Hong Kong, Bangkok, Tokyo and Singapore are popular Asian destinations that attract travelers with world-class bars and restaurants, upscale shopping, unique ecological treasures and diverse cultural experiences. Neighboring Taiwan also offers these same elements, yet it remains a considerably more under-the-radar destination.
Plan on heading to the island’s vibrant capital city, Taipei, to discover its abundance of incredible food, colorful night markets, top-notch whisky and breathtaking nature preserves. And don’t let the cold season deter you: Taiwan’s subtropical climate means winter is a fantastic time to visit.
While there is no shortage of luxury hotels in Taipei, Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Mandarin Oriental, Taipei provides some of the city’s most opulent accommodations. Located on Dunhua North Road in the central Songshan District, the property’s 303 beautifully designed rooms and suites are some of the most spacious in town. For the best views, request a high-level room facing Taipei 101, a skyscraper that held the title of world’s tallest building from 2004 to 2010.
After checking in, relax with afternoon tea in the sophisticated ground-floor Jade Lounge — be sure to book a reservation well in advance, and mind the smart-elegant dress code. Enjoy top-shelf tea and champagne service, poured alongside edible delights by pastry chef Yam Lok Hin (think foie gras mille-feuille and matcha panna cotta.)
Once properly rested (or at least caffeinated enough to counter the jet lag), set out to explore this city of just under 3 million people. The nearby National Palace Museum, with its permanent collection of more than 700,000 ancient Chinese artifacts and artworks, is a great place to start. Admire the world’s largest collection of Ru ware (a rare style of Chinese ceramics), ancient calligraphy, bronze castings, stone carvings and jade jewelry. The popularity of the 19th-century sculpture Jadeite Cabbage and the Meat-Shaped Stone (carved from jasper) are proof that Taiwan’s love of food goes way back. The two carvings are sure to make you hungry for either dinner or shopping — and lucky for you, there’s plenty of both.
Head back into the central city to experience the Jianguo jade and flower markets. The adjacent covered markets (open on weekends only) feature row after row of vendors selling orchids, bamboo, bonsai trees, jade jewelry, sandalwood incense and more.
Next, take a stroll through Daan Forest Park, where you can observe a variety of native bird species while locals practice tai chi and qigong.
If the weather is proving unpredictable — which is quite likely, considering it rains most days in Taipei, albeit in short tropical spurts — there are plenty of great things to do and see indoors, too. National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is a beautiful blue and white monument erected in honor of the former president of the Republic of China. The structure and surrounding Liberty Square were the site of events in the 1980s and ’90s that ushered Taiwan into an era of modern democracy. Inside, you’ll find shops and rotating exhibits throughout the year.
You also can get an exciting overview of the city at i-Ride Taipei, a flying audio-visual experience that gives you a bird’s-eye look at the region.
Afterward, head to Taipei 101 and ride one of the world’s fastest elevators to the 89th floor for a 360-degree vista of the city. Time your visit right and you’ll get to witness Taipei at sunset and then see the metropolis come alive with lights.
Thanks to heralded distiller Kavalan, Taipei is also a destination for world-class whisky. And this past summer, it opened a cask-to-glass whisky bar (the first of its kind) in Taipei’s Zhongshan District.
At Kavalan Whisky Bar, taste 21 different expressions of the distillery’s single-malt whisky straight from the cask, including rare products like Kavalan Soloist Brandy and Kavalan Reserve Peaty Cask, typically only available at the Yilan distillery. Book online before you seek out the sleek, speakeasy-style bar, which is behind a hidden door inside the Buckskin Yakiniku beerhall and grill.
After your spirits tasting, it’s time for dinner. In this city bursting with acclaimed dining concepts that range from luxe restaurants to street food, your biggest struggle will probably be deciding where to eat. Mountain and Sea House, situated in a palatial 1930s mansion, provides a lovely introduction to the country with its traditional Taiwanese cuisine made with ingredients sourced from local farms. Don’t miss the roasted suckling pig, made with a 21-day-old hog slow-cooked for 12 hours inside a salt-based merengue, then cracked open with a hammer.
For a more contemporary dining experience, reserve dinner well in advance for Raw, where noted chef André Chiang curates an artful tasting menu against an undulating sculptural pine backdrop. Ingredients are selected according to the island’s 24 “micro-seasons” and each exquisite dish is paired with beverages ranging from biodynamic French wine to high-end Taiwanese tea.
Start your second day with an early hike to the top of Elephant Mountain. The centrally located Nangang District hiking trail is very accessible and offers a short (but steep) stair-climb to several different viewing areas for beautiful city panoramas.
Afterward, reward yourself with xiao long bao (soup dumplings) from the popular Din Tai Fung. Purists will want to go to the small original shop (founded in 1958) on Xinyi Road, but larger groups might want to opt for the much more spacious location inside Taipei 101. Either way, you won’t be disappointed by the dumplings and wontons, which you can watch the chefs expertly hand-roll and fold, or the decadent fried rice topped with juicy slices of pork chop or freshly shaved truffles.
Taipei is home to a number of breathtaking temples. The intricate, gilded Longshan Temple — which represents a mix of Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian faiths — is one of the city’s most well-known. The nearly-300-year-old structure has survived earthquakes, natural disasters and even a World War II bomb raid. Whenever the temple required repairs, residents raised the money and fixed it up themselves, so Longshan also stands as a symbol of local resilience.
Tea lovers must venture over to Dadaocheng’s old tea zone, where companies like Wang Tea have been manufacturing blends since 1890. Pop into its production facility and educational center to see how oolong leaves are hand-picked, sorted and roasted in baskets over charcoal. The second floor, which used to be a space where female workers separated the leaves, is now a cultural studio where you can listen to Taiwanese classical music and opera while partaking a cup of tea.
Your stomach likely will be rumbling, so it’ll be time to seek out some of that famous street food. While it’s possible to find delicious popcorn chicken andminced pork rice at unassuming stalls all over the metropolis, the best place to sample Taipei’s breadth of street food is at one of its vibrant night markets, and Raohe Night Market (one of the city’s oldest) is a foodie’s dream. Just follow your nose (and usually the winding lines) for treats like pork pepper buns, oyster omelets, stinky tofu, beef noodles and much more.
And don’t think you’re getting away without dessert, because a visit to Ice Monster is a must. Known for its mounds of shaved snow topped with fruit and sorbet, this café is a Taipei institution with the long queues to prove it.
A real cocktail revolution is being stirred up in Taipei right now, and many of the best bars are within walking distance of each other in the Da’an District. Begin at Indulge Experimental Bistro for drinkable science experiments made from ingredients like preserved plum, bamboo, myrrh and osmanthus (an evergreen plant also known as tea olive). Nearby Fourplay Cuisine‘s cocktails — served in test tubes, shells, crystal balls, tin cans and ceramic vessels — are as playful as they are well-executed.
You’ll find a bar called Mozi tucked behind bookshelves in a salon. But don’t expect a stiff speakeasy vibe here; on the contrary, the music is loud and the crowd is fun. Sit at the bar and you just might find yourself taking shots of Taiwan Bin Lang (Don Julio tequila topped with a slice of lime coated in coffee and sugar) With locals. Trust us, there’s no better place to raise a glass (with a “hō ta lah!”) and vow to return to this warm, welcoming city.
While you could certainly spend 48 hours exploring Taipei, there are plenty of easy day-trip destinations just outside the city, too. Jiufen is a mountain town just 40 minutes east of the city known for its historic district, which is composed of narrow alleys and steep stairways packed with teahouses, street food stalls and shops. The red-lantern-strung village also served as inspiration for Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved film Spirited Away.