Want to SAVE, EMAIL, and PRINT your picks? Sign up for a Purple Passport account to get started.
You might think that a place with such a tumultuous political history, a wet and wild typhoon season, and an earthquake-prone topography would be, well...a hot mess. And Taipei kind of was, at least pre-1980s, when congested streets and polluted skies prevailed. But in recent decades, Taipei has become a city that has cleaned up its act considerably and knows how to stay cool and collected.
The city's super-efficient organization and transportation systems are apparent the minute you get off the plane. There's seldom a need to navigate multiple satellite airports−almost all international visitors arrive at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, and the one-hour taxi or limo trip from the airport to the city is fairly straightforward. Once you're in the city, the Taipei metro system (known officially as Metro Rapid Transit, or MRT) is extremely clean, easy to use, and goes pretty much anywhere you could want. Plus, English signs and announcements help keep you on track to your destination. But never fear: a taxi is always near. Yellow cabs are abundant and a cinch to hail.
Could this get any easier? Yes. There's no need to stress about crunching numbers to figure out a tip. Except in upscale hotels and restaurants (where a standard 10% service fee is often included in the bill−watch for it), tipping isn’t really done in Taiwan. Your wallet will be secure in other ways too: aside from pickpockets in touristy areas, the city is very safe. You're more likely to be a victim of an errant scooter (they're notorious for running red lights) or heat stroke than of crime.
Which brings us to the weather, the one realm in which Taipei has no control over losing its cool (except perhaps for earthquakes, but don't worry: most buildings in Taipei were built to withstand seismic activity). Summer arrives like a toddler in a temper tantrum, all heavy rains, typhoon winds, and steamy temperatures, but June's Dragon Boat Festival turns the paroxysm into a party. Winters are typically damp and cool yet mild. They're also short, bringing only brief relief from the heat that is nonetheless appreciated during the manic (bordering on over-commercialized) Christmas and New Year's Eve celebrations. Spring is a hit or miss season–either clear and warm or cloudy with a chance of sandstorm. This leaves crisp, dry autumn as the best season to come.
Whatever the weather, you'll want to hit the streets and join the action in Taipei's diverse districts. The city is organized on a grid system, so it's pretty simple to navigate. Street addresses are divided into East and West by ZhongShan Road and into North and South by ZhongXiao Road. But the square grid doesn't mean it's "square" in personality. There's lots of local color to be enjoyed in bustling new districts like XinYi and Da'An, brimming with shops, cafes, and nightclubs. Older districts like WanHua and DaTong have their charms, too, like the colonial architecture along DiHua Street and the revitalized pedestrian streets favored by the young shopping set in historic Ximending.
For a break from the throngs, beautiful nature awaits on the city's perimeter. Taipei is ringed by mountains, so you can commune with nature in BeiTou, a hot springs resort area, or in Yangmingshan National Park, where hiking trails thread through waterfalls and volcanic features. Don't worry: the Tutan Volcanoes here haven't erupted for thousands of years. But just in case, scientists recently launched an observatory to monitor their activity. After all, the last thing Taipei wants to be is a hot mess.
Photo of DiHua Street courtesy of peebot on Flickr
Except for in upscale hotels and restaurants (where a standard 10% service fee is often included in the bill), tipping isn’t really done in Taiwan. If you feel that service really merits it, feel free to give a tip (keep it small though!), but be prepared that this may be a bit confusing or embarrassing for the person you are tipping, as they won’t be expecting it.
Crime: As major cities go, Taipei is very safe. That said, as in any major city, it’s best to exercise common sense: watch your wallet and other valuables in crowded, touristy areas and avoid walking alone on poorly lit streets after dark.
Traffic: When crossing the street (even when you have a green light), always check for oncoming scooters. Taipei’s scooter drivers are notorious for running red lights and driving outside of traffic lanes.
Climate: When visiting Taiwan in the summer, be prepared for heat, humidity, and bright sunshine: bring plenty of sun protection (hats, sunscreen, etc.), drink lots of water, and avoid spending too much time outdoors at midday. During typhoon season (late summer/early fall), the city has been known to experience very severe storms which can, in some cases, trigger mudslides in the mountains around the city.
Earthquakes: Because Taiwan is located on a fault line, earthquakes and other seismic activity are an occasional issue, but the buildings in Taipei are built with them in mind. The upside is that due to this temblor-prone topography, there are glorious volcanic hot springs running through areas like BeiTou and Yangmingshan.
Etiquette, Customs, and Culture
Taiwan’s history as a frequently colonized island means it has experienced a series of major demographic shifts (as each colonizer brought their own settlers with them), and this has lead to present-day Taiwan being relatively culturally diverse. The island was first settled by Pacific Islanders over 4,000 years ago. The Dutch and Spanish both had a go at colonizing it in the 1600s, and the Chinese followed in the late 17th century. Large numbers of Han Chinese, most from southern Fujian province, immigrated to Taiwan in the 1800s, pushing the aboriginal populations into the mountains and developing Taipei as a city. The Qing Dynasty opened the city as a port for international trade in the mid-19th century, and many Western traders set up shop here around that time. At the end of the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, the island was ceded to the Japanese, who kept it until the end of WWII. While in control, the Japanese undertook a number of ambitious architectural and cultural projects, shaping Taipei into the city it is today and spreading Japanese language and culture. In 1949, at the end of the Chinese Civil War, the Kuomintang government (lead by General Chiang Kai-shek) fled to Taiwan with a diverse group of about two million mainland Chinese from all regions of the country (as well as many of China’s most priceless cultural treasures). Since then, Taiwan’s political identity has been heavily influenced by its relationship with mainland China. Chinese culture (handed down from 19th century Fujian immigrants and the mainlanders who arrived in 1949) dominates in contemporary Taiwan, with strands of aboriginal, Japanese, and Western cultural influences woven in.
The Taiwanese’s relationship with mainland China is complex. On the one hand, there are many Taiwanese who regard themselves as Chinese, culturally and historically. On the other hand, because Taiwan has been a separate political entity from China, particularly in the last century during China’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution and Communist rule, the Taiwanese also regard themselves as distinctly different from the mainlanders. Taiwan is a democratic state, with its citizens extremely vocal (televised sessions of Parliamentarians coming to blows is not an uncommon news segment) and proud of their right to vote. A hot issue in each presidential election is maintaining Taiwan’s independent nature from China.
Taiwan's multicultural history is a boon for English-speaking travelers, as the Taiwanese are accustomed to hosting newcomers and well versed in English (most Taiwanese have learned basic English in school). There is plenty of English signage everywhere including the metro stations. Generally speaking, most etiquette is similar to Western etiquette, although the business card exchange does dictate using two hands to denote respect.
Gyms: Your best bet for a gym in Taipei is to check out the options where you are staying–most major hotels offer a state-of-the-art fitness center and a pool. There is also a string of high-end fitness centers along ZhongXiao East Road.
Running and Hiking: Da’An Park, which boasts a two-mile loop, is the best spot for running in the city center, and lovely tree-lined Ren-Ai Road is a scenic route to take to get there. There are also plenty of places for runners and hikers to cut loose in the mountains outside of the city, particularly Yangmingshan National Park near BeiTou.
Yoga: Space Yoga (www.withinspace.com/english) offers a range of bilingual Hatha classes at its two sleek studios in the Da’An and ShiLin districts. Prices vary by class, and first-time visitors are eligible for a free trial. Online booking is encouraged to ensure your space in class.
Other Key Information
Once you get the hang of the system, Taipei is a fairly easy city to navigate. The hub of the city is the intersection of ZhongXiao Road (running east-west) and ZhongShan Road (running north-south). All roads are named in relation to these two streets (for example: FuXing Road is divided into FuXing North Road and FuXing South Road at the spot where it intersects with ZhongXiao Road.) Roads are divided into “sections” at major intersections, with section one being closest to the central intersection and higher numbered sections being further out from the center. For example, FuXing North Road, Section 2 is very close to the central intersection; FuXing North Road, Section 5 is further out. Lanes branch off from main roads, and alleys branch off from lanes. Addresses throughout this guide are written in telescoping form, moving from largest to smallest elements of the address.
To give an example: if the address is “ZhongXiao E. Rd., Sec. 4, Ln. 216, No. 38,” the venue is located four major intersections (or “sections”) away from the central hub, on side lane number 216, at building number 38.
Banking and Currency:
The Taiwanese currency is the New Taiwan Dollar, commonly written as TWD or NT$. International visitors should have no problems withdrawing money from ATMs in Taiwan, and most high-end restaurants and hotels also accept international cards. Money can be changed at most major hotels and banks. If you would like to change money back before leaving the country, you will need your receipt (from the ATM or the bank/hotel where you changed it).
Taiwan’s sockets are 110 volts. Many international hotels also offer 220 volt sockets.
The emergency number for the police is 110. The fire/ambulance number is 119.
All major hotels in Taipei offer high-speed internet service, and there is also a citywide Wi-Fi service called Wifly (www.wifly.com.tw). To access Wifly, you will need to buy an access card. Cards cost TWD 100/day or TWD 500/month, and are available at 7-11 convenience stores, Starbucks coffee shops, and from the Wifly website. There is also an abundance of inexpensive internet cafes (known as wang ba) around the city.
Language and Communication:
Mandarin Chinese is the official language in Taiwan. Other commonly spoken languages are Taiwanese and Hakka (both are dialects of Chinese) and the native languages of Taiwan’s aboriginal populations. English is a required subject in school, so most younger Taiwanese (under 50) can speak at least some English.
The writing system in Taiwan is traditional Chinese characters (as opposed to the simplified Chinese characters used in mainland China). Taiwan uses a mix of the pinyin and Wade-Giles romanization systems, meaning that when written out in the Roman alphabet, many words are spelled in more than one way, which can be confusing for visitors. For instance “DunHua” and “TunHwa” are different romanizations of the same name. Throughout this guide where two spellings are in common use, we have used the pinyin.
Some useful phrases in Mandarin Chinese are:
Hello!: Ni hao!
Goodbye/See you!: Zai jian!
How are you?: Ni hao ma?
How much (does this cost)?: Duo shao?
Thank you.: Xie xie.
You’re welcome: Bu keqi
Beer: Pi jiu
Coffee: Ka fei
If you’d like to bone up on a bit more Mandarin before you arrive in Taipei, check out the offerings at www.Chinesepod.com. Their lessons (available from levels “newbie” to “advanced”) are done via snappy 15-minute podcasts that cover useful topics like directing a taxi and ordering food in a restaurant.
Many high-end hotels offer a small clinic with English-speaking staff, and most hospitals have English speaking staff and doctors available. Cathay General Hospital (http://www.cgh.org.tw/en/index.html) and National Taiwan University Hospital (http://www.ntuh.gov.tw/en/default.aspx) are both excellent choices for healthcare. Healthcare is heavily subsidised for locals, and basic services are reasonably priced for tourists too. That said, it’s still worth ensuring that you have a comprehensive travel insurance plan before you arrive.
In most shops in Taipei, prices are set, but in the local markets (e.g., night markets) bargaining is expected. As a rule of thumb, in touristy markets aim to pay about 50-75% of the original asking price. In smaller, less touristy markets, you might only need to bargain the price down by about 10-20%. Note that in night markets, the price for cooked food is usually set (for instance, TWD 100 per plate of noodles), but the price for fresh produce and souvenirs is generally negotiable.
Taxes and VAT Refunds:
Sales tax is included in the price displayed in shops. Foreign visitors can claim a refund of sales tax (also known as Value Added Tax or VAT) paid in Taiwan provided they are not permanent residents of Taiwan, that they spent at least TWD 3,000 on a single day in the same store, that the store was posted as approved for Tax Refund Shopping, and that they will be taking the goods out of the country within 30 days. Be sure to tell the sales clerk that you will want your VAT back, and they will direct you to the appropriate VAT refund office within their store for the appropriate paperwork. To claim the refund, present your passport and copies of your receipts and the store’s paperwork at one of the designated VAT Refund desks at the airport. You may also be required to present the items you purchased, so be sure to go before you check in or else keep your purchased items in your carry-on. If your claim is approved, you’ll be given a VAT Refund Certificate that you can exchange at any of the designated banks in the airport for a cash refund (there is one conveniently located right next to the VAT Refund airport desk).
Telephone and Cell Phones:
Public pay phones in Taiwan accept both coins and phone cards. Phone cards (with values of TWD 100-300) can be purchased at train stations, bus stations, and convenience stores. Local calls cost TWD 1/minute and international calls cost TWD 5/minute. To make an international call from Taiwan, you will need to first dial Taiwan’s international access code (002 or 009).
Roaming charges for international travelers using mobile phones in Taiwan are often quite steep. If your mobile phone can use an international SIM card (most Asian, European, and unlocked North American phones can), it’s a good idea to pick up a pay-as-you-go SIM from one of the local mobile phone companies. Cards range in price from TWD 300 to TWD 1000, and many also include a data plan as well as local phone service. Major mobile service providers in Taiwan are Chunghwa Telecom, Taiwan Mobile, Vibo, and Far EasTone.
Taiwan operates a toll-free tourist information hotline with English speaking staff at (866) 02-2717-3737. There are tourist information centers located around the city, including at Songshan Airport, the Maokong Gondola, Yangmingshan National Park, Taipei Main Station, the BeiTou MRT station, the JianTan MRT station, and the XiMen MRT station.
Visitors from most European countries as well as Canada, Australia, the US, Korea, Japan, and several other Asian countries do not need a visa to enter Taiwan for stays less than 90 days. If you require a visa to enter Taiwan, you'll need to obtain it before entering the country. For more information about Taiwanese visa regulations, visit the Bureau of Consular Affairs website: http://www.boca.gov.tw/mp?mp=2.
Spring: On Tomb Sweeping Day (Qing Ming Jie) in April, a national holiday, families head to ancestral burial grounds in the hills to tidy the memorials, leave offerings of food, and burn paper versions of items they’d like to send to their ancestors, like cars and computers.
Summer: The Dragon Boat Festival (Duan Wu Jie) in June is celebrated with lively boat races and sticky rice triangles called zongzi which flood the markets. The Ghost Festival is also celebrated during the summer, which is when the seventh month of the lunar year occurs (and is known as the Ghost Month). During this time, many Taiwanese avoid getting married, moving homes, and undertaking any other major life events as the belief is that ghosts roam the earth during this time with unpleasant intentions. There are several festivals throughout the island celebrating the 15th night of the month with large celebrations, burning of incense, and food offerings to the deceased.
Autumn: In late September/early October, the Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated by eating mooncakes, a sweet, heavy pastry with an egg yolk in the center. In November, the Golden Horse Film Festival (www.goldenhorse.org.tw), known as the “Oscars" of Chinese language film, presents awards to filmmakers from across the Chinese-speaking world.
Winter: The year kicks off in Taipei with lavish New Year’s Eve celebrations including a glitzy countdown led by Taiwanese celebs and political leaders and spectacular fireworks displays. Following right on its heels, Chinese New Year in January or February is celebrated with firecrackers, visiting family, and lots and lots of eating. This national holiday is typically a weeklong celebration, with many businesses closed. On a more somber note, at the end of February, the Peace Memorial holiday is a remembrance of the tragic events of February 28, 1947, when thousands of Taiwanese were massacred by the newly arrived Kuomingtang. Two weeks later, the city celebrates the Lantern Festival with displays of lanterns around the city. Highlights include the lavish lantern displays along Ren’Ai Road and the release of floating lanterns in PingXi (an area outside of the city center).
Photo courtesy of Eduardo M. C. on Flickr Creative Commons
Almost all international visitors arrive at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport (www.taoyuan-airport.com/english/), and the one-hour trip from the airport to the city is fairly straightforward. For those changing airports, there’s also a shuttle (adults: TWD 140; children TWD 70) to Songshan Domestic Airport.
Bus: There are a number of buses (clearly signposted in English) which go to major metro stations and hotels in the city center. One-way fares for adults are TWD 110-140, and buses run every 15-30 minutes between 5:00am and 1:00am.
Taxi: Taxis are available 24 hours a day. The taxi fare to the city is the normal metered fare plus a 15% surcharge (usually about TWD 900).
Town Car: Two companies, Easy Rent and Ching Bing, offer town car service from the airport to the city center for TWD 1,300-2,400, depending on the type of car.
Hotel Service: Many hotels also offer airport transfer service. In general, this should be booked before you arrive.
The Taipei metro system (known officially as Metro Rapid Transit, or MRT) is great: extremely clean, comfortable, easy to use, clearly signposted in English (as well as Chinese, Taiwanese, and Hakka), and goes pretty much anywhere you could want in the city. Trains run from 6:00am to 12:00am. Chewing gum, eating, and drinking are not permitted in the metro. Single tickets can be purchased from ticket machines in the stations (coins and bills accepted).
If you’re going to be using the metro frequently, it’s worth getting an Easy Card, which is a refillable pass that can be used on the metro or bus. If you use an Easy Card, you’ll get a 20% discount per ride and half-price transfers between bus and subway (if made within one hour). Easy Cards can be recharged using cash or credit cards at machines in the stations. Note that when you purchase an Easy Card, you will need to pay a TWD 100 deposit. When you leave Taipei, you can reclaim your deposit (and any remaining credit on your card) at any MRT service desk.
Another option for visitors planning to be using the metro a lot over a short period of time is to get a Taipei Pass, which offers unlimited daily rides as well as discounted entry to some tourist sites. Prices vary depending on how many days of coverage you would like. You can also purchase a joint Taipei Pass-Maokong Gondola ticket.
PRICE: Single Ticket: TWD 20-60 (based on distance); One-Day Pass: TWD 200 (including TWD 50 deposit); Easy Card: Adult: TWD 500 (including TWD 100 deposit), Child: TWD 300 (including TWD 100 deposit); Taipei Pass: One-Day (plus Maokong Gondola access): TWD 180, Two-Day: TWD 310, Three-Day: TWD 440, Five-Day: TWD 700.
CLICK HERE FOR MAP: www.dot.taipei.gov.tw/
Compared with the metro, Taipei’s bus system is pretty complicated, with express buses, municipal buses, and privately run buses all converging at crowded stops around the city. That said, buses and maps are clearly signposted in English and tend to run along very logical routes (like main thoroughfares), so if you’re willing to be a bit dogged about figuring out which number you need, it’s not a bad way to get around. Once you’ve decided which bus you want, know that you’ll also have to actively hail it from the bus stop (otherwise the driver will likely just carry on). All buses accept Easy Card pre-paid passes (see Metro section above for more information), and you can also pay with coins. You will pay one of three ways, depending on the bus: at the time of getting on, getting off, or both if the fare is based on distance (there will be signs in English and Chinese on the bus to explain the correct procedure).
PRICE: TWD 15-45 (based on distance)
CLICK HERE FOR MAP: www.e-bus.taipei.gov.tw/new/english/
Taking a taxi in Taipei is a snap: just look for the easy-to-spot yellow cabs, which are abundant and a cinch to hail. Of course, getting a cab is the easy part; the hard part comes once you get in (unless you speak Chinese) because most drivers don’t speak English. (It’s a good idea to have the name of your destination written down in Chinese before getting in–your hotel’s concierge can help you with this.) Fares are metered based on distance and waiting time, and tipping is not customary. If you want to order a taxi (rather than just flagging one down), you can call the toll free taxi hotline at (866) 08-0005-5688.
PRICE: TWD 70 for first 1.5km and TWD 5/300m
Hiring a town car is another option for those who aren’t keen on using public transport but don’t want to brave Taipei’s chaotic streets on their own. Many hotels in Taipei offer a car service, so it’s worth inquiring about this before booking anything independently. If you’re planning on using a town car to get into the city from the airport, expect the trip to cost about TWD 1,300-2,400.
Taipei’s traffic is notoriously chaotic, known for its gridlocked intersections and renegade scooters buzzing by in every direction. On top of that, finding parking is nearly impossible. So unless you’re planning on taking excursions far out of the city, renting a car is not recommended. (And, thanks to the island’s excellent public transport network, even for many farther flung locales a car is not necessary.) If you absolutely insist on renting a car, the best place to pick one up is at the airport.
If you want to roll with the locals (and have nerves of steel), there’s no more authentic way to hit the streets of Taipei than on a scooter. Local rental shop Bike Farm (www.bikefarm.net) has English-speaking staff and is the only place in town with a permit to lease motorbikes and scooters to international visitors. It offers a range of short-term and long-term rental options, with scooter rentals starting at TWD 500/day (plus deposit).
Taiwan’s excellent High Speed Rail (HSR) system offers connections around the country and can even get you to the other end of the island in about 90 minutes. Trains leave from both Taipei Main Station and Songshan Station. For the latest train schedules, visit twtraffic.tra.gov.tw/twrail/English/.
This municipal program, in conjunction with bicycle maker Giant, is a green initiative to keep emissions down in Taipei as well as promote tourism. There are 11 rental stations around central Taipei, with 500 bicycles available. There are three rental options: Easy-Go, short term, and long term. Easy-Go is for that day only from 7:30am to 9:30pm; TWD 100 for the first three hours and then TWD 10 for each additional 15 minutes. Short-term cards are for one or five days, and they require a TWD 3,000 deposit. Long-term cards are also available for monthly rentals. See the website (http://www.youbike.com.tw/upage/english.htm) for more details on usage rates and rental station locations.
Bike Paths and Rentals:
There are scenic bike paths along the riverside, particularly out by Tamsui. For more information on bike paths and places to rent bicycles, see http://bike.tpc.gov.tw/en/index.html.
Photo courtesy of RobMan170 on Flickr Creative Commons
As you would expect from a subtropical paradise with lush greenery and exotic produce galore, it rains a lot in Taipei (about 170 days a year). During the winter and spring, precipitation comes in the form of a damp mist which hangs moodily over the city. In the summer and fall, typhoon winds clear the air, but also bring short, intense showers once every day or so. Our favorite season is fall, with its crisp dry weather.
When packing, you’ll definitely want to make sure an umbrella makes it into the suitcase, as well as sunglasses, sunscreen, and summery clothes, especially in breathable fabrics like linen and cotton. Don’t forget to pack a few light layers (like cardigans or wraps) because no matter how balmy the outdoors, indoor spaces are usually air conditioned to glacial temperatures.
Spring is a hit or miss season–if you’re lucky it will be clear and warm
, if not, it will be damp and cloudy , and possibly even spiced up with a sandstorm or two blasting over from the Gobi Desert in northern China. Temperatures range between an average high of 75F and an average low of 65F.
Stiflingly hot, extremely humid summer, Taipei is prone to heavy rain showers and typhoons. (It continues to puzzle us why this happens to be peak tourist season in Taipei.) Still, if you don’t mind waiting in line everywhere you go and if you can cope with the humid heat, the sunny skies are quite nice. Pack lots of floaty outfits and sun protection (but don’t forget a lightweight shawl or sweater for the frigid air conditioning). Temperatures range between an average high of 88F and an average low of 77F.
Autumn is one of the best times to visit. It tends to be a bit cooler and drier than summer, especially once peak typhoon season has passed. Smog is at a minimum, tourist attractions are pretty empty, and prices are low–you just can’t beat that. Temperature range between a high of 83F and a low of 69F.
Taipei’s winter is short and mild, which is nice given that it’s also pretty cloudy and can be damp. Temperatures tend to drop at night, so you’ll want to toss some extra jeans and sweaters into the suitcase if you’re coming at this time of year. Temperatures range from an average high of 65F to an average low of 56F.
Photo courtesy of Andy*Enero on Flickr Creative Commons.