Taiwan is a blend of ancient cultures amid cutting-edge cities. It offers stunning mountains and temples that are perfect for slow travel.
Taiwan is an ultramodern nation known for its high-tech industry and stellar growth rate.
There are massive shopping malls and amazing light installations in a vibrant downtown. But there’s also a rich heritage seen in the shrines tucked away on sidestreets.
Here are the best things to do in Taiwan:
1. Explore the Ximending district (Taipei)
The trendy Ximending district is packed late at night with street vendors calling “yummy yummy” to entice people to the street food Taiwan is famous for.
There are oyster omelets, bite-sized tropical fruit served in plastic baggies and hot sugar cane juice with ginger. And even though it’s past midnight, it’s perfectly safe for a woman wandering alone.
Ximending is a fashion hub filled with boutiques, cinemas, hip cafes, pubs packed with young people and alleys lit up with lanterns and colorful murals. Known as “little Tokyo,” the district is a haven for fans of Japanese culture. Posters of the scantily-clad women of anime decorate shop windows, and Japanese magazines are sold inside.
2. Visit a Taoist temple
Small but colorful Taoist temples are everywhere in Taiwan. They’re lit by bright red lanterns and smell of the incense visitors burn to honor celestial beings.
The temple is often dedicated to a Taoist deity. But there are also other gods, heroes and figures in a lavishly decorated array. Many temples are topped with a roof spilling over with layers of carvings, dragons and bright flowers.
Seeing a Taoist temple for the first time is a beautiful and disorienting experience, all at once.
3. Take a boat ride in Kaohsiung
About three-and-a-half hours from Taipei, past cities and green fields of rice, is the harbor city of Kaohsiung on the Taiwan Strait.
If you have time to spend in Kaohsiung then I recommend you spend it on the waterfront.
There are boat cruises on the Love River that offer scenic views of the city’s dazzling skyscrapers and the illuminated flowers and trees lining the way.
As the boat glides along the black waters, and neon mandarin signs hover in the night, you’ll glimpse the city’s vibrant nightlife and sidestreets.
When you get off the boat, there are cafes with river views and shops with local specialties like dried fish snacks and fish floss – a popular topping sprinkled on tofu or rice.
4. Watch a temple parade
Follow the deafening noise and smoke as you stumble into a temple parade.
There are larger-than-life performers on stilts, musicians sounding gongs and huge drums, and crowds carrying tit-up palanquins, or sedan chairs, to a nearby temple.
Along the way, shops and households burn joss paper and put out tables of flowers and fruit to honor ancestors and gods in the traffic-stopping ritual. A petite man clasps his hands together and bows respectfully to a figure walking on stilts.
Parades sometimes end in sidestreets, in small temples nestled between shops. Inside, idols with their faces covered behind strings of gold beads tower over offerings of fruit and flowers.
5. Learn about porcelain (Kaohsiung)
The 1300 workshop and showroom is an incredible artist-run brand that aims to preserve this dying craft.
The pieces are crafted in unglazed white porcelain, a far more demanding technique in which artisans can’t mask small imperfections with glaze. The pieces are fired to temperatures of 1,300 degrees before they’re finished off with touches of 22K gold.
They’re made to look gorgeous at any angle, even when viewed from the back. Many feature a horizonal design that’s different from traditional upright porcelain – and harder to execute and maintain its shape while the clay dries.
The pieces are stunning when viewed in person, flowing with an ethereal lightness in lines as smooth as ocean waves.
Many pieces have taken years to get right. They’re supported by arches or curves instead of a standard flat base.
Different collections include beasts from Oriental myths and traditional Chinese mythology or classical European aesthetics and Western goddesses. The prices are in the thousands of dollars, though the brand also has some entry-level pieces like the small figurines of the Chinese zodiac.
Founder Henry Shen discovered clay after taking some courses at Parsons in New York. He returned to his native Kaohsiung in 1997 and, after some soul searching, established his own studio.
Porcelain enjoyed a great revolutionary period 1,300 year ago during the Tang and Song dynasties. But what remains of the once rich history of Chinese porcelain now lays in museums and cheap dollar shops. Shen saw the opportunity to bring back the prestige of this demanding craft.
6. Browse the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts (Taichung)
Taichung is a cultural and artsy city that’s home to the famous bubble tea – and the incredible National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts.
Some online reviews say the museum houses a small collection with little content. But it largely depends on whether you’re an art lover. A friend of mine (who isn’t much into art) was tired after an hour. But if you love art (like I do) then you’ll need at least a few hours.
Several pieces in the permanent collection are stunning, like Daniel Lee’s mixed media Nightlife. It imitates the composition of The Last Supper but shows a seedy nightclub scene with human faces taking on animalistic features.
The museum is one of Asia’s largest at 102,000 square meters. There’s also a spacious outdoor sculpture park and a branch of the famous Chun Shui Tang Teahouse, the inventors of bubble tea.
7. Visit the Taiwan Design Museum (Taipei)
The Taiwan Design Museum inside Songshan Cultural and Creative Park has a fascinating selection of Taiwanese and international designs.
There’s everything from the famous French Chanel no. 5 bottle to a set of 1990 Taiwanese blades forged from bomb shells.
The park also includes beautiful gardens, cafes, a boutique and a theater.
8. Explore Treasure Hill (Taipei)
Treasure Hill Artist Village is a former squatters’ community where war veterans fleeing mainland China sought refuge. It’s now repurposed into an eco-friendly art village full of open studios, street murals and galleries.
The once illegal settlement was developed into a community of artivists and reopened as an artist village in 2010.
The grey houses clinging to the hillside are a maze full of hidden passageways leading to hip cafes and open studios.
There are arts-in-residence programs where international creatives can leave their mark on this historic site. The space also hosts occasional farmers markets and music events. Steep stairs lead up to the rooftops or down passageways in a maze of flights. Once used as an air raid shelter, the village is a mix of hard concrete and vibrant art.
9. Discover Longshan Temple (Taipei)
Longshan Temple is one of the city’s most famous temples.
Some Taiwanese practice pure Buddhism or Taoism, but the majority follow a mix of both along with various folk beliefs.
Longshan was built as a Buddhist temple and later many deities of Taoism were added without much controversy. They can be found in the numerous shrines adorned with purple orchids.
Buddhism is reportedly the fastest-growing religion in Taiwan and still attracts the young generation.
There’s a young girl in fishnets and a bright orange top with sticks of burning incense in her hands. And she’s proof that the industrial powerhouse hasn’t forgotten its roots.