As befits a nation's capital, Taipei is packed with museums, monuments and other points of interest that offer insight into Taiwan's complicated, often-tumultuous history. But the gravitas of Taipei is tempered with a considerable amount of kid-friendly whimsy, evident in a number of attractions that illustrate the city's fascination with all things ker-ai (Mandarin for "cute").
At the Taipei Zoo, for example, animal-shaped topiaries can be seen throughout its 400 acres, as can signage bearing anime-inspired images of the zoo's residents. (One such sign, warning visitors not to feed the animals, depicts a bellyache-stricken monkey and a Formosan black bear being carried on a stretcher after being fed candy and ice cream.) The on-site McDonald's gets in on the act, with statues of Ronald and Hamburglar rendered as anthropomorphic, vaguely bear-like creatures.
Nearby, the real deal can be seen at the zoo's Giant Panda House. Elder residents Yuan Yuan and Tuan Tuan arrived from China in 2008, while Yuan Zai, their offspring via artificial insemination, was born at the zoo in 2013. Other exhibits include an outdoor area devoted to indigenous wildlife and an indoor Penguin House. Admission to the zoo is about $2 for ages 18 and older, $1 for ages 17 and younger and free for preschoolers and younger.
Speaking of anthropomorphism, Taiwan is crazy for Hello Kitty, the pink-clad cat-girl who launched a thousand licensing deals for Japan's Sanrio company. Within the pastel surroundings of the Hello Kitty Kitchen and Dining cafe in the city's Daan district, diners can choose from an extensive menu of Eastern and Western entrees (including spaghetti, extremely popular in Taiwan, served with a variety of meats and sauces) as well as desserts ranging from cakes and cookies to ice cream served in a Hello Kitty-shaped bread bowl.
About three miles west lies Taipei's Ximen district, a popular hangout spot for teens. Here Taiwanese, Japanese and Western pop cultures comingle, with vendors of athletic wear and hip-hop clothing side by side with noodle houses, American fast-food franchises and bookstores selling manga comic books. A life-size statue outside Ximen's main pedestrian area offers the ultimate meta photo op: It depicts two Taipei teens in mid-selfie.
The pinnacle of Taipei ker-ai, literally if not figuratively, can be found in the Taipei 101 tower, once designated the world's tallest building, at about 1,670 feet. Visitors to the building's observation floors (about $16 for adults, $15 for children above 3-foot-9 and free for kids below) will meet the Damper Baby mascot, whose spherical head resembles the building's 728-ton stabilizing mechanism. The Damper Baby, rendered in a variety of colors, features prominently in promotional materials and, of course, souvenirs.
Primarily occupied by office space, Taipei 101 adjoins a high-end mall (stores include Burberry, Hermes and Versace), while on its basement level the building boasts a sprawling food court with noodle soup stalls, sushi bars, fast-food chains and an outpost of dim sum chain Din Tai Fung, whose picture menus and efficient staff enable quick service for the crowds lined up for steamed dumplings and roast pork buns.