Must-Sees in Northern Taiwan
MOST NEW ARRIVALS ON TAIWAN GATHER THEIR FIRST IMPRESSIONS FROM THE LANDSCAPES OF THE NORTHERN PART OF THE ISLAND. YET THERE'S FAR MORE TO THE ISLAND'S NORTHERN END THAN THE CAPITAL CITY AND TAIWAN'S MAIN INTERNATIONAL GATEWAY.
Travelers will have to head south a little further to find the island's most awesome natural landscapes, such as the Central Mountain Range or the marble canyons of Taroko, but there are plenty of natural, cultural, and historic attractions in northern Taiwan to keep visitors and expats occupied for a week or more.
Luckily for visitors arriving on long-haul flights, Taipei is a city that rocks at night, and apart from those usual big-city attributes such as movie theaters, bars, nightclubs, and fine restaurants, there are several unique ways to walk yourself drowsy in Taipei. A stroll around one of the city's night-markets is considered de rigueur for any visitor, and there are many to choose from.
Just a minute's walk from Jiantan MRT Station, you'll find Shilin (Shihlin) Night Market , a heady blend of eateries selling tasty snacks and specialties cooked up right under your nose, and stalls selling everything conceivable from kids' toys to cheap clothes and mobile phones. This is one place guaranteed to give the new arrival a delicious sense of culture shock.
LUCKILY FOR VISITORS ARRIVING ON LONG-HAUL FLIGHTS, TAIPEI IS A CITY THAT ROCKS AT NIGHT
If you're still wide awake after partaking of the delights of the traditional Taiwanese night market, try zipping across town in the modern and ever-so-efficient MRT network to Taipei City Hall Station for a nocturnal view of a floodlit Taipei 101 , then pay a visit to another Taipei institution, the main branch of Eslite bookstore just a few minutes' walk away, one of the two branches of this chain of huge bookstores that are open for business 24-7.
Just about every visitor to Taipei will visit the city's landmark skyscraper, Taipei 101, during daylight hours at least, while in town. A trip in one of the express elevators to the indoor observatory on the 89th floor, with access also to the thrilling outdoor platform two levels up, is a "must," as much for the fantastic views (weather permitting) over both city and encircling mountains as to be able to say you've been to the top of the world's tallest building.
If Taipei 101 and the surrounding new development of east Taipei earn the metropolis a place among the great modern cities of the world, it hasn't forgotten its rich history either; in fact, it is commonly regarded as the best place in the world to experience traditional Chinese culture. Few visitors leave the island without paying at least one visit to the National Palace Museum . One of the world's four greatest museums, it preserves a vast collection of priceless art from several millennia of Chinese civilization. Those with even a modest interest in Chinese culture and history, however, should also pay a visit to the stunningly atmospheric Longshan Temple in the city's oldest district, Wanhua , and experience the delicious aromas rising around Dihua Street , at the end of Nanjing West Road , a market lined with stalls selling a bewildering variety of Chinese herbs, spices, and traditional snacks such as nuts and dried fruit.
EVEN IF YOUR STAY IN TAIWAN IS SHORT, IT'S WELL WORTH GETTING OUT OF TAIPEI
Even if your stay in Taiwan is short, it's well worth getting out of taipei to explore a few of the many fascinating natural, historic, and cultural attractions around the northern part of the island. Northern Taiwan is blessed with some stunning landscapes. The most readily accessible area, and clearly visible from many parts of the city core in good weather, is Yangmingshan , the mountain massif which rises on the north of the city. The upper part of Yangmingshan, which is protected as one of Taiwan's six national parks, is actually made up of a cluster of dormant volcanoes, and is best known for its many hot springs, but there are several other fascinating volcanic phenomena to witness here, including the fumarole vents of Siaoyoukeng , where sulfur-rich steam escaping to the surface has eaten a huge gash in the side of the mountain, and the unique Cow's Milk Pond , a pool of milky-white water, the result of a chemical reaction between the sulfurous steam and the clay earth in the bed of the little lake. Yangmingshan is a great place for jetlagged new arrivals. A regular network of buses make getting to and around the national park a simple task, and if a long soak in one of the comfortable hot-spring spas on the mountain doesn't lead to a good night's rest, then a quick march along one of the park's many well-maintained paths (all clearly signposted in English) will surely do the trick! Though Taiwan's mountains are its crowning natural treasure, its coastline is hardly less enticing. The pristine beauties of the east coast are perhaps the best known; but if anything, the awesome cliffs of the Northeast and Yilan Coast National Scenic Area are even more impressive. Commencing about fifteen kilometers east of northern Taiwan's main port city, Keelung , vertical cliffs over a hundred meters high at Bitou Cape and nearby Longdong ( "Dragon Hole") make for some breathtaking cliff-top walks, while little-known wonders such as the rock formations at Fanzih-ao await more adventurous walkers eager to get off the beaten track.
Heading to the northern tip, the land- and seascapes of the North Coast and Guanyinshan National Scenic Area offer a gentler beauty, as grassy downs drop steeply to a mainly rocky coastline that in several places gives way to fine, sandy beaches. The area is known above all for two places that should not be missed: the museum founded by internationally recognized sculptor Ju Ming , high on the grassy downs overlooking the coast, and the remarkable (natural) rock formations of Yeliou , which are among Taiwan's most photographed sights. The gravity-defying Queen's Head Rock , which stands atop an improbably slender neck, is especially famed.
Follow the north coast counter-clockwise from Keelung city and you'll eventually arrive at the old fishing town of Danshuei . In a country justly renowned for its food, Danshuei is one of the funnest places to try something new and exciting. Famous for its seafood, especially its delicious green-lipped mussels, Danshuei also offers more enquiring palates some unusual taste experiences, such as ah gei ( squares of tofu stuffed with rice noodles and topped with a sweet sauce), refreshing sour-plum tea , and, most unusual of all, black hens' eggs stewed in spices and herbs until reduced to half their original size. The resulting, rather chewy texture gives them their odd Chinese name: iron eggs .
IF THERE'S TIME FOR ONLY ONE LONGER EXCURSION MAKE IT A TRIP TO THE COUNTY OF YILAN
If there's time for only one longer excursion during a stay in northern Taiwan, make it a trip to the county of Yilan , the northern part of which is now included in the aforementioned national scenic area on Taiwan's northeast coast. The drive there, which once took a couple of hours, has been halved with the opening in 2007 of Snow Mountain Tunnel , the world's fifth-longest road tunnel at just under 13 kilometers long, making a visit to this lovely corner of the island a more convenient prospect than before. Whether taking the tunnel or the old, scenic switchback route over the hills, arriving in Yilan feels almost like entering another country. The relative remoteness and inaccessibility of the area has meant it has developed in a wholly different manner from Taipei and the flat plains of the western half of the island. The people are more traditional, and the countryside quieter and less developed.
Yilan has gained a reputation for its environmental awareness, a good example being the Dongshan River area, south of the county city seat, transformed within the space of a few years from a dirty, polluted waterway into a popular and attractive leisure area that attracts many tourists on weekends. A little further inland, nestled in the foothills of the Central Mountain Range, the village of Sinliao offers visitors the chance to stay with a local family and enjoy walks along specially designed nature trails through the beautiful surrounding countryside.
Whether you're just off a long-haul flight seeking to beat the inevitable jetlag, trying to get a handle on Taiwan's rich, intact Chinese culture, or hoping to explore a little of the island's renowned natural beauty while staying within easy reach of the big city, northern Taiwan has something for you. So, before heading south to the big sights down-island, spend a few extra days up north. It will richly repay your time invested!