When I originally planned my trip through Asia, I put Taiwan on the “maybe” list. After I met a few travelers who suggested that I visit Taiwan, I decided to stay there for three nights as a buffer between Southeast Asia and Japan. Even though Taiwan got glowing reviews from other travelers, I didn’t have high expectations. I expected Taipei to be similar to Hong Kong, which I didn’t love when I visited in 2013.
Booking such a short stay in Taiwan was a mistake. I easily could have spent at least a week there. The moment I stepped out of the metro and into Ximen, the neighborhood where my hostel was located, I knew I would love Taipei. The streets were crammed with restaurants, food stalls, and shops–I mean, who doesn’t love food and spending money?
Taipei also has quieter spots, with hiking trails and national parks within the city limits. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit Elephant Mountain (which provides views of the city skyline) or Yangmingshan National Park, but these will be at the top of my list for my next visit to Taipei.
TL;DR: The food in Taiwan is awesome. That’s enough reason to visit.
Food was my main reason for visiting Taiwan. After my first morning in Taipei, I was constantly full because of all the food I ate. Normally, I’m awful at remembering to take photos of food, but I made sure to prioritize this in Taiwan.
My favorite spot was Fu-Hong Beef Noodles, which the staff at my hostel recommended. They said a small bowl (90 NT or about $3) would be enough for a meal. Once I arrived, I stared futilely at the menu on the wall, which was in Mandarin. A staff member pointed to a “90,” and I nodded, assuming she knew what I wanted. I had a piping hot bowl of beef and noodles within 30 seconds. I added a tiny dollop of spicy sauce and happily slurped away. Although I was starving when I arrived, a small bowl of noodles left me satisfied. I went to Fu-Hong a couple of times during my stay.
The hostel staff also recommended braised pork rice at Tian Tian Li. While waiting in line, I looked up the characters for braised pork rice on Google and showed them to a staff member. Almost immediately after I was seated, a bowl of rice topped with an egg arrived. It didn’t look pretty, but it was delicious. When I prodded the egg with my chopsticks, the yolk oozed into the pork and rice below. At home, I like to have oatmeal topped with hot sauce and a fried egg for breakfast. (Don’t knock it until you try it.) The braised pork rice reminded me a lot of my oatmeal breakfast.
One morning, I visited Tianjing Chong Zhua for their savory pancakes. Only a couple of people were ahead of me in line when I arrived at around 9:30 AM on a Monday. I ordered an egg pancake, which was so fresh and scalding that I had trouble holding it in a paper pouch. I burned the roof of my mouth when I bit into it but still scarfed it down. It was crispy, flavorful with scallions, and slightly salty with dabs of soy sauce. I immediately wanted another one after I finished. It took an immense amount of willpower to walk past the stall without buying another pancake.
I never enjoyed bubble tea in the US because I felt like I was eating an eyeball whenever I chewed on a tapioca ball. However, Taiwan is the birthplace of bubble tea, so I figured I had to try it at least once. I don’t know if my taste buds have changed or if the Taiwanese use better ingredients, but I loved the bubble tea in Taipei and had it every day of my stay. 50 Lan, recommended by a Taiwanese traveler, was my favorite shop since I could customize the amount of sugar and ice in my tea. The tapioca balls gave me no problems, although they were unexpectedly filling, leaving me less room in my stomach. Life is hard.
Pineapple cake is a popular dessert in Taiwan, and Sunny Hills is widely known as one of the best pineapple cake shops. Sunny Hills is very clever: when guests enter the store, staff members invite them to enjoy a free sample of pineapple cake and tea. The crust was flaky and buttery, and the filling consisted of sticky, candied pineapple that wasn’t overly sweet.
While the staff doesn’t pressure guests to buy anything, I felt guilty leaving the store empty-handed after having enjoyed the samples. I bought the smallest box of pineapple cake for 420 NT (~$14), which included 10 individually wrapped pieces. They got me, hook, line, and sinker. At least the cakes came in a pretty box.
Peanut butter (or “peanut cream,” as I saw on some wrappers and labels) is a staple in Taiwanese desserts. I bought a pack of peanut butter wafers at a convenience store on a whim. 10/10, would buy again. The wafers were light and crispy with thin layers of peanut butter sandwiched between the cookies. The peanut butter was sweeter but less heavy than American versions. I had no problem polishing off the pack by myself. This would be my #1 “souvenir” request from any friends who visit Taiwan.
As a break from the food bonanza, I visited Taipei 101. I had no burning desire to visit the observation deck but admired the exterior of the building at sunset. Taipei 101 resembled a few Chinese takeout cartons stacked on top of each other; I wish I could come up with a more flattering description. Still, I thought the building was beautiful.
Many travelers take a day trip to Jiufen, which is about an hour away from Taipei. Jiufen served as inspiration for the setting in the movie Spirited Away. Unfortunately, I had never seen Spirited Away, but travelers told me that Jiufen was worth a visit. A Taiwanese traveler and I decided to spend a half day there.
Thank goodness for my Taiwanese friend because she introduced me to a bunch of food that I never would have bought on my own. Our first snack was a green bun with a salty, slightly spicy filling. I didn’t think the bun looked appealing, but I was willing to try it. I still have no idea what was in the bun since my friend wasn’t sure of the English names. The green coating was sweet, and the filling tasted kind of squid-like. Whatever it was, it was satisfying. The buns were a hit with Taiwanese visitors, who lined up to buy them.
We shared a bowl of fish ball soup, which was my favorite food item in Jiufen. Like much of the food in Taiwan, the soup wasn’t photogenic (grayish chunks of fish in a cloudy soup), but it was delicious.
We had an iced dessert with gelatinous cubes and red beans. I’ll admit that this was my least favorite dish, as I’m not a fan of red beans in desserts. I did like the jelly-like cubes, which might have been flavored with taro, mango, and matcha–I wasn’t totally sure what the flavors were. Munching on the ice cubes was refreshing on a hot and humid day.
We visited Jiufen on a Sunday, and it was packed with people. Although the town was charming, I couldn’t fully enjoy myself when I was constantly skirting around other people. I heard that Jiufen is less crowded on weekdays.
I think I would have appreciated Jiufen more if I had watched Spirited Away, as many visitors were snapping photos of places that were featured in the movie. Fortunately, I didn’t have to watch the movie to be entertained by the many dogs sleeping in storefronts.
My stay in Taiwan was way too short: I arrived on September 16 and left on September 19. Below is a summary of the locations, accommodations, transport, and tours from my time in Taiwan.
- Lutel Hotel (1,499 NT/$50 per night for a private room). Since I had a late-night flight to Taipei, I wanted to stay somewhere close to the airport on my first night to get as much sleep as possible. Lutel was a quick taxi ride from the airport, and I had a comfortable–if brief–stay here. The staff let me check out at noon, an hour later than the normal checkout time, due to my late check-in at 2:30 AM. The hotel was within walking distance of the Taoyuan high-speed railroad station, which provided convenient transport to Taipei.
- Meander Taipei (925 NT/$31 per night for a four-bed dorm). Wonderful hostel. The staff was the best. I arrived at around 1 PM, starving since I hadn’t eaten breakfast. Sunny, a staff member, welcomed me and provided an excellent recommendation for lunch (Fu-Hong Beef Noodles–yes!). When I said I wanted to buy a SIM card, she gave me directions to a nearby mobile store and wrote down a few sentences in Mandarin in case the employees didn’t speak English. Meander also gave guests an awesome map with metro lines and food recommendations. The dorm rooms and bathrooms were spotless. My bunk had a lot of storage space and was comfortable. Meander provided a good, free breakfast with Taiwanese and western options.
- Transport to Taiwan:
- 1.5-hour flight from Manila to Taipei
- Transport within Taiwan:
- I arrived in Taipei at around 1:15 AM and took a taxi from the airport to Lutel.
- Public transportation in Taipei is extensive and can take you wherever you need to go. I bought an EasyCard, which could be used for the metro, trains, and buses. I simply touched my card to a sensor, which deducted the appropriate fare. It was easy to top up the card at metro stations whenever the balance was running low.
- To get to Jiufen, I took a 40-minute train ride from Taipei to Riufang and then a 15-minute bus ride. I was grateful that my Taiwanese friend joined me on the trip to since it was difficult to decipher the train schedule. It’s also possible to take the #1042 bus between Taipei and Jiufen, which might be easier for travelers who don’t speak Mandarin.
- Taipei is very safe, so I had no problem walking around the city.
- For my flight out of Taipei, I took a taxi from Meander to the bus terminal and then a bus to the airport.
During my four days in Taiwan, I spent about $329.73, or $82.43 a day. My expenses were categorized as follows:
- Accommodation: $111.17
- Transport: $107.40
- This category includes my flight from Manila to Taipei (~$65), taxis, a high-speed rail ticket, and EasyCard top-ups.
- Food: $49.66
- Even though I was constantly eating in Taiwan, food ended up being my smallest expense. In case you couldn’t tell from my descriptions above, Taiwanese food is gloriously cheap and delicious. Local meals and snacks were within the 30 NT/$1 to 90 NT/$3 range. I had a couple of western-style coffees, which were a lot more expensive: a slice of cake and an iced latte cost 290 NT/$10, which was my second largest food expense after the box of pineapple cake I purchased (420 NT/$14).
- Miscellaneous: $61.51
- This category includes a Chunghwa SIM card, which cost 450 NT/$15. The package included 1 GB of data, which was plenty for my stay. Service was quick and reliable.
- I got a haircut for 1,400 NT/$47. The cut was shorter than I would have liked, but I probably didn’t explain my “vision” thoroughly enough. Even now, almost two months after I got the haircut, I still can’t put my hair up in a French braid.
Finally, a couple of general notes about Taiwan:
- The Taiwanese are generous and polite. My Taiwanese friend who visited Jiufen with me insisted on paying for my snacks, although I managed to sneak some money to the cashier a couple of times. A couple of strangers also started conversations with me when they realized I was a foreigner and invited me to coffee and tea.
- It’s easy to navigate the streets and public transport in Taipei since signs are in Mandarin and English. However, restaurants and shops can be trickier since English isn’t widely used. Even though there was a language barrier, locals were still patient and helpful in assisting me. Pointing and Google went a long way.