Officially the Republic of China, this island with a population of around 24 million – just a bit larger than the state of Maryland and just under half the size of Scotland – has been in the news lately both thanks to its controversial January 13 presidential elections and to its perennial potential (and especially in the context of other current crises in Ukraine and Gaza) as a world flashpoint due to mainland China´s obsession with eventually and forcibly annexing it. Taiwan is both one of the world´s most developed countries and Asia´s most progressive (for example where same-sex marriage is legal and LGBTQ rights most established). It´s also home to plenty of traditional culture and architecture as well as some stunning scenic beauty. Here are some of the highlights which will captivate visitors:
This bustling city of 2.8 million just inland from Taiwan´s northern coast is the proverbial mix of hyper-modern and traditional, and for good measure offers a thriving dining/nightlife scene. Some of its top allures include:
· Taipei 101 - The world's tallest building (1,671 feet/509 meters) for five years after its construction in 2004, this very distinctive landmark (top center) has elevators which are the world’s fastest; an 89th-floor observation deck which presents spectacular panoramic views out over Taipei (including an outdoor area); and also plenty of quality shopping and dining.
· The Wanhua District - Taipei´s oldest, most historic district – dating back to the 17th century Ching dynasty – and is home to various temples (the most famous of which is Longshan, built in 1738 to not one but three creeds: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, adorned with exquisite stone, wood, and bronze sculptures and active with worshippers who usually don´t mind you taking pictures); Bopiliao Historic Street (whose architecture ranges from the Ching period through the Japanese colonial era of 1895-1945), and the Huaxi Night Market (with traditional Chinese-massage parlors as well as stalls selling handicrafts, artworks, and of course plenty of yum dim sum and street food – even one, if you dare, serving snake meat and soup, considered libido-boosters when eaten).
· National Palace Museum – Perhaps foremost of Taiwan´s crown jewels, this huge, traditional-Chinese-style complex built in the 1960s is home to the world´s largest collections of Chinese imperial artifacts – some 700,000 pieces – taken from Peking´s Forbidden City in 1931 to keep it from falling into the hands of the Japanese, then in 1949 to Taipei when the Nationalists fled here after losing to the Communists. Spanning some 8,000 years of history from the Neolithic to modern times, it´s a true bucket-lister for all culture vultures.
· Shilin and Raohe Night Markets – Even bigger and more popular than Huaxi, these are a trove for seekers of mementos, colorful photo ops, and classic Taiwanese as well as other Chinese eats – and also, by the way, non-Chinese fare such as one popular stall´s potatoes in cheese sauce and another, Modern Toilet, featuring poop-themed fare (I shit you not). The heart of the former - and very much worth a visit – is Cixian Temple, dating back to 1864 The latter, while smaller, is even more popular with serious foodies, and a number of its stalls are even Michelin-guide-listed, the temple to visit here is the impressive, six-story Ciyou. built in 1753 (both temples, by the way, are dedicated to the cult of the sea goddess Mazu).
· Yangmingshan National Park – A spot of nature in the big city (top), this 44-square-mile (113-sq.-kilometer) swath is especially known for its calla lilies and rhododendrons and fruit trees including cherry, peach, pear, plum and above all cherry, with its mid-March blossom season drawing appreciative crowds. Other popular allures include a “flower clock” made of colorful seasonal blooms and several hot springs available for a steamy dip.
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Jiufen – Also spelled Jioufen or Chiufen, this picturesque seaside mountain village in the suburbs about an hour from Taipei dates back to the Middle Ages and was once a center for gold mining (peaking in the late 19th and early 20th century). These days it´s a popular weekend getaway for capital residents and famous for its time capsule of traditional Taiwanese life, with narrow alleyways, tea houses, and lovely views of the Pacific Ocean.
Lukang – Known as Lugang as well, here´s another seaside charmer – and Taiwan´s second oldest settlement – on the west coast overlooking the Taiwan Strait some 2½ hours south of Taipei. It has some 85,000 residents and a wealth of well-preserved traditional architecture and temples like 238-year-old Longshan (dubbed “Taiwan´s Forbidden City”), the also 17th-century Mazu (above), and 212-year-old Wenwu.
Tainan –With a population of around 1.9 million, Taiwan´s oldest city and longtime capital – founded in 1624 by a pirate loyal to the Ming Dynasty in opposition to the Dutch attempting to colonize the area. In addition to historical architecture, major landmarks include the Dutch colonial Fort Zelandia, (aka Anping Fort) in the Anping historical district, the 17th-century Confucius Temple, the National Museum of Taiwan History, Tainan is also known as Taiwan´s food capital, and is home to a number of local specialties such as milkfish porridge, steamed rice cakes, eel noodles, and grilled sweet potato,. For all these reasons and more, the city has earned a spot on CNN's top 24 destinations for 2024.
Though Han Chinese now constitute nearly 98 percent of the population, the people who proceeded them – known as Formosans and Taiwanese aborigines – are Austronesians whose presence here has been dated back as far as 6,500 years. Subdivied into more than two dozen ethnic groups such as the Alayal, Amis (above), and Bunun, unassimilated Formosans are these days they´re mostly found up in the highlands. Though socially and economically they have been moving up in recent years – including efforts by the government to promote their welfare and culture, many indigenous people remain largely relegated to the lowest rungs of Taiwanese society.
The best way for visitors to experience the cultures of the peoples who preceded the Han is to visit the 37-year-old, 204-acre (82.65 hectare) Taiwain Indigenous People Cultural Park (above) in the southern mountain village of Beiye, home to the Paiwan tribe and a 4½-hour drive from Taipei. There´s also the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines near the National Palace Museum in Taipei; Sun Moon Lake (see below); and festivals in places like the city of Taitung, six hours south of Taipei. (Read more about these options and the aboriginal Taiwanese in general here.)
Nature and Scenery
Alishan National Scenic Area – A mountain resort and 160-square-mile (415-sq.-kilometer) nature preserve (above) some 4 ½ hours south of Taipei, Alishan is renowned for its sunrise views, historic narrow-gauge railway, tea plantations, and waterfalls, and is one of Taiwan´s top natural icons.
Kenting National Park – Down at Taiwan's southern tip, this 70-sq-mi- (181km²) swath offers lush landscapes; beautiful beaches with plenty of water sports options; and colorful offshore coral reefs for snorkeling and diving.
Sun Moon Lake – Sacred to the local Thao tribe, the country´s largest lake – 2½ hours south of Taipei – is another national icon for its serene beauty, surrounding mountains, and nearby landmarks including Wenwu Temple and the Ci'en Pagoda. It's a wonderful spot for cycling, boat rides, and opportunities to explore Thao culture.
Taroko National Park – Centered around Taroko Gorge 3½ hours south of Taipei near the city of Hualien and home to the Thuku tribe, it´s a paradise for nature lovers, with 360 sq. miles (920km²) worth of towering marble cliffs, deep valleys, waterfalls, and a rushing river. Besides hiking, biking, and camping, you can also visit several shrines and temples within the park.
Yushan National Park – Named after the country´s highest mountain (12,966 feet/(3,952 meters) this 398-sq.-mi. (1,031km²) park 3½ hours south of Taipei is less visited than the country´s eight other national park but is still a popular destination for hikers, climbers, and other adventure seekers. There are three visitor centers.