Overview

Taipei (pronounced TIE-bay) is where East meets West. In this capital city of Taiwan, you'll find an explosion of neon lights, designer goods (both Chinese and Western), noise and smog—all new to a city where a few decades ago rice paddies and fields covered the landscape.

Taipei is a sprawling metropolis, and it's the home of the well-known Taipei 101 building, a financial and shopping complex standing 1,671 ft/509 m high, so named for its 101 floors.

There are great getaways from the hustle of downtown to nearby mountains, where hot springs can ease away urban stress. Taipei is also one of the best cities in the world in which to sample Chinese delicacies and other foods from around the globe—often at great value.

Geography

Located in the northern part of Taiwan, dynamic Taipei is the island's largest and most modern city. In Mandarin, the name Taipei means "north Taiwan." Surrounded by mountains, the city rests in a basin of four rivers—the Sindian, Danshui, Dahan and Keelung, which form natural borders.

Taipei is divided into 12 districts, each with its own distinct characteristics. There are the Datong, Zhongzheng and Wanhua districts to the west; the financial and commercial districts are in the Neihu and Xinyi districts to the east; and downtown is roughly defined as the Zhongshan, Songshan and Da-an districts. The downtown districts are congested but can be successfully navigated with a little skill.

The Eight Virtues (Ba De) espoused in the Chinese Confucian tradition lend their names to the four main east-west thoroughfares that run through Taipei: Zhongxiao, Xinyi, Renai and Heping. Most visitors to Taipei will travel at least one of these roads during a stay.

Keep in mind that the romanization of Chinese names has yet to be standardized around the island. Taipei has adopted Hanyu Pinyin romanization, which is used in China. Expect to see a few different spellings for streets and major sites.

History

Aboriginal tribes originally inhabited Taipei, and it was not until the beginning of the 18th century that migrants from China started settling in the area. The Dutch and Spanish briefly colonized Taiwan in the 17th century before Koxinga, a Chinese pirate prince born in Japan, became a legend by defeating the Dutch.

Despite the relatively ruthless times, Koxinga allowed the Dutch to leave the island peacefully. In 1895, after the Sino-Japanese War, Taiwan was ceded to Japan, which ruled the island for 50 years. Though the rule was harsh, Taipei became the capital, and the infrastructure was vastly improved. Many signs of Japanese rule are still visible today, including such architectural sites as the Presidential Building and the mining towns of Jioufen and Jinguashi.

In 1945, at the end of World War II, Taiwan was handed over to the Republic of China under Chiang Kai-shek. Then, in 1949, communists gained control of China, established the People's Republic of China, and forced Chiang Kai-shek and his government to flee to Taiwan. Chiang Kai-shek served as president of the Republic of China until his death in 1975. Power then passed to his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, who is commonly credited as the person most responsible for bringing incredible growth to both Taiwan and Taipei.

Ultimately, Chiang Ching-kuo's influence led to the formation of the first opposition party (the Democratic Progressive Party) in 1986, and the end of 38 years of martial law in 1987. Politics were further liberalized when the first Taiwanese-born president, Lee Teng-hui, took office in 1987.

China has stated that it will invade Taiwan if the island makes a formal declaration of independence, and therefore the Taiwanese continue to refer to their country as the Republic of China.

Sightseeing

Sadly, most of Taipei's historical buildings have been destroyed to make way for more modern architecture. There are, however, a few areas that have managed to preserve the beauty of the original city, such as the lanes in Datong district. Wandering the streets of Datong—notably Dihua Street, which is lined with old textile shops and traditional Chinese pharmacies—is a refreshing change from the commercial, concrete jungle of Xinyi's financial and shopping district. From there you can also walk to several of Taipei's noteworthy temples and museums.

Taipei is a basin, and it doesn't take long to get away from the bustle and into the mountains. To the north there is Yangmingshan National Park. In the south there are the Syue Mountains and pleasant hikes through tea plantations in the Wenshan district of Maokong. There are also well-maintained parks in the city, where residents practice martial arts in the early morning.

Museums are plentiful, and you'll often find historical sites that have been preserved and converted into museums such as the National Palace Museum, Taipei Story Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art and the 2-28 Memorial Museum.

Many guides recommend Snake Alley—but it's better to avoid this area, as it is unrepresentative of Taiwan. There you'll find dishes made of snake and turtle in some specialty restaurants, and the snakes are often slaughtered in full view. Snake blood is considered to be an aphrodisiac. There is also a traditional market and a red-light district catering to soldiers.

Nightlife

People call Taiwan the land of convenience because you can find anything or do anything at just about any time of the day. Although locals work or study during the day, nighttime is for play. Whether it's cocktails in a trendy lounge bar, dancing in a club, or live music at one of the city's venues, there is plenty of nightlife. For family entertainment, there are the night markets, some of which don't get started until after dark.

Check out what's going on and where in the Friday supplements of Taipei Times and China Post or at http://www.taiwannights.com.

Dining

Food is a core part of Taiwanese society and culture, much more so than in the West, and most local Taiwanese eat out, so there are thousands of restaurants, cafes and food stalls. A large number of Western fast-food chains are also available, as are a number of Western eateries. The increase of Indonesian, Thai and Vietnamese workers has led to a welcome variety of Asian cuisines available.

It is difficult to recommend specific restaurants, partly because they open and close so quickly and also because they tend to go up and down in popularity. Traditional restaurants sell standard Chinese fare, although it should be pointed out that Chinese food in Taiwan is different from that in the West. Don't expect the majority of restaurant staff to speak English; take a guidebook with items written in Chinese. Don't leave Taipei without sampling food from the market vendors. There are strict health regulations in place, but that does not mean the food will always be fresh. If a lot of people are eating at a stall, it indicates the turnover is fast and the food is likely to be fresh.

A favorite form of local cuisine is the spicy hot pot (ma la huo guo). At hot-pot restaurants, families or groups of friends sit around a table and eat from a steaming pot in the middle. Diners select morsels of prepared raw food, either vegetables or meat, and place them in the pot. An array of interesting dipping sauces are served with meals.

Most tables in Taiwanese restaurants are round and revolve because sharing is part of the eating tradition. Note that you will need to use chopsticks at most Chinese restaurants, so it will pay to practice before you go. You can ask for a fork or spoon, as many places will have them on hand.

Also, make sure you have an idea of what the meal costs before ordering. Generally when a menu is presented without prices, the prices are high. Finally, avoid ordering items made from exotic animals. A number of indigenous animals, including the pangolin (also called the scaly anteater), are being hunted to extinction for restaurant tables. Shark-fin soup should also be avoided.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines $ = Less than NT$200; $$ = NT$200-$600; $$$ = NT$600-$1,200; $$$$ = more than NT$1,200.

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