A visit to Taipei is a great way to dip your toes into traveling in Asia. Taipei is a wealthy and thriving city of 2.7 million people at the heart of an urbanized metropolis that includes more than 7 million people. As Taiwan’s capital city, there is plenty to see and do. Taipei is also a leading international business hub, so getting around and staying in the city is easy for foreigners.
Taipei is the capital city of Taiwan, Republic of China. (Photo: Ride/Jeff Zurschmeide)
While it is one of the most westernized cities in Asia, Taipei holds onto its Chinese culture. The city is rich with opportunities to experience Chinese history, as well as natural attractions unique to the island. There are many colorful Buddhist temples throughout the city, and most of these are open to the public. Lungshan Temple has its own subway station and a nearby night market, making this a must-see stop in the city. Guandu Temple is harder to get to, but unique in its hillside construction and worth the pilgrimage.
Colorful Buddhist temples are common throughout Taiwan, and always fun to visit. (Photo: Ride/Jeff Zurschmeide)
Among the many things to see in the heart of the city are the Chiang Kai Shek and Sun Yat Sen memorials, Taipei 101, and the National Palace Museum. The museum displays many of the finest examples of ancient Chinese art and bronze-age relics anywhere in the world. Taipei 101 was the world’s tallest building from its opening in 2004 until it was surpassed in 2010. The observation deck at the top of the skyscraper is impressive. The political memorials host their own museums, and feature dramatic military ceremonies several times each day.
Taipei 101 was the tallest building in the world for a time, and still an impressive place to visit.(Photo: Ride/Jeff Zurschmeide)
Getting to Taipei
Taiwan is a close ally of the United States, so you don’t need a Visa to visit the country. Your U.S. or Canadian passport is all you need for a stay of up to 90 days. Most airlines that serve Asia fly into one or both of Taipei’s airports. Taoyuan is larger and most North American flights arrive here. Songshan is smaller and offers flights to Asian destinations.
Pro tip: EVA Air is a Taiwanese airline that serves North America, and often has the best prices to Taipei. Taiwan is a great first stop and jumping-off place to visit other nations, as EVA flies to most Asian destinations.
As a first-world city Taipei has all the mobility options you would expect to find in New York or Boston, and many of the same challenges with congestion. You can get a Taxi anywhere, and both Uber and Lyft operate in the city. Uber operates at the airports, but Lyft does not.
Traffic in Taipei is always heavy, and sometimes extremely crowded. It’s generally better to ride the subway. (Photo: Ride/Jeff Zurschmeide)
Pro tip: Songshan airport is close to downtown Taipei, but Taoyuan is about a 45-minute ride from downtown. If you have your hotel pre-arranged, ask about having a town car sent to pick you up. It may be cheaper than taking a taxi or Uber!
Take the MRT
Taipei has local trains, buses, and a subway system called the MRT, or Taipei Metro. If you are visiting any of the major attractions, the MRT is by far the most convenient way to get there. This system is clean, safe, and well-organized. In the last couple of years, they’ve even extended it to Taoyuan airport.
Finding your way on the MRT is remarkably easy. As you enter any station, there’s a system map on the wall. You can easily see where you are on the map. All station names are written in both Chinese and English. You simply locate the station where you want to go and the fare to get there from your current location is right there on the map.
Riding the MRT subway in Taipei is easy. Everything is written in English and Chinese, with fares clearly stated. (Photo: Ride/Jeff Zurschmeide)
Paying for the MRT
To pay your fare, just put money into the ticket machine and it issues you a token that resembles a small poker chip. Tap the chip on the turnstile on your way into the station, and then hold onto the chip for your exit.
Riding the MRT is simple and orderly. When you get to your platform, there will be a line of people and markings on the floor telling you where to stand. When the train arrives, just follow your line to get on. Trains can get extremely crowded at rush hour, so be prepared to get close to strangers.
Pro tip: Remember that while you may carry food and drinks onto the MRT, eating or drinking on the train is strictly forbidden.
When you exit at the destination station, there’s a slot on the turnstile for your chip. Put the chip in the turnstile and go through.
If you make a mistake with your fare, don’t worry. If there’s not enough credit on your token to exit the station, just go to the help booth. They’ll tell you how much you need to pay and give you a new token to let you out. There’s no shame or penalty. The MRT is a municipal service, so most fares are less than $2 anyway.
You can also buy a reloadable transit card. These are like a debit card, and you can buy them or reload them with money at any MRT station or convenience store anywhere in the city. The cards come with all kinds of images on them, from Hello Kitty to brand logos and Taiwanese pop stars.
Local trains and buses
Getting to outlying areas may require a train or bus connection, but overall the system is easy to use. The local train lines connect to the MRT system. Just be aware that you may have to buy a different ticket for some trains.
Taking the train is a great way to get to some nearby coastal areas like the town of Tamsui. This seaside destination has its own open-air market with a great street food scene.
Pro tip: Unless you were raised in Taiwan, the popular local street food called “stinky tofu” is unlikely to agree with you.
Taiwanese use dash cams for a reason
Like most cities in Asia, motor scooters are an affordable and thus popular way to get around in Taipei. Taiwanese will ride their scooters right into the street markets, threading their way between the stalls. Learn to keep an ear open for the sound of a scooter coming up behind you as you shop.
Taipei scooter riders take their bikes right into the markets and shop on them. Keep your ears open, as the riders can be very insistent. (Photo: Ride/Jeff Zurschmeide)
On the streets, scooter riders have little fear of cars and trucks. They weave through traffic in groups or alone. Traffic is generally busy and sometimes it’s extremely tight. Almost all Taiwanese drivers have adopted dash cameras to protect themselves from liability in the event of a collision, whether with a scooter or another car or truck. Foreign visitors should think twice before renting a car to drive in Taipei. Just like with stinky tofu, if you weren’t raised in Taiwan you probably won’t enjoy that experience.
Take the fast train
Taipei is located on the north end of Taiwan, and Kaohsiung is a popular destination city at the south end. There is a fast train that runs several times a day between the two cities, and this is a great way to travel on the island. The system is called Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR), simply enough.
Kaohsiung is a vibrant city at the south end of Taiwan. It’s worth a visit while you’re on the island. (Photo: Ride/Jeff Zurschmeide)
The train hits speeds of 186 MPH, allowing you to reach Kaohsiung in less than two hours, including stops. You’ll get a reserved seat and it costs about $50 to ride the train in coach, or $65 in business class.
Pro tip: Buy a box lunch from the food cart on the train. It’s really good.
Once in Kaohsiung, there are more museums and plenty of great shops and restaurants, plus Fo Guang Shan, a very large and impressive Buddhist temple and education center. Kaohsiung is definitely worth a visit while you’re on the island.
When Portuguese sailors first saw Taiwan in the 1500s, they called it Ilha Formosa, or “Beautiful Island.” Taiwan is still a beautiful place, and a welcoming first stop in Asia. Traveling to Taiwan and staying in Taipei is affordable, easy, and fun. If you haven’t visited yet, put this city on your bucket list.