The island of Formosa is home to giddying juxtaposition of traditional and modern. Ancient temples and Buddhist Monasteries collide satisfyingly with modern architecture and vibrant night markets. Taipei has a similar feel to Hong Kong or Tokyo but on a much more manageable scale, and is easily explored in 72 hours.
Morning: Visit Taipei 101, a unique fusion of eastern balance and contemporary architecture
Taipei 101 is the city’s tallest building, and an icon of contemporary Asian architecture. The tallest building in the world upon its completion in 2004, the main tower is made up of eight tapered sections, each consisting of eight floors, a number associated with abundance and prosperity in Chinese culture. These tapered sections give the building the appearance of a stalk of bamboo, and evoke the iconography and structure of a traditional pagoda. The tower also contains one of the world's fastest elevators, whisking visitors up 88 floors in a dizzying 37 seconds.
For lunch, visit Din Tai Fung, located mere minutes from Taipei 101. Taiwan is renowned for their Xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings. Steamed leavened dough filled with juicy pork and broth, traditionally one nibbles a small hole in the dumpling through which to drink the soup, and then dips the now deflated dumpling in an umami blend of rice vinegar and soy sauce. Din Tai Fung is a Taiwanese chain restaurant popular worldwide for their Xiaolongbao. In 1993 the New York Times named Din Tai Fung as one of the best restaurants in the world, and today there are over 20 Din Tai Fung restaurants around the world with two branches expected to open in London later this year, one at the newly-renovated Centre Point, near Tottenham Court Road tube station, and another in Covent Garden on Henrietta Street.
Afternoon: Marvel at the grandeur of Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall
Though a mere ten-minute drive from the bustling financial quarter that sprawls out underneath Taipei 101, Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall is a mammoth monument to the former president of Taiwan. The main hall is a white stone monolithic cube, topped by an octagonal azure roof. 89 steps lead up to the main chamber where a statue of the president is guarded by soldiers. The changing of the guard is an intensely choreographed affair, taking place every hour and lasting for an eerily silent ten minutes. The chamber opens out into the colossal Liberty Square, flanked by the national concert hall on the right, the National Theatre on the left, and ending in the main gate - five pallid stone arches topped with an intricate blue terracotta roof. The entire complex is of a scale never truly seen in Europe, and the gleaming white stone is a far cry from the grubby grey monuments of Paris or London.
Evening: Experience some of Taiwan’s best cuisine at Raohe Night Market
Some of Taipei’s best food and shopping can be found at its night markets, Raohe Night Market is one of the oldest and more traditional markets in the city, and is a great place to try some of Taiwan’s local delicacies, duck beaks stewed in soy sauce, stinky bean curd, a fermented tofu that is a post-clubbing favourite in Taipei, and barbecued squid on a stick.
Tour Fo Guang Shan Monastery
Fo Guang Shan Monastery is the largest in Taiwan and located just outside Kaohsiung, the country's second largest city, a mere two hours away from the capital by high speed rail. Perched perilously on top of a hill just outside the city, the monastery is watched over by a 108 metre statue of the Buddha. The complex is massive and is home to the headquarters of one of the world’s largest Buddhist orders. The main shrine is a colossal space; eerily silent, the walls lined with flickering candles which cast a glimmering light upon the three immense statues of the Buddha sat in the lotus position - a representation of compassion, education and medicine.
Though it is located overlooking a bustling metropolis, there is a serenity to Fo Guang Shan. Buddhist monks in the traditional burnt umber robes of their order drift silently through the magnificent labyrinthine hallways as if no time had passed since the order's founding in 1967. One can easily spend an entire day at the monastery, which also features a restaurant serving some of the best vegetarian food in Taiwan, thick stewed noodles, fiery kimchi and fried rice.
Evening: Enjoy the city skyline from Elephant Mountain
Xiangshan hiking trail is colloquially known as Elephant Mountain, and offers some of the best views of the city. A staircase of over 900 steps winding through the rainforest, it is best experienced at sunset, though be sure to pack insect repellent. For dinner visit Linjiang night market for some of the best oyster noodles in Taipei.
Morning: Visit Mengjia Lungshan Temple
Though it lacks the scale or grandeur of Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, Mengjia Longshan Temple makes up for it in intimacy and intricacy. Constructed out of wood in 1739, the temple begins with an open courtyard surrounded by waterfalls, and slowly unfolds like the petals of a lotus flower. From the inner courtyard one can see the mirror-like gleam of the surrounding skyscrapers as the city has grown up and enveloped this little piece of history.
Afternoon: See spectacular views of the city from the Maokong Tea Plantations
The Maokong Gondola snakes through four kilometres of rainforest and tea plantations to the west of Taipei, taking half an hour to reach the tea plantations of Maokong.
Maokong also features some of Taipei’s best restaurants. Lui Ji Xiang Teahouse is a ten-minute walk from Maokong Gondola Station; this open air bamboo edifice perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking lush green rainforests and mountains would be worth it for the view alone, and the menu consists mostly of locally-grown organic produce, with steamed bao buns, succulent dumplings and the most tender salted pork belly.
Where to stay in Taipei:
Shangri-La's Far Eastern Plaza Hotel: Recently renovated, the Shangri-La offers some of the most spectacular views of Taipei 101 and the surrounding cityscape. The Marco Polo Lounge on the 38th floor offers some of Taipei’s most spectacular cocktails created by Taiwan’s best mixologist, and the top floor features an open air rooftop pool with some of the best panoramic views of the city.
How to get to Taiwan:
China Airlines is the only airline to fly direct from London to Taipei. Direct flights run around 15 hours and they now run five flights per week from London Gatwick. Return London Gatwick to Taiwan. Economy class £609.50 | Premium Economy £1,183.50 | Business Class £2,475.50 (inc taxes)