Hike volcanic hills, go vintage shopping and rediscover fried rice in Taipei
Young artists, chefs and curators are redefining and embracing Taiwanese identity as its own distinct category, with a conscientious pursuit of food and design endemic to the island’s history.
Taipei, the Taiwanese capital, is a literal urban jungle – ferns and large elephant ear plants sprout through the crevices of roofs and sidewalks with wild abandon. Hiking trails abound on all sides of this glittering metropolis and tech hub.
Taipei is experiencing a quiet renaissance even amid regional tensions. Young artists, chefs and curators are redefining and embracing Taiwanese identity as its own distinct category, with a conscientious pursuit of food and design endemic to the island’s history. With low crime and brightly lit convenience stores everywhere, the city is safe to meander at all hours.
A word of advice: Sleep in. With the exception of breakfast shops and wet markets where locals go for early grocery runs, many stores and coffee shops don’t open until well after 11am.
5pm | Dig for vintage gems
Once a hub for scrap metal parts and auto repair shops, Chifeng Street is now one of the city’s edgiest shopping streets. Maji Treats, on the fourth floor of the Eslite Spectrum building, has artisanal food products, including jams, sauces, noodles and vinegars, as well as items unique to the island, such as baskets woven from shell ginger leaves. Back on street level, decompress at the retro and intimate Coffee Dumbo, which specialises in pour-over coffee and cinnamon buns, and is consistently packed with stylish patrons. (Coffee culture is taken extremely seriously in Taipei.) Finally, weave through the many secondhand clothing shops, such as Travis Vintage and Used Clothing, which has a rare collection of 1960s Taiwanese bomber jackets (it usually opens at 6pm on Fridays, but hours can be erratic; message its Facebook page ahead of time to check).
6:30pm | Hit the night market
A short stroll away is the buzzing Ningxia Night Market, a collection of tightly packed open-air food stalls. Because of gentrification and noise complaints, most night markets aren’t nearly as robust as they were decades ago. Ningxia is a distinguished exception; many of the businesses are owned by second-generation proprietors and unlike most other Taiwanese night markets, which also have clothing shops and arcade games, Ningxia does only food, and does it very well. Snack lightly, since dinner is the next activity: Try a deep-fried taro ball stuffed with salted duck egg yolk (30 new Taiwan dollars, about S$1.31) and freshly squeezed sugar cane juice (also NT$30).
7:30pm | Savour upscale cuisine
The pace of Taiwanese fine dining is being set by classically trained chefs embracing the subtropical abundance of the island. An example is at nku, a hushed, intimate restaurant with an open kitchen helmed by German-born Taiwanese chef Li-Han Lin, whose cooking style is influenced by his time working in Copenhagen kitchens. The tasting menu (NT$2,900) is heavily seasonal: On a given day, you might encounter a potato-based cream flavoured with blended milkfish (a popular fish in Taiwan that’s usually pan-fried), piped onto a thin, sourdough cracker; or a creamy “risotto” made with lotus seeds instead of rice. For dessert: A tart guava ice cream accented with an indigenous Taiwanese lemon-tasting pepper called maqaw.
9am | Traverse volcanic hills
Because the city is surrounded by hills, there is an abundance of hiking trails just a short train ride away. Plan a trip to Qixing Mountain to scale Taipei’s highest peak. Located on the northern rim of the city in Yangmingshan National Park, the mountain is flush with geothermal activity and offers an easy-to-moderate hike. From Jiantan station, the No 1717 bus will take you to the Xiaoyoukeng trailhead, where sulfuric vents spew out constant bursts of steam. The well-paved trail is just over 4km and should take less than two hours at a leisurely pace before you reach the peak to enjoy the view of the city below. Descend toward the visitor center at Lengshuikeng for a free hot-spring foot bath before hopping on the S15 bus back to the city.
1:30pm | Indulge in fried rice
For a restaurant to stand out in the Xinyi district – Taipei’s affluent financial neighbourhood – a touch of luxury really helps. Sinchao Rice Shoppe is a master of this; it has taken a humble plate of fried rice and packed it with decadence. On the menu, for instance: a pink rice mixed with mullet roe and topped with a medium-rare scallop (NT$520). There is also a buttery rib-eye steak, cut and fanned over a humble plate of egg fried rice (NT$1,200). The restaurant’s art deco-inspired interior, with earth-toned banquettes and velvety blue-green seat cushions, invites you to linger, as does its fantastic cocktail programme (try the Scotch whisky with papaya, cinnamon, lime and soy milk).
3pm | Unwind the slow tea way
Taiwan has been commercially growing and producing tea since the 19th century. Recently, a surge of new-wave teahouses have opened, where single-origin, loose-leaf teas are doled out “gongfu-style,” referring to a traditional style of brewing tea with small brewing vessels and with petite teacups. Specialising in Taiwanese oolongs (a semi-oxidised tea), Hermit’s Hut is a meditative experience and one of the more accessible places to partake in this elegant tea ceremony. Each tea here is carefully labelled with its tasting notes (buttery, fruity, orchidlike, milky). It arrives with detailed directions – in Chinese or English – on how to achieve the perfect brew, and with a teapot or a brewing cup (depending on what tea you choose), hot water, a timer and serving cups. The staff is on hand to guide newcomers through each step. Teas range from NT$450 to NT$850.
4pm | Take in indie films
Right next door is Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, an old tobacco factory turned exhibition and retail space next to a vast courtyard, offering a serene space in a city where quiet pedestrian areas are hard to come by. Inside the old factory are cute souvenir shops selling postcards and Taiwan-themed bucket hats. There are also pop-up exhibitions celebrating local design, like fashion or typography. Within the cultural park is the Eslite Art House, a cinema with a rotating roster of old and new independent movies (NT$310) – a handful of which are subtitled in both English and Chinese. While Taiwan’s contemporary indie movie scene isn’t as strong as it was in the 1980s, you might get lucky and stumble across a sleeper hit.
7pm | Enjoy vegan stir-fries
To decompress after work, many people go to rechao restaurants – hot, noisy and affordable dinner-only eateries with large, flaming woks frying typically greasy food. Here, cold beer is doled out in shot glasses. For a particularly special take, try Chao, a vegan rechao spot. It does a version of sweet and sour fish with multicoloured bell peppers (NT$290) and a sliced pork dressed with garlic sauce (NT$330) – but instead of actual fish and pork, the protein is made with soy or mushroom products. Because of its strong Buddhist and Taoist influences, Taiwan has long had a thriving vegetarian scene and meat alternatives are a staple. At Chao, it’s not uncommon to see a table of nuns dining alongside a large group of businessmen letting off steam with a round of chilled lagers.
9pm | Seek creative cocktails
It is said that Taiwan’s cocktail culture goes back to the 1950s, when a string of Western-style bars was erected near ship ports to serve US sailors and Marines visiting the island for supply stops during the Vietnam and Korean wars. A lot has changed since then, and today the best cocktail bars are instead concentrated in Taipei’s financial district. These bars embrace the flavours of locally abundant flowers and fruits including roselle, guava and white ginger lily, which infuse syrups and liquors. For a sleek lounge experience, try Fridge Bar (cocktails from NT$380), a cocktail lounge hidden behind a steel door in a sandwich shop. For a bit more novelty, consider Placebo, whose décor is reminiscent of an old Chinese medicine shop and where drinks (around NT$400) may be served out of antique-looking teapots. Both bars encourage going off menu; feel free to request a flavour profile (sour, sweet, herbaceous, spicy) or a quirky ingredient (basil, sesame oil, chili) and let the bartender surprise you.
10am | Savour seafood soup
While modern Taiwanese breakfast is synonymous with rolled-up egg pancakes and sesame-dotted flatbreads, seafood soup is the more traditional start to the day. At Lao-A-Bei in Dadaocheng, bite-size squid pieces are coated in fish paste and then poached; they’re then plopped in a savoury broth with thin rice noodles (NT$90). Add sides like smoked pig’s ears and boiled seasonal vegetables. After breakfast, explore the neighbourhood, which was a significant trading port in the 19th century and long a hub for textiles, dried goods and tea. Dihua Street – Taipei’s oldest street – has vendors in Baroque-style buildings (a popular style during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan) selling all of the above. Lin Feng Yi, open since 1906, sells woven bamboo and rattan baskets. For something a bit more modern, InBlooom Together makes dazzling fabric prints with motifs inspired by the nature, architecture and food of Taiwan.
Noon | Pray to the God of Love
The island’s ornate temples (which fuse traditions from Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism) are home to a hodgepodge of eclectic folk deities, each one with a unique history and function. Xia Hai City God Temple has a remarkably high density of gods in one building, managing to cram more than 600 statues of deities in just over 1,600 square feet. One in particular stands out: The Love God – in the form of a 17-inch-tall statue – who is known for his matchmaking skills. It’s not uncommon to see throngs of young people, or overly concerned parents, lighting incense (you can buy some for NT$50) in a bid for true and everlasting love. There are multilingual volunteers who can guide visitors through the temple for a small donation.
1pm | See with an artistic lens
Tucked away inside an embellished building from 1937 with a curved Japanese-style roof, the National Center of Photography and Images is a quaint and free museum that manages to pack a lot in a small space (it takes only about an hour to roam through). Exhibits are refreshed every three months and often feature the work of local photographers who are particularly skilled at recasting the mundanity of daily life. Photo series include portraits of families posing with antique water pumps, depictions of elaborate city temples and previously unseen black-and-white photographs of couples from the time when Taiwan was a Japanese colony. There’s a lovely gift and coffee shop on the first floor.
Chifeng Street is a fashion-forward shopping street flush with vintage clothing stores and cute coffee shops.
Dadaocheng is Taipei’s oldest neighbourhood and a picturesque place to load up on textiles, dried goods and bamboo crafts.
Yangmingshan National Park is a grassy mountain range, home to wild hot springs and volcanic peaks.
WHERE TO EAT
Nku is a fine-dining restaurant that serves locally sourced cuisine with a Scandinavian flair.
Sinchao Rice Shoppe offers an indulgent take on fried rice in an art deco-inspired space.
Hermit’s Hut is a peaceful refuge where novices can master the art of meditative tea brewing and sample Taiwan’s oolong teas.
Chao serves vegan stir-fries that pair well with cold beer.
Fridge Bar is a discreet bar behind a sandwich shop where the bartenders skillfully craft cocktails infused with local fruits and flowers.
Lao-A-Bei is renowned for its assortment of traditional seafood soups.
WHERE TO STAY
Villa 32, on Taipei’s far northern outskirts, is a luxurious resort with therapeutic geothermal baths and lush greenery. It’s a 30-minute drive from the city centre. Five suites have hot spring waters piped directly into the rooms. Double rooms start from about NT$19,400, or $633.
Kimpton Da’an is a stylish and centrally located boutique hotel on a hushed residential street next to a metro stop. It has one of the best Western-style breakfast options in town, and is within easy walking distance of many major attractions. Doubles start from about NT$8,500.
For something a bit more quirky, Originn Space in Dadaocheng is a small inn in a century-old Baroque-style mansion with vintage furniture. There are only four rooms, starting from NT$1,440.
Star Hostel Taipei Main Station is a comfy, central hostel that suits both families and solo travellers. There’s a well-equipped shared kitchen and ample amounts of lounge space. Shared rooms start from NT$680 per person and private rooms start from NT$2,150.
By Clarissa Wei © 2022 The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.