After a month in China we took a little break and went to Taiwan. It seems like every time we visit a new place without doing any research or building up expectations, it ends up being so much better than we could have anticipated. With diverse food options, nice people, and a huge but approachable capital, Taiwan turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
The best part is that Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, has a ton to offer the budget traveler. Here are some ideas for free (and almost free) activities in the city.
1. Climb Elephant Mountain
It would be hard to miss the earthquake-proof Taipei 101. It’s one of the tallest buildings in the world, and much (much) higher than the rest of the Taipei skyline.
But at $500 NTW ($17 USD) each, visiting the observatory up on the 89th floor was a bit much for our budget. Besides, we were more interested in taking photos of the building itself.
We found some great views of the Taipei 101 from the top of Elephant Mountain in Taipei’s Xinyi District. It’s a steep 30-minute walk up, so make sure you take some water – and don’t forget your camera! Climb up at sunset to see the city’s lights come on.
2. Go on a Boba Binge
Boba tea, aka “pearl tea” or “bubble tea”, was invented in Taiwan in the 1980’s before quickly spreading to café menus around the world. The most popular kinds are either milk- or fruit-flavored teas with balls of chewy tapioca, although variations are seemingly limitless. Taipei has more boba shops than you can shake a straw at, so you won’t have any problems finding one.
Cost: A cup of boba is normally less than $1 USD.
3. Spy on People Practicing Tai Chi
Word on the street is that the best place to see people practicing this ancient martial art is at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. We never made it over there early enough, but we did see people training in other places in the city. There are also plenty of places to take a class and try it out yourself, if you’re interested.
4. Gawk at Scooter Madness
This was one of our favorite activities in Taipei, and you won’t find it in any of the guidebooks. Get up before rush hour and head over to Taipei Bridge to see the spectacle – thousands upon thousands of scooter commuters on their way to work.
There are over eleven million scooters registered in Taiwan, making it the most popular means of transportation. It goes without saying, but this activity can be a bit hard on the lungs – if you’re very sensitive to pollution it might not be for you. I really can’t describe what this is like, but Eric made a dandy video that sums it up quite nicely. Some humor was added to make the chosen soundtrack a little less intense.
5. Feast on Street Food at a Night Market
Taipei has more than a dozen markets that open up when the sun and temperature go down. There are some great deals to be had if you want to do some shopping, but the food stalls offer the real bargains. Point to anything that looks good, pick up some beers at a convenience store for $2 USD, have a picnic and people watch. Watch out for fruit vendors at night markets like Shilin, though. They’re infamous for overcharging tourists.
It happened to be that while we were in town Eric’s old friend and colleague Dan was there too. Dan’s from Taiwan, and he and his wife Feny used their amazing language skills while showing us around. They also treated us to a selection of snake products at Snake Alley. There are only a couple places left that still serve up our slithery friend, which is supposed to be effective in making men more…manly.
Cost: Street food is a bargain. You could go on a bender for about $10 USD.
6. Check Out Some Temples
About a third of Taiwan’s population is Buddhist, and a third is Confucian. So Taipei has some pretty neat temples where you can learn more about these religions or just soak in the dragons, koi, incense, and all kinds of beautiful eastern imagery. One of the more popular religious landmarks is the Longshan Buddhist/Taoist Temple in Taipei’s Wanhua District, a good example of Taiwanese classical architecture.
Our favorite was the Tien Ho Buddhist Temple. It’s tucked away in a busy shopping district, but once you’re through the gates you’re presented with an open courtyard, intricately carved dragons, and hundreds of glowing red lanterns.
7. Lose a Staring Contest at the Martyrs’ Shrine
The National Revolutionary Martyrs’ Shrine is dedicated to the 330,000 people who sacrificed their lives to the revolution preceding the establishment of Taiwan. The military police officers who guard the main gate have been rigidly trained to stand like expressionless statues, never moving – and barely even blinking! Get there on the hour to watch the changing of the guard, but stay a bit longer to take photos after the crowds clear out.
8. Just Wander
Taipei is an extremely safe city with low rates of violent crime, pickpocketing, and other crimes against tourists. Hop off the metro at any random stop and you’ll probably find something interesting and off the beaten path.