I spent my Christmas in Taipei and somewhere between the beautiful traditional architecture and the giant chocolate penises I realized that Taiwan just hasn’t gotten the attention it deserved. Even if you only have a few days to spare with the vast array of unique sights and activities you’re guaranteed to come home with memories that will last you a life time, even if you only have a few days to spend in this island country’s beautiful capital.
Within the city limits itself you’ll likely hear that the places to go are the Taipei 101 (the world’s tallest building until it was unseated by Burj Khalifa, but it still offers a great view of the city), Chiang-Kai Shek Memorial Hall, Longshan Temple, and the night markets. These are all places worth seeing if you have the time and, very importantly, they’re easy to get to via the subway. After all, English isn’t a popularly spoken language so the more you can help yourself, the better!
But if you’re looking for more unique experiences you must visit:
- Snake Alley
I actually had no idea at first that I had wandered into the Snake Alley, which had once been a legal red light district. After visiting Longshan Temple I stumbled across the massive red gates which frequently denote a night market and it didn’t take me long at all to realize that this market was different than other I’d seen.
Several of the restaurants had massive tanks, filled with huge snakes that peered at you from their enclosures. Menus offered dishes that included not only snake meet, but snake blood. But of course, if you’re looking for other unique ingredients Snake Alley has you covered. There’s turtle blood, crocodile meat, and purportedly deer penis wine, which is said to have medicinal properties.
If snake food really isn’t your thing, this night market, like all others, had plenty of other food options, like seafood and stinky tofu.
- Yehliu Geopark
Maybe I’m biased. I love strange rock formations and places where mountains meet ocean. But there’s something absolutely enchanting and alien about Yehliu Geological Park. By car it’s a mere 30 minutes from Taipei. Or you could jump on one of the many buses and get there in an hour. Either way, you’ll be treated to the view of Taiwan’s beautiful Northern coast.
The Geopark itself can be a little crowded with tourists and locals alike. It was hilarious watching fisherwomen be scolded by park staff to stop, only to go right back to it a mere 5 minutes later.
But the crown gem of the park is definitely the strange and otherworldly rock formations. The most famous of which is the Queen’s Head, a hoodoo formation that has been shaped by the ocean into the profile of a woman’s visage. Other distinctive features are the “fairy’s shoe”, the “ginger rocks” and sea candles… But I also enjoyed the long, serene walk up to the penninsula’s cliff. There you have a stunning view of both the park and the sea, usually all to yourself.
- Houtong Village
Houtong Village, otherwise known as the Cat Village, was once a mining town. The mining industry began to decline and it seemed like the town would die. It was during this time that a local and cat lover began to take in and care for abandoned cats… Her efforts soon made Houtong a center not only a hub for cat lovers and cats, but for tourists as well.
In about an hour or two I managed to count 97 cats just wandering the old mining village. These kittens are completely domesticated and live in little cat houses made by the people living here, who make a community effort to care for them.
The shops also have their own cat mascots, who you can distinguish by the bandanas tied around their neck… or by the fact that they’ll frequently sleeping among the wares.
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- Shilin Night Market
Shilin Night Market is THE night market to visit. There’s constant throngs of people and for good reason. Everything is for sale here and chances you’ll find a TV crew and a travel host is pretty darn high. No one can say to the hearty and delicious street food that’s absolutely everywhere… Or come out the other side without a few accessories that speak to your inner fashionista. But one unique feature that you can’t miss out on is the plethora of penis-shaped goodies.
There are penis shaped waffles in all sorts of colors called gayke. Or perhaps penis shaped eclairs are more you thing? No? Maybe a massive popsicle? These treats will only run you $3 or so dollars, and while they’re quite delicious prepared to get quite a few stares if you’re bold enough to try!
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As you make your way to the city that was supposedly the inspiration for Spirited Away you’ll see a beautiful dragon topped temple at the city’s entrance. But it’s the architecture and narrow streets that are most reminiscent. Lined with red paper lanterns, these winding roads are almost maze-like and it’s easy turned around… but that’s precisely what you want.
Unfortunately in recent years Jiufen has gotten incredibly popular, particularly with Chinese tourists. The streets are crowded and it’s hard to enjoy the atmosphere or the dozens and dozens of wonderful food shops. Still, you should make your way to the famous Grand Tea House which not only offers a magnificent view of the mountains that the city rests on but is also much more serene than the rest of the city.