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For today’s Destination of the Week, TPG Contributor Melanie Wynne takes us to the Far East to visit a little nation that has remained independent despite the odds and its vibrant capital: Taipei.
Capital of the small island nation of Taiwan, Taipei is a booming, prosperous city of over 2 million people, whose economy is fueled largely by manufacturing and technology. Influenced heavily by both China (of which it was historically a province) and Japan (which occupied the country for 50 years), Taipei is a glittering sprawl of highrise skyscrapers and construction projects, ornate temples, lush parkland, ancient art and cartoon-driven commerce, all surrounded by moped traffic and bound by a collective obsession with food.
At various shopping districts around the city, Taipei’s famous year-round, cash-only night markets are held outdoors in complex warrens of stalls selling inexpensive consumer goods and delicious, safe street foods known as xiaochi (Chinese for “small eats”), commonly served on skewers, resting on beds of shaved ice, or even wrapped up in banana leaves. Keep a cautious eye out for two unusual local specialties, blood cake and stinky tofu.
Taipei’s official language is the Mandarin dialect of Chinese, and the most ideal month to visit the city is cool, mild April, before the rains and high humidity of summer begin.
WHAT TO DO
Connecting just about every corner of this enormous metropolis, the clean, inexpensive and precisely-timed Taipei Metro will help you do the heavy lifting of getting around. If you prefer to travel above ground for the sightseeing potential, though, it’s easy to hop on the city’s buses at well-marked stops. To ride either the Metro or bus without having to keep track of exact change for every ride, purchase an EasyCard at any Metro station or 7-Eleven convenience store; the NT $500 ($16 US) card includes a NT $400 ($13 US) balance and refundable NT $100 ($3 US) deposit.
Taipei is divided into 12 districts, five of which are of particular interest to visitors:
Xinyi District – Metro: Xinyi, Nangang and Wenshen Lines
The financial and commercial center of the city, this district contains Taipei’s International Convention Center, as well as the iconic Taipei 101, the second-tallest building in the world (next to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa). To avoid long lines and major crowds when visiting Taipei 101, start out early in the morning, take the 37-mile-an-hour elevator directly up to the observation deck, and then explore the building’s shopping mall and food court afterward.
Around the corner from Taipei 101 is the 24-hour, six-story flagship of the Eslite Bookstore chain, which also contains a full-service shopping mall and food court. Nearby is the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, a ceremonial temple, plaza and park devoted to the founder of the National Republic of China.
Zhongzheng District - Metro: Ximen
The municipal center of the city, this district is home to a wide variety of major tourist attractions: the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (featuring several huge temples and a graceful park) and the adjacent National Theater Concert Hall; the Taipei Botanical Garden; the traditional Buddhist setting of the National Museum of History; and the Beaux-Arts National Taiwan Museum, which stands at the north end of the 228 Peace Memorial Park, site of a famous 1947 Taiwanese protest against the Chinese government.
Shilin District - Metro: Tamsui Line
Famous for the enormous Shilin Night Market, this district also contains the city’s elegant, hilltop National Palace Museum, home to 600,000 culturally-significant works of art; worth a day-ahead reservation, the adjacent Silks Palace Restaurant stages a meal of delicacies styled after the museum’s most revered sculptures and paintings. Also in Shilin, the Shuangxi Park and Chinese Garden is an excellent example of traditional Chinese landscaping, replete with wooden pavilions and stone bridges.
Da’an District – Metro: Wenshan, Nangang, Xindian, Xinzhuang and Zhonghe Lines
This area is renowned for its markets, including the mural-lined, 35-store East Metro Market (which runs underground between the Zhongxiaofusing and Zhongxiaodunhua metro stations), as well as the Guanghua Computer and Electronics Market and Tonghua Night Market. Also known for its restaurants, Da’an is home to the highly-lauded Lao Zhang Beef Restaurant, famous for Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup, the country’s national dish; and for the original Din Tai Fung, the multi-story flagship of this Taiwanese long xiao bao dumpling empire. About a block away, the second-floor Formosa Vintage Museum is a shrine to the country’s past.
Zhongshan District - Metro: Tamsui and Wenshan Lines
This densely-touristed district is most popular for its hotels, bars, and shopping opportunities around Times and Victory Squares. However, here you’ll also find the city’s best examples of 1910-1920 colonial Japanese architecture, set around Zhongshan Square; the contemporary Taipei Fine Arts Museum and its adjacent Zhongshan Fine Arts Park; the impressive Xingtian Temple, dedicated to Guan Gong, the God of War; and the splashy garden displays at Xinsheng Park and DaJia Riverside Park.
Set high above the city, Yangmingshan National Park offers steep, well-paved and verdant hiking trails, fumaroles, grassland, and a popular set of hot springs. To get to Yangminshan, it’s a 40-minute ride on the #260 bus, which leaves every 10 minutes from just outside Taipei Main Station NT $30 ($1 US).
Or, hire a taxi to take you to the mountainous northern end of the park, where you’ll find the Shi-Yang Culture Restaurant, sometimes referred to as the El Bulli of Taiwan. Buddhist practice informs the peaceful vibe here, and the architecture and menu evokes Taiwan’s 50-year occupation by Japan. Linger over a multi-course meal of seasonal, intricately-designed cuisine, visit a quiet tea house and meander along palm and bamboo-lined paths which criss-cross a rushing, rocky stream.
Farther afield, take a bus or train about an hour north of Taipei City for a wander through Jiufen, an early 20th-century mountain-top town that boomed amidst the gold rush in nearby Fu-Shan. Its dark, cobblestone warrens of pedestrian-only alleyways snake past food stalls and dozens of tiny shops to arrive at restaurants and tea houses with glowing paper lanterns and ocean views.
While Taipei has two airports including the commuter-sized Songshan (TSA), only Taoyuan (TPE) provides international service outside of Asia, via the following alliances and carriers:
oneworld: Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Malaysia Airlines
SkyTeam: China Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern, Delta, Korean Air, Xiamen Air
Star Alliance: Air China, Asiana Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, United Airlines
Additionally, Taiwan’s own carrier, Eva Air, offers direct flights to Taipei from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto and New York. In case you plan to be in Tokyo, Seoul or Hong Kong before or after your trip to Taipei, look into hopping a flight on one of Eva’s special Hello Kitty-themed airplanes, presently available only for travel within Asia.
TPE is 45 minutes outside the city, and taxis into downtown Taipei will run about NT $1,200 ($40 US). Unless you’re arriving in the middle of the night and/or have a large amount of luggage, it’s far more economical to take a bus or the high-speed rail, both easy to catch outside either of TPE’s two terminals. Follow signs (which have been helpfully translated into English) for bus stops and the THSR.
Buses: Two bus companies offer particularly clean, timely service to Taipei’s most popular tourist districts:
Kuo-Kuang Motor Transport: Runs every 15-20 minutes between Taoyuan’s two terminals and Taipei’s Main Station (12:20 a.m.-11.50 p.m.). The trip takes 55 minutes and costs NT $125 ($4 US).
CitiAir Bus: These buses runs every 20-30 minutes between Taoyuan’s terminals and two specific hotels. Bus #2061 West takes you directly from Taoyuan to the Sheraton (Zhonzheng District); the journey takes about 90 minutes and costs NT $90 ($3 US). Bus #2060 East takes you to the Grand Hyatt Taipei (Xinyi District) in about an hour, for NT $145 ($5 US).
High-speed rail (THSR): Look for the UBus counter in your terminal’s Arrivals lobby, and purchase a ticket NT $30 ($1 US) for a 5-minute shuttle ride to the high-speed rail (THSR) station. The UBus runs every 10 minutes, from 7 a.m.-11:45 p.m.; follow directions from the counter to catch it just outside the terminal. At the THSR station, purchase a ticket NT $160 ($5 US) to Taipei Main Station, where you can connect with the MRT. For information on schedules and ticket-purchasing, visit the THSR website.
WHERE TO STAY
Grand Hyatt Taipei: A Category 3 property located in the Xinyi district around the corner from Taipei 101, this 865-room hotel is the largest in the city. It features nine separate bars, grills and restaurants, including Pearl Liang, which specializes in intricate tasting menus of Chinese seafood. Guests have use of an on-site fitness center and outdoor pool, as well as a beauty salon. The hotel offers extensive business and conference facilities, and WiFi is complimentary. Rates in April begin at NT $10,400 ($350 US) a night or 12,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points since this is a Category 3 property.
Holiday Inn Express – Taoyuan: Set in the heart of downtown Taoyuan, a 20-minute drive from the airport or the major electronics companies of Huaya Technology Park and the Guishan Industrial Zone, this hotel is designed to accommodate travelers who’ve come to Taipei purely for business. Renovated in 2012, this modern 138-room highrise has small, European-style guest rooms, complimentary wi-fi and a restaurant which serves all three meals daily. A taxi here from TPE will cost half the price of a journey into Taipei, or it’s a 6-minute walk from the closest high-speed rail terminal. Rates in April begin at NT $2,520 ($89 US) a night, or 10,000 Priority Club Rewards points.
W Taipei: Surrounded by the fashionable nightlife of the Xinyi District, this sleek, ultra-modern Category 6 property features 405 guest rooms, a state-of-the-art fitness center, pool (with its own casual bar and grill) and the full-service Away Spa. Just off the lobby, the warm glow and live DJs of the lobby’s Woo Bar make it one of the most popular nightclubs in the city, and the 31st-floor Yen Restaurant serves cocktails and an international spin on Chinese cuisine amidst a floor-to-ceiling view of Taipei. Rates in April begin at NT $8,640 ($261 US) a night or 20,000 Starpoints.
Le Méridien Taipei: Another Category 5 property in the Xinyi District, this modern, airy luxury hotel features rainfall showers in every one of its 160 rooms, an illycaffé coffee bar in the lobby, and a heated indoor pool. Amongst its five dining choices, the trendy 5th-floor Quube serves cocktails from 2pm until midnight; My Humble House restaurant combines Cantonese and Taiwanese cuisine; and at Latest Recipe, which serves four meals daily, the breakfast menu introduced in 2012 was designed by Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Rates in April begin at NT $8,550 ($288 US) a night or 12,000 Starpoints.
Sheraton Grande Taipei Hotel: Set in the Zhonzheng District, this Category 5 property has 688 guest rooms, 68 suites (including those on a Club floor), and its own Rolls-Royce limousine. The on-site fitness center features a sauna, squash court and outdoor swimming pool, as well as an adjacent medical clinic, massage parlor and hair salon. Dining choices include Thai, French, Chinese and Western cuisines, as well as sushi and a cocktail lounge. WiFi is complimentary. Rates in April begin at NT $7,200 ($242 US) a night or 12,000 Starpoints.
Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts
Fine Hotels & Resorts is a loyalty program for Amex Platinum cardholders who receive special benefits at participating hotels such as early check-in and late check-out, complimentary breakfast, room upgrades, and other perks.
Regent Taipei: The grande dame of Taipei’s hotels, the 470-room, 60-suite Regent rises high above the heart of the Zhongshan district, overlooking leafy Lin-Sen Park. Home to over 50 upscale shops (like Cartier and Chanel), the hotel also offers an enormous pan-Asian and Western breakfast buffet; a Western-style steakhouse and a pair of Japanese restaurants; live music in the evenings, and a cocktail bar on the top floor. Rates in April start at NT $7,500 ($253 US).
The Grand Hyatt Taipei is also a member of the Fine Hotels & Resorts.
Visa Signature Hotels
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire, British Airways Visa, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Plus card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines cards, Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.
Les Suites Taipei Ching Cheng: This contemporary boutique hotel set in the artsy Zhongshan District features 84 guest rooms, a library, a wine lounge (which stages a rate-inclusive breakfast buffet in the morning) and complimentary WiFi. Rates in April start at NT $7,013 ($236 US).
Hotel Quote Taipei: Also in the Zhongshan District, this boutique hotel features low lighting, a cuddly deer mascot, and an ornately tin-paneled lobby bar and restaurant. Its 64 spacious guest rooms feature state-of-the-art glass-enclosed bathrooms, and include a breakfast buffet combining Taiwanese and Western specialities. The business center is open 24 hours and offers a wide variety of complimentary snacks, and WiFi is free of charge. Rates in April start at NT $4,500 ($152 US).