At the end of May, I ventured to Asia for the first time with my parents and brother. It was our second international adventure together. Our previous foray abroad was a trip to Barcelona and Paris nearly four years ago. I was living in Besançon, France at the time, teaching English in two different elementary schools.
For our first Asian escapade, we decided to visit Taipei and Tokyo. To prepare, I created an agenda for each city, listing foods we had to try and sites we had to visit. This post is dedicated to the 4 days I spent in Taipei. For each day, I’ll highlight what we ate and what we did, offering short explanations. If you are planning a trip to either city, I hope these posts can be useful. Don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions you might have. If you have already traveled to Taipei or Tokyo, I’d love to hear about your experience!
Lastly, I have to say that, even though this post has taken me forever to write, it barely makes a dent in the adventures and experiences that we had. Everyone that we ran into or asked for help was incredibly kind, even though we couldn’t speak Chinese. Taipei is a beautiful city, a blend of old neighborhoods and towering skyscrapers. Green trees line the streets packed with mopeds, cars and cyclists. Night markets bustle with activity, as shopkeepers promote their wares, and food stands tantalize the tastebuds with scents of fried, steamed, and baked goods.
—- Day 1 —–
What We Did
- Eslite flagship bookstore
- Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall
- Elephant Mountain
- Raohe Night Market
What We Ate
- Xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung
- Mango shaved ice at Ice Monster
- Pork Buns/Bread at Raohe Night Market
We got a late start to our family vacation after our first flight from Detroit was canceled. After spending hours in the airport haggling with gate agents and making calls to customer service, we finally rescheduled our flight later that evening. Even with the delay, we managed to lose only one night in Taipei. We arrived early in the morning, around 5:00 am. Although we were exhausted from hours of traveling, we were eager to start sight seeing. We showered, rested a few hours at the hotel, and then headed out to explore the city, but more importantly, to find food.
Xialongbao at Din Tai Fung
Our first day in Taipei was probably my favorite in terms of what we ate. Xiaolongbao, also known as soup dumplings, are bites of absolute deliciousness. We ordered a variety of these dumplings, filled with pork, shrimp, and vegetables. Before eating the dumplings, we dunked them into a mixture of vinegar, soy, and ginger. Process: pick up a dumpling with chopsticks, dip the dumpling in the ginger-soy-vinegar concoction, put the whole dumpling in your mouth and eat in one bite. If you take more than one bite, expect an explosion of hot soup all over you.
Mango shaved ice
While exploring the area around Sun Yat-Sen Memorial, we stopped at Ice Monster, a shaved ice chain. Our plan was to order one mango shaved ice, a classic in Taipei. But, when we tried to order, we were told that, since we were 4 people, we had to order at least two shaved ice bowls. Sharing dishes was definitely not something that restaurants approved in Taipei or Tokyo. Most places asked you to order a dish for each person, or they would charge you anyway.
We picked strawberry as our second flavor. Now, I love strawberries, but the mango shaved ice was definitely superior. Each mountain of shaved ice was accompanied by panna cotta and a scoop of sorbet. The bowl of shaved ice looks enormous, but it’s actually quite easy to eat, since you really are just eating flavored ice. Refreshing and not too sweet, shaved ice might almost superior to ice cream!
After enjoying a refreshing reprieve from walking, we made our way to Elephant Mountain, a climb of nearly 900 stairs that led to beautiful views of Taipei. Unfortunately, it was overcast that day, and, with sunsets only minutes away, our bodies became a feasting ground for mosquitos. We had also landed in Taipei that morning, which meant none of us had slept much the previous night. Despite our fatigue, we survived the climb (by taking breaks) and enjoyed the views. In the picture below, you can see Taipei 101, the tallest skyscraper in Taiwan, and one of the tallest in the world.
Rahoe Night Market and Pork buns
Tired, sweaty, and hungry, we made our way to Rahoe Night Market, one of the oldest night markets in Taipei. At the entrance of nearly every night market is a colorful shrine adorned in red lanterns, with faithful followers and tourists entering and existing from all entrances. Near the shrine was a large gate, marking the official entrance to the market. One of the first food stalls that we came across was making tons and tons of pork buns using an old fashioned oven. The scent was wonderful. 4-5 workers were carefully rolling raw pork into balls, and then wrapping the pork into dough; a cook then stuck the dough balls to the inside walls of the oven. These pork buns were piping hot when we got them, but they were so delicious! The dough was more like a flaky crust than a fluffy bun.
—- Day 2 —-
What We Ate
- Steamed fish
What We Saw
- Bridge of 100 Lions
- Eternal Spring Shrine
- Swallow Grotto
- Shakadang Trail
- Lushui Trail
Taroko National Park was established in 1986. About 100 miles outside of Taipei, we took a train from Taipei to Hualien, where a friendly English-speaking taxi driver picked us up. Our guide for the day, he drove us to the entrance of Taroko, about 40 minutes from the train station.
Since the park has quite a few sites to see, our guide dropped us off at hiking trail entrances and then met us at the other end. I listed the trails and sites above.
What We Ate
After our first hike, our guide drove us to a restaurant near the entrance of the national park. Lunch was a set menu of a light soup (mostly broth), steamed fish, boiled chicken, and various vegetables that we shared and ate family style. Satisfied but not overstuffed, we spent the rest of the afternoon walking trails in the park. Before our taxi driver drove us back to the train station, we stopped at a fruit stand, where we bought pineapple that the stall owner peeled and cut for us with an enormous knife. Eager to scarf down our sweet loot, we stopped at a nearby beach where we relaxed for a few minutes, eating pineapple and watching the ocean waves.
We returned to Taipei late in the evening after a full day of hiking trails and visiting sites. Tired and hungry, we stopped at a hotpot restaurant that was about a 15 minute walk from our hotel. Hotpot involves cooking meat in boiling soups or stocks. We had two kinds of soup, one that was spicy and one that was mild. The spicy soup looks really dark in the photo below, but it was actually a brownish color, with chunks of tofu, leeks, and congealed blood.
—- Day 3 —-
What We Did
- Longshan Temple
- Ximending or “little harajuku”
- Dihua Street
- Lingshan Market
What I Ate
- Taiwanese breakfast
- Green tea ice cream
- Fried chicken
- Fried squid
- Pork buns
- Stir fried meat with onions, spices, and a side of bean sprouts and greens
At least one of the days in the Taipei, I was determined to eat a traditional Taiwanese breakfast. Or at least, traditional street food breakfast. After consulting a few local experts and researching online, we decided to try a place called Fuhang Doujiang. When we arrived at the supposed location of the restaurant, we had a hard time finding it. After walking around the block a few times, desperately following the little arrow on Google maps, we finally asked a woman on the street for help. And by ask, I mean, show her the name of the restaurant on my phone. She was incredibly helpful. She stopped what she was doing and walked us up a set of stairs that we had missed, pointing to the line where we should wait.
The setting was like a small mall food court, with four or five small food stands. A line of people outside the breakfast place clearly indicated its popularity. We joined the throng of people, looking ahead to figure out what we wanted to eat. With no menus available, we simply pointed at things in the kitchen when it was our turn to order. We ended up with two sesame buns filled with pork, two sesames buns filled with honey, one crepe-like bread filled with eggs, one fluffy bread filled with an omelette, fried bread, 3 bowls of sweet soy milk, and 1 bowl of savory soy milk. The breakfast was definitely good, but quite heavy; not something that I would want to eat ever day. I also preferred the sweet soy milk to the savory, but then again, I’ve got a sweet tooth.
The most well known temple in Taiwan, the Mengjia Longshan Temple was built in 1738. We wandered through the temple, enjoying the bustle of people walking in and out and admiring the colorful decorations.
Called the harajuku (a shopping district in Tokyo) of Taipei, Ximending is a shopping haven. The narrow winding streets are packed with people, colors, screens, shops, food stands, and knick knacks. While strolling in and out of shops, we tried green tea ice cream, a gigantic piece of fried chicken that was sprinkled with hot pepper, and fried squid, which is not pictured (we ate it before I even thought to take a picture).
Full of old storefronts from the Japanese days (1895-1945), this street used to be one of the main centers for Chinese medicine trade. There are still a few stores dispensing Chinese remedies, with many selling dried food ingredients, from fruit to fish to tea.
Not far from out hotel, the Lingshan or Tonghua Market features stalls selling tasty foods and fashionable clothes. Although not as large as the Shilin or Rahoe Night Markets, it was great to explore a market that was less crowded. My brother and I ate a meal of grilled meat that was accompanied by greens and bean sprouts. We devoured it before taking pictures. (Clearly, I’m often an impatient eater).
—- Day 4 —-
What We Did
- Taipei 101
- Breeze Mall
- Bella Vita Mall
- Wisteria Tea House
- Shillin Night Market
What I Ate
- Hakka cuisine (fish, pork, beef soup, stinky tofu)
- Oolong Tea
- Almond croissant
- Chocolate mousse cake pastry
Our last full day in Taipei was a rainy one. Although we had run into mist and light rain some of the other days, it was the first day that we faced the full force of a rainstorm. To pass the time, we wandered through the shopping malls near our hotel, which were connected by covered outdoor walkways.
Agnes B. Café
For breakfast, we first stopped at Taipei 101 and enjoyed some pastries from a few French bakeries. I ate an almond croissant and this adorable pastry. The nose and ears were filled with a light chocolate mousse, while the head was filled with layers of chocolate and vanilla cake sandwiched together with chocolate mousse. Both the croissant and the mousse cake were amazing!
Wisteria Tea House
After wandering around the various malls near our hotel, we made our way to Wisteria, a well-known tea house in the Da’an District. Inside, there are two options for seating – at a table or on pillows on the floor. We sat on the floor in a room that was divided by various screens hanging from the ceiling. Seated at a low wooden table, we selected tea from the thick menu detailing the different types of oolong.
To prepare for the tea, a waitress brought to our table a small burner with a large glass kettle containing water + a burner to keep the water heated, teacups, straight cups, a teapot, a bowl, and a small pitcher. After setting up the many items, she demonstrated how to properly steep and drink each tea that we had ordered. First, she poured some boiling water into the small tea pot, to heat it. After about 30 seconds, she poured the water out into a bowl. To the now warm teapot, she added the first tea we had ordered. She added hot water and let it sit for 30 seconds. Then, she poured the tea into a smaller pitcher. From the pitcher, she poured the tea into straight cups, one for each of us, instructing us to smell it. She then told us to pour the tea into the mini tea cup. We could finally drink the tea. It was almost hypnotic to watch the waitress prepare the tea, methodologically and with her expert hands. More entertaining were our attempts to duplicate her efforts as we tried to remember each step of the process. I definitely recommend a tea house experience!
Filled with tea, we made our way to a Hakka restaurant, where we met Mr. and Mrs. Crocoll, the parents of one my roommates from graduate school. We feasted on traditional mountain food, eating a beef soup, pork, fish, many different types of vegetables, and even, stinky tofu. It was a perfect evening for our last night in Taipei!