Generous like its 23 million people, Taiwan offers wondrous vistas, lively traditions and a culture as luxuriant as Jade Mountain on a sunny day.
The Beautiful Isle
Famed for centuries as Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Isle; 美麗島; Měilìdǎo), this is a land with more sides than the 11-headed Guanyin. Towering sea cliffs, marble-walled gorges and tropical forests are just the start of your journey, which could take you as far as Yushan, Taiwan's 3952m alpine roof.
In Taiwan you can criss-cross mountains on colonial-era hiking trails or cycle a lone highway with the blue Pacific on one side and green volcanic arcs on the other. And if you simply want classic landscapes to enjoy, you'll find them around every corner.
Have You Eaten?
'Have you eaten?' The words are used as a greeting here, and the answer is almost always 'yes', as there's just too much nibbling to do. Taiwan offers the gamut of Chinese cuisines, the best Japanese outside Japan, and a full house of local specialities from Tainan milkfish and Taipei beef noodles to indigenous barbecued wild boar. Night markets serve endless feasts of snacks including oyster omelettes, shrimp rolls and shaved ice. When you're thirsty you can indulge in juices from the freshest fruits, local craft beer, fragrant teas and, in a surprising twist, Asia's best gourmet coffee and drinking chocolate.
Asian Values On Their Terms
The Taiwanese have created Asia's most vibrant democracy and liberal society, with a raucous free press, gender equality, and respect for human rights and, increasingly, animal rights as well. The ancestors are still worshipped, and parents still get their dues, but woe betide the politician who thinks it's the people who must pander, and not them. If you want to catch a glimpse of the people's passion for protest, check out Taipei main station on most weekends, or just follow the local news.
The Tao of Today
Taiwan is heir to the entire Chinese tradition of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and that amorphous collection of deities and demons worshipped as folk faith. Over the centuries the people have blended their way into a unique and tolerant religious culture that's often as ritual heavy as Catholicism and as wild as Santería.
Taiwanese temples (all 15,000) combine worship hall, festival venue and art house under one roof. Watch a plague boat burn at Donglong Temple, go on a pilgrimage with the Empress of Heaven, study a rooftop three-dimensional mosaic, and learn why a flag and ball have come to represent prayer.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Taiwan.
Built in the late 18th century, Longshan Temple remains a showcase of southern temple design. The temple is expansive, covering over 10,000 sq metres within its gated walls, so give yourself a few hours to take in the grandeur and admire the minutiae.
A true hidden gem, this private museum has a small but exceptional collection of sculpture and antiques by mid-19th- to 20th-century Japanese artists who were inspired by Taiwan or who had taught early Taiwanese masters. There's mind-blowing jizai okimono (articulated animal figures), such as iron snakes that move like real ones and a metallic pheasant comprising 700 parts; netsuke (small carved ornaments) of outstanding artistry; and beautiful paintings and vases. Most are unique or one of under a handful ever made.
Home to the world's largest and arguably finest collection of Chinese art, this vast hoard covers treasures in painting, calligraphy, statuary, bronzes, lacquerware, ceramics, jade and religious objects. Some of the most popular items, such as the famous Jadeite Cabbage, are always on display – although check first that it's not on loan to the southern branch in Chiayi. There are controversial plans to partially or even wholly close the museum in 2020 for three years' refurbishment.
Founded in 1738 by Han immigrants from Fujian, this temple has served as a municipal, guild and self-defence centre, as well as a house of worship. These days it is one of the city's top religious sites, and a prime venue for exploring both Taiwan's vibrant folk faith and its unique temple arts and architecture. The temple can get very congested with tourists; try coming early in the morning (before 8am) or late in the evening (after 8pm) to avoid the crush.
This former 'Centre Street' has long been known for its Chinese medicine shops, fabric market and lively Lunar New Year sundry market. It has attracted numerous restoration and cultural projects and is now a magnet for young entrepreneurs, eager to breathe new life into the neighbourhood with cafes, restaurants, art studios and antique shops. Thankfully, this gentrification hasn't squashed the original atmosphere – fancy ceramic shops sit side by side with long-term tenants selling sacks of dried mushrooms and agricultural produce.
Towering above the city like the gigantic bamboo stalk it was designed to resemble, Taipei 101 is impossible to miss. At 508m, Taipei 101 held the title of 'world's tallest building' for a number of years. Until 2011, it also held the title of the world's tallest green building.
This lively temple once served as the palace of Ning Jin, the last king of the Ming dynasty. If you wish to confirm visually that a king's status is lower than an emperor's, count the steps to the shrine. There are only seven; an emperor would get nine.
Tianliao Stone Temple is a fantastical, Gaudi-esque interpretation of a Taoist temple by Southeast Asian migrant workers. The 500 men had been hired to build a highway in the area, but the contractor went out of business and they were stranded with no means. A temple took them in, after trying in vain to negotiate with the labour authorities. In return for free food and lodging, the men were asked to build a temple, which they did in the early 1990s with seashells, corals, stones and loads of imagination.
This 18km marble-walled gorge is Taroko National Park's crown jewel. It's a must-see attraction whether you're hiking its trails, peering at its geological features or simply driving along the road that runs right through the middle (albeit much of the way in tunnels), wondering just how high are those mountains floating so vertiginously far above.
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