Nostalgia: that strange, elusive emotion caught between a mixture of sadness and not-quite-happiness, rather an undertone of restrained bliss. There is a longing and wistfulness for what once was, a smile for the delights of childhood, for the past versions of yourself that led you to where you now stand, but also a subdued mingled sorrow for times that will never again be lived.
This spring, we returned to the place of our heritage–to the city where Michael lived his childhood, to the country where our parents, our people came from. Even after spending a lifetime in the U.S., something about coming back to my roots is always a special feeling that adds another dimension to who I am–another piece of belonging, of home.
Taiwan is a tropical island brimming with history and culture. It has beautiful landscapes with lush mountains, as well as a bustling city life. Street vendors line the roads with little stalls selling everything from delicious street food to adorable trinkets. We got lucky for the first of the two weeks we spent there and soaked in the spring sunshine. For the second half, we got constant rainfall..and we broke our camera. However, I’d say that for a visit to Taiwan, spring would be the time to go. When it’s not raining, the weather is comfortable, the flowers are blooming, and most importantly, the mosquitoes are slightly less aggressive.
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- Carry toilet paper/tissue with you everywhere. Some bathrooms don’t provide it.
- A lot shops & restaurants are cash only. You can exchange currency at the airport, but it’s cheaper at banks.
- Taipei now has free wifi! You have to register for it before your trip, using your passport [see this article for detailed instructions]. Once you get to the Taoyuan Airport, look for the Tourist Service Center [it should be on the right side from where you get out]. This wifi service can be quite spotty though, but if you don’t need wifi on-to-go, it’s probably good enough. You’re generally able to connect at 7-11/Family Mart, MRT stations, some buses, government buildings, and certain places on more major streets. Look for iTaiwan, TPE-free, TPE-bus-free, or WIFLY [for the latter three, you’ll need to select iTaiwan from the drop-down menu when logging in].
- If you need more reliable wifi, it might be a better idea to unlock your phone and buy a cheap SIM card.
- If you’re going with a group, you could also consider renting a portable “pocket wifi” device, which you can carry around with you and have wifi wherever you go [they have them at the airport]. Then anyone in your group who has the password can connect.
- Get an EasyCard at MRT stations to pay for public transportation. It’s 100NT for the card, then you load money onto it. Much easier than counting out change every time you use public transportation! We each loaded 500NT onto ours, and that was enough for the 6 days we spent in Taipei. You can also load more money at 7-11 or Family Mart. Before you leave Taipei, you can turn it in again for a refund of any remaining value and the 100NT deposit.
- Public transportation isn’t the only thing you can use an EasyCard for! You can also borrow books from the library, rent YouBikes [nasty orange bikes you’ll see all over the place–download the app to find out where exactly you can find them], and even pay for stuff at 7-11 with it.
- We learned this the hard way, but LOTS of places are closed on Mondays, so make sure to call or research before you go!
- Day trip just outside of Taipei to 十分 [Shifen] and 九份 [Jiufen]: [Read our post here] Go to Shifen for sky lanterns, and Jiufen for a “Spirited Away” Miyazaki film feel. Warning: extremely touristy spots. We visited on a gloomy Tuesday, and it was still so crowded we could hardly move.
- 三貂嶺瀑布群 [Sandiaoling Waterfall Hike] [Read our post here]: Also close to Shifen, so can put all three stops [Sandiaoling, Shifen, Jiufen] into one day trip like we did. Beautiful scenery and relatively easy hike.
- 陽明山 [Yangmingshan National Park]: We arrived just in time for spring blossoms! Yangmingshan is the perfect place to spend a day, admiring the scenery, hiking, and picnicking. We explored around the Flower Clock and visited Bamboo Lake, both beautiful spots. The park is ginormous, so you’ll find plenty to do once you’re there.
- Hot springs at 北投: After hiking at Yangmingshan, reward yourself with a luxurious soak in the relaxing hot springs! Take Bus 129 from Yangmingshan to the Beitou MRT station. If you don’t want to share with others, reserve a private room:
- 剝皮寮歷史街區 [Bopiliao Historic Block]: Closed on Mondays. A small, quaint block restored to resemble “the looks from two hundred years ago,” it’s close enough to Ximen to make a stop here and enjoy some of the exhibits they have. Take the MRT one stop from Ximen to Longshan Temple, exit 3.
- 象山 [Elephant Mountain hike]: An intense hike that we were deceived into thinking would take only 20 minutes. In reality, locals say it takes about an hour. The whole hike is comprised of several sets of narrow stairs, at some points very steep. Fortunately, it has plenty of rest stops and scenic viewpoints. Best spot for a night view of Taipei city. Take the MRT to Xiangshan, exit 2, and follow signs to the scenic trail.
- Purple Hair Design [Update: CLOSED]: Getting a haircut is not the same kind of ordeal as in the U.S. For less than $20 USD, you get a great cut, styling, hair wash, and seriously amazing head massages. It’s the epitome of pampering, lasting about two hours, depending on your hair. They also give you tea or coffee [real, properly brewed coffee]. Seriously, I’d want to come back to Taiwan every year just for this treatment.
- 西門町 [Ximending]: An outside area for street shopping and food. Take the MRT to Ximen and take exit 6, walk straight out until you come to banner just slightly to the right.
- Taipei Main Station underground malls: On rainy days [and it will definitely rain in Taiwan], this is a great option to hang out, shop, and eat. I love the many shops here selling little random knickknacks.
- 忠孝復興站 [Zhongxiao Fuxing Station] underground mall: Similar to Taipei Main Station malls, only a bit smaller.
- Street along 忠孝復興 [Zhongxiao Fuxing] is lined with tons of stores, including Uniqlo, Zara, Forever 21, etc.
- 五分譜 [Wufenpu Garment Wholesale]: Mostly women’s clothing for wholesale pricing. Large area, so you can easily get lost in here. They generally sell to retail stores, so don’t expect to be able to bargain as much here.
- Tonghua/Linjiang Night Market [通化/臨江夜市]: One of the more touristy night markets, it has most of the must-eat things, like stinky tofu [臭豆腐], peanut brittle ice cream wrap [think spring roll, but with peanut shavings, ice cream, and..cilantro?? Sounds so gross, but is so, so good], 大腸包小腸 [sausage wrapped in rice], and more! Along the street, you’ll also find stalls selling jewelry, socks, shoes, clothes, accessories, etc. Lots of variety here, and not as overwhelming as Shilin.
- Shilin Night Market [士林夜市]: This is probably the biggest night market in Taipei, and caters mostly to tourists. Worth going to for the full night market experience because this one has it all.
- Raohe Night Market [饒河街觀光夜市]: We didn’t go to this one, but supposedly has the best pepper buns [胡椒餅].
- Ningxia Night Market [寧夏夜市]: Ningxia Night Market is mostly about the food, so if food is what you’re looking for, then this is where you wanna be. How do know which food stalls are the best? Look for the long lines!
The hardest part about planning for this trip was choosing which places to eat for the limited time we had. People recommended many, many others to us, but sadly we don’t have enough meals in the day. Next time, next time..
- 瞞著爹 [三店]: Yummy chirashi bowls! This restaurant is located in a little alleyway next to a Breeze mall. It’s adorable, very popular, pricey for Taiwan, still cheap for Americans haha [average 400-500NT]. Come here ready to wait for a long time, but it’s worth it. You order and pay first at the front, then get seated, and sometimes have to share a table with another party if you don’t have that many people.
- Ice Monster: You can’t leave Taiwan without eating fluffy shaved snow. Their portions are ginormous! We got the “bubble milk tea sensation” [珍珠奶茶綿花甜] where you pour hot boba over the shaved snow, and taro/red bean avalanche [芋頭／花生紅豆牛奶冰佐紅豆綿花甜]. Also recommended is the mango sensation [新鮮芒果綿花甜]–they’d run out of mango when we went. 😦 Why is this place so good? Because even the ice is flavored, so you don’t end up with goopy, flavorless blobs where the syrup hasn’t reached the ice. It guarantees that each spoonful you put into your mouth is filled with beautiful, full-on flavor.
- 度小月 Taipei’s Tainan Du Xiao Yue: As my cousin says, “This place has the best noodles [擔仔麵] and 肉燥飯 (minced meat on rice). Other dishes include [grilled] fish belly [烤虱目魚肚], shrimp tempura [黃金鮮蝦捲], tofu [炸芙蓉豆腐], fried oysters [香酥蚵仔酥].” We got everything mentioned, and it really is divine, mouth-watering deliciousness. I personally didn’t like the noodles or shrimp tempura as much, but Michael loved everything. They also have other branches throughout Taiwan.
- 紫琳蒸餃館: Located in a food court in the basement of a mall, this small restaurant is more well-known for their dumplings [鮮肉蒸餃], but my favorite thing would have to be the beef rolls [大餅捲牛肉]. [Would not recommend the hot & sour soup.]
- Fika Fika Cafe: This cafe offers unique Nordic-style coffee [lighter-bodied] that is Aeropress-brewed, though they also have more traditional caffeine choices. The special coffee is significantly more expensive [400NT-800NT], but I think is worth trying just once. The barista also explains the coffee to you when she brings it over, which is very informative about how and where the beans are roasted, what to expect of the taste, how to drink it properly. When you order their single-origin coffees, they also bring it with an iced version just to let you taste the difference [you can switch to iced if you wish after this].
- 永和豆漿大王: [Read our Taiwanese breakfast post here]It’s already been established that brunch is my favorite meal, but Taiwanese breakfast is on another level entirely. I ate so much 燒餅油條 that my arteries have definitely clogged and are now screaming for air. Anyways, not important. This place is open 24/7! Need a midnight snack? No problem! However, note that even at odd hours, it’s still insanely popular. Also, the line for takeout is outside, while the line for dining in is inside. Super cheap [everything under ~$2]. Super good.
- 橋頭麻辣鍋: Hot pot!! We’ve already previously lamented the shortage of good hot pot in San Diego, but in Taiwan, cheap, awesome hot pot surrounds you. Qiaotou offers four choices for your broth base [we got a yin-yang pot with spicy and original]. They give you endless tofu and pig’s blood, and then you can add whatever else you like.
- 藍家割包: When I studied abroad at National Taiwan University for half a year, I found the most savory, delicious 割包 [guabao] that I’ve ever put in my mouth. Coming back to this same spot four years later, I still think it’s the absolute best. Get the half fatty, half lean one for the perfect combination of meat.
- 陳三鼎: Boba milk tea..except it’s not milk tea. It’s just milk. Can you believe it took me four years to figure that out??! Anyways..this stand is right across from the delicious 割包 you will have just bought and be stuffing your face with while standing in the horrendous line for boba..milk. I usually get boba + grass jelly in mine.
- 華山市場 阜杭豆漿: [Technically between Ximen and Taipei Main Station]. If you can only go to ONE Taiwanese breakfast spot, then go to this one! Try the 厚燒餅加油條 [the 燒餅 flatbread is thicker, more flavorful and interesting]. Other items ordered: 薄餅夾蛋餅 [like normal flatbread + egg]，焦糖甜餅 [sweet cake]，蔥花鹹餅 [salty cake with green onions].
- 阿宗麵線 [Ah-Chung flour rice noodles]: You have two choices: big bowl or small bowl. These flour rice noodles can be found anywhere in Taiwan, but this particular stand puts some unknown substance in it that makes it extra delicious somehow. Note: there is no seating area [unless you count the few little stools on the side]! You’ll only see a long line and people standing around slurping their soup/noodles.
- 三味食堂 [Salmon Galore]: Inexpensive, fresh, GIANT sushi/sashimi the size of my face??! This place is so popular that even though we showed up 20 minutes before opening, eight parties had already put their names down ahead of us. Also note that they are closed on Mondays and the last two Sundays of every month. They’re so popular they can afford many breaks. It’s about a 10-15 minute walk from the Ximen MRT station.
- Lao Wang Ji Beef Noodle Soup: So popular and well-known they don’t even need a sign, and still you’ll find people lining up outside. Don’t get confused by the many other 牛肉麵 [beef noodle soup] places surrounding it. This place is definitely more expensive than others offering the same thing [220NT/bowl], but is really good. Michael and I both preferred the 紅燒 rather than the clear broth.
- 上引水產 [Addiction Aquatic Development]: [Click to read our review] If you love seafood and sushi, you absolutely must make a stop here! One area of this fish market displays live fish that you can buy and have them cook for you. In the other section, you’ll have a standing sushi bar surrounded by everything from seafood – sushi – meat – fruit & veggies – cheese – wine – even some home decor. It’s essentially like an indoor farmer’s market. If you come here for the sushi bar, note that though the market opens at 6am, the bar doesn’t open until 10am, so don’t come too early! But everything is so unbelievably fresh, it’s like it’s almost still alive! If you’re short on time, grab some sushi/sashimi boxes off the shelves to go. It’s just as fresh, and cheaper than eating at the sushi bar.
- 老乾杯: Japanese BBQ, but unlike any other I’ve ever had. Everything we ordered blew our minds, but the absolute best would have to be the 牛五花 [I don’t even know what that is in English, but if you eat here, GET THIS]. It’s so tender it practically melts in your mouth while exploding with flavor. Other items we got: beef tongue, 腿三角 [tri-tip], and the 本日特選和牛牛排套餐 [Wagyu Steak Combo]. Very pricey [over 3000NT (~$100) for three people], but definitely worth it. Note: located inside the 新光三越 [Shin Kong Mitsukoshi mall], building A-9.