A Few Days In

Fringe Benefits: Exploring Taipei’s City Limits

by Becky Cheang
Maokong The view from Maokong mountain. All photos by Becky Cheang.

Ever considered Taiwan for an East Asian getaway? You should. The country is brimming with great food, great shopping, and beautiful nature — at prices that will make you do a double take. Head to the capital of Taiwan — and then to its outer neighborhoods — to take it all in. Fathom contributing editor and Singapore native Becky Cheang shows us around.

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan is Asia’s most underrated country. With everyone and their mother gushing about Japan’s rich traditions and China’s buzzy new energy (and money), Taiwan feels like the forgotten middle kid of East Asia. Don’t get me wrong: Japan is awesome, and some parts of China (looking at you, Shanghai) make New York City look positively languid. But Taiwan has great things going for it beyond the political drama that floods the headlines. Time to bump it up on your travel list.

About the politics: Taiwan has a complicated history. It was ruled by the Spanish and then the Dutch in the 17th century, saw a large influx of Han Chinese immigrants in the 18th century, and was fought over by China and Japan until the mid 1900s. Today, the tension related to the island nation's bid for recognition as a sovereign state.

Geographically, Taiwan is one huge rock. Technically, it’s a fault block surrounded by submarine volcanoes and active tectonic plates. As the world’s fourth highest elevation island, Taiwan’s middle and east side are primarily forest and mountainous terrain. Most of the cities line the west coast, partly due to its proximity to mainland China, but also due to the flatter terrain.

A study in contrasts: Views of Taipei 101 building from from an old military village.
View from National Palace Museum.

The unique mix of politics and geography makes for a robust combination of good food (super fresh and affordable sushi!), great hiking trails, and a steady indie creative scene. In Taipei alone, there are multiple night markets, shopping, and museums to explore in the city center. Another major plus: Because Taiwan hasn’t gotten the kind of international tourist attention China and Japan have, most spots are still relatively affordable.

That said, on my third trip to Taipei, with my parents in tow, I was itching for something different. Since I was young, my dad and I would — on Saturdays, when we were feeling spontaneous — hop on a bus or train and ride it to the end of the line, just to enjoy the changing scenery and explore a new neighborhood. This habit has since become one of my favorite ways to rediscover familiar cities or get out of a funk after a tough week.

I decided to follow my dad’s cue and get out of town, or as far as my local metro card would take me. (A super cute but important side note: One of the most charming things about Taipei’s metro system is that they have a stamp you can collect at every single metro station. Perhaps, as an almost-30-year-old, I should be way too old for this, but it was such a sweet, simple way to remember each trip.) Here are some of my favorite finds.

Views of the Taiwan Strait.

Tamsui 淡水

Located on the northwest end of the Red Line, Tamsui lies by a major estuary leading into Taiwan Strait and is home to a 17th-century Dutch fort, Fort San Domingo. It was first built by the Spanish, taken over by the Dutch in 1642, and later used as a British consulate.

Another cute side note: My dad and I were thrilled to see our Chinese family name on a flag in front of the fort. We share the same family name (鄭) as a prominent Taiwanese general who helped to expel the Dutch empire from Taiwan.

After exploring the red brick fort, it’s an easy stroll back to the train station via Tamsui Old Street or the boardwalk for a stunning sunset over the Taiwan Strait. Stop by Between Tea House to refuel before heading back to the city. Check the calendar and see if you can catch a dance performance at Cloud Gate Theatre (no relation to Chicago’s Bean).

Fort San Domingo.

Xiangshan 象山

On the other end of the Red Line toward the east is Xiangshan — it means "Elephant Mountain," zero guesses why. It’s a fairly straightforward trek to the top (but watch out for all the steps), where you’ll be rewarded with views of the famous Taipei 101 building towering over the sprawling city. After your hike, double back to the Taipei 101 neighborhood one stop away to grab lunch in an old military village: Four Four South Village.

The gondola ride up Maokong mountain.

Maokong 貓空

On the southeast end of the Brown Line is Maokong mountain, arguably one of the best places to sip tea with a view — no hiking necessary. Departing from the Taipei Zoo Station, your Taipei metro card will get you a discount on the gondola ride up to the top. There are a ton of options once you reach the peak: Hike along tea plantations to a temple. Or look for waterfalls. Or spend an afternoon in a traditional teahouse sipping local tea and sampling local food.

Artifacts from the National Palace Museum.

Beitou 北投

At the base of Taipei’s famous Yangmingshan mountain in the north is the famous Beitou hot springs area. Soak in a geothermal private hot spring at the nearby Relais & Chateaux Villa 32. Or stop by the Taipei Public Library Beitou Branch. Certified as Taiwan’s first green library, the all-wood interiors and soaring windows with wraparound balconies makes for a low-key Instagram-worthy retreat. 

While you're in the area, head to the neighboring district Shilin, to visit the National Palace Museum. Sprawled across almost two hectares, with a collection of almost 700,000 Chinese artifacts, it is one of the world’s largest and most extensive collections of Chinese history, particularly covering the Ming and Qing period. My parents spent a good six (!) hours here looking at everything from calligraphy and precious stones (jade!) to royal furniture.

Villa 32.
An in-room private hot spring bath at Villa 32.

Elsewhere

Explore the nearby port-city of Keelung. Multiple bus options will get you there in an hour, and you can use the same Taipei metro card. Keelung’s night market beats all other night markets, and there are solid hiking trails along the coast.

Keep Exploring Taiwan

10 Steps to a Perfect Day in Taipei
Tucking into Taiwan: Ultimate Food Tour