Is this thing on?
Oh hey, there we are!
I’ve said this before, but the most amazing thing I did for myself this past year was let go of all of the “plans” I initially had, and simply allow the universe to guide me along the way.
One of my favourite outcomes of this, was meeting this little gem in Taipei for a week as I/we basically ate our way through Taiwan.
Jess was the master planner for our time in Taipei and I had complete faith in everything she suggested. Turns out I was in great hands because we found some seriously great neighbourhoods to explore and snack stalls to frequent.
We booked the Taipei Eats Iconic Food Tour which was absolutely worth the experience both from the standpoint of the markets + stalls we hit, but also on behalf of our completely entertaining guide, Diego (ask for him).
Our group was great, and all five of us ended up going for a night cap that evening, and dinner the next night – food + friends are the perfect pairing, after all!
My top Taipei recommendations are as follows:
Shilin Night Market – an outdoor but often covered/partially indoor Night Market with all the usual fixins’ of food stalls, clothing stores, games and a few super cool hole-in-the-wall bars to hit up if the mood strikes. Pro tip: Taiwan Beer goes really well with all the salty, fried street food!
Da’an District – excellent restaurants, cafes, bubble tea, boutique shops, tea and tea houses. What more could you ask for?!
Dihua District – tea houses, spice shops, old streets and authentic dessert and coffee shops, this area to me, is a must-do.
Xinyi District/Night Market – this is the market we started at for our Iconic Food Tour. The absolute BEST part of the entire tour, perhaps the entire time in Taipei, was a Taiwanese ‘burger’ – gao bao – and although I was too caught up in the experience to even know where we were when we tried this thing, I promise you this food tour is worth it for this one item alone, haha, like wow.
Within these hot-spot districts, my best recommendation, always, is to wander and get lost down the side streets and alleys, but here are a few places I loved (noting I didn’t write them all down so this is definitely NOT comprehensive):
- Fu Coffee – dine-in or take-out coffee
- YABOO Cafe – coffee + light fare
- Din Tai Fung – famous, authentic dumplings
- Kao Chi YongKang Main – famous, authentic dumplings
- Oopsy Daisy Garden – cocktails + light bites
- Shabu-Shabu/Hot Pot – take your pick! Mala Hot Pot is a popular, but expensive choice
- Congrats Cafe – coffee and sweets with a really cool vibe and ambience
There’s another separate area that Jess and I explored, that being the district of Beitou which was quite frankly, totally not what either of expected…in a very disappointing way.
Beitou is known for its hot springs and that’s really what we came for. All of the literature we’d seen and photos online boasted this place as a serene oasis with natural springs making it seem like a luxury experience set in the lush, secluded green hills of Taiwan. WRONG.
It’s a busy, bustling, fast-food-restaurant-laden and traffic-congested district of TAIPEI. So. Putting our palpable disappointment aside, we made the most of the experience and had a lovely time here, though we’d wished we’d of had a more accurate expectation coming into it. Therefore, to manage your expectations – this is NOT an escape. It’s a luxury experience within the outer layers of a busy city. Wulai Hot Springs might have been a better option, as we’d heard about this place too, just noting it’s a bit more challenging to access.
That being said, we had an amazing stay at the Gaia Hotel and even treated ourselves to a 7-11 dinner in our hotel room one night as we watched Rocketman on our big screen TV…in plush robes, of course.
Chronologically, Taipei was not actually my first stop in Taiwan. When I landed, I took myself straight from the airport to Jiufen to stay for a few nights and explore the Old Town/cruise over to Shifen before meeting Jess in Taipei. I wanted to give the above recap first though, because now we’re into all my fave places within this gem of a country. Not that Taipei wasn’t amazing, but the below are the spots that really hit home for me, got me out of the busy-city life, and gave me a truer, less-touristy version of all Taiwan has to offer.
JIUFEN + SHIFEN
Jiufen is a tiny mountain-town in the east of Taiwan, easily accessible on the train straight from the airport, or Taipei Main Station.
The Old Street is the main attraction here, and although its short and sweet, it’s SO worth the trek.
Littered with authentic food stalls, traditional tea houses, boutique shops and souvenirs – it’s laden with cultural influence that can’t help but engulf you through all the sights, sounds and architecture.
My top recommendations outside of weaving in and out of all the shops and sampling the the sweets and treats lining the Old Street are to make a search for the following rest-stops:
- A-Mei Teahouse – located down the iconic Lantern Alley, this is a must-try for an authentic tea ceremony served with the perfect compliment of traditional sweet treats.
- Grandma Lai’s Sweet Taro Balls – admittedly I had no idea what to expect from this seemingly odd combination of lentils, taro and sweet syrup…but I had mine served hot and it was good to the last drop! No lentil was left behind.
- Sweet Potato Teahouse – nestled at the edge of an old mining tunnel, the walk up to this place is potentially the coolest part!
- Braised Pork Rice – I actually opted to have mine with noodles, but this is another classic that offers the perfect blend of sweet, savoury and salty goodness for an ideal Taiwanese ‘snack.’
- 61 Coffee Shop – with two levels and and a top balcony that offers views over the misty mountains and village below, their opening hours seem to be precarious, but the offerings are worth the wait.
- Jiufen Goldore Musuem – typically I’m not a museum-goer, but the history here is so rich, the architecture so beautiful, and with the lack of other key attractions in Jiufen, I would actually recommend this one find its way to your to-do list.
Shifen, on the other hand, was a place I almost didn’t go to, but am so glad I didn’t miss! Boasting a beautiful waterfall, admittedly more beautiful than I was expecting, and the kitschy attraction of being a tiny town with a working train-line running right through the middle, there is a special sort of beauty to the Old Street here.
Lanterns are floating over-head all day long, with well-wishes and dreams for love, laughter, health and fortune from the hopefuls watching on, as they send-off from the tracks below.
OMG, Tainan. Insert all of the heart-eye emoji’s here, because I absolutely loved this place. Basically the Hipster Taipei, or Queen-West of Taiwan, I couldn’t get enough. Not to mention, as the oldest city in the country, the food scene here is authentic, traditional and unrivalled.
The streets are electric – unlike anything else I’d seen across the country. With side-walk seating serving beer and BBQ with bumping Top 40 beats to dine to, Hookah bars (like what?!) and a shockingly notable influx of acceptable PDA, Tainan thrives with a rebellious nature driving this undercurrent of what an amazing time it is to be young, independent and free.
Every sneaky side-street, cheeky cocktail bar and bustling Night Market offered something new and different, with endless options to explore and discover. You could spend an entire week here alone, and then some.
Hard to nail down, here are my must-haves:
- DaDong Night Market – get yourself a sought-after oyster omlette, BBQ pork, stir-fry noodles and sweet treat to finish (creme brulee and a traditional mini-pancake being my sinful choices), this place is PACKED but with good reason.
- Fuzhong Street – West Central District is where I stayed, and where I would recommend for you to as well given all the happenings are here. With food stalls and art shops, it’s worth getting lost on the pedestrian walk for a few hours.
- Shennong Street – my personal favourite with great spots for ice cream, waffles, beers and snacks, it’s both beautiful and entertaining all at once.
- Kokoni Cafe – can you BE any cuter? Let’s just say the menu was clean and simplistic, and the innovation for all of their house-made food and drinks was equally as impressive as it was delicious. Their creme brulee latte being the star of my show…and yes…there is a theme for me here.
- Pu-Jei – satisfied my sweet-tooth, and the only part I didn’t like was having to pick just one. This is a bustling bakery serving up a smattering of sweet and savoury options to help you carb-load.
- A Jiang Stir-Fried Eel Yi Noodles – a complete stumble upon, I found myself walking by one day, noted the line-up of locals, and figured it had to be good based on that fact alone. Taking a seat at what I’ll call the “Chef’s Table,” I had a front row view to how it’s all made – I had no idea I was sitting at one of the most iconic street-food vendors in Tainan!
- Anping Fort + nearby Street Market – for a more historical outing, cruise inside the walls of the Fort for a look back in time in Taiwan’s oldest city.
- Win-Chang Beef Soup – without a lick of English to be found, I went ahead and ordered what I’d hope to be their signature dish, and thankfully I was not led astray. Often there is a long line-up and potential wait outside of this local hot-spot, but once again I’ll say – believe the hype.
Pronounced Ken-ding to the locals, this is where we get from city to sand. Baisha beach, Little Bali beach, Longpan Park, Nanwan, Maobitou Park, Hengchun and so much so more – the best bet is to get an electric scooter and cruise to all the many hot spots this southern point has to offer.
I stayed right on the main strip where the Kenting Night Market took place each night, which was a lively spot to be with (obviously) delicious dinner options to choose from each night.
Hengchun Old Street and Night Market were also worth the visit, but only via scooter because it was a bit of drive away!
I liked where I stayed, but I would also recommend Nanwan nestled right at the beach on South Bay, there are some super cute spots here. My best recommendation being Yellow, which is just down the street from the popular Pizza Rock restaurant.
On the way to Longpan Park (great for views so long as you can withstand the wind), I found the sweetest free-trade coffee shop called Lumi. I ended up spending my whole time here chatting with the Dutch-owner, and I didn’t want to leave! She is lovely, the space is lovely, if you’re needing a caffeine fix and sweet treat, this place is for you.
Once again, pronouced Tai-Dong to the locals, the ride in itself is stunning with rows on rows of massive palm trees lining the rocky beaches, and weathered fishing villages scattered along the coastline and nestled along the cliff’s edge.
Get a bike, scooter or hitch a ride to wherever you want to go! I hitch-hiked a few places and everyone was so gracious and friendly even though most people couldn’t speak English (and I can’t speak Chinese), we made it work.
The one thing I will caution against are the dogs here…the dogs are so mean! Everywhere else I’ve been the strays have been so sweet or indifferent, but there is a marked difference here so tread lightly. I got cornered by two, and thankfully a kind man on his scooter happened to drive by and shoo them away from me.
So aside from that, here are my best recommendations for To-Do’s in Taitung:
- Little Fish Cafe – kittens! There were so many sweet little kittens and coffee and treats. Breakfast and Lunch options were great, simple – but did the trick.
- DuLan Viet Nam Food – the Pho! This place is legit – everyone will be talking about it, so I can confidently say, yes. Go here.
- 7-Eleven – I truthfully ate at least one meal here everyday. It’s a thing.
- Dulan Sugar Factory – live music + craft beer…enough said? Enough said.
- Surfing – I went out with WagaLiGong Taiwan which brought with it a great crew and awesome teachers, but the conditions were super rough so it was a little hard to really get a good run in.
- Dulan Moutain Hike – I had to hitchhike to get to the trail head, and thank goodness because this is a long, STEEP hike to get to even that point. But, so worth it. This was a super cool climb boasting tons of wildlife by way of monkeys, butterflies, birds and stunning lush green pathways. There are trail markers the whole way to keep things easy, but it’s definitely steep at points! All in all though – it was beautiful and I was up and back within less than 4 hours.
- Zhuilu Old Road – this hike is beautiful, though really not as intense as it’s made out to be. You have to apply for a permit as they only allow so many people up per day, and you’ll want to get there early as they restrict access past a certain point, but due to a landslide, you can only hike half the trail as it’s closed beyond where the landslide washed out the path. I’m not sure if there are plans to reconstruct, but it definitely would have been better if you could do the full 6km. Regardless, it’s a nice walk – little scary along the ridge, but it’s not too strenuous or even that long to complete. The views of the Gorge truly are stunning, so worth the climb at least on that front.
- Baiyun Falls – by contrast, this is a very easy trail walk, leading to the most beautiful rapids/falls along a quiet and tranquil path with a few tunnel caves to pass through for added suspense. It’s a short jaunt, accessible for all, so if you’re looking for an easy off-shoot from the main road, this is the perfect stop.
With more time there is so much more to explore in Taroko Gorge National Park, but I was happy that I kept it on the agenda even if just for a day to be able to see the things I did in the short time that I had.
I came here for one reason, and that was to go surfing. I signed up for a full day with Miss Surfer Taiwan (a mother-daughter duo who are absolute Pros! These ladies have surfed in California, Bali, Hawaii and it shows. They’re both amazing, and lovely people at that).
This was easily the best surfing lesson I’ve also ever had. It wasn’t just about getting me up on the board, it was about learning to read the waves, navigate the ocean, understand the principles, and actually focus on how to surf, not how to just catch or ride a wave.
It was a great day, up until the point at which I got ROCKED by a massive wave, lost a contact, and had to call it quits, haha, but truly awesome up until that point.
Overall, Taiwan completely struck me in a way I wasn’t expecting. It’s a place I had never intended to go, one that I thought I’d likely never return to at that, but I would be surprised at this point if I didn’t ever go back.
This country is a ‘hidden’ gem amongst the other heavy hitters for travellers in the areas nearby, but if you get the chance, add it to your roster. If your experience is anything like mine, you won’t regret it <3.