Tucked off the southeast coast of China and a little more than 2000 kilometers underneath Japan, Taiwan is a far-off island that doesn’t ring many bells when you first hear its name. Known as “Ilha Formosa”, or “Beautiful Island” by the Portuguese in the 17th century, Taiwan is now often referred to as the R.O.C. (or Republic of China). However, this nation has an independent mind, culture, and cuisine of its own–and has become one of the most exciting destinations to visit for nature, gourmet cuisine, night markets, and fun.
What many people don’t know is that Taiwan is located directly on the equator, meaning its climate is intensely marine tropical. Hot and humid summers give way to the occasional typhoon, while winters are never quite cold–all telltale climate patterns for a hidden tropical paradise. Upon stepping foot in Taiwan, you’ll see why thousands of Mainland Chinese tourists have been lining up to visit Taiwan 365 days a year (extreme demand has resulted in a daily limit of 4,000 tourist visas for Chinese travelers).
This summer, I journeyed to Taiwan on an incredible 5-day excursion. In less than 120 hours, I visited the island’s top cultural, urban, and natural hot spots.
Special thanks to the Taiwan Tourism Bureau for providing these official destination recommendations.
1) The Regent Taipei, Taipei
Sleek, modern architecture, impeccable hospitality, sprawling rooms, an in-house mall (no joke), and the most impressive continental breakfast buffet I’ve ever experienced. The Regent Taipei is a superb branch in the 5-star chain and located in the heart of Taipei’s Zhong Shan District, making it the perfect accommodation for both personal and business travel. From the moment I entered the lobby and throughout my stay, I was warmly greeted by door staff and the concierge was always ready to help with any requests or advice I needed. A rooftop swimming pool and live music at the 2 indoor bars every evening made this a memorable stay in the city. The Regent Taipei also boasts several restaurants including its own steak house at Robin’s Grill, and a VIP level for private functions.
I stayed in the Deluxe Room, which was 45 square meters and featured a king-size bed, floor-to-ceiling bay window and lounge area. The bathrooms are fully marbled and have a deep soaking tub and separate shower which was fun to switch back and forth between. Don’t forget about the essentials: 24 hour room service/dining, high-speed wi-fi and fax, laundry and pressing, mini bar and safe.
2) Nung Chan Monastery, Beitou
The 3 main religions practiced in Taiwan are Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. The Nung Chan Monastery is known as the first temple in Taiwan featuring “modern” architecture. Unlike traditional Chinese architecture, with tiled slope-edged roofs and intricately designed and painted wooden structures, the Nung Chan Monastery features minimalist stone columns, wood accents, and the Diamond Sutra Facade: laser-inscribed Buddhist mantras in concrete-encased fiber glass. The architectural theme of the monastery is the ‘Moon Reflecting in the Water‘. Viewed from above, the pool of water next to the main temple hall reflects the clouds, moon, sun and stars.
The Diamond Sutra Facade throws shadows of the Buddhist mantras into the temple rooms as the sun moves across the sky during the day.
3) Hotel Royal Beitou
Over the past few years, Taiwan’s medical tourism industry has shot through the roof. The Hotel Royal of Beitou should be your first stop if you’re looking for a pampered getaway to rejuvenate and detox your body. The hotel features an in-house hospital that performs full body checkups, health examinations, and cosmetic surgeries. This hospital center is not actually for ailing patients, but those who are looking to improve and boost their lifestyle. Full-service spa and massage rooms are located onsite, available for booking all week round and hotel rooms are each fully equipped with their own private hot spring tubs (single or coupled), and healthy snack & herbal tea bar.
The Royal Hotel Beitou also has its own restaurant on the first level, featuring gourmet menus that use all-organic and locally sourced ingredients. The bread I had here was absolutely fantastic–a tomato infused baked bun that tasted literally like a fresh tomato. The plating of all the courses was beautiful as well, and the chef (who was quite young, but enormously talented and has worked alongside Michelin-star chefs) came out to greet us at the end of our meal, to which we gave him a standing applause.
Special dessert by the chef, it was a soft chocolate biscuit with jelly drops, edible flowers, and a sweet cream on top.
Oven baked filet fish with clam stock and selected vegetables.
Seared baby abalone with truffle, organic seasonal vegetables salad, lemon vinegar.
I used one of the rooms for an afternoon to experience the hot springs and it was amazing–just what I needed after a long flight from the day before and jumping right into exploring the city. I filled the tub to a high temperature but not scalding and soaked for a good hour while looking out on the view of the city and dense jungle mountains behind it.
4) Din Tai Fung, Taipei 101
This is a must-try for any serious foodie: if you come to Taiwan, you have to eat at Din Tai Fung. Home to the famous soup-filled “Xiao Long Bao”, meaning Little Basket Dumpling, Din Tai Fung makes some of the best in the world. There are several branches throughout Taiwan, but the restaurant at Taipei 101 is considered a flagship location, popular for large parties and travelers alike. In addition to Xiao Long Bao, Din Tai Fung has a complete menu featuring classic Taiwanese and Chinese cuisine, small tapas style dishes, and dessert (red bean dumplings anyone?). My favorites were the truffle xiao long bao, hot & sour soup, and young bamboo shoot (only in season 2 months out of the year, June-July).
It’s not a complete meal with ice-cold traditional Taiwanese beer to go around!
Guests can watch the dumpling-making process right in the middle of the restaurant, and the glass walls are lined with photos of celebrities (most notably, Tom Cruise) who’ve come to eat at this flagship location.
5) Chung Shan Building, Yang Ming Shan National Park
The Chung Shan Building is a special historical monument to visit, as it’s the only building in Taiwan (and one of the few in the world) to be built right on top of a natural sulfur spout. Also known as the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, it was built in 1966 and only took 13 months to complete under the supervision of famous architect, Mrs. Xiu Zelan. The National Assembly of Taiwan used to convene here in the past, making it a strong symbol of Taiwan’s democratic political development. Nowadays, the building’s many rooms are rented out for private functions and events on the large scale.
Fun fact: The image of the Chun Shan Building is printed on the back of the 100 New Taiwan Dollar bill.
The architecture of the Chung Shan building reflects a fusion of classical Chinese and modern pratical design.
One of the abandoned spa houses and a sulfur pond, where Chiang Kai Shek used to host foreign diplomats and guests.
6) Pine Zen Gardens, Shilin District — Japanese Fusion Cuisine
Definitely my favorite destination on this trip. As someone who loves Japanese architecture and the juxtaposition of nature in design, this place was breathtaking and surreal. It’s easy to miss the entrance in the middle of a mountain road, as the Pine Zine Gardens are hidden away amongst lush green trees, stone carvings, and the loud whistling of tropical cicadas and birds. Soft Chinese instrumental music played through the open space and thin screens dividing each “dining room”.
We enjoyed a slow-paced 6-course lunch in this beautiful restaurant, subtly built into the side of the mountain with an atmosphere as peaceful as a temple.
Keeping with both Japanese and Taiwanese tradition, shoes must be removed and stowed away in cubbies before entering the restaurant.
Posing with my Chinese Zodiac spirit animal: the sheep, also referred to as the ram or goat.
The second part to the Pine Zen Gardens was this hidden forest picnic area, just 5 minutes hike from the restaurant.
Breathtaking isn’t it?
7) National Taiwan Palace Museum
Didn’t get to grab many pictures here, because photos weren’t allowed inside, but this is definitely a location worth hitting up if you’ve got a thing for history and culture. The National Taiwan Palace Museum houses dynasty old relics, including the famous “Meat Stone” and “Jade Cabbage” (there’s a food theme going here, if you haven’t noticed). There’s also seasonal exhibits that come through, and I loved the current summer 2015 exhibition that displayed an entire room of traditional Chinese Miao tribal garb and jewelry.
8) Mao Yuan Restaurant, Taipei — Taiwanese Cuisine
I wish we had this restaurant in the USA. The style was more casual eatery, and featured traditional Taiwanese dishes like fried chicken with basil, garlic stir-fried spinach, fried garlic squid, Taiwanese sausage (more sweet than typical sausage!), stewed clams, and more. We had Taiwanese beer to pair, again.
9) Kuo Yuan Ye Museum of Cake and Pastry, Taipei
This was a such ton of fun–if you like hands-on activities and DIY workshops, this is for you! We got to make our own pineapple cakes (Taiwan’s national dessert) from scratch, following the instructor’s simple and straight forward recipe. The best part was getting to design the pastry, before it was to be put in the oven for baking. Everyone was pretty creative with their 10 pastries, and I wrote cute messages and my nickname “Joce” all over mine.
While we waited for the pineapple cakes to bake, we went upstairs in the building to an exhibit that explained the cultural significance of Taiwanese pastries–especially their symbolism of good luck, fortune, and health in wedding ceremonies!
10) Taipei 101, 85th Floor, Taipei
Taipei 101 is Taiwan’s landmark skyscraper, and a definite must-see when you visit Taipei. It held the title as the world’s tallest building from 2004-2010 (it’s now the fifth tallest building in the world) and it surpasses the Empire State Building by 66 meters, at 508 meters tall. The skyscraper received LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum certification in 2011, and became the tallest and largest ‘green’ building in the world!
The 85th floor of Taipei 101 is a high-end restaurant that usually requires months-in-advance reservations to book. If you’re planning an upcoming trip to Taiwan, the views alone makes a reservation worth it.
11) Song Shan Cultural Creative Park, Xinyi District, Taipei
I only wish that I’d had a bit more time to explore this place. It was sprawling and lively, filled with young students and friends walking about to browse the latest design exhibitions, art galleries, or do a bit of shopping. An entire afternoon could be spent here without getting bored.
In a big mall located in Song Shan Cultural Creative Park, there’s lots of workshops on the upper levels to learn different skills such as glassblowing, wood working, and metal working!
Fun, unique, and well-designed products are the norm here, making for a unique shopping experience!
12) Mango Shaved Ice at Ice Monster
If you go to Taiwan during peak summer months like I just did, Ice Monster will likely be on your to-do list, whether you like it or not. Instead of finding yourself waiting in line for 1 hour though, call in your order ahead and just swoop by to pick it up when it’s time. Saved yourself 1 hot hour and a whole lot of sweaty headache! The mango shaved ice with real fruit chunks and cream is super cool and creamy, definitely a fan.
13) Foot Massage, Multiple Locations in Taipei
Okay, so this is a funny one. It was tough to get a photo in action–the picture below shows my friend Liam pretending to give me the massage before the masseur came in. It was dark in there, and the massage I received was one of the most intense (borderline painful) I’ve experienced. The masseur explained to me which of my organs and body parts was connected to each part of my foot–in Chinese medicine, they have mapped out the entire nervous system of the body via pressure points on the feet. So the philosophy is that by massaging the feet, you are stimulating and rejuvenating the entire body. He pointed that the parts at which I flinched most were connected to the shoulders, liver, and eyes. So I guess that goes somewhat in line with working too long on the computer? Either way, after the massage, I felt reborn–literally. Light and dizzy, but also refreshed and limber.
14) Yu Shan Ge, Taipei — Fine Vegetarian Cuisine
A beautiful atmosphere and restaurant, only complemented more by its delicate plating and delicious cooking. This restaurant pushed the creative limits of fine vegetarian dining, and at times it was hard to believe what we were enjoying was all vegetarian, given the diversity of courses and ingredients.
15) The Lalu Hotel, Sun Moon Lake, Nantou
Named after the tiny island in the middle of Sun Moon Lake, which the native aborigines call Lalu Island. Hands down, The Lalu is the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed at in my entire life. Everything about the estate breathes elegance, relaxation, nature, and serenity. Located right on the edge of southern Taiwan’s Sun Moon Lake, the hotel features a full infinity pool looking out on the lake, massage & spa services, library, tea house, restaurant and bar. The rooms were gorgeous, with minimalist wood and stone styling, separate bath and Italian-style shower, complete amenities, and a quiet peaceful setting. White orchids, fresh fruit and baked goods in the room were such a subtle yet sweet touch as well.
All rooms also came with their own Japanese-style private balcony with seating area and lounge beds with built-in breakfast trays. My room looked out onto a dreamy view of Sun Moon Lake.
On our last morning in Taiwan, I woke up at 4:45am to watch the sunrise from the hotel’s lake view. The color of the sky at dawn is magical…a deep purple-tinted blue of sorts. Just wish we could’ve stayed here a few nights more!
16) Chun Shui Tang: Origin of Pearl Milk Tea, Taichung
Another fun workshop for foodie-minded travelers and DIY lovers! Pearl milk tea has always been one of my favorite Taiwanese drinks growing up, so getting the opportunity to make it myself was super exciting. If you’re going to learn how to make pearl milk, this tea shop (it’s also a restaurant) is pretty much the best place to do it—it’s where the drink was invented in 1983!
After our DIY session, we had a delicious lunch in the restaurant. We feasted on classic Taiwanese dishes like turnip cake, spicy tofu and mushroom, and dry rice noodles with vinegar and green onions. And of course, more drinks! I had a delicious kumquat infused lemon tea.
17) Sun Moon Lake Boat Tour
When you visit Sun Moon Lake, you have to do a boat ride, otherwise you’ve missed half of the experience! We rented a private boat and sailed out for an hour on the lake, while our guide explained to us the history of the aboriginal Thao tribe who live in the area and grow “floating gardens” in the water to harvest wild ginger and catch fish. Also, if you love getting active in the outdoors, there are 16 hiking trails around the lake, and the biking trail was rated as one of the top 10 in the world by CNN.
Fun fact: These stone signs that say “Sun Moon Lake” on them became so popular with Mainland Chinese tourists that they used to argue with one another to pose for pictures with the original statue on the lake’s island. So, the city decided to construct one at every pier around the lake, so everyone could capture a picture with one. Quite the practical solution!
According to legend, the Thao people discovered Sun Moon Lake and Lalu Island while chasing a white deer through the mountains. They now honor the white deer with a marble statue on Lalu Island in the middle of the lake.
18) Wein Restaurant & Lounge — Beijing Roast Duck, Taichung
Our last lunch of the trip was at WEIN and it was awesome. I am a huge fan of Beijing roast duck, and I had never had it served so many different ways before! In addition to traditional style (sliced in front of us and served with white buns and chives), there was tortillas and pita bread, and a myriad of different toppings to pair with. My favorite combo was with the pita bread, kimchi, olives, jalapeños and duck. YUM!
The meal was also served with these 6 colorful sauces, which represented the “balance of Mother Earth”. Very appropriate for a restaurant with the motto, “We create life, in your life”. The waitress explained what each sauce symbolized, blue was water and red was a blooming flower. I love hearing these kinds of stories behind our food!
19) Miyahara Historical Building, Taichung
I loved this spot. The building used to be a hospital run by an ophthalmologist named Miyahara during the time of Japanese occupation in Taiwan. The building was purchased and renovated in his honor as a cafe and tea shop because Dr. Miyahara supported Taiwan’s independence during the Japanese occupation, despite the political situation at the time. The building as it looks now gives the feeling of a bookstore in the Harry Potter wizarding world: old, antique, but charming at the same time. The store is very popular during the summer season and filled with students and visitors sitting down for ice cream and pastries in the cafe upstairs.
Such a cute and unique touch, all the store employees wore costumes that looks like the traditional uniforms of the past! I couldn’t resist getting a picture with her.
All their pineapple cakes and pastries were sold in beautiful antique-style packaging, reminiscent of the 40s and 50s eras. I purchased a few postcards, tea bags packaged in old record labels, and some cookie sticks that looked like fountain pens.
20) Fuguei Taoyuan Restaurant, Yingge
This was the perfect way to wind down the end of the trip. The restaurant had a very comfortable feel to it and served simple home-style “set meal” recipes. I ordered the vegetarian hot pot set because I wasn’t too hungry after so many days of stuffed eating, and the soup broth and veggies, along with healthy purple rice were so yummy. The restaurant is also located right on the Old Yingge Street outside, which gives the feeling of being on a small quaint alley in Europe. A stroll down the narrow cobbled street was such a nice way to end our short, but packed trip to this beautiful island!
Jocelyn Ho, Reporter