Are you planning a trip to Taiwan? In this travel guide you can find the top things to do and see on this beautiful island close to China.
Taiwan is probably not the first place that comes to your mind when you want to plan a trip to Asia. In Italy, my home country, very few people travel to the island for tourism.
While I was organizing my trip some people asked me if I was about to visit Thailand or Tasmania… I don’t about you, but Taiwan is not on the bucket list of many people, at least in Europe.
For people who live in Asia the story is a bit different: Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, is among the Top 20 most visited cities in the world!
So, even if you, like many other people, don’t know much about this beautiful island (actually a perfect place to become a digital nomad), keep reading this post: I bet you’ll fall in love with Taiwan.
General Info about Taiwan
For many centuries Taiwan was known as Ilha Formosa, meaning beautiful island in Portuguese. Why this title? Taiwan has almost everything: tropical beaches, deep gorges, hundreds of natural hot springs, and beautiful mountains that, with an altitude of almost 4000 mt, will keep you busy for weeks if you love hiking.
There are many activities that you can do in Taiwan: surfing of the wild east coast, exploring the tropical jungle, sipping the tasty, and expensive, Oolong tea in one of the many Tea Houses, trying one of the many aboriginal dishes, and the famous street food or, if you simply love shopping, wandering in one of the numerous malls ever-present in every city.
Due to the tropical climate, there is also an incredible variety of tropical fruits and different species of butterflies.
Every time you’ll walk in the jungle you’ll come across something that you’ve never seen before.
If you don’t have any idea of where Taiwan is, just remember that lays halfway between Japan and the Philippines, in front of China. Well, China…
Is Taiwan part of China?
To say that the relationship between Taiwan and China is complicated would be quite an understatement.
I lived in Taiwan, in Kaohsiung (here is some more info about Kaohsiung), for about one year and then moved to China, so I understand quite well the political situation from both sides. To summarize, keep in mind that Taiwan was once part of China, then after Chiang Kai Shek lost the war in Mainland China he established another government in Taiwan called the Island Republic of China. And that is still the current official name of Taiwan.
Since Taiwan doesn’t recognize China as an independent country and China does the same with Taiwan today there are officially no foreign embassies in Taiwan. A country has to choose to have an official embassy either in China or Taiwan. It’s not possible to have one in both countries. Taiwan is also one of the only 3 countries in the world not represented at the United Nations. The other two are the Vatican and Kosovo. The topic becomes quite heated in Taiwan, especially in times of elections.
During the communist repression, many Chinese intellectuals found refuge in Taiwan. Even today, while the internet is censored in China and you need a VPN to unblock Gmail, Facebook, etc, Taiwan enjoys complete freedom of speech, religion, and expression.
Understanding the current political situation is very important if you want to understand the mentality of many Taiwanese that you’ll meet if you decide to travel to this beautiful island.
So, what are the top things to do and see in Taiwan, this beautiful island in the Pacific Ocean?
Things to do in Taiwan: night markets
One of the things that I liked the most in Taiwan is the culture that, like in many other countries in Asia, considers food an extremely important part of the heritage.
If you have the chance to visit one of the many night markets, one thing you have to try is the steamed dumplings: absolutely delicious. There are many different kinds of dumplings with different fillings, just try them all.
If you are brave enough you can try the stinky tofu, basically a super smelly version of fermented tofu. Some people love it, some don’t. I think it’s quite disgusting, but hey: to each his own. If you like stinky food you should also try the Durian, a fruit famous for its terrible smell.
If you are in Taipei don’t miss Snake Alley, a very tourist street where you can drink some local liquor with a bit of snake venom in it.
After having spent several years in Asia I can say that Taiwanese food is one of the best street food.
The other good thing is that no matter where you’ll go, you can always eat a lot without spending a fortune. Don’t miss this article where I talk about one of the best night market in Kaohsiung: Ruifeng.
Relax in one of the many hot springs
So what can you do after eating so much? Relaxing in a natural hot spring! Taiwan is a seismic island and this means that natural hot springs are quite common. There are many scattered around the forests but, unless you know a local, it will be difficult to find them.
Many of these “secret” hot springs are taken care of by aboriginal people so please remember to respect nature.
A trip to Taroko Gorge
One of the most famous destinations in Taiwan is certainly Taroko Gorge. It’s basically a natural gorge that, starting from the East coast penetrates into the mountains for many Kilometers.
Since my hometown in Italy is close to the Alps and I visited already other beautiful places like Verdon, in France, Taroko didn’t impress me that much, but I think it’s still worth a visit.
If you want to get to Taroko from Taipei take the train to Hualien (it takes about 2,5 hours). Once in Hualien, it’s a good idea to rent a scooter so that can you ride it in the gorge end stop whenever you want to.
You can also swim in the river and visit the many temples you’ll find in the gorge. Don’t forget to bring a raincoat because sudden downpours are quite common in every season.
If possible avoid the weekends: the number of people can be overwhelming, especially if it’s your first time in Asia.
The Yehliu Geopark, not far from Taipei, it’s really fascinating. You’ll see tons of weirdly shaped rocks. The most famous it’s called The Queen because it looks a bit like the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. The best portion of this park is the north: there are fewer tourists and it’s a bit quieter. Half-day would be more than enough.
Another place very well worth a visit is Jiufen: an old village that was briefly ruled by the Japanese during the war. The views of the Pacific Ocean, especially around sunset, are really beautiful.
Taipei vs Kaohsiung
Taipei, the capital, is worth a visit as well. It has changed a lot in the past few years. It was once considered the ugliest capital in Asia but today it’s completely different. Taipei 101 is the symbol of the change that this island has gone through in recent years.
One of the most underrated cities in Asia is, in my opinion, Kaohsiung, in southern Taiwan. I’ve talked extensively about it since that’s where I lived. You can check out these posts for some ideas about things to do and things to see: Lotus Pond in Kaohsiung, Formosa Boulevard Metro Station, Kaohsiung travel guide part 1 and part 2, Shoushan: Monkey Mountain.
What I like the most about Kaohsiung, especially compared to Taipei, is the vibe: lots of artists and modern museums, slightly better weather and the city is right in front of the Ocean. At least for me, Kaohsiung wins hands down. But if you have been in both cities I’d love to hear your feedback.
Where to sleep in Taiwan
Is Taiwan a safe country?
Yes. Taiwan is a very safe country and is actually one of the safest in the world along with Japan. It ranks always at the top of the list of countries with fewer crimes. The real dangers in Taiwan are the frequent earthquakes and the numerous typhoons that hit the island on a regular basis every summer.
Photographic tips and final thoughts about Taiwan
I visited Taiwan for the first time in August which is probably the worst time of the year: too hot and too rainy. If you can, I really suggest you visit in Autumn or Spring.
Most of the time a lens like the 24-105mm will be enough but if you want to take a picture of tall buildings, then you’ll need a wide-angle lens. In spring there are a lot of migratory birds in Taiwan so if you like taking pictures of birds you’ll definitely need a long lens.
After having spent a year on this beautiful Island I can honestly say that it’s an amazing place. What is most amazing are the people: some of the friendliest I have ever met. I’m not the only one saying this: Taiwan is often considered one of the friendliest countries in the world.
The main challenge is obviously communication: unless you speak Mandarin, it’s quite hard to have a meaningful conversation, but there are many young people who will try to use their basic English to talk to you.