Once called Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island) by the Portuguese explorers, Taiwan is much sought after among travelers for its colorful culture and diverse scenery. If you are more into exploring urban life in a foreign land, the island’s cities offer distinct experiences, each enjoyable in its own way.
A Capital Idea
Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, is located on the north end of the island, and the place to get the most iconic view of the city is Taipei 101. It was officially the tallest skyscraper in the world until the opening of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai in 2010. Its height, one better than 100, is symbolic of the city’s ambition of being “one above perfection.”
For a 360-degree panoramic view of the city, visit Taipei 101 Observatory. Entry is NT$500 ($17) per person and you can make use of the audio guide to direct your own tour. The telescopes around the perimeter allow you to view the city from on high, as well as admire the exquisite view of Yangmingshan, a mountain which has been designated a national park.
Find a taste of the local cuisine at Dian Shui Lou restaurant (dianshuilou.com.tw) for a DIY workshop on the making of xiao long bao (Chinese soup dumplings). This traditional food can be made with three different fillings – meat, seafood and vegetable – and the sophisticated 19-fold technique highlights the care that goes into its making.
In the class I signed up for at the Huaining Street branch, I observed the chef demonstrate the time-honored art of dumpling folding. The dough, made from flour and water, was rolled and stretched into long ropes, which were then cut by hand into smaller pieces resembling gnocchi. Each was then rolled into a circular, thin wrap, stuffed with pork filling, and folded 19 times.
While the chef was able to make perfectly-shaped dumplings in a few effortless seconds, when it came to our turn, we found it much trickier. Still, it was a great opportunity to laugh and bond with new friends.
There are two classes at 10:30 AM and 4:30 PM per day on Huaining (NT$715/ $23.50) and one at 2:30 PM at the Taoyuan branch (NT$275/$9).
Old Face, New Face
Walking through the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park (songshanculturalpark.org), in the Xinyi District of the city, is like taking a step back in time. Initially constructed in 1937 as a tobacco plant, it survived Japanese occupation and was converted into a public park in 2001 before being redeveloped in 2011 as a platform to encourage creativity and culture.
Old tobacco warehouses are now used to stage conferences, performances and other events. Historic buildings surrounded by beautifully manicured gardens and an eco-pond with marine life offer guests a tranquil and welcoming change from the hustle and bustle of Taipei.
Indoor areas are open daily from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM, while outdoor areas are open till 10:00 PM. There is no entry fee to the park, but you do need to pay to get into the Taiwan Design Museum. The NT$120 ($4) ticket allows you to look at exhibits featuring the island’s creative industries and achievements in innovation.
Less than two hours away on the Taiwan High Speed Rail is Kaohsiung (Zuoying District), the island’s second-largest city along the impressive southeastern shore. A standard adult ticket costs NT$1,630 ($54).
Both Taipei and Kaohsiung feature distinctly different identities. While the former brims with life and energy, the latter is more industrialized with traditional elements. Upon reaching Kaohsiung, I joined my tour group to visit Meinong, a famous Hakka Village, to try my hand at a local activity – crafting colorful oil-paper umbrellas.
An art inherited from Japan, oil-paper umbrellas were a popular export until mass-produced ones took over in the 1960s forcing many traditional manufacturers to close. However, Kuang Chin Sheng Umbrella (47 Minquan Road; tel +886 9 2051 8349; evening +886 7 6813247) survived and has gained an international profile.
Now run by the second generation, the shop sells these works of art at prices starting from NT$600 ($20), with more complicated designs priced up to NT$4,500 ($148). Alternatively, you can join an umbrella-making class for NT$100 ($3) per person.
Port of Call
Many port cities offer sightseeing cruises, but Kaohsiung offers one that’s like no other. Instead of views of a city skyline, passengers are treated to magnificent sights of the container port with crates and cargo being transported around quietly and smoothly.
As the fourth largest container port in the world, and the largest in the country, Kaohsiung Harbor plays a vital role in Taiwan’s economic development. An evening cruise around the harbor may lack the glamorous city sights that people are accustomed to, but as we sailed down the channel it was impossible not to appreciate the economic significance and sheer scale of the port.
Kaohsiung City Shipping Co. offers a single daily cruise that departs from the Singuang Ferry Wharf at 5:30 PM. It includes an international buffet, as well as a guided tour throughout the journey. Standard adult tickets cost NT$700 ($23) each. Tickets can be bought before 5:00 PM from the ticket center at the pier. You can also reserve your place by calling +886 7 2160668.
A Spring in Your Step
On the northeastern corner of Taiwan is Yilan City, the seat of the county by the same name. While noticeably quieter than Taiwan’s coastal cities of Taipei, Taichung, Tainan and Kaohsiung, there is still an urban feel to the region. The northern part of Yilan is renowned for its plethora of urban hot springs found in public parks, bathhouses and hotels.
Thus it was that I found myself – clad in a kimono-style dressing gown and flip-flops – at Tangweigou Park, a small, public hot spring off the main street. The hot water eased away the ache in my weary limbs, while the hum of chitchat and occasional bursts of laughter created a convivial atmosphere, adding to the enjoyment of a typical cultural experience in Yilan.
Continuing my newfound appreciation for the area’s hot spring culture, I returned to my hotel, the Wellspring by Silks. Opened last June, the hotel is the latest offering from the international Regent Hotels groups. The new luxury property boasts an infinity hot spring swimming pool on its 12th-floor rooftop, providing night-time views of the surrounding Yilan Plains, as well as a panoramic vista of Guishan Island in the daytime.
If you enjoy soaking in solitude, each room at the Wellspring by Silks hotel offers a private hot spring on a sheltered balcony. Big enough for two people, the luxurious marble bath is a glorious sanctuary for relaxing, with ambient lighting and modern facilities.
Colorful Past, Bright Future
Refreshed and recharged, it was time to explore the captivating art, culture and history of Yilan. My first stop was to delve into the region’s indigo dyeing industry – a localized trade that rose to prominence in the 18th century. Surrounded by mountains and bordering the Pacific Ocean, Yilan is a natural shelter, providing the perfect climate and soil conditions for the Assam indigo plant to flourish.
Local artisans extracted the deep-blue color from the leaves through a special fermentation process, and applied the natural dye to a range of cloths, paper and other materials, which became highly coveted items. Even today, the rich indigo color is associated with this small northern county.
At the other end of the spectrum is a modern explosion of color from famous Taiwanese illustrator Jimmy Liao, the author of 29 picture books including Turn Left, Turn Right and Sound of Colours. Liao has created a fantastical, cartoon-zoo display at Yilan train station that has become a must-see for visitors. From the giant giraffe perched on the entrance to the enormous “Starry Night Train” hanging from the ceiling, this surreal wonderland features many of Jimmy’s beloved characters.
From the train station, I decided to explore the city’s historic streets. Yilan’s city center is blessed with a number of charming heritage buildings. Just across Taishan Road I found the site of the oldest wine factory in Taiwan, built in 1909.
The venerable two-story, Japanese-style facility has since been artfully converted into the Yilan Distillery Chia Chi Lan Wine Museum, giving visitors the chance to learn about the region’s premium rice wine and, more specifically, the production of red hong lu jiu wines. 3 Old Town West Road, Yilan; open 8am–5pm every day; tel +886 3935 5526.
Many of the heritage properties have also been given a new lease on life as trendy restaurants and chic cafés. Outside the Shennong entrance of the Luna Plaza mall stands one of Taiwan’s oldest examples of Japanese-style architecture, the iconic one-story “Blue House.”
It began life over a century ago as a prison and today is the Western-style Le Grand Bleu restaurant. Built without a single nail, the wooden beams are staggered to support each other in a prime example of complex Japanese joinery. 117 Shennong Road Second Avenue, Yilan, Yilan County; open Mon-Fri 11:30 AM – 9:30 PM, Sat and Sun 10:00 AM – 10:30 PM; tel: +886 3936 8282; silksplace-yilan.com.tw/bluehouse
The Japanese restaurant Kyukoku is housed in a 1906 building originally the home of a senior Japanese government official and converted into a restaurant a hundred years later. The original architecture is mimicked on the interior and the menu offers a selection of Japanese classics including tempura, basil scallops and burdock beef roll. 8 South Road County Lane 1, Old Town, Yilan; open Tue–Sun 11:30 AM – 2:00 PM; tel +886 3935 8855; kyukoku.com.tw (Chinese only).
Another gastronomic highlight of Yilan was the award-winning roast duck served at Silks Place Hotel’s Red Lantern restaurant. A plump Yilan cherry duck is roasted in a Cantonese-style oven until the meat is succulent and the skin is irresistibly crispy. To guarantee this specialty I recommend booking well in advance. silksplace-yilan.com.tw.
By Clement Huang and Valerie Ho