Traveling in Taiwan is generally a joy for the budget-conscious, but the capital city of Taipei can test your ability to tour cheaply if you don’t know where to look.
Granted, public transport is affordable, as is the street food you’ll find at every turn, but the main attractions tend to come with higher price tags. Instead of parting with your New Taiwan dollars (NT$) to climb Taipei 101, here's how to explore the capital's untold secrets for free.
Ride the riverside bikeway from Xindian to Tamsui
The easiest of Taipei's bicycle routes lies along the city's southeast-northwest axis and follows a designated river path almost the entire way. With 2.6 million residents riding their scooters bumper-to-bumper in the city center, the riverside is one of the few places to escape the engines, providing a bounty of open green space and some of the best views of the city.
Bitan Scenic Area near Xindian MRT station offers the perfect starting point – you can splash out on a swan paddleboat (NT$50) to warm up your leg muscles before a long YouBike ride north (NT$10 per half hour for the first four hours, NT$20 thereafter). Prefer to go on foot? Bitan Suspension Bridge and the various temple trails in the mountains beyond may tempt those who’d rather hike.
It’s more than 30km (19 miles) of pedaling to reach Tamsui, but cyclists can stop at any point along the way, at Gongguan, Ximen, Dadaocheng or Guandu Temple. If you do reach Tamsui, there’s an old street awaiting your patronage, but you can just as easily pack a picnic and eat overlooking weatherworn fishers at the mouth of the river.
Roam Da’an Forest Park
Taipei City’s biggest and best public park, Da’an Forest Park is one to get lost in. Walk just a little way in to lose sight and sound of the city’s traffic, following any one of the winding trails to pass by ponds, gondolas and play areas frequented by unhurried locals and their families.
See bonsai art at Da’an Weekend Flower Market
Hot and humid most of the year, Taiwan is a grower’s paradise, and the capital is where the country’s best agriculturalists show off their green thumbs. The Da’an Weekend Flower Market takes place under an elevated highway above Da’an Park’s northeast corner, offering everything from toy cacti and monstera to oversized bonsai and exotic orchids for minimal prices.
Feel the buzz at Taipei’s best night markets
The sun sets early year-round in Taiwan – around 6pm – but you’ll be thankful for darkness when you see the onslaught of food options rolling in along with the cooler evening air. Vendors at Taipei’s night markets tout an endless choice of low-cost snacks, meals and drinks until late, providing authentic food and opportunities for playful interaction with down-to-earth locals. We recommend Raohe Street Night Market near Songshan’s romantic Rainbow Bridge or Ningxia in Datong.
Wander along Taipei’s Japanese-era streets
Wherever you stay in Taipei, you’ll likely feel the influence of Japan on every corner. Besides serving top-notch sashimi and katsu curry, Taiwan also shows its Japanese colonial history by way of 18th-century red-brick builds, restored to pristine condition to house museums and boutique stores.
Of the best Japanese-era spots, Wanhua District’s Bopiliao is a popular film set for Taiwanese historical dramas, and Datong’s Dihua Street is one for herbal medicine and praying for romance at City God Temple. The old sake winery of Huashan 1914 Creative Park, meanwhile, is a great place for artsy endeavors and lawn picnics.
Explore Taiwanese art and culture on a budget
Top Taipei museums and art galleries tend to charge for entry, but the cost-value ratio almost always leans in the visitor’s favor. Saturday evenings at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum are completely free (and only NT$30 at other times!); likewise, the National Palace Museum hosts open entry on certain public holidays (NT$350 regular price), such as New Year’s Day, when visitors can view the world-class collection of ancient Chinese artworks and artifacts all for free.
Other Taipei museums worth paying a small entry fee for are the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA; NT$50) and the National Taiwan Museum (NT$30), the country's oldest, backed by the pagodas of 228 Peace Park.
Visit Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall
No matter how you feel about former military leader Chiang Kai-shek – a controversial figure who tried and failed to reunify Taiwan with mainland China – a visit to CKS Memorial Hall is one of the top free things to do in Taipei. A stately monument walled in by manicured gardens and flanked on either side by twin palaces housing the National Theatre and National Concert Hall, it's a must-see.
Tour a Tao temple or ten
Navigate through plumes of incense toward any of Taipei’s grand temples, all free to enter and unique in their ways of worship. Out of the best Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian temples in town, Longshan Temple is one of the oldest, a colorful fixture in downtown Wanhua devoted to Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Across the city, Ciyou Temple in Songshan venerates the Chinese sea goddess, Matsu.
Spend a day at the beach
Taipei hosts a halo of beaches around its northern edge, providing a fun – and free – day out for all who want one. The pristine sands of Qianshawan and Baishawan are close to Tamsui and accessible on the Taipei MRT; otherwise, a train or bus east from Taipei Main Station will get you to Fulong Beach in less than an hour.
If you’re visiting more for action than relaxing, perhaps snorkeling and cliff jumping on the rugged northeast coast at Longdong is for you, or maybe surfing at Wai’ao Beach in Yilan – the best surfing spot near Taipei, Wai’ao is a lively stretch of black sand backed by Drifter’s Beach Bar, open for après-surf, live music and stone-fired pizza.
Head out on a wilderness hike
The beauty of Taipei is in the contrast. One minute you could be weaving in and out of subway traffic and the next, hiking through dense forest, the sound of howling monkeys rising above the din of the city below.
Make the most of Taipei’s easy access to nature, with a half-day trip – at least – to Yangmingshan National Park, or a sunset excursion up Jiantan Trail or Tiger Mountain. You’ll pay nothing for the unbeatable sights, but gain a deeper understanding of Taiwan's biodiverse wilderness, beyond its urban pleasures.
Bonus: Muzha has the best nearly free things to do in Taipei
Necessitating just a couple of dollars for an entry ticket (NT$60), Taipei Zoo – located beside Muzha MRT station – is a winning day out for animal lovers looking to lay eyes on endemic species, such as the Formosan black bear and clouded leopard.
While in Muzha, consider taking the Maokong Gondola (NT$120) up into the mountain mist for easy hiking trails or traditional tea-tasting with panoramas over the city.