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Taiwan Travel Guide: the top things to do and to see

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.

taipei skyline at dusk

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 organizing my trip, some people asked me if I was about to visit Thailand or Tasmania… I don’t know about you, but Taiwan is not on many people’s bucket lists, 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 others, 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

lotus pond of kaohsiung in taiwan by night

Taiwan was known as Ilha Formosa, meaning beautiful island in Portuguese for centuries. 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 on 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 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.

mountains in taiwan

Every time you walk in the jungle, you’ll encounter something you’ve never seen before.

If you don’t know where Taiwan is, remember it lies halfway between Japan and the Philippines in front of China. Well, China…

Is Taiwan part of China?

To say that the complicated relationship between Taiwan and China would be quite an understatement.

I lived in Taiwan, in Kaohsiung (here is some more info about Kaohsiung), then moved to China, so I understand the political situation from both sides quite well. To summarize, Taiwan was once part of China, but after Chiang Kai Shek lost the war in mainland China, he established another government in Taiwan called the Island Republic of China. That is still Taiwan’s official name.

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 must choose to have an official embassy in China or Taiwan. It’s not possible to have one in both countries. Taiwan is also one of the only 3 countries not represented at the United Nations. The other two are the Vatican and Kosovo. The topic has become quite heated in Taiwan, especially during 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 to understand the mentality of many Taiwanese you’ll meet if you 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: night markets

taiwan seafood

One of the things that I liked the most about Taiwan is the culture, which, like many other Asian countries, 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: delicious. There are many different kinds of dumplings with different fillings; try them all.

If you are brave enough, try the stinky tofu, a super-smelly fermented version of regular 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, try the Durian, a fruit famous for its terrible smell.

If you are in Taipei, don’t miss Snake Alley, a tourist street where you can drink local liquor with a bit of snake venom.

After spending several years in Asia, I can say that Taiwanese food is one of the best street foods.

The other good thing is that no matter where you 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 markets in Kaohsiung: Ruifeng.

Relax in one of the many hot springs

hotspring in taiwan

So what can you do after eating so much? Relaxing in a natural hot spring! Taiwan is a seismic island, meaning natural hot springs are quite common. Many are scattered around the forests, but it will be difficult to find unless you know a local.

Aboriginal people care for many of these “secret” hot springs, so please remember to respect nature.

A trip to Taroko Gorge

eternal spring shrine in taiwan

One of the most famous destinations in Taiwan is certainly Taroko Gorge. It’s a natural gorge that, starting from the East coast, penetrates the mountains for many Kilometers.

Since my hometown in Italy is close to the Alps, and I already visited 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 to ride it in the gorge end stop whenever you want to.

You can also swim in the river and visit the many temples in the gorge. Don’t forget to bring a raincoat because sudden downpours are common every season.

If possible, avoid the weekends: the number of people can be overwhelming, especially if it’s your first time in Asia.

Northern Taiwan

yeliu geopark in taipei

The Yehliu Geopark, which is not far from Taipei, is fascinating. You’ll see tons of weirdly shaped rocks. The most famous is The Queen because it resembles the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. The best portion of this park is the north: there are fewer tourists, and it is quieter. Half a day would be more than enough.

jiufen tea house

Another place very well worth a visit is Jiufen, an old village briefly ruled by the Japanese during the war. The views of the Pacific Ocean, especially around sunset, are stunning.

Taipei vs Kaohsiung

taipei skyline at sunset

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.

In my opinion, one of the most underrated cities in Asia is Kaohsiung, in southern Taiwan. I’ve talked extensively about it since that’s where I lived. You can check out these posts for ideas about things to do and see: Lotus Pond in Kaohsiung, Formosa Boulevard Metro Station, Kaohsiung Travel Guide Part 1 and Part 2, and 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 I’d love to hear your feedback if you have visited both cities.

Where to sleep

Hotels in Taiwan are generally cheap. I usually book the room on Booking.com. Another good option is Trip.com.

Is Taiwan a safe country?

Yes. Taiwan is a very safe country and one of the safest in the world. It ranks 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 regularly every summer.

Photographic tips and final thoughts

taipei skyline from taipei 101

I visited Taiwan for the first time in August, probably the worst time of the year: it was too hot and rainy. If you can, I suggest you visit in Autumn or Spring.

Most of the time, a lens like 24-105mm will be enough, but if you want to take a picture of tall buildings, 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 need a long lens.

taiwan east coast

After spending a year on this beautiful Island, I can honestly say it’s an amazing place. The people are 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 communication: unless you speak Mandarin, it’s quite hard to have a meaningful conversation, but many young people will try to use their basic English to talk to you.

Here are some more pictures of Taiwan. If you fly into Taiwan and have a stopover in Dubai, you can find my travel guide here.

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