The city of Taiwan conjures romantic images of the majestic tower of Taipei 101, backlit by a starry sky with strings of street lights. Indeed, no visit to Taiwan feels complete if you ignore the capital completely – Taipei is a whirlwind of sights and sounds, and worth a visit. Still, if you have time, why not venture out of Taipei and visit northern Taiwan? Here are three places I would recommend, and some of the best attractions you should check out when you’re there:
1.Eat and learn at Tai Chung
Tai Chung City backdrop
Taichung City is the country’s 2nd most populous city. During its days under Japanese rule, Taichung was further developed by its Japanese leaders. Walk down its streets and you might see Japanese characters on some of its older buildings, or small shops in hamlets reminiscent of Japanese minimalism. While there are many cultural attractions and cute cafes to check out, I recommend two places that you should go: Fengjia Night Market and the Earthquake Museum.
Picture of Fengjia Night Market (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fengjia_Night_Market#/media/File:1_fengjia_night_market_2019.jpg)
Fengjia Night Market, as its name suggests, is a market. But it’s not just any market – its claim to fame is that it is Taiwan’s largest shopping town. Over here you’ll find streets upon streets of shops lined alongside each other, with plenty of cafes, restaurants, stand-alone shops peddling their culinary treats. In between filing your stomach, you get to shop as well. The shops here cater to the young and trendy crowd, perfect for the fashionista friends amongst us. The place is so big that many people book a hotel room to stay around there, spending their days exploring the market with a bicycle. Here is a map from the Taiwan Tourism Bureau. What to eat at this night market? Well, of course, you should try the famous stinky tofu well-loved by the Taiwanese. The pungent fried snack is a must-eat and you can find it on almost every corner of the market.
Picture of stinky fried tofu (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stinky_Tofu.jpg)
Another great snack to try is the sweet potato fries with plum powder added, another ubiquitous favorite you will encounter at almost every turn of the streets. Apart from food and shopping at the market, another place you should visit is the 921 Earthquake Museum of Taiwan. A stark reminder of the 7.3 earthquake that struck Taiwan in 1999, the exterior walls are part of a former junior high school. Step inside and you’ll see images of an actual stadium left deserted.
School stadium at museum (https://eng.taiwan.net.tw/m1.aspx?sNo=0002112&id=A12-00013#lg=1&slide=0)
Contrary to expected, the Taiwanese are ready to talk about earthquakes and this is not a topic they shy away from, despite the extensive damage that has been inflicted on the country. As Taiwan is in an earthquake hot spot, it has become even more important to them to remember the lessons learned after the earthquake. These stark images are reminders to the general population and visits of the brutality of earthquakes, and the preciousness of our own lives. Apart from such sobering images, the museum also explains earthquakes in an interactive manner, helping visitors to understand the impact of earthquakes and how Taiwan has taken measures to ensure such large-scale damage does not happen again.
2. Get green at Nantou
If you have green fingers, or just want to try something different, come and jump on the famous “Dancing Soil” at Toushe Basin in Nantou. Nantou is just 30 minutes away from Tai Chung city, and you can take a public bus or taxi there. Once there, get ready for an agricultural experience where you can walk on soil that seems to bounce, and pick flowers to make your soap. The soil bounces as the basin was submerged in rainwater after the 921 Earthquake and over time, developed a soft upper soil and a hard bottom soil. This wonderful peat soil is now the site of an agricultural farm, and I highly recommend booking a tour just to experience the natural trampoline!
Toushe Agricultural Farm (Photos: Owner)
While you’re out there enjoying the breeze and sun on your face, why not take a walk or bike ride around the picturesque Sun Moon Lake?
Sun Moon Lake
Sun Moon Lake is the largest body of water in Taiwan, and there are many bike trails around the lake. The east of the lake looks like a moon while the west resembles a sun, hence the name, Sun Moon Lake. A popular wedding photography spot, this lovely lake will surely be the highlight of your trip to Taiwan.
3. Walk down the old streets of Tao Yuan
The name “Tao Yuan” translates to Peach Garden in Chinese, and indeed, peach trees used to blossom in this city just bordering Taipei. Even today, you can admire cherry blossoms in Spring. While the city is now the tech site of the country, with many tech firms settling in Tao yuan, don’t expect harsh concrete – the looming mountains and green foliage all around remain.
Snow white blossoms in Tao Yuan City (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Taoyuan,_Taoyuan_District,_Taoyuan_City,_Taiwan_-_panoramio_(19).jpg)
To soak in that rugged beauty of the landscape, head to Shihmen Dam in Northern Tao Yuan. An artificial lake built as a reservoir, it is well known for its spectacular view, and the cherry blossoms that bloom around the dam. Many bike trails are around it, and yachts are also allowed to sail on the lake.
Picture of a boat sailing through Shihmen Lake (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shihmen_Dam#/media/File:Taiwan_ShihMan_Reservoir.JPG)
If you happen to visit in June, you can even explore the skies above in a hot air balloon, as the hot air balloon festival is held during the month. Soaking in nature not your cup of tea? Then take a trip to Daxi Lane and have a cup of tea at this historical old street in Tao Yuan. The place has been preserved and you’ll feel like the main character walking down this quaint street. In the past, this street was used as a shortcut for the workers that carried tea and camphor to the ports for exports. Over time, as European traders visit and brought their cultural influences over, the architecture in the street started to reflect this curious mix of Eastern and Western blend, with baroque style columns staunchly beside large billboards with Chinese characters.
Picture of Daxi Street
Take photos, stop by the cafes to have a coffee and a snack, or walk around the back alleys – you’ll feel like you have been transported to the yesteryears of Taiwan.
Northern Taiwan takes time to explore, and visitors are certainly encouraged to step out of Taipei to discover the charms of other cities. Culturally, the Taiwanese are very friendly and warm, and it is never difficult to get help as you are traveling around. First-time visitors will realize upon reaching Taiwan, how environmentally conscious the Taiwanese are. Plastic bags are uncommon at shopping malls. After meals, it is customary to sort out food waste and place reusable materials in a proper bin. Since recycling and reusing is the norm in Taiwan, it will be best if tourists bring a shopping tote with their utensils, maybe even a lunchbox to carry around as some restaurants do not provide take-out boxes or utensils. Mandarin and Hokkien are the main languages in Taiwan, but English is also widely spoken amongst the population. Getting around is fairly easy, with buses connecting cities, or else take the Taiwan High-Speed Rail, which gets you everywhere. With such accessibility, there is no reason to just stay in Taipei when you’re in Taiwan next – so go ahead and explore!