Open a travel guide book to Taiwan and the first lines will be something along this: Discover mysterious temples in Taipei, cycle along the lush east coast and hike through stunning Taroko Gorge. Sounds wonderful, right? If you like being accompanied by what feels like half of the world’s Asian tourists, then follow these recommendations. I don’t, which is why I set out to find some non-touristy experiences in Taiwan. And let me tell you, I was not disappointed.
But before we jump right in, here’s a small intro: Taiwan or Formosa, the beautiful island, as it was called by the Portuguese, is a small island nation with 24 million inhabitants. Apart from its complicated political relations with China, Taiwan is known for its people and their incredible kindness. With regards to sights, the country has a lot to offer from north to south. So, in my opinion, the best way to really unterstand Taiwan is by doing a full circle. Personally, I started off my 2.5 weeks in Taichung on the west coast, went all the way south to Kenting and ended up in Taipei via the east coast. This is also the order my recommendations follow. Anyway, enough hard facts, here they are: my top 5 off the beaten path experiences in Taiwan.
Taichung – the upcoming city hot spot
To avoid the confusion all people new to Taiwan have: Taiwan has four cities all consisting of the syllable Tai, namely Taipei, Taichung, Tainan and Taitung. The endings represent the four cardinal directions. But whilst many people rave about Tainan and Taipei, Taichung is much overlooked. Being an important industrial hub, Taichung – or Tai in the west – boasts a large population of almost 3 million. From an interesting city centre, bustling night markets to great outdoor activities, the city will offer something for every traveler.
I spent my first day checking out the Second Market, a collection of market stalls directly in the heart of the city. Built in a perfect hexagon, it marks the very centre of Taichung. In addition to its remarkable architecture, if you are looking for authentic food, you will find it there. I can’t even give you a restaurant recommendation, as there are so many things to try. But the safest bet in Taiwan is always to follow the crowds.
From there I walked to a place very important in Taiwanese drinking culture: Chun Shui Tang (chunshuitang.com.tw/), a bubble tea shop. Bubble tea is everywhere in Taiwan. So why head there? Because, apparently, this very store is the birthplace of bubble tea.
My evening was spent checking out the Feng Chia Night Market, which claims to be the largest in Taiwan. From all the nightmarkets I have seen in Taiwan – and I have been to many, trust me – this one was my favourite.
On day two I was craving some outdoor adventure and also here Taichung did not disappoint. Dakeng, an area in the east of the city, boasts emerald green hills with trails built entirely out of logs. All of this on the ridge of the mountain. Yes, it’s as impressive as it sounds. You can choose between 10 different trials, with 1 to 4 being the most challenging, but also rewarding ones. To get there I took the bus, #1, #15, #16, #21, and #31 will take you to trail 9 or 10, and from there bus #66 to trail 1 to 4. Watching the sunset from the top was the best way to end my stay in Taichung.
Ci’En Pagoda – Sun Moon Lake’s most magic place
From Taichung I headed to Sun Moon Lake, which is much-talked about. If you want to leave all the Chinese tour busses behind – and I think you do – I would highly recommend getting an international driving license before heading to Taiwan and renting a car for the day. This will allow you to discover some places unreachable by tourist busses, such as the Ci’En Pagoda. After a fun drive up and down the hills and ascending for about 20 minutes through a tropical forest by foot, I reached the remarkable structure. It was constructed by Chiang Kai-Shek in memory of his mother. 46 meters in height, you can actually climb all the way to the top, which will give you stunning vistas over Sun Moon Lake. After seeing the sun set over the water in complete silence I understood the magic surrounding the lake. And yes, you see a theme here, as sunsets from high points are my speciality.
Jialeshui – a surfer’s and adventurer’s paradise
Kenting National Park in the south is the perfect blend of relaxing and action. However, I was looking for the ultimate relaxation away from the crowds, which is why I decided against staying in the main spots of Henchun or Kenting town. Rather, after arriving in Henchun with the Kenting Express Bus, I rented an e-bike (it should be around 600 TWD per day without an IDL) and based myself close to Jialeshui, a small surfer town on the Eastern part of Kenting. I stayed in a wonderful eco-friendly hostel right by the beach called Relax Easy, which was the perfect base for exploring. Equipped with my e-bike I spent most of my days riding along the coast to Taiwan’s southernmost point and discovering hidden beaches without a single tourist. Also, since learning surfing has always been on my bucket list, Jialeshui was my place to go. If you are a surf newbie like me, head to SummerPoint for a private three-hour lesson. Ask for Chris, who is a great instructor and even managed to teach the clumsiest of people (me).
The Kaohsiung – Taitung train – Taiwan’s most scenic train ride
I usually tend to do most of my long-distance traveling at night in order to not waste precious time. The train from Kaohsiung to Taitung luckily was an exception. I spent almost the entire train journey gazing out of the window, marveling at mountains, beaches and rice fields. The train first passes through the central mountain range, giving you views of rolling hills, high peeks and glistening river beds. Once the train hits the east coast, blue waters and sandy beaches dominate your view. And finally, before arriving in Taitung, we passed through long stretches of rice fields. Upon arrival, I almost did not want to get off. Whilst this might be an unusual recommendation, this train journey will definitely showcase Taiwan’s great diversity. Just make sure to ask for a window seat on the right side of the train, as you get the best views here.
Dulan – home of Taiwan’s upcoming art scene
Speaking about my surf teacher, he recommended me to to skip Taitung on the east coast, but instead spend a day in Dulan for “some creative vibes”. From Taitung train station I hopped onto a bus to Dulan (public busses as well as the east coast line bus go there), which runs every 30 minutes and takes about 40 minutes. With less than 1,000 inhabitants, I was expecting quiet village, but was immediately surprised by Dulan’s lively atmosphere. I started off my stay with a visit to the Old Sugar Factory, which was recently restored and now is home to independent designers and artists. Make sure to also wander around the backyards to find some interesting structures as well as odd grafities.
If you then fancy relaxing by the beach, you can either head to the well-known public beach or, what I did, head to a secret beach. Following instructions from a local, I walked 10 minutes to a sight called the “water running up”. From there, a small road leads down to the sea, where you will find an empty black beach. It’s simply stunning, there is nothing more I can say. Just make sure to not be irresponsible, fall asleep and get locked in by the tide after sunset (yes, that almost happened to me).
In the evening, I headed to the bar Highway 11. Aside from homemade craft beers, expect interesting conversations with the owner, expats now active in the Dulan art scene as well as other travelers. Unfortunately I was not there on a Saturday, which is when live music performances are organized.
So looking back, what made my trip to Taiwan memorable was not the so-called “highlights” of the country. It was experiencing new places away from the crowds. This island has much more to offer than you might expect. So forget travel guide books on Taiwan, stick to discovering for yourself.
About thr author
Hey! My name is Fran, and I am currently traveling around in South East Asia. Follow me on Instagram to see daily photos and videos of my crazy adventure 😉