13 May 2020.
Glowing beneath the light of a thousand red lanterns, it was Jiufen’s enchanting old streets and an undying rumour that catapulted this tiny former mining village into one of Taipei’s most beloved day trip destinations.
It’s rather mindboggling then that Jiufen’s superb location overlooking the ocean and surrounded by some incredible mountains has virtually nothing to do with its newfound fame, and yet, it’s one of the best things about the place.
But whether you visit Jiufen and neighbouring Jinguashi to admire the pretty lantern-hung streets and gorge on curious street eats or let your muddy boots guide you towards some of northern Taiwan’s most breathtaking panoramas, this charming spot won’t disappoint.
Its proximity to Taipei means Jiufen is widely regarded as a day trip destination or even as a two-hour stopover, but if you have the time, I’d highly recommend setting aside a couple of days in your Taiwan itinerary instead. Staying overnight will allow you to see the busy old street without the crowds, hit the hiking trails before anybody else and enjoy the stunning coastal views for sunrise and sunset without the need to rush onto your next stop.
These are the best things to do in Jiufen during your stay.
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Admire The Lanterns Of Jiufen Old Street
When darkness cloaks the hillside village and the vibrant thread of scarlet lanterns flicker to life, you’ll find Jiufen at its most enchanting.
Pedestrianised Jiufen Old Street, officially named Jishan Street, carves its way across town intersecting with a web of narrow staircases and cobbled laneways. Without a doubt, the most popular (in fact, for many it’s their sole reason for visiting) is Shuqi Road which climbs steeply from beside the Jiufen Police Station, through a wonderfully atmospheric courtyard and past Amei Teahouse before reaching the Old Street.
Widely speculated as being the inspiration behind Spirited Away (now screening on Netflix) to which it does bear some resemblance, the lantern-draped wooden teahouse steals the gaze of every single passerby. This rumour has since been rebuffed as just that, but this certainly hasn’t deterred keen visitors from congregating in this tight corner of the village for a closer look.
At this stage, it is well worth noting that Jiufen is a very touristy spot and does get insanely busy come evening time when a veritable tidal wave of tourists glide into the narrow laneways. In fact, the famous Shuqi Road staircase spends much of the night choked with visitors jostling for the perfect photo of the picturesque Amei Teahouse, often becoming an impassable mob where it meets Jiufen Old Street with visitors arriving from all directions.
There’s nothing for it but to be swept up in the tight knot of bodies, rub elbows with your fellow sightseers and shuffle along at an achingly slow pace (in a pre-coronavirus world, of course). Normally, an overwhelming crowd such as this would not be my kind of thing, not at all, but somehow, illuminated by the lanterns the place still manages to retain plenty of charm. You just need to look past the crowds to really appreciate it.
If you’re really not one for crowds, the best times to visit are in the afternoon before things really take off or at night during the sweet spot between when the day-trippers have begun to disperse and the shops switch off their lights and close up, usually around 9 p.m. Otherwise, hitting the streets early in the morning will virtually guarantee you some quiet, but this will mean you’ll miss the magic of the glowing lanterns and inviting shop fronts.
Munch Your Way Through The Street Food Of Jiufen Old Street
Jiufen may be small, but it’s done a great job in carving out a specific set of delicacies for which it’s known.
Perhaps the most famous are the cups of taro and sweet potato balls served on ice with beans and syrup along with these stuffed green pouches which my hostel owner insisted I had to try.
Teahouses also make a popular stop for many in Jiufen, yet even for someone like me who absolutely loves all things tea, I felt the prices were a pretty steep ask. If you have your heart set on a tasting or settling down with a warm cuppa and a view, be sure to shop around and do your research online to make sure you’re making the best choice and definitely make a reservation in advance.
You’ll also find plenty of delectable sweet treats on offer along Jiufen Old Street so be sure to wander slowly so you don’t miss out.
Hike Teapot Mountain and Banpingshan
If you love hiking and epic mountain views, be sure to include Teapot Mountain and Banpingshan in your visit.
Behind Jinguashi, Teapot Mountain climbs steeply into a gnarled bulge of rock that resembles a teapot from the right vantage point. Beyond, the trail snakes along a narrow ridgeline, contorted and reptilian, towards the vertical cliffs of Banpingshan.
At the summit, a vast skyline of peaks awash with forest green falls away beneath your feet – the emerald hump of Keelung Mountain, folded and furrowed like a crouched dragon, the countless peninsulas and bays that carve up the coastline and the rugged interior of central Taiwan.
It’s a fun-filled adventure with phenomenal views that makes for one of the most memorable hikes in the country and definitely one of the best things to do in Jiufen.
Climb Keelung Mountain
The knobbly peak of Keelung Mountain towers over Jiufen and provides stunning views across Taiwan’s spectacular north coast and Taipei’s distant city skyline without too much difficulty.
The most popular walking route is a 900m staircase which is steep, well-maintained and leads straight to the summit, but there’s also an alternative 1.5km trail which veers away from the stairs and follows a more gradual incline through shaded forest along with some pretty views along the way.
Although I took the stairs up and the forest trail down, I’d actually recommend the forest route as the far more pleasant way to reach the top, especially if you’re hiking in the middle of the day and are keen to escape the blazing sun. Just keep in mind that there may be some muddy sections if you’re hiking after rainfall. Both trails begin a 15-minute walk from Jiufen Old Street or right beside the Geding Bus Stop and you’ll find them clearly marked on maps.me.
The recommended walking time is 1 hour each way, but at a good pace you can easily complete the walk in less time.
During the day this hike gets rather busy, but if you’re staying overnight and making a relatively early start you could very well have the place all to yourself. I began at around 9:30 a.m. and didn’t see another soul until my way down.
If you’re visiting Jiufen on a day trip, this hike is also short enough to squeeze in. It’s a popular activity to climb up for sunset and return to Jiufen once darkness has fallen and the lanterns have sprung to life. Just don’t forget to bring a torch.
Wander The Coastal Trail Of Bitou Cape
Jutting into the ocean, Bitou Cape is a scenic spot for an afternoon stroll with a short but pretty boardwalk that leads you across the peninsula to the lighthouse hovering at the cliff’s edge.
During my visit, the lighthouse area was unfortunately closed but the rest of the area was open and made for a lovely place to explore away from the crowds that swarm to Jiufen during the day.
Bus #856, referred to as the Golden Fulong Shuttle Bus, runs between Ruifang and Fulong via Jiufen and Bitou every hour on weekdays and every half hour on weekends. The trip takes around 30 minutes and can be paid for by EasyCard.
Departures from Jiufen are between 9:15 a.m. and 4:15 p.m on weekdays, returning from Bitou between 10:40 a.m. and 5:40 p.m. Weekend transport begins at 8:15 a.m. with the additional services at 45 past the hour, returning from Bitou at 9:40 a.m. and 10 past the hour (times correct as of November 2019).
As a small fishing village, Bitou is also, unsurprisingly, rather famous for its seafood and you’ll find a pair of restaurants by the water that are absolutely buzzing with live seafood kept in tanks by the entrance and queues out the doors. There are minimum purchase limits which means dining here as a solo traveller isn’t really feasible (or affordable), but if you’re visiting as a family or large group, you’ll be well catered for.
Visit Golden Waterfall + Shuinandong Viewpoint
These two wildly different attractions sit nearby each other along the main road and can easily be combined with a visit to Bitou Cape.
Golden Waterfall slithers across a wide tract of amber-stained rocks that are tinted from the mineral deposits in the soil. Where the river gushes into the ocean in a plume of orange, it mixes with the turquoise bay earning it the name of Yin Yang Sea.
Nearby, the monolithic ruin of Shuinandong, an enormous smelter also referred to as ‘Remains of the 13 Levels’, is a hangover from the area’s once thriving gold mining period. Shrouded in greenery and with an impressive mountain backdrop, it’s like something out of Indiana Jones.
The Shuinandong complex is no longer accessible to visitors, but this post from a few years ago provides a curious peek inside. Today, the structure is easily visible from the roadside, but you’ll also find a handful of vantage points scattered around the area that offer up an impressive perspective.
Both Golden Waterfall and Shuinandong can be reached via bus #856 (see details above) or taxi from Jiufen. If you’re visiting these spots as part of a trip to Cape Beitou on a weekday when buses run just once an hour, I’d suggest staying on the bus and seeing both from the roadside first, then jumping off for a closer look on your way back if you have time. On weekends when transport is more frequent, you’ll have a bit more flexibility.
When choosing your accommodation, do keep in mind that Jiufen is built on an incredibly steep hill so anywhere not directly on the main road will require you to climb plenty of steps to get where you’re going.
First Stop Backpacker Hostel | The best hostel in town, First Stop sits just below the old town and has a wonderful view of the coastline. The hostel itself is relatively simple but local hosts Amy and Ann are a wealth of information about the area and cook a delicious Taiwanese breakfast each morning which can be enjoyed with ocean views in the sunroom. Check rates and availability here.
My Story Inn | Another top-rated budget option, My Story is located right beside the Jiufen Police Station and offers simple but cosy dorm rooms with a balcony overlooking the bay. Owner Jenny also runs an onsite dumpling restaurant. Yum! Check rates and availability here.
Gen Product B&B | Located a short distance from the old street, here you’ll find a range of brightly-coloured rooms and a rooftop sun deck with a delicious breakfast included. Check rates and availability here.
Something Easy Inn | For somewhere a little special, this beautifully designed guesthouse offers spacious modern suites with impeccable views in the heart of the old town. Check rates and availability.
Getting to Jiufen from Taipei is simple with frequent public transport travelling between the two, but there are a number of different ways to get there.
Bus | The easiest option is the direct bus from Taipei to Jiufen – yes, no need to change in Ruifang after all.
Bus #965 departs from outside the Ximen MRT station near Exit 2 (along the outer edge of the main road, not from the bus stops that line the median strip) and travels directly to Jiufen and Jinguashi in around an hour depending on traffic. The fare is just $90 (€2.75) payable by EasyCard and buses depart every 30 minutes. There are also stops at Fuzhong, Banqiao and Wanhua Stations, and Beimen MRT Station for anyone not based in Ximen.
Train + Bus | To reach Jiufen by train, you’ll need to transfer in Ruifang and take a bus the final 15 minutes of the journey. Trains between Taipei and Ruifang are frequent, as are buses between Ruifang and Jiufen.
You can check the train timetable here.
There are just a couple of bus stops within Jiufen, but given the village is set on a steep hill, it’s a good idea to ask your accommodation which one is best for you so you don’t end up clambering up the narrow staircases with all your luggage. If you’re just visiting for a day trip, the stop at Jiufen Police Station or Old Street will probably be your best bet. Otherwise, continue all the way to the Jinguashi Gold Museum for Teapot Mountain.
Day Tour | If you’re visiting Jiufen as a day trip and want to take all the hassle out of getting there and back, there are a number of excellent value day tours that also include stops at various other highlights of northern Taiwan.
This Jiufen Day Tour is one of Taipei’s most popular trips and, along with Jiufen, includes the stops at Shifen, Yehliu Geopark and Golden Waterfall. This Tour has a half-day option and includes just Jiufen and Shifen.
Onward Travel | Those continuing down the east coast from Jiufen rather than returning to Taipei will likely need to transfer in Ruifang. There are frequent connections to Hualien for Taroko Gorge or Taitung for visiting Green Island or the East Rift Valley. For any west coast destinations or to jump on the High-Speed Rail, you’ll need to return to Taipei. Check the train timetable here.
If you end up with some time to kill in Ruifang, there’s a lively street market and great food court in town that are perfect for refuelling before a long train journey. You’ll find a luggage storage office just outside the station and the food court is at the far end of Minsheng Street. The front section is mostly pre-cooked food but at the back you’ll find plenty of fresh made-to-order meals as well as a handful of vegetarian stalls. Many have an English menu and offer meals for around $100 (€3).