I recently went to Taiwan for the first time; my boyfriend and I spent six nights in Taipei and one night in Hualien (to visit Taroko national park). One week is certainly not enough time to see everything Taiwan has to offer, from bustling cities to beautiful beaches. There are nine national parks on the island, which offer stunning mountains, rivers, lakes and forests. Before coming to Taiwan, I hardly knew anyone who had visited so thought I would share 20 things you should know before travelling there.
1 – Upon arrival, the first thing you should do is buy an Easycard. They are plastic cards which you add money to and use on the metro, local and regional buses, ferries, Taipei’s city bike scheme, in supermarkets and in convenience stores. You can even use them to pay for taxi journeys! Easycards cost 100 NT$ (‘New Taiwanese dollars’) and can be bought at the airport and main train stations.
2 – Taiwan has bullet trains, similar to Japan. There are twelve stations connected by high speed trains, which reach speeds of 300km per hour. A very quick and easy to travel around the country!
3 – It is against the rules to eat or drink anything on the MRT, Taipei’s metro system (even water!). If you are caught doing so, you might be fined up to 7,000 NT$. Speaking of rules, don’t sit on the MRT’s dark blue seats unless you’re pregnant, elderly or are travelling with young children.
4 – The MRT is very efficient, punctual and easy to use. All the signage is in English and Mandarin. The actual platforms are well-organized; there are designated queue lines and waiting areas with markings on the ground to show you where you should stand. People board the trains and exit in an orderly fashion.
5 – Journeys on the MRT are a quiet affair. Taiwanese people don’t play music, make phone calls or talk loudly while travelling.
6 – Scooters/mopeds are very popular; almost everyone in Taiwan owns one! Be careful crossing roads because Taiwanese drivers drive fast and don’t always slow down and give way when you expect them to.
7 – Taipei is home to Taipei 101, which was the world’s tallest building between 2004 to 2010. You can enjoy a fantastic view of the city from its observation deck but it’s not cheap, at 600 NT$ per ticket (€17), so visit on a clear day to get your money’s worth.
8 – Taiwan’s night markets are a fantastic place to find tasty, affordable street food and mingle with locals, who frequent the markets just as much as tourists do. The country comes to life at night so the markets really can’t be missed! Our favourite was Raohe market, but we also visited Shilin, Ximen and Ningxia. You can try local specialties such as oyster omelettes, ribs stewed in medicinal herbs, pepper pork buns and fermented ‘stinky tofu’, along with a lot of other meat, fish, vegetarian and sweet dishes.
9 – It isn’t a good idea to drink the tap water. Although the government says it is safe to drink, many buildings have old plumbing systems so the water might be contaminated. Most hotels and hostels will have mineral water machines, or you can buy cheap bottled water from water pump stations, supermarkets or convenience stores.
10 – Convenience stores, like 7/11 and Family Mart, are absolutely everywhere. You can buy hot and cold food there (including sandwiches, pastries, meat skewers and countless variations of pot noodles!). They even have microwaves for you to warm up your food and tables to sit at. You can use their public toilets and top up your Easycard there.
11 – Taiwanese loos are often ‘hole in the ground’ squat style, and you can’t flush paper down them. The used papers goes in a bin next to the toilet, and there is a foot peddle for flushing. Public toilets often don’t have soap or toilet paper so you should carry your own tissues and hand sanitizer. Our hostels had ‘Western style’ toilets, but you couldn’t flush paper down them.
12 – Taiwan has hundreds of temples, ranging from fairly modest to really extravagant. In Taipei, we visited Confucius Temple, Lungshan Temple and Dalongdong Baoan Temple and saw everyone from teenagers to the elderly burning incense, praying and offering gifts. Buddhism and Taoism are the two main religions there.
13 – Taiwan is very clean but bins are rarely found on the streets. Keep hold of your empties and litter until you find a bin, usually in a train station, shop or cafe.
14 – Bubble tea was invented in Taiwan and it’s incredibly popular. You can find so many different types and flavours – such as milk, oolong, fruit and green tea – and adjust the amount of added sugar and ice. All the tea we tried was delicious, although Tiger Sugar‘s black sugar tea was my absolute favourite.
15 – Cash is most commonly used, so you should withdraw some Taiwanese dollars when you can and carry them with you. A lot of places will not accept credit or debit cards.
16 – Even if you don’t have a lot of time in Taiwan, don’t restrict yourself to only Taipei. There are lots of great, convenient day trips to do from the capital. We visited the Tamsui district on the coast and Yehliu Geopark, which has incredible natural rock formations and fossils. Other popular day trips include Keeling city, Jiufen, Shifen, Jinguashi, Teapot Mountain, Longdong dragon caves, Beitou, Pingxi, Wulai and Yangmingshan National Park. Some of the destinations are in the greater Taipei district and can be easily reached on the MRT lines.
17 – Taiwan is not incredibly cheap to visit, compared to other Asian countries like Thailand or Vietnam. However, it is cheaper than most European cities. For example, a regular cup of coffee might cost between 50-80 NT$ (€1.50-2.40), bubble milk tea costs around 50 NT (€1.50) and dinner in an informal, local restaurant might cost 130-170 for two people (€3.80 – 5).
18 – Accommodation will probably be your biggest expense, especially in Taipei. We stayed in mixed dorm rooms in hostels, which were half the price of private rooms in hostels and considerably cheaper than hotels. However we didn’t book far in advance; if you do, you might find good deals on rooms.
19 – English is not widely spoken, even in Taipei. You can usually find someone at train stations or department stores who can help you, but we sometimes had to use sign language and gestures in restaurants, shops and supermarkets to order or pay for things.
20 – Many shop names and restaurant signs are in Mandarin and not all restaurants have English menus so you might have to just point at pictures in the menu and hope for the best! My boyfriend and I eat everything so we were fine to take the risk, but if you have allergies or specific things you don’t eat, I suggest having this information written in Mandarin to show to waiters and waitresses.
That’s all for now! I hope you’ve found my tips useful. Taiwan is a great country and one I’ll definitely return to someday.
Ciao for now
The Curious Sparrow