Way More Than Night Markets: 8 Things to Do In Taiwan
Surrounded by the seas and enclosed by rugged mountains, the island of Taiwan has captured the imagination of people for generations; from Portuguese explorers who labelled the island Ilha Formosa (the beautiful isle) to present day tourists from around the world. Today, travelers continue to be impressed by all that the small island offers them, most notably the famous night markets that decorate the city streets every night. The sights and smells that permeate these food stalls are guaranteed to make your mouth water. At the market you’ll find delicious classics like bubble milk tea |珍珠奶茶 | zhēnzhū nǎichá , braised pork on rice | 滷肉飯 | lǔ ròu fàn, steamed pork belly buns | 割包 | guàbāo, and beef noodle soup | 牛肉麵 | niúròu miàn, as well as more adventurous selections like pig’s blood cake | 豬血糕 | zhūxiě gao, thin noodles with intestine | 大腸麵線 | Dàcháng miàn xiàn, and stinky tofu | 臭豆腐 | chòu dòufu (I guarantee, it tastes better than it smells). The list goes on and on; there’s no shortage of food to try. Strolling the many night markets is one of the best ways to define the term active eating; testing your patience as you wait in line for the most popular food stalls, just as the locals do, is truly a cultural experience. Read more to find out why a trip to Taiwan should be about more than just its night markets snacks, popularly termed “xiǎochī | 小吃”.
After spending one year living in Taipei, and traveling extensively throughout the island, seeing my share of mountains, sunrises, sunsets, and harbor fronts, my heart can’t help but fill with遗憾 | yíhàn – or regret – when I hear of tourists traveling to Taiwan and sparing a mere few days to visit the largest city of Taipei, time only enough to try the most famous street food, but nothing more.
I’m going to provide you with an insider’s view on how Taiwan is more than just street-food destination and why you should venture outside of the street stalls of Taipei. Since eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture, below are eight Taiwanese experiences you don’t want to miss on your next trip. I guarantee these activities will give you an even greater appreciation for all the delicious specialties scattered across the island that may have attracted you in the first place.
#1. Eat Fruit… and lots of it.
When I first arrived to Taiwan, my landlord wisely told me that Taiwan’s great specialty is its abundance of succulent fruit and the one thing I have to do is eat a lot of it. While bubble milk tea is the international favorite, my beverages of choice were the fresh fruit drinks at each street corner. Every morning I stopped at a local neighborhood fruit stall and alternated between ordering my two favorites: banana milk| 香蕉牛奶 | xiāngjiāo niúnǎi and papaya milk | 木瓜牛奶 | mùguā niúnǎi. Where ever you look you will also find fresh fruit: on the streets or packaged neatly at your nearest Family Mart or 7-Eleven (or “7” as the locals call it). My personal favorites include: guava | 番石榴 | fānshíliú or 芭樂 | bā lè (specifically the pink variety which is much sweeter and found in the mountainous village of 九份 | Jiufen), papaya |木瓜 | mùguā, dragon fruit |火籠果 | huǒlóng guǒ and persimmon | 柿子 | shìzi. The most famous dessert is mango shaved ice | 芒果冰 | mángguǒ bīng, the perfect antidote for Taiwan’s unbearable summer heat.
Learn the language: Choosing Fruit
#2. Watch the sun rise over 阿里山 | Alishan or 玉山 | Yushan | Jade Mountainand eat a traditional 便當 | biàndang by the old railway in the nearby village of 奮起湖 | Fenqihu.
A trip to Alishan is an adventure in itself starting from the winding ride up the mountain from the small central town of Chiayi. When you arrive, eat a traditional railway lunchbox called a biàndang, which consists of rice, vegetables, meat (pork or chicken usually) and egg. Get an early wake up call and ride the historical Alishan Forest train to catch the sunrise over 祝山 | Chushan . I recommend staying two nights, to ensure you catch a clear view. You can also experience the unique sunrise over Yushan, where you can stop along the way to see the magnificent Sea of Clouds. Just keep an eye on your belongings – the mountain is home to clever monkeys who might have their sights on your sunglasses and camera.
Learn the language: Go Hiking
#3. Explore the island on two wheels. And I don’t mean the motorbike.
While motorbikes are a typical sight in Taiwanese cities, the coastal beauty of the island is best experienced on a traditional bicycle. Cycle the winding roads along the East Coast and work up an appetite for the Aboriginal cuisine awaiting you in 花蓮 | Hualien. Don’t forget to stop at Taroko Gorge | 太魯閣 | Tàilǔgé, arguably Taiwan’s most beautiful
destination. If you are visiting Alishan, stop over at Sun Moon Lake | 日月潭 | Rìyuètán, and cycle around Taiwan’s largest fresh water lake. Alternatively, exploring any of Taiwan’s many islands on two wheels, such as 金門 | Kinmen or Green Island |綠島 | Lǜ dǎ is an excellent way to get around and experience the local culture.
Learn the language: A Cycling Holiday
#4. Visit the South, notably Tainan (台南), for a taste of history and traditional cuisine.
You haven’t experienced Taiwanese culture until you visit the South. When in Tainan, the island’s oldest city, you might even forget that the official language is Mandarin as you hear people speaking in strongly-accented Mandarin or mixed with Taiwanese | 台語 | Tái yǔ, the local dialect. Personally, I enjoyed the southern food even more than in Taipei with their traditional dishes and unique flavors. The local specialties will make you appreciate Taiwan’s food culture even more, proving it expands further than the typical dishes mentioned earlier. Try 擔仔麵 | dànzaimiàn , coffin bread | 棺材板 | guāncaibǎn (not as scary as it sounds － it’s basically chowder in fried toast), and all sorts of dishes with 滷味 | lǔwèi, prepared by braising in soy sauce and spices. Explore centuries-old forts, pay your respects at the many temples and shrines, and roam Taiwan’s oldest streets in 安平 | Ānpíng district.
#5. Breathe a breath of fresh mountain air. Hike one of Taiwan’s many lush mountains and say hello to the locals you see along the way.
You will find Taiwanese people are quite active, particularly the elderly. Any park will be dotted with seniors in the morning practicing Tai Chi. Similarly, mountains are scattered with healthy seniors and young alike with hiking poles in hand, enjoying the best of what Taiwan’s landscape has to offer offers. 陽明山 | yángmíngshān, conveniently located right in Taipei city, has plenty of wonderful hikes to offer. A short day trip away can take you to 獅頭山 | shītóushān, where you can hike amongst Buddhist temples that dot the mountain.
#6. Pào wēnquán 泡溫泉! Soak it up in one of Taiwan’s many outdoor hot springs.
Sit back, relax and enjoy the view of magnificent mountains in the horizon. What better way to reward yourself after a day of hiking or sightseeing? Conveniently found in Taipei’s 北投 | Běitóu district, you can hop on a quick metro ride and be presented with a variety of hot springs, from outdoor to indoor, private or shared. Alternatively, you may prefer to venture further south to the mountains near Tainan and soak in one of the world’s only three-reported mud hot springs at 關子嶺 | Guānzilǐng, which is a unique (and quite smelly) experience.
Learn the Language: Soaking in Hot Springs
#7. Unleash your inner Surfer in 墾丁 | Kěndīng, the only place in Taiwan that feels like a tourist town.
Located at the southern tip of the island, Kěndīng is a relaxed beach getaway that resembles a more laid-back version of South East Asia’s biggest draws: beautiful beaches
excellent for surfing, snorkeling, diving, swimming, or just watching the sunset. Rent a motorbike and scoot around the area like the locals do. Just don’t pick up their bad habit of driving on the sidewalk! Even if you’re not a master of water sports, you can still enjoy the relaxed vibe and local attractions.
Learn the Language: At the Beach
#8. Make time to chat with the locals – some of the friendliest people you might ever meet. They might try to practice their English, but most likely they will let you practice your Mandarin.
Lost in the bustling city of Taipei or Kaohsiung? Can’t understand the timetable at the bus stop which is frustratingly only in traditional Chinese characters? If you need to ask for help in a foreign city, Taiwan is definitely one of the best places in the world to be in this situation, as the locals are generally known for their sunny disposition. Let me illustrate with a personal example: on my first trip to Taiwan, my friend and I were trying to find our hotel around Taipei’s busy Main Station. A local middle-aged woman noticed us with our heads buried in our map and offered to personally walk with us to the hotel, without expecting anything in return. This first impression of Taiwanese people was more than positive and I’m sure yours will be too.
Next time you’re thinking about a trip where you can practice your Mandarin, Taiwan is a great choice. If you only have time for a weekend getaway, try skipping Taipei altogether, and pick any of the above experiences and you will be more than rewarded! Zhù nǐ yīlù shùnfēng! 祝你一路順風！
While there’s so much the island offers that it could be separated into several blogs, these were my top eight experiences in Taiwan. What are yours? If you have been to Taiwan, feel free to share your top destinations in the comments below!
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