Taiwan is a lush, mountainous, semi-tropical island off the southeastern coast of China with a massive amount of agriculture. Tropical fruits, rice paddies, betel nut trees, and various vegetables are planted on any available piece of land, making pretty much all the foods seen at the food markets “local.”
The country is bisected from north to south by a central mountain range, so there are not many roads that cut across the island. Development is mostly on the western side of the country, with beautiful beaches sitting on the south end of the island and continuing up much of the east coast. The country is so mountainous that mountaineering is a popular pastime – climbing the island’s 100 peaks over 3,000 meters high is considered a bucket list for many.
Inside the bigger cities, English is spoken by many and signs use Roman letters as well as Taiwanese characters, so getting around is fairly easy tourists. English usage (and comprehension) drops off as you venture into the country, but we’ll help you plan for that in this story.
Here’s how to plan the perfect adventurous (and relaxing!) two-week trip to Taiwan!
Part One: Beitou & Taipei
You will most likely fly into the capitol city, Taipei, which is situated on the north end of the island. Plan on staying in this general area for a few days, ideally near a metro stop (get a multi-day pass), and explore the city. Night markets, claw machine shops, day markets, Taipei 101, the National Museum, the zoo, and nearby glass bottomed gondola ride to tea shops are wonderful places to explore. Here’s a few of our favorites:
Sights to see in & around Taipei
Beitou Hot Springs
Beitou is a district in the north of Taipei and is known for its hot springs. We’d highly recommend a visit here. It’s easily accessible by the Taipei Metro and a great place to begin your journey in Taiwan.
We booked a room at Phoenix Pavillion Hot Springs Hotel (about $100/night), which offers private hot springs (costs extra), but the same hot spring water fills the Japanese-style bathtub in the rooms. The Phoenix includes a Taiwanese-style breakfast of rice porridge, steamed buns, sauteed vegetables, and various pickled items. Bread, jam, tea, and coffee, too.
We started here to help our kids unwind after the long day (~30 hours total) of travel from the Eastern US. Beitou is small, walkable and with lots of green space in the city center, which got our legs moving. Don’t let the maps fool you, this city is very hilly, but since it’s so compact it wasn’t too strenuous to get around, and ducking up the small alleys, paths and side streets is the real reward for going here.
Ok, maybe the second reward…the hot springs are nice. What’s cool is that these side alleys gave us a glimpse into life here. Many residents have found a spring in the mountain, then run pipes directly into a large spa in their backyard. Basically, they have free hot springs at home year-round.
If you choose a different hotel, or just wanna get outside, there are public springs in the city. Check that they’re open though, as they are sometimes closed for a holiday you’ve never heard of. And wear modest clothing. Men should wear a short bathing suit, and women should wear a one-piece bathing suit that’s not too revealing. The main hot spring in the center of town sells them cheap if you show up and feel out of place…or they tell you to change.
While Beitou is the best known spot, Taiwan sits on a volcanic system in a tectonic collision zone, so there are other locations throughout Taiwan with hot springs available.
Recommended time here: One full day, so probably two nights. Then catch the metro south back to…
Even though it lost its designation as the world’s tallest building only six years after it was built, this building is “one of” the tallest in the world and is a fun visit to look out over the giant city of Taipei and to marvel at its construction.
You can also see the giant weight used to stabilize the tower from high winds and earthquakes, affectionately called Damper Baby, that weighs 660 tons! Process that for a minute…a 660 TON ball of metal hoisted almost 100 floors up. Part of the experience is the elevator ride up. It’s incredibly fast, your ears will pop, and it’s over before you know it…so put the phone away and just enjoy.
Tickets to the top are timed so you can purchase tickets then go have something to eat until your tour. There’s several floors of high end stores fun for window shopping and an amazing food court on the first few floors. But, the best place to eat, by far, is Din Tai Fung…even if there’s a wait, it’s worth it.
Ride over tea farms in a glass-bottomed gondola, starting at the Maokong Gondola main station, accessed from the eTaipei Zoo Station MRT stop on the Metro line. Purchase gondola tickets based on how many stops you want to take along the way.
It’ll glide 2.5 miles total, hovering over the zoo (you can see the animals!) and end up next to the Redwood Tea House at the top of the mountain. Relax here, grab some tea and treats, and enjoy a view of the city. We enjoyed this even on an overcast day. The gift shop at the bottom is unique in that there are many gifts from local crafters. Adding a visit to the zoo would make this an all day tour.
Claw Machine Shops
I have to mention this because my children loved it so much. Prices to play started at 30¢ USD and I’d just give them each 10 dollars worth of coins and let them hang out for an hour. The best one we found was in Ximen MRT station – it was the cheapest one we found and they won the most prizes.
Great entertainment, but fair warning, there’s a chance you’ll come home with a million small dolls!
Rahoe, Huaxi, Ningxia, Shilin (most famous), and Liaoning markets are the most popular ones. They vary slightly in food trends, temples, or shopping items, and can be found on any tourist map from your hotel and the MRT stations. Just pick one and go!
Surprisingly, it’s not just tourists…the locals head out in droves on the weekends, particularly the teens! Despite getting really busy, we felt totally safe among the crowds, but just keep an eye out for each other – it was easy to get lost in the flow of people.
Most night markets start about 6pm and run late into the night, even on weekdays. Weekends will be more crowded, but we found them crowded any night we went. Fair warning, there’s a “snake” night market that tourists love for the Instagram shot, but locals stay away from it…whether you go depends on what you’re after.
Try all the foods -so many vendors making interesting things- squid balls, octopus tentacles, hot dogs with various flavorings, desserts! Plus there is also a great opportunity to buy small cheap electronics, T-shirts, clothes, shoes, etc., and plenty of counterfeit “Legos” and other merchandise…the names of the products are hilarious.
Similar to night markets but with daily necessities and grocery items for sale. Raw meats and seafood, fruits and vegetables, nuts, dried seasonings and more.
We grabbed more than one lunch at these while walking around, and plenty of snacks and fruits for mid-day treats. Remember, it’s a tropical island, and virtually every kind of fruit grows locally, so try them all!
Part Two: Taichung
Taichung is centrally located on the Western side of the island and is home to much of the manufacturing done in Taiwan. Ask any local and they’ll tell you the city has expanded quickly over the last 5-10 years.
Taichung is easily accessible from Taipei via the HSR (High Speed Rail.) For about $10 US you can purchase a ticket for a comfortable 2-3 hour trip from Taipei to Taichung. A city-wide metro system is in the works, but you’ll likely need to get a taxi to your destination within the city.
We used Taichung (pronounced “ty-jung”) as more of a home base for day trips as it made it simpler to have a single hotel for four nights than continually moving our bags, but honestly, it’s mainly a manufacturing area without much tourist appeal.
It helped that we have a few ex-pat friends to visit with here, too, but you’ll be fine on your own with these recommendations with the caveat that some of these activities are a little “out there”, but they are absolutely worth the effort to make happen.
Sights to see around Taichung:
Climbing Yuanzui Mountain
The number one active adventure on our trip was climbing/hiking at Yuanzui Mountain or “Kite’s Beak Peak,” (a kite being a type of bird.) It’s about 1.5 hours east of Taichung, so you’ll need to rent a car or hire a driver to get to the trailhead as there is no public transportation running to the mountain. Google Map “Yuanzui Shan” for directions. Parking is limited and most drivers park along the edge of the road near the entrance.
The road to the trail entrance is popular for bird watching and we even saw some small monkeys climbing through the trees.
Fortunately (or not, depending on your perspective), we didn’t run into any Taiwan Bears, but they’re out there, with signs warning against interacting with them. Technically called a Formosan Black Bear, they have a distinctive white patch on their chest.
This hike is strenuous and has been described as a “white-knuckle” experience. We’d agree, but don’t let that scare you off. It’s entirely doable if you approach each obstacle slowly and carefully. There is a short and steep hike through the woods at the beginning, and then a (fun? harrowing? challenging?) climb over the peak of the mountain along a trail using ropes, chains, and some nicely placed footholds to steady your traverse. The hike takes about 2-3 hours depending on your fitness, courage, and whether it’s crowded.
We’ve done it twice, once in the cold rain (amazing and also miserably cold/wet) and once on a bright, beautiful day (amazing and scary because we had our kids, 10 and 13 at the time, with us.)
Yes. It was as steep as this looks. But entirely climbable by amateurs…just wear sturdy hiking shoes with good grip. Bring water and snacks, too. Some people bring a picnic for the top of the mountain.
The trail can be crowded on the weekends, especially if it’s good weather. Parts of the hike that you need to be particularly careful in will be backed up for a few minutes. It’s no problem, just sit tight and enjoy the view above the clouds!
The last bit of the hike is all ‘down’, through a woods that’s almost magical with boulders, Jurrasic Park-sized ferns, moss, and smooth barked trees dappled in the light. You’ll be so glad it’s the end it WILL seem magical and you’ll be glad you did it.
Sun Moon Lake Tour
Cycling or driving, it’s worth a loop around the lake. Stop to tour the massive Wenwu Temple (you’ll know it when you see it), and consider a ferry boat ride to the other side of the lake for a different perspective. You can rent e-bikes and grab lunch or snacks at the main western entrance to the park.
If you’re up for a bigger adventure, look up a local expat Taichung cycling club in advance and see if you can hop on a ride from Taichung to the park. It’s a 70-ish mile ride, but the scenery is amazing, and you’ll pass right by Sunny Hills factory, the most popular brand of Pineapple Cake.
Pineapple Cake is huge in Taiwan, often used as a gift for foreigners or business partners. You might see a huge line wrapped around their entrance, but don’t worry, those are just the folks waiting for a free sample. Just head into the gift shop and grab a small box of them, stuff some in your jersey, and share the rest with your group ride. They’re delicious, and if you don’t make it here, grab some at the airport to take home…definitely worth it!
Southwest of Taichung is the Fangyuan Wetlands. One of our local friends took us oystering one afternoon. It was something we wouldn’t have known to do, but ended up being one of our favorite experiences. A local oysterman took us out on an ox cart to help pick invasive snails off his oyster beds.
This one’s a little tough, if only because the location isn’t exactly easy to reach in advance. But, Google Map it to Hainiuyi Station, and look across the street from the giant temple for the small shop with the picture of a bull-drawn cart on its sign.
In fact, you might see the bull standing out front already lashed to a cart. That’s your ride for the day, out to the above-ground oyster farms, which take advantage of the tide’s ability to bring water levels high enough to cover the oysters at high tide, but low enough to manage and harvest them at low tide. They’ll show you what type of snail to look for, then you simply pluck them off the oysters.
As a thanks, they grilled up some small fish and freshly harvested oysters for a snack!
After we ate, we were led to a clam bed and used trowels to skim the top of the sand to find clams.
Our favorite part was when our oysterman guide showed us to an area where a huge mass of small blue crabs were coming out onto the sand. He gestured for us to all run over to the crabs and scoop them up when he gave us the “go” signal.
The crabs all tried to scurry into the sand, but we scooped them up into our hands for a closer look – tiny, strangely shaped, pokey, and so many of them!
When we were done, we took an ox cart ride back to our car in the glow of the setting sun. Truly one of the most unique and memorable experiences of the trip.
High Speed GoKart racing
Yes, you can ride go-karts just about anywhere, but to race the high-speed karts in America, most places require a driver’s license. Not so at K1 Karting, and the course and karts are legit. They’re fast, the rules are a little looser (they let us strap our cameras to the cars, and some of us were definitely well under 16 years of age), and they let our little speed demons get loose.
K1 is in Xihu, southwest of Taichung, but there are a few high-speed tracks closer to the city, too. Google it or ask your hotel staff.
Part 3: Southern Taiwan
The southern tip of Taiwan you’ll find Kenting Park, which is gorgeous and worth the effort to get to. You’ll take the HSR (High Speed Rail) from Taichung (or Taipei) to Xin Zuoying station, which is the southern terminus of the HSR. From there, take a bus to Hengchun. Then rent scooters for your time in and around Kenting as they’re the easiest way to get around.
Pro tip: When you’re booking your trip down there, book the return trip at the same time, and make sure you get good instructions in English (or whatever your native tongue is), because the further south you go, the less English is spoken. It’s best to have all of your travel already booked.
Or just rent a car, but, honestly, that does take a bit of the fun out of it unless you’ve got a lot of luggage. We traveled light, and you can leave items securely stored in a locker at the Xin Zuoying HSR station, too.
Kenting National Park covers most of the southern tip of Taiwan, including the beautiful beaches. Some are sandy, and some are rocky. The east coast is calmer, good for snorkeling, and the west coast has some waves.
When you land in Hengchun, just know that the area caters to the “easy traveler”, so it’s a bit westernized and touristy. To get away from that, go as far south and east as you can outside of the city. That said, if you really need to get some local intel or chat up an ex-pat, look up Smoky Joes or head to one of the bars around it. But for a purely local Taiwanese experience, start scootin’.
We stayed in the cluster of buildings that includes SummerPoint, on the west coast (find it on Google Maps), and loved the seclusion and easy beach access.
What’s remarkable about this area is that the beaches are a mix of pebbles and polished glass, enough to keep collectors busy for days. Walk a little further and there’s smooth sand to relax and walk on.
The water is crystal clear, and a perfect temperature in early Spring (we visited in March). In fact, that time of year provides pleasant, sunny warmth in the day, and cool temps at night…so bring a hoodie and some jeans and you’ll be fine.
There are also tons of picture-perfect hermit crabs of all sizes. Between that and collecting beach glass and just strolling along, there’s plenty to keep kids entertained and adults relaxed. If you’re looking to surf, Summer Point is also a surf shop, but you may want to check with them in advance as to the best time of year for waves…it was very mild when we went.
On the western side, we rented gear from Water Recreation Row (find it on Google Maps), but there are multiple snorkeling and diving shops around here. The water is clear, and you simply walk straight out into it, swim a few hundred feet, and you’re looking at hundreds of beautiful tropical fish. Bring a GoPro to capture it all!
Once it gets dark, there are two things you need to do, but possibly on different nights. First, take the family to “Fire from the Earth“, a small park that has natural gas burning through rocks in the ground.
You won’t see it during the day, so make the trip at night. Bring at least a phone light if not a small flashlight because the trail to get to the burning rocks is pitch black. And there are giant slugs crawling across the path, so you won’t want to step on them…but they’re super cool to see!
This is a great spot to hit after dinner, and we recommend scootering over to Pizza For Peace for a bite, then seeing the flames on the way back to your B&B.
The next night, leave the kids in bed and head out for cocktails at 30M Bar. This eclectic little bar (find it on Google Maps) is run by its young founder, who develops his own signature cocktails using as many local ingredients for flavoring as he can. In fact, he grows some of the herbs himself…even running home while we watched the bar just to get something special to make us a new cocktail!
Most drinks have an eco-friendly theme. Our favorite had an iceberg with a miniature sugar polar bear standing on top, representing the melting glaciers. The only trick here is still being able to safely scooter back to your room at the end of the night!
More Tips and Observations
- Always utilize your local hotel staff for recommendations and don’t let them point you to a Häagen-Dazs store when you ask for a nearby ice cream shop, ask them for their favorite local place!
- Scooters are everywhere! Traffic is a sight to see, but don’t worry, just follow pedestrian signs and you’ll be ok. Though, always look before you step into a street, a scooter may be getting ready to whiz past you…they’re allowed to wiggle through traffic, and usually have special spots to wait in front of the cars at stop lights.
- Shops and restaurants all face outward at the bottom of all the buildings in the city. This makes walking everywhere really fun for window shopping and checking out restaurants.
- Foot Massages! A one-hour foot massage (with 10 min back and neck massage) was just $9 to $15 USD. They’re awesome, and you can also negotiate for a full body massage. You don’t get undressed for those – wear your clothes, or they may give you loose shorts and shirt to change into. Our children have definitely been spoiled by this. There’s really no reason not to do this every day in Taipei or Taichung.
- Night markets aren’t just in Taipei, they are in every city. They are a fun way to start an evening out. Same goes for day markets – you will rarely see supermarkets in Taiwan, people just shop local day markets.
- A 7-11 is on every street. They’re literally everywhere, just like Starbucks in any big city (oh, and there are Starbucks here, too, though not as ubiquitous.) They are great for stocking up on water and snacks. Our favorites were the cheese pastries and seaweed-wrapped rice triangles. A lot of stuff will look weird, but it’s so cheap it’s worth trying
- Speaking of Starbucks, skip it. There are plenty of local and regional coffee shops down side streets, and if you find one where they’re roasting their own beans (like Cama Café, above), those are the ones you want to stop at! Fortunately for us Americans, they serve up a properly sized coffee, iced or hot!
- Speaking of trying new things, try the stinky tofu. It smells terrible as you walk by while it’s cooking, but is really quite tasty. If you hate it, at least you can say you’ve tried it.
- Try a Mango Ice – this was in the local “ice cream” shop we were told to go to by the staff in one of our hotels. This is a traditional dessert of sliced mango, mango syrup and vanilla ice cream over shaved ice. It was delicious. They also had other flavor combinations to choose from. Just ask where to find the local shaved ice/ice cream shop!
- Tea Shops – There are multiple tea shops on every street it seems. They have all variations of tea: iced, hot, with fruit, with tapioca bubbles. They’ll often give it to you in a plastic bag with a sealed top, and that’s because so many people grab it to go and loop the bag’s handles over their scooter handlebar. (You can decline the bag…that’s one thing we didn’t like, there’s a tremendous amount of packaging and single-use plastics, especially for an island!)
- If you wear contacts, pop into a pharmacy and stock up…they sell them without a prescription (though you should know what yours is), and they’re about 10% the cost of contacts in the US!
- Whether you want to rent a car or a scooter, make sure you get an International Driver’s License before you arrive. They’re cheap, but foreigners need one to rent a motorized vehicle in Taiwan.
Why we want to go back to Taiwan
After a two-week stay we still didn’t see everything we want to see. We haven’t been to the East coast yet and want to experience the beach towns there. The natural beauty and mild weather of the island is addictive, and there are a lot more incredible hikes and forests to explore. It’s very cheap to eat out, and we haven’t had our fill of noodle bowls and street food yet. And the locals are all so friendly and helpful, that it just makes it a purely wonderful place to visit.
But perhaps the most telling evidence that this was a great vacation is that our kids, now a couple of years older, still remember the little details and really want to go back. More than anything, that is a sign that it was a great family vacation.
How to pack for a trip to Taiwan
We knew we were going to be moving around a lot, and that we’d need to stash our big bags in a locker for a few days while still bringing the essentials. And that we’d likely have warm days hiking and on beaches, but cool nights and potential rain. So, the right gear and bags to carry it in were essential, as were a comfortable pair of shoes that could work great on the hikes as well as the streets. Here’s what we used:
Bags and backpacks
For all our stuff, our two favorite duffel backpacks were the Thule Chasm 40L and the Ortlieb Atrack 45L. Both open like duffel bags and have backpack straps, and are small enough to (usually) get away with carrying them onto a plane, but are otherwise quite different in appearance and function. For the day hikes and side trip to the beach, we stuffed our gear into smaller 18L packs from Camelbak…both can easily handle a few days of beach clothes and a pair of slim flip flops, just depends on what extra features you want.. Left to right, they are:
The Thule Chasm has a clamshell opening, traditional duffel handles, and hidden backpack straps that can be concealed behind the back panel. This makes it smoother when you don’t need them, and easier to stuff into an overhead. It also has several internal organizational pockets, and a small external passport pocket. Bonus points for including a carrying case that can also be used for dirty clothes or shoes. The only knock against it is that it’s highly water resistant, but not waterproof. If you’re mostly traveling by car or train and leaving your gear in the hotel, this one will be the better choice. (Available at Amazon & Backcountry)
The Ortlieb Atrack hides the zippered opening on the back panel, and uses a straight zip from end to end. This makes it a bit more cumbersome to dig around in and organize, and the backpack straps and waist belt are permanently attached, like a hiking backpack. Meaning, it’s a little less fun to pack or stow on a plane, but it makes up for that with better comfort, more support, and a lighter weight. And, it’s fully waterproof and has plenty of external webbing for attaching accessories…plus a water bottle pocket. If you know you’re going to be walking with your stuff a lot, this one will be the better choice. (Available at Ortlieb)
The Camelbak Arete is an ultralight pack that carries the essentials and stuffs down to nothing, making it super easy to cram in your duffel. It comes with a 1.5L reservoir and has a small side zippered pocket, and uses a flap top opening with closures that double as compression straps. (Available at REI)
The Camelbak Cloud Walker is a bit more robust pack and comes with a 2.5L reservoir and adds external webbing, zippered closures and an external accessory pocket. Compression straps, dual stretch side pockets, and more padding on the shoulder straps make it the better option for more active pursuits. (Available at REI)
Clothing & Shoes
A few pair of good, easy-to-wash quick drying underwear are key, a bathing suit, pair of shorts, jeans, hoodie, rain coat, and a few quick drying tees. We really like Ibex’s Merino wool underwear and t-shirts for this kind of travel.
For shoes, we wore Altra’s Lone Peak boots and shoes. They’re grippy, water resistant, lightweight, and come in kids, men’s, and women’s sizes and low- and high-top versions, and they’re available at REI. We’d also recommend a pair of good flip flops, like Reef Cushion Dawns. You could just buy something super cheap at a night market, but they’re not going to last li, like Reefs, that are both comfortable and secure.
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