30 May 2020.
Exceptionally beautiful, well organised and unfailingly friendly, Taiwan is a wonderfully easy place to travel.
With spectacular hiking trails and fairytale forests, tastebud-tingling street eats and world-class tea, a rich culture and fascinating history, mindboggling mountains and remote natural hot springs, along with the warmest welcome I’ve ever encountered, my five weeks in Taiwan made for one of my favourite trips of 2019.
From traveller safety and sticking to your budget to local food and avoiding the crowds, these are my top Taiwan travel tips to help you fall in love with this place just as much as I did.
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1 | Download These Useful Apps For Your Trip
From breaking through the language barrier and deciphering streetside menus to figuring out the train network and finding the right hiking trails, these apps will make travelling in Taiwan a whole lot easier and can all be used offline.
Google Translate | Normally I just muddle way through any language difficulties with a few key phrases, an awkward smile and plenty of charades, but given many of us won’t be able to read the alphabet here, Google Translate is an absolute lifesaver. Make sure you download the Chinese dictionary before arriving and you’ll be able to use the instant translate option by hovering your phone over any sign or menu. It’s not always entirely accurate, but it’s better than nothing.
Google Maps Offline | You can download a map of the entire island of Taiwan offline which is incredibly useful for navigation and includes all train stations, bus stops, MRT routes, restaurants and attractions. Litter your map with stars to keep track of your top destinations.
Maps.Me | While Google Maps is great for cities, Maps.Me is perfect for any hiking adventures. The island is a veritable maze of tiny tracks and many of them are captured on this app. It also often has the Chinese place names written in English characters which can be very useful.
2 | You probably won’t need a visa to visit Taiwan
Unlike China which has a complicated visa application process, many nationalities are able to visit Taiwan visa free.
Citizens of Australia, Canada, the USA, the EU and the UK, among others, are able to visit for up to 90 days without a visa, while a number of other nations are eligible to visit visa-free for shorter periods of 14 to 30 days or apply for an e-visa.
Nationals from most countries in South America, Africa and Southern Asia will require a visa. See here for further information.
3 | Taiwan Is Not Technically A Country
Officially, Taiwan is called the Republic of China and exists as a province of the People’s Republic of China (aka China), but it has many of the hallmarks of an independent nation, including a democratically elected President, military forces and a constitution.
In short, it’s a little complicated.
On the international stage, Taiwan is not widely recognised, in large part because this would severely disrupt any political relationship with China. Taiwan has been barred from having a seat at the UN and for major international events where China is also participating, it is either refused as an independent participant or allowed to participate under the name of ‘Chinese Taipei’, such as in the Olympic Games.
Today, the discussion around Taiwanese independence or unification is a polarising one with tensions escalating in recent months, though surveys show the majority of locals believe leaving things as they are is the best way forward.
That said, to simplify things I have referred to Taiwan as a country throughout these guides.
4 | Outside of the cities, English is not widely spoken
The language barrier was definitely something I was concerned about before arriving in Taiwan, especially as I wouldn’t be able to read the language either.
But I really needn’t have worried.
In general, English is not widely spoken, but virtually everyone I met was so wonderfully warm and welcoming that they would go out of their way to help you and if all else failed it was Google Translate to the rescue.
That said, at the very least learning a few basic phrases like ‘Nihao’ or ‘She She’ is always worthwhile .
5 | You will feel welcomed
‘Welcome to Taiwan!’
This was a phrase I was greeted with countless times during my trip, often accompanied by open arms, a toothy grin, a handshake and the occasional selfie.
As a blonde-haired, blue-eyed traveller, I never had any hope of blending in in these parts, but I certainly never expected to be welcomed with such genuine warmth at every step of the way.
There was that couple who walked me to the correct bus stop in Taipei when they saw I was visibly lost, the fellow hiker that spent hours chatting about her favourite trails to ensure I got to experience the best of the mountains, the passengers who jumped up without question to help me retrieve my heavy bags off the train and the many, many people who would stop me during the day just to say hello and wish me a pleasant trip.
Perhaps sweetest of all though was on one of the rare occasions when I had hitched a ride through the mountains with a fellow traveller instead oh waiting several hours for the bus. The couple who had kindly taken us had reached their final destination at a busy viewpoint, but instead of just dropping us by the roadside to continue on our way, they ran around the car park asking every single person if they were heading in our direction. When that failed they stood on the roadside and flagged down each passing car until they found one that would take us.
Of all the things I loved about Taiwan, and there were many, the unwavering kindness in ways both big and small was what left me truly humbled and made the place an absolute joy to explore. This kind of hospitality is not something I’ll be forgetting in a hurry.
6 | It’s a reasonably affordable destination
Taiwan falls somewhere between expensive Japan and wallet-friendly South East Asia.
For a five-week trip that mostly involved street food and hostels, along with the odd luxury like a couple of days of diving, a foot massage and a handful of hotel stays thrown in for good measure, my daily budget came out to €32.
Prices for a hostel dorm bed generally start at around €10 but can be considerably higher in more remote areas like Green Island or Hehuanshan. Popular destinations like Alishan will also command higher rates, especially over weekends and during cherry blossom season. For private rooms, family-run homestays or small guesthouses usually present the best value rather than hotels.
Street food and local dishes are slightly more expensive than elsewhere in Asia, but munching your way around a night market is unlikely to break the bank (and should not be missed!).
Local long-distance transport is very reasonably priced and will get you virtually anywhere in the country, while the west coast’s High Speed Rail is a fast and efficient option for anyone not on a tight travel budget.
7 | Avoid popular spots on weekends and holidays
Locals and weekenders absolutely love getting out of the city to explore the countryside and with such astounding natural beauty at every turn, why wouldn’t you.
This does however mean that some of Taiwan’s most beloved spots can become exceptionally crowded on weekends and holidays which can detract somewhat what from their beauty so are best avoided during these periods if you can manage.
Places that are easily accessible from Taipei, such as Taroko Gorge, Yangmingshan National Park, Jiufen and Shifen, generally receive the most visitors, but destinations that lie further afield and make for an excellent overnight trip (Sun Moon Lake and Alishan, for example) can also become very busy with visitors.
Of course, planning your trip around the day of the week isn’t always possible, but if you can, I’d suggest visiting during the week. If weekends are your only option, be sure to book your accommodation well in advance and make an early start when you arrive.
8 | There are many ways to spell things in English
Translating complex Chinese characters phonetically into English words isn’t always straightforward and often leads to places having several different spellings.
The ‘Zh’ sound is one of the most confusing as it is widely used and can also be written using variations of ‘Sh’, ‘Ch’ or ‘J’ characters.
Just know that if it looks vaguely correct and seems to be in the right location, there’s a good chance it’s the same place.
Well, except for Taichung and Taitung, they’re completely different.
9 | It’s a perfect destination for solo female travel
Travelling to a new destination as a solo female never fails to bring with it a host of questions.
Is it normal for women to be out alone? How conservatively do I need to dress? Is it safe to wander around at night?
Thankfully, I have never felt quite so safe in a place as I did in Taiwan. Everyone I encountered was nothing short of welcoming, extremely kind and respectful. No gawking stares. No catcalling. No creepy whispers as you walk by.
Though I always take the usual precautions when I travel, here I felt comfortable enough to loosen the reigns a little which was wonderfully refreshing and meant I could confidently explore cities alone at night, go hiking solo and even went as far as to hitchhike in the mountains rather than wait for a bus which is something I never normally do.
Taiwan is the highest-ranking nation in Asia and among the top in the world overall when it comes to gender equality and it really shows.
10 | You’ll Always Find A Bargain Online
For some of Taiwan’s most popular and iconic experiences, you’ll find some excellent deals online on anything from transport to dining out.
If it’s something you’re planning to do anyway, why wait needlessly in a queue or pay more than you need to!
Popular choices include early-bird discounts for the High Speed Rail, skip-the-line access to the Taipei 101 Observatory, pre-ordered meals at the incredibly popular Din Tai Fung, one of Taipei’s best restaurants, or discounted boba milk tea from the always busy Xing Fu Tang.
For more great deals on transport, tours, foodie adventures and day trips, check here.
11 | It’s an incredible destination for hiking, just don’t forget your permit
For avid hikers and lovers of the outdoors, Taiwan is an absolute dream destination.
From dramatic emerald hills that cascade toward the windswept sea, to dense bamboo forests that feel like you’ve stepped into a storybook, to high alpine peaks that reward you with unparalleled vistas, there’s really no better way to experience Taiwan than with a pair of dusty boots and the trail at your feet.
You’ll find a vast network of hiking trails that crisscross the island and make it incredibly easy to get off the beaten path, and while many are well-marked and free to access, there are a handful of more challenging tracks or those where numbers are restricted that do require you to have a permit.
Some are easy to secure just a few weeks in advance, whereas others involve a slightly complicated application process and need to be applied for months in advance. There are also occasionally two different permits required for a hike – a National Park Entry Permit and Mountain Entry Permit (sometimes called a Police Permit).
If you’re a keen hiker hoping to head into the mountains, I’d highly, highly recommend locking your plans in early so that you can acquire the appropriate paperwork on time and avoid being disappointed.
Popular hiking trails that will require a permit are the Zhuilu Old Trail in Taroko Gorge, Yushan, Taiwan’s highest peak, and Shei Pa National Park which is famous for its high ridge trail.
12 | Get an EasyCard as soon as you arrive
Do yourself a favour and pick up an EasyCard as soon as you arrive in Taiwan.
They’re available at the airport and convenience stores like 7-11 and Family Mart and can be used on public transport throughout the country, often giving a reduced fare.
Most importantly, it will also save you from having to rummage around for the correct change every time you need to jump on the metro or bus.
The card itself is $100 (€3) and you can top up your balance as needed. Then, simply tap on and off for every trip.
If you’re someone who likes to plan ahead, you also can order your EasyCard in advance for collection at the airport here. When I bought mine in Taipei, it was cash only so buying it in advance means you can collect your card directly from the counter rather than searching for an ATM in your post-flight sleep-deprived state.
13 | Public Transport Is Excellent
Public transport in Taiwan is efficient and widespread making travelling across the country a breeze.
In Taipei, the metro or MRT is frequent, cheap and easy to use, while the vast web of local trains and buses make a number of day trip destinations in northern Taiwan easily accessible. Within other major cities, buses will be your bread and butter of getting around.
For travel further afield, local trains (TRA) are cheaper, slower and more frequent than the high-speed trains and cover a much wider network in Taiwan, travelling up and down both sides of the country and often rewarding you with incredible scenery along the way, particularly on the mountainous east coast. Check fares and timetables here.
Travelling down the west coast only, the Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR) runs between Taipei and Kaohsiung’s Zuoying Station in just 2 hours. Though they’re quite a bit more expensive than the slower local trains, they’re incredibly efficient for anyone short on time and offer generous discounts for multi-day tickets and early bird purchases (sometimes up to 35%). Check the timetable here or get a discount for advance bookings here.
Taiwan’s mountainous heart is the only place that is somewhat challenging to reach. For popular destinations, there are generally dedicated ‘tourist shuttles’ or long-distance buses though services are often infrequent and reliable timetables hard to find. Your guesthouse should be able to point you in the right direction.
14 | Take Care When Renting A Scooter
Travelling by scooter is a way of life for locals and a rite of passage for travellers in virtually all of Asia. But while many countries may turn a blind eye to unlicensed and inexperienced foreigners, Taiwan generally takes a stricter stance.
Officially, you are required to have either a motorbike license or an International Drivers License that covers motorbikes. A regular driver’s license isn’t good enough.
That said, there are exceptions and not every operator is stringent in following regulations, but after a series of tragic accidents involving tourists over the years, enforcing of the rules is becoming more common.
The good news is that you’ll virtually always find electric scooters available for rent alongside the usual petrol variety, and while these tend to be slightly more expensive and slower, they can be hired without an official license as well as being better for the environment.
15 | Prices increase during weekends and flower season
Another darn good reason to avoid travel on the weekends is that as Friday and Saturday roll around, it’s not uncommon for accommodation prices to double, capitalising on the many of weekend tourists heading out to explore more of this beautiful island.
Destinations that become wrapped up in cherry blossom fever can also command far higher prices than usual during peak times.
If you’re on a tight budget, plan ahead and try to avoid key tourist areas during these times, or find accommodation that won’t hit you with a price hike.
16 | There’s a great hostel scene
As a budget traveller, you’ll have no issue finding affordable, high-quality hostels in every major city in Taiwan.
From modest and homely hideaways to trendy well-designed spaces, most hostels have embraced the capsule-style of bed with a light, power socket and shelf, and a roll down blind or curtain to offer an extra level of privacy.
Many hostels are also surprisingly roomy, with some even providing double dorm beds as the norm, making it far too easy to escape into your own little bubble at the end of a busy day, separate from the noisy packers and late-night light-turner-on-erers.
17 | Don’t Miss The Night Markets
Tightly packed bodies jostle between food stalls, smoke billows into narrow laneways, large woks simmer away with century-old recipes and intoxicating aromas fill the air.
You can’t possibly visit Taiwan and not spend at least an evening or two absorbed in the clamour of its night markets. Aside from being a feast for the senses, they’re one of the best places to sample Taiwan’s street food and local delicacies.
Taiwanese cuisine is very much a melting pot derived from various ethnicities with Japanese and Chinese flavours being prominent, alongside the influence of indigenous and Hakka communities. These were some of my favourite dishes.
Beef Noodle Soup | Taiwan’s national dish, this hearty concoction of braised beef, noodles and a flavour-packed spiced broth is one not to miss.
Dumplings | Steam ’em, fry ’em, stick ’em in a soup, there are a hundred different ways to enjoy the humble dumpling, all of them delicious and sure to put you into a blissful food coma many times during your trip. The standard filling contains pork, but there are numerous restaurants that offer veggie options as well.
Scallion Pancakes | This was the very first thing I ate in Taiwan and I’m still craving one all these months later! A flaky, crispy roti-style flatbread woven with finely chopped green onions, this simple street snack can be found across Taiwan and is so damn good. You can choose your own fillings like cheese, smoked chicken or peppered beef, but my go-to was fried egg, Thai basil and spicy sauce. Yum!
Peanut Ice Cream Roll | A wafer-thin crepe filled with a generous sprinkle of shaved peanut brittle, vibrant fruity ice cream and garnish of fresh coriander (cilantro). The lot is bundled into a small burrito and is a textural sensation. Some stalls try to skip over the coriander bit, but in my humble opinion, this is where the real genius lies.
Stinky Tofu | Ok, so this wasn’t exactly one of my favourites, but you kinda can’t leave Taiwan without giving it a go. While it’s an acquired taste and the stench can be… overwhelming – it’s certainly a dish that you’ll smell long before you see – it’s also one of Taiwan’s most beloved delicacies. The tofu is prepared in a brine of fermented milk, vegetables, meat and aromatics where it may sit for months before being served.
Taiwanese Hamburgers | A fluffy steamed bun stuffed with sticky pork belly and some greenery, these tasty handfuls will leaving you wanting just another bite. Though this is the typical version, many shops also offer veggie options with either mushroom, tofu or egg as the main filling.
There are dozens of night markets scattered around Taiwan, so be sure to arrive with an empty belly, wander slowly and munch your way through all the things!
18 | Bring a set of reusable cutlery
Between the chaotic night markets, ancient hole-in-the-wall eateries and fantastic sit-down restaurants, dining out in Taiwan is an experience in itself.
Unfortunately, many places prioritise convenience over all else and will often only provide you with disposable single-use plastic cutlery, even if you’re eating in.
Instead of churning your way through what will literally be hundreds of unnecessary and completely avoidable pieces of plastic by the end of your trip, pack a set of reusable utensils in your day bag ready to be used at any occasion.
I carryied around a pair of chopsticks, a metal fork and a tablespoon in my handbag and used them on a daily basis. If you’re a lover of takeaway drinks, adding a thick reusable straw and/or a collapsible cup is also a good idea.
19 | Boba tea is life
I had my first ever boba milk tea on my second day in Taipei and it was love at first sip.
So, naturally, I dove straight into making up for lost time.
Though now popular across the world, this delectably creamy and deliciously refreshing drink originated in Taiwan and you can’t walk a block here without passing several tea shops. Some specialise in green tea and fruit infusions, some focus on flavoured tapioca pearls and others strictly serve up the milky varieties.
They’re all well-loved, they’re all found everywhere and the only thing for it is to try them all for yourself.
My favourite was the signature brown sugar boba milk tea from perennially popular Xing Fu Tang. The mix of luxuriously creamy tea and not-too-sweet sticky caramel tapioca balls had me craving one every single day.
20 | It’s not the best for vegetarians, but you can make it work
Full disclosure, I’m not a vegetarian, but I do try to limit my meat consumption to just a couple of times a week. In Taiwan, however, that wasn’t always easy with night markets being particularly challenging.
All major cities have dedicated vegetarian restaurants, but in small towns and mountains villages you may need to plan ahead.
In case your body is crying out for a vitamin kick and a healthy dose of fresh produce which the cuisine decidedly lacks, be sure to stock up with everything you’ll need for hiking and road snacks in the city as supplies in the countryside are often limited.
21 | You’ll probably end up eating at a convenience store (and that’s totally fine!)
With so many delicious street eats to choose from, it may sound a little nutty to dine in a 7-11, but chances are it will happen at least once during your trip.
I had read a lot about the ubiquitous convenience stores before arriving in Taiwan and had quietly scoffed thinking I would never actually eat there while I had one of the world’s best foodie destinations on my doorstep.
Turns out, these shops are actually pretty bloody, well, convenient, and I, like many, many other travellers ended up eating here on more than one occasion.
Of course, sampling local delicacies from unassuming hole-in-the-wall eateries is an experience you absolutely shouldn’t miss in Taiwan, but when you’re running late for the train, are craving a familiar dish (hello green curry!), or just need a cheap eat in an expensive tourist town, these stores can be a lifesaver.
They’re always an affordable and reliable choice and I also heard from several vegetarian travellers that in smaller towns where veggie restaurants were limited, these were often the best option.
22 | Typhoon Season is June to October
Typhoons generally hit Taiwan between June and October when a deluge of rain is dumped across the country accompanied by strong winds.
Surprisingly, this is peak tourist season and one of the most popular times for travel across the region, but expect to be met by gloomy skies, frequent rainy days and hot, humid conditions.
23 | When To Go Petal Peeping
Cherry blossom fever has become a global phenomenon in recent years and Taiwan is no exception. But along with these delicate white florals, the country also plays host to a number of other blooms that attract hoards of visitors to witness the landscapes erupting in a riot of colour.
With flower festivals in full swing, these tend to be the busiest time of year for certain regions so be sure to plan accordingly.
Cherry Blossoms | Springtime means cherry blossoms! In Yangmingshan National Park, blooms can arrive as early as February usually peaking by early March, while the higher altitude of Alishan means a later season between March and April. Other popular spots for cherry blossoms include Wuling Farm in the heart of the mountains and around Tianyuan Temple in New Taipei.
Rhododendrons | Next up on the flower enthusiast calendar is the rhododendron season where thousands of tiny florals unfurl across Taiwan’s landscapes and high mountains peaks. Taroko National Park and Hehuanshan are popular places to see the blooms with the peak viewing period lasting from April to June.
Daylilies | Arriving in late summer, golden daylilies blanket the lush plateau of Liushishishan or Sixty Stone Mountain that rises from the vast checkered plains of the East Rift Valley. Visit between August and September for the best of the blooms.
24 | The Best Time To Visit Taiwan
Between the monsoonal rains, cherry blossom fever and oppressive summer mugginess, it can be hard to determine when the best time to visit Taiwan actually is.
While summer is when tourism booms across the country, the searing heat, crowds and high chance of storms mean this isn’t an ideal time to plan your trip.
Anytime between late autumn and spring are far more pleasant when you’ll be welcomed with comfortable temperatures, fewer visitors and low season prices for accommodation and tours. The only downside is that some tour operators or transport routes to popular summer destinations may not be running at full capacity.
Avid hikers should prepare for chilly conditions in the mountains outside of summer, while flower enthusiasts should consider visiting in spring when much of Taiwan bursts into colour.