Tempted by Taipei
Taiwan capital surprises with wonders of the natural, ancient, high-tech, and culinary kinds.
Taipei 101 towers over the city.
Imagine steamy hot springs surrounded by luxurious spas, stunning mountain scenery, opulent temples, and exotic dining. Add eye-popping skyscrapers and trendy art in unlikely spaces. Mykonos? Shikoku? No: Taipei.
It’s the bustling capital of Taiwan, an island nation of 23 million formerly known as Ilha Formosa, which is Portuguese for "the beautiful isle." Step off the plane and you’re immediately immersed in all things Chinese, neatly wrapped in one compact package. Rather than overwhelming, Taipei feels strangely familiar: Traversing it is as easy as hopping onto BART, thanks to the city’s MRT metro and efficient high-speed rail. Signs in both Chinese and English point the way.
Start with a visual overview of the city from the top of shiny, green, iconic 101-story Taipei 101. When it first opened in 2004, this financial center was the world’s tallest skyscraper and, until Dubai’s Burj Khalifa took the title, it also boasted the world’s fastest elevator. Zoom up to floor 89, the highest level open to tourists, in 36 seconds flat.
From floor 89’s 360-degree windows, all of Taipei sprawls at your feet. Browse this level’s chic coral and jade shops, then head downstairs to the elevator on floor 88. In Chinese tradition, 88 is a lucky number, so the placement of this exit was as carefully planned as the symbolic design of the building’s gleaming exterior. Taipei 101 resembles a slender bamboo tree, which the Chinese admire for its ability to bend (but not break) in the wind. Similarly, this soaring, jointed-looking skyscraper is able to flex and survive earthquakes unscathed.
Back at ground level, try spotless, ultra-modern dim-sum restaurant Din-Tai Fung (www.DinTaiFung.com.tw/en/). Steamed pork dumplings are its signature dish-and, with a cute face and body added, its pop-art mascot. Watch buns being rolled and stuffed in the open kitchen and order by pointing if needed.
Taipei’s National Palace Museum (www.npm.gov.tw/en/) houses the world’s finest collection of imperial Chinese artifacts. 600,000 priceless objects were shipped from Beijing’s Forbidden City to Taiwan for safekeeping during Mao’s 1949 Communist revolution. Here it remains, including exquisite bronzes, ceramics, and jade from bygone dynasties.
Cutting-edge design and architecture are highlights at Songshan Cultural and Creative Park (www.SongshanCulturalPark.org/en/). This sprawling historic spread-a long-shuttered tobacco factory, revamped in 2011-is an urban-renewal success story. Fusion food is served in its artsy, cavernous TMSK Restaurant, the tobacco factory’s former employee commissary-now outfitted with countless figurines and cool blue light shining up from under the floor.
Taipei is a shopping mecca. For instance, Dihua Street-a rustic, hodgepodge version of Oakland’s Chinatown-evokes the past with stalls selling traditional Chinese medicines and incense. Insomniac bookworms love the thriving Eslite Bookstore chain’s flagship shop, open around the clock with inviting cafes on every floor.
An hour north of Taipei, a fantasyland of winding mountain roads and purportedly healing mineral springs unfolds. The Japanese, who occupied Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, developed these thermal springs by building the first public bathhouses. Recently restored to elegance, what’s now the Beitou Hot Spring Museum was East Asia’s largest spa in the early 1900s.
Dip your toes into the toasty stream running behind the museum. Or plan a spa break at Tien Lai Spring Resort (www.TienLai.com.tw), located at the edge of Yangmingshan National Park, a stunning wild green space where deep blue skies meet vivid flowering trees and pointed volcanic peaks: think Tilden Park with quaint wooden bridges. Luxurious Tien Lai lets day-trippers bathe in its outdoor mineral pools. Longer-term visitors can book a totally private cottage and sink into a stone tub filled with steamy spring water.
A 45-minute high-speed rail journey from Taipei, the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts (www.ntmofa.gov.tw) in Taichung is renowned for its modern Taiwanese art. Situated at Taiwain’s center point, near the Formosa Aboriginal Culture Village, is Sun Moon Lake: Surrounded by mountains and often shrouded in mist, Taiwan’s largest lake resembles a classic Chinese watercolor. Overlooking its blue waters, blending spectacular ultramodern design with traditional touches, Lalu hotel (www.TheLalu.com.tw) is abundantly adorned with orchids; Taiwan is a major grower.
With its red-tiled roofs and row upon row of golden Buddhas, Fo Guang Shan Monastery (www.fgs.org.tw) in Kaohsiung, near the island’s southern tip, is the largest spiritual complex on temple-studded Taiwan. Meatless meals are served at its Hi-Lai Vegetarian Restaurant.
Kaohsiung is also home to Dream Mall. East Asia’s largest shopping mall, it’s shaped like a huge whale. Local tradition among hip locals is to "pop the question" on a Hello Kitty Ferris wheel-the whale’s "spout"-in its rooftop amusement park.
How to keep cool while seeing all this? Bubble tea is a Taiwanese invention. So drink local.