Last weekend, I spent 72 hours in Taipei. I have to admit that I had never thought of Taiwan as a top travel destination. But when my friend Amita told me about this festival, I was intrigued.
Taiwan was an incredible surprise. If I could do it all over again, I would definitely stay longer to enjoy the spirited traditions, landscapes and Taiwanese delicacies. Cheaper than Japan, yet as organized, safe and welcoming, I highly recommend this destination.
Rated as the number one experience in Taiwan by Lonely Planet, this marble-walled gorge was peaceful and stunning. Although some spots are closed due to rockfall, there are different trails and scenic spots you can choose from. We started our tour at the Swallow Grotto, followed by the Eternal Spring Shrine all the way up to the Xiangde Temple Trail and ended with the Shakadang Trail.
Keep in mind that you can’t always walk from one place to the other and that the bus schedule is limited. So you may want to book a cab to follow you around.
From Taipei Main Station, it’s a two to three hour train ride, but it’s worth it. And you can book your train tickets in advance on the TRA website. The Meetmyguide blog explains how to do it. Also note that the older trains may be slower but they stop at the Xincheng (Taroko) Railway Station so you don’t have to go all the way to Hualien and take a bus back to Taroko. You can also visit the official website for more details.
Famous for its Old Street, view over the Pacific Ocean, traditional tea houses and delicious street food, Jiufen is a nice one-day trip from Taipei.
Jioufen Teahouse has an impressive selection of authentic teas, including some that are 10 years old. Thankfully, the staff helps you select your tea and shows you the right way to prepare it. While you wait for your table, you should visit the cute ceramics shop on the lower level.
Locals recommended we try Ah Gan Yi Yu Yuan located at the top of Jiufen Old Street. It looks like nothing from the outside but this place sells the best taro balls and offers a great view. Also make sure you try the pearl pork sausages, the coffee and peanut ice cream rolls with cilantro.
Rated as one of the best festivals in the world by the Discovery Channel, the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival takes place on the fifteenth day of the first month in the lunar calendar. Used as symbols of peace and good fortune, lanterns carry people’s wishes for the coming year.
Starting at 6PM, you can easily buy a lantern at one of the shops in Pingxi and light it when you’re ready. You can also show up at around 10AM and try to register to take part in the official mass release of lanterns which takes place every 20 minutes from 6 to 8PM. Whether you decide to be a participant or an observer, the lantern “dance” is magical.
You may be glad to learn that there are post festival clean-up crews. And apparently, it is a wet time of the year so the risk of a forest fire is low.
Lungshan Temple – Because there are 15,000 temples on the island, you should at least visit one. With so little time, we chose this Buddhist temple near the city center. It was packed with local people, probably because we went on a Sunday afternoon, but it was still pleasant.
CSK Memorial Hall – Built in memory of the former President of the Republic of China, this white and blue landmark is impressive, and all over Pinterest. Located in the heart of Taipai, it’s worth the visit. It’s also a 10-minute cab ride from the Lungshan Temple.
Creative Parks – We had two parks on our list, Songshan Cultural and Creative Park and Huashan 1914 Creative Park. We were only able to visit one, so we picked Huashan and were surrounded by kids and adults alike. We wandered around the many creative shops and restaurants, and enjoyed a delicious black tea with milk from 小確幸紅茶牛奶合作社 (you’ll see a long lineup in front of it). Most events are held during the weekend.
Elephant Mountain – If you enjoy beautiful views, you should hike Elephant Mountain (also called Xiangshan Trail) to see the city and the Taipei 101 skyscraper. For a 360° view of the city, you can go to the observatory located on the 89th floor of Taipei 101, although it’s not cheap (NT$600, so about CA$25).
SunnyHills – We had to make a stop at this bakery known for its gourmet pineapple cakes. Crunchy on the outside with a smooth golden paste inside, these cakes were worth the detour. They’re made with New Zealand grass-fed butter and fine Japanese flour, amongst other fine ingredients, and come in boxes of 8.
The Night Markets – We went to the Raohe Street Night Market, but Ningxia and Shilin are also in the top 3 night markets in Taipei. You’ll find tons of delicious foods such as pancakes, bubble tea, shaved ice, and also clothing, gadgets (beware of fake ones), and many more.
Gen Creative – After going through Eater‘s list of best restaurants in Taipei, we chose to dine at Gen Creative (previously called Roots Creative). They greeted us with a complimentary tomato and feta cheese starter, and right then we knew we were in for a fresh and delicious treat. Every dish was tasty and creative, including the desert. It’s not too fancy, nor expensive. We loved it.
Younger Taiwanese generally have little free time as they either study a lot or work long hours. So they are heavily engaged in social media platforms or with smartphone apps like WhatsApp to maintain relationships with friends. You may witness that in public transportation.
Taiwanese use indirect speech and don’t value brevity. If you ask them a question, they will share a lot of information with you even if it’s a yes or no question such as “do you sell this type of battery charger?”. So if you are from a direct communications culture, you should make an effort to patiently listen to their response. The good thing is that they are extremely helpful people.
Just like in the Japanese culture, respect for others is very important. That’s why many Taiwanese lower their eyes when they greet you. They don’t bow like Japanese, but they nod. They will also use both hands when they offer or receive something. Make sure to be polite and to say thank you, which is ‘xiè xiè’ in Mandarin.
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