Words by Paddy O’Mahoney
Images by Sean Marc Lee & Taiwan Tourism Board
The capital of Taiwan is a surprising blend of ancient and cosmopolitan Asian culture, brimming with amazing food and great art.
Taipei is hard to pin down – and all the better for it. Temples stand side-by-side with gaudy, fluorescent cosplay emporiums. While steeped in history, this is an unmistakably progressive city. The warmth and friendliness of its inhabitants doesn’t take long to reveal itself, and the fact Taiwan recently became the first country in Southeast Asia to legalise same sex marriage doesn’t surprise in the slightest.
With no claims to being one of Asia’s most beautiful cities, Taipei can be grey and uninspiring on the surface but it’s intoxicating charm is impossible to resist. But if you speak to people who have visited the Taiwanese capital, one common theme will emerge – the food. Taipei easily goes toe-to-toe with any city in the world when it comes to good grub. All of this combines for a city that won’t be able to claim unsung gem status for much longer.
Eat – The Night Markets
If this city has one defining feature, it’s the famous night markets. Dotted around the neighbourhoods of Taipei these culinary gold mines are the beating heart of Taiwan’s biggest city. It’s fair to say that Taipei does not mess around at the trough, and as such, the quality of street food is incredible. From oyster omelettes to cactus smoothies to Taiwanese ‘sausage in a sausage’, the night markets of Taipei provide endless opportunities to stuff your face, and each mouthful surpasses the next. Even the most dedicated glutton would fail to try everything on offer. One downside is the eye watering scent of the ever present ‘stinky tofu’ but I believe it tastes far better than it smells. Shilin is the largest and most touristy market, while a more low-key local vibe is on offer at Tonghua Market.
Do – Cycle
‘Cyclist-friendly’ might not be the first words that come to mind when you think of a heaving, Southeast Asian metropolis, but Taipei is a dream for those who like to get around on two wheels. Youbike, Taipei’s bike sharing scheme, is fantastic. Docking stations are liberally daubed all over the city and plenty of well-maintained bikes make this program a point of pride for this progressive city. Don’t be put off by the hordes of mopeds on the road, large swathes of Taipei’s footpaths have been divided into separate cyclist and pedestrian lanes, and the city is laden with a huge number of parks and riverside bike paths. At $ 0.15 per half hour, cycling is without doubt, the cheapest and most enjoyable way to get around Taipei.
Read – Eslite Dunnan Bookstore
In our neck of the woods people get excited by the prospect of 24-hour licensing laws, but for many people in Taipei, it’s round-the-clock reading. More specifically, Eslite, a bookshop that has become a cultural hub of the city largely due to the fact it doesn’t close – ever. The shop’s policy is that you can stay as long as you want and not feel obliged to make a purchase, which means the place was rammed on this particular Saturday night. Obviously the lion’s share of books are in Mandarin but there is a substantial English section so you won’t have to make do with the photography shelf. You might be more inclined to bunker down in a dingy techno basement or sample the city’s 24 hour karaoke scene of a Saturday night, but an hour spent in Eslite is an experience unique to Taipei.
Eat – Niu Kong Kuan
Beef Noodle soup is a quasi-religion in Taiwan and leaving town without sampling this local specialty basically amounts to heresy. A relatively simple dish, the standard bowl is comprised of braised beef shank, a soy-based beef stock, chinese vermicelli noodles and leafy greens. It’s not rocket science, but the results are often sublime. There seems to be a noodle shop on every other corner so I can’t claim to have a definitive answer on the city’s best, but the chefs at Niu Kong Kuan in the Wanhua district certainly know their way around the kitchen. With a tasteful and minimalist decor, it’s not the cheapest bowl in town but the beef is incredibly tender and the slightly spicy broth is balanced to perfection. The soup was served up with cucumber salad in a chili dressing and some, unidentifiable but delicious, pickled root vegetables; but the real star of the show was never in doubt.
Drink – Rufous
Taipei’s obsession with coffee caught me by surprise. You can’t swing a cat without hitting an independent coffee shop offering Ethiopian Yirgacheffe served every which way. Each has their own unique atmosphere and it’s hard to pick one from the thousands, but Rufous is worth seeking out. Beside Taiwan National University, this mahogany lined cafe roasts its own beans on site and whether you want a fancy latte or a slow brew, they’ll knock it out of the park. If you’re stuck, keep an eye out for the bright yellow exterior of Cama, a prominent chain that’s coffee is not to be sniffed at.
Wander – Ximending
Taipei is a city of distinct neighbourhoods. For example, Shida and Gongguan are the main student areas of the city while Zhongshan is a distinctly Japanese area with countless Izakaya bars. That said, if one area is not to be missed it’s Ximending. Sometimes called Taipei’s Harajuku, this pedestrianised district is where the city’s young people congregate. A heady mixture of gimmicky electronics, sneakers, beef noodle soup, ancient temples, cyber goths and everything in between; Ximending is a sight to behold. Allow yourself a few hours to gawk and eat your way through this warren of streets.
Eat – Dumplings
Din Tai Fung is probably the world’s most famous dumpling house. They now claim branches in Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Los Angeles, but Taipei is home to the original. Their specialty is Xiao Long Bao, steamed dumplings which are stuffed with a wide range of delicious ingredients and filled with soup. There’s a technique to not scalding yourself or wasting the precious broth, so sneaking a peek at your neighbouring table’s technique is recommended. For a more local spot, head to Zhang Ji Fried Dumpling Beef Noodle Soup. This unassuming place near Ximending is tucked away down a tiny back alley, but if you can find it they’ll serve you up fried dumplings that are so good you might shed a tear.
Stay – Hotel Art’Otel
Occupying one floor of an industrial building in the heart of Ximending, Art’Otel is is a stylish but unpretentious place to rest your head when you’re visiting Taipei. Four stories above one of the city’s most bustling and vibrant areas, the hotel is quiet and calm, with sleek, unfettered design. The rooms aren’t massive but they are well laid out and comfortable. At the front desk, the staff always greet you with a warm welcome and are more than happy to provide you with invaluable local knowledge to aid your exploring. Taipei is a city that probably won’t leave you with much time for lounging around your room, but Hotel Art’Otel is a fine choice for when you do.
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