After a year living and travelling in Taiwan, Luke and I know that little sweet potato shaped island pretty well. Taiwan is a bit of a hidden gem in Asia. While backpackers flock to Thailand and Vietnam, and adventurous travellers tackle China and South Korea, there are very few Western tourists in Taiwan. Instead, Taiwan sees a fair amount of domestic tourists and Chinese tourists in high season, and otherwise mostly attracts expats coming over to work as ESL teachers.
There seems to be quite a misconception that Taiwan is akin to China, but actually I found them to be really quite drastically different. The Taiwanese are the most kind hearted people I’ve ever met and the majority of the Taiwanese don’t consider themselves as part of China. The island prides itself on excellent public transport, really clean and modern cities, and they don’t barter or haggle over goods like other Asian countries either.
Why You Should Travel to Taiwan
Taiwan isn’t known as ‘Ilha Formosa’ (beautiful island) for nothing. Taiwan has a rugged, mountainous belly and so all of the towns and cities are built around the island. This makes it close to perfect for travellers who want to do a full circuit of the island or take scooter trips down one side or the other.
1. Beautiful mountains and gorges. Taiwan has incredible nature and landscapes. Hiking and river tracing are really popular pastimes in Taiwan and for good reason. Taroko Gorge National Park is the big draw for many visitors.
2. Lively, cultural festivals. There are festivals all year round in Taiwan. My favourites were Chinese New Year, Lantern Festival and Dragon Boat Festival.
3. Bustling night markets. Taiwan has a great night market scene, and nearly every town has their own night market and regional specialties. Our local one was the LuoDong night market and I actually thought it was one of the coolest. Scallion pancakes and stinky tofu are must eats there.
4. Friendly, welcoming people. Lost in Taiwan? In less than 3 minutes of opening up a map anywhere in Taiwan, there will be someone right there offering you help with directions. We once even had a woman walk 20 minutes out of her way to help us get to where we were headed.
5. Off the beaten track. As a travel destination, Taiwan is much more off the beaten path than other Asian countries. There are fewer tourists and no backpacker trails, so you can really explore the country and culture for yourself.
Where to Go in Taiwan
In Taiwan you can hang out in big (but not too big) cities with skyscrapers, museums and shopping malls, or get out into nature, explore quiet ramshackle villages and cycle around tea fields. The best way to plan a trip is to start in Taipei and decide on one coastline to follow down.
Taiwan’s capital city isn’t exactly Bangkok or Shanghai, but it’s still very metropolitan. London has Big Ben, Paris has the Eiffel Tower and Taipei has the world’s fourth tallest skyscraper, Taipei 101. Other than that, there are lots of parks, cultural centres and cute cafes. What’s really great about Taipei though is its close proximity to other places like Pinglin, Maokong and Wulai, which are great for day trips.
Northern Taiwan is… rainy. That doesn’t mean there aren’t cool things to explore up here though, and I actually felt that the raininess gave Northern Taiwan a certain kind of mysterious atmosphere.
North of Taipei sits the port city of Keelung, famous for it’s night market, forts and temples. It’s also very close to Yehliu geological park where the rocks look like moon craters. It’s also super rainy.
Further along the coast from Keelung, Jiufen is a mountain town characterised by winding market streets, teahouses and great hiking. It gets quite busy on the weekends with couples from Taipei having a weekend away.
East Coast Taiwan
Taiwan’s East coast is much less developed than the Northern towns and the cities along the West coast. There are lots of small towns and a couple of beach towns, and nature is abundant over here.
One of the better yellow sand beaches in Northern Taiwan, it’s a good spot for a beach day and also hosts a sand art festival.
Further down from Fulong, Wulai is a really cool black sand beach. There are some surfers around the area but it’s not exactly a great surfing spot (compared to other places in Taiwan it probably is though).
Jiaoshi is a hot spring town which is perfect for those cold, overcast winter days. It was only a couple of train stops up from where we lived, so we went there quite a lot on rainy weekends. You can grab a private indoor hot spring room for around NT 300.
Taiwan’s most famous national park has a 19km long marble canyon that is breathtaking. There are trails suitable for different fitness levels all around the park and you can pitch up a tent or sleep at one of the hostels inside the park.
West Coast & Southern Taiwan
Taiwan’s West coast is more industrial but that also means that there are bigger cities, more metropolitan activities and more of a buzz. There’s quite a high density of expats living in the cities along Taiwan’s West coast so meeting other English-speakers is easier here.
This industrial city on the West coast is home for a lot of expats but isn’t the prettiest place to visit. We went a couple of times because we had friends teaching over there, but probably wouldn’t recommend it for travellers generally. It’s a great city for international cuisine and studying Chinese.
We only visited Taichung briefly to see the very cool Rainbow Village, an ex-military dependents village which has been lovingly painted up by a local artist.
Taiwan’s second largest city is a cool place for temple hopping, visit the British consulate and go out for late night almond milk. Most travellers stop by en-route to Kenting. We had an awesome experience Couchsurfing with a family in the city.
At the southern-most tip of Taiwan is Kenting, a popular beach destination because of the soft white sands and because the area is said to have the best weather in all of Taiwan. There’s quite a party vibe down here in the summer and it’s where all of Taiwan’s beach parties – which there aren’t that many of – happen.
Things to Do in Taiwan
Taiwan actually has lots of cool things to do and after a year of travelling around I could write an endless list. Instead of boring your pants off with every single awesome thing there is to do, I’ve written up th first ten that came to mind!
Go to the top of Taipei 101
The second thing people will ask you if you’ve visited Taiwan is whether you went to the top of Taipei 101. It’s not the most amazing experience, but you can get a cool view of the city. Alternatively, hike up Elephant Mountain which also has awesome city views.
Eat stinky tofu at a night market
You know the second thing people will ask you if you’ve visited Taiwan already, well this is the first. Stinky tofu is a traditional Taiwanese food and has become a bit notorious amongst Westerners because of it’s bad smell. Trust me though, fermented tofu doesn’t taste as bad as it smells.
Ride a scooter through Taroko Gorge
Luke and I tried to walk through the park, not realising quite how gigantic it was. My advice is to not do that. On subsequent visits we went by scooter and had a really incredible time. There’s a main route through the gorge and you can stop off at different trails and viewpoints as you go.
Climb Teapot Mountain
Teapot Mountain has got to be the best hike in Taiwan. The mountain isn’t that high, but the views over Jinguashi (the town next to Jiufen) and the Pacific ocean are incredible. The rocky summit of the mountain is apparently shaped like a teapot, though I couldn’t really see it myself, and you can use a rope to pull yourself up inside the teapot.
Cycle around tea fields in Pinglin
Pinglin is a famous tea growing region not far from Taipei. We hired some red bicycles and spent the day cycling around and drinking green tea. Try some green tea oil noodles too – they’re really delicious!
Relax in hot springs during the winter
Winter gets pretty chilly and dreary in Taiwan and all you can do on those days is warm yourself up in a hot spring. There are a couple dotted around the country, including public springs in Beitou, private hot springs in Jiaoxi, and one of only three salt water hot springs in the world on Green Island.
Cool down in cold springs during the summer
Equally, summer days in Taiwan can be so hot, humid and sweaty that all you can do is head to a cold spring to cool down. There’s a really great cold spring in Suao, though during the holidays there are lots of families there as well.
Watch a Dragon Boat race
During Taiwan’s Dragon Boat festival, boat races take place on lakes across the country. We watched the very impressive races at Meihua Lake (Plum Blossom Lake) in Yilan and ate the traditional festival food of zongzi (sticky rice triangles wrapped in bamboo leaves). The festival usually falls in June.
Eat at the organic vegetarian restaurant in LuoDong
Okay, so this is just my very personal favourite thing to do in Taiwan. This organic farm-to-table restaurant is the best vegetarian restaurant in the whole of the country – I swear it. LuoDong was the small town that Luke and I called home, so we were incredibly lucky to have this place on our doorstep. Definitely get the Japanese yellow curry with five grain purple rice. If you’re actually in the area and want to find this place, then leave me a comment to get directions.
Explore Taiwan’s islands
If we ever go back to Taiwan – fingers crossed we will! – then we’ll be going to explore Taiwan’s outlying islands. I took a trip to Green Island which had a good vibe but is probably the most popular for tourists. Luke was meant to be on a hiking/river tracing trip to the Matsu Islands but it was called off because of a typhoon. That’s number one for us along with the lesser known Orchid Island and Penghu Island.
Cost to Travel in Taiwan
Taiwan isn’t as cheap as backpacker hotspots like Thailand and Vietnam, which is mainly because there are less accommodation options and hostels available. The food and transportation is still ridiculously good value. You can eat out for around 50p – £2 per meal, for example (vegetarian food in Taiwan is delicious, by the way).
Due to our teaching schedule, we mostly travelled for days out and weekends and returned to our apartment or stayed with other teacher friends across the island. We did stay in the hostels in Taroko Gorge which were all reasonable (the cheapest being Catholic Hostel), stayed in some guesthouses on special occasions in Jiufen (much pricier) and found there were quite a few good options for accommodation in Kenting because it’s more popular with tourists in the summer.
We also Couchsurfed on a trip to Kaohsiung which worked out awesomely. The Taiwanese are really friendly and there are lots of younger Taiwanese who are keen to practise their English, so Couchsurfing is a good option.
Cost to Live in Taiwan
The cost of living in Taiwan is incredibly low. Luke and I both saved over half of our teaching salaries while living in Taiwan and it’s certainly possible to budget hard and save even more than that if you’re determined. In LuoDong (a small town on the East coast), our apartment cost £200 per month to rent, and we ate out the majority of the time because it was cheaper than cooking at home.
I always say that moving to Taiwan drastically improved my lifestyle, but other expats would argue otherwise (and have done quite aggressively on my blog post comments). The cost of living was a large part of that improvement for me and Luke. We had just graduated and our families lived in different areas of the UK. Taiwan gave us the opportunity to earn money in a good graduate job, to live together, and to enjoy travelling. Teaching in Taiwan was also a launch pad into long-term travel for us.
Teaching in Taiwan
You read a lot of myths about teaching in Taiwan on the internet, so it’s really important to do your research before signing a contract and jetting off for a year of teaching. Life as an expat can be challenging, and everyone who comes to teach in Taiwan experiences their time there differently. Check out my Teaching in Taiwan interview series where other teachers share their experiences of teaching in Taiwan.
If you are thinking about teaching in Taiwan though, there are certainly a lot of benefits. For one, you don’t always need a TEFL certificate to teach English in Taiwan, and there is such a high demand for native speaking English teachers that getting a job is usually quite straightforward. You can also earn well and save money, always a bonus.
Safety in Taiwan
Taiwan is the safest place I have ever travelled, and I’m sure it will always be. Crime is really low in Taiwan and the locals are welcoming to foreigners most of the time. I always felt safe out alone at night and never experienced anything negative in terms of safety in a whole year of living there.
There is one major safety in Taiwan though: poor driving. Unfortunately, driving laws are lax in Taiwan and driving scooters without helmets, swerving around traffic, undertaking, running red lights and driving on the pavement are all common occurrences. If you’re on the roads, be really careful.
More Info on Taiwan
Looking for more resources about travel in Taiwan?
Expat Life in Taiwan
We started writing our first blog while we were living in Taiwan; it’s not amazingly detailed but it gives you a good sense of things to do in Taiwan and life as an expat.
I used to love reading about Casey and Dan’s life in Taiwan over on A Cruising Couple. They taught for the same company as us and we had a lot of similar adventures.
I highly recommend Plant Powered Nomad, written by vegan female solo-traveller Amelia, another expat who lived and taught in Taiwan.
Another expat, Waegook Tom, taught in South Korea before switching over to teaching in Taiwan. He mostly writes about delicious Taiwanese sweets and the gay scene in Taipei.