TAIPEI MAY BE THE best-kept secret in Asia. The capital city of Taiwan, Taipei is nestled among mountains at the northern tip of an island replete with dramatic landscapes. The Portuguese called it Ilha Formosa —Beautiful Island. Visitors will find here a taste of the rich traditions of ancient China, uninterrupted by cultural revolutions or Western colonialism. The city is a fast-paced blend of contemporary upscale life, with colorful ancient temples and monuments, dramatic scenery, and romantic teahouses perched on the sides of mountains. It is one of the few cities in the world where you can go from a modern metropolis of millions of people to lush green mountains in just minutes. In Taipei, you can find not only the best of the regional cuisines of China, but also first-class food from every part of the world.
Author Joanne Grady Huskey Photography James Whitlow Delano
DAY ONE / One of Taipei’s most elegant landmarks and your home for the next three days, The Grand Hotel offers spectacular views of Taipei and stands majestically on a hilltop below the mountains. Built by Madame Chiang Kai-shek in the style of Beijing’s Forbidden City palace, The Grand Hotel blends ancient Chinese colors and charm. Enter the lobby, with its crimson red pillars and cascading marble staircase, and you will feel the ambiance of old China. Start your day at the Zhong He Ting Restaurant, just off the hotel lobby, where you can try either a Chinese or Western breakfast.
Before setting out for your first day in Taipei, reserve a rental car with an English-speaking driver for tomorrow’s adventures. And each morning, ask the concierge to write the Chinese characters for the day’s stops to help you find your way. Then, hop into a cab at the front of the hotel and demonstrate your Chinese language prowess. Ask the driver to take you to the “Gugong Buowuguan” or National Palace Museum, one of the great museums of the world. Built in 1965, it houses 8,000 years of cultural and artistic treasures (mostly from imperial China), which miraculously escaped destruction through their long, complex, and fascinating history. Try to arrive just before 10 a.m. so you can sign up in the lobby for a tour with an English-speaking docent. The museum’s vast collection covers Neolithic jades, Shang Dynasty bronzes, scroll paintings, calligraphy, and porcelains from the Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties. Don’t miss the famous Jade Cabbage on the third floor. It was presented as a dowry gift to the next-to-last emperor. After touring for about two hours, try a light lunch of steamed pork buns or dumplings and Chinese tea at the San Hsi T’ang Teahouse on the fourth floor, where you can gaze at the surrounding mountains over the museum’s traditional golden, cantilevered rooftops. After lunch, stop by the excellent gift store on the first floor and pick up something to take home.
Stroll the grounds; then descend the grand staircase in front of the museum and catch a taxi to Longshan Temple (Longshan Si), Dragon Mountain Temple, on Guangzhou Street in Taipei’s Wanhua District. Entering this Taoist/Buddhist temple, originally built in 1738 during the Qing Dynasty, you can mingle with worship-pers and light an incense stick for your ancestors while you bai bai (pray) to Guan-yin, the goddess of compassion, who helps all who ask. Feel free to take photos of the intricate temple carvings and roof tiles, as well as the altars adorned with flowers, incense, fruits, and other worship offerings.
Leaving the temple grounds, ride around the North Gate (Bei Men) to the nearby Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and Cultural Center (Zhongzheng Jinian Tang) on Zhongshan South Road. This classically walled square is rimmed by the elegant palace-style National Concert Hall and National Theatre and the gleaming white Chiang Kai-shek Memorial at the center. This would be a perfect time to sip a coffee on the terrace of the National Concert Hall while you watch the local residents practice tai chi, fly kites, hip-hop and ballroom dance, inline skate, and stroll in the lively square.
After coffee, take a short ride down Xinyi Road to Din Tai Fung, a hole in the wall that is one of Taipei’s most famous restaurants for shaolongbao, or Chinese dumplings. Order at the entrance; then take a table amid the din and excitement of diners gathered around circular tables piled with delicious food. If you want a traditional treat when you leave, look for Mrs. Hua’s hot-roasted chestnut stand just around the corner to the left of the restaurant. Walk through the bustling Yung Kang neighborhood and stop by Ice Monster for a fun dessert of shaved ice topped with mangoes and strawberries. Farther down Yung Kang Street, stop by Xiu Hua Fang, a small shop facing the lovely little park on Lane 6, to buy a traditional-style Chinese jacket or qipao. Then wander across the park to Hui Liu, at No. 9 on Lane 31, a tiny store selling teas and traditional porcelain teapots.
If it’s a Friday or Saturday night before 8 p.m. and you still have energy to take in a show, hail a cab to Taipei Eye on the third floor of Taiwan Cement Hall, in Section 2 of Zhongshan North Road. Beijing Opera, dancing, and traditional puppetry will fill your dreams the rest of the night.