Taiwanese culture is an intriguing tangle of traditional Chinese customs and Japanese sensibilities, permeated with island-wide free 4G and an insatiable commercial drive.
The epitome of all things Taiwan is its capital Taipei, a city so safe that you’d be wise to worry more about the weather than your wallet. While you may leave your laptop unattended in a cafe and expect it to be there when you return, the same may not be said of your umbrella.
Read on for a crash course in more of the capital’s quirks (example: wearing flip-flops in a rainstorm really is the wisest choice). Here’s all you need to know before your trip to Taipei.
Learn some very basic Mandarin
Luckily for non-native speakers, the communication style of the Taiwanese is very straightforward. The word “please” is a rarity when buying things, swapped instead for a polite bow and a thank-you after receiving your order.
If you can manage a simple “hello” (pīnyīn: nǐ hǎo) and “thank you” (xièxie), along with your order of bubble tea (yī bēi nǎi chá), you might even receive a compliment on your impeccable Chinese from kindly vendors.
Often, Taiwanese locals will be more than happy to practice their high-school English skills with you. Still, making the effort to converse in Mandarin is a great way to level the playing field.
Pack flip-flops for the plum rain
When it rains in Taipei, it pours. And in summer it rains a lot. Each year, the city is blessed with 98in (2500mm) of rainfall, seeing the highest precipitation in the hottest months from June to September – also known as monsoon or “plum rain” season.
To save your best sneakers from saturation, wear flip-flops on rainy days (avoiding tiled surfaces) and include a raincoat and umbrella on your packing list. The rain usually won’t turn up until late afternoon, so it’s also a good idea to start your day quite early (between 6am and 8am), when the weather is cooler and the sky brighter.
Remember to give and receive with two hands
This mainly applies to financial transactions, but it can also extend to gift giving and even passing your passport over at immigration. Giving and receiving with two hands is a sign of respect, even if it means putting your shopping down to do so.
Follow a Taipei foodie before you arrive
Beyond the Michelin-acclaimed Din Tai Fung and the slightly too touristy Shilin Night Market, Taipei has a mouthwatering food scene. Discover what’s new, popular and off the beaten track through the city’s network of local bloggers (we love Hungry in Taipei and Taipei Foodie) and on social media.
One nice shortcut for finding good local spots is to search on Instagram for the area you want (eg Ximen; 西門) followed by the phrase “beautiful food” (美食). This will present all the recently hashtagged gems for your drooling perusal.
Hot-step it to a 7-Eleven for an EasyCard and a tea egg
The mother of all convenience stores in Taiwan, 7-Eleven sells all the familiar snacks, food and drinks you get in the West – with such added Asian lunch additions as onigiri and tea-stained eggs.
But more than that, 7-Eleven is also the place to go for buying (and topping up) your MRT EasyCard, printing documents, sending packages and withdrawing cash. The swankiest locations even have bathrooms, free wi-fi and tables with charging docks.
A word of warning: convenience stores can quickly become a comfortable choice, but this will cost you in terms of the most authentic food and local interactions. So visit sparingly.
Don’t leave a tip
As in Japanese culture, tipping is not customary in Taiwan – in some cases, it could even be considered an insult. As Taiwan westernizes, it has become slightly more common to tip, particularly in international hotels and bars. Generally, though, it is not expected.
Try not to get defensive
Is Taipei tourist-friendly? Yes. But the Taiwanese can be shy.
The approachability of Taiwanese people lies at the heart of the island’s charm. Locals tend to be curious when spotting a foreigner, so you may experience a few stares. Nonetheless, you can expect a shy smile underneath. If you catch someone staring quietly, try smiling or striking up a conversation; you may make a new friend.
Respect Mother Nature
Some of the strongest tropical cyclones in the world pass over Taipei in the late summer, ripping shop signs from buildings and making mailboxes all wonky. Keep an eye out for any alerts from the Central Weather Bureau, going outside only for essentials when a typhoon is incoming.
Earthquakes are also extremely common in Taipei (though the epicenter tends to lie further south). When you feel the ground shake and your phone shriek in alarm, do not panic. A “Presidential Alert” is sent as a warning, recommending people go outside while the Earth does its thing.
Buy bottled water
Most locals drink bottled water in the steamy heat. A sustainable alternative is to refill your bottle at water stations across the city, using the Feng Cha App to help locate them (奉茶行動).
Drinking culture is also eating culture
Cheap and cheerful with an unabashed amount of booze, a re chao (熱炒) is the equivalent of a Japanese izakaya (or English pub). Re chao (meaning “fast fry”) serve up excellent wok-fried dishes at around 100NTD apiece, alongside Taiwan Beer and unlimited rice. Browse the tanks of live fish, lobster and other shellfish to see what’s fresh.
Unlike at bars in the West, Taiwan's drinking culture is concentrated around the dinner table, meaning re chao restaurants often get more raucous than the bars. Those looking for the bar and club scene can try the rooftop establishments in Xinyi district after dinner.
What is considered rude? Discourtesy to others on public transport
Taipei’s metro service (MRT) is all sleek lines and clean plastic seats, polished to a high shine. In order to keep it that way, gum, food and drink (including even water) is banned on public transport.
Since undue noise is also frowned upon on the MRT, rarely will you hear a conversation going above a low murmur. Refrain from loud conversations unless you want to receive some hard stares.
Another faux pas on the MRT is to sit in the dark-blue priority seats. These seats are reserved for those in need, including the elderly, pregnant and people with disabilities – a norm refreshingly maintained by local straphangers.
Greet Taiwanese with head dips, not handshakes
Do Taiwanese shake hands? The short answer is no.
A handy custom in a post-Covid world, bowing is the preferred greeting in Taiwan, with handshaking reserved for business meetings. While locals treat bowing more casually than in either Korea or Japan, a polite head dip in gratitude for a fresh bubble tea won’t ever go amiss.
Handling chopsticks is a subtle art
As if handling chopsticks wasn’t hard enough, Taiwan has a long rulebook of how not to handle them. Primarily: never stick your chopstick upright into a bowl of rice (as it is said to resemble an incense sacrifice) and never point at anything but your food with them.
Other faux pas include crossing your chopsticks and using your own set for shared dishes. Being a forgiving bunch, Taiwanese are likely to overlook any slip-ups and perhaps offer you a fork instead.
Taiwan and China feel worlds apart
Democratic, LGBTQ-friendly Taiwan feels like a very different destination from China, and locals may cringe at any mention of the “motherland.”
Many young Taiwanese are fiercely pro-independence, while older generations tend to have a softer attitude towards China, rooted in economic necessity. Because of this divergence, people don’t usually talk politics in polite conversation.
As well as its history with China, the national culture has been shaped by both Japanese colonialists and Indigenous populations, the latter having settled the island up to 14,000 years prior to the arrival of Chinese Han. Learn more about the island’s aboriginal culture at the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines in Shilin.