5 must dos for first timers in Taipei, Taiwan

Taipei Skyline from Elephant Mountain

Generally I like to go away for my birthday and the big 3-0 was no exception. We settled on Taiwan for a few reasons:

Lee has actually been to Taiwan a LOT! We’ve lost count, but he’s visited somewhere in the region of 15 times over the past 4 years for work, sometimes for weeks at at time (once for just 24 hours!). Anyway, as his previous trips were for work, he often had a minder to take him for dinners, beers and generally show him around Taipei. All this means Lee has had great insight into the city and this trip was the perfect opportunity for him to share that knowledge and experience with me.

Also, as a result of Lee working so closely with Taiwanese companies, we both started learning Chinese in October 2018. Visiting Taiwan was the perfect opportunity for me to practice with some native speakers and just generally be immersed in the language more than I ever have been. Side note: Lee didn’t stick with the language learning, but I’ve now almost finished my first year of a degree in Chinese Mandarin!

I’m going to firstly cover my experience in Taiwan and finish with some tips I picked up such as how to easily get around Taipei and where to stay.

Taipei Elephant Mountain
Would you believe, this green oasis is right on the edge of the city limits!

5 things to do in Taipei

We arrived in Taipei late on the evening before my birthday. It was already dark and by the time we found our serviced apartment we were exhausted. This made my birthday even more exciting as we had a whole new city to explore!

1. Trek Elephant Mountain

If i’m honest, i’d under estimated this trek. Being a walk from the city, I thought it would be easy – it isn’t, especially in the heat and humidity. But it is well worth the effort for the fantastic views: the city scape pictures of Taipei like the one below are all taken from Elephant Mountain.

Taipei 101 from Elephant Mountain
Taipei 101 view from Elephant Mountain, with beautiful flowers

The start point for the hike is Xiangshan MRT station, which is at the end of the red line. It’s actually only a short walk from Taipei 101, so we opted to walk rather than getting the MRT. Once you get to Xiangshan MRT, take exit 2, and then walk along the edge of the park, following signposts for Xiangshan Hiking Trail.

Be sure to stock up on some water for the walk – there are street sellers on the corner of the park. Randomly my birthday also happened to be Taiwan’s National Hiking Day, so a stall at the base of the steps gave us free water and Go Ahead bars – right after we’d just bought some water! Doh!

Keep following the signs for Xiangshan Hiking Trail until you reach the steps in the picture below. From this point you really can’t get lost! Keep following the steps up and up… and up! Your effort will be rewarded at the top with city views on one side and dense forest on the other. Elephant Mountain is also full of pretty wildlife, including flowers and tons of butterflies.

Xiangshan Hiking Trail Start. Elephant Mountain.
The start of Xiangshan Hiking Trail, up Elephant Mountain

This wasn’t the only hike we did in Taiwan. We also visited Taroko National Park on the island’s east coast. A stunning rural region with the most turquoise water i’ve ever seen! Blog coming soon.

2. Go up Taipei 101

Taipei 101 was the world’s tallest building from its opening in 2004 until the completion of the Burj Khalifa in 2010. Of course, it’s height means there are some fantastic views from the higher floors. There are a few options for going up Taipei 101. The first is the observation deck on the 89th floor, which costs around £10.

However, we opted to have a meal at Diamond Tony’s on level 85. This was a bit of a gamble, as we hadn’t researched beforehand, but it turned out to be an amazing meal. We had a window seat and enjoyed fantastic views for the entire five-course meal, which included steak for our main courses.

Steak at Diamond Tonys in Taipei 101

Taipei 101 is also home to the best views I think i’ve ever seen in a toilet!

The toilet with view on the 85th Floor of Taipei 101

3. Eat like a local

Taiwanese food is SO tasty and we enjoyed a LOT of good Taiwanese cuisine on our trip. Probably my favourite was Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐). This restaurant chain started life in the 1950’s and now has 7 outlets in Taipei, as well as a handful overseas too. They’re famous for their Xiaolongbao; steamed buns filled with your choice of meat or fish.

The only issue with eating here is that you need to be prepared to wait for a table. We visited the Xinyi branch and on arrival were given a ticket with a number. The wait time was estimated at 1hour 25mins! Thankfully, once you have your ticket you can leave and come back later – we went for a drink and then only had to wait around 10 mins. When your number is called, you’re shown to a table.

Once inside it became clear why this place is so popular. The dim sum was the best i’ve ever had, plus the prices were so reasonable! The food arrives as its ready, so we weren’t able to get a ‘money shot’ of all the dishes together, but here’s a selection.

Din Tai Fung dim sum, Taipei

4. Visit a night market

Taipei has many nightmarkets dotted all over the city. They’re a great place to experience local street food, buy some bargains and, in my case, practice speaking Chinese! We went to Raohe Street Market, which was a good size without being overwhelming. If you’re brave enough, this is a great place to try stinky tofu – the smell alone was enough to put me off! We did have some fantastic flame grilled steak, fresh watermelon juice (which i ordered in Chinese!), mini pancakes and crisps on a stick – i’m pretty sure the latter isn’t a local delicacy though as we had them in Azerbaijan too! There were also quite a few arcades around the street market which we had a lot of fun in.

These crisps on a stick were just like the ones we experienced in Azerbaijan, but this time there was a choice of flavourings to add on top.

5. Visit hidden and rooftop bars

Thanks to Lee’s previous visits, he knew exactly where to find the best bars, some of which were pretty hard to find! Here’s my rundown of the top 3:

a. Barcode at Neo 19, Xinyi District; great cocktails and free airhocky. A laid back vibe early on, but I imagine it really comes alive later.

b. Frank, Xinyi district; a rooftop bar with great views of the city and good cocktails. Get there at opening for a pre-dinner drink to get a spot on the terrace. ID is needed for entry here.

c. B-line by A-train, Zhongzheng District; blink and you’ll miss the entrance to this one, which is situated up a staircase accessed by a single door from the street. The ‘bar snacks’ here were amazing and also large enough that we didn’t need dinner!

B-Line by A-Train bar
We walked right past the enterance to B-Line by A-train, even though Lee knew what he was looking for!

Where to stay

We opted to stay in the iTaipei2 Serviced Apartments for two reasons:

  1. Proximity to Taipei 101 and Xinyi district – an area Lee was familiar with and full of bars/restaurants/shops
  2. It offered good value for money relative to the size of the room

This worked out perfectly – the location allowed us to explore a large area on foot and when we wanted to go further afield the apartment was close to two MRT lines. I’d recommend either staying in the area near Taipei 101 or near Taiwan Main Station. Both would be ideal bases to explore the city.

Getting around using the MRT is easy

Getting around in the city centre is really easy – if you’re staying close to downtown (the area around Taipei 101) then many attractions, shops, bars and restaurants are within walking distance. For those a little further afield, the MRT (subway) is really easy to use. It’s also really clean, well maintained and services run every few minutes on most lines.

You can by an Easy card from many stations or convinience stores like 7-11. They cost NT$100 (£2.70 / US$3.30) and then can be topped up at machines and used to swipe in and out of stations, just like an Oyster card in London. I highly recommend getting one when you arrive in Taipei, as MRT travel is also 20% cheaper when using an Easy card than paying for individual tickets. The Easy Card can also be used in convinience stores and to pay for things like car parking and admittance to Taipei Zoo.

Taipei MRT station
An MRT station on the Bannan line (blue). Most stationds look very similar to this.

How to travel from Taipei Airport to Downtown?

Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport is the airport you’ll likely arrive at if your on an international flight. The MRT is the best way to get from the airport to downtown: the purple line runs directly from the airport termainals to Taipei Main Station, where you can change onto the other MRT lines.

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