Taipei is full of juxtapositions. One moment, you’re inching along in a line, waiting for a $2 pork bun at a night market stand; the next, you’re jetting up 84 floors of a mega-skyscraper in 37 seconds. This oscillating energy fuels a city that’s progressive (gay marriage is legal), respectful (young people never take the seats reserved for the elderly on the metro), and whimsical (the garbage trucks play “Für Elise”). It’s no wonder that this bustling metropolis of 2.7 million people, where forward-thinking openness merges with a richly traditional sense of being, has been topping lists of trending global destinations.
Old streets, new visions, and food galore
At some point during each of the dozen or so times I’ve been to Taipei, I’ve inevitably found myself perched on a rickety red plastic stool, sharing a folding table with strangers as a bowl of steaming fish rice noodle soup is thrust before me. Anywhere else in the world, I might question how my über-sensitive stomach will react to this offbeat breakfast choice, but here nothing fazes me—not even breathing in motorcycle exhaust while sitting among tubs of hose-washed dishes in a makeshift dining area at Minle Swordfish Rice Noodle, a third-generation noodle shop that started as a stand in the 1930s.
For me, there’s a distinct charm to this spot. After all, my dad frequented it as a schoolboy growing up in this neighborhood around Dihua Street, often called Taipei’s oldest street, with roots trailing back to the 1850s (though some say certain sections are centuries older). In fact, I’m fortunate to be joined by my dad today. He’s here for a few weeks, visiting his hometown, and I planned my trip to coincide with his, though we have very different itineraries planned. He tells me this area was— and is still—best known for four industries: tea, Chinese herbs, dried fruit, and fabric, the last of those being my grandfather’s business.
Bowls emptied, we duck across the street into Yongle Market, which translates to “always happy.” Why? “Because that’s its name,” my dad says, glossing over how it’s his happy place, where food stand owners let him skip the lines and he spends hours sipping coffee with friends. “Yeye’s first shop was here,” he says, catching me by surprise; I didn’t know my grandfather had gotten his start at the formerly rustic marketplace, though I’ve been to the current multifloor iteration many times. Today, the fabric shops are on the upper levels, and the first floor has transformed into an eclectic mix of slices of Taipei life. Unfussy produce stands and bakeries run by multigenerational families mix with tailors, fix-it shops, and trendy pour-over coffee kiosks. There are three ever-present lines, belonging to Wan Long Sushi, for thick slices of sashimi and bottomless bowls of miso soup with tofu and fish; Lin Linang Bing, which serves delicious steamed spring rolls, the wraps made on the family’s original three burners from the 1930s; and Li He Fa Glutinous Oil Rice, known for fragrant, mushroom-topped sticky rice.
In Taipei, food is more than a way of life; it’s the very essence of living. (A common greeting is, “Have you eaten?”) I’m always overstuffed on my visits, so I flee the food stalls, saying goodbye to Dad and joining a free walking tour run by Like It Formosa. Our group of about 30 travelers, hailing from as far as South Africa and Malaysia, meets near Longshan Temple, built around 1740. One of our guides, Danny, starts with a warning: “Don’t step on the threshold—it’s like stepping on God’s shoulders.” He continues, “Men should enter with their left leg first, for ‘yang,’ and women with their right, for ‘yin’—and because women are always right.” The traditions practiced inside are a mix of Buddhist and Tao, as worshippers use incense sticks to send messages to the gods and throw pairs of wooden moon blocks to reveal the ethereal responses. Proof of how essential the gods’ blessings are comes in the form of offerings of scallions placed near the education god. (The veggie’s name in Mandarin is a homophone for ‘cleverness.’) “This temple is like a department store of life,” Danny says. “You can find a god for money, health, marriage, childbirth—anything.”
We move on to Bopiliao Historic Block, a preserved 19th-century commercial center, before fast-forwarding through history to Ximen Red House, which was built in 1908 as a public market and is now full of artisan shops. After a stop in front of the Western-style brick Presidential Office, which faces the 10-lane Ketagalan Boulevard (a popular protest zone), we sit down in Taipei 228 Peace Park. Here, our other guide, Lily, carefully (and objectively) walks us through the island’s complicated history, including what is known as the 228 Incident of 1947, when a conflict between the people and the government resulted in the deaths of an estimated 28,000 citizens.
Needing a break, I head north to the buzzy Zhongshan District and my hotel for tonight, the sceney Regent Taipei. I dodge Rolls-Royces and Porsches to reach the entrance, where white-capped employees peel open the doors to reveal the lobby, which was immortalized in the 2014 Scarlett Johansson thriller Lucy.
After a brief rest, I find myself somehow hungry again, so I head to another staple, Din Tai Fung, known for its xiao long bao (soup dumplings), 110 million of which it sells annually at its outlets around the globe. The original location opened as a cooking oil shop on Xinyi Road in 1958, but that one’s takeout-only; a flashier, four-story restaurant opened down the block in 2020, with a first-floor open kitchen I can peer into to watch the crew meticulously hand-making the dumplings, each of them weighing 21 grams, with 18 folds on the top.
I start my meal with the specialty, feeling awestruck as the server takes the lid off the bamboo steamer to reveal 10 perfect little dumplings. When placed down, she tells me, the dumpling “is like a bell; when lifted, it will naturally appear like a water droplet, due to the weight of the soup.” Finished with the xiao long bao, I order with my eyes from the visual menu: small plates of wood ear mushrooms, spicy pickled cucumbers, and crispy shrimp pancake, along with pork chop fried rice, and one of my favorites, house special spicy shrimp and pork wontons. It’s a dream feast.
I walk off dinner around the corner at Yong Kang Street, which is credited for originating the city’s “alley culture.” Despite it being past 9 p.m. on a weeknight, most of the shops are still open, and I browse clothing, toys, and gifts before ending up at Smoothie House with a bowl of mango snowflake shaved ice that’s bigger than my head. The ribbons of ice magically turn into snow at the touch of my spoon. Although I’m stuffed beyond belief, a street vendor at Tian Jian somehow lures me over to take home one of her onion pancakes for breakfast. At about $1.50 U.S., it would be irresponsible not to.
Aerial viewpoints, a bathhouse library, and a lively night market
On the way over to managing the Xiangshan (Elephant Mountain) my Uber driver says, “You’re not from around here, are you?” It’s a question I’m asked often on the island. As an American born to Taiwanese immigrants, I’ve picked up a colloquial tone of Mandarin that locals tell me is specifically Taiwanese. The problem is, I pair my precise pronunciation with a toddler’s vocabulary, so no one can figure me out. Honestly, I can’t quite figure how I fit in here, either.
What I thought would be a short stroll turns into a near-three-hour trek, as I stop for impromptu chats with hikers from Florida, Vancouver, Mexico, and South Korea, all the while crossing paths with locals—some dressed head-to-toe in technical gear with hiking poles, one in business wear with a Chanel shopping bag in hand.
My aversion to steps and steep inclines is overcome by the postcard-perfect vistas of the city basin, featuring the pagoda-shaped Taipei 101 skyscraper front and center. One of the dreamiest views is from the 600-foot-high summit, but perhaps the most gasp-worthy sight is the cleanliness of the mid-mountain restroom.
I return to ground level only briefly, because soon an elevator is whisking me up to the 86th floor of Taipei 101 and one of the hottest tickets in town. A Joy, the city’s highest buffet—and priciest, at up to $134—opened last July. I heard about it from my dad. “Everyone knows about it!” he claimed, when I asked how he was so in the know. He also warned me that reservations had to be booked the second they open a month out. Good thing I listened.
This place turns all-you-can-eat into an art form. There are more than 300 items on the menu, each managing to be best-in-class. Some dishes feature fine imported ingredients (prime American beef, huge Japanese oysters), others are served thanks to partnerships with top brands (Simple Kaffa coffee), and still others are elevated local classics (a puff pastry over Buddha Jumps Over the Wall soup). Each flavor pleases a different part of my palate, especially the Jell-O-like aiyu (derived just hours prior from jelly fig seeds), homemade boba in red oolong tea, and dragon’s beard candy.
Though it’s jarring at first, I also try a made-to-order mango Sijichun-blended espresso. One sip in, and fruit-infused coffee becomes my favorite discovery from this trip.
The views are just as delicious, but they’re better even higher up, at the Taipei 101 Observatory. The 20-year-old skyscraper—which was the world’s tallest building when it opened and now holds the number 11 spot—is also eco-friendly, having been certified by LEED three times over. Perhaps its most impressive feature is the tuned mass damper, a 660-metric-ton sphere that hangs between the 87th and 92nd floors, constantly steadying the 1,667-foot-tall structure.
Feet back on the ground, I walk a few blocks north to Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, a 16.3-acre tobacco factory that operated from 1937 to 1998 and now serves as one of the finest examples of ongoing efforts to repurpose historic buildings into innovative spaces. Case in point: Not Just Library has transformed the women’s bathhouse into a place for reading, inviting guests to “soak in books.” Why bathing facilities in a tobacco factory, I wonder? “Imagine yourself back in the 1930s infrastructure, where not every house had hot water,” my host, Young Jing Jing, explains. “This was a work perk—like the benefits you get from working at Google or Meta now.” In one room, shelves of books and tables are sunken like they’re in a tub and surrounded by ripples of design magazines. The tiled bathing room now doubles as a workspace, full of youngsters tapping away on their laptops (or, in one case, diligently napping). A courtyard garden offers alfresco tables. No matter where you choose to sit, one thing’s for sure: It’s Instagram-friendly.
Songshan Park’s permanent spaces cement its dedication to sustainable creativity. At Rehow Living Lab, visitors bring in old clothes and fabric scraps to turn into accessories, tote bags, and slippers using professional sewing equipment. Down the hall, at Trash Kitchen, a company called Miniwiz shows off its Trashpresso, an award-winning upcycling machine that washes, shreds, and remolds used plastics. “We like to imagine we’re cooking all the trash to make a new dish,” says marketing manager Menghua Su, pointing out coasters, bowls, and wall panels that all had past lives.
The sky has grown dark, meaning it’s time for an essential part of life in Taipei: night markets. While Shilin and Ningxia may have been the “it” spots in the past, Raohe Street Night Market has quietly become a more popular choice. It’s also the home of my favorite stinky tofu.
The pungent odor of fermented soybean repulsed me as a child, but over the years I’ve developed an addiction to it. Some compare the aroma to blue cheese; others to rotting sneakers, deep-fried and served with garlic and pickled cabbage. I follow my nose to Hsia Kang Ming Peng Stinky Tofu, where the scent is admittedly not quite as strong as I recalled. Have they pulled back, or has my craving deepened? Next, I get in line at Fuzhou Pepper Buns, by the Ciyou Temple entrance. I take a bite, and steam whooshes out. It’s too hot to ingest, but the peppery pork flavor is delectable— like grandma’s homemade meatballs inside a bun.
Equal parts full and exhausted, I check into Hotel Proverbs Taipei, an industrial-style property in the East District, a low-key neighborhood with a vibe that reminds me of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Taking a dip in the rooftop pool, where water flows out of three simple spouts on one end and a tree grows out of the other, I revel in the solitude of floating above the bustle below. Relaxed, I go for a nightcap at the hotel watering hole, East End, which has appeared on the Asia’s 50 Best Bars list. With no more capacity for decision-making, I ask the bartender to whip me up something with a fruity flair. I’m soon delivered a sunny-hued kumquat cocktail with ginger lily syrup and Baozhong tea rum—a sweet combo to toast the highs and lows of the day.
A mountain town, hot springs, and the kindness of strangers
After two days traipsing through the urban jungle of Taipei, I’m ready to slow the pace, so I hop on the 965 bus to the mountainside town of Jiufen. In less than an hour, we’re ascending winding roads, and I catch a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, my first reminder since I arrived that I’m on an island vacation.
The main attraction here is Jiufen Old Street (technically Jishan Street), a narrow, meandering alley packed with eateries, gift shops, teahouses… and hordes of visitors. I see the entrance in the distance, but opt to go off course, starting instead on Qingbian Road, a quieter backstreet. I browse artisan stores, passing modern coffee shops and B&Bs before arriving at a scenic landing. Gazing out at the buildings strikingly wedged into the hillside, I realize what Jiufen is: the Positano of Asia.
Soon I reach a square swarming with people, and I realize I’ve arrived at Jiufen’s most popular spot for photo ops, the lantern-lined staircase next to Amei Tea House, which is rumored to be the inspiration for the classic animated film Spirited Away. Writer-director Hayao Miyakazi won’t confirm that, but tons of tourists, many speaking Japanese, have come anyway to capture a live-action version of the cartoon magic. The teahouse, located in a former blacksmith shop, leans into the allure, with a sign outside that tells visitors to “Take a pot of tea with the mountains and the sea, and free yourself in a tea trip!” I’m sold. A woman in a red polo shirt takes me through the process, filling a small brown ceramic pot with leaves. The first rinse is a wash, she says, since you need to “wake up the leaves.” The next round steeps for 20 seconds, with subsequent rounds requiring an extra five to 10 seconds, for a total of six rounds before the flavor fades. I savor every sip as I take in the view.
Teatime over, I continue up the steep stairs to Old Street. Of course, food is always on my brain here, and my first priority is a bawan, which means “meatball,” although the snack is actually a meat dumpling in translucent sweet potato–starch dough. I roam back and forth without any luck. A shopworker selling freeze-dried strawberries offers me a sample, and I take the opportunity to ask her where the best bawan is. She reaches for a giant piece of brown paper and folds it gingerly, ripping off a square and writing Jinzhi Hongzao Meatball in huge Chinese characters, so that I can play the match game with the signs down the street. Soon enough, I score and see the coveted delicacies simmering out front. I ask the server what makes theirs special, and she points to her rear end. “It’s pork butt?” I ask. She nods.
Next, I follow the crowds to Grandma Lai’s Sweet Taro Balls, where there are two choices: hot or iced. I tell the vendor to choose, and she hands me an iced one, likely because of how much I’m sweating. Before leaving, I ask another employee for his Jiufen essentials. Following his list, I set off on a roving meal, checking off A-Zhu Peanut Ice Cream Roll (shaved peanut candy in a flour wrap topped with pineapple ice cream and, surprisingly, cilantro), Ah Lan Herbal Glutinous Rice Cakes (stuffed with either savory meat or sweet red bean), and Fishball Bozai (a generous fish-ball soup with tofu).
Absolutely stuffed, I roam down to the quiet Jiufen Gold Ore Museum, located in the family home of the late miner Shui-Chi Tseng, who dedicated himself to commemorating the mining that became this area’s most important industry. His grandchild Mickey, who moved back to help with the museum after Tseng’s passing, demonstrates how to use the old mining equipment. “We’re just a normal family living in Jiufen,” Mickey says, “but my grandfather was different, since he didn’t sell the gold and built this museum.”
On the return trip, the mountain roads and mist make for a motion sickness–inducing combo. In a dazed haze, I stumble off the bus in Taipei and sit on the bus-stop bench to reorient myself. The stranger next to me gently asks if she can massage my hand—a kind offer that I’m simultaneously shocked and touched by. I nod. “You just took the bus back from Jiufen, with those curvy roads, and then were suffocating inside the stuffy bus,” she says, nailing it without a word from me. “Just sit here and take deep breaths.”
I follow her cues and soon feel a cool touch, as she rubs an essential oil stick against my neck and wrists. One whiff of the minty scent, and I’m instantly better. I ask where I can get some of this magic potion, and she offers me hers—a final gesture of generosity from someone whose mask-covered face I haven’t even seen.
Rejuvenated, I head off for some more relaxation in Beitou, a district in the city that’s known for its unique green sulfur hot springs. Just off the main drag, I step into an oasis of calm at Villa 32, the Relais & Châteaux property where I’m staying tonight. This place takes pampering to a whole new level, with staffers stationed at every corner reporting my movements into discreet radios; it’s the closest I’ve ever felt to having my own personal Secret Service entourage.
I’m ushered into the spa for the Chinese Meridian Tapping and Deep Tissue Massage, which starts with a delicate foot soak, followed by a rhythmic hammering on my back and strong strokes where my muscles ache the most. Afterward, I’m guided to the women’s side of the public hot springs. There are eight pools here—two of them with plain water, four with white sulfur from nearby Yangmingshan (supposedly good for the skin), and two with the local green sulfur, which is only found here and in Akita, Japan, and is thought to soothe aches and pains.
“Only sit in there for three to five minutes,” the spa attendant warns me. I tell her I’m not sure I’ll be able to count the minutes right on the clock face across the way. “Don’t worry, you’ll know,” she says. “You’ll feel a tingling.”
Perhaps it’s an indication of how much TLC I’m craving, but I never quite feel the tingle. Still, I bounce between the different temperature pools, completely letting go. My stomach full with three days of satisfying eats, my body calmed by the natural springs, my heart swollen with lovely local acts of kindness, I exhale, feeling invincible, with nothing between me and the moonlit beauty of my ancestral island home.
Take Off to Taipei: Nonstop flights between San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and Taipei-Taoyuan International Airport (TPE) are now available twice a day.