Surrounded by Asia’s most popular destinations, Taiwan is often overlooked in favour of Japan, Thailand, Philippines or even China across the strait.

So why should Taiwan get more attention? A hidden gem has just the right balance of being easy enough to travel in but without the crowds, scammy locals or high prices. It has varied culture and interesting history, a fascinating cuisine without the risk of food poisoning; a gem offers diverse nature and usually welcoming weather. Taiwan ticks all those boxes and then some. This island nation can honestly lay claim as the ultimate hidden gem of Asia.

 

5 great reasons to visit Taiwan

 

NATURE & OUTDOORS

hidden gem travel destinations

Many find it surprising that 2/3 of the island is basically mountains and forests, with only the Western shore being the populous industrial powerhouse that props its economy. Centre is mostly mountains where the climate and flora is more Alpine than is sub-tropical. The rugged yet picturesque East is where those mountains meet the open Pacific Ocean. And in between this you have rice paddies and jungley forests. If you love outdoors, whether it’s hiking, cycling or just being out at sea, you will love Taiwan.

FRIENDLINESS

It’s rare to find a country where locals are so friendly, at least to Westerners. Despite the language barrier, you’ll probably come across situations where Taiwanese will go out of their way to help. On a cycling tour, I once left behind a water bottle at a petrol station only for one of the staff to catch up with me on a moped a few minutes later shouting “Hello!”. That same day some other locals gave me bananas and chocolate bars because I looked tired and they wanted a chat.

TAIWANESE CULTURE

Taiwanese Temple

 

Far more than just being a Chinese culture as some perceive, Taiwan has a fascinating past with its own distinct aboriginal culture (now mostly in the East) and influence from earlier settlers from afar. Portuguese once aptly called it Formosa (“Beautiful Island”), Dutch colonised some bits in the West and even left behind a fortress or two in Tainan. Japan ruled for half a century and definitely left their own print. More recent Western influence almost makes the country a friendlier alternative to visiting China with less of a culture shock.

TAIWANESE FOOD

Taiwanese Night Market

Adventurous foodies will not be disappointed. As with the best cuisines, each region or city boasts their own specialties and the variety of foods you can try across what is a small country is impressive. 

Street food rules in Taiwan. Night markets play a central role in Taiwanese culture and for a good reason – this is where you will find the best versions of Taiwan’s household dishes. They may appear overwhelming at first, tempting you to find a sit-down restaurant instead, but I urge you to just go for it and try as much as you can! You’ll likely discover some incredible flavours, and it’s safe. Even just walking through the night market is an experience for the senses: eyes, ears, nose.. And yes, sometimes that involves the infamous stinky tofu (absolutely worth it!).

CLIMATE

Taiwan Beer Kenting

Taiwan enjoys a subtropical climate, which basically means its warm (or hot) just about all year around. This makes it a great option for European / North American winters – in fact I’d recommend October to April as the best period to go for those not keen on hot and humid. Summer gets sticky unless you’re up in the mountains, with August & September also blowing in the occasional destructive typhoon. 

Otherwise most days you should get at least some sun and even in January – February you’ll be unlucky to have to wear layers unless up in the high elevation.


 

Recommended Taiwan Itinerary

Taiwan Itinerary Map

This itinerary works well over 2 weeks (or 3-4 weeks if you like to explore things at a more casual pace) starting and ending in Taipei and probably best going clockwise. If going by public transport, travel is still relatively simple by train, although you may want to cut out Sun Moon Lake / Wuling Pass and Mr Brown Avenue as they are more complicated to reach without private transport. Sample timings:

  • Taipei start – 2-3 days
  • Hualien / Taroko & Wuling Pass – 2-3 days
  • Kenting or Southeast Coast (Taitung / Mr Brown Avenue – 2 days
  • Kaohsiung / Tainan – 2-3 days
  • Alishan National Park – 2 days
  • Sun Moon Lake – 1-2 day
  • Taipei to finish – 1 final day or two before flying back

Read on for why I recommend you visit these places.

Hualien & Taroko National Park

Taroko Gorge Footbridge

You just can’t give Taroko a miss while in Taiwan. The stunning gorges and canyons carved into the Eastern part of the country are interlaced with hiking trails, charming shrines and some dodgy-looking bridges. It’s also an impressive feat of engineering given the landscapes involved, as well as offering glimpses into Taiwan’s distinct aboriginal culture.

The seaside city of Hualien, complete with its own delicious night markets, serves as a perfect base for day trips in the area. It’s small enough to enjoy by foot, not far from Taroko and a host of scenic locations both on the seaside and inland to explore for a few days, if you have time.

Taroko National Park

Getting there: Hualien is 2.5 hours’ scenic train ride from Taipei and about the same by car. Taroko National Park is easily navigated by car or scooter (and in my case by road bike). Alternatively you could hire a Hualien taxi driver for the day for a reasonable price – hotels should help.

Mr Brown Avenue, East Taiwan

 

Mr Brown Avenue, Eastern Taiwan

The oddly-named Mr Brown Avenue gained its fame from being used in an ad for some crappy coffee, since then becoming a local tourist sight. But that’s not the point. This little gem in the East is beautiful even in bad weather – as I happened to experience. Its green, peaceful fields flanked by a mountain backdrop make for hours of scenic walking and cycling (available for rent).

Getting there: best reached by car or scooter as part of a trip along East Coast from Kenting to Hualien and beyond.

Kenting’s Beach Vibes & Night Market

 

Taiwan Beer on Kenting Beach

For the best beach vibes, head to Taiwan’s Southern tip. Here you can enjoy the fine sands of Kenting’s beaches and warm seas by day (if you can put up with the heat!) and its lively nightlife and streetfood in the evening. If you have a car or a scooter, there are some hidden gem bed & breakfasts dotted around at great value. I particularly recommend Casa Aperta B&B, up in the hills with fantastic ocean views.

Kenting Bed & Breakfast

Getting there: Kenting is about 2 hours drive’ or shuttle bus from Kaohsiung. From Taipei, fast train + shuttlebus combo takes around 3-4 hours.

The Underrated Kaohsiung City

 

Tiger and Dragon Pagodas Kaohsiung

Taiwan’s second city is often overlooked for its industrial reputation, but it’s absolutely worth adding to your itinerary. Over the past couple decades, Kaohsiung has blossomed into a city that has much to enjoy. The once-polluted Love River is now a pleasant sight dotted with cafes, restaurants and even romantic gondolas, while the seaside Qijin offers a mix of the modern and the traditional – with museums and a lovely food market neighbouring a traditional fishing harbour.

What felt like a more “real” urban Taiwanese experience, the port city has its very decent share of cultural landmarks including the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas (above), set along a lake. Ov Besides the genuinely fascinating aspect to these pagodas, where else will you be able to walk into a dragon’s mouth and coming out of his nether?

As far as the food scene, Ruifeng Night Market surely offers the best street food. Seafood lovers should catch the ferry across to Cijin Island, where you can also enjoy a pleasant evening walk and a visit to Kaohsiung’s oldest religious landmark – Matsu Temple.

Kaohsiung Temple

The city’s Love River is also a “must”. A successful regeneration project turned formerly industrial canals into a romantic (if somewhat cheesy) riverside complete with gondolas and plenty of cafes & establishments.

Getting there: just 1.5 hours by Taiwan’s high-speed rail from Taipei, or follow the fast highway system as part of a road trip around the island if you have personal transport (which I recommend in Taiwan!).

Tainan’s History & Food Scene

 

Tainan Colonial Fortress

Former capitals usually make for great places to visit, and Tainan is no exception. Having stood as the capital for over 2 centuries, this buzzing city also offers a glimpse into it’s brief European past with two fully-preserved Dutch forts, Zeelandia and Provintia, open to visitors. But there is much more to Tainan, so generously dotted with temples and photogenic streets. It’s equally nationally renowned for its food scene, with a number of famous dishes being the specialties from here. One that stood out to me is the somewhat un-Taiwanese coffin bread: literally a slab of bread filled with a creamy soup, topped with a coffin-like lid.

Getting there: The city is within easy reach by fast-train from both Taipei (under 2 hours with its High Speed Rail) and the nearby Kaohsiung (under an hour).

The Idyllic Sun Moon Lake

Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan

Sun Moon Lake is bang in the middle of Taiwan and one of its most serene gems. Surrounded by mountains, it offers the sort of scenery you’d imagine in traditional Chinese movies. For some of the best views, get up to Ci’en Pagoda or take Sun Moon Lake ropeway cable car. The road that roughly hugs the entire lake makes for a perfect (relatively easy) bicycle trip – hire bikes (including eBikes) are available from Giant in the village of Shuishe. If you feel less active, there is also a ferry taking you across the lake’s handful of piers.

Getting there: Driving is the best, most flexible option, and you can link it up with a trip across Wuling Pass and onto Taroko National Park. Driving from Taipei is 3 hours, a little less from Kaohsiung. Otherwise take a bus from Taichung (2 hrs) or Taipei (4-5 hrs).

Wuling Pass through the Peaks of Taiwan

Wuling Pass

As you wind your way up to 3,000m elevation, the flora transforms from sub-tropical jungle to Alpine pine trees, so much so that you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re somewhere in the summer Alps. Needless to say, the mountainous climate also makes for a great getaway from the summer heat! 

Up top you’ll find Taiwan’s highest 7-Eleven, restaurants and a plethora of places to stay with jaw-dropping vistas – if the clouds allow. And if you’re lucky – impressive cherry blossoms on top of the incredible views across the mountain range. Little tip if day-tripping: clouds are pretty common in the afternoon so get there as early as you can to maximise the chance of clearer sky (and less tour buses to be stuck behind).

Getting there: Definitely best by car if you’re confident with twisty roads and fast-changing weather conditions. Roads are in a good condition.

Alishan’s Tea Terraces

Alishan Tea Terraces, Taiwan

Another wonderfully picturesque highlight of inland Taiwan is the Alishan National Park in Chiayi County. The Alishan Mountains scenery rivals that of Wuling Pass, and is home to Taiwan’s much-famed Alishan High Mountain Tea. The tea terraces in the tranquil valley around Shizhuo (pictured above) offer some of the most stunning walks coupled with the traditional Tea House experiences. Visiting Alishan is also a great chance to see the indigenous Taiwanese communities residing in the highlands.

Taipei’s Themed Cafes & Restaurants

You’ll most likely start and finish in Taipei so you’ll want to spend at least a couple days in the capital. With its metropolitan, always-open feel, there is plenty to see and do beyond the night markets, shopping and the main cultural sights. Something that particularly stood out to me was the number of themed restaurants and cafes – perhaps a nod to Japan. Some of the more unusual venues to consider:

  • :Modern Toilet – literally a toilet-themed restaurant (but don’t expect great food):
  • Hello Kitty Cafe:

Hello Kitty Restaurant

  • Barbie Cafe:

Barbie Cafe Taipei

  • And last but not least, an alpaca-petting cafe.

 

Is Taiwan a Safe Destination?

Taiwan is a safe destination in just about every way, unless you’re extremely unlucky to witness a major typhoon (usually a summer/early autumn occurrence) or an earthquake. Crime-wise, the country feels far safer than much of Europe or USA, and you’re never made to feel like a walking wallet unlike the tourist trails of Thailand and Vietnam with scams around every corner. Food hygiene is generally fine and still I haven’t experienced any issues after countless street food experiences in 4 visits. Driving is also pretty manageable, although can get a little chaotic in the bigger cities mostly due to the myriad of scooters winding in and out of lanes.


 

Useful Tips for Visiting Taiwan

Language barriers in Taiwan

While there is a higher chance of meeting people who speak some English than in China or Vietnam, it still isn’t widely spoken and it’s not like you can make out menus and signs in Mandarin as you would with Latin alphabet. I recommend pointing your camera via Google Translate (Google Lens) to instantly translate.

7-11s and Family Marts are your best friends

For when night markets aren’t around, the rival all-day corner shop chains are just about everywhere, from every other street corner in towns to all the way to the top of mountain passes. More than a basic corner shop you’d get in the West, they are an excellent source of anything from snacks to a quick hot meal (try the tea eggs and the dumplings!).

Taiwanese streets aren’t great for walking

Somewhat like Japan, most streets don’t have separate pavements and walking often involves meandering around parked mopeds, street food stands and getting onto the road. Mopeds are the main mode of transport, although it gets chaotic in the bigger cities so I’d only recommend if this is something you’re comfortable with. Cycling is fantastic outside of cities, with respectful drivers and wide moped lanes giving you plenty of space away from the cars. The topic on cycling in Taiwan deserves a separate post and I‘ll probably one for that sometime.

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