When I started planning for my Taiwan trip, I had no idea what one should go and see.
What famous landmarks were there, where to visit – other than iconic Taipei 101. And since work had me busy – really busy – until the day of my departure, I didn’t start reading about where to go until I was already on the road. Taiwan was this white spot on my internal world map, I had no idea what there was.
Surprisingly, what ended up being my favourite spots on this fantastic little island was nowhere to be found on any travel guides’ highlights list (apart from maybe Taroko) which tended to limit their recommendations to attractions in and around Taipei, like Longshang Temple or the National Palace Museum.
But Taiwan is much more than just Taipei and thanks to its extensive and reliable train and bus networks, you can be anywhere on the island within just a few hours (read more about getting around here).
If you are ready to leave Taipei behind, check out these surprising finds:
1 – Jiufen
This former little mining town is sometimes included in organized day tours from Taipei, but its real charm is only visible at night, when traditional red lanterns turn it into a magical scene from a Miyazaki movie. In fact, there are many internet rumours about how Jiufen inspired the setting in Spirited Away, but those you dig deeper will find that Miyazaki only said that he was inspired by many real-world locations, and never specifically mentions Jiufen. Nevertheless, Totoro and Kaonashi (Noface) figurines are seen in every other souvenir shop and one cannot help but imagine the quirky spirits from those stories in every corner.
Staircases connect the different levels and vendors offer a broad selection of food and goods. The steam from the food stalls fill the narrow alleyways with pleasant spice and music plays from restaurants. Occasional breaks between the houses offer views over the valley.
It is best to take your time strolling through Jiufen and enjoy a traditional snack in one of the many tea houses.
2 – Taroko National Park
The Taroko National Park is Taiwan’s pride and few tourists will not stop there. Organized tours with preset schedules will cart visitors from stop to stop and give them minutes to see vistas that should be appreciated for longer than it takes to break out the selfie stick.
The better way to see this lush green space is to make use of Taiwan’s official tourist shuttle busses that service the park’s point of interests in a hop-on-hop-off manner, or to rent a car and be entirely independent.
The Shakadang Trail, a roughly 9 km long in-and-out path along the banks of river it was named after, is the highlight of the area. It sees fewer tourists because of its length and is not as packed as for example Yanzikou (Swallow grotto trail). You need no permits and the trail is easy to walk and well marked.
3 – Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum (佛光山佛陀紀念館)
This little gem of a museum turned out to be one of the most interesting sights during my stay in Taiwan. I would not chosen to visit here myself, had it not been for my travel buddy who insisted that we should go there.
A direct bus takes you to the monastery from Kaohsiung (see their website for details)
A grand entrance hall (complete with Starbucks) offers information aplenty and hosts several vegetarian restaurants as well as souvenir shops. Volunteers are manning every corner of the complex and offer plenty of knowledge and are happy to answer any questions. Take the opportunity to grab a free book about Buddhism, it’s a fascinating read.
The actual museum is divided into several pagodas, one of which also serves as the home of the Venerable Master Hsing Yun. Each exhibit explains facets of Buddhism and is interactive for everyone to experience. It describes how to execute the different practices and even dedicates an entire pagoda to a kids’ experience.
The main hall hosts the Buddha’s tooth relic, a multimedia display of the life of Buddha as well as the Fo Guang Big Buddha itself.
Walking around the different exhibits brings about a feeling of peace and hope for mankind. Does that sound corny? Yes. Is it a feeling you get very often? No.
The visit is entirely free, corresponding to Buddhist tenets. Donations are appreciated, but no one will ever ask you for it. But the visit is so fantastic, you will want to donate!
4 – Kaohsiung Liuho Tourist Night Market
I would not have figured to like Kaohsiung as much as I did. Taiwan’s third largest city (after Taipei and Taichung) feels relaxed and modern and is as suitable for shopping as it is for strolling along the harbour or visiting the Dragon and Tiger pagodas by the Lotus lake.
But it is also home to my favourite night market: Liuho Tourist Night Market near the Formosa Boulevard metro station (Note: Google maps lists this as Liuhe).
Liuho was neither the biggest, nor the most diverse night market I came across, but somehow it was the most pleasant one. It’s not as overcrowded as for example Shilin (Taipei) and it’s mainly centered around seafood where other night markets focus more heavily on pork. There is a lot of English signage making it a good “beginners” night market.
5 – Beitou
I was torn between listing Sun Moon Lake or Beitou as my number 5, but to be honest, Sun Moon Lake sees a lot of tourists and is not that unknown. Beitou on the other hand is this underappreciated suburb of Taipei. Parts of it already belong to Yangmingshan National Park, but you don’t come here for a stroll, you come for the Hot Springs!
There are plenty of Onsen-style establishments to choose from, or you can just dip your legs in one of the free outdoor foot spas in and around Fuxing Park. Be prepared to strike up a conversation with curious locals (read more about this here).
If you really feel like exploring more of the town, head over to the Thermal Valley scenic area or hike along the main road all the way up to the Sulfur Valley Recreation Area to see some sulfur mining, yellow-stained earth and volcanic steam.
I had fully intended to do some more extensive hiking and make use of Taiwan’s 286 peaks reaching over 3000 m above sea level. Specifically Taiwan’s highest mountain, Yushan (3,952 m), the Jade Mountain, seemed like a comparitively easy trek for a mountain that size.
However, climbing Yushan required a bit more time and planning than I had. You need to get permits beforehand and while you can reach the area via public transportation, it is not as frequently trafficked and would have been easier to reach with a rental car.