Not many travelers put it on their to-go list: Taiwan. I think it should be on more people’s list, because Taiwan has enough to offer for a short trip of about two weeks. The green landscape, vibrant capital Taipei, culture and unbelievably extensive and truly delicious cuisine. You can fly direct from Amsterdam with China airlines or combine it with a trip through Japan, South Korea, China, Hong Kong or the Philippines, because most tickets for flights between these countries start at only 50 euros with Air Asia. But what can you expect from Taiwan? I’ll take you through this unique country in this 2-week itinerary through Taiwan.
Taiwan vs. China
When Mirjam visited this country for the first time a few years ago, she described Taiwan as an undiscovered gem. This year, I was able to discover this for myself when I traveled from South Korea to the Philippines via Taiwan. An unavoidable question when visiting this country is “What exactly is the relationship with China?”. As Mirjam described in her (Dutch) article:
“The island of Taiwan is situated on China’s east coast. The former Chinese island is part of the Chinese state according to China, but considered independent by Taiwan itself. That’s why Taiwanese residents have two passports: a Chinese passport (for visiting China) and a Taiwanese passport (for visiting countries that do acknowledge Taiwan as an independent state). Chinese influences are clearly noticeable in Taiwan, but so are Western ones. This blend of cultures makes it a very special destination.”
My own experience was exactly the same. And although I shouldn’t say this out loud, I view Taiwan as a more modern, cleaner version of China, with its own culture, people and nature. In short, Taiwan is its own place and it’s a really interesting travel destination! If you want to know more about the history of Taiwan you can visit the Chiang-kai Shek memorial hall in Taipei. Not only are the enormous square and the memorial hall very impressive, you’ll find an interesting exhibit inside depicting the history of Taiwan in a really nice way. There is no entrance fee.
Nearly every visit to Taiwan starts in the capital of Taipei. It’s a good place to start, because this buzzing city has everything. Modern shopping malls, chaotic night markets with an abundance of tasty dishes, street art and design, hot springs, hiking trails and so on. Must-sees in Taipei are: Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Shilin Night Market, Huasan Creative Park, Elephant Mountain (for a view of the well-known 101 tower) and Confucius Temple. But there’s plenty to do outside of Taipei too. Places you can easily visit from the city are: Treasure hill (artist town), Beitou Hot Springs, Jiufen (the Santorini of Taiwan), Janjian Yan hiking trail and Yamingshan national park. Several of these activities and sights can easily be combined in a single day, but I would suggest spending 4 days in Taipei nevertheless!
Hostel in Taipei
There’s an abundance of accommodations to be found, but I recommend, especially on the weekend, booking ahead of time to find the best price-quality ratio. I stayed at the Meander hostel Taipei in the Ximen district. The hostel offers private rooms as well as dorms in different price ranges, has a spacious and sociable common area and offers free tours to its guests. Highly recommended! It’s not only a pleasant hostel it’s also perfectly situated. I thought Ximen was a really nice neighborhood where you can fully experience Taipei. Its night market, labyrinth of shopping streets, many bubble tea bars, restaurants and cafes, make Ximen a sight in and of itself. From Meander, you can walk through the vibrant neighborhood to the centrally located subway station in under 10 minutes.
Green mountains and red bridges in Taroko national park
The Taroko gorge is probably one of Taiwan’s best-known tourist magnets. The solid, bright green hillsides that rise steeply from the road winding through the gorge are impressive. The contrast between the bright red bridges against the green and the temples rising in places definitely makes Taroko national park worth a visit. To get there, you travel to Hualien. From there you can simply take the Taroko bus, but it’s even better to rent a scooter and see the area on your own. On the way to Taroko from Hualien, make a stop along the coast too. When the weather is good, you’ll see the green mountains reaching down into the turquoise seawater.
Staying in Hualien
There are many accommodation options in Hualien as well as in townships even deeper into the Taroko gorge. I stayed at Miaoko hostel in a township just outside Hualien, on the way to Taroko national park. It’s a beautiful accommodation with really cozy private rooms as well as a nice dorm. The accommodation, run by a young family, has a cozy living room. The owners are extremely helpful and will even drive you to Hualien or the bus stop, if they are around.
From Hualien, it’s easy to take the train towards Taitung. But you can also take the bus towards Dulan. This laidback village is located at less than a 30 -minute drive up the coast, north of Taitung. Dulan is nothing more than a road with a few houses, surrounded by nature and a coastline. Though it’s on the coast, it’s not a destination for beach lovers. But those who come to surf will definitely find what they want. Apart from that, Dulan has a cozy atmosphere and lets you get to know Taiwan in yet another different way.
Surfing and beach in Kenting
Not many people would expect Taiwan to have beautiful beaches. This is a bit odd, because Taiwan is an island, after all, surrounded by coastline. The most beautiful beaches can be found in the south at Kenting. Surfers love it here. You can stay in Kenting itself or in one of the nearby towns. It’s easiest to rent a scooter to explore the beautiful coastline.
Kitsch in Kaohsiung
If you’re traveling clockwise from Taipei, then Kaohsiung will be the first large city you encounter. A nice place, from where you can go on various daytrips. But the city itself is also worth a visit. The Lotus pond, for instance, is a unique spot. You’ll find various very special temples in this lake. I can only describe it as being very kitsch. It’s actually so kitschy it’s almost beautiful. The lake is known for its Tiger temple, but the other buildings are just as impressive.
Design hostel in Kaohsiung
The design hostel With Inn in Kaohsiung is an absolute must, with both gorgeous private rooms and a beautiful dorm. The small hostel is run by a young family that gives you a warm welcome and gladly helps you find your way around the city. The owners built everything themselves, using sustainable materials and a modern, but warm design. This hostel will quickly make you feel right at home!
Food heaven Tainan
On of the highlights of traveling through Taiwan has to be the food. Taiwan has hundreds of its own dishes. From street food to hotpot and bubble tea. A true paradise for foodies! A place where you can find Taiwanese cuisine at its best is Tainan, located at only an hour’s drive away from Kaohsiung. Tainan is Taiwan’s food heaven. You will hardly find any real restaurants, because Tainan food culture takes place on the streets, with hundreds of open-air restaurants with just a few tables with plastic chairs. Apart from allowing you to stuff yourself with food, Tainan is a very friendly city that’s nice to spend time in. Besides Taipei, it’s one of my favorite places in Taiwan.
Hostel in Tainan
Tainan offers several options for an overnight stay. A good hostel with private rooms as well as dorms is Wow hostel. It’s a hostel and yoga school in one. A definite advantage to this hostel is the food map they provide. This city map shows all the street vendors along with their signature dishes. There’s no better way to discover Taiwanese cuisine in Tainan.
The feeling of being in the Alps in Puli
What not many people do in Taiwan is go inland. But it does make for a nice change. Close to the town of Puli for instance, you’ll find a few sights that are entirely different from what you see in the rest of Taiwan. The Sun Moon Lake, for example, is a nice outing. Bike or walk along the banks of the lake or cross to the other side by ferry. This area is popular with Chinese tourists, however, so it’s advisable to visit early to enjoy the lake in peace. Another trip you can make from Puli is to the sheep farm in the mountains. In my opinion the farm itself was one big Chinese tourist trap, but the bus trip there and the view across the mountains from the farm are definitely worth it. I felt like I was in the Alps! To get to Puli, you take the bus from the train station in Taichung (not to be confused with Taitung) towards Nantou.
Staying overnight in Puli
The reason I went to Puli was for the Center center hostel Puli, which I’d heard about. This hostel, also run by a young couple, has a homely feel to it that is once again combined with beautiful design. It has private rooms and dorms, just as in the other accommodations mentioned. The nice thing about this hostel is its café, where you can enjoy a delicious cup of coffee with homemade cookies. The owners Ming and Ting will do anything to make you feel at home in this part of Taiwan and help you on your way to discovering the area. An absolute must!
How to travel through Taiwan?
Traveling through Taiwan is really easy! I actually used the train for all my travels. The only time I took the bus was from Taichung to Puli, which was easy to arrange and comfortable, just like the train. I didn’t book anything in advance, apart from the journey between Taipei and Hualien (Taroko), because this was during the weekend. If you get to the station early, you can almost always get a train ticket on the spot. If you want to explore the area around a town, renting a scooter is a really good idea. It allows you to see just that little bit more of the country. I also came across travelers who rented a car. This gives you a lot of flexibility, but it’s relatively expensive. Nevertheless, Taiwan is a really suitable destination for road tripping, because regardless of whether you’re exploring the country by car, scooter or bike, the roads are calm, organized and safe.
Language barrier in Taiwan?
Chinese is the main language in Taiwan, but generally, English is spoken quite a bit, especially by the younger generation. Much more than I had expected at least. I traveled the country solo and never experienced problems with the language barrier. I was almost always able to get by using English. You can always scan texts using your Google translate app. And Google maps is also very helpful during bus trips or in a taxi. Having the Internet on your phone definitely helps! I do recommend buying a local SIM card (easy to do at the airport). But you’ll be fine in Taiwan, even without Internet.
Best travel season for Taiwan
There’s not really a season that’s best for traveling to Taiwan, because it rains all year round. October and November (fall) are pleasant, with temperatures around 20-26 degrees and the least rain. But that’s not saying much, because I had 5 days of non-stop rain during my stay in November. Temperatures are lower, around 17-19 degrees, from December to February (winter) and you’ll find even less tourists than usual. June is a lot warmer, but it’s also the wettest month. July and August are warm, with an average temperature of around 33 degrees and relatively little rain (compared to May and June). No matter what time of year you go, you really can’t avoid rain in Taiwan. Bringing rain gear and/or an umbrella is a good idea, because there’s a reason why Taiwan is so green. It simply rains often and a lot! But it never gets cold. Thankfully, it switches between rain and brilliant sun. You can never really know what to expect. Might as well just go and hope for the best!