Ancient temples and imposing monuments coexist peacefully with a modern skyline. Trendy boutiques are widely available, but night markets still play an essential part in life. To me, Taipei seems like a city of juxtaposition. It’s highly developed yet hasn’t lost its traditional values.
Positioned in the island’s northern tip, Taipei (臺北) has been inhabited since ancient times. The indigenous people were the first to occupy this prosperous basin, followed by the Qing Dynasty and the Empire of Japan. The island was returned to the Republic of China (ROC) when the Japanese surrendered in 1945. After losing mainland China to the Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War, the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) relocated the government to Taiwan in 1949. And since then, Taipei has been declared the capital of the ROC.
Today, Taipei is a culturally rich city and one of East Asia’s economic hubs. Its charm lies in the curios fusion of traditional Chinese culture with global influence. Hence, in Taipei, you can easily find old Taiwanese temples or traditional night markets standing side by side with high-rise malls. You can also see a remarkable collection of antiques inside a palace-like museum, after reaching the cloud at the popular Taipei 101. For a weekend, it’s nearly impossible to do everything the capital city has to offer, but here are some highlights of my trip.
1. Taipei 101
On my first morning in Taipei, I took the 40-second elevator ride up to the observing platform of Taipei 101. Named for the number of floors it holds, this skyscraper was the world’s tallest building until 2009, when the Burj Khalifa in Dubai dethroned it. From the height of 450 meters, the city of Taipei looks like a massive grid embraced by belts of humped woodland.
The architectural style of Taipei 101 evokes traditional Asian aesthetics in a modern structure. From afar, it looks like a colossal stalk of bamboo soaring into the sky. The building incorporates numerous Feng Shui elements, reflecting Chinese influence in its design. For instance, ruyi figures – a symbol of healing, protection, and fulfillment – appear throughout the structure. The tower also features a series of eight segments of eight floors each. In Chinese-speaking countries, this number connotates prosperity and good fortune.
Looking at Taipei 101 and the flashy Xinyi District, I thought Taipei was all about modern technology. But that perception quickly vanished when I arrived at Wanhua – the city’s oldest neighborhood. Located in the western part of Taipei, Wanhua used to be a treaty port during the Qing Dynasty. It was, therefore, the first neighborhood in the city to undergo economic development. Even though its role as a trading center has been in decline, Wanhua continues to be treasured by many as a representative of old Taipei.
Evidence of the prosperous past is visible in a number of Qing Dynasty architecture in central Wanhua. Most notable is probably the Lungshan Temple. Constructed in 1738 by settlers from Fujian, this temple is dedicated to Guan Yin (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy), as well as Mazu (the Protector of Seafarers) and Guan Yu (the God of War). It features many traditional Chinese elements such as wood carvings, bronze dragon columns, and fine granite stones, making it an outstanding example of worship house architecture in Taiwan.
While the chanting and architecture of Lungshan Temple were pure Chinese, my visit to Ximending in northern Wanhua evoked the image of modern Tokyo. Dubbed Harajuku of Taipei, this area is full of sharp energy and vibrant colors. It’s highly popular among the younger population thanks to countless hipster stalls and quirky boutiques.
Amid this youthful atmosphere stands the Red House Theater – Taiwan’s first playhouse. Built during Japanese rule, this building blends the Meiji era style with Western architectural patterns. The result is a unique structure that consists of an octagonal and a cruciform structure. After two large-scale renovations in 2015 and 2016, Red House Theater was turned into a venue to promote Taiwan’s cultural and creative industries.
4. Liberty Square
My destination for the next day is Taipei’s most prominent square, Liberty Square. Since its completion in the late 1970s, this 240,000 m² plaza has served as a major site of public gatherings. From red-carpet ceremonies, and concerts to outdoor festivals, Taipei residents come here throughout the year. Many demonstrations also took place on this square. But the one that had the biggest impact on Taiwan’s history was the Wild Lily Movement in 1990.
The Libery Square is a symbol of democratic progress in Taiwan.
From March 16 to March 22, 1990, thousands of students demonstrated against the one-party rule under KMT. They organized a sit-in at Liberty Square and wore white Formosan lilies as a symbol of democracy. Unlike their counterpart across the strait, Taiwan’s leaders chose to listen to these young men and women, resulting in the abolishment of the one-party rule in 1996. The Wild Lily Movement marked the crucial point of democratization in Taiwan. And Liberty Square has become a symbol of democratic progress since then.
Liberty Square is flanked by two nearly identical buildings, the National Theater and the National Concert Hall. Though modern in function and purpose, their traditional appearance strongly resembles Chinese imperial palaces. At the eastern end of the square stands the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall – an imposing white marble structure with a blue octagonal roof. Constructed in 1976, this building is a tribute to Chiang Kai-shek, the first president of modern Taiwan. While the upper level contains the main hall in which a large statue of Chiang Kai-shek is guarded, the ground floor houses a museum documenting his life and career.
5. National Palace Museum
My journey continued at the verdant hills of the Shilin district in northern Taipei. Here, deep inside the multi-tiered complex of the National Palace Museum, lies one of the world’s largest collections of Chinese artifacts. Around 700,000 items are exhibited in this maze of galleries, showcasing more than 8000 years of Chinese art.
The collection at the National Palace Museum shares its roots with the one in the Forbidden City. But they were separated when the Chinese Civil War got tense in 1948. It was Chiang Kai-shek who had ordered the evacuation of the artworks, in an attempt to save them from being destroyed by the communists. The most prized items were, therefore, boxed up and spirited first to Shanghai, then Sichuan, before crossing to Taiwan in 1949. And there they remain, to the anger of Beijing but much to the benefit of visitors to Taipei.
Though only 22% of the treasures managed to get to the island, the pieces represented the very best of the imperial collection. There are lustrous porcelain vases, luminescent jades, millennia-old Buddha statues, rare paintings, and calligraphy scrolls, as well as ornate rosewood furniture. But the artwork that impressed me most is the concentric ivory ball from the Qing dynasty.
Shaped by the evidently skillful hands of a master craftsman, this intricate sphere consists of 21 layers with human figures in openwork relief. With each layer nestled perfectly within the next, they form what appears to be an ordinary ball. It was so miraculous that I had to tilt my head one way, then the other, before peering in closer. Even now, I’m still amazed when looking at its photo. Sometimes, small is indeed everything.
6. Taipei’s Night Markets
When the sun goes down, it’s time to explore Taipei’s night markets. Starting in the 1950s, these institutions were the main caterers for a large number of migrant urban workers. They served simple yet tasty dishes in small portions, called xiao chi or “small bite”. For example pork belly bun, oyster omelet, fried chicken, and stinky tofu (I skipped that). Over time, these snacks have attracted people from all walks of life. From local elites to foreign visitors, they all come to the night markets to binge on such specialties.
There are several night markets spreading across Taipei. But the one that got the most attention is probably the expansive Shilin Market. Located in the same district as the National Palace Museum, it’s an ideal place to have some bites after seeing the exhibits. A less sterile and flaunting much more personality is the Raohe Market in Songshan district.
Running just six hundred meters, this market is packed with hundreds of vendors. Visiting this night market is quite an experience. It’s like participating in an open-air festival of sound, smell, and taste. You can spend hours wandering through this bustling, brightly lit bazaar, where the air is filled with the aroma of fresh-from-the-fryer pork, and steaming hot pepper buns vie for attention with refreshing bubble teas.
An open-air festival of sound, smell, and taste.
Tips for visiting Taipei
- As an international hub, Taipei boasts an excellent public transportation system. What you need is the EasyCard – an add-valued smart card that can be used in all of Taipei’s metro lines (including the Airport Express), as well as buses across Taiwan.
- The National Palace Museum is a tourist magnet, and thus it’s very busy throughout the year. However, on Friday and Saturday nights, the museums are open until 21:00. So if you want to avoid the crowd, plan your visit around this time.