Last weekend I had a fly in, fly out visit to Taipei, Taiwan. It wasn’t nearly long enough to see everything I wanted to see, but it did give me a taste of the city and has left me craving more.
From the smells to the foods, and the architecture to the locals, everything was an interesting experience. The areas out of the city centre reminded me a bit of Vietnam, whilst the centre had a bit more of a modern vibe.
This is how I would sum up my experience in food, night markets, cultural attractions and accommodation.
1. Food, food, food
Snake soup, turtles and stinky tofu are a few of the squirmish items I found on offer. I couldn’t bring myself to eat the turtles or snake soup this time – seeing the snakes live and the turtles come out of the pot freshly boiled with their gizzards exploding out from their sides was a bit of a turn off.
But I did try the stinky tofu. I think the name speaks for itself. The stinky tofu stands emit a revolting smell, one which is practically unescapable as you walk past. It is one of the most revolting smells I have smelt, and I have been to some questionable places. How could one possibly consider tasting this? Well, I did. I was told:
“Stinky tofu tastes better than it smells.”
I now know I can’t trust anyone who utters these words again. I sat down, watched the local cook prepare the plate, place it on my table, and then took a deep breath. Well, not too deep as I was trying to prevent inhaling the stench. I took my first bite, which just so happened to also be the last. It definitely was not a pleasant taste. I couldn’t eat any more, so I put down my chopsticks and watched the couple next to me devouring their plate of tofu in disbelief. It definitely tasted the same as it smelt, or possibly worse. But if you can stomach it, I would definitely suggest trying it… at least then you can say you did it!
One other food highlight would be the famous Xiao Long Bao steamed dumplings at Din Tai Fung. The internationally famous restaurant was founded in Taiwan in 1972 and has since made a name for itself being listed as the only Asian restaurant on the New York Times top 10 restaurants in the world. And I now know why…it’s delicious! Well I didn’t actually eat at the restaurant which is located on ground level of Tower 101 because it was a 40 minute wait to be seated, but I did order take out and eat it at the food court near by. With each bite my taste buds exploded with satisfaction… and then I followed the dumplings with some of the famous pineapple cake. This is something you shouldn’t miss!
2. Night Markets
The Taiwan night markets are highlighted as a must see in every guide book. And I won’t disagree with this recommendation. But one word of advice I would give would be to visit two different markets to get an extremely diverse experience. I visited Shilin Night Market and Huaxi Night Market, also known as snake alley.
Shilin Night Market was definitely more of a tourist market than Huaxi Night Market. Shilin was gridlocked with mainly tourists, bright lights were beaming, loud music was pumping through the streets and the stench of stinky tofu wafted along the street. Whereas Huaxi had more locals than tourists, was a bit run down compared to Shilin, was lined with massage shops showcasing old men having foot massages, was more cultural and didn’t have the bright lights or loud music.
Visiting both provided an insight to a tourist night market compared to a more localised market, something which was very interesting to see to learn a bit more about the culture.
3. Exploring the temples, the city, and the culture
I spent the majority of my time wandering the streets of the Taipei Lantern Festival, exploring and observing tradition at the Lungsham temple, looking at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, wandering through The Red House and riding along the Maokong Gondola.
I would probably pick the Lungsham temple, the Gondola ride and wandering the streets of the city and the suburbs as my favourite activities. All of these provided a different overview of the city and gave an insight into the lives of the locals. People were particularly friendly and always wanted to help, whether it was explaining the tradition of buying groceries and leaving them at the temple as an offering, or simply trying to give directions. It was a very friendly city, with a lot of happy people who spoke English wanting to help.
I had a hard time choosing where to stay in Taiwan, but was pretty happy with the Shilin district. It was only about 15 minutes from the city centre and really close to the main attractions of the city. It was very convenient being on the corner of the Shilin Night Markets, which made going out for a night time stroll easy and there was no concern for the last train. The hostel I stayed in was Fun Taipei @ Shilin Night Markets. It was very clean, the beds were extremely comfortable and you couldn’t hear the noise from the markets below. The only things were that the staff are not there all day so when I went to check in I couldn’t because no one was there to let me in and I had no phone to call them, the common room was very close to my bedroom and was often noisy, and the two toilets were shower rooms too so you often had to wait for the toilets and when you did get to use them they were soaked along with the toilet paper. But it did the trick and was pretty cheap!