigines before the 17th century when the island was annexed by the Qing Dynasty. The Qing Dynasty ceded Taiwan to Japan in 1895 after the Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese reined Taiwan until the end of WWII, and during that time, the Nationalist Party lost to Communist China (People’s Republic of China, or PRC) and eventually fled mainland China to Taiwan. Today, both China and Taiwan claim to the legitimate government of all China, which is still of hot political debate.
Today: Taiwan is one of the strongest and most developed economies in all of Asia. Though the population stands at 23 million (the same as Canada) the land size is only 1/8 of California. You will most likely find your iPhone chips or computer components to be made in Taiwan as it is a high-tech hub especially in the semi-conductor industry. It is also a democratic country with progressive liberal social stance.
Language: People in the normal tend to speak mandarin Chinese while southern Taiwan and the older generation tend to speak in Taiwanese. You should be able to get around easily with English, as most people speak basic English.
Flights: Taiwan is easy to get to with most major airlines flying direct from north America, Europe, Australia or easy connections through Asia such as mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan or Korea. Two largest airlines in Taiwan are Eva Air and China Airlines.
Climate: Humid in the summer with temperature in the 80s and 90s. Winter months are dryer with temperature around 50s to 70s.
What makes Taiwan unique is its well-preserved traditional Chinese culture and yet it’s a progressive democratic society.
Without further ado, here are the top 10 reasons to visit Taiwan.
1. Authentic Traditional Chinese Culture
Since Taiwan didn’t go through the Cultural Revolution mainland Chinese did, Taiwan keeps much of the traditional Chinese culture. Did you know that mainland Chinese people are mainly atheists due the Communist Party not encouraging people to practice religions? But not in Taiwan. The majority of the Taiwanese are Buddhist or Daoist and can be seen at the many gorgeous temples throughout Taiwan.
Another difference is Taiwan uses Traditional Chinese writing versus mainland China which uses Simplified Chinese writing.
For history and culture junkies, National Palace Museum in Taipei is a must. Many precious Chinese antiques were brought to Taiwan when the Nationalists fled mainland China, and the museum is also a great place to learn about Taiwan and its past.
2. Very Affordable
The cost of living in Taiwan is relatively affordable compared to western countries. It is not dirt cheap as Southeast Asia though. Metro is typically around $0.5 -$1 USD per ride, and for $5 USD, you can have fantastic meals.
Taiwan is especially friendly for travelers as most cafes have reliable free wifi. The City of Taipei also offers free wifi whenever you are in public places such as metro stations, or even on a bus.
3. Food, Food, Food!
Taiwanese are known to be the foodies of Asia, with countless restaurants and street foods, the only thing you need to worry about is not having a big enough stomach. The variety of Taiwanese is also simply endless.
For starters, try the unique Taiwanese breakfast items such as scallion pancake with eggs and your choice of meat, radish pancake, fried dough with Chinese muffin, porridge, pot stickers, and of course soy milk or breakfast tea.
For lunch, head to Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐) for their world famous soup dumplings and everything else on the menu. If the line is too long Dian Shui Lou (點水樓) would also not disappoint. Beef noodle soup or the Taiwanese bento boxes with countless of selections are also a good way to eat a quick and cheap meal.
As for dinner, try the $100 NTD (about $3 USD) quick-fry restaurants. These are your down-to-earth mom and pop cooking with delicious seafood plates and others starting at $100 NTD per plate. You will also get a big bank for your buck for sushi in Taiwan due to its abundance of seafood and Japanese influence.
Whether you are still hungry or not, head over to the night markets for some street food delicacies.
4. Super Cool Night Markets
Night markets come to life as you guessed it, at night! Street vendors lined up shoulder to shoulder for miles and the streets were completely blocked off for pedestrians only. Here you can find all sorts of street food from the famous Taiwanese stinky tofu, blood sausage to gourmet french fries, ice cream and more. My girlfriend was one of the foreign people that had to cover up her nose when walking through the stinky tofu stand.
You can also find many retail shops and boutiques selling all sorts of funky stuff. Night markets are a fun place to play as well. Pin ball machines, BB-gun shooting and other games to name a few.
5. Breathtaking Mountains and Hiking Paradise
Taiwan is a tropical island with close of 70% of the entire landmass covered by mountains with hundreds of hiking trails to choose from. From beginners to expert hikers, city or forest view, there’s something for everyone.
YangMingShan National Park just outside Taipei is an easy getaway from the hustle and bustle of the big city. It boosts breath-taking view of Taipei and if you are lucky to be there in early spring, you just might catch the beautiful cherry blossoms.
YuShan, or Mt. Jade, is the highest mountain in Taiwan and also one of the most popular. YuShan is in many ways a hiker’s paradise for its ruggedness, and one of the only places in Taiwan that you can see snow.
6. Aboriginal Culture
Though Taiwan’s majority is Han Chinese, the original inhabitants were the Austronesian tribes. Studies believe that Taiwan is where the Austronesian culture originated, which includes New Zealand and Hawaii.
Aboriginal tribes and groups are sparsely located all over Taiwan, and, while sharing a common ethnicity, greatly differ in their language, religious, and traditional customs.
7. City Life in Taipei
Shameless promotion for my hometown which is also the capital and business center of Taiwan. It’s located in northern Taiwan, about an hour by bus from TaoYuan airport, which is the main international airport you will most likely fly in from.
The city life in Taipei is incredible as it has all of the pros and little of the cons of living in a big city. Unlike many big cities in the world, Taipei is one of the cleanest and most organized. One thing you will notice is that there are little public trash cans and yet the streets and wherever you go stays very clean, which reflects the high standard of its people. You’d rarely see jaywalking, and people always diligently line up. Tip: If you are not passing people on the escalator, make sure you stand on the right side, don’t be that foreigner blocking everyone trying to pass on the left.
Life in Taipei is very convenient and comfortable. It’s wide subway and public transportation infrastructure makes traveling within the city a breeze. Of course there are tons of yellow cabs that you can grab, and they are affordable too (i.e. 20 minute ride takes about $7 USD). Wherever you go, you will find yourself surrounded with tons of retail shops, restaurants, street food, and cute cafes. As a coffee snob, the coffee culture in Taipei can easily rival those hip coffee shops in the US. Great food and varieties are a given as mentioned earlier.
In the event that you want to take a break from the hustle and bustle of Taipei, you can easily get to the mountains within an hour drive such as YangMingShan in the suburb or head over the the XiangShan which is only one metro station over from Taipei 101. XiangShan trail is an easy hike that boots amazing view of the city.
8. Treat yourself to a Hot Spring
Taiwan is one of the world’s top destinations for hot springs, and the variety extends to cold springs, mud springs and more. Many hotels and spas would have natural hot spring with a gorgeous view of the mountains or forest. This would be your vacation from vacation.
9. Clean, Organized and Well-Developed
Unlike some parts of Asia, Taiwan is well-developed with high living standard. You won’t find people try to sell stuff to you that you don’t want like many touristy areas. People are very polite and always welling to help out one another.
You will also meet some of the most genuine, hard-working and down-to-earth people in Taiwan. There are no haggling in Taiwan and it’s definitely one of the safest places on Earth. Now I think of it, growing up in Taipei, I never had to think about walking alone on the streets, or certain neighborhoods I should avoid. Even at night, you will see many girls walking alone by themselves,which gives you an idea of how safe it is.
10. Great Public Transportation
The transportation infrastructure in Taiwan is top-notch and you definitely would’t need a car unless you’d prefer to drive to the country side. The metro along gets you to most places combined with buses, it would make your travel a breeze.
–Bonus! The good news is the new rail that goes from Taipei to the TaoYuan airport (most likely where you will fly in) just opened in 2017, which makes travel a whole lot easier and quicker.
Did you know: As an animal lover myself, did you know that Taiwan became the first country in Asia to ban eating of cat and dog meat as of early 2017?