Taipei. Home to one of the tallest buildings in the world, and the capital of the island of Taiwan (sometimes referred to as the Republic of China by outsiders, but by no one who resides there). It’s also the home of my grandparents, and where my mum grew up and goes back to visit every couple of years.
Being half-Taiwanese, half-Kiwi is a really wonderful thing. I always say I get the best of both worlds, and have family scattered around the world. But sometimes it can be bittersweet, because you can feel a little disconnected from your heritage – and this reigns true for me quite often. So when I get the chance to go back to either country to visit my family, it really resonates with me.
In March this year, to mark the changing of the winds in my professional life, I decided to go back for an impromptu two week visit to Taipei. Coincidentally my mum was there for a six week stint, and my aunt, uncle and cousin from St Louis were there too. The stars were aligned on this occasion.
A 12 hour commute (including a small layover) from Perth to Singapore to Taipei on Singapore Airlines and I was back to a place that always changes yet feels the same to me. I was missing my travel (and general) partner in crime Jeremy, but he was holding the decks back home with our dog Hugo.
While most people visiting here will hit up hotels or airbnb accomodation, I’m fortunate in that there’s room at my grandparent’s place. It’s cramped and tiny and not in the nicest area, but it’s a second home and I don’t even mind (too much) sleeping on the tatami mats instead of a bed.
Normally my visits here are jam-packed with exploring, eating and shopping. However this time around it was a slower pace, mainly because my grandpa is really sick and we wanted to make sure we were around to spend time with him. But that didn’t mean I didn’t still commit myself to eating up a storm. And so here’s my guide to hitting up Taipei.
The MRT and buses are legit here.
Don’t even bother yourself with taxis unless you can speak mandarin. The public transport is cheap as chips, and super easy to navigate. Plus there’s usually free wifi to jump on if you don’t buy a local simcard to get your internet fix (sadly Vodafone don’t include Taiwan in their $5/day roaming plans).
You could spend your entire trip in Taipei at the markets and leave completely satisfied. There’s a real culture around the night markets, and the city becomes alive every evening – rain or shine – with a melting pot of aromas and food on sticks.
Most people have heard of the Shilin Market, and with good reason. There’s alleys criss-crossing, allowing you to get lost down rabbit holes while you follow your nose or eyes. And since some vendors operate well past midnight, there’s plenty of time to explore.
Home to the original Hot Star chicken, some of my favourites there include this, the mulberry shaved ice, blood rice cakes and barbecue whole squid. But there’s even more things than this to try, and to really immerse yourself in I recommend you do try everything you can. There’s nothing quite like Taiwanese street food.
My favourite night market however, is Rahoe St. Famously known for their pepper buns (get there as soon as the market opens if you want to try these, the line is way too epic), it has a more diverse food offering and is really focussed on eating. You basically make your way down each side of the market and munch, munch, munch.
The rolled chicken thigh sausages are one of the best things ever here (and in general), stuffed into their own skin and grilled to fat-dripping, juicy perfection.
Chilli glazed corn, kitschy character fairy floss, red bean buns, stinky tofu (an absolute must) and pineapple flavoured custard apple (yes it’s a thing!) are just some of the highlights of Rahoe St. I spent hours here, and still took home bags of food for late night munching because I knew I’d want more. And more.
It’s not just the big markets worth checking out. Basically every main hub or shopping area in Taipei has little market stalls come out at night. It’s a great way to fuel exploring, and try some of the lesser known stops.
That’s the best part about Taipei, just wander down any alley and you’ll always find yourself surrounded by food. It’s that kind of city.
Things to do
Besides the obvious, eating, there’s some great things to do.
Yangmingshan is a must-visit (and where my grandparents used to live!) to reconnect with nature in the mountains. It’s lush and at the right time of the year, there’s different festivals taking place. March/April is the calla lily festival and it is gorgeous (see pics from my trip in 2014 below).
The hot springs are also a wonderful way to kick back and relax – though the smell of sulfur does take some getting used to. They are HOT but you can basically feel your troubles melt away… and it’s some kind of heaven.
Getting massages on holiday is nothing new, but I am also a huge fan of getting my hair washed. The water pressure in my grandparent’s place is pretty terrible, and when you’re paying under $10 for a wash and blow dry, you can’t go wrong.
Guaranteed great hair in every holiday snap is also an added bonus!
Shopping is usually on the agenda for most holidayers, and Taipei is a perfect destination for it. For the luxury brands, Taipei 101 is a hotspot, but there’s the other end of things with the wholesalers clothing market near Rahoe St.
Personally I’m more interested in the ingredient markets where you can find dried scallops, teas, preserved fruits and all kinds of munchies like squid and seaweed. It’s a treasure trove, and I always return back to Perth laden with mushrooms, seafood and salty plum.
The fresh seafood dock markets were a new place I explored on this trip and a fun afternoon. Vendors all buy produce straight off the boats (which pull up literally meters away), and then you can purchase it to take home or have cooked on site for a meal.
We gorged ourselves on squid sashimi (so fresh it was moving still), garlic clams, fried oysters with basil and more. And then afterward we explored the wet markets more and made friends with some of the owners who took us down to the dock to watch as they unloaded freshly caught crabs.
From temples to museums, there’s a great deal of history and spirituality in Taipei. While I usually hate crowds, being at the temples is really quite cathartic and it connects with something deep inside me. I’m what I usually refer to as a basic buddhist – I grew up raised in this religion but don’t pray or go to temple as much as I should.
As I get older I’m trying to do this more and more, and exhibit the behaviours and practices that are part of this. On this recent trip the temples were particularly busy as it was the time of the year when family return to Taiwan to visit deceased relatives and tidy graves, pay homage to them.
We’d heard a lot about Addiction Aquatic Development, which is an upscale seafood market with different sections offering different cooking styles like aburi, hot pot and stir fry. While the seafood was ridiculously fresh, and it’s well worth checking out, I wouldn’t say the food lived up to the hype. A little pricey for what it was.
Night times for me in Taiwan are all about the markets, but there’s also some cool modern joints like Commune A7 which is a hub of food and drink containers with plenty of room to sit and chill out. There’s such an awesome vibe happening there, and while I think the food isn’t the best, it is a great place to catch up with friends and nod your head to the tunes being pumped out.
There’s also a go-kart section and a pocky store you can spin the wheel at to choose your flavour. Kitschy for sure, but cute.
Breakfast in Taipei offers modern and traditional fare, but I’m all about the latter. Give me red bean cakes, freshly cooked cong yo bing (scallion pancakes), you tiao (fried dough – also excellent in rice with dried pork floss), hot soy bean drinks, xiao long bao (soup dumplings) and potstickers.
It’s all the bomb and the best places to eat are those with the lines.
If you get up early it’s worth finding a local place you can go to first thing in the morning since most stores are closed until 10/11am. Fill that time with eating!
There’s a real dessert culture in Taipei, as is the case with many Asian cities. Coffee and dessert shops are the place most people like to hang out at, and some actually have time limits of 1-2 hours you can stay there so they can ensure they get customer flow.
We tried a few places, the standouts being Yellow Lemon (where we did a “picnic”), Patisserie Riviere and Sweet 16 Patisserie. All different in their own way, but bright, sweet and beautiful. I’m still dreaming about that pink heart mousse cake from Riviere which had a little surprise of cherry in the centre. YUM.
Taiwan’s heavy Japanese influence is evident in the number of izakayas and sushi bars peppered around every inch of the city. Last trip there in 2014 I went hard on omakase menus, and this trip saw me return to Niu and Ichiban. The former I actually didn’t love as much as the first time but Ichiban has gotten even better.
The chef/owner has retired and sold to his brightest apprentice, who has taken to the kitchen like a fish in water. He’s poured some new life into the dishes, and he also knew my love of uni and halibut so I was spoiled with lots of them both.
And if you’re wanting to try some of the upper scale dining in Taipei, both Mume and Raw graced this year’s Asia Top 50 restaurants list. I tried desperately to get a table at Raw but sadly it books out so quickly, but I did manage to snag a dinner spot at Mume for one of the nights.
Utilising local and native ingredients cooked with European techniques, it’s easy to see why this restaurant is attracting so much attention. From our chicken liver pate with a brûlée toffee cover, to one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten of raw prawn with a prawn head oil and shaved yam bean, to an incredible braised wagyu. It was a delight from start to finish and not ridiculously expensive as I’d speculated it might be.
Phenomenal. And so highly recommended if you visit Taipei.
There’s so many other dishes that need trying in Taipei that I haven’t even begun to talk about. Gua bao (obviously), the original braised pork buns, beef noodle soup, bubble tea, passionfruit juice and even just fresh pineapple and star fruit from the markets. Azuki bean anything. Braised goose, lo ba (braised pork on rice) and young bamboo when it’s in season. Bliss!
This is my mecca for eating, and I don’t think there’s a moment of the day I’m not stuffed to the brim. But it’s worth it to connect back with a place I have so much history steeped in, and have an insatiable hunger to learn more about.
Time here is always over so quick. But I’ll be back, and I can’t wait.