Taipei is one of the most underrated cities in Asia

I remember the moment I fell in love with Taipei.

It was a cool, rainy Sunday in the Ximen district. I had arrived late the night before, and took an outrageously expensive cab from the airport to the hostel. The hostel was nice, but not as social as the ones I had been staying at in Southeast Asia. I was feeling a bit down knowing that I was flying home in a week. Needless to say, I wasn’t having the best day.

After a sluggish morning, I decided to do my traveler’s duty by at least getting out and exploring a bit, not to mention I was starved. I threw on my rain jacket and jeans for the first time in over a month and set out without a plan. I started walking down a busy street, but decided to turn down what looked like a promising alley (as you know, I have a penchant for getting lost). I stumbled upon a sort of street art park, the gray skies making the colorful murals pop. I knew then that Taipei and I were going to get along just fine. 

I continued strolling down different alleyways, changing directions at whim, when I stumbled upon a crowded pedestrian-friendly shopping area. Large groups of young people walked around laughing. Couples huddled under umbrellas as they queued up at a movie theater. Neon-lit shops and restaurants dotted the sidewalks. The town came alive in that uniquely Asian way, and with it, so did I.

It reminded me of Tokyo, where as a foreigner you feel like a fly on the wall even when you’re in the middle of the action. You overwhelm your senses trying in vane to absorb your surroundings. I remember thinking, “I should move here,” with so little trepidation that it scared me.

And so began my seven-day love affair with Taipei; an affair filled with copious amounts of greasy street food, vibrant night markets, and solo exploring. As the last destination of my two-month trip, it took me by complete surprise. When I tell people that Taipei was far and away my favorite city of the trip, they often ask why; it’s not well-known for being at the top of many Americans’ travel bucket lists.

While I could probably wax poetic about the Asian metropolis for hours, I’ll break it down into five reasons why Taipei deserves a spot on yours.

 My friend Alex is half-Taiwanese and the only person more obsessed with dumplings than me.
My friend Alex is half-Taiwanese and the only person more obsessed with dumplings than me.

Locals are friendly and approachable.

Taiwanese people were always friendly, and didn’t seem to mind that the only phrase I know in Chinese is “thank you.” They often tried to speak English and were happy to suggest what food to order at a food stand or to translate text messages when my local SIM card was acting up. Getting along with locals was important, since most days the only Westerners I saw were expats. Expats I spoke with agreed, noting that it was fairly easy to integrate with locals and make friends.

The Taiwanese love their food—and so do I.

Few cultures are as food-obsessed as Taiwan. Most days I would forget to sit down and have a proper meal because I would snack on street food all day. Some of my favorites were scallion pancakes, dumplings, more dumplings, and pork buns. Locals know which stand has the best [insert food here], and you’ll likely be able to spot it by the large line.

From bubble tea to mango shaved ice to beef noodles, my list of must-try local and national dishes only grew. Almost every neighborhood in Taipei has its own night market, each with a little something unique to offer, but all with amazing street food. I would often wait in line just to try whatever delicious thing was at the end of it. (I drew the line at stinky tofu though, the smell was a bit too overbearing.)

It’s hard to be bored in Taipei.

Taipei is huge, with no shortage of neighborhoods to explore. (Take a trip 89 floors up to the top of Taipei 101 to see just how big.) I spent most of my time in Taipei wandering the city and found something new every day. There are impressive temples, historical monuments, and expansive museums; arcades and peculiar souvenir shops; cultural parks with pop-up shops and indie theaters; quaint coffee shops; and massive shopping centers.

I was drawn to the areas close to universities, where clothing shops catered to young people and lunch spots had student-friendly prices. Plus, the extensive metro system makes it a breeze to get around.

Taipei is a creative city that fosters a growing art scene.

Due to its cheap cost of living, Taipei is a popular place for freelancers to set up shop. The city caters to this, with an abundance of coffee shops and cafes, co-working spaces, and art galleries. Two “creative parks” in the city have transformed unused factory spaces into thriving creative areas that show indie films, support local vendors, and showcase local art. The mayor has even expressed the importance of investing in the art scene as a way of cultivating Taiwanese culture. One of my happiest moments in the city was sitting at a coffee shop on a rainy day, sipping a hazelnut cappuccino, and catching up on my blog.

 Shifen Waterfall Park on a rare sunny day.
Shifen Waterfall Park on a rare sunny day.

It has so much natural beauty.

For a tiny island, Taiwan is full of surprises. I barely scratched the surface when it comes to enjoying all the scenery that it has to offer. I took a day trip to the mountains, hopping on the Pingxi train line to Shifen, Jiofen, and Houtong Cat Village.

Shifen is known for its annual lantern ceremony—you’ve seen those pictures of thousands of flaming lanterns floating in the sky—but visitors can buy paper lanterns to write their wishes on year-round. A short walk from the little town takes you to what someone called the “Niagra Falls of Taiwan,” a gorgeous waterfall that I happened to visit on a rare sunny day. Jiufen is the inspiration for one of my favorite movies, Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away”; one look at the red lanterns that line the cliffside village’s narrow walkways, and you’ll see why. And that’s all a train ride away from Taipei.

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