Taiwan is a land of breathtaking landscapes peppered with contemporary architecture. Age-old traditions are carried out faithfully in modernized communities and venues. On the island, the only thing more beautiful than the scenery is the community of people. Generous and friendly, the locals earned Taiwan a reputation as one of the most travel-friendly places to visit in Asia. Located about 100 miles off the coast of mainland China, the island has its history of colonization and urban development. Taiwanese culture has come to reflect that past with an ethnically dynamic cuisine and culture. Some of the best dishes are, by nature, inexpensive and conveniently available. Taiwan may not have been at the top of your next vacation list, but you might want to reconsider paying a visit to this dreamy Pacific Island.
Taiwan's unique location near a volcano system means that there are many natural hot springs on the island. Since the late 19th century, locals and visitors alike have enjoyed the health benefits of soaking in them, making the practice a significant part of Taiwanese culture. To get in on the action, visit one of the many free or reasonably priced public hot springs on the island. For a unique experience, stop at a hot springs hotel and spa, and stay overnight for access to a private bath.
While there are plenty of fine dining restaurants to choose from, no trip to Taiwan is complete without a taste of their famous street foods. Night markets, found all over the island, are the best places to find these small eats. Each vendor or eatery specializes in one or a few dishes, which means that every food you taste will be a perfected recipe. Try a traditional snack, such as the stinky tofu or an oyster omelet, and don't forget to look for regional specialties as well.
The dragon and tiger are two of the most powerful zodiac signs in Chinese culture. Appropriately, a stop in Kaohsiung is necessary to visit the seven-story Dragon Tiger Pagodas at Lotus Lake. This manmade scenic lake is home to several temples, pagodas, and pavilions -- all of them steeped in local folklore. Legend has it that entering the pagodas through the dragon's throat and exiting through the tiger's mouth symbolizes turning bad luck into good fortune, and will ensure one year of good luck.
Pineapple cakes are one of the best selling souvenirs in Taiwan; you can find them anywhere. Symbolizing prosperity and well-wishes, they make an ideal gift that can fit snugly into your carryon luggage. Golden Pineapple Castle in Kaohsiung goes one step further by providing the space and ingredients to bake your very own pineapple cakes. Sign up for a baking tutorial, and browse the family-friendly shops and facilities until the cakes come out of the oven.
Taiwan is known for cultivating some of the finest and rarest teas in the world. Finding superior Taiwanese tea abroad can be pricey, but you can taste some of these prized infusions by visiting a tea plantation. Some farms offer tours and tea tastings, while others may encourage you to suit up and harvest a few tea leaves. Tea connoisseurs can book a room in a nearby village and wake up to the view of terraced tea fields in the morning.
Alishan National Park, Taiwan's most visited mountain resort, contains the fog-cloaked forests of central Taiwan. Here, the Alishan Forest Railway transports passengers back a century as it winds its way up and down the steep mountainside. Visitors can easily access secluded hiking trails and points of interest throughout the park on the railway; the journey alone provides plenty of Instagrammable photo opportunities from the window seat. If you get hungry or decide you need some souvenirs, browse through the small villages for shops and snack foods.
The journey to witness one of Taiwan's most sought after sunrises is not for the faint of heart, but extremely rewarding for those willing to put in the work. Passengers board the Alishan Forest Railway 'sunrise train' in the early morning to reach the Zhushan viewing platform before the sun comes up. In the moments before sunrise, a dense blanket of clouds becomes visible around the neighboring mountain peaks. The 'sea of clouds' phenomena lasts only a few minutes most mornings, but the surrounding landscape bathed in the early light makes for a lovely start to your day.
The Big Buddha statue at Fo Guang Shan is aptly titled; at 108 meters tall, it's the highest seated bronze Buddha statue in the world. The sculpture sits atop the main hall of the largest Buddhist complex in Taiwan. Visitors can tour the museum and pagodas to learn more about Fo Guang Shan and Buddha, and then grab a bite to eat at one of the on-site eateries. Plan to spend at least a couple of hours wandering the peaceful grounds and meditating on your travels.
Before it was a renowned tourist destination, the small village of Jiufen was a booming gold-mining town during the Japanese era. Many believe it was an inspiration for the Japanese anime film 'Spirited Away,' which features strikingly similar landmarks and features. Whether or not this is true, this seaside mountain town charms crowds of visitors each year with its unique vibe. Wander the cobblestone streets and climb the steep staircases as Chihiro did in the award-winning film. You'll feel as if you've entered another world.
Sky lanterns have played an important role in Chinese culture for thousands of years. Most often associated with the Chinese New Year, paper lanterns are symbols of renewal and celebration. The custom has been popularized as a daily ritual in modern times, with some vendors specializing in building personalized sky lanterns with customers and releasing them into the air. Look for a merchant with a variety of colored papers from which to choose, or make plans to attend the Sky Lantern Festival in Pingxi during the Chinese New Year.
Taipei 101 was the tallest building in the world for six years, and it continues to represent the capital as one of the most influential and modernized cities in Asia. Most of the building is commercial office space, but the top floors boast restaurants and three observation decks. An indoor deck features the building's seven-ton tuned mass damper on full display. The adjoining shopping mall provides access to hundreds of retailers, restaurants, and entertainment venues.
The Ximending shopping district, or the Harajuku of Taipei, is more than just a marketplace. Originally founded as an entertainment quarter by the Japanese, the area has become a significant consumer district and cultural hub for the community. In addition to retailers and restaurants, Ximending is home to street performers, small venues, and over 20 theaters. Even if you don't enjoy shopping, the beautiful scenery and lively social atmosphere of the Ximending district will make the trip worthwhile.