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Time out in Taipei

Published: 20/03/2012 - Filed under: Home » Archive » March 2012 » Destinations »

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Being in transit in an airport for any considerable time is never fun, so why not step outside and explore? What follows are three possible itineraries for the next time you find yourself at Taiwan Taoyan International Airport with between seven and 12 hours to spare.

Free Tours

Sponsored by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau (http://eng.taiwan.net.tw) the airport conducts two half-day tours (morning or afternoon) for transit or transfer passengers who have a valid ROC visa or who come from countries eligible for visa exempt entry. Passengers must have at least seven hours in transit to join.

Morning Tour 

Airport - Sanxia and Zushi Temple – Yingge - Airport

The two main attractions in Sanxia are the Zushi Temple and Minquan Old Street. Originally built in 1769, the intricately carved and ornately decorated Zushi Temple has twice been resurrected and restored. The first time was in 1833 when an earthquake seriously damaged it and the second was in 1947 – restoration work is ongoing as most of the work is funded by private donations. Unlike many temples in Asia there is an opportunity to get close to the upper levels, which make for some great photo opportunities.

Minquan Old Street is another fantastic place for photo enthusiasts, featuring cobblestone streets and shophouses defined by multiple brick archways, Baroque accents and ornate detailing. The street, which was once home to coffin shops, is now filled with outlets selling ceramics, homemade soaps and a range of inexpensive souvenirs, plus an assortment of specialty food items.

Where to Eat:  Since you’ll return to the airport by lunchtime, I suggest trying two of the signature items of Minquan Old Street: pig’s blood cake – made from pig’s blood and sticky rice soaked in a pork soy broth, it has a jelly-like texture and is served on bamboo skewers or ice cream sticks and coated with a spicy peanut mixture and coriander; and bull horn croissants – the Taiwanese version of the classic French pastry is decidedly sweeter and comes in a range of flavors including chocolate, banana and green tea.

For some the visit to pottery heaven Yingge will be a thrill, for others it may be boring, but it certainly beats the inside of an airport terminal. Boasting 200 years of history, Yingge is Taiwan’s pottery center with most of the action taking place along Old Street, also known as Pottery Street. The attractively restored street is lined with ceramic shops and art galleries. The tour also takes in the Ceramics Museum, which was opened in 2000. The modern, airy building is home to permanent and temporary exhibitions, a workshop, a gift shop and an outdoor area that is part park and part outdoor gallery. The museum is closed on the first Monday of the month and major public holidays.

Where to Eat:  If shopping for ceramics is not your thing, there are many restaurants along Old Street where you can enjoy a snack or something more substantial while taking in the ambience of the area, including the famous Grandma’s Sushi shop. For more on Yingge ceramics, visit tour.tpc.gov.tw

Afternoon Tour

Airport - Longshan Temple - Presidential Office Building - Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall-Martyrs’ Shrine - Taipei 101 - Airport

Longshan Temple is one of the oldest in Taipei and is considered a classic example of temple architecture. Originally built in 1738 by craftsmen from China’s Fujian province who had settled in the area, parts of the temple have been rebuilt over the years to repair damage from both natural and man-made causes.

The Presidential Office Building is the next stop. Occupying a full city block, it took seven years to complete (1912-1919) and is known for its majestic symmetry and Baroque characteristics. As the name implies, it is the office of the president, and its central location means it is only a few blocks away from the Ximending shopping district (see 12-hour itinerary) and an even shorter walk to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

This hall is an impressive landmark that honors the former ruler of the country, Chiang Kai-shek. It is one of the most visited sites in the city and is part of a larger complex that is also home to a memorial park, the vast Liberty Square, the National Theater and the National Concert Hall. The building features an octagonal blue glazed tile roof that rises 250 feet, the combination of white (the body of the building), blue and red (surrounding flowers) echoing the colors of Taiwan’s flag. One of the most fascinating aspects for many visitors is the hourly changing of the two guards (representatives of the armed forces). Many visitors like to have their photo taken with one of the guards and some do try to make them laugh, but if you linger too long, you will find yourself escorted away by security.

The final historic element to the trip is a visit to the National Revolutionary Martyrs’ Shrine. Dedicated to fallen war heroes, it was built in classical Ming dynasty style and also features an hourly changing of the guard ceremony.

The tour’s last stop takes you from history to modernity at Taipei 101 (www.taipei-101.com.tw). The one-time tallest building in the world, the towering block still holds the title of the world’s tallest “green building” at 101 floors and 1,667 feet. Considered an engineering masterpiece, it is designed to withstand earthquakes and typhoons (the latter a regular occurrence each year). It contains the world’s largest tuned mass damper with a diameter of 18 feet, weighing 660 metric tons – the massive sculpted ball looks like a piece of modern art. Its swinging pendulum plays an integral role in keeping the building stable.

For the visitor there are two attractions inside: a multi-level shopping center, with restaurants and a food court, and the observatory on floors 89 (indoor) and 91 (outdoor). Both observation decks offer 360-degree views of Taipei and the surrounding area. Tickets cost NT$400 ($13); viewing is available from 9:00 AM to 10:00 PM.

Where to Eat:  Because the schedule is tight on the Tourism Bureau’s tour, I recommend heading to the recently opened branch of legendary dumpling makers Din Tai Fung (www.dintaifung.com.tw) in Taipei 101. This restaurant chain really does make some of the best xiao long baoyou will ever eat. Each dumpling is handmade and the selection ranges from the traditional to the daring, including a superb black truffle variety. All branches feature multilingual staff, who will talk you through the correct way to eat without burning your mouth on the soup trapped inside the dumpling skin. The menu also features a selection of other tasty items, including seasonal vegetables and shrimp fried rice. 

Tour Details

The morning tour leaves Terminal 2 at 8:00 AM and Terminal 1 at 8:15 AM, returning to the airport before 1:00 PM; the afternoon tour departs Terminal 2 at 1:30 PM and Terminal 1 at 1:45 PM, returning to the airport before 6:30 PM. Both tours are conducted daily, but you are only allowed to choose one tour. You need to have a passport that is valid for at least six months and have completed the immigration embarkation/disembarkation card.

The tours are available on a first-come first-served basis and are open to passengers over 18 years old. To register for the tour, head to the Tourist Service Center in the arrivals lobby. Luggage needs to be either checked through to final destination or stored at the airport. For more information on visa-exempt countries and applying for visa-exempt entry visit www.immigration.gov.tw

A Versatile 12 Hours 

Begin by taking a 45-minute taxi ride (approximately NT$1,200 or $40) from the airport to Taipei 101 – not only are the views fantastic but it will give you a sense of where you are and where you will be heading. Once you are done admiring the view and the engineering, head back down to the 86th floor for a bite to eat at Shin Yeh 101 (www.shinyeh. com.tw). The restaurant serves exceptional Taiwanese cuisine in elegant surroundings that offer still more impressive panoramic views.

The next must-see destination is neither an historic site nor modern wonder: it is a lifestyle store. Eslite is known locally as a bookstore, but it is much more than that. There are many branches scattered throughout the city, including one that is within walking distance from Taipei 101 (11 Songgao Road; tel +886 2 8789 3388 ext 3001). It is easy to spend several hours exploring the eight different levels, but the main attraction is the book floors. Like many bookstores in the US, the idea is to explore books as if you were in a library, with no obligation to buy. Also recommended is the music and video department for international sounds and a great selection of Asian movies, including those from famous directors such as Akira Kurosawa.

Where to Eat:  If you are feeling the need for a bite to eat there is the chic Eslite Tea Room, which has a sophisticated, upmarket vibe with smooth jazz and refined waiting staff. Afternoon tea starts at NT$450 ($15). From here, jump in a taxi to the National Palace Museum (www.npm.gov.tw) or Ximending shopping area – or both. Taxis are inexpensive and can be a good way to explore the city for those on a time crunch. Public transport to the museum requires a train and bus journey while Ximending is a train ride to Ximen station, exit 6.

The National Palace Museum contains more than 680,000 artifacts that were brought to Taipei when Chang Kai-shek and his supporters fled mainland China. The collection is the premier holding of Chinese art and culture in the world. Such an extensive pool of treasure means that you can make repeat visits to the museum and continually see something different. 

As with many museums, audio guides in English are available for NT$100 ($3.30), and there are also free guided tours in English at 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM; basic printed guides are free. General admission is NT$160 ($5.30) (exhibition area 1 – the main building – is free on Saturdays from 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM) and opening hours vary depending on the exhibition area, but the museum itself is open from 8:30 AM to 6:30 PM. Backpacks will be checked and photography is not allowed. There is also a store for picking up gifts and books and an extensive garden area to be explored that costs NT$20 ($0.66) or free with a museum ticket, open from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM.

Where to Eat:  There are three options at the museum: Sanxitang Teahouse offers Chinese-style snacks and tea; Xianjufu Café serves Western style desserts and refreshments; and Silks Palace Restaurant serves Chinese cuisine in elegant surroundings – it is known for creating dishes based on the most famous imperial treasures. 

Ximending is Taipei’s first – and largest – pedestrian shopping area. A vibrant district where many younger locals hang out, it is home to a range of trendy fashion stores, bars, restaurants, snack vendors and cinemas. 

No trip to Taipei is complete without visiting one of the city’s many night markets. One of the most well known is Shilin (metro station Jiantan). While many come to this market for its range of inexpensive clothing and shoe stores, the wide variety of street food is also a big attraction. Some vendors attract long lines (a good sign), but service is swift. You may find rudimentary seating arrangements, but most of the items are meant to be eaten while wandering the streets. 

The Shinlin market is a good choice for the visitor on a layover as it is close to the freeway that leads to the airport. A taxi from here to the airport will cost approximately NT$1,000 ($33) and takes 30-40 minutes.  

— Vicki Williams


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