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A flourishing metropolis on the island of Taiwan, Taipei sits in a basin surrounded by mountains gushing with hot springs, but it’s the urban attractions that garner the most attention in this capital city with about 7 million residents in the metro area.
The mighty Taipei 101 (at 1,670 feet, it’s the world’s third-tallest structure ) rises from the center of the city like a single, giant stalk of bamboo.
Upmarket shopping malls, multistory electronics centers and modern-traditional fusion dining are all connected by an MRT system regularly voted the best in the world. Taipei is convenience defined, with more 7-Elevens per capita that any place on Earth.
After sunset, the city’s night markets are a snacker’s paradise, while its clubs shake until the MRT opens the following morning. How much longer the best of Taipei can remain largely tourist-free is anyone’s guess, but for the foreseeable future the city looks like a destination travelers can have almost to themselves.
Winning 11 awards in its first 10 months in business, including placement on Marie Claire China’s Top 15 Sexiest Places on Earth list, the W Hotel has already garnered best of Taipei status among the city’s big-name luxury hotels.
Futuristic and chic, the W Taipei’s setting is reminiscent of a Lady Gaga video; perhaps that explains why the singer insisted on staying here on a recent visit. There are eight room types to choose from, with names such as Fabulous and Extreme Wow. They vary wildly in style and amenities.
If sleeping in landmarks is your thing, the Taipei Grand Hotel is a must. Commissioned by Chiang Kai-Shek and seeming to hover on the slope of Yuan Shan Mountain, the Grand is a towering expression of classical Chinese art fused with Western construction principles.
The Grand Hotel is touristy and full of history, but rooms are aging, so don’t expect the interior to be as “grand” as the exterior. Amenities include a driving range, year-round pools and no fewer than eight restaurants.
Rooms with views are worth the slight additional cost, even on hazy days. From free drinks and snacks in the lobby to seasonally themed decorations that complement a soft, minimalist decor, this boutique hotel takes care of the small touches.
But what places the Dandy Hotel above others in the same price category are views over Da-An Park; they’re reminiscent of those of New York’s Central Park. Rooms with views are worth the nominal upcharge, but book early – there are only two on each floor.
Taiwanese brother and sister Josh and Kelly make guests feel right at home at this bargain stopover.
According to the sibling duo, their motive in starting the hostel was to make friends, which is why they can often be found in the communal area chatting with guests. There’s a small kitchen, public computer, free coffee and tea, and luggage storage.
After the success of Qingtian 76, Golden Seeds, an organization devoted to the restoration of Japanese-era houses in Taipei City, has just opened its second showpiece restaurant. Set in an 80-year-old wooden home, Fireweeds serves creative Japanese-Taiwanese fare.
As you dine, you can glimpse sections of original bamboo and mud wall encased in glass. Spicy salmon sashimi is excellent, as are the barbecue bacon-wrapped cherry tomatoes. Fireweeds lemon beer is locally famed. Proceeds go toward the preservation of historic buildings in Taipei.
Noisy, atmospheric and 100 percent Taiwanese, no visit to Taipei is complete without an evening spent feasting and drinking in a kuai chao (quick fry). Pin Xian is a best of Taipei choice for this local tradition.
Kuai chao are hole-in-the-wall shops with low tables that specialize in cheap, flavorful local fare with suds served by short-skirted beer girls. Pin Xian is so popular that the walls have been knocked down to connect three separate storefronts.
Grab your own rice, store your empty beer bottles in the cases provided and make sure to try at least one of the following: deep fried squid mouth, gongbao chicken, black pepper bean curd with oyster or anything with the words “tri-cup” – that means it has been cooked in a magic combination of soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil.
Fine Swedish cuisine in Taipei City? Unexpected it may be, but Flavors lives up to its name. No matter what you order, it’s complex, fine-tuned and worth savoring.
Chef Ola’s personal recommendations include sous vide lamb, which is marinated in red wine for three days. The smoked salmon literally melts in your mouth. Every dish is made from scratch and has a story behind it, which you’ll get if you ask. Small, cozy and romantic, there are only a handful of tables, meaning reservations at this best of Taipei pick are required.
Named after the traditional, three-legged pots in which items are stewed, Tripod King is routinely cited by locals as Taipei’s best hot pot. Unlike standard Taipei hot pot venues, this one is not all-you-can-eat, nor does it have 12-plus flavors of ice cream.
The emphasis is on quality over quantity. Fine meats and handmade dumplings are stewed at your table in classic, spicy broth. The cheese crab comes stuffed in shells. Don’t even consider showing up during peak hours without a reservation.
The Pavilion’s main dining area features views from the mountains to Taipei 101.
With a guest list that has included former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the Far Eastern Hotel’s Shanghai Pavilion is a classy room boasting a 39th-floor panoramic view that might just be the best in Taipei.
With 40 years of hotel restaurant experience, chef Tai Chung-Lin is known for Shanghainese cuisine with Taiwanese touches, which includes signature dishes such as drunken chicken and braised rock lobster. Dress is smart-casual, and veterans know to book a window table.
If there are rules to drink mixing, cocktail masters Allen and Frankie are destroying them nightly. Think strawberry shisha smoke-infused martinis, three-layer shots served with helium and bubbling potions with dry ice. There’s no drink menu; just tell the guys what flavors you like, and they’ll mix something special.
But Fourplay’s real draw is its innovative use of local spirits, including gaoliang (distilled rice liquor), xiaomi jiu (aboriginal millet wine) and Chinese medicinal herbs.
Drinks don’t get more Taiwanese than the Betel Nut, in which the addictive areca nut (yes, the one that turns local smiles red) is muddled with lime and mint.
For an extravagant night, Xin Yi district’s swanky new dance club is Myst. Expect pole dancers, a waterfall on the enormous, jam-packed dance floor, and international DJs. But the jewel in Myst’s crown is the magnificent city view, with Taipei 101 front and center, practically across the street.
If you forgot to book a private booth on Myst’s awesome open-air patio, you can still take in its best of Taipei vistas from the giant windows in the men’s and ladies’ washrooms.
Club Myst, 9/F, No. 12, Songshou Road (Taipei City Hall MRT) 松壽路12號9樓; +886 2 7737 9997
346 Taiwan Beer Bar
Taiwan Beer’s the name, and Taiwan Beer is what you’ll get in this crusty brewery pub. A pint of beer brewed on the day you buy it will set you back a mere NT$90 ($3). Or, bring a friend and put down NT$550 ($19) for a 3.5-liter barrel.
There’s also a menu featuring dishes cooked in (you guessed it) Taiwan Beer. Friday and Saturday nights can get pretty rowdy, with crowds of friendly, drunken Taiwanese. Access is through the main factory entrance.
If you’re not into the music at Carnegie’s, there are other attractions. For 11 years, Carnegie’s has been the place to dance on top of the bar. The exhibitionist impulse is promoted by free champagne for ladies on Wednesday, a 600-minute-long happy hour every day and a shooter list 367 strong (the longest in Asia, says the bar).
Carnegie’s is also reputed for its menu. Huge brunches, traditional pub items and authentic Indian cuisine will dwarf the expectations of anyone anticipating standard fried bar fare. Carnegie’s also packs one of the best patios in Taipei City. It’s open from 11 a.m.
Forgot your iPhone charger at home? No need to panic. Head to NOVA, right across the street from Taipei Main Station. Even locals get lost in Taipei Main’s network of underground malls – find any of the large maps located throughout the mall and get to exit Z4.
Once on the street, do a 180 and you’ll be facing NOVA. There, you’ll find every laptop, phone, printer, cord, cable, accessory and attachment known to tech-dependent man. A few blocks behind NOVA, dozens of camera shops are concentrated on Hankou and Bo Ai streets.
NOVA Electronics Center and Camera Street, 2 Guanqian St. (館前路二號); Taipei Main MRT; +886 2 2381 4833
Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall
After several years as the National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall, the hall was re-renamed Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. The Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall is the first stop on most best of Taipei itineraries, and rightly so.
This imposing white monument with its distinctive blue octagonal roof is Taipei’s greatest cultural landmark. The museum below has some fine Kuomintang political party propaganda.
On either side of the enormous square, you’ll find yourself under the shadows of the twin classical Chinese National Theater and National Concert Hall. The best vantage point from which to take it all in is the Gate of Great Centrality and Perfect Uprightness on the western side.
Miramar Entertainment Park
Taipei City is loaded with upscale shopping malls, but if you must choose one, make it Miramar. Nowhere else can you take a break from name-brand browsing by hopping on a 70-meter Ferris wheel, with views all the way to Taipei 101 and Yangming Mountain. The mall also has an IMAX theater with the largest commercial screens in Asia.
Opened in 2007 and then closed due to typhoon damage, the Maokong gondola is once again operational and providing some best of Taipei views.
Go on a weekday and, using your MRT card to bypass the ticket line, queue up for the Crystal Cabins, which are glass-bottomed cars for the same price as the usual ones. Don’t zip right to the last stop. Hop off at Zhinan Temple Station first to glimpse a modern Buddhist temple with a mighty view.
From Maokong Station, you can while away time in a traditional tea shop overlooking terraced green tea fields, or hike to temples with waterfalls.
Taipei is known throughout Asia for unique night markets. Every Taipei resident has a favorite. Here are ours, with a few daytime options, too.
“Vegetarian” may not be an excuse, but “stink intolerant” might be. This is the best place to try Taiwan’s most infamous snack, stinky tofu. Barbecued versions created here are easier on the nose than more pungent boiled and deep-fried varieties available elsewhere.
Danshui’s riverside promenade is also a great place for an afternoon or evening stroll. Other market specialties include iron eggs, deep-fried ice cream and barbecued whole cuttlefish.
Danshui, access from Danshui MRT; late morning-late night
Raohe Night Market
This place doesn’t always look so fast. Hit Raohe Night Market to combine snack hunting with a visit to an 18th-century temple. The Ciyou Matsu Temple is at the eastern end of the market. Matsu is the goddess of fishermen and the sea, and this temple dedicated to her is one of Taipei’s oldest.
Crowds here are smaller than they are at other night markets.
Jianguo Jade and Flower markets
A great spot for rainy weekend days, the Jade and Flower markets provide full protection under a kilometer-long stretch of elevated highway. With photo ops aplenty, these two markets seem to go on forever.
A third and lesser-known market, featuring traditional arts and handicrafts, is found at the southern end of the promenade.
Shilin Night Market
If you won’t settle for anything less than the biggest, busiest and grandest of all open-air shopping experiences, beeline for Shilin Night Market. Getting there about an hour before sunset will get you the best photos of stalls set up for the evening.
Any later, and the crowds get so overwhelming that you might just be swept away in the forward push and forever lost in the maze of alleys and lanes. Escalators in the covered area lead to an underground, air-conditioned food court. Shilin is known for creative snack innovations alongside the Taiwanese classics, such as oyster omelets, fried chicken steaks and pearl milk tea.