Calling all bubble-tea lovers: Taiwan is the island of your dreams.
From pandas to bubble tea, Taiwan oozes with cuteness, but it’s also layered with culture, featuring fine-art museums, outdoor adventures, ornate temples, and a big night-market scene (food and shopping, check and check). Activities like whale watching, distillery tripping, and the best foot massage you’ve ever had lie in not only the largest city (Taipei, pop. 2.7 million) but in other regions of the country as well. Bring your appetite, too, because there’s a super-casual, Michelin-starred dumpling outpost you won’t want to miss…and might want to eat at many, many times.
Go to the Top of Taipei 101
Via a fast-moving elevator, zip up to the 88th and 89th floors of Taipei 101, the world’s second-tallest building (the tallest is Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, overtaking the 101-story skyscraper in 2010, only six years after its construction), where an observation deck complete with telescopes awaits. Formerly known as the Taipei World Financial Center, the tower’s LEED Platinum certification makes this the world’s tallest eco-friendly building.
Shop for Food and Crafts at Night Markets
Most of the country’s night markets are clustered in Taipei. Head to Shilin Night Market for unique finds like crazy socks—sold by street vendors—and eats that include Taiwanese-style fried chicken and bubble tea. Be prepared to elbow your way through, because anybody who’s anybody is at the night market.
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Visit the National Palace Museum
This museum hosts the world’s largest collection of Chinese art, spanning 8,000 years of history. It numbers around 7,000 pieces, with a mix of carvings, ceramics, calligraphy, and paintings. Must-sees are the hanging-scroll painting Early Spring by Guo Xi (1072) and Jadeite Cabbage (a jade carving). Open since 1965, the collection has only traveled five times—so art fans really do need to travel to Taipei in order to see it all.
Sip Kavalan Whiskey at the Source
The whiskey company Kavalan chose Yilan as its headquarters because the local water is among the country’s purest. In 2008, the first bottles of barley-based whiskey were released and the tasting room debuted that same year. On a free tour, sample the barley-based whiskey and walk through the production facility.
Chill at Sun Moon Lake
WHERE: Sun Moon Lake
Akin to Italy’s Lake Como, Sun Moon Lake—a 2.5-hour car drive from Taipei—is where honeymooners and couples escape for a tranquil getaway. It’s also a sweet spot for spa-goers and bicyclists. Hopping on a ferry boat not only helps you get around, but provides a stunning panoramic view. Stay overnight at Fleur de Chine Hotel for spa-pampering and splendid lake views from bed.
Walk Down Dihua Old Street
A visit to Taipei is not complete without a stroll down Dihua Old Street—dating back to the 1600s—where an amazing fabric market stuffed to the gills with good buys, plus shops selling loose-leaf teas, dried vegetables, and other snacks, build a solid souvenir-shopping itinerary. Fresh Ideas sells delicious teas and dried fruits as well as locally made popsicles.
Learn to Make Bubble Tea
Bubble tea (tea mixed with fruit or milk, plus chewy tapioca balls) was invented in 1983 at Chun Shui Tang, a café serving not only bubble tea but lunch dishes, too. A short class offered at 10 am, 3 pm, and 5 pm coaches students in how to make bubble tea at home—ending with a certificate and an informal “graduation ceremony.” Reservations are needed for the class; drop-in dining is fine.
Eat at Shi Dong Food Market
Not only are there unique food ingredients (like Black Queen grapes, seaweed jelly, and blue lobster) sold in the Shi Dong market from fishmongers and farmers, upstairs is a very affordable food court where you can try dishes made with kissfish and cuttlefish. Be sure to order a flavored milk (one stand offers 57 options, including avocado milk).
Relax at Tea Houses
To reach Taipei’s Maokong area, catch the cable car at the zoo and get off at the Maokong station. Red Wood House is one of the half-dozen or so traditional tea houses, with a wall of windows overlooking Taipei and dishes that include soups and curries, perfect for pairing with tea. Pro tip: order fried ginger chicken with tea oil. Nearby tea shops sell loose-leaf teas.
See Pandas at the Taipei Zoo
See pandas at Taipei Zoo, which celebrates 114 years this year. The Giant Panda House is home to pandas Tuan Tuan, Yuan Zai, and Yuan Yuan. Entrances are at set times throughout the day, so be sure to pick up your ticket upon arrival at the zoo.
Book a Hotel
Lounge on the Beach
WHERE: South Taiwan
Locals know that the best time of year to build in a beach day is any month except for July and August (when temperatures soar). Kenting National Park, at the island’s southern tip, is one of the country’s top beaches, perfect for basking in the sun or diving beneath the ocean’s surface.
Send a Sky Lantern
A few local shops in Pingxi (a quaint town marked by souvenir shops on Pingxi Old Street) participate in a fun sky-lantern tradition. While most popular around Chinese New Year, the activity can be done year-round. Pen a message on your paper lantern (designed to be read by your late ancestors) and then release it into the sky over the river.
Witness Spirituality at Lungshan Temple
Visiting this temple in the heart of Taipei is a deeply spiritual experience. There’s the sound of chanting and aroma of incense burning. Locals and guests are invited to toss two wooden pieces on the floor and then ask an important question. Handy interpretation papers help translate their meaning.
Brush Up on Taiwanese History at Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall
Named for the republic of China’s former president, this national monument consists of a main building (Memorial Hall) and park, and is attached to Liberty Square. The octagon-shape design with its blue roof is intentionally symbolic with good fortune (eight is a lucky number). A library and museum documents Taiwan’s history. Daily guard-mounting ceremonies, if you’re lucky enough to witness one, are next to a statue of Kai-shek.
Watch for Whales
A great place for whale-watching is at Wushih Harbor, on Gueishan Island, in Yilan County. Whale migration through this area tends to be during March and November, when the island is open to visitors. The island is reachable via bus or taxi. Special packages are offered with local guides, including tours lasting between three and four hours.
Eat Award-Winning Dumplings at Din Tai Fung
Steamed dumplings are a Taiwanese specialty, but you wouldn’t expect them to be the star of a Michelin-starred restaurant. And yet they are, at Din Tai Fung, making it one of the most affordable Michelin-starred eateries in the world. One location is on the ground floor of the Taipei 101 building. Din Tai Fung now has locations all around the world, but it started in Taiwan.
Admire Art at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts
Considered Taiwan’s only museum dedicated to fine arts, the 10,000-piece collection includes relics from the Chinese dynasties on up to Modernist works. Founded in 1988 and spanning three stories, special exhibits rotate throughout the year to further expand the museum’s breadth.
Hike at Taroko National Park
WHERE: Hualien City
Need some fresh air? Head to Taroko National Park—a three-hour car or public-transportation ride south of Taipei and along the coast—for hiking among breathtaking scenery. This includes the colorful Changchun Shrine, where stairs also lead to Guanyin Cave and a suspension bridge takes you to Changuang Temple, a Zen monastery.
Spend a Day at the Chimei Museum
Located in Southwestern Taiwan, Chimei Museum spans art, culture, and natural history. A temporary exhibit space joins a permanent collection of historical weapons, art, musical instruments, and armory. The museum’s Rodin Gallery (yep, by the famed sculptor) is a must-see.