28 May 2020.
After a spectacular bus ride through the Alishan Mountains, hurtling alongside the Yushan massif and through the fertile plains of the Chenyoulan Valley, I arrived at Sun Moon Lake to find it bathed in a haze of golden afternoon sunlight.
Fringed in emerald peaks, it was immediately clear why this glimmering expanse of water is among Taiwan’s most popular destinations.
With glorious lakeside views, sky-high pagodas, sprawling temples, a fantastic street food scene and a bunch of other attractions – some worthwhile, some not – as well as a cycle path that’s rumoured to be one of the world’s most scenic, it was time to ditch the hiking boots and set about exploring on two wheels instead.
Unsurprisingly, the lake’s popularity means it does get swamped with visitors, but if you can arrange your visit for a weekday during low season when temperatures are mild and crowds are few, you’ll be in for a wonderful day of exploration.
These were my favourite things to do at Sun Moon Lake and the best ways to experience the area when you’re there.
(Psst… a bike may not actually be the best way to go).
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Don’t Miss Sunrise Over Sun Moon Lake
On my first morning at Sun Moon Lake, I woke to find the inky silhouette of the mountains still cloaked in darkness. Slowly, a pastel glow bled across the sky before spilling over mountains and illuminating the entire valley basin.
Tiny boats began their slow journey across the water, birds fluttered excitedly in search of their morning feed and locals emerged for an unhurried morning stroll.
Sitting lakeside in that blissful cocoon of silence that only the wee hours can bring, bearing witness to the world waking up in this sublime setting was something really special that I’ll not be forgetting for a long time to come.
Anywhere along the water near Shuishe will provide excellent views as the sun rises on the opposite side of the lake.
Unfortunately, the platforms at popular Shuishe Pier and further along at Zhaowu Pier are locked overnight with access still prohibited in the early morning, but the Hanbi Trail boardwalk proves to be a better option and is accessable at any time .
Climb The Year Of Steps To The Enormous Wenwu Temple
Perched on a hill on the northern edge of the lake, the sprawling Wenwu Temple boasts a prime location.
Through an imposing marble gate and beneath the vibrant vermillion rooftops, you’ll find three main chambers each dedicated to the God of Literature, God of War and Confucious. Delicate tendrils of incense smoke fill the halls, the walkways are lined with gold and red wind chimes that tinkle in the breeze and the narrow staircases guide you higher through the tiered complex.
Taiwan is home to many thousands of temples, but Wenwu is one that is certainly worth a visit.
Across the road from the Wenwu Temple gate, there’s a large viewing platform that offers up fantastic views across Sun Moon Lake. On the left, you’ll find a steep downhill staircase hung with wind chimes where visitors have asked for blessings that will lead you towards the water.
This is the ‘Year Of Steps’ where each of the 366 steps is marked – one for every day of the year, including a leap year.
Before the road was built around the lake, this corridor marked the only way to reach the temple, where visitors had to arrive by boat before making the steep ascent.
Wenwu Temple is often the first stop for day trip tour buses visiting Sun Moon Lake so be sure to arrive early to beat the crowds.
If you’re exploring by bike from Shuishe, you’ll notice the cycleway ends abruptly just before the Zhongtan – Huanhu intersection. From here it’s 1.7km of gradual uphill peddling to reach the temple.
Munch Your Way Through The Street Food At Itathao
About a third of the way around Sun Moon Lake lies Itathao, the other key lakeside town after Shuishe.
It’s home to a great street food market and makes an excellent place to stop for lunch as you make your way around the lake.
The village is made up of a small grid of streets and can be covered quickly and easily on foot so the best way to visit is simply to wander slowly and follow your nose.
You’ll be spoilt for choice but my favourite bites that appeared to be unique to the area were the soft-serve tea icecream, spicy tea-marinated tofu and barbecued millet mochi sticks. You’ll also find a number of indigenous specialities like wild board skewers and sausages and various seafood options.
Though some shops do open in the morning, the village remains pretty quiet until around midday when everything begins to open up and visitors fill the streets. If you aren’t here in time for lunch, evenings are an even better time to visit when the market is in full swing.
Climb All 12 Floors Of The Cien Pagoda
Rising from a lush tree-covered hilltop, the elegant silhouette of Cien Pagoda is visible from just about anywhere around Sun Moon Lake.
The beautiful structure was created in memory of the mother of former president Chiang-Kai Shek and was once among his favourite places to visit. Inside, twin staircases intertwine and spiral around the interior wall bringing you to each of the 12 stories. for increasingly spectacular views over the area.
From your lofty almost 1,000m high vantage point, you’ll be able to gaze across the treetops at the entirety of the lake and toward the distant peaks of Taiwan’s central highlands.
From the main road, Cien Pagoda is reached via a short uphill detour to a car park where you’ll find a paved forest walkway that will guide you to the amber tower.
It would be a magnificent place to catch the sunrise or sunset but unfortunately the gates are only open between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. During winter, you may still be able to catch a window of glorious afternoon light before closing.
Is Cycling Around Sun Moon Lake The Best Way To Go?
Honestly, if I were to have my time over, I’m not sure I’d bother with the bike.
In theory, it sounds like a wonderful way to explore the area, weaving between turquoise water and verdant hills with the freedom to stop on every whim, but in practice, I wasn’t convinced.
You see, of the lake’s 33km coastline, just 10km are made up of cycleways and for the rest you’re on the road.
Leaving Shuishe, the first kilometre of cycle path hugs the water until just before Wenwu Temple, but from there you’ll be back to sharing the main road with the tour buses, cars and scooters.
Some 23km later, you’ll finally rejoin the ‘bike path’ but this only raises new issues. Some sections are so steep that you’re forced to push your bike – up and downhill – rather than ride it, while others are paved in cobblestones with switchbacks so tight that they immediately put a stop to your hard-earned momentum.
The other annoyance is that when you do finally reach the best part of the cycle path on the approach to Shuishe which is actually really lovely, you’ll encounter so many pedestrians and other bikers that you’re often unable to cycle here safely at all and will be made to walk your bike instead.
All things considered, Sun Moon Lake is an incredibly scenic spot whichever way you choose to explore, but ultimately I think I would have found it more enjoyable using a combination of bus and ferry instead. This would also have allowed for far more time at each location without the worry of having to keep moving.
In total, it took me around 6.5 hours to complete the entire circuit, including relatively long stops at Wenwu Temple, Itathao and Cien Pagoda, along with short breaks at various other locations along the way.
The route is mostly uphill between Shuishe and Cien Pagoda from where you’ll get some reprieve and be able to roll all the way until the cycle path, so this is definitely not the way to go for anyone seeking a leisurely bike ride.
Tips For Cycling Sun Moon Lake
Renting Your Bike | I rented my bike from a small shop (that had a huge number of bikes) between the bus station and the 7-11 (around here). My hostel offered a discount on bicycle rental and all up I paid $180 (€5.50) for 24 hours which included a lock, helmet, basket and map.
Generally, if you can provide proof that you’re staying overnight, you’ll be allowed to keep the bike for 24 hours, otherwise you’ll need to return it in time for closing.
Get An Early Start | After watching a dreamy sunrise over the lake, I began my bike ride around 9:30 a.m., returning around 4:30 p.m. Along with the major attractions like Wenwu Temple, Cien Pagoda and Itathao which can easily take up an hour each, there are a number of other viewpoints and small detours that will call you to stop.
Be sure to leave early enough that you’ll have time to see it all without having to rush too much.
If you’re considering adding things like the Sun Moon Lake Ropeway or any small hikes to your itinerary, I’d suggest adding an extra day to your visit or skipping the bike in favour of other transport.
Ride Clockwise | Though you could very well cycle in any direction, to complete the entire circuit heading clockwise just makes the most sense as virtually all the major attractions are located along the first half of the route. Time it well and at you’ll reach Wenwu temple right before the tour bus hoards and Itathao just in time for lunch, leaving the entire afternoon free to visit Cien Pagoda and meander your way back to Shuishe.
If you only want to spend an hour or two cycling rather than tackling the whole route, head anticlockwise from Shuishe instead where you’ll find the best section of bike path.
Alternatives To Cycling Sun Moon Lake – Scooter, Bus, Ferry
As I mentioned, if I was to do the trip again, I’d probably skip the bike in favour of the other options.
Renting a scooter ($400 / €12 per day) is the obvious alternative that would still give you the freedom to take your time and stop as you please. However, as I generally prefer to avoid travelling by scooter I’d probably have opted for a combination of ferry and bus instead.
Bus #6669 – the ‘Round The Lake’ bus – originates in Shuishe and departs every 20 to 30 minutes for Itathao via Wenwu Temple. From here, only a few buses continue on to Cien Pagoda and Xuanguang Temple – about 1 every hour – before returning to Itathao. A day pass on the bus costs $80 (€2.50) and it takes just half an hour to make the full trip. See the timetable here.
Ferries depart every 15 to 30 minutes and travel in an anticlockwise direction between Shuishe, Xuanguang and Itathao before returning to Shuishe. Officially, tickets are $100 (€3) for a one-way ticket or $300 (€9) for the full roundtrip.
To complete the same itinerary as I did, you could take the bus from Shuishe Visitor Centre to Wenwu Temple and onwards to Cien Pagoda. From there, walk 2km downhill to Xuanguang Pier – apart from a short stretch on the road there’s a dedicated walkway – and take the ferry to Itathao for a late lunch or the night market before returning to Shuishe by either bus or ferry.
If you did want to spend some of your visit exploring by bike without having to commit to cycling the entire circuit, consider purchasing a Bike & Boat Day Pass which offers excellent value. Bikes can be taken on board the ferries for an additional $100 (€3).
Visit Sun Moon Lake as a day trip from Taichung is another popular option and you’ll find a number of other Day Pass Packages on offer which may be of interest. See options here.
When choosing your Sun Moon Lake accommodation, you’ll first need to decide which village you want to stay at – Shuishe or Itathao.
Though I read a lot of great things about Itathao, Shuishe just made more sense for me. For a start, it has the bus station and since I knew I’d be arriving late, only in town for a few days and making an early exit, it just wasn’t worth the hassle of lugging my luggage back and forth across the lake.
It’s worth noting that Sun Moon Lake is also among Taiwan’s pricier destinations, but that’s to be expected in any popular tourist spot.
Deer Traveler Hostel | The best hostel in Sun Moon Lake, Deer Traveler is situated right in the heart of Shuishe, just around the corner from the bus station, bike rental shop, and plenty of restaurants. Rooms are clean and cosy and there’s a small lounge rooms for guests. The owners are also a wealth of information about the region and you’ll be offered discounts for bike rental and the ferry. Check rates and availability here.
Yue Lake Backpackers | Set a short walk outside of Shuishe, Yue offers a selection of beautiful rooms with big windows and lake views alongside their standard backpacker dormitories. Check rates and availability here.
Nestled smack bang in the centre of Taiwan, how you get to Sun Moon Lake will very much depend on where you’re coming from.
For most visitors, this will mean travelling to and from Taichung City, especially if you’re originating in Taipei or are visiting as a day trip, but it’s also possible to arrive directly from Alishan, Hehuanshan or Cingjing.
Taichung to Sun Moon Lake | Buses depart regularly from Taichung’s three main stations (2 to 3 an hour) and take around 2 hours to travel to the Shuishe Visitor Centre at Sun Moon Lake. See the timetable here.
Buses also run every 20 to 30 minutes to Puli where you can transfer to the Sun Moon Lake service.
Taipei to Sun Moon Lake | To reach Sun Moon Lake from Taipei, you’ll first need to travel to Taichung via local train or high-speed rail.
Local trains (see TRA timetables here) take between 2 and 3.5 hours and cost from $240 (€7), while the High Speed Rail (see THSR timetables here) takes around 1 hour with tickets starting from $700 (€21). Reserve your THSR seats here to receive an early-bird discount.
In Taichung, you’ll need to change to a bus as outlined above. Take note of which train station you’ll be arriving at when referring to the bus timetable.
Alishan to Sun Moon Lake | Both Alishan and Sun Moon Lake are heavy hitters on the Taiwan tourist circuit and thankfully there’s a tourist shuttle that runs between them saving you an entire day of travel. It’s an incredibly scenic journey that runs parallel to the impressive Yushan peak before emerging in a wide valley flanked by mountains.
From Alishan, shuttles depart at 1 and 2 p.m., while from Sun Moon Lake departures are at 8 and 9 a.m. from the Shuishe Visitor Centre. The trip takes 3 to 4 hours in a small minibus.
Hehuanshan to Sun Moon Lake | If you’re returning from Hehuanshan, Sun Moon Lake acts as a decent stopover on your way back to Taichung.
Puli acts as the major transport hub in the area and you’ll need to transfer here as well as in Cingjing to make the journey. See this post for all the details.
NOTE | The Shuishe Visitor Centre doubles as the bus station and acts as the main information and transport hub for Sun Moon Lake. However, during my visit in November 2019, it was closed down and under construction with no end date in sight.